We were waiting for inspiration for where to go for our next trip, when we came across an “Explore” trip from Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan to Tashkent in Uzbekistan. In 2008 we had done a 6-week Dragoman trip from Istanbul to Tashkent, so this was a good chance to fill in some “gaps”. We booked this at the end of May, and added a few extras for various reasons. We arranged to fly into Almaty in Kazakhstan as we had to get visas for Uzbekistan, and we had a choice of paying A$700 each to have them arranged by an agency, as we had on our previous trip, with our passports arriving back in Australia from England three business days before our trip started (NOT very good for the blood pressure), or getting them ourselves in Singapore or Almaty. Australians no longer need a LOI (Letter of Introduction) but after some research found that if we had it, there was a possibility we could pick up our visa the same day, or after two or three days depending on which information you read. Just to be sure, we allowed a full week, with the idea that once we had the visa, we’d see some of the tourist areas outside Almaty. We also booked a flight from Tashkent, Uzbekistan to Astana, Kazakhstan to spend a couple of days seeing the fairly recent, modern capital of Kazakhstan. We then had to fill in an extra couple of weeks, as we have house swap people from Angers, France staying in our unit at the end of August.
Finally decided on flying to Chengdu in China (last visited 2001) to see a couple of things, including “Emei Shan” another famous Chinese sacred mountain (our fourth) then flying out of nearby Chongqing, where the Yangtze River cruises either start or finish. We were also here in 2001 before the dam was built, so it will be interesting to see the difference.
At the time we booked the trip, we were pretty busy taking Hazel, Dianne’s frail 96-year old aunt, to visit Phil, her 99-year old husband who had been in hospital for two weeks, and had been diagnosed with bladder cancer, and was not expected to live more than a week or two. As they had no children, they relied on us and Bernadette and Steve, Phil’s closest relatives, to take Hazel to visit, and to liaise with the multitude of people involved in the modern medical system. As it turned out, Phil spent over four weeks in hospital, and nearly five weeks in palliative care (much to the amazement of everyone, including the hospital staff), and we had to leave three days before he died. Not a good way to start a trip.
Wednesday 18th July, 2018 Sydney to Guangzhou, China
After a couple of days of intense cleaning for the home swap, and finalizing other domestic loose ends, we had fine weather to make our trek via the first ferry of the day, then train, to the airport at the crack of dawn. Managed to get our luggage booked through to Almaty, and had a more-or-less smooth transit of security and immigration, apart from a second scan of Murray’s passport. Had a long walk to where the new McDonalds is for a big hash brown breakfast, then walk to the other end of the terminal to Gate 9, in an area we have never used before, as we are flying China Southern for the first time.
We are in a double seat well back, behind the wings, so are in pretty good shape to see what is going on outside, plus have quick access to the loos, so conditions are pretty good. We fly right past our apartment building in Balmain East and head north west over the Blue Mountains and into the very dry western slopes. Because the entertainment system is seat-back, with a fair selection of films, the whole plane is pretty dark so we don’t have a lot of incentive to open the blinds -just enough to confirm the centre of Oz is pretty red and dry, with a lot of straight lines across it for fences and exploration. There is a fair bit of cloud all the way to Hong Kong, where Dianne gets some passing photos of the steep mountains, port and tall buildings from between the clouds. The air was surprisingly clear most of the way into Guangzhou, but got increasingly hazy as we got nearer.
The airport is enormous, so we think another plane landing on a parallel runway must be at another airport, but we have maps.me deployed, so get a good map of the whole area. The immigration is heavily automated, with stands along the path toward arrivals, where you have your passport and all fingers/thumbs scanned electronically, and you get a ticket saying OK if you tick all the boxes. Dianne had trouble at first with fingers not exactly where the machine wanted, but Murray couldn’t make the machine work for his fingerprints. An attendant explained that men over 75 are considered harmless (or words to that effect). Dianne had to do one hand again at the booth, Murray again considered harmless.
We have a 14-hour wait for our next flight, so had booked a cheap nearby apartment for the night. On our way to the exit, following the instructions to find our shuttle for our accommodation, on a whim we asked a woman in a China Southern uniform the way to the Transit Hotels area. She had a look at our boarding pass stubs, and said we had free accommodation if we went to the China Southern Flight delay desk. Always on the lookout for something new, we tracked down the desk and found we were indeed eligible for a free hotel. We were asked which hotel we wanted from the possibles displayed on an IPad. We settled on one which was only 18 minutes away, but couldn’t remember the name, so had to go through the process again, as the Desk girl was reluctant to recommend one. We made a lucky guess, as the shuttle to the HJ Grand hotel, which has a swimming pool, was ready to leave. We were given an identification sticker and the guide led a group of about a dozen, including a woman in a wheelchair (familiar ground), to a shuttle bus.
We had a smooth ride through the immense grounds of the airport and onto the expressway taking us toward the CBD. We pass a large, brightly lit ceremonial gate, and see our hotel, among other ten-story buildings on the right. At reception, we went to the special China Southern end of the desk, and, after our passports were checked, our photos taken and the boarding passes for tomorrow registered, we were given a key card, and instructions to be at breakfast at 5.30AM, and in reception by 6.10.
The hotel is a bit aged, but has an impressive marble and granite reception area, and four large lifts going up 10 floors. At level 8 we get out and walk a corridor along a large atrium, about 8 floors high, with about 50 tables set with white table cloths, with ten chairs also draped in white. The domed roof had a ceiling of square draped cloths. All pretty flash for a free hotel.
Inside the room, the surprises continued, as it was more a suite than a room, with two double beds, a lounge, a business desk, wi-fi, fridge, safe, and a separate glass-walled bathroom with a free-standing white claw-footed bath, glass-walled shower stall, high-tech loo, and even an electric modesty screen for the glass wall of the bathroom. On the down-side, the basin tap blasted Murray with a stream of water at waist-level, the fancy bath tap with a fancy white “cold” button on it was actually the hot water tap, and the bath plug would not hold water unless you sat on it. In spite of a multiplicity of lights, it was pretty gloomy, but pretty good for free, and much better than the $30 “cheapie” we’d booked, which we now cancelled for a $15 fee.
From the large windows of our suite, we could look down on the swimming pool complex, a 33-metre pool with sliding roof, other outdoor pools, and spas. About now we realised we hadn’t included our swimmers in our day packs, but went down to have a look anyway. There was a fair crowd in the pool, which didn’t look as appealing close up, and there was an interesting sign about a baby pool, which had lost the “l”, which gave us a good laugh.
Back in the hotel proper, we looked at the attached shopping centre, down a long corridor, where the shops petered out after the first few, and the corridor smelled increasingly musty. This is typical of ageing hotel complexes all over. We withdrew 800 yuan from an ATM, after trying for an odd number to get some change, and walked down the main road looking to take a photo of the illuminated ceremonial gate, but it was either further than we thought, or they had turned the lights off. We walked along the hotel strip, but it was pretty quiet, so headed for some bright lights in the street behind, finding an active shopping street with a lot of interesting food, but we were pretty well-fed from the flights. We walked back into the hotel through an unsecured back entrance to the swimming pool, and retired to the room for a hot bath and an early night, with three alarms set for a 5.15 AM start. As usual, the beds were fitted with thick dunas and no other bedclothes, in spite of it being 30 degrees at 10.00 PM, so we had to run the AC dialled down to an acceptable temperature.
Thursday 19th July Guangzhou, China to Urumqi to Almaty, Kazakhstan
We’re up not long before the 5.15 alarm, pack our bags, answer the wake-up call twice, and are down at the restaurant to flash our room cards and drop our gear at a table to start on the extensive free buffet breakfast. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to do it justice, particularly with Murray hunting high and low for a spoon to eat his cornflakes and hot milk. Didn’t have time to eat a boiled egg in honour of Bingers, and were reminded by staff that it was time to go. By this time most of the patrons had sneaked out without our noticing, and we were almost last down to the lobby to check out and find a seat, and wait for our shuttle.
The shuttle was a full-sized bus, and was full by the time we were supposed to leave. We were on the back seat with a couple and young baby beside us, and left about 4 minutes late -not a bad performance in herding cats. We were a bit concerned just where we would end up in the massive airport complex, but we knew we were leaving from Terminal 2, and were dropped off at the Domestic Departures for our flight to Urumqi (China)
We considered checking with China Southern to make sure, but the man at check-in was busy, so we punted high and headed for security and the not-yet determined gate. Security was pretty thorough, with shoes off, body scan, and Dianne’s backpack run through the X-ray several times. We found our way 500 metres with some moving footpath to Gate B250 (that is an indication of the size of the terminal) and waited for the lounge to fill up. As nothing much was happening, Murray went to the loo, coming back to find boarding happening unannounced. We didn’t wait till the line had shortened as Murray was a bit worried that we hadn’t checked our boarding passes with anyone, and with seat 54, wasn’t sure the plane was that long.
