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.

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.

Arrived in Mongolia

16 and 17 August,

We’re here! Landed in Ulaanbaatar Mongolia yesterday evening to warmth and sun after a delayed but wonderful flight from Hong Kong.

We departed an hour later, than scheduled after sitting at the gate in a very hot plane. The problem was a passenger who was having problems with Customs. No details available.

While we were in Hong Kong I asked a young waiter for a report on happenings outside the airport. He said the demonstrators were given an ultimatum that if anyone passed a barrier they’d be arrested. So I gather they are still at the departures area of the airport but not disrupting passengers or flights. No excitement so doubtless, now international news interest.

Our flight took us first over the South China Sea as we climbed away from Hong Kong. It’s a busy stretch of water with ferries and freighters heading in various directions. The sea is rimmed by golden sand crescent beaches, some of which seem completely isolated.

We flew over China’s industrial areas, agricultural stretches, wide rivers and forests.

Then I snoozed after a lamentable lunch. Upon waking, the Gobi desert stretched brown and seemingly endless below us. Here and there a molten gold or mercury coloured lake/pond shone metallic in the sun. Cloud shadows chased our plane’s shadow across the vast sweep of harsh land. Going to unknown, distant places a few tracks etched across the landscape.

Gradually the land below became greener and hilly. Not a tree to be seen. We were now flying over the steppes. As the plane lost altitude, small white dots revealed themselves as yurts. Sometimes single, sometimes in groups of three or four they generally sat within square fenced off areas. Finally the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar spread into the grass lands. The tower of a coal fired power plant belched some smoke into the air. Train tracks converged, apartment blocks piled close upon each other, the planed swept down to a gentle touchdown and long taxi.

We’d arrived.

Customs clearance was a little slow, we ended up being seen by the diplomats lineup agent. Our one checked bag was riding the belt when we arrived. Then we were being met by a young woman and we’re out the doors and into a nicely dusty van driven by a nicely aged man with tall riding boots. He spoke a few words of English, taught us two words of Mongolian. Nearly impossible to pronounce Byrtha for thank you. Most of the vehicles seem to be right hand drive but also drive on the right side of the road. Odd.

Our guest house is in a residential area. It isn’t fancy but clean and organized. A mall and restaurants are within one block. We exchanged money and still haven’t quite wrapped our heads around the 2500.00 to 1.00 conversion. Dinner wasn’t that great. Pat and I had lamb dumplings which turned out to be old mutton dumplings … we had a second Mongolian beer to wash down the taste.

Helen drew the short straw and is in the top bunk of a rather squeaky bunk bed. We’ve slept well, Pat has found us coffee and we are about to set out on a day of exploring.

14 August – Let the Journey Begin

After an intense few days wondering if our Cathay Pacific flights in and out of Hong Kong will fly or not…. and many hours on the phone discovering absolutely nothing of value …… we are at the bar near our departure gate in YVR. Both flights appear to be on time as the protesters seem to have left the airport.

We will just have to wait and see if our transit through Hong Kong is without drama.

Our upcoming flight is just over 13 hours. We have about six hours in Hong Kong, then a short five hour flight to Ulaanbaatar Mongolia.

I’m traveling with friends Pat and Helen. You will hear from the three of us through this blog.

For now, good night from YVR near gate D64. Unless there is much excitement in Hong Kong, the next missive will come to you from Mongolia!