Kazakh Just Can’t Get Enough

Last week, Toby, Yugyeong and I were thoroughly probed, prodded and scrutinised at two national borders, before entering our first ‘Stan’. This week, we savour our time in a dynamic, urban metropolis, before driving the height of Kazakhstan, towards our next probing.

Day 29 – Shiderti, Kazakhstan to Astana, Kazakhstan

Our first morning in Kazakhstan, and after a hearty breakfast of eggs, meat and pancakes, we were ready to take on whatever the country could throw at us. Problem is, there’s nothing much we need to take on. Admittedly from a small sample size, the roads are reasonable (compared to Mongolia), towns are well-developed (compared to Russia) and drivers are less suicidal (compared to Korea).

We arrived in the relatively-new capital city of Astana for the first of a three-day-stay, and were instantly taken-aback with what we saw. I’m not usually enamoured by ultra-modern, ‘planned’ cities (Astana was designed and built almost from scratch over the last twenty-five years to encourage more Kazakhs to move North), but the town-planners and architects have done their best to avoid creating a tasteless Dubai or a garish Las Vegas. They’ve incorporated a large number of green-spaces, wide boulevards and older-looking buildings (as well as the unavoidable skyscrapers and tourist-enticing towers). Whilst everywhere is perfectly clean and easy to walk or cycle around.

Now, the World EXPO 2017 is currently taking place in the city and the eyes of many nations and their delegates are currently looking at Astana, and I’m sure they’re enthralled. But whether the high-standards the city has set will last after the visitors and exhibitions have all left is anyone’s guess. I’m inclined to say yes, as the government will do absolutely anything to stop young Kazakh’s leaving for Russia (including making a bloody-good city), the devils. Anyway, it’s good news for us, and we thoroughly enjoyed our evening walk around the centre.

Day 30 – Astana, Kazakhstan

Whilst eating another hearty breakfast in our hostel, we overheard the unmistakable enunciations of four haggard Englishmen in the corner of the kitchen. Mongol Rallyers, each driving a different madcap vehicle, happened to be staying in the same hostel as us. Knowing what lay ahead, deciding whether to give them hope or to dash it away wasn’t easy (after all, one was wearing an English rugby jersey), but we settled on doing both: honesty and encouragement. They, reticently, went on their way.

So, we set about visiting some of the many recently-built tourist attractions on offer in the city, starting at a large flag. There is nothing a despot (sorry, a legitimately-elected-leader) of a Stan country likes more than an enormous pole, with an enormous flag attached to it. With the risk of using an over-used joke: maybe they’re compensating for something? Although, maybe there’s a bit of despot in me too, as I also enjoy an impressively-sized flag. This one was excellent.

Astana also has several striking mosques, a reminder that we are currently in a melting-pot of faiths. The Nur Astana (next door to the infamous Bayterek Tower that adorns all the Kazakh postcards), was the first we visited. Although we couldn’t enter, walking around the outside was sufficiently impressive. We finished the day with dinner at a Kazakh restaurant inside one of their futuristic ‘Entertainment Centres’. The most we’ve splashed-out on anything since the start of our trip, and it was worth the indulgence. Celebrating one month on the road.

Day 31 – Astana, Kazakhstan

We heard that coming to Astana during the three-months it’s hosting the World EXPO and not visiting the centre was punishable by public hanging. However, not wanting to pay the ridiculous full-price for an entry ticket after our lavish spending the night before, we patiently waited in the adjoining brewery for the far-cheaper evening ticket.

The central spherical construction is, as the brochure puts it, ‘The Largest Ball-Shaped Building in the World’, I would never have guessed. Inside is a maze of displays, games, science experiments and lecture halls: where prominent environmentalists have been giving talks on Kazakhstan’s future sustainability. They are really keen on that here. Naively, that was not something I envisaged when I thought about Kazakhstan beforehand. Indeed, they seem clearly ahead of the UK on a wide-range of environmental issues, not that that’s very difficult. Very impressive Kazakhstan, good show!

Day 32 – Astana, Kazakhstan to Aksu-Ayuli, Kazakhstan

Our entertaining stay in the capital was coming to an end, but not before a visit to the outskirts of the city to see the largest mosque in all of Eastern Asia! Yes (once more) the Kazakh’s have thrown money at making something large and impressive, and have succeeded again.

