The only thing one hears when slowly surfacing from the underground depths of the Olmazor metro station – the last station on the red, Chilanzar line – is the sound of hard footsteps on the stone walkway, horns honking from the street above, and men shouting.
“Samarkand! Samarkand!” they yell, doing that which perhaps they know best.
“Navoi! Navoi!” they scream, extending the latter syllable to a long ‘E’ sound. It’s a little disorientating upon first sight – who are all these men and why are they shouting so much? But they are just doing their job, or rather, that which they believe their job to be.
“Samarkand, brat?” I’m asked repeatedly as I make my way across the deserted street.
“Nyet, spasiba,” I reply, looking rather sullen as it’s not yet eight o’clock in the morning. Touch me and we will have a problem, the inner, personal-space-conscious American in me thinks to myself irritably. One can feel the eyes of others growing in number upon one’s person, bodies drifting slowly toward the approaching traveler; nothing to do but forge ahead and choose to either respond to the touts or to ignore them completely.
The bus station, or avtovoksali, is a desolate place, huge in its grandeur but empty and barren in its contents. More hard footsteps, seldom in their number, echo off the stone floor, rising up to the high ceiling and back down again, creating a kind of aural accompaniment to the vastly grey visual spectacle. It feels like a mix between a prison and an abandoned, cancerous library, decaying before society itself. Little sky-blue plastic seats sit alone in the enormous room, offering temporary rest to travelers who are only going to soon sit again. Outside the sky brightens and the mob of white cars begin to fill the wide Tashkent streets, just like yesterday and the day before that. I wait on the stone steps leading up to the station entrance.
“Sir, you are passenger?” a sweater’d man in camo pants asks kindly, smoking a cigarette.
“Yes sir,” I reply.
“Please,” he says, gesturing for me to board the large white Silk Road Bus, as its exterior is labelled. I had him my ticket and in return he hands me an ungrammatical migration card for the Republic of Kazakhstan. “Foreigners who broke the period of staying in the Republic of Kazakhstan incur for administrative responsibility,” it read. The sole passenger on the completely empty bus, the sweater’d man decides – in a well-intended attempt to be hospitable – that it’s a good idea to play some bad English music. I sit and warm my cold ears with the palms of my hands and look out the window and think that this is just about right. The bus left the station and I was the only passenger on board. Much like the empty bus station we had left behind, the seats around me were also empty. I thought about waste of space, watched the crowds outside the passing bazars grow in number and listened to music to drown out music as we slowly exited the millings-about of early morning Tashkent. David Bazan’s “People” from his Strange Negotiations album (2011) came on quietly at first, then the chorus burst to life, surprising me, bringing a rock-and-roll morning smile to my tired face. “But now you’re selfish and mean, your eyes glued to a screen and what titillates you is depraved and obscene; and I know that it’s dangerous to judge. But man you gotta find the truth and when you find that truth don’t budge until the truth you found begins to change, and it does, I know. I know. When you love the truth enough you start to tell it all the time – when it gets you into trouble you discover you don’t mind, ‘cause if good is finally gonna trump then man you gotta take stock and you gotta take your lumps or else they trickle down into someone else’s cup below, you know. I wanna know who are these people.” I listened to it on repeat all the way to the end of the country.
At the border, naturally, I was told to disembark and was escorted to a drab building where my bags were put into a scanner. I was then encouraged by the bus driver to skip to the head of the immigration line, much to the disagreement of the patient others who were standing in a clumped, clustered line. I’d be pissed, too, if some foreigner suddenly decided to skip the line, but such was the reality I found myself in. Uzbek authorities flipped through my passport with furrowed brows, trying to make sense of either its contents, me, or both. I was led outside back to the bus where a woman was having her dog search the bus. The dog didn’t seem interested; it kept running out of the bus to go roll in the grass.
“Hello,” she said as her dog sniffed around.
“Hello ma’am,” I said.
“You’re from?” she asked in the common, central Asian fill-in-the-blank style.
“America,” I said.
“Oh America. Very nice country,”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
“You’re going Kazakhstan?”
“How many days?”
“Four ma’am.” I had already got my exit stamp, so I wondered why this woman was grilling me. Maybe she just wanted to make conversation. The dog ran off again toward the grass and began to roll around in it carelessly.
“Crazy dog,” she said. I laughed and so did she.
The bus drove a few meters ahead to the next checkpoint on the Kazakh side. I disembarked again and again handed my passport over to another uniformed man in a box. The page flipping began anew.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“John,” I said as a reaction more than anything else. Nailed it. Another guard approached and wanted to make conversation, so the official one ceased.
“You go Kazakhstan?” he asked.
