Reflections while becalmed in Almaty

We have been here in Almaty for 2 weeks now and I am reminded of the last line of the Eagles song ‘Hotel California’ which says ‘You can check-out any time you like, But you can never leave!’. As our plans keep changing, we keep making and cancelling reservations at the hotel Parasat, not California. We have stayed in five different rooms here so far.

Two weeks in the same place for us is a strange experience after almost four months constant travelling on the road, it feels to me like we are becalmed and have lost steerage , the sail is gently moving in a very light breeze, causing the mast hoops to creak from time to time. A little strange analogy so far from the ocean but the loss of direction is like malaise that has made one feel listless and sometimes happy just to read, watch TV or sleep, although parts of our days have been busy with unexpected activities, see below.

Our friend serendipity has also caught up with us, I thought we had left her in Mongolia, but she seems keen to travel with us again. As you may recall from the last blog, we were waiting to hear back from the Turkmenistan Consulate on our visa application which we were told to call about on 31 July. We planned to leave for a week and do a loop around Kyrgyzstan and then return to Almaty until Anne’s right shoulder froze overnight and left her with limited movement and significant pain. We were lucky to be here in Almaty not on the road in a remote location, hence the return of Serendipity. We were lucky enough while seeking medical advice to be pointed in the direction of an English speaking orthopaedic specialist whom Anne is now seeing daily for some lovely shockwave therapy, not painless sadly, to restore movement to her right arm. Progress is being made.

While my writing may give the impression that we are doing little or nothing, we are walking 8-11km / 5-7 miles a day as we go to for Anne’s treatment, Costa Coffee and exploring a new location each day from the Green Market to Hard Rock Cafe Almaty to meeting ex Soviet sailors celebrating Russian Navy day (31 July) . We do feel however that we are in a bit of a ‘bubble’ here in Almaty, which is the term we also use for the Dostyk Plaza, a modern shopping centre that would not be out of place anywhere in the world where Anne gets her excellent ‘Costa’ coffee. The rest of Kazakhstan, and the more distant parts of Almaty do not reflect the environment we are living in.

Ex Soviet Navy sailors on Russia’s Navy Day – “no more war” they told us…

Almaty Green Market

One huge peach for Anthony

Lovely wheelchair ramp!!


Almaty – mixture of modern and less so

Anne’s treatment is progressing better than our Turkmenistan visa application. We had the nurse at the specialist call on the 31st as planned to have a Russian speaker talk with the consulate, “no answer, call back in a week” she was told. The nurse said it was too long, “call back tomorrow”, she did, “still no decision, call back”. Today we got “нет”, “нет what” asked the nurse, “still no decision, probably no approval”. We believe we are just getting the run around after our difficult application, but it’s hard to tell. We will wait till tomorrow morning, Thursday, but leave then if there is no answer. While it has been frustrating, we wanted to try here to see if it was possible, so we could tell others YES/NO since we could find no recent attempts in Almaty. If no one tries, based on previous information, it could have changed and no one would know, hence our effort here, which has coincided with Anne’s injury. Hence Seredipity…

Amazingly, Shane, a friend from Brisbane, http://www.tiredanddehydrated.com, is also waiting to find out if he’ll get a transit visa at the same time as us and has chosen the same transit route as us – he is travelling in the opposite direction. If we are all successful, we would meet up somewhere in Turkmenistan. That would be so much fun!

While in Almaty, we also get to watch the daily world news cycle, on the only English channel here, CNN, which seems so distant and unimportant to us, but we realise the events are likely to have an impact on people. We are in a bubble in so many ways.

Yesterday, we continued our search for some vinyl to patch the holes both our seats have developed. We were recommended a car repair and detailing place. As staff are desperately trying to explain the cost of completely recovering our seats, a customer comes over to us and asks in perfect English if he can help. Almaz offers to take us to a motorcycle spares and repair place he knows. Off we go in his beautiful black Range Rover to FreeRider which also has a hostel and pub.

Almaz took us to FreeRider store, Almaty

It was so interesting finding out more about life in Kazakhstan, and especially the difference between pre and post independence in 1991 and the impact on people. Almaz was quite a character with a great sense of humour. We appreciated his openess. And his help of course too!! Once again, people coming to our aid.

The repair man hasn’t shown up for work yet (it is 11.40am) – he had a big night we are told. The store is impressive, stocked with all sorts of spares and tyres. When we finally got a call back from Jana at 4pm that we could turn up at 10 tomorrow, we decide it was too close to our departure to take the risk of the man having another big night and we’d be left with no seats. We’ll patch up the seats with our liquid vinyl and some rubber mat we found at the supermarket.

