Taking a break in Kazakhstan

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October 11th 2011
Published: October 26th 2011
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Bread sellerBread sellerBread seller

Bread seller in Kentau
This is a story of the peril of potholes and the immense kindness of Kazakh people. Although it is also the tale of my holiday adventures with Joan and Nikki it is the people we met and who helped us that are most important. The stupid cinema stereotypes that have maligned Kazakhstan and its people bear no resemblance to the openness, intelligence, generosity and kindness of Kazakhs in their home country.

Almaty to Turkestan by train

At last it was time for me to have a short break from work as Nikki and Joan, friends from the UK, came over to join me in Kazakhstan. When they finally woke from their 3am arrival, I took them into Almaty for a breakfast of coffee and pancakes. We were looking forward to exploring some of southern Kazakhstan including a train trip to Turkestan, staying with Gaziza’s mother, trekking and walking in the Tian Shan mountains and other adventures.

Firstly I was happy to introduce them to Almaty. One of the best ways to get your bearings is by a visit to Kok Tobe, the hill overlooking the city that is the site of a TV tower and monument to The Beatles.

Khodja Ahmed Yassaui Mausoleum in Turkestan. 14th century memorial to the early Sufi teacher
So we hailed a passing car and asked to go to the cable car station at the bottom of the hill. The driver though had an alternative idea and drove us past the turn off. Mmm ... where were we going? The perils of getting onto an unmarked car loomed in our minds. But the driver was smiling in a friendly way and to save us money drove us to the top of the hill. A further short steep walk in the hot sun got us to the top and we were glad to stop for water. This is a Sunday afternoon destination for Almaty families with activities for children, a small zoo and fantastic, although slightly hazy, views over the city. The cable car trip down gave us more spectacular sights from the glass carriage as we swung perilously over buildings and gardens.

The next evening we took the overnight train (17 hours) to Turkestan. The prime carriages had gone so we booked three tickets in a 6-berth compartment but on boarding the train through the chaos of bags and people we found that Joan and Nikki were in one compartment and I had a ticket for the

Nikki, Joan and I go riding in the Tian Shan mountains
top berth in the adjoining compartment. In my compartment a young couple with a one year old baby were setting out their belongings and a man with a number of strange looking packages. He spoke a few words of English and when Joan and Nikki came to sit with me he promised to see if he could get someone else to swap with them. True to his word he persuaded a couple of young men to move next door so we were able to be together. Then came the operation of squeezing our bags under the lower seats or hoisting them temporarily onto our beds so we could sit down. In the process the man dropped his parcels and out dropped a couple of shot guns in their original boxes. Hopefully his friendliness was real and he wasn’t a mass murderer in disguise! But hunting is common here in Kazakhstan so his guns were for other purposes.

Finally the train was full and pulled off into the night. It was travelling right across the country to Aktobe on the Caspian Sea so as well as bags of luggage everyone had bought quantities of food with them. The young couple
Turkestan Railway stationTurkestan Railway stationTurkestan Railway station

Fruit sellers on the station platform at Turkestan
opened out packages of bread and chicken and offered some to us. In return we shared nuts, chocolate and fruit. The man with the guns went off to get boiling water for tea and even searched out some cups for us to drink from. The guard came through the carriages distributing bed linen and towels and later I mountain climbed into my top bunk where the space was hot and claustrophobic but I slept well enough as the young father sang his daughter and us to sleep.

As the carriages lightened in the morning I crept out of my high bunk as quietly as I could and washed and brushed my teeth with bottled water, then watched the dawn. Sadly the young couple left the train at Shymkent just as we were trying to arrange our breakfast and another couple took their place, taking over the bottom bunks of our carriage so that we had to take refuge in the corridor. Outside the steppes were rolling by in autumn tones of brown and we passed the occasional herd of horses and sheep. As we shared our bread and cheese a young woman started talking to us in good English.

Tiles on the Khodja Ahmed Yassaui mausoleum
She was a newly qualified teacher and glad to practice her spoken English with us. She invited us to join her in her carriage and again we shared tea and food and learnt more about Kazakhstan and the rapid development talking place here.

