The wind blows in harsh gusts and spurts across nothing; not just the absence of anything, but rather the beautiful, mind-warping manifestation of true emptiness. For as far as the watering eye can see there is absolutely nothing save for the road, a wonky scar leading over the horizon and into oblivion. Ankle-high shrubs fight for survival amid swathes of dirt, but not a single tree breaks the flat, sweeping vista. This is a deep sigh of a landscape, where stresses melt and minds open under star-filled skies.
The eagle gliding high above sees a small black dot by the road – me – next to an even smaller red dot – my bag. I’ve been here for about 45 minutes, contemplating the vastness of it all as I sweat through the lining of my arctic puffer jacket. Like a poorly microwaved steak I’m both burning and frozen; cooking under the harsh sun but shivering in the relentless wind.
I’m roughly two thirds of the way through my ambitious plan to hitchhike across the steppe between Kazakhstan’s two most prominent cities. My thumb, inshallah, will take me from the sci-fi northern capital of Astana to historic, mountain-rimmed Almaty, a 1214 km route equivalent to travelling overland from London to Vienna. Google Maps had given me the illusion that I’d be cruising along an intercity highway, but the reality of potholed roads, police checkpoints and unexpected turnoffs has caused me to temper my expectations.
So far the journey has lasted nearly 24 hours, with no fewer than eight drivers offering me lifts of varying lengths to where I now sit – The Middle of Nowhere, population: me. This current wait has been the longest of the trip so far, each driver meeting my upturned thumb with a shrug or a laugh or an apologetic smile, but none yet prepared to pull over and fling open the passenger door. I’m not worried, though; I have faith that the road will provide.
In fact, the road has already provided. Its bounties began at the edge of Astana, where I was picked up by a jolly 30-something man whose name, like those of all my chauffeurs, has already escaped my tired, blurred mind. His 15-minute lift turned into an hour-long lunch as he took me via his village to sample some of his wife’s home cooking, his laughing Buddha face lighting up at my gestures of approval. My next ride gave me a pen; the following was an ethnic Chechen whose frenetic traditional music rattled the doors of his rusty Lada.
On the outskirts of Karagandy I received a gesture of hospitality that will never cease to puzzle and delight me. Hanging awkwardly off the back of a roundabout, I’d been struggling to catch the attention of drivers until a shiny 4WD pulled over, its owner hurriedly beckoning me inside. The young blond man barked Russian at me, seemingly admonishing me for my choice of spot and indicating that he knew a better one up ahead.
Not two minutes later we pulled into a nice-looking restaurant. Now apologetic, the driver explained that he couldn’t take me any further before promptly ordering and paying for a large meal – for me. Stunned, I watched as this surprise lunch-provider I’d known for all of five minutes smiled, wished me a safe trip then disappeared back to the road.
It was in the back of a sputtering green truck that the bulk of the ground was covered, slowly. My wacky Kyrgyz drivers picked me up outside Karagandy, their probing questions and lewd jokes crossing the language barrier. They too bought me a meal – my third free feast for the day – and let me curl up in their cabin until the sun rose and it was time to throw myself once again at the mercy of the road …
My reverie is broken by the appearance of lights on the horizon. Could this be my saviour? I wait for what seems like an eternity as the fleck approaches, growing bigger and eventually … slowing down! I grab my bag in that mad, beautiful hitchhiker’s dash and hop in. The road has provided – what more does it have in store?