I was lounging comfortably in my air conditioned hotel room in Aktau, Kazakhstan, resting after a 24 hour train journey from Uzbekistan when it suddenly occurred to me to check the opening hours for the migration police office. In Kazakhstan, all visitors staying in the country more than five days must register with the migration police. According to Lonely Planet, the office in Aktau was open Mondays to Wednesdays, Friday and Saturday, only 9 to 12.
It was Wednesday. I was hoping to do an overnight excursion Friday and Saturday and I would move on to Aralsk by overnight train on Sunday – and Aralsk didn’t have a migration police office. I needed to register that day. And it was already 11:15.
I hurried downstairs, where the receptionist told me that the office was located in Microdistrict 3. No, Aktau doesn’t have street names – it has microdistricts and building numbers. So I off I went, from my hotel in Microdistrict 1, in search of the office with only my Lonely Planet map to guide me.
I made it at 11:47.
As I waited for my documents to be processed (the office actually stayed open until 1:00), I noticed a few other tourists arrive and we started to chat: a British guy, a French guy and a Spanish girl.
What happened next was the luckiest encounter of my trip.
As the Spanish girl (Blanca) and I chatted, it turned out that we had planned very similar itineraries for the next week in Kazakhstan. Most importantly to me at that moment was that she was heading to Beket Ata the next day. Beket Ata is an underground mosque and an important place of pilgrimage in Kazakhstan. Together with the necropolis Shopan Ata, it was one of the main reasons I wanted to visit Aktau. But as my visit drew closer, tour companies were quoting me ridiculous prices for a day trip and I was getting nervous about the prospect of trying to visit on my own by public transportation, which seemed to require taking a marshrutka two hours to another town and from there trying to find a jeep to take me the rest of the way (that’s where I was hoping to head Friday and Saturday).
Blanca told me her Couchsurfing host, Andrey, told her she could go by minibus directly from Aktau for just 4000 tenge (about $27). I was completely intrigued.
We ended up walking into the city together and having lunch, after which Blanca suggested we meet up with Andrey that night so he could give me the details of going to Beket Ata. Not only did he do that, he arranged for me to go as well – and to get picked up directly from my hotel!
Suddenly a trip that seemed out of reach was going to happen.
But it didn’t end there.
Blanca and I both planned to move on to Aralsk and the Aral Sea on Sunday night by train, arriving on Tuesday morning. I had emailed someone there who had told me he could arrange accommodation and an excursion to the sea, but when I responded to him with my exact dates, he never replied. I grew nervous that I would arrive in Aralsk early in the morning (2:35 a.m.) with no place to stay and then be stuck there for the day, possibly with no way to arrange an excursion.
But Blanca had already booked a homestay and excursion through a tour company. She contacted them and they informed the homestay host that I would stay there as well and just pay the owner directly. Then Blanca and I agreed I would just pay her half for the excursion – we figured it made no difference to the driver whether he took one or two of us (and indeed, when he picked us up, he didn’t say a word).
Finally, it turned out that we both intended to visit the Aksu-Zhabagly Nature Reserve in southern Kazakhstan after the Aral Sea. Again, Blanca had already booked a room at a guesthouse and arranged some excursions while I was struggling to get anyone to respond to me. She gave me the name of the place she was staying, I contacted them and, sure enough, they responded immediately.
I was all set.
When I arrived in Kazakhstan, I was seriously scared that nothing I hoped to see or do was going to work out. I was questioning why I was even going. I thought it might all be for nothing.
But serendipity struck. One chance encounter changed everything.