Monday, October 18, 2010

Samarqand to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, to Shymkent to Almaty, Kazakhstan

Hello from room 345 at the Private Clinic in Almaty, Kazakhstan,

As I recently posted on facebook, my new goal for this year is to avoid further hospitalization, at all costs. Since I left home on August 31, 2010, I have been seriously ill two times, treated at four different clinics, spent hours inside multiple ambulances, had about a dozen liters of fluids pumped into me, and taken more types of medication than I can remember. Here’s the story of the past week or so, and the conclusion I have come to about what I’m doing here/now. If anything blood-and-guts related makes you queasy, don’t read this.

A few days before I finally left Samarqand for good, I felt nauseous on and off, and had a fever for an afternoon/evening. After taking some of my friend’s medicine, resting, laying off complicated food and resting a lot for a couple of days, I felt significantly improved, and woke up the morning of the 10th to head to Kazakhstan. It was a running joke with my friends from the hostel that I would never actually make it to Kazakhstan, so rather than take a slow route and stop for a night in Tashkent, I decided to make the multi-part trip in one day. The transportation looked like this: walk to bus stop, bus to bus terminal, walk to shared taxi stand, shared taxi to other shared taxi, walk across the border with Kazakhstan, shared taxi, walk, shared taxi. Eleven hours of hot buses, cramped taxis, a deficit of English-speaking drivers, confusing customs policies and very little vegetarian food, and I was in Shymkent. But where to sleep?

When we were within the city limits, I turned around to the other passengers in the shared taxi, a few of whom were Uzbek-speakers, and asked in my limited Uzbek about a place to stay. They told me to ask the taxi driver, and he would help. After we had dropped off all the other passengers, the taxi driver turned to me and began trying to communicate. A note to Central Asia travelers: Lonely Planet’s Russian language section of the Central Asia guidebook is pathetic. The accommodations section for Shymkent lists the cheapest place to stay as about $25 US. If you rely on it, this is what happens…

After leaving the community I had found back in Samarqand, I had let my guard down and neglected to make the safest possible choices, which is usually my policy when it comes to things like arriving late at night. I remember back in June, I got into Montenegro at sunset with no guidebook and no idea where to stay, so I stayed at a “cheap hotel” which was actually outside of my budget, knowing I would not have to walk around the town at night. I tend not to regret travel-related decisions, but I really wish I had made some different ones that day/night going to Kazakhstan.

At first it seemed like the driver wanted me to sleep in the back of the taxi. Not happening. At this point I was feeling a little sick, definitely exhausted, and it was dark out. I wrongly believed I was safer inside the taxi than out on the street. I found the Russian word for hotel, gas-tee-nee-tsa, and kept repeating it. He kept telling me they were very expensive, and then repeating another word which was not in my book. It seemed to be some sort of guesthouse or cheap hotel. He pointed to himself, put his hand on my shoulder, and made the universal gesture for sleeping, two hands under the tilted head. He drew in my journal stick figures for a man and a woman parallel in a square that looked like a bed. I drew a line through the bed, pointed at myself and made the sleeping gesture, and pushed away the air in front of him and made a sleeping gesture, pointing at him. He frowned and made sad eyes, as if saying “why won’t you share a bed with me?” Writing this now I realize I should have expected what happened over the next hour or so, and I don’t really know why I didn’t do anything to prevent it.

Not able to communicate what I wanted, I got a little frustrated, and I think he could tell, because he got a little frustrated and began raising his voice. I sort of gave up on communicating at that point, figuring that once we got to this guesthouse place I could point to what I wanted. I have a good sense of direction during the day, but at night I have no sun as a point of reference, and not knowing where we were headed made me nervous. I wished I had negotiated all of this when the other passengers were in the car. I wished I had gotten out and asked for a cheap place to stay in a restaurant or an expensive hotel or a convenience store, or anywhere other than to the angry old guy in the driver’s seat. What I wish now is that I had realized I could still get out of the taxi and do any of those things- ask for directions, find a new taxi, whatever.

We got to a guesthouse, directed by a woman we picked up on the side of the road, and I got out with the driver even though he gestured for me to stay in the car. I tried to ask the woman at the desk for two rooms, but she didn’t understand me and listened to the driver, the guy who spoke her language. A lot of keys were exchanged, so I was hopeful. We got back in the car and drove around the corner, parking in a dark lot between two apartment buildings. I brought my handbags with me when we entered the building. We walked into a semi-furnished, fairly run-down, poorly-lit apartment on the ground floor, with a bathroom, a living room, and a bedroom with one double bed. I tried to ask where the other room was. There didn’t seem to be one. I was angry. The driver sat down on the couch and gestured for me to sit down next to him, patting the seat cushion. No. Not happening. I started walking toward the door. The driver got up and tried blocking the door, pulling at my arms and trying to take my handbags from me to bring me back into the room. I got out the door and walked back to the car. I need my bag, and I needed to get out of there. I tried opening the trunk, but it was locked. I tried opening the back seat, but it was locked. The driver came out with the woman renting the room. I was calm.

Open the trunk, I want my bag.
Come back inside.
I want my bag.
No, no, no. Leave your bag in the car, come back inside.