A new experience today as we wait to see Anne’s specialist: the ground is shaking. It lasts 10 seconds. It can’t be a jackhammer outside, we are in a high rise. Did you feel that, Anne asks Anthony. Yes, he replies calmy. An earthquake? Probably. Within 15 minutes, it repeats 7 times. Quick check on Google – yes, we had a small 4.3 earthquake in the night. So these are aftershocks. Anne wants to get out. We walk downstairs to the ground floor: the exit door is locked. Back up we go. Why is everyone so calm Anne wonders? The nurse didn’t feel anything. “You won’t die in Kazakhstan today, just relax” she laughs, this happens all the time here apparently. That was enough to calm Anne down. By that time, after 12 aftershocks, we had lost count of the number. The funny thing is that on our way to the specialist, Anne had pointed out how strange it was that granite tiles on a building facade were cracked. The building must have moved she thought…

Anne’s shockwave therapy was painful but extremely effective. Thank you Aliya and doctors. For anyone visiting Almaty and needing some orthopedic rehabilitation, contact Doctor Dana Abildinova on danarehab@mail.ru.

Hello!!


Anne’s lovely doctor Daulet and nurse Aliya


The pointy towers of Nurli Tau where Anne went for rehab


Just for fun, Amaty

Thank you Almaty, we’ve had a great couple of weeks here.

Almaty, the apple’s ancestral home

What is the plan next then? Unless a miracle happens tomorrow, we have to give up on our wish to visit friends in Iran and change our route. We will head to Aktau, and cross the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan on a cargo ship. Another adventure – we hear we can wait up to aweek to get onto a cargo ship. First, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan then back into Kazakhstan.

The 2slowspeeds

A week in Almaty

Once we have checked into our hotel in Almaty, we have a quick late lunch and decide to head to the Uzbek embassy: it is late in the day so we are not expecting to achieve much but at least find out the local process for applying for a visa tomorrow. I quickly pack paperwork and passport photos just in case and off we go. It is 4pm by the time we get to the consulate and there is a throng of people milling around a small wooden shack, some with papers in their hands, some without. Hmmm, wonder what the process here is. I walk up to a young lady and ask her if she knows. She speaks English! Fantastic. I explain we want to get a visa to visit Uzbekistan. She goes to the guard to explain what we are after and he opens a metal gate and waves us through. I will not go through the details of the next steps here as they are numerous and all are listed in our Borders and Visas section. Suffice to say here that on day 1 in Almaty, after a 2 hour process, we leave the consulate with our Uzbekistan visa in our passports! What a fantastic start.

With the first visa in the bag, next on our agenda is the Iranian visa. We are grateful they are open on a Friday. While it is close to our hotel, it is a strenuous 3km walk due to the steep terrain and streams here. It makes for an interesting walk!

Stream running through Almaty


Walking to the Iranian Consulate in Almaty

No masses of people here, we are let in through the massive metal door and walk right up to a lovely office with leather couches, coffee table and picture books, water fountain. No one else is there so we walk right up to a little window, hand over all the appropriate paperwork and are told to go to the Pakistani bank to pay for the visa and come right back. (There is a little more to this but again, all detailed in our visas section). Surprise surprise, the bank is not next door but 3kms away! We walk all the way back down the hill to town but to a taxi rank outside a fancy plaza to take us to the bank then back to the Iranian consulate where they eventually tell us to come back Tuesday morning to collect the visas and back to the plaza. Time for some lunch in this amazing ‘bubble’ that this plaza is here: shiny, airy, modern, air conditioned, all sorts of stores we recognise, and Costa Coffee!!! It also has an amazing food store with all sorts of prepared salads and dishes.

Enjoying yet another Costa coffee in Almaty

While having lunch, we decide we should visit BMW to check them out and maybe ask about a service. Another cab takes us there. My pathetic Russian does not cut the mustard and someone is quickly called to help us. We are introduced to Alikhan, the BMW Autocentre Bavaria Regional Manager, and Eva Antimonova, Business Development Director at Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Almaty. They both speak perfect English. As we chat about our trip and our service requirement, Alikhan is amazed that we have no problem with the bikes, nothing is broken and we have all the spares we need for the standard service. They can do the service for us now if we like and we are welcome to wait the 2 hours. We quickly return to the hotel, change into our riding gear and ride back to BMW. For the next couple of hours, we chat to Alikhan and Eva about the car market in Kazakhstan while having drinks, cakes, and watching Streak and Storm being worked on the large tv monitor! As we’re chatting, we find out the BMW general manager had got his driver to find us Kazakhstan stickers, as we had earlier explained how we had looked for Russian and Kazakh stickers for our topboxes without success, and has been successful!!