We had booked our current seating plan of one aisle, one window, in the hope of getting a vacant seat between us, but no luck. Our neighbour was a young Chinese man from Guangzhou, who must have ailing parents and felt a need to look after us, even though his English was limited. As on the previous flight, the food was good, and drinks were supplied regularly. The flight was pretty bumpy at times. The view from the window started out with urban Guangzhou, changing to small towns with farmland all around, then rural country with small villages mainly in steep-sided valleys in low mountain ranges.
Further on, there were higher mountains, still green, with larger rivers and farming along the river banks. From here the landscape changed to an eroded landscape of low, steep ridges and no sign of farming or habitation, before reverting to higher, forested mountains with gorges and occasional snowy peaks, which changed into steppe country with rolling hills and green grass.
Closer to Urumqi, the landscape changed to patchwork fields, some green, others harvested or ready for harvest, and occasional barren patches, some of which had been converted to industrial use. What looked like irrigated farmland continued right into urban Urumqi, with its multi-lane freeways, clover leafs and proliferation of high-rise enclaves, and blue-roofed industrial buildings around the airport precinct.
Our plane was carrying on to Kashgar. With our seven hour wait at Urumqi, we could almost fit in a flight to Kashgar and back to complete a loop started in 2005. We proceeded toward baggage check without finding anything in the way of a sign to International transfers, so button-holed a China Southern staffer with a clip board, and he pointed us to the China Southern Transit Rest Area, which was like a Transit Lounge, and supplied lounge chairs, food, drinks and Wi-fi. We are getting more and more impressed with China Southern as our flights progress. After settling in, Murray goes for a wander, finds the China Southern baggage carousel, and decides to have a check on our bags. Sees Dianne’s bag taken off by airline staff, then his and some others, so figures our bags are in good hands, and returns to enjoy the Transit Rest Area.
Later, in response to anxiety as to how we get to Terminal 3 departures, Murray goes for another walk, finds our baggage on a cart among other transfer carts, then walks the long corridor to another wing of the terminal, being very careful not to reach any non-return points. Walked a few hundred metres without seeing another person, or a sign, apart from the red stripe on the ground with arrows going back the other way and saying T1, T2, T3, which was reassuring.
When it was time to go, we checked and found we had to exit into the arrivals hall, and take an escalator up to departures. Immigration and security were tight, shoes off, belts off, then a customs x-ray check. There was a possibly Russian group making waves and creating some confusion, and it wasn’t till we were through that Murray noticed he didn’t have his belt. He was going to cop it sweet, but Dianne left all her bags and ran the gauntlet back to get it.
On our way from Guangzhou, we had talked to an Australian girl of Kazakh origin who is going the same way as us but had taken the later overnight flight from Australia, so was pretty shattered. She had made a very tight one-hour connection in Guangzhou, and had just found out her baggage had not made the connection. She’d also missed the luxurious Transfer Waiting area that we found by chance.
On the plane, our selection of H and K seats actually worked and we had a spare seat between us. We got some good photos of Urumqi on the way out, including the massive spoil piles on the far side of the airport. Murray was hoping the photos would clarify if they were mining tailings or part of some mega construction project, but they were inconclusive. On the flight 15 minutes out of Urumqi the clouds cleared enough for us to see steep brown mountains below with snow off to the north. 25 minutes out we have snow and glaciers directly below and 50 minutes out we can see the snowy peaks of the Tian Shan range across the cabin to the south, and get a telephoto through the window. 65 minutes out we get hazy views of the lakes of Kazakhstan to the north.
Swinging around for landing to the east we get a better view of the Tian Shan Mountains behind the city, and views of the city, which has groups of high rise apartments and spread-out complexes of lower rise, long buildings with trees in the grounds.
We are stamped in at immigration with the double stamp on our entry cards for up to 30 days, (no visa needed), and get our bags OK, but see the Australian girl at the lost baggage section.
Outside, while we are getting money from the ATM
A$1 = 250 Tenge
we are approached by a taxi man, who says he has a real taxi, and can do a taxi-meter fare to town. When we get to the taxi, there is a second man, who we didn’t want in the taxi with us, but he is just an expediter. We see no taxi- meter, so are about to abort the fare, but our bags are already locked in the boot. We are reassured when our man shows us his smart-phone taxi-meter app, with a 1000T flag-fall already racked up. We have seen taxi-meter apps before, so are reassured, and he also has an official-looking table of fares, so we say OK. The ride into town was fast, and relatively safe, get to our hotel, and Murray gets the bags out of the boot while Dianne pays the 15,000 Tenge fare. She was under the impression that Murray had said a fare of this amount was appropriate, and didn’t object. She also hadn’t checked the exchange rate, as Murray had. When Murray saw the fare, and objected the taxi man showed him the fare sheet, which did, indeed, show 17,000T, so we couldn’t really do much about it except put it down to experience. The fare in an official taxi or shuttle is 2,500 for locals and up to 5,000T, or $A20, so we were pretty heavily scammed, for the first time ever. It makes one sour even three days later writing about it.
The Hotel Voyage (11,650 frequent flyer points per night with Etihad) is on one of the main streets, pretty close to the action, but the entrance is in a side alley, and is not all that attractive. The lobby is well presented, and the staff friendly and efficient, and have our booking. It is pretty dark outside, and 9.30pm local time, but 1.30am Australian time, and we have been 44 hours on the go, and we have been pretty well fed by the airline, so we decide against an evening meal and collapse into our “king size” bed.
Friday 20th July, 2018 Almaty, Kazakhstan
Almaty has a population of 1.7 million and is at an elevation of 850 metres.
The main exercise of the day is to get the ball rolling on our Uzbek visa. Dianne has all sorts of information on how to navigate the procedures at the Consulate (including someone’s recent detailed experience from the Lonely Planet forum on the internet), we have documentation returned to us filled in, a letter of introduction, and we now know where the Consulate is, and know it doesn’t open until 3 PM. We have back-up copies of our passports, Kazakh entry stamp and stamped entry cards, and spare photos. What could possibly go wrong?
Breakfast at the hotel is pretty good, some interesting ethnic stuff, but enough recognisable food to get us through the day. The weather is warm enough for just shirt and trousers, and it is unlikely to rain in the foreseeable future, so we travel lightly. Set off east down Gogol, one of the main East-West streets, which leads directly to the Uzbek Consulate. The buildings in the street are pretty shabby in a Sovietski style of massive architecture, but the big names are represented – e.g. Round the corner from the hotel is Ermenegildo Zegna, Benetton, Gloria Jeans, Starbucks, etc.
Not far up the road we come to a massive park (Panfilov Park) with lots of pine trees, and a large, colourful, Russian-looking church in the middle. On closer inspection, the church is almost totally covered with scaffolding and mesh screens, but some of the domes can be seen. We walk around it, get photos of the church as-is, and also how it will be according to the large photos on the hoardings. There is also a smaller chapel near it without the scaffolding.
As we have plenty of time to kill, we walk up through the park, following the general slope of the terrain which rises toward the snow-capped mountains to the south, hoping for a better view of the mountains. We get to an ageing, but spectacular hotel with a tower like a crown, and what look like triangular balconies off every room, but the balconies have no floors or rails.
As the paper map we have from the hotel looks like running out of information, we decide we have gone far enough up the hill, and head east through another park to have a rest in the shade, then find the river/canal shown on the map and follow it back down to Gogol and the consulate.
The canal on the map turns out to be a running river, some 10-metres wide, with a strong flow of relatively clean water confined between vertical concrete walls, with regularly spaced weirs and flood gates. The river follows a main road, Karmysova Kamala St for a few blocks, then cuts diagonally between apartment blocks, with a walkway each side and no road access. It is a bit exposed to thieves, etc, but we make it through ok. This area has a lot of attractive beer gardens and outdoor restaurants. On the way down the hill we pass yellow painted above-ground natural gas piping we have seen in the other Stans, and insulated district-heating piping as seen in Russia, but generally this is in better condition. The apartment buildings along the river are ageing Soviet style, some in worse condition than others, others with inappropriate security additions, or extra weather proofing. One building has a massive, Valparaiso-style mural down six floors. Where the river disappears underground, we cross a large motorway, where we get clear views to the east of rolling green hills.
Reaching Gogol St, we head east a block to see a large group of people assembled outside a rather ordinary-looking building, and figure it is the Consulate, so go to investigate. An official in uniform and a large military cap figures us for visa applicants, indicates the gate and tells us 3 o’clock, and as everything we see is as described, we are happy to go away, as we have a couple of hours to kill.
