Who put these rocks in my bed?
Aqtau – Volgograd
Those who have the dubious distinction of having seen the movie ‘Borat’ may recall that he introduced his sister who was the 3rd best prostitute in Kazakhstan - and had the trophy to prove it. I don’t think I met her during our visit but I suspect I have spoken to some of the other contestants. Let me hasten to assure you that our conversations were short and I am unable to enlighten you in regard to their special competitive talents. On the few occasions I have been allowed to venture out alone I have been approached by obviously concerned and caring young (and not so young) ladies who enquired, “Are you lonely”? Generally I responded “No” and walked on looking like an obvious liar. In the spirit of research, on one occasion I did say “Yes”. I’m glad I did because the young lady cheered up and with a big smile, showed me some money. When I tried to accept her generous donation to my ‘happiness’ fund she withdrew the offer and tottered off on very high heels to question some other guy.
The language barrier has been quite challenging on occasions and usually makes ordering our evening meal a bit of a lottery. Sometimes another customer or employee with a smattering of English will assist which improves the odds in our favour quite considerably. One restaurant was quite innovative. They telephoned the local school English teacher so I was able to have a very strange game of ‘pass the phone’ involving questions from our unknown interpreter. “What you like?” What do they have? (Chatter between waitress and her teacher). You like soup? Yes. (More chatter). You can see how the game works and can also see that it takes a long time to play. On another occasion, on the shores of the Caspian Sea, a very modern young lady who was obviously expecting to be whisked off to Paris at any moment to show off her choice of clothes, arrived breathlessly from a back room announcing, “You are lucky today. I have been sent by God to help you”. I immediately wondered why God didn’t just stroll out and take our order himself. Again, the soup was delicious. I’ve concluded that learning the word ‘soup’ in every language would keep my belt nice and tight. It wouldn’t be difficult as the words soup and salad are surprisingly similar in almost every language.
Often the interpreter, who will embarrassingly apologize over and over about their failure to remember a word, will labour through pages of menu options and we will courageously make our choice … only to be advised that option is not being provided today. On occasions there has only been one dish on offer but the menu details all of the cuisine that the hidden cook dreams of making should circumstances change.
From Xi’an in China until Atyrua in Kazakhstan we have travelled without variation through desert. Hot, grey, dusty desert – usually with small grey green bushes and tough herb looking vegetation. The quantity and variety of animal and bird life that exists under these conditions has never failed to surprise me. There are the obvious herds, large and small, of sheep, goats, camels, horses, cows – and a few roaming donkeys. (Most donkeys are hard at work while the rest graze.) In addition, lizards, foxes, gophers, snakes, mink, rats, ferrets, rabbits and turtles are examples of things we have seen – we’re told there are more and mysterious furry bumps on the roads confirm this is probably correct. The ants are also extraordinary. Some are 12mm long and, if the power to weight ration of the little ones we are used to is consistent with these monsters, there is little point in applying the hand brake on the car. About 8 of them could steal it without any problem – should they suddenly have the urge to own a Nissan Terrano. So far we’ve been fortunate they must prefer other makes or models. The birds vary from common sparrows, pigeons and pheasants through to brilliantly coloured and extravagantly tailed flyers, waders and walkers.
It is the knowledge of unknown dangers lurking in the bushes that has made me realize that the urge to urinate is purely psychosomatic. I learnt this when Flypaper announced she was about to sneak into the undergrowth for a spot of private meditation. Being both courageous and gallant I offered to go in and clear the site of ferrets, snakes, scorpions, ants and other nasty things that could be exposed to her immodest display. Her urge mysteriously disappeared.