2 hours later, Streak and Storm are ready for us with a clean bill of health and they are gleaming!!!!

Alikhan and the BMW Almaty service manager

Before we leave Alikhan invites to take us up the mountain tomorrow Saturday. What a lovely offer. It is always great to meet locals especially when we can converse easily in English. It is a great day out with Alikhan, going to places we would not have known about and learning more about him and his country.

Alikhan, our wonderful guide for the day

On the cable car, going up Shymbulak, Almaty

Alikhan and us on Shymbulak mountain, Almaty

We are at 32000m altitude, view of Ile-Alatau Nat’l Park with glacier, Almaty

As Alikhan leaves us at our hotel after lunch, he took this photo of us which I love:

A private moment caught by Alikhan

Thank you Alikhan for a fabulous day!!

We have walked so much in Almaty – an average of 8kms a day minimum – in this heat, it feels like much more! The second half of each walk always harder as it is a slow walk up the hill to get back to our hotel. It has been so hot, it feels like my skin is sizzling, even in the shade, as it is dry heat. Thank goodness for all the trees, shade and running water everywhere. It is fantastic that Almaty city council have made the most of their natural resources – the mountains and therefore glacial melts so close to the city. Sunday, we must have walked at least 10kms:

One of many fountains in Almaty

Glacial water runs through channels that criss-cross Almaty city centre

Typical Almaty centre street

Typical Almaty centre street

Almaty centre, restaurants, apartments, bowling alley

Panfilov war memorial, Almaty

Ascension Cathedral, Almaty

Almaty Independence Square

Step onto a pedestrian crossing and traffic will stop for you!


Walking back to our hotel in Almaty

Monday is spent washing our panniers and riding gear. I was very lucky as I did a ‘boy look’ emptying my pockets and only realised a couple of hours later that I had left 2 camera batteries in one of my inside pockets. I quickly get a cup of uncooked rice and place the batteries in a couple of zip lock bags. A couple of days later, they seem fine. That was lucky!

Washing day in Almaty


Tuesday is a big day for us: it is Iran and Turkmenistan visas day. We turn up at the Iranian consulate as requested at 10am to collect our visas to be greeted with 45′ of confusion – our paperwork is nowhere to be found. Luckily we have the tiny paper slip that shows we paid for our visas last week. We are not sure if they found it or if they were too embarassed and just printed the visas to get us out of their hair!! Anyway, visas in hand, first stop is the photocopying store to get colour copies of this latest visa to add to the paperwork we need for the Turkmen visa.

The Turkmen consulate in Almaty cannot be a prime job: the offices are located at the back of an apartment block… There are not masses of people, just one being processed and 2 in front of us. As it is only 11am, we have a comfortable 2 hours before closing time at 1pm. Haha, you guessed it!! That was not plenty of time. It was a re-run of the sloth part in Zootopia. Watching the guy, who was obviously not having a good day, checking applications and comparing passport photocopies with the actual passport, was comical he was so slow. Then having spent over 30 minutes checking their paperwork, it took him 45′ minutes to get a tiny pre-printed piece of paper with bank address and fee to the couple in front of us. Maybe he disappeared to have lunch we wondered at the time. Anyway, our turn next. He looks at my paperwork: no no. Blue pen. Not black pen. I have to redo my form in blue pen. So now someone else slips in front of us… aarrgghh, and he is obviously a tour operator with many applications. But he is helpful and he stays behind a few minutes to translate for us: we had to write a letter asking the consulate to grant us a visa. We managed to hand all our paperwork just before 1pm. It is finally all good, we get that tiny piece of paper and are told to come back today. No one else is processed today and he closes his little window. We rush off, 2kms walk each way to get to the nominated bank and get back and find his window open: he was waiting for us. That could be promising we think…. but his parting words are: call this number or come back in a week and I will let you know my decision…. We have no idea if we will get our transit visa… I have to add that we have found no report of a transit visa being granted from this consulate for the past couple of years but the other two visas having been processed so quickly, we felt a duty to try in order to report back to the travelling community. We can go for a tour of Kyrgyzstan for a week and come back. Will see what happens next and what we decide to do…

We have enjoyed our time in Almaty so far, the leafy streets, numerous parks and fountains, constant sound of running water, well maintained pavements and streets, the choice of foods, the fresh fruit juices, the ‘bubble’ that Almaty seems to be with modern, glassy, flashy highrises inter-mixed with Soviet era apartment blocks – such a contrast with the rest of the country.

