21 September - 19 October 2010

The Paprika Path
We have elected Kazakhstan as the most generous country in the world. On the very first day it leaves us little presents next to the road: paprika´s that have fallen from a truck. They are slightly damaged, but we are not so picky. The further we cycle, the better they get, it´s a sign that we are on the right path. Then disaster strikes: a flat tyre. To deal with this problem we sit under a tree and eat paprika´s. Immediately, a car stops and a man gets out to give us a banknote of 500 Tenge. We decide to use the money to buy grapes at a road stall, but the grape seller doesn´t agree, he gives us the grapes for free. With our bags full of grapes we cycle on. Later
we stop to ask a man for directions, but instead of answering he invites us for lunch. “No thanks, we just ate”, we reply. “But I did not see you eat!” is his reaction. A few minutes later we find ourselves enjoying a delicious meal at a restaurant.

Everywhere we go people ask if we need any help, offer to take us by car (they feel sorry for us) and for days we continue to find paprika´s along the road.  At some point we are invited to lunch in, how appropriate, Cafe Paprika. While we are waiting in anticipation for our juicy steaks, a burnt smell comes out of the kitchen and we worry it´s our food. Suddenly we hear screams and run outside to see that the building is burning and people are hanging onto bed sheets, trying to escape through the windows. The paprika path is in flames, we don’t get our steaks. 

Frying pan
Our route in Kazakhstan leads us through beautiful endless plains, with views of snow topped mountains at a safe distance. The rural lifestyle is much like that in Uzbekistan, but people do seem somewhat wealthier. They eat more meat, preferably horse, and often own an old Lada. One night we stay with a widow and her four young children, the father had sadly passed away two months ago. As usual, we go to the outside toilet  together before bed. When we return, the house is filled with smoke and we’re afraid something has caught fire again. But no, this time there is a fat bald man in the living room, wearing a pink sweater and a weird bonnet,  holding a frying pan full of smoking straw. He is chasing out the evil spirits. We are instructed to keep silent, stand still and spread our arms while the man dances around us with the smoking pan.

Almaty forever
Somehow Almaty had a strong force of attraction on us.  One day we had loaded our bicycles, ready to leave, when we saw grey clouds. Desperately afraid of the rain
we call Micha, a guy we met at a club: “can we stay at your mother´s house?”. Supermicha saves us from the rain and we move into his double bed. He sleeps on the couch and claims “it is normal”. Every day we ‘try’ to leave, but fail. Instead we enjoy drinking tea, eating pancakes and looking at baby pictures with his mother while he is at work. Next time Micha will think twice before giving his number to two girls in a disco :)

After three days we finally get back on our bikes to cycle the 400 kilometers to the  border: China here we come! But the bitch at the border control doesn’t agree. She orders us to go all the way back to Almaty to get a stamp in our passports. Pleading “But we’re on bicycles, and our visas expire tomorrow,” doesn't help, the woman is merciless: “it’s the law, it’s not far”.  That night we hitchhike to Almaty, only to find out that the immigration office is closed for a few days. Powerless, we sit back and watch our visas expire. We are illegal in Kazakhstan. Once again we move into Micha’s double bed, drink tea and eat pancakes. We hope to be deported to China and pick up our bikes and baggage along the way.