Before embarking on this trip, I had the vision of being lost in the middle of nowhere, so far removed from anything known, sun scorched grassy fields stretching as far as the eye could see and one long dirt road leading back to reality.
It was the sense of being fearlessly free and detached that I was chasing.
I didn’t find that in Europe. I felt restless and caught between two realities of work and travel, constantly searching for a peaceful balance. If I was going to find this wild freedom, I knew Central Asia would be the place.
Why Central Asia? That’s what so many people have asked. There aren’t many places left in the world that are so far off the beaten path. Not many countries left on a map that many people don’t even know exist. And there isn’t any better feeling than journeying Marco Polo style into far off lands that none of your friends or family have visited, let alone know exist.
The allure of Central Asia was the unknown. And the path would be nothing less than a wild adventure.
The reality of the situation didn’t sink in until I sat armed with a one-way ticket to Kazakhstan in the corner of a lonely departures lounge at the Budapest airport.
The plane landed in Nur-Sultan (the capital of Kazakhstan) at 10 pm, as the setting sun sank against a desolate wasteland and a modern looking airport welcomed us.
The Central Asian “Stans” are known for their eccentric dictators, corruption, harsh climates and hospitable inhabitants. Forged in the early 1990’s after the breakup of the USSR, many of these countries are still trying to make a name for themselves.
Kazakhstan is arguably the most developed and wealthiest of the bunch. The population is a mix of Kazakh natives (nomads), Kazakh Russians, and Chinese. Everyone seems to get a long, and temples, churches, and mosques sit side by side.
Entering Kazakhstan with virtually no expectations, everything seemed to surprise me. Take for example, the supermarkets. Australia could learn a thing or two from Kazakstan’s perfectly manicured supermarket shelves, heavily stocked delis, and bespoke food counters (think freshly ground coffee and made to order sushi a la Whole Foods).
In the main cities, there are a plethora of parks. Trees abound, and it’s easy to forget you’re in the middle of a metropolis. Some parks even have solar powered benches that double as bike racks, and have wireless phone charging capabilities.
While the modernistic qualities of this country abound, the underlying fact that this is a highly functioning dictatorship rears its head. Protests and speech against the president are forbidden, and should such an instance arise, the government simply shuts off mobile phone networks and internet.
We were lucky to be in Kazakhstan during presidential elections when the internet intermittently would simply not work. We would be in a Yandex Taxi (the Kazakh version of Uber) and the mobile networks would go out leaving us and our driver stranded and lost for directions. Military personnel were out in droves on election day ready to shut down any potential protests, guarding all government buildings. “It’s impossible to have a protest in Kazakhstan. They get shut down before they even start, so it’s really just a civil gathering of a few hundred people. Pathetic,” explained one Kazakh local we met.
The most enjoyable quality of Kazakhstan (and also the biggest curst) is the lack of tourists. There are no tourists in this country. During our 10 days traveling the country, we met four westerners: a French couple who graciously picked us up hitchhiking and two European motorcyclists crossing the country.
Of the tourists in Kazakhstan, most are Kazaks or Russians. It’s a breath of fresh air at times to be Westerner-free, however, this also makes transportation a sheer nightmare. Getting to attractions or national parks outside of the city is nearly impossible unless hiring a private taxi or booking an expensive private tour. There simply isn’t enough demand for proper tourism services, or public transport outside of major cities, which merely added to the scale of adventure we were about to experience in Kazakhstan.