Astana and Almaty Kazakhstan

Astana and Almaty – Kazakhstan 

The WordPress frustrations continue. I may have just posted two blogs, then again I may not have. The WordPress app is not working and my site won’t load for me here. So it’s all guess work.

We have now spent a few city days in Kazakhstan. The cosmopolitan cities of Astana and Almaty have offered up a wonderful variety of meals so we are recovering from the mutton overloading.

We flew from Ulaanbaatar to Astana, from heat to cool. 

At the Astana airport we discovered we could take a bus to the train station where we needed to go to get onward tickets for a night train. The trip cost us about $0.40. At the train station the money changer was immediately beside the ticket kiosk so our ticket buying was quick and easy. We then walked about 3.5 kms to our accommodation. We found the address with no problem but finding the correct entrance in the enormous apartment complex was a different matter. Finally a couple of people helped and we found ourselves through an unmarked door into the tiny vestibule of a spotless little apartment. The location and facilities could not have been better.

Astana has an old half and an ultramodern half. Fascinated by the fabulous architecture of the new half we explored that part of the city. Hopefully I’ll be able to send a few more pictures.

We visited a huge, quite new mosque. We entered through the women’s entry but were able to wander at will except in the main prayer hall. A man made a point of coming over to welcome us. That is the first time since I was in Egypt in 1978 that I’ve actually been welcomed to a mosque. It was a very good feeling.

Our night train coupe was pretty small. We were just the three of us in a four berth space – thank goodness. Four would have been really squishy. To say we all slept well would be an exaggeration but we did all sleep. In the morning Pat and I found ourselves nearly the only passengers among the crew to be in the dinning car. Breakfast was sparse. We couldn’t have most of the items unless we had the full continental breakfast which we did not want. No butter, jam or honey for the small stale bun. The single bun was annotated on the menu as a “bread basket.” “This is a bun in a basket,” translated Pat for the bemused server/cook.

Our accommodation in Almaty was really close to the station so it was an easy walk after we ran the insistent gauntlet of taxi touts. It was also easy to find. But the Golden Dragon Hotel had none of the charm of our door in the wall place in Astana. The room was big and filthy. The furnishings were in deplorable condition. Tattered curtains, screws sticking out of this and that. The bathroom – alive – cockroaches scuttled in the dark. We made the best of it. Pat only needed to kill one cockroach in her bed. She took to sleeping with a sharp knife at the ready.

We borrowed chairs from other rooms so we had three and hung a “bear bag” with our snacks secured inside.

That was the worst of our visit to Almaty. The best was the public baths. A fairly new facility they offered hammam, Russian and Finnish bathing/steaming rooms and a lovely pool. Men and women segregated. No clothing allowed past the changing room except bathing caps. 

We spent a glorious two hours sweating, showering, swimming, sweating etc. 

Almaty’s Green Market was another highlight. Wonderful variety and arrangements of and fruit and veggies. Also the usual eclectic stalls selling everything from skimpy bras to plumping and back to school supplies.

We took a local bus –  umber 12 – out to the mountains where we had read there were some wonderful hiking trails. Hmm. The Central Asian idea of wonderful hiking trails and ours differs considerably. The bus dropped us and many other passengers at a huge skating rink complex. Along with hundreds of other people, we walked a long a paved road and up a huge number of steps to the top of a dam. We expected to see water on the far side. There was none. Turns out the dam is to protect the city from potential flooding. We found a bit of a gravel trail that went nowhere and had our picnic lunch sitting in the middle of it. On our return to the city we chatted with a lovely young couple – it made the day’s outing worthwhile.

Our departure from Almaty consisted of a walk to the modern Metro, riding it to the last station then walking to a bus station. Here it was a swift and easy matter to purchase bus tickets for the trip to Bishkek Kyrgyzstan.

This is where we are now.

More tales to follow, but not for about 10 days or so as we are off on a mountain adventure tomorrow. Hiking and riding is on the menu. Helen has confirmed the itinerary in considerable detail. We shall see if they deliver what they advertise and promise.

Seeing the sights in Mongolia

Distances in Mongolia are great and the road infrastructure is scarce.

We did drive on a highway or two – two lanes. Max speed about 80. Generally our highway driving speed was about 60 to 70 kms per hour. We had a supremely competent driver and felt safe with him. The rest of the roads – the ones we spent most of the time lurching along – were dusty or muddy tracks stretching across the vast grasslands and steppes. There was very little in the way of signing. I think in Mongolia you either know where you’re going, have a good GPS, or are hopelessly lost. Our driver knew where he was going. We met a few people who’s drivers had been hopelessly lost.

