Thursday, November 7, 2019

Almaty, Kazakhstan

We said farewell to Karakol and began the long drive to Almaty.  We chose to go over the Kegen border point.  It closes from October to about May each year.  It was a quiet border but the highlight was the immigration official showing us his border stamper - it had a Silver Fern on it.  He was a rugby fan and a fan of the All Blacks.

The areas either side of the border were wide open steppes with views to the mountains on the horizon - and plenty of gravel roads.

We stopped at the Charyn canyon for a late lunch and a view of the "Grand Canyon"

Almaty is another city with wide streets and plenty of parks and sculptures.  Almaty means Apples and there were many references to apples including the apple-car installation near our hotel.

Although there is a metro here the lines are not very extensive, so we ended up walking everywhere we wanted to go.  

The visit to the Fine Arts museum was well worth the effort.  The collection was eclectic, but there were little gems throughout.  The statue of the horse made entirely from knucklebones captured Andrew's imagination.   The 1595 painting by Lorenzo Strauch was also stunner.  The red faced infant on the pale body grabbed your attention and you couldn't stop looking at him!  But there were various styles represented
 The inside of the Greek Orthodox church, Zenkov Cathedral lived up to the ornateness suggested by the colourfully painted exteriors.  It is a wooden building that has no nails.

From here we proceeded to the large food market.  We do like visiting these markets.  Although they are often quite similar they all have a different feel to them.  The importance of horse as a meat was evident with the large area devoted to sellers of horse.  All the herds of horses we have been seeing weren't just there as riding animals!

The majority of our meals were from two Georgian Restaurants: 1. we like Georgian cuisine and red wine a lot and 2. these restaurants were nearby and had very good food. 

Daredzani was more up-market and had English speaking waiters and menus.  Patsatsina had no English and we got a good meal and wine using advanced pointing and mime techniques.  

The large public space, looking through to the landmark Hotel Kazahkstan was busy on 2 of the 3 nights we were in town, with lots of people either going to a concert one night or to a movie premiere the other.  The sun reflected in the big screen and the movie scenes provided and interesting outlook. 

Our hotel Novotel Almaty City Centre was nicely located for us, sitting directly beside the cable car.  We chose not to ascend the mountain because of constant low cloud and smog.  The weather app called it “smoke” :  no fire, but some pretty murky conditions.  The snow capped mountains surrounding the city did look lovely when we could see them.

Andrew had a cold so we headed to a pharmacy the hotel directed us to.  They spoke zero English and while we spent some time translating the Russian on the boxes via a Translation App we ended up buying him the pharmacists 1st suggestion of fizzy paracetamol.  We looked in a few more pharmacies before trying a modern one with a younger pharmacist.  The minute we asked English, she tuned out, ignored us and played on her phone.  Lucky for us the medicines were displayed around the counter, behind glass.  And we spent a few minutes translating various names.  When we found a possible day & night type medicine and asked to see it, she was very helpful to show us 5 other alternatives.  Andrew didn’t shake the cold for about another week.

Our 3 weeks in the Stans was interesting, challenging and ultimately very satisfying travel.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Karakol, Kyrgystan

The next morning we walked out of the apartment to see if we could find our pre-arranged driver.  He found us – 2 tourists pulling suitcases probably made it easy to identify us.  Our driver, spoke no English but drove well.  

The journey from Bishkek to Karakol was 400 km and 5.5 hours plus a couple of stops for the driver to have a cigarette.  The views were outstanding, from snow topped mountains, rock formations and the lake Isy-kul. The lake is so large you couldn’t see the opposite shore nor either end.  

It wasn’t surprising to read that it is just under 200 km long and 60 km wide and is the 2nd largest saline lake in the world, behind the Caspian Sea.  It was an important part of the silk route connection for the Far East to Europe and many historians believe 
that the lake was the point of origin for the Black Death that plagued Europe and Asia during the early and mid-14th century.  The lake's status as a byway for travelers allowed the plague to spread across these continents via medieval merchants who unknowingly carried infested vermin along with them.

Along the lake there were no shortage of horses, being ridden, being used to pull carts and simply running about.  There was also large volumes of produce being packed into big transport trucks.  Shiny red apples were also being sold on the roadside piled high in buckets.