“You diplom?” he asked, meaning diplomat, I guessed, pointing at me.
“No sir. Teacher.”
“Ah teacher,” he approved. My passport was handed back to me and I went into another building. The place was empty and quiet with large posters in Russian on the walls.
“Meester John,” a smiling, quick-footed man said as he approached rapidly. He spoke in the tone of a used car salesman about to make a sale; “please,” he gestured, still smiling, escorting me to a long wooden table where I was to empty my bags. I began taking my clothes out of my backpack, scattering them all over the table as if it were my bedroom.
“Clothes?” he asked.
“OK, OK,” he said and told me to pack up. That was fast. I was led outside to the final passport-page-flipping station. A man in a blue, furry pill-box hat took my passport and the page-flipping began once more.
“John Seempson,” he pronounced aloud slowly as he looked up at me. He looked back down at my passport and said something under his breath in Uzbek to the bus driver standing next to him. My gaze shifted around.
“He say me he like your name,” the driver told me. “He say he like zis Seempson TV show.”
“Thank you,” I said stupidly, as if I had anything to do with it. The page flipping continued, as did the slow pronunciation of all the country names listed in my passport – “Eendia, Bee-et-naam, Lah-ohs.” I waited.
“Vot zees?” he asked, now seeming irked, his brows slightly furrowing into perplexion. I looked at where he had stopped his page-flipping – a blank page. There was nothing there. Why was he pointing to a blank page? Was this a joke?
“Benjameen Frahn-kleen?” he asked with a rising tone. I exhaled.
“George Washington,” I corrected him, blinking. He had stopped on a blank passport page with Mount Rushmore on it and had perhaps wanted to test his American history knowledge. I relaxed. He tilted the passport slightly along with his noggin to get a better look at it. I watched him then decided to say something.
“This Abraham Lincoln,” I pointed out, trying to encourage him.
“Aabra-kham Leen-cohn,” he repeated, pleased, not looking up. His hyper-ventilating German Shepard security dog was running infinite circles around our little lesson, drooling all the while, leaving little drops of thick dog-saliva on the pavement.
“Thomas Jefferson,” I pointed, now trying to bore him and get on with my journey. He slowly, almost sentimentality, ran a calloused finger over Tommy’s face etched in mountain stone. The wet-tongued dog barked at nothing. The guard looked up then looked back at my passport. He looked at me then back at the passport again. He seemed to stare at it for a minute, as if he wanted to continue on with our brief history lesson. I wondered how many Americans crossed this checkpoint each year.
“OK,” he said, folding the passport shut as he handed it back to me, looking away. I got back on the bus and we drove to Kazakhstan where the roads were smoother. The driver and his assistant chatted together sporadically in Uzbek as the seemingly ordered and smooth roads stretched out before us. It was quiet.
I flipped through my freshly-stamped passport to see the new stamps. I found myself looking at the blank pages, too. Some of them are quite picturesque, depicting natural scenes of the Pacific Northwest with bears, mountains and salmon, Hawaii with swaying palm trees around Diamond Head Beach Park, Texas. Others like Mount Rushmore and the cracked Liberty Bell were also detailed – eye-catching, almost – especially given the glimpses I had seen of drab-looking Kazak passports, though theirs had a bright turquoise-blue cover. I wondered: maybe these border patrol officers were just looking at the pictures in my passport and not the stamps at all. Maybe they were simply interested to see some official images of America; they wanted to take their time flipping through this little blue picture book.
We arrived to Shymkent more quickly than I had anticipated. The rolling hills outside the city were a nice welcome to a new place. At the bus station, as I was getting a return ticket back to Tashkent a few days later, I was trying to communicate to the ticket agent behind the counter that I wanted to return on Friday. I was not being very successful as the ticket agent was growing rather irritated with my lack of Russian communication skills. I certainly couldn’t blame her. A woman leaning casually on the counter nearby who had been witnessing our interaction spoke up and helped me out. She was also getting information for a ticket to Tashkent in a few days’ time.
“Thanks for your help,” I said.
“No problem,” she said. I was hungry and alone in a new city so I asked her if she had had lunch already.
“Not yet,” she said, “you?” Off we went walking down the streets of Shymkent in search of caloric sustenance.
