Tuesday, 19 September 2017

A NEW START, A NEW STAN -Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

We arrived in Bishkek's main bus station in darkness, bleary eyed and feeling rough after a terrible bus ride from Kazakhstan. After an hour's sleep amongst the drunks inside the station on hard slated seats, we set off to find accommodation in the capital. We lucked out to come across a spic and span, brand new hostel, with our own bathroom with hot water, breakfast and a lovely, non-English speaking host. It was located near Osh Bazaar, a slightly dodge part of town, but the aspect was dramatic with big mountains rising over the city, and there was plenty of action.

We had been happy to receive two months visa free on entry into Kyrgyzstan, and along with free maps available at the hostel and so much information available on the internet, it was a sharp contrast to our struggle to find out information in Kazakhstan. However, as we were soon to learn, the price of such a welcome and ease of travel is many more tourists in the country!

Osh Bazaar was another excellent market- they really are a highlight of Central Asia. People watching and awesome fruit buying were our main activities- we once again became very excited at the sight of so many berries! After buying and scoffing kilos of strawberries, blackberries and raspberries, Rich had to stay quite close to the toilet the following day! Some interesting things not seen at markets before on this trip were pellets of chewing tobacco, hundreds of styles of fancy cakes, strange dried roots and a vast array of spices. We were approached by one of infamous dodgy "policemen" who hang around Osh Bazaar and prey on unsuspecting tourists. Amazingly, he immediately walked away when Rich growled "Go away"!! I guess we were lucky that Rich looks so tough, and that the "policeman" looked a bit weedy!!
The fresh bread baked near our hostel may have the best bread we had come across so far in Central Asia- that's with some very strong competition!! We continued our delicious fresh food picnics at the hostel.

Berries galore!! Bishkek Osh Bazaar, Kyrgyzstan 

Many interesting cakes and sweets, Bishkek Osh Bazaar, Kyrgyzstan 

Yummo! Bread, Bishkek Osh Bazaar, Kyrgyzstan 

Piles of spices, Bishkek Osh Bazaar, Kyrgyzstan 

Pellets of chewing tobacco, Bishkek Osh Bazaar, Kyrgyzstan 

There were more women in headscarves, more men wearing various head coverings and many little stalls selling Sufi offerings. Added to that the sound of mosques calling to prayer, and the city had quite a different vibe to anywhere we had visited in Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan. Having said that, there were certainly enough “scarcely there” numbers to balance things out! The Korean population was a surprise, too. We had heard there were many Koreans living in Kyrgyzstan since they were forced out of their Russian ruled area many generations ago, but until now had not seen Korean businesses and food such as kimchi salads for sale in other places.
We were to discover that every town and village in Kyrgyzstan has a least one mosque and they all broadcast prayers five times a day, a stark contrast to the other Central Asian countries we had visited. We found the kalpak, the tall white felt hat for men, a particularly amusing fashion, we couldn't imagine how it had come about. It didn't seem to have any practical use- there's no shade against the sun, it can't be pulled over the ears for warmth- it just sits up there for decoration, it seemed!

Kalpak seller, Bishkek Osh Bazaar, Kyrgyzstan 

Kalpak wearer, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan 

Stylish but seemingly useless, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan 

Bishkek was still hot, although not as stifling as it had been in Kazakhstan. We had to get out to the hills for a walk!! Issyk-Ata was the best choice for a day trip from Bishkek. A short marshrutka ride took us along a picturesque road to a sanatorium quite high in the hills. Brown big-bummed sheep grazed in the fields, and some pretty cottages amongst the practical concrete ones lined the way. We followed the locals up a tree-lined path that eventually lead through a gate to a wonderful valley surrounded by mountain views, shiny horses, wild flowers just coming to an end and yurts selling kymys (fermented mare's milk and a national obsession). We followed the grassy path along the icy blue raging river for miles to a waterfall until we became tired and returned to the sanatorium for a sticky beak around the old spa buildings and spring. It felt so good to out and about walking, and even the hazy views and slight drizzle couldn't dampen our enthusiasm.

