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11.05.09 07:13 Age: 9 yrs

Korgalzhino

By: Roger and Megan

"Without nature there can be no life worth living. But where is nature's voice to tell us?" - Traditional Kazakh proverb

Korgalzhino is a town of about 2000 people, located within 50 km of the 500,000 hectare Korgalzhin Nature Reserve. This reserve is a Kazakhstan treasure as it has very recently achieved UNESCO world heritage listing, on account of its critical importance in the migration path of hundreds of species of African and Asian birds. Its main attraction is the pink flamingos, which have their northernmost nesting point on the shores of Lake Tenghiz (a large salt lake within the park) during June each year. The Nature Reserve also encompasses a large area of steppe, providing a protected home for indigenous flora and fauna. We chose to bring our route to cross through this region, as it would give us a chance to see and learn a bit about Kazakhstan's wildlife and what we might encounter in the steppe.

After our biggest day of riding yet (70 km, into a headwind again), we finally arrived in Korgalzhino on Thursday, just after 7:30 pm. We were aiming to ride through the town, see what was happening, and if there were no options for camping in town, we'd continue through and setup camp in the steppe a few km out of the town. We rode through pretty slowly, with kids joining us on their own bikes for some blocks. Cars nearly ran into each other because the drivers were looking at us instead of the road! We reached the far end of town and were slowing down to stop and ponder where to go next when a couple of Kazakh ladies approached us. They wanted to know first - where we're from, second - where we're going, then upon hearing that one of them ordered us to follow her to her "dom" (home). So we had been told, and we did as such.

This seemed a fairly safe option to follow up, as we could always back out if the situation turned uncomfortable for any reason. One lady of 50+ years, armed only with a loaf of bread. However, as we started to follow her through the maze of backstreets and and abandoned buildings, she started to ask us about visas, passports, and documentation, which was a bit odd. Then some other people joined in for the trip too, including a dozen young boys. They were all beckoning us to follow this lady, and we started to become a little apprehensive. Megan asked them whether the lady was "simya" (family) - "nyet" - and so then she asked whether she was a friend, and they giggled and gave a sly "yeah, druk" reply. At one stage the lady took a narrow shortcut that the Quike couldn't follow, so the boys led us around a different way, and we were now in an obscure section of an unfamiliar town, following a group of boys, and had lost sight of this lady with the bread.

Turning the corner, however, we met up with her at her front door. She shooed away the boys as we pulled up, and insisted that we come inside for some chai. We were frantically trying to lock up some baggage, but she was telling us it wasn't necessary, and that we need to come inside and eat. So we managed to pry ourselves from the Quike with only minimal valuables in our hands and pockets, and took the risk of walking into this strange house. When we got inside we were met by another lady (who appeared to us to be a maid) and a man (who was grinning incessantly), and we sat down at the table in the most comfortable chairs in the house, in front of a feast of chai, plov, stuffed cabbage, biscuits, lollies, natural butter, cream, cheese, and more. This is when we finally started to relax... and eat!

Then the visitors started to roll in. First was a close friend of the hostess, who spoke chut chut English. Through the mixed Russian/English and laughter, we gathered that they were all brothers and sisters, that both ladies were named Rosa, and that the English-speaking man was a Physics teacher at the school. Also, we were told that the "maid" was actually a policewoman who worked in Astana, and the other Rosa worked for the government. This explained why she had been quizzing us about documentation! It would have been a big problem if some unregistered foreigners were caught staying in her house, so she was probably more concerned about documentation than we were! Dinner was loud, jovial, and almost overwhelming for us tired travellers. Also, the dinner was accompanied by a few rounds of Cognac shots (a Kazakh thing), which made it all the more surreal.

Later on, one of the men was telling us about an American who lived in Korgalzhin, who also spoke English. This was followed by a series of quick phonecalls by Rosa. Then, a few minutes later, an American and an older Russian lady appeared at the front door. The American was a Peace Corps volunteer, who had been helping out with children's afterschool programs, as well as helping with preparations for the fast approaching grand opening of the Korgalzhin Nature Reserve Information Center in town. They were explained the whole story of how we ended up at this house, and we soon found out that all was not as it seemed. First, the Rosas and the men were not all brothers and sisters - that was just a joke - only 2 were siblings. Second, the (chut chut) English-speaking man was not a physics teacher anymore - instead he drove trucks to Zhezkazgan and back for a living (this explained how he knew that there are 57 corners on the road between Korgalzhin and Zhezkazgan). And finally, our meeting with Rosa near the mosque was not a coincidence. The other Rosa had been in a police minibus on the way back from work in Astana when she had seen us being checked by the police on the main road outside Sabyndy. Then, Rosa's brother had seen us riding through town that afternoon and called her up, telling her to look out for us at the other end of town. Rosa then went to collect us near the mosque, while the other Rosa had cooked up a feast.