We walk further east on Gogol toward a curved monumental gate, and find it is the entrance to Gorky Park, a well-wooded park with lakes and a selection of Luna-Park attractions, including Ferris wheel, Dinosaur displays, aquarium, electric cars for children, a dodgem car track, restaurants, drinks kiosks, sideshow booths. We decide it is time for a drink, try one of the restaurants, but it seems to only have beer, try one booth for Coke, find they only have local soft drinks, and in any case, cannot change the smallest note we have, a 10,000T, worth $A40. Further along, we try again, manage to get an apple juice and a quite good choc-coated ice cream, and a long wait while someone goes for change. We took photos of the well-done dinosaur exhibit, fountains in the lake, and a large, decorative Almaty sign.
With still a lot of time to kill, we headed for the famous Green Bazaar, a few blocks up Gogol, and a block to the north, but ran out of time and puff and decided to take it easy on benches under the shade of the trees you find in a lot of Almaty streets. While we waited, we watched a teenager ride up and down the footpath on one of the almost silent electric scooters which are popular. It had a surprising endurance, and a good turn of speed. Fortunately, we found a restaurant on the way back to have a cooling Coke and a bathroom visit, as it looked like being a long afternoon at the consulate. We’re surprised how tired we’re feeling as it doesn’t appear that hot, but we later find out it was 31C – the low humidity is very deceptive.
Back at the consulate, the crowd had thickened up, but we found a step beside the visa gate to wait for 3PM. When it was time to stand up, we got talking to an Englishman trekking tour operator who had been in the country for 12 years, who confirmed most of the information we had. At about 3.15 the gate opened, and, with no real queue, the crowd surged in. It was not nearly as bad as we had feared, as only a small portion of the crowd was going to the visa section. We went down a path and through a gate into an ante-room, with two ticket windows and a door to the left, as described.
We were able to hand our documents to a quite friendly man at the left door fairly early, but he soon came back wanting more information on the letter of introduction, including phone numbers and other references which we didn’t have. Dianne tried to call up her emails on the subject, but all the emails needed downloads. In desperation, we tried data roaming on Murray’s phone, but to no avail, and the whole situation was complicated by the Ipad running out of battery. In any case, the passports and all our information, and the photos which weren’t glued on, were with the consulate, and we could only wait and see what they would demand in the way of information, or whether we would have to go through the longer, no-letter-of-introduction path.
While we were waiting, we had interesting conversations with the Englishman and a Taiwanese woman with an Argentine husband, and followed the progress of two young probably Scandinavian women who had put their application in on Monday, and had come back yesterday, but the visas weren’t ready, so they had to cancel yesterday’s flight, but were assured they’d be ready today.
By the time it got close to 5, most of the applicants had got their payment slips, done the run to the bank, and returned to pick up the visas. Just after 5pm Murray was called, collected his payment slip and with the credit card and US dollars, hot footed it to the Centre Credit bank, two blocks back, on the far side of the road to hold a place in the line, or pay the charge while Dianne waited for hers. The bank entrance was on the main street, not around the corner as described. Murray asked where the payment for Uzbek visas was to take place, and was given a numbered ticket to wait for payment. Dianne turned up, found from others that payment was required in Tenge, not US dollars, and the Tenge amount was written on the payment slip, just short of 20.000T each. Dianne got 40,000 from the machine out front, the maximum amount, and just enough, and we paid and received payment slips from the bank teller.
We had plenty of time to get back to the consulate before 6pm closing, but hurried to make sure our luck didn’t run out at the last moment. The friendly young man who returned our passports wished us good luck and a good time in Uzbekistan, and we left before he changed his mind. With our passports safely stowed, and feeling much relieved, we felt up to the long walk back to our hotel, straight up Gogol with no thought of interesting side trips.
After a break in the hotel room and a sleep for some, we went out looking for the best and closest restaurant on Trip advisor, hoping that we were not too late as it was after 8PM, and starting to get dark. The directions to the restaurant took us out what we considered was the back of the hotel, which we were a bit hesitant about as it looked like it could be a bit dark and deserted. Imagine our surprise when we found an attractive, well-lit pedestrian precinct full of people, restaurants and shops. Having missed the recommended Mamma Mia, we continued walking a couple of blocks North down Panfilov Street, the pedestrian precinct, to another pedestrian street, Zhibek Zholy street, with more shops, restaurants and bars, and lots of people taking the evening air. We looked at a number of eating possibilities, but most featured cafeteria style pre-prepared mix and match food, which looked good, but had possibly been sitting around a long while. Returning to Gogol Street, we happened upon another Italian Restaurant, Papa’s, which looked OK. We settled for a fairly plain pizza and a tomato and eggplant anti-pasta, which were OK, and a Prosecco for Dianne and several bottles of coke.
Walking around after the meal, we found a large supermarket with everything you could require if you were living here, and settled for a large bottle of water and a coke. By now, we had been walking for a fair bit of the day, and Murray was feeling some tightness in his right shoe, like the sock was bunching up. The tightness proved to be a large blister on the front of the ball of the foot, requiring some immediate attention, as we don’t want to be limited in our walking ability on this trip.
Now that we have our visa, we have a week free to see more of the area, so in the evening Dianne spends time organising a 4-day, 3 night trip, and also a walking trip for 1pm tomorrow with Dennis Keen, an expat American, married to a local woman, who runs tours here under the name “Walking Almaty” and on Trip Advisor is rated 1 out of 37 things to do in Almaty.
Saturday 21st July Almaty
In the morning, after another good breakfast, we head out to buy a power cord for our Ipad at the local Apple shop, at great expense, and check out the Metro, which shows on our map as being nearby, but we haven’t seen it. Turns out to be right next to our hotel, and we’d passed it without realizing what it was. Afterwards, we head for a look at the Green Bazaar which we missed yesterday, walking east on the Zhibek-Zholy pedestrian precinct, which has a large, long, two story shopping mall built right in the middle of it. On the way we waste some time looking for someone to put a new battery in Dianne’s watch, which decided to stop on our first day, but have no luck.
The Green Bazaar is an enormous high-ceilinged building, similar to a lot of markets we have seen, and has a good selection of vegetables and summer fruit, a meat section divided into separate areas with signs for the different typed of meat – pig, chook, cow and horse, followed by the word ETI, which we later finds stands for “Ethical Trading Initiative”. The horse section was distinguished by the size of the ribs on display, as horses have a lot deeper chests than cows. As soon as we entered the market we were accosted by a particularly enthusiastic salesman who insisted we try a range of the dried fruits and nuts he was selling. We were talked into a kilo of mixed dried apricots, dates, little yellow plums, prunes, chocolate-flavoured pecan nuts, sugar coated almonds, cashews for about $A12, about Australian prices. At least we got his photo as well, so not a bad deal. Further down the aisle we bought half a kilo of large, but slightly soft cherries (the end of the season, unfortunately) from a local woman who also submitted to a photo. From an upstairs café area we took overviews of the market, including the horse-meat stand, and left out the back way past the clothing section, then around and back to the main street via the hardware alley.
On the way back, we tried to see the recommended watch battery man, but he was not at work, so we have no watch for the time being. Back at the hotel, Dianne continued working on the Kazakhstan tour, and tried to reschedule our 1PM walking tour to the 4pm as it was really hot, but no luck. Just as we are about to go catch the Metro Dianne gets a phone call from the tour operator, which takes up time we should be using to catch the Metro.
In the Zhibek-Zholy Metro station, we have a scan and a bag X-Ray, buy two subway tokens for 80T each, put them into the slot at the gate, and walk through with our financial interaction with the company complete. We descend a very long continuous escalator to a metro platform with tracks either side and a central pedestrian tunnel. The sides are clearly marked with directions, and we know we need to get to Abay Station, yet we still manage to get a train going the wrong way! Fortunately it only goes one stop before terminating, and we are able to get probably the same train on its return journey. We probably haven’t lost any time by our mistake, but one way or another we get to Abay Station at about 1PM. It is a fair walk uphill to the end of street where the Abay Monument meeting point is, and by the time we get there, it is 1.10pm and there are no likely starters for the walk. We scout around, ask possible starters, and find we are all alone. We walk a short way west to an ATM, and sit to consider our next move. Saw the cable car terminal on the map, and found it was right in front of us. We thought we could handle what would surely be an expensive ride up the mountain, but the girl cashier asked how old we were and could we prove it. While Murray was considering showing the girl photos of our passports on the camera screen, Dianne found the photocopies in the backpack, and we were given free return tickets! There are some advantages in being old travelers.
