Mangistau – to Kazakhstan through the back door
Painfully slow the truck stumbles through the dust. This is our baptism in Kazakh roads. “50 km take approximately 6 hours” – announces Ali, our driver, resignedly looking at the bumps ahead. Hours of absolutely nothing, a therapy for our tired minds. While Marta vegetates in the TIR cabin with eyes closed and her thoughts far away, my mind gets washed at the rythm my kidneys get belted. Out of the window the pancake flat world shakes simulating a travel on a camels back. The sea is just the natural continuation of the steppe. What lies on one side merrily mirrors what is on the other. The sky captures us in a blue trap sealing the horizon in each direction. Somewhere, many stones and clouds of dust away, lies Aktau – the city that will come packed with non-filtered internet, short skirts, cash machines and couchsurfing hosts that cook incledible chocolate deserts. An oasis in a land where fresh water comes from the sea and the Earth abounds in springs of oil.
A few days of meditative contemplation of the sea constitute the last stage of the reconstructive therapy. The Caspian breeze takes away all worries and drowns them in the turquoise waters. We are only brought down to Earth by a group of kids, that curiously unzip our tent to peep into – tiny envoys of the Kazakh people that ceremonially come to offer words of courtesy and presents to the newcomers (a yurt-shaped teabox, a fluffy monster and a bone, in exchange for foreign currency of minimal value in these lands). It looks like we receive a promise of a save pass and we are ready to continue East. The clock of visa time ticks and thousands of kilometres of (no) road separate us from the nearest mountains and the Kyrgyz border.
Hitchhiking at night the desolate roads of Western Kazakhstan resemble a space odyssey. Silence and darkness engulf us as we pass through solitary dimly lit settlements – forgotten galaxies in a steppe universe. Somewhere in the distance, like comets following unknown trajectories, the lights of lost cars tuddle upon invisible black paths. As we fall asleep, the sky over the steppe, a detailed map of far away worlds, draws nearer and brighter, covering us in a blanket of glimmering stars.
The void of Mangistau holds a charm as blinding as the white sunlight spreading over the wastelands. Any shape deviating from the infinite flat causes sighs of superstitious admiration. Passing by the Far West town of Shetpe, famous for its wild inhabitants, we take a little detour, exploring the interior of the landscape, where a holy mount, revered in the area, stands lonely at the background of distant canyons. Sherkala, a 200 metres tall giant rock sits majestically on a dry grass throne overlooking the infinity. Whitewashed walls of rock raise suddenly off the yellowish soil. The wind that carries the monotone songs of disgrunteled camels takes up the aromatic scent of oportunistic desert grasses and throws it into our faces along with clouds of dust. A tiny line of fine yellow sands encircles the majestic silouette of Sherkala, profetically reading its inevitable destiny. Currents of running air whip our faces prompting us to fly.
Hypnoteized we swim through the vast void. At times we unexpectedly reach the edges of secret depressions dotted with big round stones. Gracious horses graze in between pieces of iron and sea fossils. Once, the shores of the ancestor of the Caspian must have reached way further East than now. If the genetic codes of time and space collide, horses will run on the bottom of the sea among dragon flies, fish will admire the lonely inmensity of Mount Sherkala next to pilgrims taking devotedly the circular walk around it, and iron ore will drop down ball-shaped stones in hidden valleys through channels made by shells.
The simple, barren beauty of the landscape is unbearable. Not having enough food and water for a longer stay, we either have to merge with it or go. Unanimously, we opt for the latter soon to find ourselves in the outskirts of Beineu – another dusty, windy town in the middle of nowhere connected to other dusty, windy towns by hundreds of kilometres of straight mud road line of emptiness. The silent grandiosity of Sherkala is replaced by fresh tracks of humans existence – stray dogs barking at flying plastic garbage. The sun sets in a puff of pink and we receive a gift of comfort. Miraculously, we escape the piles of rubbish and the passionate hugs of a drunk Polish truck driver, rescued by …. The pleasant ride delivers us straight into the soft pillows of a Kazakh house. Hungry for worshipers, its always the Road, that interferes in critical moments, salvating the traveller and making the journey ahead possible.
What follows is hundreds of kilometers of steppe travels, where we meet more dust than asphalt until we decide to jump on a train. The absence of tickets means over here that you are totally allowed to travel but are also at the mercy of the greedy conductor, who may ask for a bribe of 8 or 8 dollars to bring you anywhere in a trotting machine that is not his own.