It is a spectacular building. The white marble façade shimmers in the sunlight, whilst the great entrance is subtly-decorated with coloured tiles and mosaics in blue and gold. It corresponds with the majestic interior which, surprisingly, we were allowed to observe during prayer. We donned the required robes and sat at the back. Having never witnessed what prayer-time looks like inside a mosque, it was a rather stirring experience, and one we will, no doubt, encounter again on our trip along the Silk Road.

After leaving Astana, we joined the M36 (not quite the same as its British equivalent) and began the twelve-hundred-kilometre journey South to Kazakhstan’s biggest city: Almaty. With Toby (touch-wood) working well, we ticked off four hundred of those kilometres with no dramatics, and camped next to a Kazakh yurt café. It may prove useful in the morning.

Day 33 – Aksu-Ayuli, Kazakhstan to Mynaral, Kazakhstan

Prove useful it did, as we were able to purchase all of our drinks and snacks for the day-ahead, right from our figurative doorstep. A few hundred kilometres further South, along a flat uninteresting road, and we arrived at a town with an adjoining lake bearing the same name: Balkhash. The town was eerily quiet, and we enjoyed a hot dog and a stroll along the attractive shoreline without almost a soul in sight. Oh, how I marvelled at the irony of lazing on a picture-perfect beach in the largest land-locked country in the world (we’re also not too far from the ‘Eurasian Pole of Inaccessibility’: the point on earth farthest from any ocean) – it really made my day.

Continuing with the Lake Balkhash facts, it is also one of the only lakes in the world that is half salt-water and half fresh, fascinating! It is also extremely large (one of the biggest in Asia), and that came as a blow as we read it on Wikipedia, as we were about to drive around it. I wondered why a bridge hadn’t been considered, but the Kazakh government are fairly sure that global warming will dry it up nice and quick within the next fifty years – problem solved.

As the sun began to set, we thought it would be a lovely idea to have dinner and camp somewhere along the lake. So, we found a dirt track that lead to a small, remote peninsula and made our staple, pasta with a questionable sauce, having forgotten how torturous cooking next to a mosquito-infested-lake can be. In twenty minutes of hastened cookery, we were masticated from head-to-toe. Upon later inspection of the damage, several of Yugyeong’s bones had disappeared inside large domes of swelling, whilst I couldn’t see out of my right eye. Lesson starkly learned.

Day 34 – Mynaral, Kazakhstan to Almaty, Kazakhstan

A dawn alarm call beckoned as we were compelled to convince a local that we were not fishing in the lake, requiring our very best we-are-not-fishing hand gestures, before making a hasty retreat to the main road. We left ourselves a short drive to Almaty (Kazakhstan’s biggest city) and booked ourselves into yet another hostel – extremely hard to resist given that a one-night-stay is cheaper than a kebab in Korea.

Like Astana, Almaty is incredibly diverse and extremely clean, and that is where the similarities end. Almaty did not have the luxury of being a ‘planned city’, and thus is overcrowded, illogically-organised, and a nightmare to drive around – and I prefer it more. It has character and intrigue, genuinely-old buildings and genuinely-older trees – irrationally located in the middle of streets, or roads, or even houses. Over the next couple of days, I trust we can get a more authentic view of what life is like for the average Kazakh – just after we’ve paid a visit to the Irish Sport’s Bar across the road.

Day 35 – Almaty, Kazakhstan

For the first time in forever, there’ll be mountains, there’ll be snow. Having been stuck on horizontal steppe for what seems like several repetitious years, it is a fantastic buzz to look outside our hostel window and get a glimpse of the elevations that lie ahead of us over the next month or so. Somewhat daunting, yes, but equally stirring – to await the challenges that loom in the snowy summits.

But first, a look around Almaty’s sights and marvels – a bustling city market being our first port of call. An extremely weak sense of smell was required in the ‘meat quarter’, as row-upon-row of dead animal (including equine) launched a nuclear assault on our nostrils. We retreated to the Museum of Kazakh History, before retreating further to the Irish bar. A final Guinness (or several) must be due after crossing the ten-thousand-kilometre mark? Tomorrow, we make our way to Kyrgyz foothills…

Distance Travelled: 10,026km

J

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