Published: January 30th 2012September 19th 2010
17th September 2010: Riga Airport, Latvia, where I have a brief layover on my way to Kazakhstan. I am twenty two years old, at the start of a journey travelling from there to Malaysia, almost entirely overland. I don't know how long I'll be away for. This was my first journal entry for that trip.
The sun's setting on Riga Airport. I've just finished my second cheese croissant (the cheapest thing to eat in the one cafe in this tiny airport). There's a quiet noise, perfect lounge music- "Girls watch the boys and the boys watch the girls who watch the world go by." Chatter of a local language, constant dings, dongs and other airport announcements, in English and Latvian.
The sun shines in dimly to my seat at the window, tiny drips of rain fall half-heartedly in front of the air Baltic aeroplanes. Someone pops a champagne cork, I wonder what the occasion could be. On the other side of the brightly tiled, art deco style 'coffee nation' cafe I find myself in, two old Latvian men talk at length over chinking coffee cups, oblivious to a small grandson sprawled out on a leather coffee shop sofa, playing a loud computer game on a shiny laptop.
I'm enjoying listening to the laughter of the champagne family, still drinking from their tumblers. It's calming, I've lost most of my nervousness from this morning, but still can't get to grips with the fact that in six hours I'll be in Kazakhstan. It sounds wonderfully wild and foreign and off the radar. This is the very beginning of a life-changing adventure. I'm so excited.
Having just over a week in Kazakhstan was definitely not enough. For those of you who's knowledge on the country only extends as far as Borat (i.e. most people), Kazakhstan, which sits right below Russia, west of China and North of other 'Stans' like Pakistan & Afghanistan, is about the size of Europe, the ninth biggest country, and fifth biggest land locked country, in our world. More fun facts: Apples come from Kazakhstan- it's previous capital Almaty, translates as 'father of apples'. Tulips also originate from here, allegedly trousers too, & believe it or not, the legend of King Arthur & the Knights of the round table.
As soon as I got off the plane at 4am, and saw the first airport official in a fantastic hat, any previous apprehension I had vanished & I was just stoked to be there. After an hour & a half getting through passport control (I started off near the front & ended up last- apparently I need to get over my British fondness of orderly queuing & push like everyone else) I was greeted by my taxi guy who took me for my modest hotel for a few hours kip. I say 'greeted', 'grunted at' is probably more accurate, he looked decidedly disgruntled, but I got the feeling that was more a standard facial expression for this particular gentleman than genuine anger.
Almaty, the capital until 1998, did not exactly blow my mind (which is why there aren't any photos on this blog- I'm afraid I didn't see anything all
that inspiring). It's mainly just a big concrete block, with all the grey you'd expect from the soviet union, though it probably didn't help that it poured with rain all day, so I just wandered around and got lost (and soggy) with my backpack, enjoying being in a new place, giving some street food a go, and passing a little festival- I'm not sure what it was for but there were cute little school kids singing OH so enthusiastically about Almaty & its awesome-ness.
My main mission was getting train tickets. This doesn't sound too tough, but everything is in the unfathomable Russian Cyrillic alphabet, & absolutely no one speaks any English, at all, even a bit. So after about an half an hour of queuing, getting to the counter & trying to communicate by way of lonely planet page that I wanted to go to Astana, & being told, by way of pointing, that I needed the next counter (translation: please go away) to get the same reaction at the next desk, and so on and so forth until I reached the end of the row of desks, I stood to the side and weighed up my options. Luckily, a nice man, who apparently wanted to practice his English, came over & asked if I needed help. He was my hero for the whole 15 minutes he had to stand at the window explaining & translating for me- even as a native, it didn't seem that simple, and I was disappointed that there was only a first class place left, both for expense, and for the exerience. None the less, with his help I got my ticket for the 12 hour sleeper train to Kazakhstan's brand new capital, Astana, leaving that night.
"Waking up amidst the rumble and buzz of the sleeper train, I pull my hat up from over my eyes and turn myself around to peer out of the window at Kazakhstan passing me by.
The moon is full enough to separate the land from the deep dark blue-grey sky, it's enough to see the outline of the vast empty steppe that stretches from the train tracks. Occasional pockets of tiny lights give me an idea of how much of civilisation we're passing, sometimes it's one or two of the window of a farm nearby, sometimes a few pinpricks of a small community a few miles away.
Once we pass a village sitting on the edge of the tracks, and I wonder which came first, who joined who & what the history behind it might be.
The sky is unfortunately too cloudy tonight to see what I imagine must be a magnificent view of the stars, I'm sure I'll get a good glimpse soon enough.
My companion for the journey sleeps on the bunk below- a middle aged man with a moustache, who's a little too attached to his cell phone, but he was pleasant as we tried to communicate to one another as to how to get the fold out bunks down, & I was quite relieved to find him not very bulky, not all that strong looking, & with his arm in a sling. Maybe that's unkind, but safety does have to be on my mind as I travel across this largely un-visited country on my own...
I wonder what time we'll arrive- perhaps I should try to get a little more sleep."
(I shouldn't have worried- Kazakh men all seem very respectful of women, the sleaziest I've had was a taxi guy trying to practice his English with the help of his 'teach yourself English!' book, asking if I might like to go for a walk some time. Not exactly intimidating)