I realized this wasn’t working. To all the people that laughed at me for taking a self defense class before I left—wow, am I glad I did not listen to you. All of the de-escalation skills, the awareness/assessment skills, the instinctive knowledge of what to do next, came back without my needing to even think about it.

Make them believe they’re going to get what they want.

I nodded. Okay, I just need something from my bag, then I’ll come back inside with you. I positioned myself so that he would not be able to grab my backpack before I did when the trunk opened. A bag that normally takes both hands and a knee up to get onto my back found its way with a single hand and a lot of adrenaline. A friend I met in Samarqand once commented that with her backpack on, she felt much safer. Backpack on, I put my hands up—we call these stop sign hands. My voice got louder- not yelling, because that’s antagonistic and not what we’re going for, but bigger, more powerful. I was at least two arm spans away. I pulled out the $5 the ride was supposed to cost and held it out to him, saying “I just want to get by, can you move please?” and gesturing for him to step aside and take the money. He took the money but wouldn’t budge. I backed away, saying “okay, then I’ll walk around.” He met me on the other side of the car, but I could tell something was changing. The girl who he thought he could take advantage of was gone; he was dealing with somebody else. But he was a Central Asian taxi driver, and the woman from the guesthouse was observing us, and he was not letting me walk away.

What do you want?
Ten fingers went up.

I took the $5 from him and pulled out a $10 bill. Stop sign hands, take steps back. “It’s okay?” I was tearing up and he was starting to laugh, making some comment to the guesthouse woman. I assessed the situation: the tension was gone, the confrontation would be finished if I left, but now I was afraid. I walked away very quickly, out into the main road, across the street, and back to an intersection I had seen from the taxi. You’re supposed to tell somebody about a confrontation, but nobody in this place spoke English and I was primarily focused on getting to a safe place. After walking a few blocks I found a restaurant, but it looked more like a strip club than I was comfortable with, so I sat on a stone wall outside and opened my guidebook. Later that night I would realize I had cut my leg sitting down, but again, the adrenaline was pretty powerful at that point and I didn’t notice anything at the time. I found the cheapest hotel, and walked over to a crowd of taxi drivers. I didn’t smile, just asked how much it would cost to go to the hotel. They laughed and asked where I was from. After my last taxi driver, I was not in the mood. They charged me $3 for a two minute ride (if I had known how close I was I might have walked there), and the whole time I was nervous they would be like the first taxi driver.

By some miracle, the woman at the front desk spoke some English, and through her I got a room, found dinner (I quickly learned that my Russian food vocabulary “no meat,” was not sufficient to obtain anything other than French fries), a bottle of water, and went to sleep.

Originally I had planned on staying in Shymkent a few nights to fully recover from my sickness of the past few days, or maybe transfer to Turkistan, a small, slightly more interesting place a few hours away, to rest there, but after the previous night’s “adventure” I had no remaining interest in Kazakhstan. Buses to Almaty left around 6pm, and after checking out of my room I spent the remainder of the day finding food and catching up on emails. Tourism of the backpacker variety is not widespread in Kazakhstan, and I stuck out everywhere I went, but never more than on the public buses. Luckily, instead of getting annoyed at me for taking up multiple seats with my big backpack on, people would help me push my way out of the bus and find which stop I needed to get off at.

Kazakhstan is not a cheap country to travel in. Food is 3x the price it was in Uzbekistan, and long-haul bus trips are absurdly expensive when compared to any other non-Western place. This bus was fairly nice, with seats that reclined practically into beds and a decent amount of leg room. Central Asian bus drivers don’t understand the concept of turning off the music videos that are playing at the front of the bus, so sleeping was challenging. My seatmate, a young Kazakh man, had excessively long limbs which always ended up on my side of the armrest, and after the previous night’s experiences and earlier experiences with Central Asian guys who don’t know how to keep their hands to themselves (every male in this region needs to go back to kindergarten), I was not particularly thrilled about sleeping next to him, so I waited until he fell asleep and then closed my own eyes.

At bus stations in Central Asia, bathrooms can be anything from squat toilet stalls in fairly clean, tiled rooms with sinks, soap, and unlimited (though very rough and scratchy) toilet paper, to rows of holes in a grimy dirt/concrete floor with side dividers and no front doors, leaving you open to the rest of the bathroom’s occupants. Heading for the back of the room might afford you more privacy, but the trade-off is a serious lack of ventilation and a lot of questionable liquid on the floor. Needless to say, this species of bathroom is not overflowing with toilet paper, soap, or usually even a sink. I have Purell with me, but these bathrooms make me wonder how I’ve gotten away with being hospitalized only twice.

More later- probably tomorrow.
Love (finally out of the hospital!!!)


  1. Katie, holy cow.
    You are of the toughest breed I have ever known.
    I'm glad you took self-defense classes. I'm glad you have your head on your shoulders. I'm glad you're all okay.
    Take care!! And enjoy!! And I am so excited you are off having adventures. And I am so excited to hear more and more about them.
    I love you,
    <3 sandy

  2. I actually enjoyed reading through this posting.Many thanks.

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