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Published: July 20th 2010
Tien Shan Mountains above Almaty
View in the mountains above Almaty
Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
Our next stop on our rail odyssey (via attempted bribery by a border official), was Kazakhstan. We stayed in the city of Almaty, which was the capital until 1998, and still remains the biggest city in the country. We went from the sandy-toned romance and steamy, mysterious atmosphere of the Silk Route citadels of Uzbekistan to the cool, sleek affluence of one of Central Asia's biggest cities.
It was drizzly on arrival, which was a welcome break from the relentless sun we'd had up until then.
Almaty is a strange city, in that it is virtually impossible to pinpoint a centre to it - we saw the new 'Independence Square', which consists of some space for some symbolic statues by the side of one of the main roads, rather than a square in the more traditional meaning of the word. The city is one big grid, without so much as a street of bars and restaurants which you might expect to head to in the evening for a choice of venues. You basically need recommendations of good places to eat or drink, and a map as they are dotted all over town.
Saying Goodbye in Almaty
A final goodbye vodka with Braden in Almaty before Helen and Mike headed into China.
obviously doing well, on the upswing of major oil discoveries since its independence - flash cars and shiny new towerblocks abound, and it is the most expensive place in Central Asia. The most striking thing for us, is how quickly you can get out of the urban sprawl and find yourself in Alpine-esque mountains. Having been cooped up in rail carriages for the best part of the last two weeks, we were ready to stretch our legs with a good hike, and the weather cleared up beautifully for us on our second day.
We took a bus from our hostel, then a taxi up a track, and within an hour we were ready to start a steady climb up to a lake nestled among the picturesque Tien Shan mountains , which separate Kazakhstan and Kyrgystan. Whether because we were very near the border, or whether it is a recent development due to the current problems at the Uzbek/Kyrgyz border, the area was closely protected by the army. On our way up, we were stopped and asked for our documents by a soldier.
Braden decided to take more time around the lake to take pictures, and Mike and I
Dr. Evil's hideout found in Kazakhstan
We made a quick gettaway through the mountain valleys - James Bond style
headed off on what we thought would be a round route that would connect us to another trail, and bring us back down another valley to join up with the first. We arranged to meet Braden and our Honcho, Asim, at a Falcon Farm which we had heard about, later on that day.
As often happens, things didn't go exactly according to plan, and Mike and I didn't quite end up where we had anticipated (lack of a map might have contributed?!). Anyhow, an hour clambering over some unexpected and large rocks later, we found ourselves back on a road...we just weren't quite sure where in relation to the Falcon Farm.
Seeing a couple of locals filling up waterbottles at the nearby river, we went over to try and ask them directions. There ensued a Fawlty Towers-esque moment of Mike and I standing in front of some bemused locals, flapping our arms wildly, in the only way we could think to try and communicate where we needed to get to. The message got through and we got there eventually!
An interesting cultural feature we kept witnessing was a wedding day ritual, whereby the bride and groom, immediately
Babuskhas on the train platform - Kazakhstan
One of the many sellers on platforms along the route
after the actual ceremony, are driven around the city (and even up into the mountains), to have their picture taken in various symbolic points. So we in our trekking gear on the way to the Falcon Farm, were rubbing shoulders with a beautiful bride in her full regalia, elegantly negotiating the mud underfoot, glass of champagne in hand. They cover a lot of areas, and this goes on for hours - when we asked Asim what the wedding guests are doing meanwhile, we were told 'drinking, of course!'.
As some of you will remember, I (Mike) spent a summer in Northern Kazakhstan 13 years ago. I was also in Almaty for a few days. The change in the city though is incredible over that time. Roads are snarled with land-cruisers and people appear much more affluent. It really was quite dramatic i have to say.
But still, 2 trips to Kazakhstan and I have yet to see a man-kini anywhere! There wasn't even an exhibit of one on the Kazakh museum we visited! Disappointing.
Braden sadly left us in Almaty to go west (cue some vodka drinking to see him off in time-honoured tradition), so we continued
Chairman Mao's Mausoleum
Its a subtle small building in Beijing, you could easily miss it!
on our last 5 day rail marathon alone to get us from Almaty ultimately to Beijing.
Train from Almaty - Beijing - We're getting tired of them now!
Crossing the Kazak-China border was a 7.5 hour ordeal. Think high temperatures, train still and airless (with toilets locked), and us having no idea how long for. The hours were punctuated by officials coming through the carriages occasionally. Exiting Kazakhstan was fine, but entering China was something else.
First a phalanx of white-coated medics climb on board, and systematically work their way through the carriage, shining a bright red torch-like implement at each persons forehead without a word of warning. They were obviously searching for signs of illness, but which one? As the only westerners on the train, we were repeatedly asked with suspicion why we were travelling by train, and not flying into China, like a normal person with money would do. We were starting to ask ourselves the same question!