Our most exciting off road ordeal was when the van’s back end slid off the road and we were hung up at a very improbable angle for staying upright. We calmly got out – which was tricky due to the angle – and stayed out of the way while Thauga and some helpful local people piled rocks in the hole and shovelled under the high wheel etc. Eventually some French fellows came along with a winch and they made short work of towing our van back onto firm ground.

The scenery in the area we explored was hilly grasslands with rocky outcrops, to small rocky gorges and mini mountains, to flat – really flat – steppe, to sand-dunned desert. 

We toured for several days – sometimes driving for up to five hours to get to a landform of interest. We’d drive for hours without seeing another vehicle, then suddenly arrive at a dusty end of the road and there’d be several vehicles disgorging tourists to scamper around and look at whatever the day’s point of interest was. We always managed to walk further and stay longer than the crowds of giggling, primping, selfie-taking Korean groups so we’re able to enjoy the natural beauty of these places. It was clear that we were on the tour group loop.

At night we stayed in ger camps. These were all much the same. Four or five rows of gers – what most of us call yurts, a wash house – some nicer than others, some with hotter water than others, and a pleasant central dining hall. The menus were standard without much variety. Fatty tough mutton with noodles, fatty tough mutton with rice, fatty tough mutton-potato-carrot stew. The starter salads were delicious. The meals were made bearable with good cold Mongolian beer.

The sights were lovely. Fantastic rock formations, deep canyons, red cliffs. We enjoyed our walks and the scenery at these places, but found the grind of the long daily drives a bit tedious. We’d all have preferred a longer horse ride but we’re excited about our camel excursion.

Ah the camels. They are odd looking creatures with their two humps, but we found them to be very pleasantly behaved. We sat on made to purpose rugs tossed up between the humps, stirrups were attached to the rugs with rope. Quite comfortable when wearing appropriate padding in the appropriate places. A bit scratchy and hard without.

Unfortunately the location of our ride was in a boring stretch of steppe, near the enticing beautiful dunes. Our camel boy was a shy youngster completely fixated on his cell phone. For our second day, our dear driver Thauga agreed to join us to provide guidance and entertainment. The second day’s ride was better than the first but there was no convincing anyone that the utter boredom of riding in a 2 or 4 hour circle around a camp was more than we could cope with. It was deeply disappointing. The idea was not really to go for a ride, but to get the requisite number of selfies and be happy.

We all enjoyed our visit to Mongolia despite the tour being too canned for our taste. The people are friendly. The country is untrammelled, wild, open, beautiful. Tourism is a new industry here and I think in time it will develop to the point that there can be a bit more variety in the offerings. For now we reconcile some disappointment with the enjoyment of seeing a glorious cornier of the world that we would not have had access to on our own.

Rainy Mud then Sun in Mongolia 19 – 21 Aug

Rain, Mud then Sun in Mongolia – 19 – 21 Aug 

It rained most of the night and continued to do so throughout the morning.

We made suggestions about erecting a kitchen tarp that fell on deaf ears.

We asked about the the trail conditions further along our proposed route. More mud, and even more difficult, we were told.

We asked what the purpose was in moving on through more mud in the pouring rain. It seemed ludicrous to us. Our guide – Ester – dropped the ball on the decision making process. So we conferred with our horseman/cook. He conferred with the others and it was decided we would stay put.

Helen, Pat and I stood in the rain to eat bread and meat and drink a hasty coffee for breakfast then went back into the tent to puzzle over why we were in this particular soggy location. In the end we discovered that the tour organizer had decided to change the itinerary at the last moment without bothering to consult us. As of this writing, we have yet to understand but feel he too dropped the ball.

The rain stopped around lunch time so we emerged the tent. The guys thought we were like Marmots only coming out of their dens on sunny days. They’d also thought we looked like penguins in an igloo while we’d been sitting in the tent looking out at the world. We told them we found watching their antics about camp better than most TV. It was all good for a laugh. They were incredibly happy to not to have had to pack up a sodden camp and move on so we celebrated the reasonably warm dry afternoon with some excellent vodka.

Every meal in Mongolia seems to involve meat. Sheep is the meat of choice. Mongolian cooking also seems to incorporate a lot of fat. There appears to be no such thing as a lean cut of meat. Fat is king and most chunks of meat seem to be half fat and gristle.

We ate our meals by the fire and flipped as many un-chewable gristle and fat bits into the flames as possible without appearing rude. Portions were generous and there was lots of noodles and rice to fill our bellies.