Gorgeous view up the valley, Issyk-Ata, Kyrgyzstan 

One of the last wildflowers out, Issyk-Ata, Kyrgyzstan 

What a lovely walk, Issyk-Ata, Kyrgyzstan 

SO many butterflies here! Issyk-Ata, Kyrgyzstan 

What we'd been waiting for! Issyk-Ata, Kyrgyzstan

Finally made it to the waterfall, Issyk-Ata, Kyrgyzstan 

Heading back down the valley, Issyk-Ata, Kyrgyzstan 

The sanatorium is a bit of an institution in Russian and former Soviet countries. Workers could have a break paid for by the state for a couple of weeks and return to work refreshed. These days, those that are still standing are more of a recreational/holiday spa combined with medical treatments, which can be quite bizarre, but often involve thermal waters and hot springs. The settings are always in natural beautiful areas, especially mountains, due to the health benefits of the clean air. Unfortunately, the actual buildings aren't always in sync with the scenic surrounds, as the Soviets often favoured brutal, monolithic structures that didn't exactly blend in with the surroundings. Most that we know of are also extremely decrepit and not maintained very well. Amongst the places we visited in Central Asia, Issyk-Kol in Kyrgyzstan had the biggest concentration of sanatoriums, seemingly one in every second town!

Playing with the stream, sanatorium, Issyk-Ata, Kyrgyzstan 

Old building in grounds, sanatorium, Issyk-Ata, Kyrgyzstan 

Statue of a long forgotten man, sanatorium, Issyk-Ata, Kyrgyzstan 

Soviet remainders, sanatorium, Issyk-Ata, Kyrgyzstan 

Testing the waters, sanatorium, Issyk-Ata, Kyrgyzstan 

Posing for a photo (for someone else!), sanatorium, Issyk-Ata, Kyrgyzstan 

Old window in grounds, sanatorium, Issyk-Ata, Kyrgyzstan 

Where the mineral water ends up, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan 

A couple of days were spent exploring the solid city of Bishkek with it's plain tiled and concrete buildings sitting on huge bare squares, it's wonky footpaths and decaying government buildings and apartments. It certainly didn't pretend to be grand or beautiful! The best thing were the numerous parks with shady paths, large walnut, birch and oak trees, and wildlife boxes. Every street corner had a lady selling drinks under an umbrella, which we appreciated in the heat, although the milky fermented millet variety wasn't to our taste- we stuck to iced tea and mors, a fruity berry cordial. The beer stops at bars or cafes were also welcome..... for US$1 for a large beer, we could afford to do that! Marshrutkas and trolley buses helped us when we became tired of walking. The chivalry we had experienced on public transport so far on this trip continued, and one friendly driver even gave us a free ride!

Big foot, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan 

Fermented soft drinks, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan 

Soaring statue, Bishkek square, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan 

Flower seller, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

The Kyrgyz people share close ties with the Kazakhs historically, culturally and linguistically. Actually they are the same people- one group living on the steppes (arid grasslands), and the other in the mountains. The area that is now Kyrgyzstan was once home to the Scythians, then the Karakhanids, who brought Islam to the region. The ancestors of the present day Kyrgyz people came down from Siberia to escape the wrath of Genghis Khan between the 10th and the 15th centuries. Under Tsarist Russia thousands of Russians poured into Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyz men were ordered to fight in World War One. The two countries share the same tragic past under the Soviets, with many being forced to give up their nomadic lives and settle in towns, the most “rebellious” being murdered as part of Stalin's Purges- including all 140 members of the Kyrgyzstan government.
Before the lines were drawn up to create the countries of Central Asia, Kyrgyz people identified mainly as part of a clan, as a Muslim, or as a nomad.
The Soviet influence wasn't all bad, however, and some issues such as women's rights, education, industry, artistic expression and healthcare were improved.
Probably as a result of this tumultuous history, Kyrgyz now have quite the rebellious streak. A Communist government was unanimously voted in during the time of independence (1991), and at first the government showed signs of radical reform. But people grew tired of their corruption and nepotism and after many protests the Tulip Revolution overthrew the president and more elections were held. Five years later, again the people were unhappy with government's abuse of power, and amid much violence and riots the leader was once again deposed in a revolution.

