Opornyy, Kazakhstan

Today is hot, sweaty, and torturous. The road from Atyrau, Kazakhstan, to Uzbekistan is pockmarked with potholes that could swallow our car. We blaze along the cracked, broken asphalt at 15 mph.

“The camels are walking faster than us,” Andrew says. In the desert outside our car, camels are indeed strolling faster than our Justy.

In the blip town of Opornyy, we reach a crossroads. Cows are in the road. Dust swirls in the air. The houses are bleached white by the unforgiving sun. A small kid, about 12 years old, saunters up to our car. He wears a belt buckle that spins 360 degrees. We shake hands, as is the Kazakh custom.

I mime spooning food into my mouth. I am going to be a charades all-star when I get home.

The kid clasps his hands together, fingertips touching: house. He motions toward a two-level blue structure behind us. Upstairs, we find dusty day laborers devouring runny eggs crowned with bologna.

Team Dinosaur and Team Bugs Meany sit at a raised plywood table ringed by blankets and rugs. Japanese-style, we remove our shoes and make ourselves at home.

This is an apropos turn of phrase. The “restaurant” is actually someone’s house. The family’s dining room doubles as the customers’ dining room. Behind it is a kitchen. A mom and her two daughters are tending gurgling pots. Bugs Meany member Denwood, wearing dusty khakis, can speak enough of the local language to sort out ordering.

We settle on eggs, tea, a chicken-vegetable soup, and a frightening dish packed with tan and brown bits, alongside soft potatoes. The mom rubs her belly. We’re unsure what organs she’s indicating—or what creature they’re culled from.

“Let’s hope for cow,” I say.

We retrieve our meal from behind a mesh-covered counter. The soup is served on silver trays, and it’s stellar: loaded with carrots, onions, and a chicken leg.

The meats are springy and gamy, with a creamlike richness. I eat two pieces. Mims manages one. “It’s a unique flavor that’s too unique for its own good,” he says.

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