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Posts from the ‘Kazakhstan’ Category

Goodbye Kazakhstan!

After only two days in Kazakhstan we have to say goodbye again and move on to Kyrgyzstan. You may ask why we spent only two days in Kazakhstan which is very short for such a big country. Well, originally we didn’t plan to go to Kazakhstan at all but enter Kyrgyzstan directly from Uzbekistan. However, the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) advised against all but essential travel to the Kyrgyz oblasts (provinces) of Osh and Jalal-Abad. Therefore, we changed our plan to avoid the southern region of Kyrgyzstan and instead visit Kazakhstan for two nights en route to northern Kyrgyzstan, the region our travel will concentrate on. Safety always comes first and as much as we love to travel to remote places the less we would like to find us in danger.

I really enjoyed our short stay in Kazakhstan and definitely will come back one day. Ideally, I would like to do a self-drive tour for 2-3 weeks visiting a number of small villages and staying with the locals. I was also surprised how much truth about Kazakhstan is in the movie “Borat”. It’s not only our local guide Svetlana who has the same accent as Borat but there are also lots of jokes in the movie which are actually true. For instance when a boy likes a girl he’s not expressing this by saying “I love you” but by kidnapping her. Svetlana also told us after the release of the movie less Americans came to visit Kazakhstan. I’m wondering why this is the case since the “US and A”, as Borat calls the country, is treated as an example for the future development of Kazakhstan.

After a night in the house of our local guide Svetlana we got up around 7am. Breakfast was cornflakes, same as we had for dinner last night. Isabella also had a chat with Svetlana’s husband who has a deep knowledge in the fauna of the area. His main field of study is the snow leopard which is very rare to see and part of the endangered species list. He even published a book on this species which he proudly showed around.

Svetlana’s house is situated in a very scenic spot in the small village of Zhabagly. From there you have a nice view at the surrounding meadows and mountains. There is also a small river flowing through the garden which some of us used to clean our muddy shoes from yesterday’s hiking. Heating and cooking is done with gas delivered by yellow pipes which you can find in the whole village.

We started driving at 8am towards the Kyrgyzstan border. Svetlana joined us to support us with the border crossing procedures at the Kazakhstan side. We stopped around 12pm to prepare lunch from the truck. It always looks very funny when we set up our camping equipment right next to the road. It consists of tables, stools, grey boxes with cooking utensils and bowls for washing up. Everything has its place and it’s kind of a routine for us. One example is the bowls. Two of them are for hand-washing (one with soap and one with Dettol). The other three are for washing dishes (one with soap, one with Dettol and one with clear water). The usage of an antiseptic should avoid us from spreading germs and stay healthy.

While we preparing lunch our driver Sam spotted a crack on one of the tires. We probably damaged it during yesterday’s drive on the muddy road. So before it will flatten in a couple of miles, he and Jason quickly exchanged it. Our lunch and tire changing stop also attracted some visitors. For instance one of the big commercial trucks stopped, offered us help with the tire changing and had a curious look at our truck. He even asked us if we would mind posing with him for a photo.

Crossing the border into Kyrgyzstan was very painless and didn’t take much more than one hour. At the Kyrgyz side of the border we also met our new local guide named Radik. He will only be with us for the first few days of our journey in Kyrgyzstan since our actual guide is still busy with another group. Radik used to be a guide for heli-skiing on the Kamchatka Peninsula. He will spend the summer in Kyrgyzstan since his father moved here. Unfortunately Radik didn’t prove himself to be helpful. He didn’t even have an idea about the stuff guides are expected to know such as activities we can do in the area or how to extend a visa which I need to deal with during the next days.

After crossing the border I changed some money. I changed Euro for my personal spending money and also US Dollar for the kitty I’m taking care of during this leg of the trip. We arrived in Bishkek in the late afternoon where we stayed in an Asian style hotel named “Asia Mountains”. Just around the corner of the hotel was a German type of brewery named “Steinbräu” where most of us went for dinner. The items on the menu were pretty interesting especially because I haven’t seen them in Germany such as a Bavarian rice dish.

Hiking in the Aksu-Zhabagly Nature Reserve

Our host family had prepared a lovely breakfast for us consisting of fried eggs, cheese, bread, pastry, apricot jam and tea. The seven of us staying with this family were sitting around a big table enjoying the food and this very special atmosphere of a rural Kazakh home.