While we travel, we still often think of home and all the work that awaits us there, yes, those renovations we put off to come on this trip, and Anthony’s fountain.

Could this fountain work in our back garden?!

– Anne

Loving being back in Kazakhstan

After crossing into Kazakhstan in the record time of 1.5 hours for both border sides, we have an easy 120kms to our next overnight stop in Semipalatinsk. Or so we thought… We have had it far too easy for far too long someone decided, time to change that today…!! Storm clouds have been building fast, we dodge some then the lightening gets progressively closer. Time to find shelter somewhere as we know there are no towns ahead for quite a while. A bus stop appears just in time. Time to snack and watch the light show. Once the thunder moves away from us, we decide to carry on. We didn’t make it far before a very bright vertical lightning strike right ahead of us makes us turn back to our now favourite bus shelter. Good timing: we now get hail. We have been given quite a show. We enjoy our time waiting, watching. There is something special about being out in the elements. Cars and trucks passing by all acknowledge us and hoot and wave. We love being back in Kazakhstan already.

We’ve made it out of Russia and into Kazakhstan just in time!

Streak and Storm being pelted by hail

It is not long after we move on again that we realise what a good decision it was to stop. Swerving to avoid potholes and oncoming vehicles is one thing on a dry tar road, it is something else on a wet muddy potholed one.

Dodging storms and cattle

It is not long though before we have to seek shelter a third time: more lightning and now strong gusts of wind. Luckily, we are in a tiny village and we spot a convenience store with overhanging roof. The 2 drowned muddy rats shelter there until the shop owner kindly invites us in. Oh dear, she will have to mop the floor! But she is very gracious about our mess. I make the most of our time there to buy some of her mini ‘palmiers’ – a delicious flaky sweet pastry – perfect when you are wet and freezing – yes, the temperature has dropped from low 30’s to 14 degrees. 30 minutes later and we are off again. 4 hours after entering Kazakhstan to cover 120kms, we finally arrive at Semipalatinsk as it is referred to on maps and road signs, or Semey as it is officially known today. It has been a 12 hour day on the road. Time for a hot shower and dinner downstairs in the hotel restaurant. It is wonderful to have fish and veggies for a change!!

Fish and veggies in Semey

After a good night’s sleep, it’s time for an early morning walk. As usual, I have done a little research on the area and I have a walking tour organised to take Anthony on, a mystery tour for him if you will. It is a 6km round trip walk to get us here:

‘Stronger than Death’ monument, Semey

This memorial to the victims of Semipalatinsk nuclear tests called “Stronger than Death” was unveiled on 29 August 2001, 20 years after Kazakhstan president Nursultan Nazarbayev signed a decree closing Semipalatinsk nuclear test site, known as Polygon, in August 29, 1991. Above the marble centrepiece of a mother covering her child billows a Polygon mushroom cloud etched into a 30m-high black tombstone. Crouched at the base of the 30m black nuclear cloud silhouette is a mother trying to shield her child. It is such a powerful, sombre, monument.

Semipalatinsk Test Site or simply “The Polygon” is an 18,000-square-kilometre area on the Kazakh Steppe where the Soviet Union conducted 456 nuclear tests from 1949 until 1989, a site selected due to its uninhabited status, despite the fact that 700,000 people lived there. The full impact on its inhabitants coming to light when the site was officially closed for testing in 1991. The site has been described as “One of the world’s 10 worst radiation hotspots”, Semipalatinsk’y and its neighboring villages suffering high rates of cancers and birth defects. In 2007 the Semipalatinsk City Council voted unanimously in favour of changing the name of the city to Semey as the existing name had negative associations with the atomic test-site.

In same year as this moving memorial was unveiled, the Parliament of Kazakhstan approved a constitutional amendment stating that the first president (Nazarbayev, who has been president since 1991) will have no limits on how many times he can run for office, but subsequent presidents will be held to a five-year term…

This is the extent of my planned tour today. Our minds are full, it does not seem necessary to visit more sights here today. We leave Semey just before lunch, with heavy hearts for the area… until I am stopped at traffic lights with this gorgeous man beside me, beaming, happy for us, happy for himself seeing us, giving me a thumbs up. So altruistic. I love the Kazakhs.

