There are only two types of car in Kazakhstan.
That is the considered conclusion I reached after a good 12 hours in the country. The first is a dilapidated Lada, normally parked in a hedge or rusting away quietly outside a roadside shashlik joint. The second is the big, brash Mercedes, whooshing its air-conditioned passengers across the steppe and onto…erm… more steppe.
Yes, I’ve finally made it across the border and into Kazakhstan and feel just about ready to start pronouncing half-baked knee-jerk reactions to the place. Obviously getting here was far from straightforward – where would we be without life’s little adventures? – but when the bus broke down for the third time still hours from Almaty, the jollity of the situation was starting to wear thin.
Ah, this is the life. Sitting cross-legged on the bottom berth of an ancient iron bunk-bed trying to charge up every electronic item I own – every backpacker has been there. It feels somewhat nostalgic to be doing it again, though – it’s been a good few years since I did the rounds of dodgy hostels, manic bus stations and generally getting lost in city after city, too tight to splash out USD1 on a cab.
Eat up, eat up... this'll put hair on your chin, madam
I’ve made it to Urumqi, capital of China’s far-western Xinjiang province and supposedly the furthest place in the world from the sea (bit of trivia there for you folks, 225okm no less). This place also tends to get poo-pooed by the great unshaven backpackers, but compared to many large Chinese cities, I personally find it a perfectly pleasant place. The food is great too (see pic) – but perhaps more on that later.
By far the most noticeable thing already, however, is the sheer variety of faces milling around the streets. You get the distinct feeling that Han China has backed onto the rest of Central Asia and created a hub that has managed to suck in all the other nationalities in the countryside around. It is fascinating.