After seeing more camels than people along our first leg of driving in Kazakhstan, the traffic upon entering the city of Aktobe caught us completely off guard.
But it wasn’t the type of traffic that we had grown infuriated by in much of Europe. Of course, cars were still riding within inches of our bumper and beeping incessantly, but whenever they pulled up to our window, instead of waving fists and foreign-tongued obscenities, we were pleased to discover smiles and waves!
At one point, a black SUV pulled in front of our car with their blinkers on. We were still a little edgy about dealing with city traffic, and wondered if something shady was going on. Then the SUV pulled out next to us, and pulled back in behind us with honks and waves.
“Do they want us stop??”
“Right. Keep driving.”
So we did, until they pulled up right next us and an entire family poked their heads out of the windows, waving with massive smiles and friendly shouts.
We smiled and waved back, slightly confused by their enthusiasm.
Then the younger family member in the back was sticking his arm out while his father (I presume) struggled to maintain our precise speed while pulling close enough to reach out to us.
In his hand were two, blue Kazakhstani boxing gloves. With some careful maneuvering amidst lots of laughter, we managed to accept the generous gift.
This type of scenario repeated itself, again and again.
The people of Aktobe LOVED us.
This may come as a surprise, but not a lot of Westerners visit Kazakhstan. If you tell a Westerner that you’re going to Kazakhstan, there’s an approximately 95% chance that their response will involve quoting Borat.
The absurd association is really a shame because Kazakhstan was one of my favorite places along our Mongol Rally route, with by far the friendliest people. They were constantly approaching us to ask if we were lost (which we almost always were) and to offer directions in the form of handwritten maps and elaborate hand and body gesturing. On one occasion, a man that just happened to be driving next to us when we pulled over, stopped behind us and offered to escort us to the area of the city we were looking for. On another, a restaurant manager phoned multiple hotels to make a booking for us, and then drove us there himself.
The people of Kazakhstan continued to surprise our team and although I admittedly laughed my way through Borat like most others, I am begging you — do NOT associate anything about that movie with the lovely people that inhabit this country. There is zero relation between the crude, mankini-wearing character and the friendly faces you’ll meet in Kazakhstan.
As for the extremely large expanses of Kazakhstan where you won’t meet any locals, the camels are pretty awesome as well…