The cable car was not particularly busy, and so we shared the first car to come along with a family group of mother, daughter and grand-daughter. The cable car windows were pretty clean, so we got some good photos of the cable car system, the mountains in front, the town behind, and a suburb of middle class houses below us. On the grassy hillside in front of us was a strange, circular hedge with some other vague vegetation details which could have been a hammer and sickle during the USSR years, but has now been let grow out.
At the top, there were good views over the city and up to snow-capped Zailiysky Alatau Mountains if you do the circuit past the various side-show attractions. At the restaurant at the end of the mountain, we stopped for cokes, a look at the view, and use of their good loos, an opportunity which shouldn’t be missed in Almaty. People at the next table were young English travelers, and we spoke at some length about travel, and left them to it while we took the path past the zoo and aviary, and the bronze statues of the Fab Four.
We descended on the cable car with a woman and a young girl, and headed towards where maps.me indicated the Central State Museum, calling into some sort of large public building with a golden domed roof, and an observatory on a tower, but couldn’t work out what it was, so carried on via major streets, with large, modern buildings, down to a T-intersection with a very large looking public building behind a high metal fence, which turned out to be the Presidential Residence. We found the museum in the centre of a large park, went through security to check out the large, domed atrium and three floors of museum displays, passingly interesting, but with very little in the way of English information. Took photo of replica of the “Golden Man”.
The street the museum was in led down towards Abay, the street where we took the Metro, via large streets and some interesting road and footpath work going on, and we had to negotiate oxy-acetylene activity on the footpath. Back at Abay, we weren’t sure which way to walk, and maps.me was pretty inconclusive, so we asked a couple of girls, who indicated the Metro station was downhill. After walking a way, we decided we were going the wrong way, headed back up the hill to see a Metro sign and the familiar curved entrance.
After a rest back at the hotel, we decided to go to the pedestrian street behind the hotel, and walk UP the hill this time, to find an evening meal. The street was full of people, eating at kiosks and restaurants along the street. We looked at a large fish restaurant, but decided we were a bit far from the sea, so carried on up the hill, noticing an interesting, large, well-lit building further up the hill, so decided to investigate. After a fairly long day, it was a lot further than we at first thought, but managed to get to what is the Almaty Opera House, all lit up, with a large pool along the front with programmed water spouts, sprays and colours. There were recommended restaurants nearby, but nothing grabbed us until halfway down the hill we saw a trendy, self-select Mexican taco and Burrito place, so ordered burritos, which we finished back at the hotel.
Sunday 22nd July Almaty
We have been in touch with Dennis Keen about yesterday’s fiasco, and it turns out he mistakenly thought we were on the 4pm tour, so left right on 1pm (he usually waits up to 20 minutes). The only tour he has today is at 3pm, and is a tour of Malaya Stanitsa for US30 each, meeting at Panfilov Park, so decide we’d do that as he had such good recommendations and hopefully can tell us more about the country. Spent the morning taking it easy, as it’s even hotter today (about 37 degrees), and making tour bookings.
We head out with plenty of time today, going a different way this time, walking up the hill to the first main street which runs past the top of the park, passing a very impressive looking building of yellow- flecked masonry inside the park, with large fluted basins for fountains built into the facade. The building didn’t look quite right, and the stone used was unfamiliar to Murray. Knocking on the stonework gave a hollow sound, and knocking on the stair supports gave a metallic ring, so the whole building was a sham, even though it looked impressive from the street.
The Ivan Panfilov statue was where we expected it to be, but we were first there, and the plaque on the statue was written in Cyrillic, so we weren’t entirely sure it was the correct place, but two women, who were employed by USAid, turned up, then our clean-cut American guide, and we were ready to go except one of the women had split her pants and needed to go back to her hotel, fortunately nearby. We were going to the original village area east of the main town, which started off as a grid of large holdings which were subsequently subdivided, so walked up the hill from the Ivan Panfilov statue to catch a 65 Green bus down the hill, but, surprisingly, it did a U-turn at the T-intersection and headed back up the hill, eventually turning and coming back down the hill close to Gorky park and out into the suburbs. Catching the bus was quite straightforward, just needed 80Tenge change.
We passed what remains of the fort after it was destroyed by the Bolsheviks, and got out of the bus to find that Dennis had left his photo folder on the bus, so would have to explain, rather than show information. We stopped outside a large masonry building with carved stone decoration (possibly faux), which was the Community Centre from USSR days, placed pointedly in front of the small Orthodox Church, which we reached up a long driveway. The church had a classic low spire, with golden domes. The temperature was about 37 degrees, so the church was pleasantly cool. We were allowed in to look and take photos, provided we stayed off the steps where the altar would normally be. The ladies were asked to wear head scarves, the men to lose their hats.
The main room was white painted, brightly lit, full of icons, generally painted more human than most icons we have seen, some with raised metal copies of the clothes beneath, with only the original, very dark faces visible.
The building itself was all timber, but not obviously so, as the original log-cabin construction, with overlapping corner logs, is covered with timber planking to look like masonry walls. One notable feature of orthodox crosses is that they have three cross-pieces, one for the “king of the Jews” sign, one of the cross-bars for the arms, and one, which slopes down to the left, for the feet. The down-pointing side is towards the thief who didn’t repent.
From the church we walk the back streets, past large houses with very large trees on one of the corners, which were the original houses, and smaller houses elsewhere. The houses featured ornate window architraves and doors, pitched roofs, mostly covered with ageing standing-seam flat iron roofing. We walk to the square off one street which is the hardware and services market, and to the fruit and veg market, which was pretty quiet. Talk to the melon king, who doesn’t offer any product, even though Dianne’s tongue is hanging out for some in the 37 degree heat.
Being mid-summer, the gardens in every house were a riot of greenery, flowers and fruit. We were able to pick some ripe plums from trees in the street. The houses were sort-of looked after, but showing signs of poverty, with amateur repairs to roofs and buildings, ageing paint, and rusting roofs. A feature of the village, and something we have seen little of in Almaty proper, is the Sovietsky solution to natural gas piping – yellow-painted, welded steel piping running along the fence lines about 2-metres off the ground, then stepping up over driveways and gates, crossing the road at high level using larger diameter piping to support the span, with smaller piping to individual users welded into the main supply. It is a supremely ugly arrangement, but, like a lot of ugly Soviet solutions, may have practical use where the ground freezes too solid to dig up to fix leaks or add new services. The tour gave us an opportunity to see how the ordinary Kazhak citizen lived in the outskirts of the city, rather than in the expensive centre of town.
We catch the green bus back, get off where we thought was an ATM which paid out big sums, but turned out to be a money exchange. The women on the tour had talked of an ATM near their hotel, so we walked in that direction to the end of the park, saw one closed bank, but didn’t see another ATM until we were all the way back to our Metro station, and the ATM there was out of service. We walked past our street towards the supermarket, found one ATM which would only offer 50,000T, tried for 200,000T as an “other amount”, only to be refused service, but managed to get 50,000T and 170,000T at other machines, then called it a day and headed back to the hotel. We came out later with Murray’s card, managed to get another 170,000T. The reason we need so much money is we have booked the 4-day, 3 night 4WD tour with Suvtours Almaty for US$860 for the car, driver/guide (English speaking) and fuel. It is expected we will do 1,000 kilometres. We have to pay for our own meals, accommodation and tickets to National Parks, which is expected to be about another US$220 for the two of us. We had hoped to share the vehicle cost with a Canadian girl we have been corresponding with, but she had problems getting back from remote parts of Uzbekistan, and won’t arrive in Almaty till tomorrow, and we don’t have a day to wait for her.
We decided to try the exotic hamburgers at the trendy-looking Batyroff Burger for dinner, as it was just across the pedestrian street from our hotel. Interestingly they offered pitch black and bright red burgers, but Murray settled for a plainer burger, and Dianne for a Greek Salad.
We had noticed a strange couple put on black rubber gloves before their food arrived. We thought they must be cleanliness freaks, but a set of black gloves arrived with Murray’s burger as well! The burger was pretty good, a little rarer than Murray would prefer, and a slippery little devil, even with rubber gloves, so he finished it off with a knife and fork.
Back at the room, we finished packing at 12.30 AM, set alarms for a 7AM breakfast and 8AM pickup.
Monday 23rd July Almaty to Basshi Village
We are awake at 6am, breakfasted by 7.30, and picked up at 8AM by our guide, Michal, in a reasonably new-looking, right-hand-drive Toyota Land Cruiser, short wheelbase (later find out it is 18 years old, but in excellent condition). We do a loop around the city, apparently due to road works pass our hotel then head out on the major road east, leaving the city proper where we crossed the main road on the way to the Uzbek Consulate.
The main road takes us through industrial areas, where we fill up with diesel, and buy two large flagons of water. The main road takes us past Kapchagay, the only city where gambling is permitted, a rather sad looking place on a Monday morning with empty car parks in a variety of try-hard casinos, some of which look new and still works in progress, others looking on the way out, some empty shells. The road takes us past an enormous chimney beside the lake, with no obvious attached power station, but a fair number of industrial buildings.