‘As hard as an Uzbek bed’ is a new phrase added to our conversation. Flypaper & I have many unique understandings … well, perhaps not understandings – that may never occur. However, should you be a fly on the wall listening to our conversations, and assuming as a fly you would understand our accent, you are likely to hear many expressions of this nature developed over years of experiencing stuff we would have be better avoiding by staying at home. All beds in Central Asia are hard. This could be due to the traditional lack of rubber trees or it could be that the inner-sprung four poster was difficult to carry around on the horse while out doing a bit of pillaging or even just roaming around looking for a spot of food for the family goat. In our experience however, the Uzbeks have made hard beds their special experience. Again I speculate. Uzbekistan has been particularly unfortunately positioned right between lots of power crazy guys who had ambitions to rule the world. In attempting this challenge they tended to exhibit quite a bit of disrespect for the locals while passing through. As a result, I suspect it is payback time. Current visitors’ are discouraged from returning by providing beds that are best described as exhibiting all the comfort of a concrete slab sprinkled with rocks. As a boy I often went out for the weekend equipped with a big knife given to me for my 6th birthday and a fishing line. These tools could also manufacture a bow and arrow if my interest waivered and I decided to wipe out a pond full of frogs or create some other ecological disaster. On those nights I happily slept on the ground, often in a cave, and reveled in pleasure of being tough. Times have changed. The knife is smaller and I now have to consider the comforts and pleasures expected by Flypaper. She recently (affectionately) expressed displeasure at my inability to keep her in the comforts that I have spoilt her with over the years we have toiled to become weak and soft in spite of jointly adding layers of personal padding. This is grossly unfair as, before I married her, she was tested and passed with honours. We travelled in an old Landrover from London to Capetown without any of the comforts expected in civilization. She never complained – except when the rat that lived in our roof rack continually ate the soap and potatoes – and suffered astonishing hardship. I was impressed and decided that a woman could share my macho world after all. Now the Uzbeks are challenging those standards by providing sleepless nights - often followed by cold showers. As I write, the hardship is reducing. We have entered Southern Russia and the rocks have been removed from the bed. The shower remains an undetermined experience. I feel my role as a satisfactory provider is improving.
I’ve previously commented on the brilliant driving in China based on awareness and lack of restrictive rules. The standards deteriorated as we moved west. Kazakhstan was bad, Russia is truly shocking. Much of this is due to the inability of the drivers to see through the vodka fumes that rise from the bottle clutched between their thighs. Near misses are common, evidence of accidents is everywhere and we regularly see drivers arguing in the middle of the road while their cars appear to be in steamy embrace.
I have deduced that accidents increase in proportion to the number of police and road rules. Our own (western) proliferation of laws also results in poor judgment and a reliance on signs and ‘our rights’ instead of common sense and skill.
As we approached the Russian boarder gate we actually saw an accident take place only a few meters ahead. An eager Lada was parked too close to the narrow gated entry. A huge articulated truck trying to negotiate the gap lost sight of it and lightly scrunched the fender. Then the hilarity started. So many people leapt out of the Lada I thought they must be running around and hoping in the other side. The driver performed like he had just lost his firstborn, or worse, his prize billygoat. There was a rising level of wailing from his passengers who sounded as though they had each lost a vital organ while being flailed by a hedgehog on a salty rope. Adding to the furor were the witnesses who ran in from all directions offering their services to the highest bidder. Quickly the other cars in line started tooting in frustration and some drivers rushed up to the accident threatening much more grievous harm if the narrow way wasn’t cleared pretty damn quickly. I feared that one huge Russian truck driver who had had his voice box replaced an amplified foghorn was about to have a heart attack but changed his performance to simply foaming at the mouth while roaring obscenities and gesticulating like an Italian Opera diva. It was a wonderful show. The only area of calm among the sea of distraught shriekers was the offending truck driver who simply evaluated the damage and peeled of a few Rubles for the Lada owner. Immediately the whole performance stopped and everyone dispersed. We proceeded happy in the knowledge that money fixes everything.
Well, nearly everything. The passage of money didn’t repair my hurt feelings when, for the first time on this journey, I was set up a by a greedy (Russian) policemen and fleeced. It had to happen and will likely do so again. Both our cars were driving together when a chubby little trainee cop leapt out from behind a bus shelter waiving his little red disk which means, “Stop or I’ll shoot you”. I stopped HeeHaw pretty smartly while Bilbo continued over the horizon. The next 30 minutes were spent with chubby boys ‘big hat’ boss in pointless discussion about my serious crime for which he advised the solution was the payment of US$300, 6,000 Rubles or jail. He drew a very nice picture on the back of an arrest warrant indicating I had illegally passed a car in the intersection right in front of the bus stop. None of us saw any other vehicle and I could tell from his reluctance to look directly at me that he hadn’t seen one either. I realized immediately that it was a rort but, having also experienced swindling cops at home, I have a policy of putting up a good fight. Its difficult using logic and reasoning when the parties can’t understand each other. There was a certain satisfaction in calling him names to his face that can’t be printed here. I also called on a military guy, who was lolling around, as my witness – but he was made a better offer by the cop. That was a win to me because it meant the thieving @#*&@#% wasn’t going to get 100% of the funds. After a satisfactory period of arguing he asked me to hop into the passengers’ seat of his car where we reached a settlement (below the level of the windows) of 1,000 rubles. (NZ$50). We all (3) shook hands and I was free to continue our journey. It was clearly highway robbery. A few kilometers down the road I stopped and sterilized my hands.