Home tonight was “Matsumoto”, a lovely place run by a Japanese lady married to a Kyrgyzstani.  Apart from the simple Japanese design the biggest highlight was being allowed to put toilet paper directly into the toilet, rather than the rubbish bins beside the toilet.  Small luxuries make one happy

In Karakol we went for an orientation walk to get our bearings.  Walking through a smalli market there were shop after shop of gold jewellery.  This ties into the use of gold as a store of wealth.  Everywhere we have been we have seen people with golden smiles.  It is very normal to have a mouth full of gold teeth.  While initially I thought it was only done by the old generation, we saw plenty of younger people with a gold tooth or two. 

It was town for specialist wedding vehicles.  We walked past the bridal shop and saw the Bridal-wagon.  This was soon followed by a sighting of a stretch limo.  

We visited the Dugan Mosque and the Russian church before returning to the Fat Cat cafe.  We had stopped there earlier for a drink and were tempted by the delicious brownie.  Andrew was drawn back by the lure of bottles of Georgian wine.  So we returned for an early dinner pizza and a glass of Georgian wine.

The next day was an overnight journey up into the mountains behind Karakol, Tien Shien. Due to the the proximity to China we had to have special permits which were reviewed at a control post a couple of hours in.  We saw a lot of mountains and plains, climbing through high passes.  

We drove through to the nearby hot springs for a late lunch.  The nearby river was freezing with mountain run off while 10 metres away there was very hot water coming out of the ground.  The drivers had a bath while we stood under the only shade in the area - one big rock.  We made our pot noodles and had a couple of the local mallowpuffs - a complete meal.  

Onward to see a bit more territory including rock carvings done thousands of years ago probably as a offering to the gods for good favour.  

Our home for the night was Ingelcheck, an old Soviet town which at its heyday had a population of 5000 now there are about 30 families living in a ghost town.  Our accommodation for the night was at a local teachers house.  She spoke good basic English and cooked us a very nice Yak stew and Somsa.  Hospitality was very good, in simple circumstances.

The surprise of the night was the toilet.  We had been wondering where it was, we knew it would be basic, but it managed to exceed our expectations.  She pointed through the wall and said the big building.  We walked out together and looked around.  The only possibility was a building 50m away.  We cautiously entered to find a row of 4 concrete cubicles with a window high up the wall.  There was a hole in the concrete with a large drop to the stuff below.  Most basic toilet I have seen and we have seen a few in the last few years.  Oh well we survived.  

We were in bed before 19:30 and limiting liquid intake - the return to the latrines was not going to happen!

Just the basics here, including dried animal dung for burning and water pumps

Andrew likes to look over walls - even though here he could have walked around the front and entered any building he wanted to.  The old high school and a picture of the toilets.

The next day our drivers turned up 1 & half hours later than arranged - they had been hunting wolves overnight.  For a while there we thought we were going to stuck in an abandoned town.  Possibly there may be some improvement with Chinese investors recently starting to work the mines again.  

Our host took us to the school while we were waiting for the drivers.  This was a nice modern facility (the only living place in town I would say). Warm and light, there were plenty of resources including kids sitting down at 9:45 for a hot snack in the 'canteen'.  We thought we had misunderstood when our host said there were 5 teachers - but there were.  Each small classroom probably had 4 desks and I think there were 17 children.  The infants were cute and hid when we came in, but the minute the teacher said photo - they were all there ready to be snapped

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Dushanbe and Bishkek

Dushanbe is a very pleasant city. It felt like we could be somewhere in Europe.  The Plane trees, parks and roads all contributed to that feeling.  It was also very hot in mid-September, so walking in the shade of the trees was a relief.  

We referred to the Lonely Planet, and headed off to see the recommended Ethnographic museum.  Only problem was -  it wasn’t where the Lonely Planet map said it was and was actually on the other side of town.  I then remembered someone’s comment in pre-trip research, that they were unsure if the Lonely Planet writer had actually even visited the city, so huge were the errors.  

So unintentionally having visited the outside of some university building, we backtracked and headed for the large Rudaki Park.  There were lanes and lanes of roses, and they were scented roses.  That and the smell of freshly cut grass was a pleasant change for us.  Nearby, was the 2nd largest flagpole in the world, and the ‘Whitehouse’, parliamentary buildings.  

Leaving the park, it was a relief to get inside the National museum and its lovely air-con.  As with anywhere, the exhibits on stones/geology were a bit dull (we are not really into them), but the rest of the collection was quite good.  Quite a lot of effort seemed to have been put into the displays and descriptions.  It was good to see more of the wall murals from Panjakent.  We had seen some lesser quality pieces in our visit to the museum in Panjakent.  But the best bits are in Dushanbe and the Hermitage in St Petersburg.  The room displaying the gifts from visiting nations, was not a winner for me, bowl from Pakistan, pen from India etc.  The top floor had a nice collection of art works by Tajik artists.