At midday, on time, our train drew into Turkestan railway station and, amid the stalls of fruit and bread sellers, Gaziza was waiting for us. We dragged our cases along the platform, pausing for photos of the colourful scene and outside Gaziza’s cousin, Atylbek, was waiting with a taxi to whisk our heavy luggage away so we could explore the city.

The city of Turkestan is an important Islamic centre in Kazakhstan. In the past it grew as a trading centre on the Silk Road but also grew in spiritual significance due to the presence of Khodja Ahmed Yassaui, an important Sufi leader. His mausoleum is an important pilgrimage centre in Turkestan and the domed roof made of turquoise tiles glistens. There is a vision to make Turkestan the centre Islamic learning in modern Kazakhstan. This vision can be seen in the newly opened Museum that displays models of Turkestan in 2030 overlooked by the
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President Nazarbayev overlooks model of Turkestan in 2030
image of President Nazarbayev.

Home stay in Kentau

From Turkestan we took a taxi back to Gaziza’s home in Kentau where we were welcomed by her mother, Layla, a teacher of languages: Kazakh and Russian, and her sister Fariza, who is studying demographics in the Czech Republic. Their self-built home is large and comfortable and surrounded by a flower and vegetable garden. After enjoying a table-laden meal, including salads, fish, fruit and delicious homemade bread and jam, Nikki and Joan tried their first Kazakh style sauna, or monsha. We were made to feel quite at home.

After a sound sleep we set off to explore Kentau. This town was once a centre for coal mining but now the seams of coal are inaccessible due to flooding. I was fascinated by the town’s museum which presented an emotive and informative social history of the coal industry in the area. The over-riding Soviet approach to the work of miners was to honour them through awards, medals and works of art. Photographs show the homes and facilities provided to the miners, to compensate for the harsh and sometimes fatal conditions in which they had to work. Today, the streets, buildings, parks
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Layla, Gaziza's mother, kept us well fed with delicious food
and even the communal swimming pool have fallen into slow decay as the mining industry has gone and has been replaced by other service industries but the monuments to past history remain. Kentau is a charming town behind the slightly dishevelled facade. We were fascinated by the overhead central heating piped that provided winter warmth to sections of the community. As we were taking photos outside the fire station, the doors opened and, when they realised we were English (Nikki and me) and Irish (Joan) tourists, the firemen were delighted to have their photos taken with their new fire engine. In the bazaar local laughing women were also happy to be photographed beside their produce of bread, fruits or salad.

Aksu-Zhabagly Nature Reserve

After another lovely meal, Joan, Nikki and I got a late afternoon minibus to Shymkent from outside the town’s bazaar. Minibuses set off when they are full and we had got there early to get good seats. The drive took about two hours by which time it was getting dark and we still had to find a taxi to take us on to Aksu-Zhabagly Nature Reserve. With a lack of common language, we managed to ask
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Painting of miners in Kentau museum
the minibus driver to help us find a taxi but he shook his head. Then I asked if he would take us. 8000 Tenge he signed, far too much.. 5000, I responded. He shook his head and started to pull our bags out of the van. 6000 and that’s it .. He paused and signed 7000 but I shook my head determinedly. OK. He put the bags back in the minibus and we set off again, pausing at his home for him to grab a bite to eat. Half an hour later he pulled into a petrol station but soon pulled out again as there was no diesel. I checked the fuel gauge which was already below the red empty mark. Oh dear, perhaps we were going to be marooned in the middle of nowhere for the night. Our concern grew as station after station had no fuel.

Finally, he found a lorry and a couple of other vehicles queuing at a pump and we managed to fill up. After that the miles went by and we had no idea where we were till finally he pulled into a small side road that was signed to Zhabagly and just
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The Mining Museun in Kentau provides an interesting social history of the town
before 9 in the evening we arrived at Zhenja and Lyuda’s Guest House. We were the only visitors to the guest house at this late part of the tourist season. Zhenja greeted us briefly saying that he had planned a day of riding for us the next day and then a quiet and slightly forbidding lady served us with a four course meal in the large dining room before we slept.

In the morning, I found that Zhabagly was nestled under the mountains but that cloud was hanging over the highest peaks. Excitedly we ate breakfast and waited for the arrival of our horses. Rustem, our guide, quickly allocated our steeds and we mounted up. He apologized that the horses were at the end of a long season and tired. They had lost their shoes so we had to be careful on rocky ground but on the softer grass they walked out well and we soon had them under control. It was lovely riding off towards the mountains peeping out from behind the clouds although we were glad of our jackets in the chill air, a sharp contrast to the heat of Turkestan.