We cross the dam at the end of Kapchagay Lake and stop for photos of the lake at a vantage point at 9.40am. The lake is large, with mostly low banks and has little to offer in terms of tourist attraction. We suspected this to be the case when we limited the number of lakes on our itinerary. By 10.35 we turn off the flash, four-lane highway across flat steppe country with dry grass plains or wide, shallow valleys between mountain ranges, at Sary-Ozek, a town with a fancy monument at the entrance and an unpronounceable name written on it. The road reverts to two lanes, still asphalted and reasonably smooth, which takes us into hillier country and finally over a pass in a range of grassy mountains.
Notable beside the road are Muslim cemeteries, some with elaborate domed tombs. This is a predominantly Muslim area, even though the mosques are very modest. We travel on reasonable tarred roads all the way to the village of Basshi, where we arrive about midday and book into a room-with-bathroom in Agay Kum, a large homestay/hostel, for 25,000 Tenge for one night with three meals. Have a good lunch of soup-with-meat and chicken-with-rice, leave our baggage in our room, and head out about 1.30pm. There is no internet service, and later find out it is because the electricity for the whole town is out from 7am in the morning till 6pm at night as they are doing some sort of work on it.
From Basshi, we drive on fairly good gravel roads across flat, steppe country, reasonably green near the village, less so as we get further out. We check in to the entrance to Altyn-Emel National Park, pay 6,000 T for entry for two days for two people, then pass through a boom gate into water-course country, with green, reedy grasses as high as the car on each side of the two wheel tracks. The soil here is very clayey, and a real problem in wet weather, which we are not expecting, but you never know… There is a lot of greenery on the track which has fallen off a hay-cart, as they are harvesting the reedy grass here.
We can now see rusty red mountains to the left, with a long, low slope of salt-bush or similar leading to the base of the mountains. Our tracktakes us around the end of the range where we see a change of colour to white. This is surprising considering we are heading for Ak-Tau, the Red Mountains. We stop on the way for some photos of the brightly-coloured mountains to our left, and find it savagely hot outside the air-conditioned car.
We drive up a valley to the place seen on the post cards, white fluted cliffs to the left, red pyramids to the right. Out of the car, the heat is like a furnace, over 40C, and some say it was about 46C, but we decide to give it a go, even though our target hillock for viewing is two kilometres up the valley. We get our hats, plenty of water, including the wet-washer bottle, and set off on undulating spurs from the mountain on the left, on pretty slippery gravel. It is a pretty long haul, even with a lot of drink stops and rests in the shade for a while, and the last pinch onto the hillock was hard, but we made it.
By now, there is a breeze blowing up the valley, and clouds are building up, so the return journey down the creek bed is relatively easy, with frequent stops in the shade of the banks, and welcome shade from the clouds building up.
Back at the car, Michal notices that one of the tyres is a bit flat, so applies the electric pump, but is not winning. He applies some water to the tyre, finds the leak, and uses a corkscrew-like tool to extract a sharp piece of rock, inserts a plug, and then inflate the tyre. We passed a hot half an hour in a National Park “shade house” waiting for this to come to a satisfactory conclusion and looking at rocks we had collected. There was a lot of hard, white crystalline yet fibrous looking rock about, typically 30 to 50 mm long. It might have been tiger-eye, but just as easily could have been crocidolite, the nastiest of the asbestos minerals, so decided Anna’s rock collection didn’t need it.
When we leave, the clouds are building up to a storm, and we can see rain in the distance, but this is no big deal, although there is the matter of the clay soil in the watercourse. About halfway back to the park entrance, in the middle of nowhere, on a flat gibber plain leading up to the mountain range, Michal stops the car. The temperature gauge has suddenly shot up into the red. We have lost cooling fluid from the radiator, and he is not sure why. After taking off the radiator cap, and having no steam explosion, he concludes that all the fluid has been lost and there must be a major leak. Peering down past the radiator he can see where the bottom hose has come off completely, and needs re-attaching if possible. It is very difficult to get at the hose clamps, so he has to unbolt the sump guard, work on the hose clamps, which are not in good shape, and reattach the hose, while lying on the gravel road with only mats from the car for comfort.
To add insult to injury, the storm that has been building up starts to break while he is under the car. The rain is thankfully only short and sharp, and he manages to complete the work. He manages to find enough water, including one of our flagons, to fill the radiator, and we are under way. As a gesture of confidence we are taken to the Kotu Tau Mountain more a highly sculptured red/brown outcrop, which is colourful enough and has a low escarpment beside it. We are warned to stay out of soft sand as there are a lot of vipers here which lay buried under soft sand waiting for prey to come along. It is a nice thought, so we are very careful to stick to the beaten track to the outcrop and up the adjacent escarpment.
The car goes a fair way before overheating again, then in decreasing distances we stop about another three times until we reach a village which has a series of water pumps along the main (only) street. Interestingly, the water supply must be pressurised somehow, as the pump handle seems to be used as a valve. Michal manages to find a lot of empty bottles in the back of the vehicle to fill, including one retrieved from the National Park, indicating that overheating may not be a rare occurrence. With a few more stops to refill the radiator we manage to make it back to the village.
By now it is raining quite hard, and we are not sure when Michal is going to make a proper repair, so are unsure what was happening on the morrow. We have dinner at 7.30pm- no soup, rice and meat, with tomato. We talk to Ralf and Birgit, a German couple travelling by motorbike – 3 months on the road so far, another five to go. Have come all the way from Germany down through Greece initially because Russia was too cold, then through Russia and Mongolia, and are now heading for Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, then five days in China to get to Pakistan then down to Lahore, then India and up to Nepal. They had to do a group tour through China with a guide, and they’ve managed to find about 13 people to share the cost of the tour, but it will still cost about $800 each.
The power was now on, but the internet in the room was bad, so Dianne sat in the sitting room, where everyone else had congregated for the same reason, and internetted and talked to a girl from Belgium and a couple who had hired a car in Astana.
Murray went to bed early, and came down with a diarrhoea attack in the middle of the night, and wasn’t a lot better by morning, with a fever, and feeling pretty bad. We tried a new approach this time, taking activated charcoal tablets, which seemed to help as he lost the fever.
Tuesday 24th July Basshi to EcoParkTour Hot Spring
It rained heavily all night, with lots of thunder and lightning, and was still raining in the morning. We were told this is very unusual. We were supposed to leave at 7am to get to the Singing Dune before it got too hot, but this was no longer the problem it was yesterday. We take it easy all morning, waiting for the rain to stop so that Michal can fix the car. Finally get away about 10AM. We leave the village and are on our way to the Singing Dune, with the streets wet and a misty rain still about, and it very overcast. We take off on a different road than yesterday, with large rain puddles in the road, and signs at the side of the road where water running the gentle but long slope from the mountains has washed the low gravel banks away. The one advantage was it was now MUCH cooler.
We stop to log in at the ranger station, a real outpost in the wilderness, with a house, outbuildings, the only decent clump of trees for miles, electricity and piped irrigation water from somewhere which leaks badly to form a small pond and an inelegant fountain. The road follows a sparsely planted line of stunted trees for a while, presumably following the irrigation piping, as there are no other trees for miles. We are heading for the gap between two ranges of mountains, designated large and small, following a zig-zag route designed to keep tourists away from wildlife habitation areas. Check in at an even more remote ranger station, located in another isolated clump of trees. As at the other ranger station, you honk the horn and an attendant, this time the wife of the ranger, walks the 50-metres to open the boom gate.
Not far beyond, we take a right turn up the gentle slope toward the base of the mountains to a group of three major standing stones, and several smaller stones. The standing stones are set in a rough triangle, with a depression in the middle, and tradition has it that this was Genghis Kahn’s kitchen, where the immense cooking dish was set between the stones to feed the hordes. There are no other stones anywhere near, so they must have come from the mountain range a couple of kilometres away, so there may be some historical accuracy. From the Kitchen, we look back to see what an ideal spot had been chosen for the rangers station.
Fifteen minutes later, we are at the parking area for the Singing Dunes. After the rain, they are a yellowish grey colour, not like the bright red tourism photos, but impressive anyway, very smooth and almost free of vegetation, with smudges of purple in some places, and low, but rugged rocky mountains in the same colour either side. Michal is not sure we are up to the climb, but the weather is still overcast, and fairly cool, so we give it a go, starting the walk along the beaten path as a precaution against the vipers which may or may not be present.
