“Tomorrow Kazakhstan, border closed,” Ernar said.
His words shook me from the final days of my soft winter slumber. I was buried underneath a white blanket of comfort and complacency that sheltered me from whispers and threats that spoke of a new respiratory virus that can touch any soul.
Winter has ended, and the first flowers of spring are pungent and distasteful.
I couldn’t have counted the series of nos that escaped my lips. The border closure was too fast, too soon. The journalist in me refused to give in to panic and fear until my own two eyes saw the Tengri News translation that confirmed Ernar’s announcement.
Tomorrow, the Kazakh border would be restricted to foreigners who wished to enter and leave the country. After discovering nine cases in the cities of Almaty and Nursultan, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev announced that the country would be in a state of emergency from March 16 to April 15, 2020.
The virus was here, and I have no choice but to run to the border or get stuck in Kyrgyzstan again.
After eight months of residing in the country primarily due to my ovarian cyst surgery, getting stuck in Kyrgyzstan again was not what I had in mind. The arms of the landlocked country seemed to not want to let me go, and I could feel its nails digging into my skin as I tried to escape its vice-like grip.
I was an animal with a prey that was outrunning me. Immediately, my senses kicked in and ordered me to flee. I stood abruptly and headed to my room, frantically folding my dresses and sweatshirts and cramming them against unused camping gear.
Moving like a little tornado, I dressed for the steppes and said my goodbyes. I embraced each beautiful soul in the hostel with the promise of return and consistent calls and text messages.
They sent me off in the golden hour, the last slivers of sunlight setting my skin on fire as I steeled myself for the next chapter of my adventure: carving deeper relationships, dabbling with the concept of stagnancy, taking a shot at wearing my heart on my sleeve.
It took two marshrutkas to get to my hitchhiking point, and two more rides to get to the Kyrgyz-Kazakh border.
Despite threats of the virus and the sudden announcement of the closure, the border was still operating. I fell in line next to a family that was returning to Kazakhstan and waited patiently for my turn. In line to another passport control booth were foreign nationals—gruff-looking, portly Turkish men and tawny-skinned Uzbeks with their doppas who were also on their last minute border cross.
My poor Russian skills picked up snippets of a conversation between a middle-aged woman speaking with a much older man. Brows furrowed and with her right hand repeatedly brandishing her Kyrgyz passport, she told him about how she needed to return as soon as possible as her life and family were on the other side.
As I waited for the immigration police to confirm my exit, an elderly guy started asking the people ahead of him to let him in first, since he had small children waiting for him at home. All the people he asked simply shrugged their shoulders and stared at him passively. Sighing, he returned to his spot as the hushed dialogues about the virus persisted.
As soon as I got my stamp, I huffed my way to the Kazakh side. I was greeted with a woman in a lab coat wielding a thermometer gun. She pointed the device on my forehead and upon seeing that my temperature was alright, proceeded to test the person next to me.
As I was about to walk up the immigration window, another lady in a white coat asked me to step aside.
“Otkuda? (Where are you from),” she asked.
“Philippines,” I answered.
Upon hearing that I was a tourist from a country with rising coronavirus cases, her eyes widened, and in my practiced Russian, I told her that I had not been home for two years and four months.
That did the trick, and they let me go.
With the midnight deadline out of my mind, I made my way to Almaty.
It didn’t take long before someone stopped for me. The driver, an aged pot bellied man sporting a skullcap, opened his truck’s door.
“Zdravstvuyte, Aga! (Hello, brother) ’ I greeted him with my usual sunny smile and broken Russian. “Kuda vam seychas? (Where are you going now?)”
Without returning a grin, he replied that he was heading to Almaty before adding, “Otkuda?”
“Philippines,” I answered.
His dark eyes probed me up and down before finally resting on my face. I felt like I was back at the immigration office with the thermometer gun.
Letting out a rough sigh, I said, “Ya nye Kitayski (I’m not Chinese). Coronavirus nyeto, (I don’t have coronavirus)”
He snorted and shook his hand and head, shutting the door and going about his merry way.
A couple of minutes later two men offered me a ride to the main highway leading to the city. From what I understood, they would drop me to a place called post, where there was a small shop that acted as a pit stop for people who were on their way to the former Kazakh capital.
The post was nearly isolated save for two resting trucks and a silver SUV with a Kyrgyz plate. Two men were having a smoke next to the well-lit magasin, which was well-stocked with juice boxes and biscuits.
This was it. Time for my last ride for the night.
As if to answer my prayers, the heavens aligned the arrival of a silver SUV chartered by a Russian babushka and a man who was dozing off on the front seat, mouth wide open and drool dripping from the corner of his lips.
“Zdravstvuyte, Aga!” I said to the driver. “Kuda payekal (Where are you going)?”
When he didn’t understand my Russian, I switched to Kazakh. “Kayakta?”
“Almaty,” he replied.
I quickly explained to him that I was also heading to the city and that I had just crossed the border that evening because by midnight the country would be in a state of emergency. I was not well-prepared for the crisis, and I needed help to get to the metropolis.
“Skolka? (How much)” he asked, rubbing his thumb and his forefinger to make sure I understood.
