I don’t know why, but it feels weird for me to dislike a place. Maybe it is the optimistic side of me that leads me to try to find the enjoyment of where ever I am, that each place offers something unique. Having traveled more than my fair share in my life I have enjoyed almost every place for its character. All that being said I am nervous to write this regional summary as I feel a strong disdain for western Kazakhstan. Even when I talk about not liking it I call it one of my least favorite countries. Which is misleading, it is in no way a favorite, it is one of the last places in the world I would choose to be at any given time. I want to make clear the Almaty region is almost a whole different country to me. I love Almaty, it is one of my favorite cities in the world, we even considered wintering there. Our experience there was nothing like what we had in the west. Usually, for me, the travel evaluation criteria I use are people, environment, and food. Except for just the edge of the Ustyurt Plateau, my experience in Western Kazakhstan fails all three of these categories. The food is the worst in Central Asia. The dishes aren’t different, just made with less concern for quality or taste. Nearly every meal we had was microwaved, and not with the skill of the American restaurant that can fool customers who have never experienced the backside of a restaurant's kitchen. No, these meals were often properly nuked. The environment, for the most part, was as flat and bare as they come, until we reached the far side of the Plateau, and many of the people were often unwelcoming.
As soon as we crossed the border I began to feel the first culture shock I've felt in a long time. As our friend Kit said, 'we were probably overdue for it'. Having spent months constantly turning down hospitality, all of our initial interactions were the opposite. Probably this is the way the universe balances our experience. People would pull over and give us the "animal treatment" again as three men got out of their car to watch us, move our trailers take pictures of/with us for Instagram and otherwise ignore us entirely. No conversation or pleasantries, just examining the exotic objects on the side of the road. At the edge of Beyneu, a worker from the train station came to talk to us then asked for water, until he found out it wasn’t American water, then he didn’t want it. He decided instead he wanted money from us. Luckily, we have American quarters to give as gifts in Kazakhstan because this occurred the first time we were in the country as well. In Beyneu, while Paul and I went out for a grocery store exploration of the town, we continually felt unwelcome and messed with. People would see us down the road and yell for us to give them cigarettes, young kids would flick us off and teenagers would ask for money or gifts from us, after showing us there $1,000 top of the line iPhone. All this feels generally shocking but the juxtaposition of our experience in Uzbekistan made it feel all the worse. It was not that everyone treated us this way, but it did happen regularly.
This section of the trip would be the second half of our Ustyurt Plateau crossing and bringing us to the ferry to take us across the Caspian Sea and out of Central Asia. We were all looking forward to reaching the port as soon as possible. The ferry presented a challenge, it works the same way almost all public transportation works in Central Asia. It waits till it is full and the weather is good then it goes. The ride itself generally only takes about 22 hours, but there are plenty of people who wait on the boat for five days before it leaves, and the unlucky few may wait in port for two weeks. A two-week wait was a logistical hurdle in our 560 Km section on a 30-day visa. We decided to get a little more use out of our Uzbek visas before they expired. Doing a border run after three days of walking to and four days of resting in Beyneu. We had just crossed this border early in the morning a week before and didn’t expect it to be a hassle. Our first experience of anything Coronavirus related had happened when we crossed into Kazakhstan the week before. We simply filled out a form and went through a comical temperature check done by a security camera 12 feet above us on the ceiling. This time it was going as smooth as it ever goes, until we were about to reenter Kazakhstan. No-man's land was fenced in and covered, the mob waiting there was thick with people. Lines are not a thing there and if you leave space in between you and the person in front of you someone else will gladly fill it. There is also a strong culture of letting others go in front of you if they have a reason, such as they are women, children, or are willing to push there way through the crowd. After having spent an hour in this mob of maybe 200 hundred people, around 20 had seemed to have been let in. Coincidentally, about the same amount who had pushed past us during that time. We had made an Uzbek friend, Muhammad, who spoke English and was also on a border run. Every section of the border before this one we had been separated from the line and taken ahead because we were foreigners. The flip side of this privilege was it took longer for us to be processed. Usually, we ended up finishing about the same time as the people in line with us anyway. With the end of the ordeal nowhere in sight, we decided that it was time to see if we could use our privilege to avoid being in line. I imagine it might have taken till night time for us to get through. Passively getting the attention of a young guard, Muhammad got the three foreigners and our “guide” (him) past the line, for the economical bribe of $5.22. As we pushed and squeezed our way through the crowd, it shocked me how fine everyone was with this. People gave us directions through and even welcomed us to the country, seemingly happy for us to be able to get past the purgatory of no man's land.
