News Single

13.05.09 21:25 Age: 9 yrs

A Town like Balshino.....

By: Roger and Megan

By the sight of the roads, it looks as though we're finally in getting to some far out remote villages. Most of the time, the main road is so bad that it easier to ride on the steppe. Most traffic (some four 4wd cars per day) take the roads this way too. For us, it is often a difficult decision which bad "road" we should take!

The road between Korgalzhino and Balshino was our first real introduction to Kazakhstan rural tracks, and it caught us a bit off guard. We had planned to make the 110 km between the two towns in two days, but the first day we only made about 7 km (also due to delays before departure) and the next day, despite putting in quite a big effort, we only did about 45 km. That left some 60 km for the final day, which, if the road had been more ridable, would've been a fairly easy day. It didn't help that both of these days we had yet another head / cross wind. But we pushed on anyway. Along the way, we also had to take the safety precaution of filtering some more drinking water wherever we found it, in case we didn't even make it Balshino that (or even the next) day.

After the long days' ride we were very much looking forward to making it into Balshino for dinner, made even more compelling by the fact that Balshino was next to a river, meaning that some part of the last 10 km would be downhill (though with a head-wind it really doesnt make much difference!). About 4 km from town, we started spotting horses and cows, so that meant the people couldn't be too far away. Off in the distance we saw a boy on a bike following a cow, and soon enough he spotted us too. He started riding back into town, constantly staring behind at us, probably to try to figure out what type of animal or car we were! Then, about 2 km from town, he came back to the road with one of his friends, and they started talking with us, following alongside on their bikes. One of the boys (Miras) asked for an autograph, so we followed him to his house where he went to find a pen and paper. At the gate to his house we were met by his family - dyedushka (grandpa), babushka (grandma), mama, papa, sistra, and numerous others, who were all very interested in us. After producing copies of our documentation, the dyevushka invited us in for chai, and we (of course) obliged.

We had actually found ourselves not in Balshino proper, but "old" Balshino, which was still 2 km out of "new" Balshino. This little community of about 5 families (50 people) each has their own cows, chickens, horses, sheep, but the land is not divided by fences. The steppe provides the common grazing fields, and each families' property consists only of a house, sheep/cow shed, and a fire shed that houses all the open-fire cooking and the banya. The town toilets are a couple of drop dunnies in the centre of the village (overflowing), next to big communally-shared piles of dried dung, hay and coal. During the night the cows just hang about in town. Again, there is no running water, just a well about 500 m away. Most people try to retrieve water every few days, by horse and cart, towing a wooden trolley along by hand, or by motorcycle and sidecar. A lot of the food required for general living (milk, butter, mutton, potatoes) is produced on the property, and bread is baked by dung-fire oven. Everything else is bought at the local magazin, which is just a room in some guy's house.

There were three generations living under the one roof in the house, so it was really nice getting a chance to talk to all of them about their way of life, from very young, to very old, and learning how things had changed in the village over the past few generations. The whole family are "farmers" in that their whole day and livelihoods are spent milking, herding (by really old, no brakes, 20 inch wheels, singlespeed bikes), pasteurising, making cow pat bricks, and other chores around the farm. The dyevushka's brother was the Balshino Imam, so by having dinner with this whole family we got a bit of insight into the relationship between religion (Islam) and everyday life in town. And after dinner, when we asked where we could set up our tent, we were instructed to sleep in the house, and within minutes they had some beds set up for us. The Kazakh people seem to be always ready to host friends and strangers alike. That night we were again treated to a traditional Banya, again cow manure fired, and way too hot, but at least it meant we were clean!

The next day we decided to take a walk through "new" Balshino to take a few photos and talk to a few people. It was during this amble that we were met by another Babushka and her little girl, who ushered us into her house for chai and some smokey fermented cows milk - just imagine some extremely fizzy, and sour smoke flavoured milk.....mmmm yum.....traditionally it was used as a cure-all medicine.....ironic if we'd need some after drinking this! After explaining to her the purposes of our visit to rural Kazakhstan, she arranged for us to come back later that night for a traditional Kazakh celebration. Well what a party it was! First, we met just about every kid in town. Then, hoardes of people from town just kept rolling in, a family at a time, to meet us and get a photo, and then leave shortly after. Next was the music concert, where the music teacher came and played and sung a few traditional Kazakh numbers on the dombra (which we recorded). This was a really impressive performance as she had an amazing voice, and this was a pretty small room. Later, we shared a big bishbarmak with some of her close friends (including the town vet), and also the sheriff and the governor of the town. A bishbarmak consists of five different types of meat from the one animal (horse, sheep, etc.) on top of a noodle and soup mix, all in a big plate. Everyone eats this from the one big plate with their hands, just digging in whenever they can. At this particular bishbarmak, it was horse meat. We identified intestine and muscle meat and blobs off pure fat, but the remaining two body parts are still a mystery.

