A few weeks ago, I was having these boughts of emotion where I would just cry and cry and cry. The tears were mostly about myself, about what I had accomplished. The feelings started to diminish as I got further into my journey and realized that I really could do anything I put my mind to. Today, the tears came back. But they weren’t about me. Today, they were about the people of Kazakhstan. The people of a former Soviet country, really. And there are so many. The first tears came from a woman pushing through a park.
There is a certain level of exhaustion that comes with traveling by yourself in a foreign place. I wake up each morning excited and slightly tired thinking about the day ahead. It takes energy to figure out where I’ll get my next cup of coffee, how I’ll get to the specific monument or museum on my list, how I’ll communicate my food order for the day. There’s also a certain level of exhilaration that comes with it, not knowing what the day holds and who I will cross paths with.
I had hired a private driving service to get from Kyrgyzstan to Kazakhstan. There is public transportation, and many people use it and have great stories about it, but given that I am a solo, disabled, female traveler, I opted for the private service. A driver picked me up at my hotel to drive me 30 minutes to the border where I would cross on foot – well, wheels – to the other side and meet a different driver. I handed my bag to the driver and looked at the big gorge between the sidewalk and the street, where I needed to be to get into the taxi. Hmm, how am I going to get across this? I thought. And out of nowhere an elderly woman was behind me helping. She did it quite gracefully too, literally lifting my chair and me up and over. Once across the valley, I turned around to thank her. She just smiled, a big grill full of golden teeth. Many people here have gold teeth as it’s cheaper than porcelain.
The crossing itself was overwhelming. The lines were long and people were pushy. I nestled myself right up in line on both sides of the border and made it through in about an hour. I didn’t exchange a word of English – or any other language for that matter – and just handed my passport over at each stop. I walked about 200 meters through an outdoor bridge into Kazakhstan where I met my driver, who also didn’t know English, and drove with him for over three hours. I didn’t have cell service and we couldn’t converse, so I had a solid three hours of looking at the desert through a window. I was pretty tired (I haven’t been sleeping well) and had to remind myself over and over, Do not fall asleep. You need to make sure he is driving the right direction and doesn’t kidnap you. Do not fall asleep. I only nodded off once for a few minutes, by total accident.
I arrived to the hotel and was greeted by a young woman who I conversed with using Google Translate. I asked if the restaurant in the hotel was open and she said no. It was no problem, I would settle in my room and walk down the street to find dinner. But about an hour later as I was getting ready to leave, she pointed to the kitchen and indicated on Google Translate that they had made me a ‘roll of dough.’ I felt so special knowing that they had been closed but made something just for me. I had a large roll of what I can only explain as an extra-long dumpling, basically meat and spices wrapped in dumpling dough that was about a foot long. When I asked if the meat inside was beef, she looked at the cook, smiled, and nodded yes. I’m not convinced that either of them knew what the actual meat was. None the less, it was delicious and only $2. And made specially for me.
I got a good night’s sleep before venturing out to explore Almaty. The city itself is incredibly accessible, outside of the ramps that are way too steep and virtually useless. There are wide sidewalks made of asphalt on both sides of the streets, and on every street. It’s been a much-needed breath of freedom from the limiting cobblestone that most of Europe has. And when I would encounter one of the way too steep ramps, it would only be a matter of seconds before someone was behind me, pushing and speaking to me in Russian. I would thank them at the top, in Russian, and go on my way. At one point, a young woman pushed me up a ramp and across two streets to make sure I got to the other side, all the while having a one-sided conversation in Russian with me. I wanted to tell a story about each person that helped me today, but I lost track after about the fourth person, and it wasn’t even noon. Amazing.
I had no real agenda other than hitting some pins dropped on a map, so I started my day at a lovely coffee shop just across the street from where I was staying. From there, I turned left and just wandered, one of my favorite things to do. I made a mental note that I was going downhill. It was a gradual decline, but what goes down must come back up, and I would be climbing up in the heat of the day. I saw a cathedral and a mosque before turning around and making the climb up. The rest of my pins were at the top of this small but long hill, and I promised myself I would get a carb loaded lunch if I made it. I hadn’t worked that hard in weeks, and it felt good! I was sweaty and I could feel my muscles working. Several people offered to push me, or at least that’s what I believe they were saying to me. I declined as it was feeling so good to work my body.
After about an hour, a young woman came up to me, as I was approaching a park, and started pushing me slowly. She pointed to the top of the hill where my final destination was, and I nodded yes. She nodded back and just started pushing. At this point, I was dripping in sweat and getting light-headed from the heat (upwards of 95 degrees), so I let her help. We walked for at least 10 minutes through the park, trees lining both sides of us. We couldn’t communicate but I could feel her smiling behind me. And I smiled in front of her. Two strangers, connecting in a park, in a way so much more meaningful than words can describe.
I had lunch at the top of the hill, as I promised myself I would. In this area of the world, eating horse meat is common. I know this can be controversial, but it’s their culture, and not my place to judge. I am embracing it, so I found a horse meat pasta dish with a coffee. The entire meal was $6 and very good. The horse meat, well, it tasted like beef, just a bit tougher.
I’m getting better at communicating – hand signals and a few phrases in Russian, but mostly Google Translate and smiling does the trick. While there are a few more English speakers here than in Kyrgyzstan, they are few and far between. It’s the first time in my life, in all of my travels, that knowing English isn’t considered a privilege. It’s the first time that people have no interest in learning, or at least most don’t.
The past few weeks have been very thought provoking for me. I realized it today, that with no conscious effort, I’ve planned a tour of former Soviet countries. While they’ve each adapted in their own, unique and special way, they all have something in common. I can’t really put words to what it is, it’s more of a feeling that emanates through every place and every person. There’s a sense of freedom that resounds from the people. A real sense of gratitude and genuineness about them. It comes out in the littlest of ways. Of course, their general and abundant kindness, every where and every day. But it’s there in other ways. I walked by a water fountain today where kids were splashing and laughing. Sitting on the sidelines were their parents, just smiling at them. The fountain itself was newly constructed and surrounded by Soviet buildings. It was a reminder that those parents likely experienced a war, a real fight for freedom. Their children were playing in a new world, surrounded so closely by a deep and difficult history.
When my mom and I were in Poland, we were talking about all of the difficult things the world is going through right now. She factually said, “You know, your generation has been lucky to not have experienced first-hand some of the big tragedies of the world. You didn’t have parents who went through the Great Depression and World Wars, and you don’t remember the Vietnam, Korean, and Cold Wars. You are lucky. Most people go through tragedy.”
Today was incredibly profound for me. I am reminded of how incredibly privileged I am. I haven’t experienced those things. I don’t have memories of war, of death. For all of these people, it is behind them, and I hope it stays that way. But the reminders are there, standing in Soviet buildings on each street. Reappearing in the headlines day after day. There’s something about these people that is so utterly special, as I said, a real feeling, that exudes itself just passing by them on the street. They are strong, wonderful, amazing people.
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