An hour later we arrived
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War memorial in Kentau park
at a ranger’s house and Joe and Penny, on a road trip from Australia to England, joined us. I jealously admired their kitted out red Toyota Land Cruiser that was their home for the year. So, exchanging travellers’ tales, we set off again. The ride into the mountains was lovely. Slowly everyone grew in confidence on their horses. Rustem kept us entertained by showing off on his horse by making it rear. He also encouraged us to look out for Tian Shan bears which are often seen here as they forage for berries. Rustem’s previous job was as a teacher of English but he preferred this job as tourist guide that allowed him to explore the nature of Aksu Zhabagly Reserve. He related the story of the Zhabagly River, named after the Kazakh word for a one year old horse. The story goes that a Kazakh was away from home and on his return found that all his animals had been stolen except for one young horse, after which he named the river. Language often reflects the interests of the society in which it is used which is why there are many different words for types and ages of horses
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The firemen in Kentau were delighted to show the English tourists their fire station
in Kazakh. Finally we reached our destination for the day and clambered down a steep slope to overlook a river canyon. As we sat admiring the view, a group of ibex walked along the ridge above us, not the bear we had hoped to see but still a good wildlife sighting.

On the way back everyone was more confident and soon we were trotting and cantering back across the lower meadows. Both the horses and people were tired but happy. Joe and Penny drove down to join us with a beer before night fell and we again shared our adventures. I talked of my broken wrist in Kenya and Joe showed off the scars of a shark attack from Bali. But were we tempting fate?

The next day, Joan, Nikki and I had asked for a day trekking. We felt a little disappointed that Zhenya had not come in to talk to us about the reserve or our itinerary but had just arranged a gentle walk along the nearest valley. Nevertheless as we set off with Rustem the next morning the sun was shining and it felt good to be out in the open air. As we headed
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Overground communal central heating system in Kentau.
for the valley apple and almond trees glowed red in their autumn colours. In spring we were told that these mountains are full of endemic tulips and other wild flowers. Now we could see berries including red rose hips and wild blackberries which we feasted on along the way. The path followed and repeatedly crossed a gentle river. We stopped to climb to a little cave for the view. A couple of hours later we arrived at a table of rocks set in the river where we lunched. This was the normal stopping place for this walk but we still had energy and so climbed higher for better views of the mountains. Buzzards, kestrels and vultures glided above and around us. Eventually we stopped and chatted. Rustem talked about the re-emergence of Islam in Kazakhstan since Soviet times. He was a Moslem but he hoped and believed that his children would be even more devout. He was due to get married the next week and his bride to be wanted to wear the hijab. Through his beliefs he thought that nature should be protected for the future happiness of humans. On the path down I was in the lead and
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Vegetable seller in Kentau
saw something slithering across the path in front of me. It was a small brown viper urgent to get out of our way. But again, sadly, we did not see any bears.

As we passed by the ranger’s house at the entrance to the park we were invited in for ‘tea’. There were two rangers and their families living in the house. They gave us not only tea but a large plate of palau (delicious rice and vegetables with less delicious lumps of meat fat) to share followed by sweets. We felt guilty that we did not have anything to give them in return but the hospitality of Kazakhs is part of their culture and they wanted to meet the British tourists.

Trauma in Taraz

Our next destination was Taraz. On the way we stopped at the delightful intricately ornate, mausoleums to Aysha Bibi and her friend. The tale of Aysha Bibi is the Kazakh version of Romeo and Juliet. Aysha Bibi fell in love with the son of a local khan (king). She ran away from home, against her parents wishes, to be with him. Her closest friend went with her. On the way Aysha Bibi was
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The three traditional ancestors of Kazakhi tribes
taken ill, possibly from a snake bite, and her friend called for the khan’s son who arrived just in time to marry Aysha Bibi before she died. He built the mausoleum for her and then one next to it for her friend when she died later. A lovely tale and memorial to love and romance.