Really needing to escape the heat, we travelled east to Issyk-Kol and onto the mountains...............

Couldn't resist another sneaky and beautiful butterfly pic!

Bishkek in context

Sunday, 27 August 2017

TOO HOT TO HANDLE- Aralsk and Turkistan, Kazakhstan

The Kazakh are, and have always been, nomadic horse-based people since they were the first to domesticate horses in around 3500 BC. The word Kazakh means adventurer, or free rider, and they dominated the steppes (arid grasslands) of Kazakhstan for hundreds of years. They divided themselves into “hordes” in the 15th century, which represented different areas, and to this day this remains an important part of their heritage. The hordes were the last great nomadic empire. In the 1700s, one of the hordes needed Russian protection, and this began the decline into Tsarist rule and the mass immigration of Russian settlers up until the 19th century. The Kazakhs were influenced by the Russians, and to this day have the closest relationship with Russian of all the Central Asian countries. It was the Bolsheviks that changed Kazakhstan the most, after the Russian Revolution. Communism was a disaster to the nomads, as part of the agenda was to turn them into settled farmers. The strong and proud nomads refused and killed all their herds rather then submit. This led to huge famines, helped along by Stalin who valued the nomad's land. To complete the horror, Stalin ordered tens of thousands of deaths of anyone he thought had thoughts of independence and likely to make trouble, in what was know as “The Purges”.
Before the Soviets, Kazakhs assigned themselves according to their clan mostly, but when the borders were drawn up in 1924, their new nation was invented and they were given a new identity. There were positives sides to the occupation such as the growth of industry, woman's rights, education, health care and infrastructure (“What have the Romans ever done for us?”). In 1991 Kazakhstan became independent following the collapse of the USSR, along with the other Central Asian countries.

Amongst the ruins in Turkistan, Kazakhstan

Where we are in the region

Out route through Kazakhstan- the yellow dotty line

These Kazakh blog posts are really living up to our blog name!! 
The train we took from Aktau to Aralsk was our first proper long distance Kazakh train (we were trying to block out all memories of the common train from Beyneu to Aktau!!) It was an old banger, all right, but somehow had an interesting and shoddy character, and we liked it. As the train began in Aktau, we were able to board early and make up our beds before the journey- that was after the pre-requisite photo session with some families in the carriage. We then watched with horror as the carriage filled up almost entirely with families with kids/babies, but actually, once we were up on our little bunks, we were quite separate and undisturbed from what was happening down in the carriage. As before, we had access to the only tiny window, and during the heat of the day had the hot and dry desert wind blowing in our faces, which was slightly better than no breeze at all.

Sneaky pic from the top bunk, train Aktau to Aralsk

Restaurant car, train Aktau to Aralsk

Fellow passengers, train Aktau to Aralsk

Catching up on study, train Aktau to Aralsk

The train stations we saw in Kazakhstan were all quite rough and tatty compared to the spic and span, well run versions we had experienced in Uzbekistan, and the Kazakhs were much more relaxed about security, with no showing of passports or metal detectors at entrances.
The scenery on the train trip was almost entirely flat steppe (arid grassland), apart from a small section with sand dunes, and we finally saw our first two humped camel!
*Note about camels: We've been confused about which camel is which, so here is an informative website that clearly explains the differences. Basically, there are two varieties- Dromedary (one hump) and Bactrian (two humps), with a few different cross breeds (mostly what we saw). We were disappointed not to see more Bactrian- apparently they are only really in Tajikistan.

Ship of the desert, train Aktau to Aralsk

Train Aktau to Aralsk

At 27 hours, it may well have been our longest train trip out of Oz. Kazakhstan is an absolutely huge country (ninth largest in the world- Australia is sixth), and although we love train travel, we needed to break the journey.

