The drive from the Russian border to Almaty, through 1500km of Kazakh steppe, takes reputedly one of the worst paved roads in Central Asia. But the first section, around the city of Semipalatinsk (Semey), is pretty good. We stopped briefly here, infamous worldwide as the site of covert testing of soviet nuclear weapons until 1989 (many of the unknowing population still suffer from the associated health problems), before heading south and preparing ourselves for the coming pothole onslaught. In miles upon miles of flat steppe there is little shelter for a campsite, so as usual we headed up a random track towards the only significant hill in the area. This is our standard approach to finding a campsite, and it usually works well. On this occasion however, the track stopped at a farm, where the slightly surprised looking farmer was unloading his car. We rapidly established that neither of us had any clue what the other was saying, and miming didn’t seem to be getting us very far. As we were wondering if we should turn back to the road, he gestured for us to follow him and so began one of the most delightful experiences we have had.
Edil runs the farm with his wife (sadly not present) and his 77 year old mother, Mai-Dan. The place is gorgeous, with thick whitewashed stone walls that reminded me of my own grandmothers old croft house house in Scotland. We were ushered into the living room and sat on the sofa from where we could enjoy Kazakh pop idol on the tv. Cas had a brief phone chat with Maidan’s granddaughter (who speaks good English), which required her virtually climbing into the fridge to get any kind of reception, and unfortunately still cut out at the crucial moment. Soon after, Edil disappeared off in the car and Mai-Dan busied herself in the kitchen and we sat in the sofa. Dinner was prepared and produced for us, with frequent rejections of help and shooings back to the sofa. It consisted of a delicious potato and egg hash type of dish, bread with cream, honey and both rhubarb and apple jams, tea with both milk and butter in, biscuit wafers and small compressed yogurt nuggets called Kurut which taste a little like feta and are extraordinarily addictive. Everything was home made and nearly all home grown too.
With little in the way of communication and feeling pretty shattered we, unfortunately, headed to our bed feeling extremely lucky and very very full. I say unfortunately, because unknown to us Edil had gone to fetch Mai-Dan’s granddaughters Guldana and Alua, who were able to translate! Fortunately they were able to stay around the next morning before the whole family were having a get together to celebrate the life of Mai-Dan’s late husband, whose 80th birthday it would have been (and several of who’s birthday treats we had eaten the night before). After a family breakfast of semolina porridge, bread cream and jam and perpetually replenished bowls of tea we visited to the neighbours farm to fill our water. This involved more food and a highly entertaining discussion of the heritage and history of Kazakhstan right through to modern issues: even the Kazakhs think Brexit is a bad idea, and we didn’t bring the subject up! We were invited to stay, Mike was offered a chance to go carp fishing, and our water was filled before we eventually headed back to Edil’s – but not without being given a huge slab of fresh homemade butter and a jar of honey first. Mai-Dan had similar ideas and when we left the farm we had also acquired a bag of Kurut. We continued on our way south, feeling incredibly lucky to have taken that turning off a farm track the previous night.
Thanks to: our fantastic Kazakh hosts…please get in touch with us soon so we have your contact details!