We got walking out of Beyneu with the growing realization that I (Timb) probably wasn’t going to be able to go to my cousin's wedding in Sicily because of the virus. Instead, maybe Marta would join Paul and Pat’s families coming to visit us in Georgia. Just outside of Beyneu, Paul and Pat camped with another American traveler named Coy (spelling?). We had briefly met him in Beyneu and now he was backtracking with news that the ferry had closed down due to the coronavirus. We had no signal to verify this, but if true it was a massive wrench into our plans. We decided not to make a rash decision of drastic proportions there on the roadside. Knowing we needed to keep moving forward if the ferry was open--or reopened later. Otherwise we would lose our window to catch it during our visa stay. For a while we discussed our various options: take a flight from Aktau across the sea, walk north around the sea for an extra two months, or take a train around the sea somewhere. We exhausted this conversation days before we walked into cell service and for the most part, tried to simply put it out of our minds for the time being. We traversed the grand nothingness of the Ustyurt Plateau looking forward to the occasional cafe where we could get food, not better than we were carrying but at least different. When we finally received signal again a few days later, we discovered that the ferry was closed to personal cars but was still operating and we would be allowed to take it. This was a big relief although it was shocking and concerning how the coronavirus had grown as an issue throughout the Caucasus since we left Beyneu less than a week before. Georgia had closed its border with Azerbaijan. This was to be our next border and we were not sure how we would approach this situation if it was still closed when we reached Azerbaijan. Also, Azerbaijan was now requiring a negative coronavirus test to enter the country. Plans of families coming to visit us in Georgia also started to go up in the air as many places were enacting a two-week quarantine upon entry. Everything was changing quickly. It seemed the best course of action was to be aware of our route options for the time being and to move forward as everything around us developed. It crossed my mind that we might not want to go to Azerbaijan once we reach the port anyway as it seemed they had not been doing a good job containing the virus spreading out of Iran. The flights were cheap out of Aktau so it would be an affordable option to fly rather than take the ferry if it came to it. While our families requested us to return home, we also questioned and discussed whether walking across a country while a pandemic was spreading was the ethical thing to be doing at all. Luckily, there was still only one road so no decisions had to be made now anyway. The next town was a few days out yet and the most anticipated part of the entire Ustyurt Plateau crossing lay just ahead of us. It put a somber mood on the time as the reality that the trip may be stopping again in the next few weeks quickly became a possibility. Suddenly it got way easy to get along as the idea of these being our last weeks together shifted little annoyances into perspective.
Just before Shetpe (pronounced Shit-pay) was an area the three of us had been looking forward to. It was the edge of the Ustyurt Plateau, a vast flat drab expanse that could only be beaten by the sea in its lack of features. It is a place in which a person could be driven mad from their inability to escape its daily winds alone. It’s western edge ended in many canyon complexes that we had hoped to spend at least one day exploring. Ideally, staying at a cafe near the canyons, or at least stopping by one to resupply on water before exploring. We made it to the first cafe only to find it closed, just before our first large descent. Excited anticipation filled me as the road cut through the rock with beautiful colored striations on both sides. A layer of pink with so much definition it could have been painted on the wall. We turned the corner to a vast expanse of canyons and a large valley opening up before us. Large layers of white collided with dark greens and browns, perfectly segregated across the different land formations in front of us. All the worries of the future vanished from our minds as we took a spontaneous exploration break. I feel especially alive while exploring canyon country, sliding down and climbing up steep embankments of the earth. Walking grades that only are possible on land such as that or in snow, which you can shape beneath your foot with each step. I took tough routes up and down for the fun of needing to apply pressure in just the right way to keep the canyon side in place. The wrong angle and it simply crumbles away. Luckily, it was also easy to dump the earth out of my adventure shoes after.
We finished our exploration just in time. As we reached the valley floor the wind brought in rain shower after shower, coming at us horizontally of course. We carried on past 30 Km, our usual end point, to reach the next cafe. It was in a village and when we arrived not only was it closed but the village was empty. There was a large gathering about 1 or 2 Km from town apparently where all the people were. We figured it would be simple to ask for water here since our last two options didn’t work out. Pat and I waited in the cold wind and rain while Paul searched out a human or a well. Eventually, the party ended below us and people began returning to the village. Pat went back to the closed cafe in hopes that someone might open it up, by that point it had been a while since Paul had left. A car dropped off a mom with two kids around 10 or 12 near me. I asked if they knew where I could find water. When one of the kids started to respond to me his mother gave him a knock on the shoulder stopping him from interacting with me, as she otherwise ignored my existence. The only acknowledgment of my presence I received from any of the other villagers passing by, was through there avoidance. It was one of the few times during the trip where I was feeling stigmatized the way I imagine the homeless constantly do. Here I was standing in the cold and rain. An outsider, not from the village with all my stuff on the side of the road being needy. This is hard for me. Especially just coming out of Uzbekistan where we received so much hospitality constantly. Maybe I was just being entitled but all we wanted was water. Eventually Paul returned having found the village “store”, a home with a few sparse items. At the same time that Paul got back, the same boy came out alone asking if we needed water. He took me to his home cistern and pulled buckets up for me to fill two droms, as I thanked him profusely.