Taraz, like Almaty, seems full of leafy parks and fountains. After searching out a cafe for refreshments, we started to explore and admired the pretty ornate pavements. Perhaps this lulled me into a lack of attention to where I was walking as suddenly I found myself face down on the ground with a shooting pain through my ankle.
This was the start of an amazing show of Kazakh kindness and help. As I was sitting on the ground a man approached and asked in broken English if I needed help. I was not sure but he went away and called for a taxi (passing car) to talk me to hospital. The driver of the car was concerned and we asked first to be taken back to our hotel where we debated whether I had broken my ankle which was rapidly swelling and painful. Nikki
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Riding off into Aksu Zhabagly Natre Reserve
recommended an ice pack and getting checked at hospital. It’s useful to travel with a friend who is a nurse. I phoned Gaziza and passed the phone to the driver to ask him to take me to hospital. First though he wanted to pick up his wife who spoke English and could act as interpreter. So we drove round the town and picked up his wife and young daughter then to the hospital.

The only doctor was overrun with casualties but grabbing a wheel chair the driver pushed me to the front of the queue and into the doctor’s office. The doctor duly prodded my ankle until I yelped, marked a black cross on my foot and sent me off to be x-rayed. Nikki meanwhile went exploring and ended up in an operating theatre with the doctor scrubbing up and a patient already laid out on the table. She later described it as something from the 1950s. The xray machine was equally ancient but I banned her from photographing it and me in my dishevelled state. Back in the doctor’s office he looked at the x-ray and said through the interpreter that it needed a cast but also in
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Almond trees in Aksu-Zhabagly Reserve
bad English said something about ‘anaesthetic’. Now there was one thing that I was definite about – there was no way that I was going to be operated on in that hospital! Less than ten minutes later I was in a part cast with a bandage tired haphazardly round my leg, eager to get out of there. Outside the queue of patients now included two men with eye injuries and after paying about 2000 tenge (£8) we fled.

The car driver, Farhat, and his wife, Dinara, agreed to take me to find a taxi to drive us back to Almaty. Even though we had checked into a hotel in Taraz I just wanted a better hospital and second opinion as soon as possible. We drove to the taxi rank at the bus station and a battered old car was found that would take us back but I was concerned about having room to keep my foot elevated as well as room for Joan, Nikki and our bags so asked if there was anyone with a minibus. The lady then said “Of course, I should have thought of it before. My brother is a driver and has a minibus”. How

Our guide, Rustem tells us the tale of the Zhabagly river
lucky and fortunate I was. First a driver whose wife spoke English, then her brother had a minibus and was willing to drive us through the night back to Almaty!

A couple of hours later I was comfortably arranged on the back seat of a fur-lined minibus, Joan and Nikki had luxurious reclining seats and we were on our way back to Almaty. The road was full of road works and it was bucketing with rain but Farid happily drove us for 9 hours to the sound of Kazakh rap music. I dozed cosily on the back seat. On the way I contacted Gaziza to ask if there was anywhere we could stay in Almaty as our regular hotel was full. Eventually she text to say that her brother and sister-in-law would let us stay at their apartment and would meet us when we arrived in Almaty. When we finally got there at three in the morning it transpired that Farabi, Gaziza’s brother and Rano, his wife, had actually arranged to move out of their own one room apartment to stay at her parents leaving us their whole home! Kindness to the extreme – how many people would do

Joan and I climb up the hillside to explore a cave
that for almost complete strangers from another country? In the morning they even bought us some breakfast and, as it was Sunday their day off, drove us back to our hotel.

Later that afternoon, after contacting my insurance company I visited the International SOS clinic which had all the modern facilities, care and cleanliness that I could desire. The South African doctor looked quickly at the x-ray and told me to return in Thursday when the swelling had reduced. The fracture was stable and, once I had purchased a pair of crutches, I was mobile again although told to elevate and rest my leg as much as possible to reduce the swelling. Luckily I had a week at a meeting organised by the UNDP the following week so did not have to be too active. Ibuprofen helped the pain and swelling and I felt confident that I could continue with work. Nikki and Joan meanwhile set about planning a week of sightseeing although the lack of a tourist infrastructure made this quite difficult.