Arriving in Aralsk at one am, we quickly found a close by hotel, which wasn't perfect, but for US$7 each, with WIFI and a hot shower and literally out in the middle of the desert, we couldn't complain. We were surprised to meet a few overland groups in the town, and they were surprised to see us come from the train!

The Aral Sea was at one time the fourth largest lake in the world. Now it is greatly decreased, a victim of Soviet insistence that cotton should be grown extensively in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, and irrigated using the mismanaged water from the Aral Sea. The coast line from the once port town of Aralsk receded to 100 kms from the town during the 1940s to the 1960s. A dam was built in 2005 to try to regain water in the northern part (Kazakhstan), but the southern part in Uzbekistan was considered a lost cause. The water is now about 20 kms from Aralsk, some villages are within walking distance, and fish numbers and species are once again on the rise. So, although production is tiny compared with what is was (as is evident from the enormous trawler hulks in the defunct harbour), there is some hope. We heard there was a second dam being built, but we weren't able to ask at the local NGO, as they were closed when we were there. The positive work was not really apparent in Aralsk itself- a hot, dusty, and desolate place, with the empty harbour stretching as far as the eye could see.

Streets of Aralsk, Kazakhstan

Aralsk train station toilets

As we had to wait an extra day for our next train (the trains in Kazakhstan became booked up very quickly, and we were lucky to get seats at all), we killed some time looking at the “attractions” of Aralsk. Of the two museums, only one was open during our three days there, and even though there were few English signs, we got the gist of most of it. We were really interested in the current state of the sea, but most of what we found out was from the internet. We wandered down to the defunct harbour, and found some local lads paddling naked in some tiny pools of water amidst the rubbish and waste. The old factories and cranes lining what was the shoreline decades ago were a sobering scene.

The old harbour, Aralsk, Kazakhstan

The bazaar was the heart of Aralsk, full of dusty vehicles, people moving about and scraggy little parks and squares with statues of unknown heroes. The smell of grilling shashlik was in the air, and we enjoyed wandering around the many small stalls and shops, especially liking the lower prices for produce than we had been paying in Mangistau.

Old mural in the train station showing Aralsk in it's heyday, supplying fish to Russia

Shop in bazaar, Aralsk, Kazakhstan

Old Russian van being used as an ambulance, Aralsk, Kazakhstan

We came across some of the town drunks- there was the guy spread eagled unconscious every day outside the supermarket; the totally wasted man unable to walk being practically carried away by a rail guard on the train platform; and the disarming woman who appeared out of the bushes covered in leaves near the closed museum who tried to follow us. Then there was the happy old drunk who sat next to Rich on the train platform as we were leaving, and chuckled away and told stories for more than an hour, even though it was clear we absolutely no idea what he was talking about. Actually, it was a common theme in Aralsk, that the friendly locals would approach us (not usually drunk!) and start chattering away in Russian, assuming we could understand. We just smiled and repeated our few measly words (we didn't speak Russian, we spoke English only, we were from Australia and were here on holiday, and we liked their town), and they seemed happy!

We were lucky at most places we stayed in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, that they were very accommodating with our late train departures, and all let us stay on in the room past check out time.
Our next night train from Aralsk to Turkistan had a very different feeling to the other trips. It was arriving from Russia, absolutely packed (mostly with very different looking Russian people), pretty crappy and cramped, but very fast. As soon as we boarded, the train took off again, and once we had turfed off the guys lying on our beds, and gotten the bunks made up with the pretty flowery sheets (!!), we basically just slept until arriving in Turkistan the next morning. It was a nice feeling to take it for granted our belongings were relativity safe on the trains in Central Asia. With our bags tucked away high up above us, and room to keep our small bags with us on the bunks, we never felt nervous about theft. Of course, there are bad people everywhere, and it may sound naïve to say it, but it's really hard to imagine people here stealing! Certainly none of this sleeping with one eye open with everything chained together, as we do in India!