This was followed by a border official's eyes alighting on our Lonely Planet guidebook to China, at which point the mood darkened even further - our book was promptly confiscated, and we were ordered to empty
Hall of Supreme Harmony in Beijing Forbidden City
Sandwiched between the Gate of Supreme Harmony and the Hall of Preserving Harmony, near the Palace of Heavenly Purity and the Gate of Divine Military Genius....I'm not making this up!
out our rucksacks for inspection. It seems that due to Lonely Planet's map showing Taiwan in a different colour (i.e independent from) China mainland, the book is on China's banned list of literature. Our pleas for the book's return fell on deaf ears and stony faces, despite our offer to tear out the offending maps.
We therefore entered China feeling really intimidated and apprehensive - our guidebook was our only means of communication or understanding anything we were about to encounter.
China First Impressions
Our first stop in China was the town of Urumqi, where we had 10 hours to wait between trains. Urumqi is a big, busy chinese city without anything of interest to the visitor. Our main objective while we were there was to get online and try and see if we could find any english language bookshops in Beijing where we would be able to head straight to on arrival 2 days later.
First impressions of China are overwhelming. Arriving in Russia had been quite a culture shock, with all signs written in Cyrillic script...but China was on another level altogether - although we knew that it would be, still nothing prepares you
West 4 take on the Great Wall
Its quite up and down so might make a good cross country section!
for how much of an alien landing on another planet you feel.
There's not a single familiar cultural reference - it feels like being in a dream where everything has been scrambled, and you try to grasp at something you understand, only for that something to be always elusively out of grasp. There are signs on buildings but those may be for shops...or are they offices? Or restaurants?
In any other foreign country either of us has been to, one or two words (taxi, for example) are universally understood. Not so in China - while words can be translated into chinese using the roman alphabet, saying those words still means nothing to the chinese. The chinese characters have completely another pronounciations that we can't even guess at.
We didn't think that finding an internet cafe in a busy city would be a problem, but as we have since discovered, nothing in China can be taken for granted. Our Honcho (local helper provided by Vodkatrain) explained that a year ago there had been terrible race riots in Urumqi in which 197 people died. The Chinese government had subsequently cut off internet access to the whole city for 9
The Great Wall at Jinshanling
The remote location meant very few tourists so we almost had it to ourselves
months (!!), and most internet cafes had gone out of business. It took a few abortive taxi rides to eventually find a 5 star hotel that had (expensive) internet access.
Boarding our last train (Beijing-bound) that evening, we had a taste of the other side of the Chinese experience. Whereas Russian and Kazakh trains had been on the whole fairly hot, sweaty, grimy affairs, we entered our cabin to find beautifully made up bunks and fresh-feeling air-con! It being 3 sweltering days since our last shower, we were in heaven.
Two days later, cityscape gradually giving way to pagodas, rice terraces and lush green hills, our train adventure came to an end in Beijing - a city that feels like it is evolving almost by the minute. It pulses with energy and vibrancy, screaming traffic and shouting (and spitting!) people....while round every corner is some delicate, ornate carved shop-front, and peaceful gardens punctuate the rivers of cyclists on the roads.
The 2008 Olympic Birds Nest (inspiring!), the 978 art district (up to the minute and bang-on trend), the Forbidden City (stunning, if rammed with visitors), the night market (Hello? Sir? Sheeps testicles?) are just some
of the many fascinating aspects...best taken in by starting very early in the morning, and stopping to lay low for a few hours in the searing midday heat, before setting out again in the evening buzz.
The Great Wall does deserve a special mention - one of those 'must-see' places that actually exceeds expectations. There are several parts of it that you can go to, and it pays to go as far away as you can to avoid the majority of tourists who stay close to the city. We went to Jinshanling, and walking further than most, were able to find times when we were alone on sections of the Wall. It is the most breathtaking sight - the sheer ambition of building this wall that winds its way along the spine of the mountains as far as the eye can see...is just beautiful.
Concluding the guidebook hunt - we did find an english language bookshop, and found the beautiful array of Lonely Planets and Rough Guides...to every conceivable country BUT China. The government ban stretches everywhere. We got lucky however, when the following day another traveller abandoned their old book in our hostel...to our eternal gratitude whoever
Bird's Nest Stadium, Beijing
Posing at the obligatory photo spot!
One of the many ways in which China has surprised and delighted us is its cuisine...ummm! On the whole, Russian and Central Asian food had been fine, fairly unexciting and bland - meat, potatoes and bread mostly. Chinese food however bears little resemblance to what we get back home. Lots of different spices and herbs, a huge variety of interesting veggies, most things tasting really fresh and different...it's a bit of foodie paradise. And that's even without us trying many of the more 'adventurous' items on the menu (See photos from the Beijing night market)!
So after 5 days exploring Beijing, we felt we had a good impression of the city and it was time to move on. Also, the heatwave in the city was getting hotter, 37 deg forced us to call it a day. But where to go in China as its such a big country? After much deliberation, we booked ourselves on a flight to the Southwest and Yunnan province for some ancient towns, good walking and altitude (so cooler temperatures).
That's it for now. Hope everyone is well at home and have gotten over England's dismal World Cup performance. Keep the
Eagle at bird farm near Almaty
After much flapping to get directions, we got there in the end
comments coming, and well done to Jim, the only person to get all the logos right. See you in Delhi Jim!
Lots of love,
Helen and Mike
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