Nikki and Joan go exploring and I go home

The UNDP meeting was a training course on pasture management. I was there partly for the
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Walking through the juniper forest searching fot Tian Shan bears
course but also for the opportunity to meet senior people in the topics which we were researching. The social side to the workshop was therefore equally important and I had the excuse of trying local food and talking to people as part of my job. This made quite good therapy after my ankle trauma.

Meanwhile, Joan and Nikki set off for various adventures around Almaty and a quick trip to Astana. Although this is their story they found it difficult to find trips to local places. It was easy to get a local bus to see the highest skating rink at the world at Medeo. On their last day they took a Russian tourist bus to explore the Charyn Canyon to the east of Almaty. Nikki called it the worst bus journey that she had ever done and found the heat and cramped conditions plus the endless number of toilet stops to serve the Russian geriatrics on the bus frustrating. But their main expedition was a22 hour train journey to the capital city Astana. Train travel is a good way to see a lot of the countryside and because they were on a slow train they had a compartment
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Joe and Penny's fully fitted vehicle to take them from Australia to England
to themselves. Well, most of the time. Joan laughingly reported how the conductor fell in love with Nikki. I received a text from Nikki saying “I think we need help!” as the conductor out stayed his welcome as he sat holding her hand saying “I love you Nikki” – the limit of his vocabulary in English. But all was well and they managed to get rid of their unwanted visitor eventually. Apparently Astana was beautiful with wide long avenues and modern buildings; a statement of the growth and development of this young country. Hopefully I will be able to visit it myself one day.

Back in Almaty I had a couple of visits to the Opera and Ballet Theatre that week. We felt shabby in our travel gear as the women in Almaty love to dress up for the occasion and everyone seemed smart and elegant. The second ballet was a marvellous performance of Anna Karenina which moved from traditional ballet to modern dance. The costumes varied from spectacular golden masks and dress in the scenes from Venice to austere white leotard of the scene of Anna under the influence of opium. The end was orchestrated in a drumming
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The beautiful stonework of Aysha Bibi mausoleum. Kazakhstan's Romeo and Juliet story.
crescendo that gathered speed and volume as a train approached and the chorus, dressed as railway workers, stomped and danced. The final portrayal of Anna’s death as she threw herself into the path of the train was a powerful finale.

Sadly it was time for Nikki and Joan to return home and the workshop had come to an end. Gaziza and I prepared to return to Aidarly and I found a friendly young taxi driver to take us. However my ankle was still aching and swollen and I started to reconsider the decision to stay on. Facing drop loos and sleeping on the floor is hard enough when I was fit but with a fractured ankle. However we set off on the two hour drive and once again found that our host was unprepared and the house was no better then before – even worse as the electricity supply had been cut off. After an hour sitting in the cold and dark Gaziza and I made up our mind to ask another friend in the village if we could stay. She was welcoming but as I tried to sleep on the floor that night without making the long rough

Imam at Aysha Bibi
trip to the loo at the bottom of the garden in the dark made the decision to return home. I had tried but practically it was beyond the call of duty.

Returning to Almaty, Gaziza and I found a lovely apartment to share for a few days. Situated on the 14th floor of a modern secure block of apartments it was a cheaper and nicer option than the hotel. I would recommend this option if anyone is visiting this expensive city. Eventually, the insurance company and airline arranged my flight home and the doctor split the cast to prevent a thrombosis during the flight. I even had a business class seat, wheelchair to get on and off the plane and a even glass of champagne as I boarded. Luxury.

I hope to go back to Kazakhstan early in the spring so look out for the next instalment then.

Additional photos below
Photos: 32, Displayed: 32


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Sweet tooth

Nikki choosing a cake in Taraz
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Kok Tobe

The TV tower at Kok Tobe overlooks Almaty
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Cable car

Cable car to Kok Tobe

Inside St Nicholas Church in Almaty
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Almaty mountains

The beautiful mountains that overlook Almaty
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What's a foot

Xray of my ankle, first cast from Taraz hospital, permanaent cast from SOS clinic in Almaty
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High heels

No I didn't fall off any high heels! But this is typical footware for Kazakhstan women

The table for a feast in Kazakhstan is laden from the start with salads, fruit and sweets. The main course follows.

Horse or sheep's meat with onions and either pasta or potatoes is the typical main course.
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Koy bas

The head of the table has the task of dealing out parts of the boiled sheep's head.

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