For lunch we walked a reasonable distance in the heat to go to the popular Turkish restaurant,  Merve.  The cold drink was particularly good, and food was great.   There were constant pictures of the President wherever we went 

Dinner was next door to our hotel in a nice modern cafĂ©.  At that time we didn’t know it was a chain and ended up at another one when we got to Bishkek.  Two meals, 2 beers and a coke = $12

The next morning it was out to the airport for our flight to Bishek, via Almaty.  There were great views of the snow capped mountains along the route.  Unfortunately the scheduled 2 hour stopover ended up being 6 hours and included boarding the plane and being made to disembark while they swapped out the plane for technical reasons.  And no internet in the terminal unless you have a local number to which the joining code could be sent to.  In the end it was a 4 hours delay for a 30 minute hop flight.  Luckily the driver the apartment arranged to meet us at the apartment was still waiting for us @10:30pm. No local money, no chance to walk the neighborhood but hey...we are in Kyrgyzstan.

Our 1st goal in Kyrgyzstan was finding an ATM and getting some money.  Beside our apartment was a popular called Bublika.  Coffee, and plates of pancakes and omelettes: we were ready to hit Bishkek.  It turned out to be another lovely city.  Not because of any particular sights, but rather for the parks and public spaces, kind people in cafes and it just had a good positive vibe.  At one point we were sitting in Oak Park, it wasn’t silent looking at the changing colour on the leaves of the trees, instead there was a constant thrum of acorns falling, rustling  through the trees and bouncing off the ground underneath.

USAid had been very active in helping the tourism industry progress and one of their initiatives was preparing walking routes, with supporting stories of the places you were seeing.  It was very well done and helped get us around the city point we wanted to see. There were a lot of parks, squares and sculptures and we didn’t visited them all.  

We had lunch in modern cafe which we had also been to in Dushanbe.  It was only after we sat down and recognized some of the decor did we realize this was a Russian chain called Shokoladnitsa.  The dumplings and local beer were well appreciated.  

Over the road was the Tsum, central department store.  Again the most useful shops were on the very top floor.  Here were a lot of same-same tourist souvenirs but there were a couple of shops with unique items.  The best selling the most delightful silk scarves with merino wool felted into them.  

We visited the Fine Arts museum, which had quite a large space but only a few really good pieces.  The good pieces, were very good, though.  It was particularly noticeable that the dominant colour in all the paintings was brown, reflecting the terrain and harsh environment.  But when it came to the textiles, they were unabashed riots of colour. 

In the way home we stopped in the supermarket.  It is always interesting to see the different  things in supermarkets giving a small insight into local life.  The one thing we both noticed was that bulk biscuits are a major thing here with a aisle devoted to scooping up all the freeflow biscuits you could want. We instead found chocolate marshmallow biscuits that we had had on the airplane - and they served us well as meal supplements over the next few days.  

In the evening we walked to a Georgian Restaurant.  "Pur Pur" has constant good ratings from a number of sources.  It was a good choice, and it lived up to expectations with lamb that melted in your mouth!  The freshly prepared Khachapuri bread and a carafe of Georgian wine made it well worth the walk. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Seven Lakes & Iskanderkul, Tajikistan

Breakfast was more toned down-selection compared to the excessive breakfasts that had been served up to us so far, but still had multiple small dishes.  Our driver for the next 2 days picked us up from outside the hotel.  Rohib spoke good English and had spent time in Germany and Russia.  

The lakes were each a slightly different colour and the people living along the way were certainly living basic lives.  At the 6th lake we stopped and walked to the 7th lake.  

The journey thus far had taken a couple of hours on gravel roads that became progressively narrower and rougher.  The 7th lake was lovely and worth the 150-250 flights of stairs our 2 phones told us we had climbed.  Along the way we had met multiple donkeys carrying firewood, working hard under heavy loads, and their owners encouraging them along.  

It was a bit dubious that the driver’s Opel Vectra was going to be able to handle the roads all the way to the 6th or 7th lake as we had read of other people switching to 4wd cars for the journey.  We made it, but there were a few places where the car struggled badly and we ended up rolling backwards down a hill to try again...not entirely confidence inspiring.

We did the long journey back to the main road.  On reaching the paved road our driver morphed into a racing-car driver.  Speeds were constantly high, and he was overtaking everything at every opportunity.  In one way it was good to turn off the main road and get back on gravel.  Because there, he was infinitely more cautious.  On the negative side it was another hour on gravel roads and the last part done in darkness.  The last portion from Iskanderkul to Sarytag was in pitch dark, on dirt roads that were not in good condition, climbing up highs hills and there was dust everywhere leaving next to zero visibility at times in the headlights of the car.  It was a real relief to get to our home stay, eat a simple meal and fall into bed.

