I don’t want to be political but the primary reason that my supposedly one month visit to Kazakhstan turned into a long stay was due to the local government’s policy that put the country in a lockdown as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic. I had no idea that the global pandemic would have affected my life in the way it had affected the lives of so many others. I thought I was bulletproof until I found myself trapped in a limbo trying to choose which side to take – going back to Indonesia and breathing the Balinese breezy air again or keeping my life partner accompany during the confinement. The whole situation was so absurd and confusing! It provoked, in a person who is not comfortable with uncertainty like me, a severe anxiety. I remembered waking up in the morning hoping that the time I shared with my husband would never end but finding myself arguing with him on something silly as the dusk fell. Having a job that is awaiting me in Bali but unable to find a way to return to the island was the favourite pretext to pick up a fight. It was nasty!
As times went by and having realised that the situation wouldn’t get any better soon, the days of confusion and tug of war were eventually over. My husband and I came into a stalemate and at the same time, I found piece with the situation. Instead of holding onto my expectations and false belief that the world would resume to normalcy in the near future, I decided to let go and accepted lagging on everything that I thought I could control. Turns out, it is a much better approach! It brings happiness and if you wonder how beautiful and serene the happiness is for me, have a look at the sneak peek of my new-found journey in the country that was once an arduous trail of Silk Road. It’s all about breaking the mundane and reconnecting with nature, its local culture and the people.
Connecting with Nature
Sitting between the East and the West, Kazakhstan is an oil rich country whose sparkle resembles the beauty of an amber stone. I arrived in Nur-Sultan, the capital city of Kazakhstan, in the beginning of March. It was a happy feeling. I was excited to travel again, thrilled to explore the new country and delighted to finally meet my husband, after two months apart because he decided to relocate in Kazakhstan for a job offer. I was ready to trail blaze the foreign environment, to spend some time working at Starbucks while sipping the tasty cappuccino and to have a nice dinner in our apartment when the news about the lockdown broke. At first, I took it easily. Curfew, restricted public spaces and working from home seemed fine. However, after one month and a half in that confinement, I started to feel agitated. The lockdown started to feel difficult to deal with and I was in the brink of an emotional breakdown. Fortunately, not long before I almost succumbed to the negativity, my husband and I heard that the health measures have been relaxed and everyone was free to move around again. He was excited and I was immersed in pure elation!! So, we did our best to escape the boredom and took an evening train trip to Almaty, a mountain-ranged city which was made a county seat during the Soviet Union era. We arrived in the city on Saturday morning and I could feel my heart was pounding as I was staring at the beautiful mountain range coveted with snow on the top. In comparison to Nur-Sultan, Almaty offers a more authentic local experience and a variety of breath-taking tourism destinations. It’s beautiful and it feels like life is good again!
Our plan was to spend some time living a normal life in the city and to visit some nice places like the Big Almaty Lake in the weekend. Yet, the itinerary didn’t go as planned because a partial lockdown was imposed in the weekend without any heads up, Duh! Notwithstanding, we managed to plan a trip to the second-largest canyon in the world, Charyn Canyon National Park. Spanned around 90 kilometres between the Almaty Province and the Uygur District, the canyon is a relic sculpted by God’s invisible hands. As I walked through the pathway made by many wanderlusts before me, I realised that my problems were far away smaller than the wonders the universe has. When I faced my fear of height and climbed up the dangerous terrain of the canyon heading towards the peak where a fantastic view was awaiting, I learnt that hardships always come with a reward. It was marvellous yet surreal. It also got me thinking, if there is anything similar between this excursion and my lockdown in Kazakhstan, it was the situation that put me into a state to enable me seeing the silver lining in adversities believing that after a thunder storm, a colourful rainbow is about to show its beauty.
Connecting with Culture
The Kazakhs were used to be nomads who wandered around the steppes of the Uralic mountains. Under the reign of the Russian Empire, the steppes-men were forced to settle in one area and adopted the culture of the ruler. Even up to this point, it is very easy to notice the characteristics of Russian culture in their everyday lives. On top of this, there are not too many ancient relics or historical landmarks to see, at least in the capital city. That said, one way to reconnect with the past and to learn about the great history of the Kazakh tribe is to visit museums. We knew that Almaty is the home for many great museums and therefore, we planned to visit a few big museums known for their precious relics. Unfortunately, as you can guess, all the museums were also closed by the time we visited. Feeling a bit disappointed, we regrouped and decided to learn more about the culture through our guts. So, we went to NАVAT ЧАЙХАНА, a restaurant down town which is famous for its authenticity and artistic plating when it comes to Kazakh delicacies.
It is widely-known that herders in this country utilise horses for multi purposes including for food. When looking at the menu, I saw many foods served with horse meat. As an empath, I found it difficult to swallow the meat of an animal that I am so fond of. I couldn’t bear the thought of a once living and breathing horse travels through out my throat and ends up in my belly. LOL. As a result, I didn’t do what a traveler would usually do, to put an order on the famous Beshbarmak. Instead, I was happy settling with my good-looking Pilaf rice which turned out to be one of the best “fried rice” I have ever tried. Indeed, I decided to stay away from the horse meat. However, at the end of our visit, I made an exception and held the courage to taste Kumis, a fermented horse milk served in a small glass – just like the way we drink our vodka shots! The locals believe that the mare milk renders health benefits and healing power for some particular diseases that are commonly suffered by nomadic tribes. I didn’t finish the whole serving and simply sipped the mare milk on the tip of my lips. That said, I might not get the whole healing and health benefits but the most important point to note from that evening was that I managed to shut down the inner voices which telling me to not taking the traditional drink. The overprotective self-defence mechanism eventually ceased to hinder me from a nerve-racking but totally a rewarding experience.
Connecting with The People
I have been building my international social network while exploring the beauty of the world by visiting many countries. Well, not that many but some. Unfortunately, due to the global pandemic, this adventure must be put into a halt. During the lockdown and before my trip to Almaty, I tended to look at my old travelling pictures to deliberately conjure the joy of my past adventures, which also remind me of an awkward situation where I was always mistaken as a local, everywhere I go around Asia. From Thailand to Malaysia and from Hong Kong to Uzbekistan, I couldn’t get away without having to explain to shopkeepers, vendors and taxi drivers that I am not their fellow native and I don’t speak their local language. What about Kazakhstan? I bet you know the answer. For the past six months, anywhere I set my foot on, even on the shiny floor of Starbucks – the so called multinational chain where expats are guaranteed an international experience, I couldn’t escape the reality where the Kazakhs would speak to me in either Russian or Kazakh language until I answer them with the only line in Russian that I know, “я не говорю по русскй или казахски..”
The good thing is, this awkward situation has always led to an open door that brought me into a nice conversation. For example, during my short trip to Semey, a medium-size city in the Eastern part of Kazakhstan, my husband and I made an acquaintance at a traditional market with a local who thought that I was a Kazakh. The next day, we were invited to savour scrumptious Kazakhstani food at his house and met his mother. Once we finished the supper, we were invited to join an English speaking club, where he teaches regularly, to share the story of our trip with the young Kazakh minds who are eager to learn about world outside their national borders. To my surprise, their curiosity and enthusiasm were a bliss that made me saw the real beauty of diversity. Imagine what could have happened if the face you are looking on the photo didn’t look like the locals?
Connecting with the nature, culture and the people was and still a great experience that I would have never experienced hadn’t I let myself locked-down in this country. So there I was.. dancing on top of the world while sending a peace sign to the life!
To be continued..