Akmaral had been an English teacher for a year and had recently left her job to pursue a dream of cycling across Kazakhstan. She cycled for fourth months before she ran into health problems that sadly cut her trip short. Staying with a friend, she had been in Shymkent for about a month, so she knew the city a little bit. She had recently been working as a translator for a large oil company in West Kazakhstan; she showed me pictures of the region and it looked stunning. The pay at the oil company was better, she said, and she didn’t have to deal with unmotivated and needy students. Translating allowed her to be more mobile and spend more time on her bike, which is exactly what she wanted to do. She said Kazakhstan was great for cycling because much of it was so flat. Over soft, savory pancakes, pink steamy borsh and shitty instant coffee, we shared couch-surfing stories together while it began to drizzle outside. After lunch, at the ridiculous Chuck Norris Bar, we watched awful Chuck Norris movies back-to-back while we dubbed improvised dialogue to their predictable scenes, drinking pint after pint of bubbly Kazakh beer over smoked cheese strips.
In the morning, snow was gently falling on the puddle-dotted streets while jacketed pedestrians briskly shuffled their way down the cracked sidewalks. On the wall, in the large red-chair-filled conference hall of the South Kazakhstan State Pedagogical Institute, read a bold, gold-plated inscription for all to be seated under: “Feeling of patriotism is of top importance.” – N. A. Nazarbayev. I wondered: was it the feeling of patriotism that was of importance or the actual patriotism itself? Could one feel patriotic without actually being patriotic? Whatever the answer, the feeling was of top importance, according to Kazakhstan’s one and only president since their independence in 1991.
Thursday morning brought lightly dusted snowy streets and blue skies. It had snowed overnight and the snow had stuck, leaving a slight trace of whiteness on the ground, the sun now reflecting off it from above. In the afternoon, I met T, a twenty-nine-year-old Hungarian traveler, freelance English teacher and aspiring motivational speaker whose dream was to see all the countries of the world by the time he reached the age of thirty-five. I forgot to ask him how many he had left to go. He said he was very interested in conversations around controversial social issues in Kazakhstan, trying to get his students to discuss them and not have a sweep-it-under-the-rug attitude.
“I’m preaching about the low-budget traveling,” he told me over coffee at the posh-looking Traveler’s Coffee in the center. “My goal is to become a motivational speaker and encourage people to travel. To be honest, I’ve been starving to have a normal conversation where I don’t need to worry about my English.” T had a bachelor’s degree, but no IELTS certification. One thing I liked about him was that he kept using the word “heaps” to mean “a lot of”, which I’d never heard before. When we discussed tourism in Kyrgyzstan, for example, he said, “oh yeah, heaps of travelers go there for tourism, heaps.” I found it both hysterical and strangely endearing at the same time. He told me a bit about his experience in Shyment since arriving in November last year.
“People here ask me all the time if I can teach IELTS. I don’t even have IELTS certification! But they think that just because I’m a foreigner from Europe who speaks decent English I can teach IELTS.” I was curious about what he did in Shymkent.
“So you teach privately?”
“I’m like a freelancer. I go to language centers and say, ‘Hey I’m a foreigner. Do you have groups?’ It works well,” he said. I nodded, stirring my Americano.
“So you freelance at these language centers?” I asked.
“Yeah exactly. I do my own stuff. I have my own Facebook and Instagram page. Most of the clients are English teachers trying to improve their English.”
“So you do online stuff too?”
“I want to shift it to online – I just started now. I have the first client from Moscow – they are Kazak. Here in Kazakhstan, online teaching is not popular, not at all. I don’t know why. They believe in personal contact – probably because of this bureaucracy, you know, you always have to shake hands.” I asked him how he hoped to continue his online teaching in the future and how that would help him to continue traveling.
“Once I’m able to shift $100 or $150 per week online, I’m going to stop everything and just travel twenty-four/seven because that will enable me – because I’ll just need mobile internet – and that’s sorted. Of course, I need to spend some time to figure how to manage all that stuff, but that’s the ultimate, so I can devote all three hundred sixty-five days to traveling. Right now, it’s six months’ work, six months traveling in my life – I have no reason to complain at all. Online would be the future, the next step.” A part of me was envious of T. Here was a guy who had decided to dedicate his entire life to travel. He wanted to visit every country in the world – quite a goal – but he was entirely serious about it. I admired his dedication to something I was also passionate about. He seemed to view money as just paper that allowed him to keep traveling. He commented on challenges in Kazakhstan as a place for someone like himself to conduct business.
“I was thinking of running my own business, something like that, so after a while just take off and hire someone, but there is no person I can trust here. This is not a place where you can leave your business. If you want to take Kazakh nationality, you have to drop your nationality. You cannot buy a house as a foreigner, unless you have a residence permit and stuff like that. It’s insane how much they try to concentrate the money.” I told him that I was interested in learning more about Almaty as I’d be visiting next month. He mentioned the differences between Almaty and Shymkent in the English teaching markets for foreign teachers. “Almaty, the market is already filled,” he said. “Here,” he said, pausing to look around, shaking his head, “there is no market.”
