On ferries and friendship

TravelPosted by Simon Røn Dalsgaard Sep 02, 2017 14:24

I had around 300 kilometers left to Atyrau after crossing the border into Kazakhstan, and figured I would be there in time. After all I was driving along the E40 highway the entire way, and during border control I met a truck driver, who was going there too. Well, it turns out that the Kazakh highways have a different level of quality than the Danish ones. For the entire trip we never drove faster than 50 km/h, and it ended up taking us 11 hours to drive 300 kilometers. This also meant that I didn’t reach Atyrau until 3 am, but luckily I had an amazing couchsurfing host, who waited up for me, so I avoided having to repeat Moscow and sleep alone in a park for my first night.

There are a few cities in the world that sits upon two continents. The most famous one is of course Istanbul, The Queen of cities, which I will reach later on this journey, Insha Allah. However, the second largest is Atyrau. It spreads across both banks of the Ural river that flows from Russia down into the Caspian Sea, so whenever I went to buy food in the market I was entering Asia and then journeying back into Europe, even though it was only a 5-minute walk. Sadly, the location was the only interesting thing about Atyrau. I therefore quickly left after a couple of days.

Nurlan picked me up, just as the sun was reaching Zenit, and the dessert heat was starting to kick in. He had already been driving for 6 hours and still had 4 more to go, but before that we had to make a stop at his parents' farm. To get there we left the road and followed a tiny dirt track for 10 kilometers through the dessert. At one point, I even had to get out the car and help push it over a particularly big bump. On our way there Nurlan kept talking about horses and making weird animal sounds that I didn't quite understand, but once we arrived, and he opened his trunk, it turned out that my confusion was due to the fact that he had mixed up the English words for “horse” and “sheep”. In the back of his tiny Lada lay a live sheep that had been stuck there the entire 6 hours, it took him to drive here. Luckily the sheep was ok, and his mom invited us for some delicious tea and cake, so I had no complaints.

Kazakhstan is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world, and most of its major cities are in the eastern parts, while the west is almost empty. This makes it very boring from a sightseeing perspective but makes traveling the dessert a truly unique experience. It took me an entire day to travel the 900 kilometers from Atyrau to the coastal city of Aktau and we would drive for hours without seeing houses When driving across the landscape I experienced an incredible sense of calmness and vastness that I have only felt before in the snow-covered, wilderness of Arctic Sweden, and it left me in complete awe.

I arrived around 2 am and went to sleep on the beach, where I could hear the rolling of the waves and get a sense of this massive body of water I was about to cross. The next morning I went down to the harbor. The ferry from Kazakhstan to Azerbaijan doesn’t have a specific schedule, so usually passengers may be forced to wait in Aktau for up to 4 days. All you can do is give them your number, and then they’ll call you on the day of departure. By sheer luck I arrived on the departure day, so I only had to wait 10 hours, before they were done loading the trucks, and we could take off.

In the waiting area, I located the only other non-truck driver and struck up a conversation with him. Kim was a 36 years old Swede and a fulltime nomad. 5 years ago, he was living in Stockholm, had a couple of half-finished university degrees and no purpose with life. He decided to leave it all behind and move to Asia, and after half a decade of hitchhiking and working as a bartender and an English teacher, he was finally heading back to Europe, by way of Central Asia. We clicked well and since we were heading in the same direction, we decided to join forces in Azerbaijan.

We stayed a couple of days in Baku, the historic seaside capital, and then spent 6 days hitching all over the rest of this relatively small country. After being on my own for so long it was really nice to have a travel companion with me. Though I had loved being on my own and the freedom that came with it, solo travelling is exhausting as well, because you constantly have to be planning your next move, checking where you are, figuring out how to get food, making sure you don't spend too much money, and a thousand other small things that means you can never truly relax. When you are more than one you can delegate the tasks among you and focus on enjoying the journey.

It was made even better by the fact that Kim was such an experienced traveler and able showed me a couple of useful tips. My favorite being waiting for “lunch cars”. I usually try to hitch with every car that passes me but when Kim isn’t in a hurry he only sticks his thumb out for “lunch cars”: expensive cars that have rich owners who are more likely to buy you lunch. It meant that we spent most of the week in comfortable Range Rovers with A/C and saved a bunch of food money.

After living in Palestine in the spring I found it really interesting that Azerbaijan is a secular Muslim country. Tough 95% of the population are Shia Muslims, we saw very few women in hijab and all off the roadside cafes sold very cheap beer, something that we would take advantage of as often as possible.

One night we enjoyed that a bit too much. We had hitched to Ganja, I’ll admit mainly because of the name, and went in to the first café we found. The local men liked us so they insisted on buying us a beer. And another beer. And another beer. And some vodka. And another beer. 6 hours later I went to buy some gum and when I returned Kim was gone and the owner ask me to take our stuff and leave. I grabbed our bags and went out to wait for him by the side of the road. A little while later Kim returned piss drunk, arm in arm with a couple of Azeri men who dropped him off and told me he was my responsibility now. It was nearing midnight, so while he was laying on the grass, I asked around for a park where we could camp. There was one just 10 minutes away, but when I asked Kim to walk over there he said, “Fuck you”, when I asked him again he said, “Fuck you” and when I asked him to just move away from the side of the road he said, you guessed it: “Fuck you”.

In the end, I had to put up the tent right next to him and carry him the last meter into the tent while I slept outside, but hey, that’s what mates are for. He repaid it several times over in the following days where we, camped in the mountains, hitched with the police and had lunch in what we thought was a café but turned out to also be a brothel with the waitresses doubling as prostitutes. Kim was heading to Armenia and later Iran so we said farewell after entering Georgia. I fell head over heels in love with Georgia and ended up staying there for 30 days, but more on that next time.

No matter how much you train the wolf, he still looks at the mountains and howls.
Old Kazakh proverb

- Simon

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