We found a hotel in which to stay not too long after making our way into town. While the others took care of the administrative details, I watched after the cars. It was then that a small swarm of local children came up to the driver-side door of the Seat and started poking their heads into the car, examining everything they could see and asking for names of things. Once they took a look at everything in the dash, the moved on to the back of the car, spotting our food & water, camping supplies, and loads of dirty clothing. The food held their interest most of all, with one of the girls making a biting motion, perhaps indicating that she wanted something to eat. In sync with what we've been doing most of the way, I pretended not to understand. After some time one of the children saw the legs of the tripod I've been using and asked what it was. Having earlier wrapped up the camera to protect it from the dust storms caused by driving, I removed the shirt and their attention was quickly focused.
I started by making hand gestures indicating that I wanted to take their photos; they seemed to understand and started smiling and nodding. I passed the camera to them at one point, all the time holding on to the neck strap, and they started shooting pictures of each other and a few of me with them. I topped off the roll and rewound the film. My first thought was of how to get some of those pictures back to the children without addresses, names, or even a good idea of how to mail items to Kazakhstan. I decided my best bet would be to mail the pictures to the hotel in which we stayed and night and hope the owner gets the idea. They were wonderful children, even taking turns using the videocamera and laughing as they saw their own image appear on the extendable LCD monitor.
My experience that night was also one I could not have expected to find. After dinner, a few of us went to walk around the town while others returned to work on the cars. We found a monument similar in type to that of the Vietnam War memorial in D.C., in the sense that a wall of names was erected in honor of those who died in WWII. While milling about the steps of the memorial, a teenage girl approached Patrick and they started chatting. A group of friends was with her and the rest of us made our way up to where they were all standing. After a few minutes of basic communication, this girl, Malhabe, asked if we would like to accompany her and her friends to the local disco. James of "See You in a Bar" and I were instantly sold on the idea and we managed to get the rest of our group to go. We picked up a few beers on the way and as we approached the outdoor building that contained the dancing entertainment, we realized something only too obvious: that we were all very much older than the rest of the people there. And when I say people, I should really say teenagers. We managed to attract plenty of attention and even went about the night with a two-man police lookout, both of whom later got piss drunk and made sure that Patrick didn't get jacked while he was using a back alley as a restroom. Aside from dancing in a teenage disco in the middle of Kazakhstan, another strange part of the night was when girls would come up to us and ask us to dance, presumably exclusively. Unlike club dancing which may involve bumping and grinding, this was more of a face-off, with the occasional awkward hand touch that simply made me laugh. At the end of it all, we found out that Malhabe was only 15, leaving us bewildered and amazed about what had just happened. Not to be done too early, we hit another dance spot before the night was over, and in a moment more befitting, I danced with a girl my age who was 6' 4". Talk about humility.
So our night in Aralsk ended, we slept well in a cheap hotel, and we made our way out of the town by 10 a.m. The roads from Aral to Shymkent were much improved over the previous kinds of tarmac we had seen, so we made time like we hadn't made in quite a few days. Another road side camp found the convoy down to three cars, as the "Dukes of Harlow" decided to push on in the night to make some better time (we later learned that tiredness and misaligned headlights kept Charlie from getting more than 50 miles; we caught up with them the next day at a road side stretch of shops where we ate some much needed hot food and the Dukes received a bodge-job setup for the General's blown suspension spring). Before the Dukes set off, though, Patrick and Seth made a jaunt into Turkistan to find some beers. When pulled over by the local authorities, both of them determined that at least one Kazakh police dislikes Bush due to his excessive (hand signal of firing a gun) use of war and limited (hand signal of hands flapping talking mouth) use of diplomacy. The gents also figured out that Angelina Jolie is the best ambassador of all, clearly indicated from the police officer by the worldwide sign for vagina (index fingers and thumbs joined with the hands then brought together). It is good to know that despite any language barrier, hand signals of all sorts can get the point across.
Due to a visa foul-up that kept them out of Kyrgyzstan for a few days, James and Andy of "See You in a Bar" split up with us on the way to Bishkek through Shymkent and spent the night at the latter city. We pushed on to Bishkek, accidentally taking a northern route. Despite the small error, the scenery of our trip improved dramatically. Mountains on a scale I haven't seen in a while became evident as the haze between them and us thinned. Snow covered their peaks, a fitting taunt to the heavy heat we entered as we came south. Eventually, we came through the same border through which we will now leave in a few days for our second entry to Kazakhstan. I can proudly say that the Kyrgyzstan border crossing was the most efficient and graceful event we've had in the past week. In fact, no records of our cars entering the country were ever taken, so if we need to ditch one in the next day or two, this would be the place to do it. Unfortunately, the line headed back into Kazakhstan at the same border was quite long, most likely due to the bureaucratic hoop-jumping that the Kazakh Republic makes people do.
Interactions with the locals of Bishkek then quickly arose. On our way into the main part of the city, Patrick was being hassled by a cab driver who wished to pass, though with no room to move, Patrick simply couldn't do anything. At the first opportunity, the cab driver passed on the right, yelling and gesturing, again using hand signals that can be clearly understood the world over. Shortly thereafter, we passed through a restricted zone in front of the president's residence and were pulled over by a police officer with an orange wand of authority. In a well-played move, Patrick and Dominic were able to totally bedazzle the officer with a lack of comprehension and language, avoiding the confiscation of driving licenses and escaping the clearly (yet tactfully misunderstood) request for a bribe. We parked and while Patrick and Seth wandered the city with a few locals, Dominic ran into the Dukes while I guarded the cars. An hour later, after Patrick and Seth returned from their mostly misdirected guided tour (and after finding Patrick a date for Wednesday), we accompanied the Dukes to the Hyatt hotel, which contained the Xanadu Casino, a spot which one of their sponsors, Casino Life Magazine, asked them to cover on the trip. Through the generosity of the owner of the establishment, Ms. Jacobs, we were treated to a free meal with drinks and three rooms (though because the standard rooms were sold out, our only options were to sleep in king size beds...it was a really tough night, I promise). Laundry was done, long showers were taken, and we have started the day well with lunch that actually filled our stomachs. We plan to push into the mountains tonight for some camping that should provide us with some wonderful views of the mountains and the surrounding area.
Tomorrow, our plan is to meet up with James and Andy, spend another day in Bishkek, then head back into Kazakhstan for the push to Barnaul. Depending on how driving goes, and how that affects our timing, James and Andy may try to join us through the western border of Mongolia. The Dukes have also been evaluating their time commitments, though they have yet to make a final decision as to when to leave. I'm hoping the convoy can stick together as long as possible. I'm also hoping that we have the time to take the western border, because a drive through southern Russia would be too easy, leaving us only 200 km of tarmac on which to pass through Mongolia on our way to Ulaanbataar. We've got a stretch of time left and we're figuring it out. Hopefully things go well so that we don't end up getting into the difficult decision that may exist between those with lots of time and those without it. It sounds like the time crunched among us are going to push for more time off, but who can tell what the bosses back home will say. Then again, this is the Mongol Rally and there aren't many chances to make it to central Asia in crap cars.
Note: once we're out of Bishkek, we're planning on being out of touch until Barnaul, so don't fear. We'll update there and let you know what kinds of things we're thinking. For now,