“Uminya dengi nyet, ach sha jok (I don’t have money.)” I said in both Russian and Kazakh to make sure he understood.
The man let out a hearty laugh. I expected him to leave me in the dust, but instead, his face broke into a wide grin. Beaming, he said, “Sadist! (Sit down)”
“I can’t believe it! This is the first time I’ve picked up a hitchhiker without money!” the driver said in Russian. “How do you even manage to travel, girl?”
Barely keeping my eyes open, I carried on with my spiel, and upon hearing my crazy story, the driver’s dark eyes locked with mine in the rearview mirror. I nodded my head and let out a little laugh. The lady next to me was saying something in rapid Russian. The driver punched the arm of the man on the front seat, and he bolted upright. After a couple of phrases, he looked back at me with a set of wide eyes. He shook his head as I nodded mine.
Outside, the steppes have turned into an endless black sea. The night has made it impossible to determine where the sky began and where the hills ended. The long grey stretch to Almaty was nearly empty, save for the trucks transporting goods to the city.
“I’ve been traveling from Bishkek to Almaty for five years now, and the road is still this terrible!” the grandma complained as the car began bouncing on the unpaved dirt road. “How many more years will this damn construction take?”
We all burst out laughing. Typical Kazakhstan.
Our ride went on for another three hours, with a 30-minute toilet break and shop stop. I have discovered that our driver’s name was Nurlan and that he worked as a taxi driver. Most of his trips consisted of driving passengers from the Kyrgyz border to Almaty. Occasionally, he would also take people from Almaty to Shymkent.
While the men were out doing their business, the Russian grandmother sweetly offered me a Choco Pie, even apologizing for the fact that the sticky snack was squished during the trip.
With my terrible Russian-speaking skills, I asked her why she was heading to Almaty. She told me that she was visiting a son who lives and works in the city. As with almost everybody, she asked me why I was not afraid to travel by myself. I replied by telling her that it was because the world was a kind and good place, regardless of what we usually hear or believe.
She then threw back my earlier question about Almaty to which I expressed my uncertainty. Right then and there in Bishkek, all that mattered to me was getting out of Kyrgyzstan. The border closed way too early for me to actually plan my next move, but one thing was for sure: I was going to stick around Central Asia until the coronavirus situation died down.
I did not admit that I was also toying with the concept of temporary stagnancy. Surprisingly, Almaty—with its skating rinks, Soviet Union blocs, and snow-laden streets—became my warm furnace amidst the winds of winter. The glow of the city’s orange lampposts, the baritone hum of the underground metro, the raving rat race to the top of the world and the slew of familiar faces have slithered through my ribcage and burrowed themselves in the folds of my heart.
Mid-way and mid-thought, I gave in to exhaustion. When I woke up, we were 13 kilometers away from the city. After dropping off the car’s two other passengers, Nurlan told me that he would take me straight to my flat. He said it was impossible to hitchhike in the city and to get a ride without money.
We were driving in silence when Nurlan asked, “Devushka, tolka odna? Nyet druzey? (Girl, are you alone? No friends?)”
“Da. (Yes)” I replied, adding that although I had friends, their priorities were elsewhere.
“Ya tozhe (Me too),” he responded. “Raditel yes? (Do you have a family?)”
“Da. Mama, yes. Papa nyeto. Brat, sestra, nyeto. A ti? Simia yes? Deti yes? (Yes, I have a Mom. I don’t have a father. I don’t have brothers and sisters. And you? Do you have a family? Do you have children?)”
“Nyeto. Ya zhivu odin. (No. I live alone.)” he replied, telling me that he had an apartment in the outskirts of the city. He had stable income from his chauffeuring stint, but at the end of the day, he went home to a cold bed and an empty table.
“Razve ne odinoko? (Doesn’t it get lonely?)’
“Shto? (What?)” I asked.
“Puteshestvovat v odinochku, (Traveling alone).” he said.
A breath of weariness tumbled from my lips. “Inogdo, (Sometimes)”
I wanted to tell him that this was part of the curse of the traveler, but my limited knowledge of the language barred me from doing so. As my gaze flitted once again to the rearview mirror, a pair of hollow pools stared back at me, and ultimately, there was no more need for words.
Nurlan drove up to the all too familiar uphill street I’ve called my home for the past two months. He stopped in front of the empty silver flagpoles and green stately building that I saw every day from our windows in wintertime. He opened the trunk and took out my bags. I shook his hand and thanked him for bringing me home.
As I was about to cross the road, the somber man called out to me from his half-shut car window. “Ten! Sokhranit moy nomer, (Ten! Save my number.)”
I handed him my phone. He began to key in his number, telling me that if I ever needed any more help, I should give him a call.
“Spacibo balshoi, Aga! (Thank you so much, brother!)” I said as he handed me back my device. “Dobre noch, (Good night.)”
“Pozhaluysta, (You’re welcome.)” he replied. He didn’t close his car window as he started his engine. I gave him the only currency I had on me: one last wave and a big but tired smile.
I hope it was enough, and I hope the heavens did us both lone wolves good by making his solitary sail feel less forlorn.
I turned towards our building and punched in our flat’s code.
Finally, I was home.