Also, after a bit more discussion, we found that Jess (the American) knew both the other Peace Corps volunteer we had met in Karaganda, and Maxim, Vitaliy's friend that we had been instructed to find in town. Then, just as they were about to leave, there was a knock at the door and two policeman walked in. Apparently, news had spread throughout town of the arrival of two foreigners, and where they had ended up. The police were very friendly and asked us a few questions about our travels as they inspected our passports thoroughly (looking at all the pictures). After they and the other guests had left it was finally time to get some sleep, as it was already after 11.00 pm. However, this was when the other men (the brother and the truck driver) returned from their night out drinking. What was most disturbing was that they'd driven back from their drinking session in their big Kamaz trucks, and were barely comprehensible.

The next morning we met with Luda (the Russian lady) and Jess, and went along to get a sneak preview of the visitor centre (due to open a week later). There we got a private tour of the displayed and learnt all about the different birds, animals and plants to be found both within the Reserve and outside of it, in the Kazakh steppe. Although there were a few birds of prey and snakes to watch out for, we anticipate that camping in the steppe comes with fewer threats than camping in Australia, at least with regard to spiders and snakes anyway! We also had a quick tour of the town on foot, where we met the migration officer at the police station (very friendly lady), were shown how to collect water from the wells, plus where all the magazins (food stores) were located. In the afternoon we relocated from Rosa's house to Luda's house, where we were invited to stay that night. This would be an experience for us as Luda's three sons were all returning for the weekend for the birthday of her niece. We were happy to have the opportunity of experiencing both a Kazakh, Muslim party (at Rosa's) and a Russian, Catholic family party (at Luda's) in the one town.

That night, Luda was cooking for several hours in preparation for the evening's celebrations, as well as the birthday party the next day. We helped peel the kartoshkas (potatoes) but were evidently rather slow at it, compared to her! She also hand-made some lapsha (noodles) for a soup and a big birthday cake. Then finally, at about 11 pm, the sons and their wives started rolling in for dinner. Everyone was eating up, talking and laughing and it appeared that this was a special rendezvous for Luda and her family. After all this, the challenge was to find a piece of floor within the one bedroom house for all 10 people to sleep on!

On Saturday morning we went with Jess and Dina (her flatmate) to the May 9 parade, which commemorates lives lost due to war (ANZAC day equivalent). The children of the town lined the streets to guide the cars of veterans and the townspeople toward the school, where the parade was to be held. During the ceremony there were marching batallion shows and Muslim prayers. Then, a music and dance concert was put on by the children, with traditional dress and dances, and poems about war.

That evening, the chief of police came round to visit us, to say hi, and have a few photos on the quike. It was here that she personally arranged for us to experience a Banya the next day. A banya is a traditional Russian bathing house/sauna/shower where you come to wash once a week, so we were looking forward to it - albeit accompanied by a police escort. When Banya day arrived, we didnt last too long in it (you usually alternate multiple iterations of shower, sauna, shower, sauna, all the while scrubbing your bodiesl, until you are clean) due to the oppressive heat we weren't quite used to yet, but after all this we felt extremely clean, after all this scrubbing and hot water, which was nice for a change!

The next day were hoping that our departure from the down would be a nice, quick, and quite one, but we ended up being escorted by the chief of police just to the town border as a friendly goodbye gesture. As a result of all the fuss, we only departed at about 5 pm so we just rode until the steppe opened up about 7 km out of town before setting up camp. But the terrain was so bad we were travelling about 3 km per hour - it was easier to ride off the road on the steppe, rather than on the road itself. Our campsite however was amazing - tulips are native to the steppe in this area, so the steppe is just covered with a blanket of red, purple, white, yellow, blue tulips, absolutely everywhere. It's so beautiful, and the tulip season was only expected to go for another week. We've camped in the alpine high plains in spring when all the wild flowers are out, but this is nothing compared to the steppe just out of Korgalzhin, just see our pictures!

Anyway, its getting late now, and our battery is running low. We're off to Balshino next (again no running water, a herding-based village community of 700 people), so time of sleeping with the tulips!

Catch you all later!

- The crazy Quikers

[posted 15/5/09 by Trevor]