South Kazakhstan is the most Kazakh part of Kazakhstan, and we felt a distinct change arriving in Turkistan from the desert areas we had come from. It was so nice so see green and gardens again! We felt we had finally left the desert behind, although the dirt and dust that covered our bodies and bags from the last month and a half would take a while to wash off!
Turkistan used to be the name for Central Asia as a whole, but now is limited to one town. It is where the great Sufi teacher and holy man Kozha Akmed Yasaui lived most of his life and was buried. In the 1300s, the powerful leader Timur took over the place and decided to build a far grander mausoleum than was already there. Having had read that Turkistan was the second most important pilgrimage place for Sufis in Kazakhstan, we were looking forward to reliving some of our experiences in Beket-Ata, and learning more about the mysterious strain of Islam. The LP really talks up Turkistan, but as we had already seen the best Silk Road Timur architecture (in Uzbekistan), and also the fact that there were no pilgrims around for the three days we visited, we were left very disappointed. The complex was small, with just one big building (the mausoleum), and various smaller, lesser tombs, which were plain and not particularly interesting, or closed. Perhaps if we had come here first we would have been more impressed. 

 Kozha Akmed Yasaui's mausoleum entrance, Turkistan, Kazakhstan

 Kozha Akmed Yasaui's mausoleum, Turkistan, Kazakhstan

Poser, tiles, Turkistan, Kazakhstan

Anyway, it was still an appealing little town, with a cracking market- apparently well known in Kazakhstan for being particularly cheap and diverse. We certainly appreciated the prices, as well as the ice cream stalls every few metres! The mix of buses, shared taxis, exchange booths, food wafting and sellers calling out gave a bustling and lively feel to the place. The population was ethnically mixed and dress standards varied greatly from modest dresses that covered everything to short shorts and singlets. Scarves and caps were still very much evident. We were happy to see plenty of friendly faces.

Scary head, Turkistan bazaar

Man fixing shoes old style, Turkistan bazaar

Buying bread, Turkistan bazaar

Happy boy! Turkistan bazaar

Couldn't resist this photo, bazaar, Turkistan

Local newspapers on bazaar, Turkistan

So many melons everywhere, Turkistan, Kazakhstan

We also had the experience of staying in the town's number one nightspot, as our hotel doubled as a restaurant and disco every night. Although we enjoyed the spectacle of people dancing and having a great time, we were glad we had a quiet room on the opposite side of the hotel!

The heat had returned, and we found it was really wearing us down after so long, and on the spot we decided to change our plans and leave Kazakhstan a week early, and escape to the mountainous country of Kyrgyzstan. Unfortunately, we had left it too late to book a train, so for the first time on this trip we had to make other arrangements. The first step was a extremely comfortable large minibus to take us to Shymkent. Twenty minutes into the trip, we broke down, and Rich and I feared the worst (that's what travel in India does to you!). The locals on the bus were calm and accepting, even in the heat, as though it happens all the time. Forty minutes later a replacement arrived and we were on our way again. The Kazakh pop was a great accompaniment to the views of the fields mostly growing melons, and also small herds of camel, cattle and sheep, and the odd cowboy on a horse to round them up.

Once we arrived a Shymkent, we waited several hours and then boarded an overnight big bus to Bishkek, which reminded us why we always prefer to take the train! It was quite painful to begin with, as the bus was an old banger with no AC, and not much leg room, but was made worse by our very uncharacteristically annoying neighbours in the seats in front. The kid was an obnoxious brat with no discipline from his mother who preferred to stick her earphones in and play with her phone. After the kid spat his chewing gum in Rich's lap, and tried to hit him on the head with his toy car, Rich firstly appealed to the mother to control him, and then when that didn't work, whacked him hard on the hand. That did!! Immigration took place in a blur in the middle of the night, and we arrived more than half asleep in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan at four am.


