Thursday, September 2, 2010

Coincidental Harmony

From Almaty to Sharyn Canyon

Cycling through strange lands brings you into close contact with passing humanity. Our brightly coloured, high-tech presence prompts a variety of reactions. A gentle smile and nod. Enthusiastic, often drunken enquiries as to our origins. Indecipherable attempts to either sell us something or ask us to do something. Most times we return the wave and move on, but sometimes an instinct leads us to follow the opportunity that presents itself on the roadside.

One afternoon while riding in the vicinity of Shelek, we chose to bypass the town centre with the usual combination of vague maps and gut feeling. A few hundred metres down the road we noticed a couple of whistles and yells from a roadside yurt behind us. Being hot, hungry and heading for a lunch stop, we were a bit disinclined to turn around and investigate the friendly locals.

But the noises continued in an excessively enthusiastic vein. ‘Perhaps we should stop,’ said Andrew. Wheeling about, we spotted in the shimmering distance a white-clad figure with big hair doing star-jumps to attract our attention. The small but animated being next to him gave them away: Gaetan and Melanie, the French documentary makers we had met in Semey.

This intrepid pair had just finished a meal in the company of their Kazakh translator and her father, who lived nearby in Shelek. From her post-prandial recumbent state, Melanie had glanced at the road and seen a familiar flash of bright red panniers. When a bearded figure with yellow panniers quickly followed, she startled their hosts by leaping off the cushions and rushing outside with garbled yells.

We happily joined them and recounted recent travel tales while polishing off the remainder of their food and a bowl of koumiss (fermented mares milk, and to my palate about as yummy as it sounds). They were in the midst of arranging a trip to the Assey plateau to interview some nomadic herding families. Having witnessed two previous attempts of theirs to arrange trips with translators, we applauded their patience in persisting with the often fruitless process whilst harbouring admiration and a tinge of jealousy for their creative endeavours.

Immediately tagging along, we followed the car back to the family home in Shelek. Munching on slices of watermelon in the yard, we compared bicycle tales and waited for vehicles to arrive and negotiations to begin. An invitation for ‘tea’, or more aptly, a mid-afternoon buffet feast soon followed, as did wine and shots of Kazakh ‘schnapps’. The driver, a family friend, later arrived with his English-speaking son, and negotiations gave way to progressive toasting and three-way translations between French, Kazakh and English.

By the time the mother of the family, a paediatrician, arrived home, there was much merriment in the air and much less schnapps in the bottle. She proved to be a fine dombra player (a two stringed, guitar-like instrument) and so my violin and Gaetan’s harmonica were extracted from our luggage and a musical exchange commenced. The family piano, in need of a tuners attention, was also co-opted into the gala show, as Irish jigs, lilting Kazakh melodies and French-inspired blues filled the air.

By the time the jamming subsided, there was little inspiration to take a five hour drive to the Assey plateau. Once again – and we wondered if we were the bad luck charm – Melanie & Gaetan’s interview plans fell through, so they arranged to travel with the family back to Almaty. With hugs and handshakes all round, we reluctantly took our leave of our incidental companions and this welcoming and musical family home, and headed back to the road, a little light-headed and singing Kazakh folk-songs.

Almaty to Sharyn Canyon


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