We spent the next day ascending and descending with rain coming and going throughout the day, carried by a wind that would have made it a great day to have been sheltered inside. The landscape filled us with awe as the colors striped and spotted the valleys and cliffs. It had the added impact of being the only continuous topography that we had seen since December that wasn’t flat or a hill. We rolled into a large truck stop that evening having done our first group marathon since our time in China. Seeking shelter from stormy weather can be a strong motivator. It was also the first time we had signal in the last couple of days, only enough to receive messages. All were from friends and family concerned about our current situation. As we sat down for dinner while checking his phone, Pat asked ominously what the word annulled meant. He responded that it was what he thought it meant and gave us the news that our Azerbaijan visa had been annulled. We decided that we would instead fly from Aktau straight across the sea to Makhachkala in Dagestan, Russia. From there we would walk across the north Caucasus and drop into Georgia. I was excited by this plan, I preferred to walk this route over our original. Up till then, the virus had not been reported in Central Asia. As the night wore on in the cafe, we began to notice that a large number of people there had a cough. including the server who did nothing to cover her mouth. It was the first time we saw anyone wearing masks or showing any concern. When Paul and Pat came into the room late that night they brought the news from a truck driver that our new plan was also out, Russia had closed its borders as well. Despite my exhaustion, I struggled to sleep that night as I processed that this meant the trip was probably going to be stopping now.
Shortly after leaving the truck stop the next day, the police pulled us over. Two marked and an unmarked car dealt with us as if we were the definite source of coronavirus in the area. Despite being in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan for many months the fact that we had walked from China back in August 2018 scared the police to no end. The senior officer was uniformed and very professional while dealing with us, he told us that a medic would be coming to test us, meanwhile we could continue walking. A police car escorted us 25 Km to the police station in Shetpe. Turns out our test was to have a woman come and write down our information and ask me if we were sick. No wonder there are so few cases in Kazakhstan. She asked us why we didn’t have masks on and when we asked where we could buy them she told us we couldn’t anymore. This turned out not to be true as we bought 6 in town the next day. All the while the of police bunched around us, all of them had a cough. I was finally getting very nervous. By this point, I was sure between these cops and that truck stop that we had been exposed to the virus. After an hour or so of questions, they finally let us leave to find a hotel. The first one on our map didn’t exist and a man offered to have us follow his truck to one. He quickly drove out of sight leaving us in the dust in front of the police station. The senior officer asked why we were back and insisted that he would send a lower-ranking cop to take us to a hotel. By the time we saw the truck again, a lower-ranking cop had joined us but instead of taking us to a hotel, told us that we needed to stay at the police station for questioning. Frustrated we started the entire process again except this time after the questions and passport check, police continually insisted that we couldn’t go until a translator arrived. I tried to explain over and over that it wasn’t needed but as usual, they ignored me. Finally an hour or so later Bob the local English teacher arrived. He asked what was up and we explained we were trying to find a hotel and that the police said we had to wait for him. He talked to them for a brief moment and asked if we were ready to go. Turns out they had no more questions and they simply had decided that we needed to wait there for Bob to come. Finally, we left to get food with Bob as our hunger now outweighed our desire to be done for the day.
When we got to the hotel, we finally showered and looked through all the news. We had realized that the walk was going to have to stop, but we hoped to walk to Aktau first. Six days from Shetpe, the shore of the Aral Sea, end of this section and the closest airport. My mom expressed her concerns that we might get stuck there but I held onto the idea that we at least needed to finish up some work, organize our things and have a proper week-long Minnesotan goodbye. As I read more and more news, I realized how justified her fears were. The next morning, I called the newly established Kazakh hotline about flights to ask about flying out of Aktau. The 22nd was the last day they were expecting to still have flights, this day was the 19th. With only three days of possibly flying out of there, and all the land borders besides China being closed it spurred us into high gear. Immediately, I decided I wanted to try to get out tomorrow, not pushing our luck any more than we already had. Suddenly, all things that needed to happen before leaving became wants. Almaty and Astana were scheduled to lock down the next day and the reality of being trapped in Aktau for months waiting out a pandemic was something I was not willing to let happen. Paul and Pat both quickly agreed it was time to get out. The idea of being trapped in Aktau for months while our money drained away sounded horrendous. All three of us concluded our internal debates about where in the world we would go and set about making it happen. It was a scramble of a day but eventually having packed and said goodbye to our trailers, possibly forever, we got in a cab to Aktau. While there, the decision quickly solidified in our minds as the correct one. After a reckless cab ride I would like to forget, arguing with our driver's friend about not paying more than we agreed to, being turned away from the hostel without any answer besides no, quarantine, and being yet again detained for being foreigners-in-public I could not wait to be out of Kazakhstan.
