Almaty, breaking the 3.5-month hurdle  

September 2017

I spent almost two weeks in or around Almaty, the longest I’d stopped in the three-and-a-half month trip so far. I arrived exhausted but left even more tired.

For 10 days, I stayed in a hostel and let myself focus on the looming and likely possibility of failure. Being around backpackers with nowhere near the same level of stress didn’t help, and I began to think that it was just me overreacting.

There were a number of options I could pursue to continue my journey East; every day, I was set on something different. Being in Almaty, I wanted to try to get a Russian visa. My Irish passport had just been issued, so I had my mum post it out to me; with it, I was increasing my chances of succeeding, because I could post it home, or leave it at a consulate while I continued.

I let myself sleep in far too late most days, because I had no reason to get up. I didn’t really want to get up either, because I knew that only stress waited for me on the other side of the duvet.

After a few days, my heart rate became almost twice what it normally is. Falling asleep each night, it got no better, and a few times I experienced tight-chestiness. I knew how it felt to be depressed and I was getting that way again.

I was in a good hostel though, the owners, Yusuf and his wife, were very empathetic. It helped that everyone in the hostel spoke English, which was a needed break.

Someone else from the UK checked in. Dan. His voice, southern accent and mannerisms transported me back home.

We went out one night with some of the other guests to try and make me feel better. It ended with just me and him in a club. Most of my drinks had been paid for and I lost control a bit. Dan and I went into the smoking room and all I could focus on was a shiny red thing. I watched myself pick it up, pull the seal out and squeeze the nozzle. The fire extinguisher coated dan in a thick layer of white powder, and his blue eyes flickered opened like something out of a cartoon.

I left the room and immediately forgot what I’d done. I turned around to see Dan, looking like the Terminatior, shooting me back from a few dozen meters away.

We then both forgot what had happened and returned to the dance floor. Shortly after, a large man came up to me and asked If I had set off the fire extinguisher. ‘Not me!’ I told him.

He looked at my and Dan’s powdered clothes and told me that they had CCTV. ‘Now you must pay $50, or we will call the police’, he told me.

I sobered up just enough to tell Dan and make a plan. We agreed that I had to escape, because I was the one who had done something wrong. With the management team standing at the bar in disapproving expectation, I walked past them with my phone to my ear, telling them I had to call someone to help me out. My walk begame a power walk, which became a jog and finally, a run. I ran as fast as I could in the straightest line possible. Bouncing around the pavement like a pinball, I made the hour-long walk to the hostel in about three hours. When I got back, Dan was still not there.

He had been kept back my the security guards who were trying to force him to pay the fine. In his drunken state, he was telling them to call the police, because he didn’t care. He actually called their bluff, and they eventually let him go.

We debriefed each other the eext afternoon, and for the next few days we would be findinh white powder almost everywhere.

Even though I got out and did something, I was still spiraling. I began to develop a sore throat, headache, loss of appetite and general sluggishness. Thankfully around that time, Chris and Yula from the UK and Venezuela respectively checked-in and asked me if I wanted to go out of the city with them for a few days.

When I read a couple of week before in Ed Stafford’s Walking the Amazon that we can choose how we react when faced with obstacles, I didn’t fully understand what he meant. I would discover it fully over the coming days. It seemed untrue, but humoring these words, I told myself that I would be strong and happy.

The night before, we visited a friend of theirs, played cards and had some food. I could not feel hungry, but I forced some down. I was silent for most of the night, unable to suppress the flu symptoms. We returned to the hostel for a few hours’ sleep, after which I felt good.

We rode a few hundred kilometers to a small village called Suti. It was partially unoccupied and the houses that were being lived in looked like they weren’t. It was arid, dusty and hot. We hitched most of the way to the first and continued walking with the dry, beige mountains at our sides.

Our plan was not concreted, but we decided to head towards the first lake which was 16km away. From there, another 9 would take us to the second, and the third was a bit out of reach.

Another lift took us a bit further, and we then walked the remaining few kilometers to the first lake. The final steps took us up to a peak, over which we were introduced to the oasis that was the turquoise lake, surrounded by proud, veranda pine trees. This is where we would camp for the first night.

Chris and Yula didn’t have camping equipment with them because they were traveling normally – between hostels. I assured them that, if we could find a woodland, then we could get a fire going and survive the night. ‘Survive’ was just the word.

We spent an hour gathering all thicknesses and lengths of wood before setting my tarp up open to the fire, so that the heat would warm us from the front and reflect on to the back of us.

Chris and Yula lay down their towels as camping mats and put all of their clothes on. I gave them what I could, and after some delicious noodles and bread with tea, I cocooned myself in my sleeping bag. We lay my camping mat out to fit the top of our bodies on. I must have been slightly warmer than Chris, because it was always he who was tending to the fire whenever I woke up from the chill.

To reach the second lake, we had a lot of elevation to achieve, so we hid our unneeded equipment, such as spare clothes and my tarp, in the trees. We only took one backpack too, which Chris and I alternated carrying.

It was tough mentally to push through the hours going up, but I reminded myself that I could decide how to behave when faced with challenges. I chose to succeed. We made it to the second lake, which was even more stunning than the first. Chris took a picture of me – I had a smile of victory on me, my chest was puffed out and I felt the strongest I had ever been.

Now came the 30km back to the village to get a ride back to Almaty. We had allowed the whole night to walk it, lest we didn’t get picked up at all, which we didn’t. Before the hike, we filled ourselves with carbohydrates and filled our pockets with high-energy snacks.

The average person can walk 4km in one hour on level terrain, so it took us a full working day to get back. We began to snap at each other from exhaustion, but laughed about it right after.

I went into autopilot towards the end and my legs seemed to walk themselves.

We reached the village at 5am, when the bus was allegedly leaving for Almaty. With no sign of life, we set up my tent again and made a fire until sunrise. One of the people in the village arranged a lift back and even cooked us some food.

Back in Almaty, my Irish passport had arrived, and I was refreshed, mentally and physically, and ready to continue. The trip which I had given up on before had been 3.5 months, but this time I had stuck with it and overcome the low point.

I made the decision to work my way backwards to Georgia where I could get the visas needed to complete my trip.


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