The next morning, we had a got up early and had a brief walk near the property.  We watched groups of older people herding cows to different pasture.  Generally, there was not a lot of grazing, and where the cows ended up didn’t look much better. The stones buildings they were living in had no obvious electricity and smoke suggested open fire cooking

A quick breakfast of eggs and not-so-fresh bread, and we were back in the car jolting along a different road back to the Iskanderkul lake.  This was a newer, better road built because of the Chinese gold & antimony mining camp which we passed through on the drive.  I assume they also paid for the electricity pylons and all other new infrastructure we could see on the way.  Production from the mine was expected to be 2ton of gold per year and 16000 ton of antimony (used in batteries). Various conversations with people during the larger Stans trips had plenty of negative comment about these foreign investors. 

Iskanderkul lake was a beautiful sight.  We also walked alongside the river in order to see the roaring rapids/waterfall.  I was less keen on the cantilevered viewing platform...well anchored, but it had seen better days.

Back in the car and a 1 hour trip back to the main road, then racing car mode again.  We did go through the infamous Anzob tunnel – previously known as ‘the tunnel of death’.  These days, it has lights and a reasonable surface.  But the 5km tunnel (@ 2700m) was built by Iranian engineers and it was handed over unfinished for nearly 10 years with no lighting, there was water flowing through it and eventually major potholes.  Work started again in 2017 and it is dramatically better.  There is still no ventilation and Tajik vehicles have a tendency to have bad fumes, so visibility is still not great.  Everyone, including the driver , was very relieved to see light on the other side.  

The road had plenty of avalanche shelters and even at the end of summer there were patches of snow on the roadside due to the altitude we were at.  Our driver had to stop once after the tunnel because he was feeling tired after a broken night’s sleep in Sarytag.  He wasn’t totally unsafe but it was good to hit the outskirts of Dushanbe and we were not going to argue about transferring to a taxi for the drive into the city.  

The driver helped us arrange that new taxi journey.  The only problem was that the taxi driver he got for us - had no idea where the street of our hotel was (and it wasn’t a small street).  He asked us to put it on a map for him.  It was just lucky we had some internet and could do that otherwise it would have been a long journey with him stopping every 2 minutes to ask people for directions.  

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Panjakent, Tajikistan

After breakfast it was into the old Russian car driven by a little old man for our journey to the border – a trip of less than an hour.  

The border crossing was again so easy, with a scan of the bags, show the passports, and we were out of Uzbekistan. A short walk across paved no-man’s land and the same process plus presenting a copy of our e-Visa, and it was welcome to Tajikistan.  

Past the gates we met a taxi driver who helped us change money and quoted a decent price to the nearby town of Panjakent.  We said we just wanted to buy a SIM card from the porta-cabin office at the border.  Just buying a sim took 40 long minutes to do.  Issuing a sim to foreigners is relatively new in Tajikistan, but should it really have taken this long? 

While this was happening we talked more to Rohan the taxi driver, and we agreed on a plan to drive to 7 Lakes, Iskanderkul and on to Dushanbe. Tajikistan logistics were planned in a booth beside the border, that was a good use of our waiting time. 

Arriving at our hotel in Panjakent the 1st thing the receptionist said was “we need to cancel your website booking”.  OK, the 2nd booking change today, as our lady in Samarkand also wanted to cancel our booking and both gave us discounts.  They were obviously avoiding paying commissions...but this one suited us perfectly because we had booked for 2 nights and with our new driving plan we only wanted to stay one... so no cancellation fee for us.  

While Panjakent is only 100km or so from Samarkand, it had a different feel to it than anywhere we had been in Uzbekistan.  This is also a little unusual as high percentages of the people in Uzbekistan are ethnically Tajik.  Due to political reasons the Panjakent border had been closed for many years and only in late 2018 had it reopened following the death of the old Uzbek president. 

Anyway, Panjakent had a small city feel.  People wanted to say hello ...all. the. time.  They were all keen to try out their English.  We saw a few tourists in town, but not high numbers. 

We eventually found a great restaurant for lunch after the recommended 1st options in the Lonely Planet wasn’t open.  The cafe opposite the Rudakai museum was a very good alternative.  They had no English, we had no Tajik, but we managed to get bread and beers which were quickly followed by meat skewers- about $4 total.  It turned out to the a quite busy restaurant, but didn’t look it because everyone was in private dining rooms.  They edged the courtyard and everyone else was in those, while we sat out int covered courtyard. 