We arrived at the airport that evening before our flights the next morning. When we passed through the security to enter into the airport Paul’s bag got flagged and they asked him if he had a knife. They pulled his Uzbek knife from Chust out of his pack. Then brought Paul into a back room and asked me to join as a translator. They kept fingering the grove on the backside of the knife and explained we couldn’t keep it. I refused to accept this and told them it was a souvenir. They demonstrated that it could cut a piece of paper and therefore couldn’t be a souvenir. I told them it would be a bad souvenir if it couldn’t cut a piece of paper. They asked if I wanted to talk to the police and I said yes. The main guy asked me how many knives we had and I said two, no wait, three. Planning to try to at least get away with my knife my friend Paige had made. He accompanied us into an office of the police officer in charge. He looked at our paperwork for the knife and explained the reason we couldn’t keep the knife was our export permit was unstamped and expired. I found this ridiculous and resolved to not give up easily. We had 6 hours before my flight and I was not going to let my Chust knife become this cop's new prize to bring home because of an expired permit from a different country. I explained that we had bought the knife a while back and had been walking, besides the permit was for Uzbekistan and not Kazakhstan. I kept saying over and over that it wasn’t a safety problem because the knife would go below the plane anyway with the checked bags. After all, there was another whole security check to get to the gate. Paul was ready to give in and said let’s forget it, they aren’t going to let us. I was annoyed and riled up by how I had been treated in this country as a whole and refused to accept this for what it was. Every time in the last few calls to embassies in Kazakhstan Marta and I had been told that if the police mess with us or stop us for no reason to give them a call. Normally, we just wait it out, and I knew this wasn’t the situation they meant. I made a hollow threat to call our embassy. At first, they tensed up and questioned if we were business people. Then relaxed again realizing we were tourists and that this was not a situation of the embassy to get involved. Finally, after a little while longer the cop switched gears and started to just have a conversation with me. After a little while of pleasant small talk again he handed me the passports and knives. The security guard told me to thank him while motioning with his head toward the officer. I immediately understood that I was to thank him with money. I pulled all the cash out of my wallet, the officer handed me a cup of tea and told me to leave the money on the desk. I thanked them both profusely for there kindness and left with a great feeling of victory. I may not like it here in Kazakhstan but I do seem to be getting the hang of being here. The whole ordeal took 20 or 30 minutes and cost 2,000 Tenge or $5.22. We may start to consider this our standard bribe if we return here. We also counted, after that, between souvenirs, the cook kit, and personal knives, we had a total of eight.
After getting my backpack wrapped in my year's allotment of plastic in an attempt to keep all my extras strapped to the outside through the flights, we eventually settled into the airport bar. Paul and Pat drank beer while I tried to get a quick nap before the marathon continued with my check-in 4 hours later. After I checked in, we had a way too brief goodbye for all we had just been through in the last 9 months. Paul and Pat stayed behind to catch a later flight. Shetpe is where we ended. Paul and Pat are still resolved to go back and complete this journey. I wish I could say I know I will as well, but I don’t. When Paul and I came up with this idea during the summer of 2014 our timeline had us finishing the fall of 2018. With nothing planned in our lives, this was an easy commitment to make. Now it is almost six full years later. Being forced to leave our journey and fly back to continue has depleted the remainder of our budget. No one in the world can say when this corona period will pass. We don’t know when we will be back to work to save money. Continuing again would happen in a spring and in all likelihood we would finish in four to six months. All three of us have continued to grow in our wants, desires, and dreams for our lives now and in the future since this journey began almost six years ago. I hope that we all come back and complete this massive undertaking we have worked so hard for. Even if we don’t, I am proud of what we have accomplished. This last period has been a high point for us. We have traveled the farthest and the fastest of our whole trip in the last three months. Finally finding a balance between walking, working, and resting that we all feel good about. Our social media has finally gotten going and both Pat and Paul have been putting together film projects. We sought out a challenge large enough that we might fail and were stopped for now through no fault of our own. If we don't make it to Istanbul, I am proud none the less. Not of what we have done, but how we have done it.
Thank you for follow our journey so far.
Written by Timb