A last note about costs in Kazakhstan:

Costs are about half what they were last year in Kazakhstan, due to a devaluation in their currency, the tenge. For us, this made a huge difference in our budget, and instead of being one of the most expensive countries to travel in Central Asia, as it was in the past, it was only a little more than Uzbekistan........and much of that was because we were in remote areas. Here is a break down of costs in Kazakhstan for those who would like more details:

(US$1= 325 tenge/AUS$1= 261 tenge)

Beyneu Hotel, Beyneu 6,000 tenge/AU$22
Aktau Hostel, Aktau 4,000 tenge/AUS$14
Hotel Altair, Aralsk 6,000 tenge/AUS$22
Hotel Edem, Turkistan 7,000 tenge/AUS$26 including buffet breaky

Accommodation was surprisingly cheap in Kazakhstan, and, because of the out of the way places we visited, varying in quality. Mostly it was great value for money, comfortable, and with our own bathrooms and a hot water shower.

Our spacious "suite" in Aktau, Kazakhstan

Crazy wallpaper, hotel room, Aralsk, Kazakhstan

Transport (per person)
Urgench to Beyneu train platzkart 108,000 som 19 hours
Beyneu to Aktau train common 1,100 tenge 9 hours
Mangyshlak train station to Aktau bus 80 tenge 30 mins
Aktau city buses between 50-80 tenge single trip
Aktau hostel to city taxi 300-400 tenge 20 mins
Hostel Aktau to Akshukar/Koshkar Ata taxi 400 tenge 20 mins
Akshukar/Koshkar Ata to hostel bus 90 tenge 20 mins
Hostel Aktau- Beket Ata group minibus 5,000 tenge each
Mangyshlak to Aralsk train platzkart  3,313 tenge 27 hours
Aralsk to Turkistan train platzkart  8495 tenge 11 hours
Hostel Aktau to Mangyshlak train station, taxi 1000 tenge 30 mins
Turkestan station to town marshrutka 20 mins 50 tenge
Turkestan to Shymkent big minibus 800 tenge 1 hour 40 mins (+ 40 mins breakdown)
Shymkent to Bishkek big bus 2500 tenge 8.5 hours

Obviously, we travelled by train most of the time in Kazakhstan. They weren't up to the standard of the Uzbek trains, but still quite comfortable, apart from the extreme heat. They were always clean and tidy (apart from at the end of a long journey), and we were given clean sheets with which to make out beds. Mostly there was no restaurant car, and we took our own food. One end of the carriage would always have a giant samovar, so we were able to make hot drinks. The best thing was the ridiculously cheap prices for long journeys across the huge country.

Kazakh train toilet (at the beginning of the journey!)

Every train has a toilet at one end and a samovar for hot water at the other 

Great storage system on Kazakh trains

Nice and clean and tidy at the start of the journey, Kazakh train

5 litre water 250-300 tenge
1 litre water 130 tenge
1.5 litre frozen water 140 tenge
Big ice tea 220-300 tenge
Big pomegranate juice 410 tenge
Coffee three-in-one 20 packet 700 tenge
Bread 50-100 tenge
Smetana 310 tenge
Big chunk cheese with walnuts 360 tenge
Jar jam 460 tenge
Large bag biscuits 270 tenge
Big bag pistachios 550 tenge
Whippy ice cream 80 tenge
Meal for two at cheap restaurant or fast food 1000- 3200 tenge
Samsa 75-80 tenge
Nectarines 600 tenge per kilo
Apricots 600- 800 tenge per kilo
Massive bunch spring onion 150 tenge
Apples two for 100-240 tenge
Plums 300-350 tenge per kilo
Potatoes 50 tenge per kilo
Tomatoes/capsicum/cucumber 70-170 tenge per kilo

Sadly, the food selection and quality was very similar to Uzbekistan. We avoided eating out due to the unappetising oily and fatty dishes and almost entirely self catered, which we loved. Breads, cheeses and fresh produce were absolutely delicious, and very affordable, even in the remoter areas.

The offending laghman (doesn't look too bad in the photo!)

Typically meaty menu, Kazakhstan

More greasy plov- they eat it in Kazakhstan too

Shashlik flavoured chips! Kazakhstan

Although we found the areas of Kazakhstan we visited to be somewhat challenging and a little bit frustrated, we were aware that we had really only touched the tip of the iceberg in terms of traveling in the huge country. We would love to return again and visit the far east and the more Russian north. But for now, the mountains and cool weather of Kyrgyzstan called us..........................