|Sunday brings our out of town excursion. The guide, Medina, is surprised when she meets me; when she'd heard that we had travelled from Dubai, she expected Arabs and I, apparently, look very Russian. We jump into the 4x4 and are greeted by a guy named Stass. He looks like a cross between Vincent Cassel and Stan Laurel and though he can understand English (he even compliments my accent in Russian) he is not confident enough to speak it at length. This is primarily down to the fact that he has been up all night.|
"I am drunk now," he says to me over his shoulder, simultaneously doing the De Niro frown and nodding. "You like whiskey?"
"You like whiskey? I get."
"He's serious," says K.
"Oh. Uh, I guess," I offer timidly.
Soon we are on a detour to his flat before we can leave town. He hands me a large shot of Jack Daniels.
"Cheers," he says as we knock them back. It's 8:16am.
Leaving Almaty, we get to see more of rural Kazakhstan. It is the ninth largest country in the world by area, yet one of the most sparsely populated. Occasional settlements cling to the sides of the road, like moss on a tree trunk, hoping to entice travellers into stopping with their colourful stalls laden with fruit, veg and clothing.
The conversation in the car switches to Russian and as I drift in and out of sleep, it sounds something like gentle impressions of drum kits; all rolling Rs and complex snare-drums.
I'm brought back to life by the hiss of a cola bottle about an hour later and immediately handed another Jack D. I don't think the talking has stopped and I can only guess at what they might be discussing. We stop in a nameless village for a quick break. Medina is a little embarrassed that the public toilets are portaloos and apologises well in advance for the stench. Her English isn't quite good enough to understand my point that once you?ve been at a festival for four days, you know what it is to experience sensory overload.
Back on the road with another bourbon and my cheeks are beginning to flush with the booze. Though I manage to distract myself by pre-emptively writing some of my feature in my head, I really wish I'd brought a book or my MP3 player or a massive carryout. I sleep again and the next time I wake up we are out on the steppe, bumping along a straight road, flat desolation all around.
Occasionally we pass a dead cow at the side of the road or a donkey pulling an impossibly large cart, a haggard Kazakh sitting precariously on top. Really, though, there isn?t a lot out here. This is the land that Ghengis Khan and the Mongol hoards swept across, carrying all before them.
One more Jack gets handed back to me and suddenly we veer off-road down a barely perceptible desert path. Medina may be pretty and petite and wear designer glasses, but she drives with the fearless abandon of a rally champion. The car rattles so that it feels like sitting in a massage chair but within about ten minutes we've caught up a car that was over the horizon.
When we finally reach our destination, we've been driving for a total of four and half hours. We park up next to an old stone yurt that has dozens of pieces of fabric tied to its ancient frame. As soon as we have stopped, I run up to it to take a much needed leak while everyone else gets ready to hike.
When I get back to the others, I ask K what the bits of cloth represent.
"People do it and make a wish," she says.
"Oh," I say, too ashamed to admit that I was literally pissing on people's dreams.
We are overlooking Charyn Canyon, or Valley Of Castles, a deep fissure in the earth caused by innumerable earthquakes over time. Stass says the continuing seismic activity has changed the shape of the place a couple of times since he arrived in the region seven years ago. Perhaps in a few more years, it won?t exist at all ? we're lucky to see it.
We make our steep descent and find the floor littered with technicolored shale, evidence of dozens of different archaeological periods. I verge on boastful when showing off my geological knowledge to the rest of the party: here is limestone and this is granite and these are fossilised plants and, hold on, yes this is copper ore.
Compared the chilling winds from the steppe, the air at the bottom of the canyon is remarkably warm and still. We trek for half an hour until we reach the river and find a disappointingly high number of people already there. Stass tells me that he once came to a massive trance party at this very spot which, if true, must have been an amazing experience.
He leads us round the meander of the river and to a rock face; over and beyond lie waterfalls. He and K begin to climb ahead of me. I get up a couple of metres and stop. The next step will extend my right leg to a position of vulnerability. Clairvoyance washes through me: my knee is going to snap, as I fall back and crack my head, I'll be glad of the concussion distracting me from the blinding pain in my leg.
"I can't follow," I say, feeble, defeated, pathetic.
K explains my disability to Stass. I'm ashamed. She tells me that the light isn't good enough for decent photos anyway. I'm not sure if she's telling the truth, but it doesn't really matter.
On the way back we stop at a roadside cafe. And by cafe, I mean stone shack. There are no lights inside and I'm not sure it has power at all, but it offers shelter some hearty scran and the chance to warm up.
By this stage in the day, though, I'm quite miserable, partly because my weakness has been exposed in front of strangers and partly because they are rapt in conversation, none of which involves me.
I sit on my uncomfortable wooden stool, staring into my mystery broth. Like most of the food here it's stodgy and peppery and contains pasta. The plain, stone walls look like they could have been built a hundred years ago. Perhaps they were. A similarly aged clock ticks on the wall. I watch it for an hour during which no one talks to me other than to offer more tea or bread. I look at the clock again and wonder if people have always been similarly bored in this region.