That afternoon, as I thought about my conversation with T, I had lunch at a restaurant that, in its efforts to seem posh and hip, tastelessly blasted crummy instrumental music that belonged more appropriately in The Legend of Zelda than in a restaurant. The lone trumpeter outside on muddy Ilyaev Street – sweetly serenading shoppers with a beautiful cover of Sinatra’s “My Way” – did a better job of filling space with meaningful music. He stood in the mud, his boots caked on the bottom; a rusty trumpet case lay discarded beside him, resting against the trunk of a snow-filled tree. Downward-looking, sidewalk-staring walkers shuffled by quickly without perhaps even considering the immense beauty that was being projected into their city streets. Were they not grateful? Did they not like the music? I didn’t see anyone give the man any Kazak Tinge.
In the evening, I met Aidana – a PR executive for a bank in Almaty. She was in town on a business trip, she said, and she was interested in gender differences and disparities in Kazakhstan. She told me about the double standards of personal relationships in Kazakhstan over pizza.
“In Kazakhstan, men are alpha. The girl’s first aim is to birth children – I can’t understand. In Kazak families, men have more opportunities than women. Girls should be quiet and humble; their first aim is to have a good marriage with a rich guy, and if you can’t marry until thirty, they say that you are old. But men can marry any age, anytime; and some guys who are in religion, they can have two wives, but they can have if only they have money.” She seemed to have some criticism of relationship norms in Kazakhstan.
“But our women in Kazakhstan are very progressive, because we have the demographic situation where the number of men is lower than women; most of our women can work, have a job and do something. They can get educated. I think we are not so traditional like Uzbeks and Tajiks. We are not so much in religion, something like this.” We discussed politics for a bit and I asked her about her president.
“We wait. It’s very sad to say, but really, he’s so old. He don’t want to give someone a chance. Always – how to say? – he close his government ministers in – how to say? – I can’t remember, my English so bad.” She seemed to suddenly forget what she was talking about, or she chose not to finish her sentence. I tried to help her finish her thought, but she didn’t seem to want to. Was she nervous about being overheard? At the time, I didn’t think so, as there was no one nearby to hear her, but she stopped in such a way that it made me wonder. Finally, she said, “In Kazakhstan, if you have powerful parents, you can do anything that you want.” Then she said something that made me pause; “but I think people anywhere is people. They similar.”
In the morning, seated in a park near the bus station, I heard, from a nearby mosque, the call to prayer come alive over the city, blanketing it in sound. Later, I witnessed a group of Kazakhs break into song and dance in the middle of the park. It was a frigid sunny Friday afternoon and the sounds of what sounded like an accordion wafted peacefully over the park, accompanied by clapping and jolly male voices singing together in unison. A giant blue flag of Kazakhstan received a gust of wind, almost as if coming suddenly from their collected breaths, waving frantically and triumphantly over the Shymkent cityscape in the distance. The park seemed empty, but perhaps that’s only because it was so big. It would have been difficult to make it look or seem full, but the merry musicians did a good job of filling the park with life, stomping and shouting “opa!” occasionally to cajole the music along spiritedly. At the bus station, I had a piroshky and a cup of tea in a cold, bright concrete room with plastic furniture. A group of chatty Kazak girls dressed in dark colors sat at a nearby table; they held their teacups with two hands as they sipped their beverage quietly. I read my book in the sunlight and thought about people in some of the places I had seen that may, perhaps, never change.
“The axiom of equality states that x always equals x: it assumes that if you have a conceptual thing named x, that it must always be equivalent to itself, that it has a uniqueness about it, that it is in possession of something so irreducible that we must assume is absolutely, unchangeably equivalent to itself for all time, that its very elementalness can never be altered. But it is impossible to prove.” – Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life (2015), page 385
Leaving Shymkent on the bus, I thought about the people I had met: Akmaral and the randomness of our meeting; T and his tattooed traveler spirit, inspiring in me a greater desire to travel more spontaneously and fearlessly; and Aidana – her willingness to discuss Kazakhstan. I began listening to David Bazan’s “People” again, the second half of the second verse getting stuck in my head: “Who are these people? If I’m honest with myself at all, these are my people. Man, what else can I say? You are my people. And we’re the same in so many ways.” Outside Shymkent, on the way home, I realized how I had spent much of my time on the way here writing. It helped pass the time and was less mind-numbing than listening to music – more engaging, thought-provoking and reflective. I switched seats from the aisle to the window, letting the bright sun hit my tired body. I tipped my cap back ever so slightly and let the sun hit my face as I looked out the window, watching the birds soar smoothly above the rolling green southern Kazak hills.