Monday, April 4, 2011


Kazakhstan is full of surprises. That's one reason why I love it so
much here. The first surprise when I came back was a small one. My
luggage actually made it with me! Despite only having an hour in the
Frankfurt airport (called ), Lufthansa managed to get it onto my plane
to Almaty.

The next was a huge surprise. After picking up my luggage, my thoughts
turned to finding a taxi. It was 12:30 at night and I was at the
airport. Now normally, taxis are dirt cheap in Almaty. You can get
them for like three or four bucks. However, taxi drivers are notorious
sharks at Almaty airport. They love to prey on unknowing tourists both
foreign and local. I think a normal, yet still overly priced based on
the distance, may be ten dollars. However, taxi drivers will start
quoting prices as high as sixty or seventy dollars. People may cut
that in half and they are still getting ripped off. And even when you
agree on a price at the airport, they might start negotiating again
while driving. And when it's dark, you're alone with the driver, and
all your stuff is in the back of his trunk, he has a lot of leverage
on you. In short, I was not excited to have to deal with taxi drivers.

I walked through customs and out into the airport. My plan was to make
it outside and find a cab when I heard my name being called. Michael,
Michael. I looked up and saw Andrey, one of the Peace Corps drivers
waiting for me. There he was his bushy mustache and large smile. I
don't know if I was ever happier to see anyone in my whole life. "What
are you doing here? I didn't know Peace Corps picked us up from the
airport," I said comfortably in Russian, surprised at how smoothly it
came out. "Of course. Now give me one of your bags." Andrey took my
wheeling bag and I walked out of the airport with a huge grin on my
face. (Since then, I've asked a few volunteers and no one knew that
Peace Corps does this. Is this a new service? It's a great idea for
comfort and for safety.)

I stayed over night at the Peace Corps office, and woke up early to
get to the bus station Sayaran. I was surprised to see a bus listed
for 830. I thought the earliest ones left at nine. I was getting
settled in my seat (8 dollars for a 600km trip) when I heard English
behind me. I looked around and didn't see any obvious foreigners.
Strange to hear English on a bus to Taraz. I then heard it again and
decided to ask what was up. It seemed to be coming from four girls and
a guy a few rows behind me. "Excuse me, I said. But can I ask why you
guys are speaking English." "Are you an American?" one of them asked
excitedly. "Yes. I am a Peace Corps volunteer." "Wow. We are going to
Shymkent to meet all of the Peace Corps volunteers in Kazakhstan. This
is our friend, Michael," one of them said pointing to a guy in the
second-to-last row. He was Asian-American volunteer living in
Taldykorgan, so he did a lot better job blending in on the bus. "Why
are you guys on the Taraz bus if you are going to Shymkent?" I asked
(since Taraz is about 150 km before Shymkent). "We just figured we'd
head that way." Maybe I should have said that they could find a
Shymkent bus, but by that time our bus was beginning to get on its
way. They'd find a way somehow.

The bus ride was a real welcome back to Kazakhstan. I have taken that
bus ride probably about thirty times either going to Almaty or coming
back from Almaty. It was the third worse one ever. I think it was the
combination of being used to American roads, the construction being
done on the road, and the fact that all the potholes from winter icing
hadn't been filled in yet. We also took an hour detour through Shy
which meant we had to spend even longer on the stuffy, hot bus.

Finally, after ten hours I arrived in Taraz. The PCV from Taldy and
his friends had to find a taxi to Shymkent because all the marshrutkas
had left for the day. Asela met me at the bus stop to tell me yet
another surprise. My landlady who usually lives in Almaty was in Taraz
because it was Nauryz. She was staying at my apartment with her two
sons for the whole week. I just wanted to relax a couple days without
all the fuss of a semi-host family, and Mark was gracious enough to
let me crash at his place while he was in Shymkent.

Less than 24 hours back in country and I'd had a great surprise at the
airport, an interesting surprise on the bus, a really uncomfortable 10
hour bus ride, and another surprise upon arriving in my city. I felt
like I was definitely back in Kazakhstan.

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