Sunday, November 25, 2012

Giving Thanks

In the spirit of the holiday, I thought I'd let y'all know of a few of the things I'm thankful for this time around:


For being so different, so fun to visit and sometimes so arbitrary. Like the line between Europe and Asia, which apparently goes through Atyrau. Nothing says Eurocentrism like drawing a line across a huge landmass and calling it two landmasses.

азиа is on the other side of the river

intercontinental travel was never so easy!

That Borat was wrong

Turns out, Kazakhstan is actually quite an open and westernized country, especially as you compare it to the rest of Central Asia. My Atyrau host, Ash, happened to be both Jewish and openly gay, two things that movie did not lead me to expect in this part of the world.

He fed me like a Jewish mother. It was fantastic.


For reminding me that a straight line is always the shortest distance between two points

The Kazakh Steppe

For reminding me that this isn't always true. Especially in Kazakhstan. After I left Atyrau, I decided to hitch my way to Aktobe. By looking at google maps (below), I saw that clearly I should head northeast, through Oktyabrsk and up to Aktobe. The shortest distance.

Uralsk? Who would want to go there?

After my first two drivers both told me that they'd drive me, but I really should have taken the route through Uralsk, I started to worry. The third ride then left me where this video was taken:

Apparently my decision to take this route was akin to saying, "hey, let's cross the mountains, but who wants to take I-90? Let's take the fire roads!" Then, deciding to do it by hitching on logging trucks. What Google calls an 8-hr journey turned into a 40-hr trek.

Consistent pavement

For making my voyages slightly more comfortable and expedient, when possible.
Obviously this is what that yellow "highway" line on the Google maps should represent, right?
The same highway

Not just any pavement, but consistent pavement, is amazing. When you have old pavement that was laid down by the soviets and forgotten for decades, you get the worst roads I've ever seen in my life. The bits of pavement that do exist make the the potholes even huge, even to the point where they're big enough to drive a car entirely into and back out. For those of you who read my early post about the Mongolian bus ride, imagine the same thing, but with fewer people, slightly more legroom, even more bouncing, and the wonderful people known as...

Central Asian Truckers

For almost always being willing to give me a ride. Except for the ones who don't, but I didn't want their ride anyway.

A friendly face

Chevron and Big Oil

For employing, directly or indirectly, everyone in Western Kazakhstan. Without these companies (Chevron in particular) I would never have had Wifi and free steak and wine tasting in Atyrau, Nobody would have ever driven on that road, and most of these cities wouldn't really exist. That being said, I still despise these companies for many, many reasons.

A step up from streetside samsas. Courtesy of  oil money.

Russian Pop and Kazakh folk music (and American pop c. 1994)

For keeping long rides in trucks interesting. There's nothing like hearing белый розы (byelie roza - youtube it) for the 12th time that day, or perhaps some arhythmic dombra strumming along with the wavering voice of a Kazakh bard. Even stranger is hearing most of the songs from the 1994 mix I made in college (a collection of hits from that year ranging from "skat man" to "max don't have sex with your ex" and other less savory titles) multiple times on the mp3 players that every Central Asian vehicle comes equipped with. 

Here's a sample from the other day. Fortunately this trucker was more into modern dance hits from Latin America...

Long periods for reflection

For allowing me to process this adventure along the way. Hitchhiking provides many of these opportunities.

This was taken about 2 1/2 hours and 5km from where the first video was taken... still no cars

Central Asian Hospitality

For coming through when I need it. After being deposited for a second time at dusk in the middle of nowhere, I walked another 1hr+ to what looked like a town. I arrived after dark, it was already well below freezing, and I was pretty sure there was no hotel in town. I approached the nearest house with lights on and people nearby, scared the daylights out of a few Kazakh girls, who ran inside to grab the nearest man, Jaksibar, who ultimately let me sleep on his floor.

Photo op with the new guy!

That I'm not actually a spy

Because every other Kazakh has asked me if I am. Including that host, who finally invited me in after asking me if I was afraid that someone might try to kill me ("I might try to kill you!") and then Russian-Googled my name in Cyrillic (шон конноли) along with the Russian words for "traveler" "from America" "American" "hitchhiking" and others. It turns out I'm not very popular in the Russian-speaking world, as nothing came up. He seemed satisfied after I showed him my facebook profile, although he later joked with me via an online translator, asking if I was "Shawn the traveler... or spy?" "Just a joke." Then, "в каждой шутке есть доля правды" - "Many a true word is spoken in jest"

The boy was more interested in satellite photos of his own house and Seattle.  Who's the real spy, I ask?

My immune system

For keeping me alive, and relatively healthy, regardless of how many times I challenge it. I'm sure the horse's head in the supermarket is clean, but what about the chicken that guy fed me in his car...?

so, can I just have a kilo of face?

Long underwear

Because the Kazakh steppe is crazy cold in the winter. Especially when the wind starts to blow.

That's ice, not water

Kazakh Trains

Because sometimes you look at the map and you think, "Screw the journey, I just want to get there..." Plus, a 20-hr train ride across the steppe provides lots of time for that reflection stuff...

Surprisingly comfortable, too


Trees and snow

For giving me a break from the sweltering deserts of august, but also for reminding me of happy places I've considered home over the years.

Aktobe. Could be MN, or NY... probably not Seattle, sorry.

Friends and family

For being there and keeping me grounded. This whole trip would not be possible without all of you, the support you give me now and the contributions you have made to making me who I am over the years. I am who I am because of the people I've met along the way, and I'm thankful for each of you. Thanksgiving is a hard time to be alone, so I also appreciate the connections I've been able to maintain with you while I've been gone. Thanks :)

The bottlecap that I found in the steppe. At first I thought it was an Outward Bound pin

A sense of adventure

Because travel, and life, would be super boring without it.



  1. You are awesome! What a great blog entry!

  2. What great things to be thankful for! onward with the journey:) thanks for the videos too, it is good to hear your voice.

  3. Love those videos. Keep them coming...... TomA