Before I moved away from Kazakhstan, I wanted to travel in Central Asia and the easiest way to do it seemed to be by bicycle. My reasoning was threefold.
1 – There are buses, trains, and planes in the region but the costs add up and navigating transit systems was difficult enough within the city I was already living in. Bicycle travel is essentially free and gave me the most control over my movements.
2- Kazakhstan felt very safe to me. When one of my Kazakh co-workers spent a semester studying in the States, I asked her what she found especially strange about living there and she said, “There are so many weirdos! Especially on the bus. You would never see that in Kazakhstan.” In my experience, this is true. The weirdest thing that ever happened to me on the bus was when a woman handed her baby to my friend without saying a word so that she could go through her purse to get change for her ticket. She wasn’t worried for a second about a complete stranger minding her child. Ask anyone in a western country what the weirdest thing they’ve seen on the bus is and the answer will always involve bodily fluids.
Buses aside, I only heard of three petty crime instances while living in KZ, which includes how my friend stole over 15 mugs from the university canteen. And though I experienced a great deal of sexism (but where in the world does this not happen, am I right?), I experienced as much catcalling/the-general-street-harassment-one-deals-with-as-a-woman in 10 months in Astana as I do in 10 days in Vancouver. I can’t even go for a run in a sports bra in this city without hearing a some dude yell out his opinion about it.
My rudimentary thought is that Kazakh culture is more family/community-minded, as opposed to western individualism. Maybe the consequences of out of norm actions are felt more deeply. But I almost never feel more like an oblivious foreigner than when I speculate too much on this topic.
Because of my inability to articulate my “safe feelings,” it sure came across as blind ignorance. We’re all scared of the unknown and this is not a trip I would’ve done by myself had I not already been living in and familiar with the region. So I told all my friends to shut it (and expressed my appreciation for their concern, of course).
3 – I had travelled by bicycle twice before and know that all you really need is a positive chill attitude. Even though I knew nothing about bikes except how to change a flat, I knew that I love bike trips and this was enough. Shit’s gonna go wrong even if you do have a lot of bicycle knowledge.
To go on a bike trip, you just have to want to do it. You will hate your life at times. And wonder why you ever decided to make yourself so uncomfortable. But it forces you to be entirely present. There’s a passage about a bike trip in Simone de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins that sums it up nicely.
And the countryside was something much more than just a setting: they were conquering it bit by bit, by main force. In the weariness of the climbs, in the joy of the descents, they became part of it, lived it rather than looked at it as scenery.
I guess there was also a fourth reason. I was working as a librarian at a university and the academic year ended in May. I could not imagine the boredom of working at a university library during the summer, at a university that did not really offer summer classes. But I was meeting friends in Europe in August so this seemed like a good way to kill two months.