I recently attended a training course which, as corporate events normally do, started with an ice-breaker. Every attendee had to stand up, one by one, and declare to the roomful of colleagues something quirky, or unusual, about himself.
When it came to my turn, I stood up, declared my generalities and team and confessed “I’ve never been to New York. But I’ve recently spent two days in Kyzyl-Orda and Aktobe”.
Silence around the room. I was stared at as if I’d just admitted that I liked sleeping hanging from the ceiling head first as a way to reduce hair loss.
“Kazakhstan”, I then suggested. “Central Asia”, I tried.
No dice. I exhaled and fell back into my own chair, like Dumas’ characters seemingly did every other second.
Hungarians have a saying that’s just the business for Kyzyl-Orda. Az Isten háta mögött. Behind God’s back.
And it certainly feels to be sitting behind the Almighty’s shoulders. But when you’re in a country as big as Western Europe but with 3% of the population, it’s somehow inevitable. Still, the Jaxartes flows leisurely past you. Less than 20% of its inflow will eventually reach the North Aral Sea. It was 0% not long ago.
You’re bound there. But when you’re in a place as big as Western Europe, things take time. It’s 500 km from the bank of the river to your destination.
Better enjoy the place whilst you’re waiting. Join in the locals.
There’s so much time. On your map this leg of the journey is as big as your thumb’s nail. The distance from Astana is longer than your index. And you’ve big hands. Larger than Western Europe.
This is Russia’s Space Country. Gagarin left Earth a mere 300 km from here. Soyuz still lands in the bit of steppe between here and Zhezqazghan. 400 km of steppe is a pretty large landing strip.
There’s so much time. Enough to sit and wait for the amusement park to open at dusk. No one’s around earlier, when it’s 38C. No one but the guy who’s never been to New York, that is.
This is still Genghis Khan country. Today they’re soft drinks kiosks, 700 years ago they regurgitated horsemen bound to destroy Merv and scare Europe gutless.
The station is the fulcrum of this city, or so it seemed at night. But, yet again, there’s time for that.
I used to pore over maps of the old Soviet Union, reading mysterious names. Akademgorodok. Anadyr. Baikonur. Semipalatinsk. Kyzyl-Orda. They exist.
Sixteen hours of train, 1000 km lie between Kyzyl-Orda and Aktobe. A tad less than London to Berlin. Frisco to Vegas.
Aktobe, previously known as Aktyubinsk, feels a lot closer to home, and it’s not just because it’s an hour closer.
One in five is an ethnic Russian. I see fair-headed men, women and children walking, playing, talking and flirting with the almond-eyed Kazakhs. People no longer stop me to ask if I’m Turkish. Perhaps they only think it.
It’s not just the comfort of familiar lineaments. A Burger King does a brisk business and offers free Wi-Fi. I find I cannot resist the luxury of a menu with pictures.
Children mess about on a swing outside the mosque. A wedding is in full swing. Sun sets over a warm (35C) but breezy day. A plane roars in the sky, Astana-bound. Tomorrow I’ll be on it. Never been to New York, but I’ve seen Kyzyl – Orda and Aktobe.