Saturday, October 30, 2010

Almaty to Khorgos to Zharkent to Almaty, Kazakhstan, to Tel Aviv, Israel


In Almaty, a package of books from home theoretically was waiting for me at the Hyatt Regency Hotel downtown. I had half a mind to hop directly on a bus to Urumqi, China, and avoid spending a single night in Almaty, which I had heard was overpriced and not too interesting, but I wanted to see about picking up this package. I figured that I could stay in Almaty for the day, pick up the package, then take a night bus. Upon arriving at the Hyatt in my torn pants, loaded up with bags and reeking of overnight bus, I learned that the package had never arrived. Assuming that the concierge just wanted to get rid of me, I persisted and asked them to check the lost and found, the mail room, and asked to speak to the manager. I called American Express, who was supposed to set up the mail drop, and found that they had never followed through (we had never followed through with them, either, so it was not really their fault). I then tried tracking the package online through my cellphone. It was taking so long that I took advantage of being in a nice hotel and washed up in their disabled restroom (which is big enough for me to unpack my backpack in—I do this in McDonald’s as well) and stole their free lobby wi-fi, even skyping a friend. Eventually I worked with a very kind young woman at the concierge desk, who had recently backpacked through China, who helped me track the package to the main mail sorting center of Kazakhstan, which was conveniently located in Almaty. After a long taxi ride with a driver who claimed to know exactly where we were going and then got lost several times (of course), I eventually found myself at the security gate of a massive mail complex. After handing over my passport information and package tracking number and explaining my request, I was led into the complex, down a cavernous, columned outdoor walkway and through an unmarked door, which opened into a mail sorting center. Oversized packages from Bahrain, Dubai, Russia and Canada waited to be sorted behind the desk I sat at as multiple people (none of whom spoke English) tried to find my package. Eventually they did, and I walked back to the taxi feeling very successful.
I checked into a hotel that had been recommended by a few people back in Samarkand (I never heard of a real hostel in Kazakhstan—which is, by the way, the 9th largest country in the world), and remembered to ask for the dorm, which is less than a quarter of the price of a single room and is actually just a double room that I shared with a woman from Astana who was in Almaty on business. The first person who really spoke English, I was at first happy to meet her, but she ended up keeping me up rather late asking me questions and looking through my new books. I went out to get my first meal of the day then, overpriced half-heated spaghetti and French fries, then walked around a bit, eventually going back to the bus station to buy a ticket to Urumqi for the next morning. The only way to get to Urumqi (unless you wait until Saturday or Monday for the trains) is on buses that leave at 7am, and I had been told it was safer to buy the ticket in advance. Getting to the bus station in rush hour traffic was not so fun, and communicating what I wanted to the ticket lady was not very fun either, so that by the time I got back to the area of town that my hotel was in, I was ready for dinner. I had heard of a vegetarian Indian food place, and I went there thinking I might get something other than carbs, but unfortunately what I got was very very sick. Here’s how it went down:

