Almaty, Kazakhstan: Our Last Stan

Trip Start Jul 28, 2013
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Trip End Feb 06, 2014


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Flag of Kazakhstan  , Almaty Province,
Monday, November 25, 2013

Another day, another Stan. Which also means another death defying shared taxi or mini bus journey.

Picking up our passports and Kazakh VISA was no problem so at least our day started off on the right food. We then headed straight to the bus/taxi depot. Had to wait about 45 min until we had enough people on board to go but once we were on the road it was smooth sailing. There were no near misses and our driver seemed immuned to the usual F1 tendencies.

Crossing the border was super easy. We were picked out of the crowd and taken down a different aisle, passports were handed over and given back within a few minutes. That was us leaving Kyrgyzstan. The Kazakh embassy was only a short stroll away and we were once again in and out of there in a matter of minutes. By far the quickest exit/extry of the trip.

Great roads saw us arrive in Almaty by mid afternoon. On first glance it looked quite similar to Bishkek but on further investigation it was a lot more modern. Our hotel was backpacker luxury and right opposite the bustling Green Bazaar. We discovered KFC and Burger King so that was many a lunch and dinner sorted. Especially as Burger King had wifi.

Our days were spent wandering the streets. We must have walked miles - down to the Central Mosque, up around the shimmering skyline of the Financial District, across to St Nicholas' Cathedral. Each time we left the hotel we walked through the Panfilov Park within which stood the picturesque Zenkov Cathedral and war memorial where we saw two brides posing for photos. Had the enjoyable experience of visiting a Kazakh post office. With not a word of English spoken the seemingly simple task of posting something to the UK turned into a right mission. Let's just hope it arrives.

We weren't able to catch up with Simon whilst we were there but we did see the lovely Ulzhana. The first night we caught up she took us to a really yummy shashlyk place where Sam was treated to a face full of boob by a performing belly dancer. The embarrassment of others always makes for a good video. Great food and entertainment all washed down with shots of vodka and tomato juice chasers. They don't mix their drinks here - no G&T or Bloody Mary. It's a shot which you sip followed by a gulp of mixer. Apparently another good thing to have with vodka is pickled ultra salty vegetables. One look at my face had Ulzhana in stitches. You'd have more chance of finding water in the Sahara than my mouth after one tiny cherry tomato bomb.

Having failed to snowboard in Karakol, and being told the mountain was open just outside Almaty, we had grand plans to spend a full day boarding. Unfortunately our plans were scuppered early on. After waiting over an hour for the bus it was deemed pointless to go so we took a cable car up to Kok-Tobe, which was another hilltop view point. Everything up there was closed but it still gave us a good overview of the city, layer of smog and surrounding mountains. On getting back down we saw the elusive bus had arrived so we climbed aboard and headed up to a place called Medeu, some 30 minutes away.

The bus stops at a huge outside ice rink which is famed for having many professional skaters train at. Not wanting to practice our Torvill & Dean we walked to the cable car and caught that up to the ski resort of Chimbulak. Turns out it didn't matter that we didn't have time for boarding as the bloody slopes weren't open anyway. Ahhh so frustrating. As Sam said, we would have looked like right nobheads had we hired all the kit in town and lugged it up. At least we were able to enjoy a nice lunch in the sun followed by a hold of an eagle. Wow it was enormous and so so heavy. The man kept telling me to hold my arm up and move it so the eagle would flare it's wings but after only a minute I could barely hold my arm up at all! So much for getting big guns from lifting my pack. I had best go buy some more stuff. Not in Almaty though as it's way too expensive!!

We were warned Almaty was expensive but were shocked when our first meal cost GBP 50. Admittedly it was at an English pub called Shakespeare's. Cracking good curry though. In comparison KFC was more around the GBP 10 mark for two meals. Although it was nice to be back in a world of fashion, good coffee shops, patisseries and bars, it certainly came at a cost. The place Ulzhana took us to was a lot more reasonable but unless you spoke Russian or Kazakh you didn't stand a chance of ordering.

We spent our last night having dinner and drinks with Ulzhana at her apartment. We were going to eat out but opted instead for a breakfast roll complete with English bacon and sausages. Home sweet home. From there she kindly called us a cab to take us to the airport. Our time in Central Asia had come to an end.

Would I recommend it? ABSOLUTELY!! Best parts? Scenery, people, architecture. And it's safe (when not in a vehicle). Not so great? It was more expensive than we expected. Budget accommodation and food not that great. Transport was a ball ache - time consuming, expensive and uncomfortable. Power cuts. All minor things though when compared to the big picture. Kazakhstan was probably the most modern followed by Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan (which were about the same) and then Tajikistan. Iran was a big thrill and most definitely a highlight.

With temperatures dropping it's time for us to fly south for the winter where the tropical paradise of Thailand awaits with its open arms of beach bars, palm trees and crystal clear waters. Goodbye to the travels, hello to the holiday!

INFO:

Taxi: Hostel Inn Bishkek to Kazakh Embassy KGS 200 (US$4)
Taxi: Kazakh Embassy to Bus Station KGS 300 (US$6)
Mini Bus: Bishkek to Almaty dep 1100 arr 1530 with half hr stop at. Border. KGS 400 ea (US$8)
Hotel: Turkestan KZT 6,500 (US$42) per night. Private bathroom, dbl bed, fridge, TV, good location. Pre booked through booking.com.
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