It takes Team Dinosaur two hours in the 100-degree heat to cross the Uzbekistan border. The process is smooth, but our spirits are broken by the oppressive heat and the fact that three days have passed since we’ve showered.
“Cold water. I need cold water,” Andrew says.
We stop at the first town we see. Rather, we’re stopped at the first town we see. A stick-thin teenage boy is guarding a zebra-striped gate, preventing our forward progress. He walks out to greet us, and we ask him about the best place to eat by faking shoveling food in our faces.
He lifts the gate and points toward a pint-size café surrounded by oil-stained men disassembling a truck’s engine. They smile and motion for us to sit down at a long, outdoor table shaded by an overhang. We remove our shoes and plop down on rugs and blankets.
This signals a seismic shift in the roadside dining culture. In Russia and large parts of Kazakhstan, food’s seen as a necessary substance you cram down wherever you can. Now, apparently, the roadside cafés have become teahouses. A woman wearing a blue zip-up dress with Real Life written on it provides us with a pot of green tea. Our cups are tiny bowls. Our food is also wildly different than what we’ve recently been served.
The circular bread loaves are hot, steamy, and inlaid with intricate designs, like needlework. They’ve apparently been freshly baked in a clay, gas-powered oven behind the restaurant.
Manty (dumplings) come, stuffed with lamb and onions. They’re as good as anything I have eaten in New York City’s Chinatown.
“They actually make spicy food,” Andrew says, spooning chile paste from a jar. It’s Thai in nature, a little sweet and sinus-clearing. Our soup is a minor disappointment: I expect homemade noodles and a rich, meaty broth with lamb chunks. Instead, I receive spaghetti noodles and tiny nubs of meat, along with fingernail-size potatoes. Nonetheless, it’s a bright harbinger of better cuisine to come.