Several days earlier I had felt extremely nauseous one evening but avoided throwing up by drinking some coke and taking some awesome German medicine called Vomex. I had a low fever the next night, but took some awesome German/Thai medicine and that went away too. Since the first night I was nauseous I had always felt kind of weird after eating, but nothing too serious. After having the Indian food I felt nauseous but thought nothing of it, because it had become kind of normal over the past few days. I felt even more nauseous in the morning when I woke up at 5:30 to catch my bus, and at the first stop the bus made I hightailed it to the hole-in-the-floor toilet and threw up… and at the next one… and the next one. I had one of the worst tickets on the bus, in the back on what is essentially a king-size bunk bed, which I shared with three Kazakh guys. I slept between bus stops to avoid having to feel my own nausea, but after eight hours or so of vomiting and drinking very little (and keeping none of it down), at the border with China, I started feeling lightheaded. I leaned against a wall at passport control because I couldn’t really stand up, and then everything started going blurry and I stopped hearing anybody and realized I was probably blacking out. Somehow I ended up sitting in a chair with a guy slapping water on my face, an old lady trying to feed me milky coffee, which made my stomach turn, and a “doctor” taking my blood pressure. I was shuttled to a room at the border, and then into a van to what was supposed to be a clinic, but ended up just being a first aid room where a woman—who ended up being one of the nurses—was lying on a wooden bed with an IV dripping blood down her arm. I was in touch with my parents, who were, among other things, trying to get somebody who spoke Russian on the phone so that I could actually communicate to the nurses. They tried to give me an IV, and I refused—no way was I letting these people stick a needle in my arm. They did not have clean water for me to drink. Eventually I was put in a taxi, which took me to an ambulance from Soviet times (a gutted army-green van with a seat, not a bed, in the back), which took me to a real clinic in Zharkent, the nearest big town. Here they ran a lot of non-conclusive tests, taking a lot of blood and feeding me a lot of liquids as well. A woman was there to translate, and right before she left I learned that she did not work for the hospital, but had been called in from her job as a schoolteacher to translate for me. After she left they had a patient who spoke English come in a few times to translate. I remember being so tired I literally could not stay awake while on the phone with people. To all the people who were on the phone with me, with clinics, with doctors and with ambulances that night/day: A MASSIVE THANK YOU. Though I’m 100% sure I would have been fine and ended up in a hospital regardless of all the phone calls, I am so grateful for the help you all gave me. Eventually I got in an ambulance- a real one- around 3 in the morning, and slept the whole way back to Almaty, occasionally hearing Kazakh pop songs through the barrier with the front of the car and the rather loud conversations of the EMTs. But nothing could stop me from sleeping. At the very, very nice hospital in Kazakhstan (and I would know, having then visited 4 or 5 Central Asian facilities) I was escorted from test to test- ultrasounds, x-rays, blood tests, urine samples, more ultrasounds, more blood tests. I talked briefly with a doctor but most of my communication was with a wonderful nurse who spoke some English named Natasha. Unfortunately Natasha only worked certain hours/days, so sometimes I was left with nobody in the hospital with whom I could actually communicate. I spent four nights there, two of them without real internet (when you have nothing to do and can’t really move, this is a big problem), so I was really happy for the books my parents had shipped me! I read my friend Lizy Murray’s Breaking Night- if you can, READ THIS BOOK, Liz is awesome and her story is incredible. I was on a mission to finish it while at the hospital because it was hardcover and it really sucks carrying hardcover books around with you when you’re traveling, but after a while I was just addicted to it. I was only fed liquid foods- soupy oatmeal (sometimes salty- SO GROSS) and vegetable broth, mainly. I had my own room with a TV that played what I’m sure were very interesting and exciting programs- in Russian- and a balcony and the nicest shower I have seen since I left Massachusetts. Unfortunately for the first few days I could not shower because they left the IV in my hand all the time. My veins are very small so they could only put the IV in my right hand, which made it impossible to write- for everybody that received a very poorly typed email during that time, I apologize, blame it on my genes.

Nobody could really tell me what was wrong with me- at various points different nurses and doctors explained it as food poisoning, elevation sickness, traveler’s sickness, an inflamed gallbladder, an irritated pancreas, and pancreatitis. This was after I assured them it was not appendicitis or pregnancy. They prescribed a bunch of “pancreas vitamins” for me. I was supposed to take ten pills a day when I left there, but I faxed the Russian tests home to my parents after I got back and they had a doctor friend translate them (thank you!) and apparently they were the wrong pills, so I stopped taking them. After days and days without solid food I was extremely weak and literally could not lift my backpack, so when I eventually left the hospital I checked into an Almaty hotel and chilled out for several more nights, eating soup, bread, and eggs to regain my strength and walking up to two blocks away every day. I have now watched every episode of season 1 Glee probably four or five times each.

Though it probably should have been the hospitals, ambulances and sickness that got me to decide this, it was the realization that I could not lift my backpack anymore that forced me to re-evaluate my trip. If I couldn’t go through the day to day motions of traveling, there was no way I could weather the 24-hour bus rides necessary to travel in China. So after some brainstorming and flight-searching on kayak and skyscanner, I decided to go to Israel. I was planning on going in the spring, but it’s nice weather now, and there is a lot of vegetarian food, you can drink the water, doctors speak English, and there are no 24-hour bus rides. And then… the night before I flew out, I get an email… with my mother’s flight confirmation. Guess who’s arriving in Tel Aviv ten minutes before me? More on that in the next post…


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