It is hard to distinguish where the influences of culture, terrain and history come together to demarcate such a distinction between east and west. But where the harsh wind, sordid heat and the vast expanse of Taklamakan Desert meet the snow capped peaks of the Tian Shan mountain range, I felt such a place. After two weeks cycling across one of the most remote places of earth, it felt a little too good to be true. The white snow capped peaks reflect a hazy glaring image that stings already sore eyes. I imagine such a place long ago taunting the minds of thirsty caravan traders moving slowly through this terrain. It’s here where fierce winds blow heat and dust carried for over a thousand miles to carve impressive forms into the sturdy mountain range. It’s here where the small oasis outposts become heaven of earth. It is here along the silk road where empires of the east meet the west.
I like this part of the world. It feels like a frontier should – open and expansive, quiet and isolated, like there is something else out there to find. But in a very unforgiving region it also yields spectacular green steppes, mountain ranges that rival the Himalayas, bone dry deserts, massive open valleys, huge glacial rivers and an eclectic mix of people and cultures. Modern cities have grown where old outposts once were; oil was found on the steppe and the rivers have been tamed. There was a distinct feeling of change coming into Kazakhstan.
Of the few things that I really miss on this journey, the greatest is a place I can feel at home; a place to feel at ease; a place to rest the body and mind, where people seem to know you better than you know yourself. The youth hostels I usually frequent are transient places with people coming and going; lives briefly entangling for a moment and then unraveling once again. It’s like a pit stop in an Indy Car race – come in, fill up and go, go, GO! But in Almaty I found a place, if even just for a while, I could call home.
I met Sven, a Swiss cyclist, while combing the streets of Almaty (Kazakhstan) looking for a place to stay. Undoubtedly he spotted my unmistakable laden bicycle I call home and saw a glimpse of that familiar wary look in a wandering traveler’s eye. I noticed his bicycle, without the bags but with all the telltale signs of a long distance traveler. We said hello. I asked where he was staying and he told me of an Australian guy, Taz, living in Almaty. He mentioned that Taz had a really big place, seemed laid back and probably wouldn’t mind if I stayed as well. Spending so much time on the road had given me an appreciation for serendipitous meetings where new opportunities presented themselves in a manner which always left me wondering about the fatality of our lives and if there was something I was a part of that I just wasn’t getting. Was it is just coincidence or that desperate energy pouring from my tired eyes rebounding back at me? In about five minutes I gave this Aussie guy a ring. Having never met him, never been introduced and approaching this endeavor as a complete stranger, the conversation went a little something like this:
“Hi, Is this Taz? Yep. I’m an Aussie cyclist passing through Almaty on my way to Europe. I’ve been on the road for about two years now having cycled here from Sydney (more or less). I met a Swiss guy Sven on the road today who is staying with you. He mentioned you’re a member of warmshowers (a hospitality site for touring cyclists) and you have a few other cyclists staying with you. Would it be possible if I could also stay with you for a few nights?” … and just like that Taz replied, “Well, you better get your butt over here!” reminding me that there is something unique about my fellow kin and the way they throw themselves at life.
I often wonder how reluctant anyone living in a western society would react if this situation was reversed. So many times on this journey complete strangers took me in. I wasn’t sure how to define such hospitality but my journey seemed to resonate much deeper with others than a simple bicycle ride. Was it the novelty? Curiosity? Was it the often weary look in my eye that spoke of being in need? Or was it something much deeper? I always preferred staying with people, enjoying dinner together and sharing stories of the life we inhabit (or in most cases photos and gestures). I started wondering if such hospitality in the world was the norm or the exception. Experience tells me that this is the norm – that people will help because it is in their nature to do so – contrary to everything we’re vicariously taught in a competitive society that has come to define us. Perhaps this is only true when the conditions are right; meeting on equal terms, when there is time and space for understanding, tolerance and peace and when our physical needs are met. Maybe I just gravitate to certain people. Either way, with Taz I found a place, even if just for a few days, I could call home. I can’t tell you what a relief it was.
“Curiosity will conquer fear even more than bravery will.” James Stephens.
Tasman, or Taz as he’s known, had been living in Almaty for the last few years working as a pilot for Air Astana. He was living on his own at the time but had a whole troop of visitors pass through his doors. If we looked after Taz, cooking, respecting the house, keeping the place tidy, he enjoyed hosting us. I think he liked the company, the stories we’d bring and the type of people that seemed to regularly turn up at his house. In the week that I stayed there we had nine cyclists come and go. We were happy enough to have a place to call home and a dry roof over our heads. Taz’s hallway was packed with bikes; the floor covered in blow up mattresses and bicycle parts. The crowded dinner table was full of happy cyclists with food in our bellies and smiles on our faces. We hardly paused for a moment of breath in a sea of conversations that revolved around life on the road, food and bicycles. Taz helped us get parts for our bikes, took us hiking in the beautiful hills around Almaty and showed us videos of the adventure racing he did each year in Patagonia, Chile. Sure enough there was also a jar of Vegemite, actually several, that Taz said I could help myself to.
After just two days having left Taz’s place, I ran into trouble on the road (see post ‘emergency room‘) and, after receiving stitches in my head, Taz kindly took Sven and I in again for another week of visiting doctors and resting a little. I was ever so grateful.