Friend Kazakh in Semey

To get from Semey to Ayogoz, we have 350kms to cover and it ends up taking us 7 hours. The scenery is relatively flat and boring, the road at times missing, but the ever changing sky keeps us entertained.

Powerlines in Semey city centre

Another fabulous sky

Time for lunch, packet fish and crackers, while the storm passes

Glad the traffic is light to work around the puddles

One of many sad sights – abandoned buildings…


That will take some cleaning!


Lovely to see mountains again, on our way to Ayogoz

Thanks to helpful customers and staff at the petrol station we fuelled up outside Ayagoz, we are given the directions to a gostinitsa nearby. We are greeted by a jolly fellow who speaks more English than I speak Russian, he tells us he works there but I suspect he owns the place. He directs us to his house around the corner to park our motorbikes securely in his own garage. It seems people are a lot more concerned about the safety of Streak and Storm than we are! His wife later puts us onto their daughter who is currently in Moscow to help us with ordering dinner. Once again, so many people putting themselves out to help us, just passing through…

Our Gostinitsa Alikhan in Ayogoz

We have a long day ahead of us today, with 512kms to cover from Ayagoz to Taldykorgan, so we are on the road by 7am, leaving under stunning blue skies.

Within an hour, we are dodging storms, occasionally getting drenched. For the next 4 hours though, it is the endless potholes we desperately try to dodge, occasionally getting it wrong and apoligising to either Streak or Storm for the brutal treatment. And of course the oncoming traffic is trying to do the same! So we don’t only look out for our potholes, but it is important to be aware of what the oncoming traffic is faced with so that we can move over to let them weave out towards us. It is a lot harder for trucks to avoid all those potholes, so they travel pretty slowly. Like in Russia, truck drivers are fantastic and always aware of us behind them. When they can see an opportunity for us to overtake, they will stay well over onto their side, in Russia they also indicate, to let us pass before they continue to weave. Occasionally we feel the oncoming traffic has come a bit too close for comfort to us, but the vast majority of the time, it all works out very well. This part of the world has such a bad reputation for bad drivers, but it is a matter of understanding the driving style.

And what we both love is that most truck drivers and many cars here hoot at us and wave as we go by.

More storms within an hour of leaving Ayogoz

Back to blue skies

Fish sellers line road

Hours of potholes between Ayogoz and Taldykorgan

We meet a couple of brits at one of our snack stops, chat about this awful road and our trips, see them along the way a couple of times later that day and see them again at our hotel in Taldykorgan!

Luckily the scenery was nothing special to look most of the day as we had to concentrate on the potholes so much. The second part of the journey was in better condition and scenery more interesting, with hills appearing. It wasn’t until we arrived at Taldykorgan airport that the road suddenly changed. Ridiculously so!! With painted metal fences in the middle of the dual carriage way, with the occasional deer sculpture.

Arriving into Taldykorgan


Lady sweeping the road in Taldykorgan

We get to our hotel 10 hours after leaving Ayogoz, we are hot, filthy and exhausted. It feels good though – it was a good day’s ride.

We have an easy 280kms to cover from Taldykorgan to Almaty. We suspect the road will be good and it was, dual carriage way most of the way. We are in Almaty in 4.5 hours. It might seem long for such a short distance but Kazakhstan police have a certain reputation and every driver is very aware and wary of them. Any and every speed limit is carefully adhered to, especially the occasional ridiculous reduction for no apparent reason – those sections can go on for kilometers and are designed to catch impatient drivers. Pedestrian crossings appear anywhere, on dual carriage ways too and the pedestrian here is king. You have to slow down for every pedestrian crossing, whether there is someone there or not.

Immaculate road from Taldykorgan to Almaty and some stunning scenery

Once in Almaty centre, it takes us another hour to get to our hotel. Not because of city traffic, but because all roads leading to our hotel has a no entry sign!! It was thanks to someone opening his gate to let us drive through his property that we finally got there!!

All roads leading to our hotel has a no entry sign!

View from our hotel, Almaty

We are planning on being here for at least a week as we have 3 visas to get: Uzbekistan, Iran and Turkmenistan. I wonder how long that will take and whether we manage to get the Turkmenistan one… Suite au prochain numéro…

– Anne