On a dark, dank day in early February 2012, I set off from London's St Pancras Station, to journey overland (as best I could) to India by train. A national diplomatic dispute before leaving meant my intended passage, a route through Iran and Pakistan, was instead now going to take me by way of Germany, Poland, Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and (reluctantly skipping over Afghanistan) finally India. The deviation coincided with a cold snap in central Asia that was seeing temperatures in Astana, Kazakhstan plummet to -41 degrees! Undeterred and packing little more than a down jacket, some boots, an audio recorder, a camera (the purpose for my trip), and travelling with little more than my wits and perseverance, I embarked on a journey that would take me over 9,000 overland-miles across 10 countries, numerous mind-numbing plains, and more than 30 trains. And of course, a few hairy boarders!
Whilst every man and his dog seem to have travelled India (which is full of characters and adventure), it was a taxi driver in Kazakhstan that made the most inedible mark on me. We couldn't speak each others language, but that didn't stop us chatting. Somehow, we understood each other, at least some of the time. I wasn't in his taxi for very long, which at the time didn't seem too a bad thing, for the car was on its last legs and its driver, Oskar, was on his last leg literally. . . . After a 2-day train ride from Astana through barren and frozen plains, I arrived at 0130 in Turkistan, southern Kazakhstan. It had been described to me by a couple of Russian businessmen on the train, as the asshole of central Asia. It wasn't a great place, but I think they were being a little harsh on the town. Besides, it wasn't full of coffee shops, Debenhams, Accessorize, or Adidas shops like Astana was.
Thankfully the manager of the guest house was a light sleeper as I banged on the door, panicked that I may have to resort to drastic measures to escape the -30C night-time temperatures. He was kind and gave a warmer welcome than the room did. After the check-in formalities, he offered to help arrange a tour of Turkistan? Other than intending to see a local mosque, I was open to suggestions, so an archaeological site at Otrar Tobe was agreed upon. He would get his friend, a local taxi driver to pick me up at 9am. That night I slept fully dressed, in a coat, boots and a hat. Brrr! I stepped out into the cold light of a new day, to be confronted to by a dilapidated, jacked-up and clapped out car. My taxi? Yep. In the front sat an old but strapping man waving at me. Like you do, I instinctively waved back. I jumped in, shook hands, said hello, and noticed the driver only had one leg. A perverse sense of thrill overcame me I was in a clapped out taxi driven by a one-legged man, in Kazakshstan Id probably never experience this again, and it felt perfect. We pulled off, and I tried to disguise my awe at how this chap was able to drive a normal stick-shift with one leg. We drove out of Tashkent, straight to a petrol station to fill up and [fittingly] ask for directions. The driver and I got chatting at the petrol station, and he introduced himself as Oskar. Hed never had an Englishman in his car before, and seemed excited. Likewise, I was revelling in the bizarre circumstances, and was riveted when he reached up to the sun visor and pulled out a wad of well-thumbed photographs. He flicked through them, with an order in mind: Oskar showed me a few photos of his family, and his grown sons who live in Astana and Almaty. And he showed me his grandchildren.
Then he showed me old photos of himself crossing the finishing line in first position when he a competitive 400m runner. He was a big chap then too. A few photos later, and this time Oskar was in a boxing ring; then another image of him standing with a clinched fist and a trophy in hand. Both he and his brother had been championship boxers, and Oskars rounded and scarred knuckles and flat nose testified that he'd had a lot of fights. Oskar was patient, and what he lacked in sense of direction, he made up for in humour. I was desperate to know about how he lost his leg, but if he did give an explanation, it must have been lost in translation. Instead however, he explained with the final photo, that his mother had recently died (accompanied each mention by making dua), and he'd used her walking stick that was pictured in her hands, as his new clutch peddle/handle!?! Indeed, the walking stick was parcel-taped to the clutch pedal, and the handle lay in his lap.
When finding gear and pulling away, he'd push the clutch in (with some force I imagine), and slowly release it. He did this expertly and without ever stalling or juddering. When pulling up at traffic, he'd again use his left hand to depress the clutch. It only ever got unnerving when he was pulling away at a junction or navigating a round about, at which time his left stump would take over the steering as his left hand controlled the clutch, his right leg the gas, and his right hand the gear change. He knew I was awestruck and laughed and slapped his stump. I wish I knew what he was said, but he seemed very proud of his stump. It was terrifying being in the clapped-out car, yet mesmerising to watch Oskar drive it so impressively. . . . We drove out into the barren, snow-peppered wilderness, following half completed roads that ran as far as the eye could see. Trickles of lorries shared the road. Oskar explained they were most likely headed to China or Tajikistan.
Both destinations brought back the realities of where in the world I was, and what on earth was I doing there! After an hour driving in sleet and snow [without using the windscreen wipers for whatever reason], Oskar realised he was lost. We stopped at a house set away from the sole road. Dogs barked as Oskar hooted for attention. An old lady came out and they discussed with some noticeable bemusement, what I was doing in the car looking for an archaeological remains in Turkistan. She couldn't understand why I wanted to see the remains, but pointed us in the direction of a mound on the horizon. We turned back, and drove down the road for a few miles. There, in the middle of nowhere was a tiny sign pointing to a distant rising of mud, about a 1 mile from the road.
After sitting all morning in a cramped, damp car with the heating stuck on max and an engine drone that suggested it was only firing on 3 cylinders, I was happy to walk the last mile. Oskar thought I was crazy to walk it when we could drive, so instead he got out to see if it was possible. On one-leg and a crutch, he ventured into the snow, mud and ice. The condition of the track was awful but maybe he'd taken his bald-tyred taxi where most taxis hadn't been before. I watched with a guilty sense of amusement, the surreal sight of a one-legged man hobbling off into seeming-nothingness. He walked until I could barely see him in the distance. He clearly still had the determined spirit of his sporting days. 15 minutes later, Oskar returned to say the track was impassable by car. I believed him. I reassured him Id be fine alone and accepted his apologies that he could drive.
Besides, it looked like an adventure - Its not everyday you get to walk off into absolute nothingness in the depths of Kazakhstan. I said Id be a couple of hours, and so agreed to meet back at the old ladys house. Otrar proved to be a pretty crap archaeological site to the uninitiated: it was simply a mound of mud. Clearly the old lady knew this, hence her surprise. However, the remoteness and journey had been fantastic. I was caked in mud having slipped on my ass a few times! A few hours later, I returned to the cottage to find the old lady and now her son had been entertaining Oskar.
They'd fed him, and even given him a bed to sleep in whilst I was gone. I still find it remarkable that Oskar says he didn't know them, but then again, I guess some places are more hospitable than London. I sometimes wonder how Id react to a big, one-legged mini cab driver knocking on my door asking for a bed and food whilst his client went walking into the freezing, muddy, middle of nowhere? I'd be surprised, but I wouldn't know who was weirder, the driver or the punter wandering off to nowhere?