The lower slopes of the dune are quite solid, with a skin of about 30mm of saturated sand, and it is possible to walk easily without breaking this skin. Further up, the skin starts to break up, making the climb harder, even along the crest where the slope is least. The slope down the left (leeward) side is a lot steeper, and the sand naturally softer, particularly as it would have had less rain on it, so we try to keep to the right side as much as possible. The natural curve of the dune means that the climb is less steep near the top, and with a lot of drink stops we almost make it, but the sand up here is also much softer, so Murray accepts that the effort to reach the top would not do his fragile state any good, and we call a halt within about 30-metres of the top. From here we can see the view down to the Ili River on both sides of the dune, and back over the car park to the valley and mountains beyond. Having climbed to the top of Dune 45 in Namibia, which looked much higher, we have to admit we are getting old.
There was little wind and no loose sand about because of the rain, so we knew the dune wouldn’t sing for us, but the experience was still worth the effort. On the way back, at about 12.30, we stopped at the ranger station and looked around the grounds, where they have a fish pond with decent sized pike-looking fish for the table, 300-year old willow trees, a shady sitting area under the trees, and some fairly home-made structures cobbled together with odds and ends.
Back at the village, Michal cleaned the car, worried about going into a city with a dirty car, and we had a look at the museum, which seemed pretty well set up for a small village, but the electricity was still off, so all we could see was the geographical display in the large foyer. Some other tourists were looking at the displays using torches.
We were looking at the possibility of travelling in convoy with the German bikers, but they were travelling slower than us, so arranged to possibly meet in the main street of Zharkent for a meal at the recommended café. We take photos on the way out of the village, Muslim cemeteries by the road, typical isolated homesteads with at least one tree and housing for the animals, and the wide flat steppe with mountains beyond. Typically, the steppe slopes gently up towards the rocky mountains, getting steeper as it gets closer. The land close to the mountain always looks shrouded in haze, maybe heat induced.
We left the steppe, passing through a gorge and emerging into an area of smoothly weathered dark rock before descending to the plains where Usek Yeek, a large river, runs past the city (town?).This area is quite green, with a lot of maize in large fields, and irrigation from the river.
Zharkent is quite large, with a wide main street, traffic lights and substantial buildings, and has a big market and mosque which we are told is unique because of the Chinese architectural theme. For a country town, parking is hard to find, and we cannot park where we told the bikers they could find us, and end up across the street from the restaurant. We arrive at 3.30pm for a late lunch, of soup-with-meat (?) for Dianne, Borscht with a lot of tomato for Murray, not too bad, on a better appetite.
We walked through the market to the mosque, which looked like a Chinese Joss-house from the front, then walked around the enclosure, which had two layers of fencing, the inner in a substantial vertical and horizontal rectangle construction, typically Chinese, and the outer steel pickets with very sharp blades on top. Around the side and back, the true nature of the building was revealed, with a single-story hall with a high, green painted peaked roof, and at least two genuine Chinese themed minarets with many-fluted roofs and intermediate galleries in the Chinese pagoda style. The many substantial trees in the compound made it difficult to get a definitive photo. On making the full circle, a substantial Islamic style portal, totally out of keeping with the rest of the architecture, appeared.
We walked back through the market so Michal could make enquiries for a radiator cap for an 18 year old Toyota. In classic 3rd world style, we were directed through the labyrinth to a man who knew a man who might have one. After a successful exchange, reminding us of sourcing a window mechanism for an old Mercedes truck for Dragoman, we walked back to the car, finding no trace of the German bikers.
We left at 5.30 PM, driving out of town to pick up more Diesel at Sinooil, the Chinese oil company that Michal prefers to the local operation, and on to Chundzha, from where we drove 37 km out of our way on a flat tar road through steppe country to find our bed at EcoParkTour for the night. Michal had it on the phone map, but we still missed it. Dianne saw a sign further back, for Eco Park Tour, among a whole row of spa hotels, including one where they are still drilling to find the “natural” hot water.
This place was the one we wanted, looking a bit like a construction site, with major paving work in the forecourt, and a very industrial looking pressure vessel on a high stand, about half of the insulation on it missing. There was an enclosed mini-football field with very green artificial turf, and a stack of containers supporting a couple of water slides, possibly under construction. The place was pretty secure, with a big gate and a gateman.
It was about 8pm when we checked into our double room with shower and toilet, 16,000T for the night for use of the two hot pools, no towels provided, no hot water in the room (which is interesting as there is free hot water coming out of the ground). The pool was very close to our room, and we are subjected to extremely loud pop music being blasted out over loudspeakers. Michal said he was staying somewhere else, and he left us to it, but we saw him later using the hot pool, so not sure what arrangements he had made.
After a swim in what is quite hot water, hotter in some places than others, we dry off on our own small towel and a hand towel from the room, and go looking for the evening meal at the restaurant. We are not sure if we are too late, but girls cleaning cutlery welcome us in, and we take a seat. We are presented with menus written in some weird language and font, and the girls hve no English whatsoever, so we are in a bind. Dianne reverts to the old China trick of asking to see the kitchen. The cook is not pleased to see us, and declares the large soup pot on the stove out of bounds. Dianne sees a meal going out to the staff, and indicates “we’ll have that”. Dianne has a look in the bar, sees some lemon drink and takes a punt on it. The meal turns out to be chips, veg and meat, like a stir-fry and quite good, and the lemon drink, with soda water and mint is also a success.
It is really hot in the room until we find the AC remote hiding in a clip in a cupboard. We go to bed about 10.30pm, exhausted, but are woken late at night by very noisy arriving guests. The net result is that the half-hour hot pool swim for 16,000T was not worth the 37km (one way) detour, expensive room, and noisy night.
Wednesday 25th July EcoParkTour Hot Spring to Charyn Canyon
We are awake at about 5AM, with no real window curtains, and a plague of house flies making continued sleep difficult. Get up at 7am, get one breakfast at the café, and are away by 8.45AM. We stop in the town of Chundzha to visit a supermarket. We buy supplies, including a very palatable drinking yoghurt for Murray, who still has the diarrhoea and is not eating much. The supermarket is quite large, but very roughly constructed with uneven floors and sagging ceiling beams. Interestingly they have a large section selling bulk biscuits and sweets, like Australia 60 years ago. The Supermarket appears to be an Eco Park Tour operation, and there is an Eco Park minibus in the parking lot. Looks like a Chinese takeover on the way. We leave the highway at Chundzha. The road goes along the green steppe slope of a mountain, takes a sudden plunge into an unseen ravine with the Temirlik River running through it, then back to the steppe. We come to Aksay, a substantial village and turn right off the road onto wheel tracks which will take us to Yellow Canyon, the first of today’s three canyons.
We are travelling by the map, and Dianne is following on maps.me, which has the two-wheel-track road through the grass marked on it. We pass a group of Bactrian camels, a typical homestead, a group of horses, a pretty wild pigeon which thinks we can’t see it on the stony ground and a traditional wattle and daub winter shelter for livestock as we travel close to the river back towards where we started.
We stop at a vantage point overlooking the Yellow Canyon, where the rocks are mostly red, but there are yellowish rocks visible in the distance. Once we cover the steep, initial entrance to the canyon, Michal lets us out to walk a couple of kms, and drives ahead to park in the shade and have a rest, we assume. The walk is pretty pleasant, not too hot, with a light breeze blowing up it. We take photos of the red rock outcrops along the walls, and large boulders thinking of rolling down the steep slopes. We pass Michal at the car, say we are feeling fit enough for a bit more and carry on to a boggy place where the canyon opens out before turning back, as the canyon seemed to continue forever. A later look at the map indicates we stopped just short of the Charyn River and the end of the track. We are actually not far from Charyn Canyon, our last stop today, but it is on the other side of the river, and we have to drive a long way round to reach it. It’s about midday when we leave the canyon, and are passed by a car which we recognise as one driven by an English-speaking couple Dianne met at Basshi Home Stay.
On the way back to the main road, we can see their dust trail, but it is heading back to the highway towards Chundzha. Our return track to the highway takes us close to a homestead with a well-preserved animal shelter, and Michal takes us across country to get closer to the camel herd, which moves off when we get close, but we still get some good close-ups. We pass by a decrepit steel tank which has a herd of horses standing in its shade.
After getting back on the highway at Aksay, the road took us across smooth, gently sloping steppe before dropping into another ravine, this one not so deep, and the highway is on a berm across it. Halfway across, we slow and take a right turn off the berm and onto another 2-wheel-track, which leads directly into Clay and Moon canyons, without any steep approach. The road follows close to a long, steep escarpment of fine red/brown clay-stone, with darker strata running through it. Again, Michal lets us out to walk while he takes the car to the end of the road. The walk is quite pleasant, and as we get to the end of the road, we can see another canyon coming in from the right, and the main canyon continuing on to where the walls change to a darker, harder rock.
