“Ne robotayet,” muttered the woman who had been waiting with us for half an hour wearily and walked away. Indeed, the printer did not work, and no train tickets were available. The queue behind us grew further, but not visibly impatient. Later, when we finally got a ticket, it was not for the train we had wanted, but for one arriving at 4:18 in the morning. Glad to have got ANY ticket at all, we did not complain. Travelling in Kazakhstan is like this.
Everything in Kazakhstan, and especially in Almaty, takes much longer than expected. And “Who is the last one in this queue?” is another of those phrases we learned quickly. Once you have affirmed your place in the queue with the person behind and in front of you, you are free to walk away for a short time e.g. to buy a snack or to make a telephone call.
“Ich lernte Deutsch,” the fruit-seller said and dropped an apricot. “In der Schule, in der Universität, viele Jahre.” [I learned German for many years at school and university]. She was in her 70s and suffered from Parkinson’s, and we had probably passed her little table many times. On Almaty’s streets there are scores of old women in floral synthetic dresses selling a few bunches of flowers, some buckets of apples or cups of handpicked berries.
Those who have nothing to sell beg in front of the bazaar or the church. Many of these old women might have been engineers or university teachers, but now their tiny pensions don’t even cover the basic expenses.
The locals’ thoughts on Kazakhstan
“In Kazakhstan there is a widening gap between rich and poor,” confirms Gulmira, a young German teacher we met in the always jam-packed minibus to Kulager, a suburban plattenbau council estate where we had rented a flat. “The state does not care. Although so many people live in Kulager, there is only this one irregular bus.” On the other hand older people always get offered a seat, and usually someone who is sitting at least takes the heavy bags of standing passengers on his or her lap.
Gulmira recently quit her job as a teacher and started to work for Air Astana. She has spent two weeks in Europe for a training course and is going to Germany next week for the first time in her life. She was enthusiastic: “Europe is so clean and organised!“
Asia or Europe?
For her, Kazakhstan clearly belonged to Asia. We, by contrast, are still surprised by the Europeanness of Kazakhstan. This includes the unexpected “culture shock” of not being immediately recognisable as foreigners. In China (as in Japan), the conductor never asked for whom the second ticket was. Travelling in Kazakhstan we have more than once been scolded for not following rules such as “pay the driver” although there was a big notice (in Russian). Every day, people ask us for directions, the time, or something else that we don’t understand.
“Azerbaijan? They are on summer holidays until 27 August”, the security guard told us when we had finally found the Azeri embassy. It was one of a row of ready-made houses in pastel colours in Astana’s new diplomatic district.
Since as Germans we can get a visa for Russia only in our country of residence (i.e. in Germany), we had to revise our original plan to travel via the Russian Black Sea coast to Turkey. Still preferring an overland route we now think of going via Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to Baku (Azerbaijan) and then on to Georgia and Turkey. In order to apply for the transit visa through Turkmenistan, we would first have to show an Azeri Visa for onward travel. Our hopes of fitting the various visa processing periods into our stay in Kazakhstan thus folded. We could only wish the ambassador nice holidays and go sightseeing.
A recommendation regarding Kazakhstan, in German
Auf Deutsch empfehlen wir folgendes Buch über eine Aussiedlerfamilie aus Kasachstan:
Ulla Lachauer: Ritas Leute. Eine deutsch-russische Familiengeschichte. Rowohlt (auch als Taschenbuch).
NB: Our travel to Kazakhstan was not sponsored in any way. We paid all expenses ourselves.