Sunday, August 8, 2010

25 hours or 25 days?

1000km of flattish, uninspiring steppe in the middle of summer. Who wouldn’t choose a hot, bumpy overnight bus ride? We quashed the voices of the hardened cycle tourists within and prepared for the logistical battle of alternative transport.

The surlys on the bus stay nice and still, nice and still, nice and still...

Bus wasn’t our first choice though. A nice sleeper seat on a train was a much more appealing prospect. Yet it seemed that the next available seat (in 3 days time), didn’t coincide with the next available piece of baggage space for bikes (four days time). The bus station proved more fruitful when an English-speaking Kazakh helped us acquire 4 tickets, 2 for the Surlys and 2 for us on that evenings ride. At least we would be accompanying Melanie and Gaetan, our compadres from the CCCP bar.

The Lenin statue graveyard we left behind in Semey.

We rolled up early, hoping in vain to ensconce ourselves and our bikes ahead of time. Two foreigners waiting at the bus station with two bikes and some brightly coloured bags must be simply irrestible for the disinhibited drunk…and it was. We mustered an hour of forced entertainment and faux-intimacy before being saved by the departing Almaty bus.
Now with the knowledge that the allocation of underneath luggage space is decided on a combination of initiative, wit and elbows I launched my now thinned torso under the carriage within seconds of the doors being opening to claim the Surlys some sleeping space. It was a success, if a success means being forced to then arrange the predictable barrage of other passengers’ belongings into a something closely resembling a sound structural arrangement.

With tickets reading seats 44 and 45 and the difficult phase of bike packing complete we were mentally ready to slide into our little corner of the bus and get through the 25 hours together. Unfortunately Ali’s seat 44 was next to largish Kazakh lady and lucky 45 was behind the said large lass in the far corner of the back row. My unexpected travel buddies would be Boris, 17, and Russel, 24. 

The dictionary game started relatively early in the piece. It is quite a simple game. They find a word in the Russian-to-English section of the book, show it to me, ensure mutual understanding and then commence a round of chirades with that word as a topic. This game continued rather painfully for 25hours, although they were kind at heart.
The bus had pulled out of Semey at 2010. At 0130 we spent 45min outside a police station in a small town. I still don’t know why. ‘Trouble’ I pointed to in the English-to-Russian section, rousing Boris. He shook his head. At 4am the sun rose on the steppe, we were into our 4th episode of a Russian drama series following a dubbed version of the first half of Avatar and Russell handed me a beer. Why not?

Thankfully the semi-arid, flat, unrelenting steppe had barely a peak in sight. With the exception of some Muslim cemeteries it was comparatively mundane terrain, and the road was far from top cycle-touring standard. This delighted us to no end.

At the respectable hour of 2100 our bus arrived in outer Almaty. Boris wished me well without the aid of the dictionary. We farewelled Melanie and Gaetan, though not for the last time, and Ali partook in a piece fried chicken at the bus station which would come back to haunt her. Yet, our day was not quite over. 

Armed with a compass, a street address and basic Russian we negotiated 12km of Almaty, a city of 1.5 million, by night to find our way to our couchsurfing host, Hugh’s apartment. Back on the Surlys, we were in our element in this cool summer evening and breathed sighs of multifaceted relief.

Hugh is English. The dictionary, like us, was finally put to rest.


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