At 9am we left for a day trip to the Aksu-Zhabagly Nature Reserve close by. It’s the oldest nature reserve in Central Asia and located in the western part of the Tien Shan Mountains. Special about this nature reserve is its flora and fauna. There are more than 1,000 vascular plants in the reserve and our local guide Svetlana seemed to know them all (also see her website). She’s very enthusiastic about nature why she and her husband moved to the small village of Zhabagly which is very close to the reserve. In addition to Svetlana we needed to hire a ranger to comply with the rules for entering the nature reserve. Actually with our group size of 12 people we were supposed to hire three rangers but there was only one available. The area here is very rural and it’s not popular among young Kazakhs to live here.

The drive was supposed to take one hour but actually it took us 2.5 hours to drive approx. 25 km. The reason was the bad condition of the road. It had rained last night and the road was all wet and slippery. Our destination was a ranger station in the nature reserve from which we were supposed to go on a hike around the Aksu Canyon. It’s one of the deepest canyons in Central Asia and therefore it offers spectacular views. Unfortunately the truck didn’t make it to the ranger station because of the muddy road and it was also going slightly uphill. We even got stuck but our driver Sam managed to dig the truck out and we all helped pushing it forward.

Because we didn’t want to risk getting completely stuck here, we decided to walk the last meters to the ranger station which took about 30 min. As soon as we arrived there it started to rain but we found shelter in the ranger station. While waiting we had our lunch which we had taken with us in form of a packed lunch. It consisted of a ham and cheese sandwich, a hard-boiled egg, a small cucumber, a piece of cake, some dried fruit and half a liter of water. The ranger station was quite cozy. It featured a couch, armchairs and even a painting on the wall. After 1.5 hours it stopped raining and we got ready to go.

We had the option of two different hikes. One option was to hike along the rim of the canyon and the other one going down to the bottom of the canyon and up again. Due to the bad weather condition the ranger suggested we just walk along the rim and we all followed his advice. Unfortunately neither the ranger nor Svetlana was able to guide us. Svetlana denied walking in front of us and showing us the way because she said otherwise people cannot come and ask her questions about the flowers. Actually this was all she seems to have an interest in and she was good for. Actually Isabella was the only one with an interest in the flowers and asking her a couple of questions. The ranger was also kind of useless. He didn’t even come on the hike but stayed in the ranger station. Svetlana said he doesn’t care if he has customers or not since he has a fixed salary independent from the number of people visiting the nature reserve. Actually there aren’t too many visitors since there isn’t much tourism in the area and the entrance fee to the nature reserve is too expensive for the local people. It’s a shame they cannot afford to see the beauty of their own country. Since Svetlana didn’t wanted to guide us, our leader Jason went back to get the ranger but he was also useless and didn’t even know the way.

After we hiked for about 1-2 hours Svetlana said we can take a shortcut back to the truck crossing the fields. She said we should see the truck after walking for 5 min or so. Unfortunately this wasn’t the case and I somehow got lost in high grass and muddy terrain. I walked for nearly two hours before it started to rain heavily. Luckily, I hit the road we were driving up to the ranger station but I still couldn’t see the truck thus didn’t know if to turn right or left. My gut feeling told me right, also because this was the way back to the village and not towards the ranger station. Now it started to rain cats and dogs, there was fog all around me so I couldn’t see more than 10 m. A thunderstorm was approaching and there was lightning around me which was pretty much scary. I just walked in my soaking wet clothes, shivering and hoping no lightning will hit me. After a while I could spot the truck and the others were already worried. They either could see the truck or walked with Svetlana and therefore had no difficulties to find the truck. Most of them were also soaking wet and had removed their clothes to not catch a cold. Paul, my fellow traveler from Canada, had wrapped himself into a sexy leopard print blanket. With his mustache he somehow looked like a Kazakh porn star. He also has given his mustache a name which is “Kazakhstache”. This name changes as we change the countries, so it used to be an “Uzbekistache” a couple of days ago and will next become a “Kyrgyzstache”.

When trying to drive back to Zhabagly, the truck was sliding on the muddy road and got stuck again. There seemed to be no way how we can bring it back on the road ourselves and therefore, Sam and Svetlana walked to the next village to get a tractor to pull us out. After a while they came back but without a tractor. Actually there was one but the driver wasn’t around. Since we didn’t know if we will need to spend the night here, we pitched up our tents and waited for help. After a while some kind of agriculture machine showed up and pulled us back on the road and through the muddy parts of it.