We decide to carry on further, try one track which ends in a sharp drop to a stream bed, so try further up, near the canyon wall, where there is still a ravine to cross, with slippery gravel, but at least not vertical. Our expedition proves the canyon coming in from the right is not the main river canyon, and only has a trickle of water, so we return to the car, past a large, mixed flock of goats.
Back on the highway, we travel through more steppe country before dropping into the canyon which leads to the Charyn River Bridge. To the left is a flat area just above the river which looks like a camping ground, and there is an old, low level concrete bridge. We cross the “new” concrete bridge to pull up in a car park on the far side and walk across the bridge to take photos of the river, which is a lot bigger and faster than we were expecting, and the bridge, which is a very shoddy piece of work indeed. The steel mesh safety railing for pedestrians wobbles scarily when you touch it, and is fixed to badly-spaced steel plates in the concrete by welding that is not even good enough for Government work. We manage to cross safely for a better look at the left (upstream) side, where we see a raft of driftwood has tangled around the far side support of the bridge, causing a lot of turbulence under the bridge. We walk across the upstream side of the bridge, where the railing is mostly in better condition, and walk up through the lower car park just in time to see a rider on a BMW cross-country bike leaving to go to the upper car park where our car is. We hurry to catch up, and find it is Birgit from the German biking couple. Ralf is out on a point over the river waiting to be photographed. Talk about their route so far, and their route through to China, swap blogs (theirs is www.travel2wheels.de) and emails, and they head back the way we came to take a turnoff we have seen which leads to the Kyrgyzstan border crossing.
We carry on up the hill through another pass in the mountains and onto the steppe again, where we take a right turn off the highway onto a gravel road under construction which leads to Charyn Canyon. The amount of roadwork going on indicates that the canyon is a major tourist attraction, as the road will be highway standard when finished. In the meanwhile, there are side tracks which Michal avoids, staying on the under-construction road and squeezing past road rollers and other equipment, and dodging steel pins marking the centre of the road. This side road to the canyon is about 13 km long, quite an investment in tourism.
We stop to pay at the ranger station (4,120T for two), see a lot of white painted shuttle buses in a parking area, and a lot of private vehicles, and drive to a vantage point from which we can walk down a slippery gravel path to a couple of view-points which look into the canyon proper, which is quite impressive. From here there is a really steep, slippery gravel path which we can take to the bottom of the canyon, but our traction isn’t good enough, and we don’t have walking poles, so we decline. Michal offers this as an option to the scary steep 4WD track down. There is also a set of concrete steps further up the canyon which we could have used, but these were not fully explained, and we were interested in the scary-steep WD track. From the view-points we can see the road along the canyon bottom, and a lot of people walking up and down. We went to another vantage point and took a long walk out to a point for more views. The track was clearly signposted against vehicular traffic, but this didn’t stop a motorbike traveler going past the gate and out onto the point. From here we could get better views of the main river canyon, out over it to the steppe and mountains beyond, and back up the canyon where a string off 4WD vehicles was assembled, heading out of the canyon. There was quite a strong wind blowing and Michal’s leather hat blew off and almost over the side, and he had to go out on the slippery slope to retrieve it, in a similar situation to the person killed at Uluru retrieving a hat.
We were on the way to the gorge descent when Dianne realised our water carrier wasn’t with us, so we went back to where we had been parked and found it, a bit tyre marked, but otherwise unscathed.
At the head of the gorge there was a parking area filled in a haphazard way by 4WD club members who had just exited from the canyon. We had to work our way through them to be the only car heading down, and a driver on the way past told us he was the second last coming up, and we were ready to go over the unnecessarily steep crest to head down. We had noticed that there were some major bulldozers working on a new car park, and a couple of hours work with one of them would make the approach a hell of a lot easier and safer, but I guess 4WD drivers like it difficult. The climb over the crest and look into space before the descent was, indeed, pretty scary, but with the Toyota in 4WD, low, low gear, and automatic, the descent was slow, if rough, and not nearly as scary on film and video as in real life. Halfway down the canyon, Michal dropped us off to walk the rest of the way to the resort, and we found it easy, with a gentle down-slope and a cooling breeze.
The canyon was impressive, with sculptured walls, large free-standing towers, and fallen towers, all in a stratified red-brown conglomerate rock. Some of the free-standing towers showed interesting diagonal fractures, but there were no new rock falls on the road. The road passed through a cave between two collapsed towers, making an interesting photo.
There were a lot of people on the road, most walking back uphill, as it was now nearly 4pm. We arrive at the spectacular resort site on the Charyn River at 4.30pm, and make a choice to book into the “hotel” for 20,000T for two, rather than the bungalows for 16,000T with no toilet, which is not ideal in Murray’s condition. Settle in to the pretty strange room, with a double bed garishly dressed in black and yellow patterned Chinese bedclothes, and a strange selection of European early navigation exploration wallpaper. There was no furniture except a strange white box like a tiny fridge, and one power point. There were two rooms at the end of a corridor, with a bathroom between them and a door isolating the three rooms, possibly to make it a suite if requested. The other room appeared to be occupied, as the light was on, but it was only in the early hours of the morning, with the light still on, that we worked out the room was probably vacant, which suited Murray as he was using the bathroom pretty frequently, in spite of doses of activated charcoal, which made for interesting colours in the bowl.
We had ¾ of an hour sleep, then a walk around to check out the “Eco Park Tourist Resort”. The resort was magnificently located on flat land on the inside of a bend in the Charyn River, with the fast-flowing river beside, and high, rocky cliffs on the far side. There is room for the hotel, a couple of dining rooms, about 8 large yurts which look quite well furnished for 8 people each, in a compound with a common area, and about 20 square bamboo bungalows. Additionally, there are about a dozen camping places, and a large gravel parking area. Down by the river there are rough wooden benches and charcoal braziers for cooking on skewers. We take photos of the very attractive river, the resort functions, the impressive cliffs with fantastic rock formations behind the village, and later at night take time delays of the cliffs and the moon over the river.
Although the location is great, the whole place is pretty rough, probably not helped by the difficult access for building materials and equipment. There is a reasonable menu at the bar area and we order chips with ketchup for Murray, and a lamb skewer for Dianne. Our first choice of soup with meat was all gone, monstered by a large group of children, who seemed to disappear in the night, as the place is very quiet in the morning. We did some diary and hit the sack about 11.30, for a reasonable night’s sleep for Murray, apart from a 2.30am loo visit which wakes Dianne, who only gets about half an hour sleep between then and when we get up about 6am. Murray is not getting any better, and we don’t want a repeat of our Morocco trip when we went home early (which WAS complicated by him getting a bad case of flu as well), so we decide to start a 3-day course of antibiotics so he should be better by the start of our tour.
Thursday 26th July Charyn Canyon to Almaty
By 6.30am we are taking photos of the canyon through the windows of our room, then do a walk-around taking photos. We don’t bother with breakfast, and are on the road by 8am, driving up the canyon. We get out to walk about a kilometre to take morning photos of the canyon, and a couple of grouse walking on the road, then are picked up by Michal. The climb out doesn’t look so scary, but is still pretty rough. We repeat the drive down the road under construction after squeezing past the last of a line of construction trucks parked on the road to prevent just that, getting to the highway about 8.45am. We drive over steppe country to Kokpek, a village near a large depression in the steppe which has what looks like a dam wall near the highway. The shop in the village is open and we buy the same drinking yoghurt, but in a bigger carton, take photos of the rather desperate looking village then drive on, looking for the turnoff to Bartogai Lake, which we miss and drive a fair way down an impressive gorge before we have to come back to a turn-off not far from the village. Not far down the road to the lake, we stop at a high point overlooking the large depression for breakfast, such as it is – drinking yoghurt plus the remains of some Uighur bread from yesterday. Michal helped with some good brownie biscuits, generally slim pickings for Dianne, but enough for Murray. Interestingly, the place we stop had some large rocks suitable for breakfast seating, but surrounded by broken green glass, probably from beer bottles, and a lot of broken corrugated fibro roofing. Michal is unaware that cement roofing contained fibres, and unaware that the fibres were a health hazard. This is interesting because Russia and Kazakhstan have a large asbestos industry, and the health aspects appear to have been suppressed.
We’re heading to the Assy Plateau. Our original itinerary included going to some popular lakes, but when we saw pictures of them they didn’t look particularly special, and Dianne saw someone’s comment that the highlight of their trip was the Assy Plateau with lots of animals grazing on the summer pastures, so asked if it could be included in our itinerary. We couldn’t find it on a map, and couldn’t find any more information about it, so we’re not sure what to expect.
