We leave Almaty on smooth asphalt, only to have the roads devolve into rubble packed with car-killing potholes.
“I’m going to write a strongly worded letter to the official in charge of Kazakhstan roads,” I tell my teammates as I swerve around more holes, as well as cows wandering into traffic.
We travel slowly, stopping sparingly and eating bread dipped in horseradish mustard. It’s sustenance at its lowest form, but it’s our last remaining provision. I’m hunting for a quaint café when catastrophe strikes: Our exhaust pipe separates from the car. It sits in the road a quarter mile back. We retrieve it, then drive to the closest café to make emergency repairs.
While Andrew bangs our exhaust back into place, I enter the café to buy water. My nose perks up: I smell sizzling oil. In the kitchen, a well-seasoned skillet is filled with what look like frying buns.
I hold up two fingers and point at the skillet. Two browning beauties are dropped steaming into a plastic bag. I bite into one as soon as I’m outside; a stream of lamb-and-onion juice scalds my mouth, but it’s a pain I’m willing to suffer. These are light and fluffy, and taste just like meaty funnel cake.
“For once,” Andrew muses, “it’d be nice if someone could exchange the meat for a little powdered sugar.”
These nibbles tide us over until late in the night. Near the Russian border, we stop at another kebab hut. They’re everywhere in Russia, wood grills sending smoke into the sky like an SOS. Team Dinosaur piles into a tiny, fluorescent-lit hut. A cantankerous waitress delivers a basket of soft white bread and takes our order of three kebabs. What meat are we getting? We’ve learned not to ask.
Imagine our surprise when a red-faced young man brings a tray filled with the most stunning kebabs we’ve had the entire trip. The pork is soft and luscious, and the smoky flavor is Carolina quality.
“No fat, no gristle,” Andrew says, topping a chunk with mayo. “Now this is what I call a kebab.”