There is no denying the feeling that regularly visits me prior to travel to a new destination. As I slouch in my couch, I gaze at the fully loaded backpack leaning comfortably against the wall, and that feeling fills me again. Regardless of how many countries my travels have taken me or the combined length of my journeys, I am always beset by apprehension the night before again launching into unknown lands. Not so when returning to a country or visiting a previously travelled region, but always with the first country in a region.
No surprise as I prepare once again to travel alone and independently to a place where I understand not the language, nor the culture, and where every face is unfamiliar. Pre-travel concerns are actually a positive for without that anxiety prior to exploring unseen lands, the ecstasy that one derives from travel is unlikely to occur. That ecstasy pours forth when every day brings the discovery of new street in a new city, new food in a new restaurant and new friends amongst new people. The anxiety is the ecstasy.
So as usual, the night before my journey to a new destination was a fitful
evening of broken sleep of only a few hours, where troubled dreams of travel dilemmas swept through my head. The cause of my disturbed sleep was my impending visit to one of the least visited regions of the world, Central Asia.
Thankfully, the Air Astana flight was mostly empty with the two seats next to me vacant. Thus, I reposed under a blanket and eye-patch whilst Gregorian chants played through my headphones. The time passed quickly and soon the familiar announcement preparing passengers for the descent was made.
Peering out of the window I espied beneath me the rich fertile fields of Kazakhstan, where the late afternoon sun reflecting off metal roofs caused the carpet of green to be sprinkled with glistening beads of light. Beyond them lay gorgeous grey mountains etched with jagged fingers of snow.
This beauty from afar was confirmed on the ground, for I cannot recall seeing a greener city than Almaty. In the last days of spring the streets were lined with vibrant leaves of different green shades – the formed canopies over narrow streets and filled parks and yards with their luxuriance. However, the claim for being the world’s most beautiful
city was scuppered by the ghastly Soviet era architecture that dominated many streets. Other remnants of the Soviet Era were apparent, such as the monumental squares and wide boulevards, supermarket shelves lined with rows upon rows of Vodka, and the prevalence of the Russian language. The oddest reminder of the Soviet legacy came from a pseudo-Russian influence, when passing car’s horn was sounding Lara’s Theme
from the movie Doctor Zhivago
The first full day in Almaty brought spectacular sunny conditions – bright sun and barely a cloud to interfere with the pale blue sky. I undertook (with a few wrong turns along the way) an approximately 20 kilometre walking tour of many of the major sights. Almaty is famed for its parks, and rightly so, for they were plentiful in both quality and quantity. Laden with layers of emerald leaves, the parks were attended by families relaxing on park benches and young couples holding hands. I also braved my fear of cable cars to amble around Green Hill (Kok-Tobe) where immaculate gardens, rides and wonderful views lay in wait.
My favourite sight in Almaty was secured deep within the luxuriant Panfilov Park, where accordion playing buskers and horse
rides were two forms of available entertainment. In the centre of the Park was a gem of a building, the Zenkov Cathedral. Built between 1904-1906 this structure is constructed entirely of wood, even using wooden nails.
The bright adornments on the outside are replicated inside as is typical of a Russian Orthodox Church. Saints, apostles and Biblical stories were painted onto gold coloured panels that lined the public area of the church. Icons, always shimmering in silver or gold, were located at strategic places throughout the Cathedral so that devotees could light candles, lay flowers and offer prayers.
Services occurred several times each day, and the congregation was mostly women wearing head scarves, and they would form long queues to kiss a particularly important relic that was brought out for such occasions. The church services always seemed to include the lighting, extinguishing and lighting again of chandelier lights and candles, a swinging holder wafting strong incense, and much head bowing and crossing oneself from head to abdomen, then from right shoulder to left shoulder.
I visited the church for five consecutive days in order to the glorious singing by the four or five person choir that would
accompany any service. Hearing the sombre yet angelic Russian choir in this place of peace and reverence was enchanting. Their voices would lift into the upper domes of the heavily ornamented church and gently float down upon my eager ears.
My main reason for staying a while in Almaty was to procure my visa for Tajikistan. The visa system within Central Asian countries is both complex and frustrating, and one needs time and patience to secure the correct approvals. I arrived at the Tajik Embassy in the outer suburbs of Almaty to be greeted (perhaps too generous a term) by the stern staff member who collected all my documents, and requested me return the following day.
In the interim, I decided to visit the Sunkar Eagle Farm by finding my way to the crossroads where the bus is supposed to depart. Half an hour passed, and no bus appeared. I flagged down a taxi to drive me there, and here was an example why not having Russian language skills in Central Asia is a distinct burden. Trying to read Cyrillic is hard enough. Worse is when someone assumes I speak Russian and would commence an intense conversation in
that language, and my only response was a silent face of confusion. You think that having a great-grandfather who was Russian would someone assist in the comprehension of the language, but unfortunately such genetic benefits have been lost before it reached me.
However, the worst is trying to explain myself and the encounter with this taxi driver was a fine example. It took a few minutes (including my best eagle impersonation with arms outstretched gracefully waving) to explain my desire to see the Eagle Farm. He scampered off to ask nearby bus drivers and others around him. Having failed with this endeavour, we drove to his taxi depot and he posed the question again to other taxi drivers and office staff. After a few telephone calls and more puzzled looks (mostly from me) it was apparent that there would be no visit to the Sunkar Eagle Farm on this occasion. Thus, I asked the taxi driver to deposit me back at Panfilov Park (for another Cathedral service) and gave him a healthy tip as my thanks.
The following day saw me gleefully collect my Tajik visa – preparations for my journey were complete! My Kazakh visa was obtained
in a week from Kuala Lumpur, and the Afghan visa from Dubai in only four hours. I had successfully navigated the Central Asia visa jungle, one of the biggest obstacles to travelling through this region, mainly due to the very useful information contained on the Caravanistan website
The following day I would fly to Dushanbe, capital of Tajikistan. From there I will commence one of the world’s great road trips through the Pamir Mountains, a tough road traversed by few travellers. Even tougher will be the week’s detour into one of the most remote regions on earth; a place that some call the “Roof of the World”, but for most others is known as the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan. More anxiety, more ecstasy - let the adventure begin.
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