Published: May 26th 2011May 26th 2011
And finally we're here! There's been a bit of a break, as we've been very limited as to internet access since Almaty...
We left Uzbekistan on the 6:43 to Almaty; a journey of approximately a day and a half. The first stage was nice and easy, as usual, until we hit the border crossing, then the usual interminable wait set in. Fortunately the departure from Uzbekistan was less fraught than the arrival, and it was rather nice to see the little guards compound from the train, rather than the inside, listening to the train departing without us. So, two hours at this border, which was interesting as the customs guards did identify a couple of the huge nylon bags, under our seats, and questioned us regarding them - clearly they weren't ours, and further conversations with neighbouring compartments ensued. The bags contained dried apricots - the reason for them being identified at this stage became clearer later...
After this we had most of the compartment to ourselves, a lovely russian lady joined us (all foreigners in one compartment, we think, in order to make the crossing easier), she shared her food with us, and we did likewise - all very
Then, the re-entry to Kazakstan, took another two hours or so, as usual. Again very nice and straightforward, so it was onwards to Almaty. The arrival here was interesting, as just before Almaty 2 station, the train stopped unexpectedly, and there was frenetic activity, as the various train guards, and staff offloaded various collections of items - carpets that had been stored in our compartment, and others in our carriage, balalaikas in other carriages, and mystery items that had been stored in the roof space - an incredibly well organised smuggling route we assume, with organised security on arrival, with the intial border crossing finding some items (ie dried apricots) to buy off the border guards.
Once we arrived, the fun continued, as we had no idea as to the place we were due to stay, having managed to locate a seemingly reasonable hostel via the internet, the taxi driver had no idea, but did his best, the hostel seemed to have no idea, but also tried to direct him by phone, and eventually he tracked it down; a climbing hostel near the mountains! In theory great, in practice, not useful for us (for any climbers who want to
stay in Almaty however, it would be perfect, with inside walls etc). The other thing that didn't help was the torrential downpour and thunderstorm prior to this, while we were wandering the town trying to cash travellers cheques; we are now giving up on them. ATMs work, travellers cheques are a pain. So we gave up and I booked the Holiday Inn with loyalty points :) Nice. Fantastic views of the mountains, and fairly central for town....time lapse videos to follow.
So we collected the tickets for Almaty fairly easily, then spent some time wandering Almaty, including the wooden cathedral, and the musical instrument museum, at which we were treated to a private performance! And then headed up to the mountains, to the skating rink, and dam (which was suprisingly lacking in the commonest thing found in dams - water.
Finally we then headed off for the train - the 23:43 to Urumqi; which involved spending a couple of hours waiting at the station, then onwards! The Dzungarian Gate, which sounds very Tolkien-esque, is the main gateway between Central Asia & Western China, which is basically the Tien Shan mountain range, narrowing down to a small pass, with
vast desert-like plains across the middle, for hundreds and hundreds of kilometres. The only things we saw were occasional tiny villages, usually existing only because of oil fields. This continued once we crossed into China (this time an 8 hour border crossing)except there were larger numbers of oil fields, coal mines and vast wind farms, eventually after hours and hours of this we approached Urumqi, a city of 2.5 million, so average on Chinese scales.