Once upon a time in northern Kazakhstan

My beard is now officially ridiculous.

I have been growing it, without tending except to shave a straight line at the bottom along my neck, for almost three months. The goatee bit is not too bad. In fact I quite like to pull on it in moments of reflection.

Frequently, therefore. The moustache bit irritates me intensely. The rest of it is just bushy and thick and strange-looking. I always worry that I have left remnants of dinner in it.

In Bukhara one young girl accused me of being from the Taliban. In Tashkent a man I had met just five minutes before suggested that I needed to have a shave. I think perhaps three months is enough. Russia provides a convenient excuse to be clean-shaven again. An occasion even. I seldom spell that word correctly, despite knowing that I do not.

It is also ridiculous to be sitting here and watching dubbed Brazilian soap operas (all the rage here, mostly gibberish to me) with this old Kazak guy. He invited me to stay at his house tonight. An offer which I accepted, as quickly as consistent with good grace.

Of course, we talked about money. Everyone asks. He earns $20 a month (10 times less than Jenghiz), but it is enough, he says, to support him and his wife and three children. Clearly there is no money for anything other than necessities, something of which I am acutely conscious when he presses me to eat more. He has no chance to ever leave this town. He can not pay the train fare (my ticket from Almaty cost about half his monthly stipend). Each summer his son must work hard to save up the money for the next year of college.

We talked about what people earn in New Zealand (people always nod and try to act cool, but it is hard to stay focused when you are thinking about a country where people earn about 75 times as much), and how no one pays for anything with cash. He was astounded to learn that my credit card was worth to me what he would earn in almost 30 years. Even if I do have to pay it back from time to time.

I also met today a friendly Turkish guy. He runs a restaurant here and seems disinclined to go home to his wife and child in Ankara. That is not true. He is inclined to go home to his child. Just not to his wife. Not that he is here for the women. He is not quite sure why he is here. He just is. A bit like me, I guess.

His restaurant does not do very well in the summer because the students (many are Turkish) are all away on holidays, and Kazaks do not like his restaurant because he does not have noisy music or alcohol. I like his restaurant a lot, even if I do crave to combat the heat with a beer.

Actually, he does not have much that is nice to say about the Kazaks. We have a long conversation about toilets, and how Kazaks can not conceive of modern plumbing. They live in houses, he says, but they think in yurts. Give them 50 more years and see how things look then. A little more urbanisation (dare I say civilisation, at least in one sense of the world?) might be a good thing.

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