We drove on tarred but uneven road down a long slope toward the lake, past the very green depression and isolated homesteads, with the lake appearing at the end of the slope, backed by high mountains on the far side. Our route is pointed out to us from here – on the other side of the lake a narrow road snaking up a gully between to mountain ranges. To the right the lake ends in a dam at the start of a gorge through high, rocky mountains. To the left there is another gorge which looks lower than the lake, but as we get closer we can see there is a large, fast flowing muddy river entering the lake at this end (the Chilik River). There is a two-span concrete bridge over the river and Michal stops the car to let us walk over the bridge and look at the lake. If we thought the bridge over the Charyn River was rough engineering, this one is a classic, built with a centre pylon and two cantilevered mass concrete abutment supports, after the style of timber bridges built by primitive societies to reduce the central span. There are piping guard rails on each side, with infill panels which look like old wire bedsteads, the concrete work is as rough as guts, the abutment protection is a stack of second-hand concrete panels from somewhere else. The dam site at the other end of the lake is out of bounds, possibly for security, possibly so as to not scare the general public.
The road across the far side of the bridge is built up of waterworn gravel, the first we have seen, with some very pretty patterns, but a bit large for Anna’s rock collection. The road winds around the lake shore at the base of a steep escarpment before reaching flat land and turning inland. The level of the lake is very low, and like most hydro lakes, it is not particularly pretty even though the water is clear and green.
The quality of the road deteriorates as soon as we cross the bridge, and we are back to two wheel-tracks with lots of large rocks, passing up the centre in a valley between two ranges of rounded hills with a thin covering of green grass. Ahead of us at the end of the valley is an entirely different mountain, much higher and rocky, with some greenery, and avalanche tracks down it. The road passes fairly straight up the valley, and we can look back to the lake for most of it until the valley narrows to a gorge, with the road winding and climbing between the rocky walls until we emerge into the wonderful grassy uplands of smoothly rounded hills. We stop for a break and a look around, realising that this was what we had come to see, the Jailoo, or summer pasture. It was definitely worth the rough trip up. At the top, we encounter one of Michal’s fellow driver/guides going the other way.
There are cattle-tracks around the steeper hills, the grass is green, particularly so where there are springs, but we are surprised to see no livestock whatsoever, even when we reach the top of the pass and there is a spring with a series of watering troughs below it, and a truck with a team of men and a horse in the truck.
Not much further along we see pine trees on the higher mountains and reach a viewpoint where the road starts to descend into another valley, and we can see it snaking away into the distance, far below. There are more rugged mountains on the right, and a river is out of sight in a gorge below them. We stop and look at the view and wildflowers, and Dianne catches a spike in her heel because she has not put her shoes on properly.
We do a steep descent through a defile on a rough rocky road, being careful of sharp roThe mountains we can see have turned much more rugged, although there is a brilliant green slope near the peak of one of them. We come over a crest and there is a whole new terrain before us. The peaks are pine-clad, the lower slopes are still green and smooth, but there is a strata of red mud rock protruding from the mountainside. This is the same material we have seen in the canyons, and is called, not surprisingly, the Red Rocks.
Below the red rocks we can now see the green ribbon of trees along the river, and do the long descent to the river, which is clean and running fast. This is a well-known camping spot, and looks ideal for summer use. About here we encounter the first permanent homestead, with the usual animal shelter, but no animals. We climb out of the red rock valley up a long slope on the flank of the mountain, with the river out of sight in a deep gorge to the right, cross a running stream and come upon our first livestock, about a dozen cattle and shortly after, in a pretty valley we see a motor car and a small hut, and a large mixed herd of cattle and sheep. This is a genuine summer pastoralist in action, and the scenery around here is magnificent. We carry on across rolling green hills, seeing a small herd of horses and a summer camp with a yurt and cattle in another valley. We get good close-up photos of the yurt and the outbuildings needed to run livestock. The terrain is now green pastures sloping steeply up to pine forest on the peaks, and is very pretty. There are streams down from the mountain to the main river which has come into sight below us, exiting from a gorge into a flat bottomed green valley.The river is shallow and clear, braided into many streams, visible a long way down the valley. There are widely separated yurt based homesteads on the right bank, and we cross the river at a fairly deep ford with a coarse gravel bottom, to climb up the right hand side and continue down the valley.From the bench above the river we can see across to more widely separated yurt camps, probably spaced according to tradition or herd sizes. We hear a whistling sound which Michal says comes from the beaver-sized animals he has been telling us are a local feature. We recognise them immediately as marmots, also known in North America as “whistle pigs”, and get a couple of good photos, as we can recognise their burrows and look out for them.
We enter an area with a lot more horses and yurt camps, and see a collection of 4WD vehicles which were probably the ones we saw at Charyn canyon, parked near a yurt camp with horses for tourists. A few of the yurt camps we see are for tourists rather than the summer pastoralists, and there is an actual village with conventional houses on the far bank. A lot of the horses have foals, most of which are lying down. Further down the valley, we notice a strange structure on the skyline, looking like the spaceship out of ET. It is an observatory with a hemispherical top, mounted on a high tower, presumably for some astronomical reason. We stop at a high point for another walk while Michal drives ahead. These downhill walks are a good way to clear the head and get some fresh air and exercise. The road descends, but the green valley continues for a few kilometres before narrowing down to the Turgen gorge, with tall pine trees growing beside the attractive river, which winds between high rocky walls. The scenery here is pretty, but quite normal, and vastly different to the Jailoo. Our itinerary includes a walk to the Turgen Falls, but Michal says it is quite a climb up to them, and it’s been a long day, and we’re happy to forgo them, though we’re surprised just how much water is coming down the side-stream from them.
The road we have travelled on today is one of the roughest roads we have ever been on, though definitely not one of the most dangerous. Our road now becomes smooth asphalt, wide enough for two vehicles to pass. When we reach the main road, we pass through Turgen, a fair sized city, then stop at Esik for a late lunch at a shaslik restaurant. We are on a good road through reasonably flat land, of no interest after the tracks and scenery of the Jailoos, so there is no photo record until we are back in the wide streets and flash buildings of Almaty.
Michal drops us beside the Sky Hostel, at about 5.15pm, and we pay for the trip before parting. Not sure how the company works, as it seems he is using his own vehicle – maybe Suvtours gets a percentage of the trip price?? Tip sizes are always a problem with tours, especially in this situation, and the local custom seems to be minimal tipping, but he seems happy enough with the $US50 tip, and says he can buy something for his two boys.
The hostel is highly rated (1 of 301 on Trip Advisor), and is on the 11th floor of a run-down commercial building, with a very bare, ill-lit foyer. There is a guard and a set of turnstiles, and we are gestured through to the lifts, one of which has a Sky Hostel sign against the 11th floor. At reception, the young man is very helpful, gives us towels, and sorts out the confusion on whether or not we have a reservation (the booking showed as accepted, but we got no confirmation as it said there was an error in our email address, which there wasn’t). We’ve booked a 3-bed room for 11,000 T, with a bathroom shared with one other room, as all the double rooms with their own bathroom were full. The room is excellent, modern and clean.
The room arrangement is not unlike the one at the canyon, only a lot better presented, with two rooms and a common toilet/bathroom and an ante-room with a separate door to isolate it from the foyer area, which should make it very quiet, except for the fact that there was a bank of lockers just outside our room for those in the dorms to store their valuables, and people accessed them at all hours.
The hostel is quite good, the staff helpful, and it has a great roof terrace, with views over most of Almaty, as well as the mountains (one of the things that attracted us to it).It is located well to the west of the cable car and Museum area we have covered before.
We have a rest, arrange to do the washing in their machine (500 T). It’s things like this that make the modern hostels so good. The private rooms with bathroom are just as good as any hotel, and they have extras like washing machines, fridges and kitchens, and quite often cheap tours, that hotels don’t have. They are a world away from the old-style hostels. Take some photos out of the window at 7.30 PM, and walk to the bank up the road for enough cash to tide us over and reach the Kyrgyzstan border tomorrow. We get the washing finished, find there is no dryer, but extensive hanging facilities on the terrace. Use our clotheslines in conjunction with theirs to secure our washing, and hope the low humidity will do the rest. The sleep situation in the night is only fair, with noise from the locker room and a late night loo run for Murray, and little sleep for Dianne for the second night.
Summary of Our Thoughts on Kazakhstan
Almaty was much more modern, and much nicer, than we expected. It had lots of nice parks, and thousands of trees planted everywhere. There were some very nice pedestrian streets with lots of different and trendy restaurants.
The canyons and the sand dune were really good, but we had seen similar before in various countries.
To us the highlight was the Assy Plateau. The scenery was magnificent, with the incredible green rolling hills leading up to sharp, pine-clad mountains, and the picturesque summer pasture landscape complete with animals and yurts.