April 19, 2013
I woke up with the simple mantra, “Today WILL be better than yesterday.” Not that the day before was that bad. It’s just that I was getting frustrated with the whole visa process and getting bored with Almaty. There isn’t a ton of culture or history in the city and it still feels Soviet with it’s overabundance of large concrete buildings. Really, it was an easy thing to say since I wouldn’t have to go to the Embassy and I was planning on leaving the city.
Finally over jet lag, I was able to get up early and be at breakfast by 8 and checked out by 9. The only question that remained was where I was going. I hoped to have an answer by going to the EcoTourism office there to see if camping in the mountains or elsewhere nearby was in the cards. When I arrived at the designated spot on the map of my guide book, it was clearly not there. When I looked up the address, I noticed it was nowhere near my whereabouts. Somewhere on the order of 1.5 miles. Thanks, Lonely Planet. Despite all of this effort to find the office, there weren’t any overnight trips offered, so it was time for plan B. Go west on an overnight train to Shymkent.
Still wearing my full pack, I took public transport to the train station to get a ticket. There, I was pleased to find touchscreen kiosks that had English instructions. Sweet! This was going to be a breeze! Ha! First of all, I couldn’t find the destination city after double checking my Cyrillic spelling several times. So, I flagged an employee to help me. She quickly showed me that I needed to use the alternate (Kazakh?) spelling. Seriously! Why can’t they agree on a spelling? With that sorted out, I just needed to pick a time and input my information. When I got to the last required field, it wouldn’t let me input it nor would it let me move on and purchase the ticket. I then realized that I had crashed the kiosk with my debit card in it. Great! The woman that had helped me was still next to me, so she got the station manager when she realized what the problem was. This wasn’t his first rodeo and he came prepared with keys to open the kiosk to fetch my debit card. His explanation was that I didn’t have Tenge on my card. Whatever, the kiosk had the Visa and Maestro insignia on it.
I have to give a lot of credit to the customer service. The woman than personally escorted me to the ticket counter despite a room full of people waiting their turn and made an annoucement for anyone that knew English to come over. At my age, it’s the equivalent of having someone get on a department store PA and announce that there’s a lost child in lingerie. All I could do is sheepishly smile. After a few minutes of trying to figure things out in Russian, a guy came to my rescue. Don’t know why he didn’t come sooner, but I didn’t care. I got the ticket I wanted, and I was finally done with that.
As I rearranged my belongs into my day pack so I could leave the rest at the station, the same man came up to me calling me by name. He introduced himself as Yerbol and said he wanted to help me in any way. I told him I was good now but very thankful for his help. Worried that he was going to rope me into some elaborate tribute scheme, I offered him a couple of bucks for his trouble, but he refused. After dropping of my extra baggage, he was still there and wanted to know what I was going to do until the train. I explained that I would take the Metro to one of the museums, hoping he would drop it. He then explained that Kazakh are very hospitable people but since most don’t know English, I don’t see it. So, he wanted to show me Kazakh hospitality by driving me to his favorite museum rather than go straight back to work. While driving through lunch hour traffic, he tells me he’s a medical device engineer and how he, as a Muslim, learned English through missionaries. Unfortunately, they weren’t successful converting him. Nevertheless, he was true to his word and dropped me off at the Central State Museum, but not without giving me his phone number and promising to call when I return to Almaty. Hmmm… I’ll think about it.
Suddenly, it was a glorious, sunny day in Almaty and I just enjoyed the freedom to walk about before heading to the train station for the trip. Like the monsoon rains, there was no more waiting. The random acts of kindness that sustain a lone traveler had finally come from the heavens. This is why I backpack.