The next day was dry, though cool and cloudy with a significant promise of rain. It was my 65th birthday. Looking around the forested site, I wondered how my vision of what this ride was going to be could have been so wrong. Not a vista to be seen.

It was decided we would go for a ride in the afternoon but return to the same camp. It seemed like a sensible plan. The main question for the three of us continued to be – why were we on this boggy trail when there is so much glorious dry high grassland nearby.

Our afternoon ride was mostly dry from the sky – with only one fierce wind blown deluge to make it exciting. Much of the trail was through more muskeg. We crossed a stream. The horses don’t mind the deep water when they can see where they’re putting their feet but they seem to detest the deep mud.

Pat had put her foot down and refused to ride the beast she had the first day. She was now on a pleasant horse we named Blackie. Mongolians don’t give their horses names. They seemed to think it weird that we thought horses might have them. Helen had called her’s Felt. Mine went through a few names before I decided on Muffin. Muffin was a bit timid and very sweet. He hated getting his feet muddy and frankly I didn’t  blame him. Despite his desire to not wade through mud, he was biddable and stepped gingerly through the muck.

The next day dawned sunny and warm. Our tent was soon steaming and we packed up a nearly dry camp. The pack horses were much less burdened as we’d consumed a lot of food and most of the water.

Our return ride was still muddy but in the sun it was more pleasant. Muffin and I managed a short canter which we both enjoyed. We all negotiated the enormous mud pit with no calamity and were a bit disappointed to arrive back at the van in just over three hours.

Despite not being as advertised or expected, the ride was a memorable adventure. It transpired that our option might have been some boring rides in and out of a camp out on a flat plain. We remain mystified about why rides don’t seem to happen in the beautiful rolling grasslands. We saw no one riding in thse areas.

Next blog will be …. stops on the tourist trail of must see sights. 

Our Mongolian Ride – Part 2

It would appear that for reasons that are beyond my limited understanding that WordPress has decided it no long likes to work with the Safari browser but that it likes Google Chrome. Why the sudden change of venue as it were is a mystery, however here’s hoping that after numerous attempts, you will finally find out what happened at the mud pit and what we’ve been up to since. 

So I left you at the edge of a muddy abyss. Kim, Pat and Helen on horses that have decided they’d rather not get themselves immersed in the mire.

Our horseman, Baga, circled back and encouraged my horse across by riding alongside. The tactic worked. He went back to help Pat and Helen. Helen’s horse bolted for the bush and higher ground. Pat’s was being ornery and stubborn. Baga tried pulling him and he lost his footing in the mud, which was up to his haunches. Luckily Pat’s foot had come out of a stirrup and as her horse fell, she came off, landing up past her hips in the muddy water.

Although filthy, wet and cold she was uninjured. Her sense of humour was a little subdued for a while but she recovered  that much sooner than she dried off. Two weeks later and after several washes, her pants remain of questionable cleanliness.

The ride continued and Pat continued arguing with her horrid horse who she named – a name I am not allowed to reveal. Let me assure you, it was a suitable name.

After climbing up a mountain, across the top, along a scree slope, down the other side and through more mud, we eventually arrived a beautiful campsite in a larch forest by a stream. It was dusk by this time. We set up our tents. One for the three of us. One for our guide, Ester. One for the three men. No eating shelter. A campfire was lit from damp wood. A good hot meal was prepared. We ate, then fell into our sleeping bags and exhausted sleep.

During the night it rained. Deluged really. Stay tuned for the next instalment.

Rain and Mud in Mongolia.

Our Mongolian ride begins

Spent some time yesterday trying to get a blog about our ride and a few pictures to publish and after many attempts, it would not do so.

This will be brief, more of a test blog.

We left Ulaanbaatar at 6am and arrived at the ride start point about noon. Lunch was cooked, horses and two horsemen arrived – from about 30 kms away. At 3pm we began a four hour ride. The fact that on our trip itinerary, the ride wasn’t supposed to start until the next day seemed of no concern to anyone except our – still jet lagged – selves.

Our concept of riding across the grand open grasslands was put to rest within moments as we sloshed through boggy ground, the horses up past their knees in water. Once on a firmer path we headed into forest. Soon we came to a very wide quagmire. The pack horses – four of them and their two horse men plunged in. They struggled through muddy water and over a tangle of logs – up to their haunches.

Pat, Helen and I could not convince our horses to follow. A certain amount of pandemonium broke out.

You will need to wait for the next instalment to find out what happened next.