Back on the road again we drove to Zhabagly. We couldn’t afford to be stuck in the mountains since the Kazakhstan visa of some travelers in our group will expire tomorrow and we need to bring them over the border. Svetlana was so kind and invited us to sleep on the floor of two completely empty rooms in her house. We laid out our mattresses and sleeping bags, one next to the other, and had a nice dorm-style sleeping space. Since it was already 10pm nobody was keen on cooking dinner. Therefore, we just sat in Svetlana’s kitchen and had some cornflakes. Overlanding isn’t about comfort but about being in places and situations like this one and enjoying it. It’s all part of the adventure…

Five Hours at the Kazakhstan Border and Homestay in Zhabagly

Tashkent was only a short drive away from the Kazakhstan border which we crossed today. The immigration procedure at the Uzbekistan side was pretty quick. We needed to fill in a departure form which was very much identical to the one we submitted upon entry of the country. Again, we were required to declare all money we carry with us in all kinds of different currencies. This declaration was then compared to the one on the entry form so the government knows exactly how much money you have spent in the country. This was actually the reason why we needed to complete two forms upon entry, one to hand in and one to keep for the departure check. When filling in the departure form you should make sure you have spent a reasonable amount of money, at least on the paper. Put at least one USD less down as on the arrival form, otherwise this might cause confusion and potentially trouble which delays your departure. However, nobody wanted to physically see and count our money but I heard they sometime do. What they were also not too interested in were the hotel slips we have painfully collected during the last days but probably it’s better to have them than not to have them.

The procedure at the Kazakhstan side took significantly longer. Immigration itself went pretty smoothly. There was just one officer who had a closer look at my passport, complimenting me for looking younger than my actual age and asked me if I’m married. He did the same to two other women in our group. Less smooth was the truck paperwork where they were pushing our driver Sam around. First he was requested to line up with a bunch of commercial trucks. Usually we are allowed to line up with the coaches which is significantly quicker. So Sam waited about 1.5 hours in line. While standing there he wanted to start the paperwork but they didn’t allow it until the truck was right in front of them in line. When this was the case he received a piece of paper where he needed to collect the stamp and signature of six different people. He spent 2.5 hours running around to find these people. One of them looked at him as he never saw this kind of paper before and didn’t know what to do with it. Another one wanted a bribe in order to process the form. He was signaling this by folding a piece of paper and moving it to Sam’s side of the table so he could place money inside. Sam just took it and slowly ripped it into two pieces signaling he will not pay any bribe. After he collected all six stamps and signatures he returned to the guy who gave him the paper. He just took it without showing real interest and looking at it, how frustrating… The last challenge was to find the guy who’s responsible for opening the gate. He had somehow disappeared and it took a while to find him.

While Sam was busy with the paperwork we were hanging out at the Kazakhstan side of the village. Some of us had small US dollar notes and where able to buy a cold drink which we enjoyed in front of a small shop. Since its rare tourists entering the country it didn’t take long until we had half of the village around us, starring at us and trying to communicate with us using body gestures. After killing 2-3 hours here our local Kazakhstan guide showed up. Her name is Svetlana and she was primarily helping Sam with his paperwork. She showed us a little restaurant around the corner and helped us to order lunch before she disappeared again.

After we finished all border procedures we drove to Shymkent the third largest city in Kazakhstan. Here we stopped for an hour for the cook group to go shopping in the supermarket. I wasn’t up for cooking but since there wasn’t much too see, I also went for a stroll to the supermarket. In comparison to what we saw in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan we were amazed by the wide selection of products and much lower prices for some items. While you pay a little fortune for often unrefrigerated yoghurt in Uzbekistan, the yoghurt here was fresher and prices appeared much more reasonable.

After shopping we continued driving to Zhabagly which is a small farming village with 2,000 inhabitants located north of the Aksu-Zhabagly Nature Reserve. Here our group got split and distributed to the houses of two local families with whom we spent the night. Unfortunately they weren’t too sociable since they didn’t speak any English. They were mainly sitting in the kitchen while we had a look at our lovely home style rooms and having dinner. Isabella’s and my room only featured one large bed which we needed to share. The whole interior of the house was kind of old fashioned and very much reminded me of the interior we had in the rural areas of the GDR. Dinner was prepared by our host mother and the kids. We had salad with tomatoes, cucumbers and yoghurt for starter, soup with vegetables, potatoes and goat meat for main and pastry with apricot jam as well as black tea for desert.