After the meal the sheriff adapted a traditional Kazakh song to be about us and our journey from Australia to Kazakhstan, and then he sung it (again, a big strong voice) whilst playing along on the dombra. (All of these interviews, music performances, video diarys, and other footage have all been captured, so don't worry we will be uploading a few of them in the weeks to come so you all can listen and see these too!) That night we also organised to go visit Balshino school to make a presentation to the kids about Australia, and also to meet an interpreter there to interview some of the teachers about Kazakh culture.

Later on that night, riding back from the house to our house across the steppe in the dark proved to be a bit of a challenge. We got a bit lost when we took our bearing from the wrong well and ended up entering the village from the wrong side. Eventually we worked out what we'd done wrong and by the beam of our NiteFlux lights we found our way back. We were exhausted after all this, and had to get up early in the morning, so went straight to bed.....only to wake up some 2 hours later with debilitating stomach pains and nausea. But it wasn't too bad as it the pain barely lastest long enough to diagnose properly, so we just let it run its course, and besides a suppressed appetite the next morning, never heard from it again (phew!).

In the morning we were both fine, so after quick breakfast (lots of bread and lots of chai....litres....no joke!) it was then off to the school, armed with our video camera, 2 stills cameras, music recorder,DC/AC inverter, external microphone, tripod, laptop, and numerous other accessories. The whole day had been dedicated to us, so we were quite over whelmed. The whole school had taken the day off to put on a traditional Kazakh performance for us (music and dance), be interviewed by us (with the help of the Kazakh language teacher, who spoke a bit of English too). After this, it was our turn to perform, and upon the request for an Australian song, we fumbled our way through the unofficial Australian anthem, Waltzing Matilda (first verse only!). They seemed to enjoy this enough to ask for more - this time the real Australian national anthem. Again, we could only manage the first verse (remembering back to primary school!). Then, they returned the favour and the whole school got on their feet, put their hands to their heart and sung "My Kazakhstan" (their national anthem) at the top of their lungs. That nearly blew us away, literally! School toilets were interesting too, just walk into a room, with a long communal ditch in the ground....and....yeh, be careful what you step on!

That night, back in old Balshino, we insisted on helping out on the farm (they take some convincing to let guests help out with the chores!). We joined the women of the family in milking their cows. Apparently we don't quite have the knack of it yet - the Kazakh women were so proficient and made it look too easy, and then when we'd try the milk would just stop within 10 seconds! But this at least provided some entertainment for the family.

The next day (our last full day in Balshino) we decided to try bake them a dessert that we have in Australia. We wanted to do a Pavlova but there's not much fresh fruit to choose from in these rural areas. So instead we settled for some meringues, and went and bought some eggs and sugar at the local shop. Finding the right utensils for such a task proved quite a challenge. For example, they had to call up the neighbours to borrow their 80 year old electric oven for us to use! Eventually we had some ltitle desserts to share with them, and they seemed to like (or at least tolerate) them. They liked the meringues more when combined with their own handmade cream... which is getting more toward the pavlova we'd planned in the first place... so that was good.

In the morning of our departure, we exchanged gifts; a Kazakh hat for Roger and a babushka scarf for Megan, in exchange for some photos, nuts and dried fruit. In some ways, we felt we'd overstayed our welcome since we stayed so long. But the looks on their faces as we were packing up tells us that perhaps they enjoyed our visit a lot, and were sad to see us go.

By 10.30 am we were back on the road, heading toward Taldysay...which we had heard is a small little village of some 70 people, it's not even shown on our map! After this, we'll do some more village-hopping on our way to the town of Zhezkezgan. After Zhezkazgan, the next town (Kyzylorda) may end up being 14 days' ride away, with no water in between....should be interesting... but beats the alternative which is a 20 day desert ride through the sand dunes with no water...

Stay tuned for all the videos, interviews, and music clips we'll be uploading over the next few weeks!