Tummys full, we walked across to the museum where we were made to put plastic shoe covers over our sandals, to walk on the carpet. The locals just took off their shoes, which we would have done if we had realised that was an option.  IT was a low key museum, but they had made an effort to include English description on displays, and it was a nice collection of local items.  

Educated we then walked down to the other end of town to visit the market, which was quite large and still bustling at mid-afternoon.  At one point, in the potato aisle, we were asked where we were from and then New Zealand was shouted up and down the line.  One group were very keen to have their picture taken with Andrew.

After the market we navigated our way out of town and up a hill to look at the nearby archeological ruins.  It was a hot and dusty walk, and we decided not to go the full distance and instead just enjoyed the views from the hills we had climbed.  

In the evening we found the Cafe Safina, not where google said it was, but a little further up the street on the opposite side.  A couple of guys wanted us to come and sit with them but we politely declined.  It would have long meal as we couldn’t communicate and they were quite well fueled on their alcoholic drinks – but we had some friendly banter across the courtyard during the meal.  At the end we made farewells to them and Andrew spent a few minutes admiring the large marrows/pumpkins they had bought in town.  And the meal was good, the place was popular with a lot of locals going into the inside dining room.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Samarkand - Uzbekistan

On arriving at Samarkand station we had pre-arranged a taxi from the BnB and soon we were wending our way through traffic and buses and big city paraphernalia.  No idea where we were, or going, but it didn't matter.

Our host at Antica BnB was a bit run off her feet with three sets of guests arriving off the same train.  Bags deposited, we decided to go out for a walk to find something for dinner.  

For the 1st time in a long time we had not checked out what restaurants were near us.  So after walking about for a bit, we found there were not a lot of options nearby so we chose "Labi Gor". Near to the Registan, it looked ok and there were a number of people seated...but it turned out to be the worst meal in a very, very long time.  The staff appeared friendly, but basically couldn't care less.  The food (after 2 of our 1st choices were not available) was basically a whole chicken each, partially warmed through.  We picked at it a bit, finished our (not very tasty) beers and paid more than the meal was worth.  On looking on and google later, there was review after review of low star reviews, with words like "avoid" and "tourist trap".  Lesson learned, moving on.

The next morning the Registan was the 1st destination of the day.  40,000 som to enter  and it was without question a stunning complex.  

The highlight was the smaller mosque, with its breathtaking ceilings.    

We went over to the Siyob market where we bought some candied peanuts and wandered around the covered market and the fruit and veg offerings.

Then it was on to Bibi Khanym mosque.  This was also impressive and decorated slightly differently from other Mosques and Madrassas we have visited.  We sat for a while off the main square and watched people move about.  This included some local school kids who started climbing the side of the building.  They had one eye on the climb, and the other watching the guard near the ticket office, hoping he didn't see them.

Lunch was in a restaurant on the edge of the market, a few tourists and a lot of locals we were lucky to get a seat.  Good soup and somsa (again).  Andrew experienced drinking beer out of bowl - Uzbek glass said our waitress :-)

We walked through the park to the "Street of Mausoleums".  We liked the sign outside that requested people didn't leave money on the alters or sacrifice animals there among other edicts.  We saw plenty of instances of money on tombs, but luckily there were no sacrifices the day we visited.  We returned through the cemetery  where the recent  headstones all had sandblasted (or a similar technique) photo realistic images of the people on them. 

The cemetery finished at the tomb of former President,  Islam Nabokov, who died in 2016.  It was a MAJOR pilgrimage site for locals, with people seated around the tomb and praying.

Dinner was in the BnB. The plates of food just kept coming, starters, salads, mains, fruits.... It was a good option to have good local food,  and not to have to walk miles 

The next day we visited Gul Amir mausoleum located next to the BnB.  Timur and his grandson Ulgubek (gave his name to algebra) are buried here.  

We walked through the neighbourhood streets.  The local kids wanted to talkand we were mobbed by a group of under 7s wanting to try out their English.

We walked up the Winery building, but it didn't open until 18:00.  The we had selected a burger bar for lunch, but when we got there it wasn't open either, nor was the recommended coffee shop nearby.  We saw a couple of locals go into a restaurant, so we followed them in.  We managed to get fried chicken and chips (breakout from local fare for one.meal) and 2 beers with some good pointing at pictures and other people's plates

Dinner at the BnB, dolma yum!  Not so yum was the local wine.