This time we have some panoramas for you from 2 countries, one of which is the 9th biggest in the world (Kazakhstan). We spent a total of 6 weeks here, about 3 in each.
The 2 nations are very different, and even within one country the scenery changes with every few hundred kilometers, making it fascinating areas to explore. As usual, our route changed as soon as we got there and started reading about the many interesting places we could go to.
The vastness of the Kazakh steppe in the north, some might think it boring country, we thought the emptiness mesmerizing.
First glimpses of the famous Silk Road, an ancient adobe caravan-serai. After 3 days driving to get here, we felt as happy arriving here as travelers must have been back in those days.
We stayed overnight inside the old carava-serai and were rewarded with a stunning sunset.
Horseriding through the mountains of this stunning national park was rewarded with some seriously sore bums (and amazing views).
We add another world heritage site from Unesco to our list when we visit the Tamgaly petroglyphs. More than 3000 petroglyphs from the bronze and early stone age can be found here, as well as burial mounds, graves and remains of settlements. You can see a party on the left, and just to the right of the middle you can see some sun gods.
The stunning, red rocks of the Charyn Canyon make it very impressive. We were treated to some serious gale force winds during our overnight stay, making us a little grumpy the next day due to lack of sleep.
A little further the Charyn Canyon creates little oases along its icy waters, the contrast stunning (we think).
Every Sunday the locals gather to sell or buy livestock at this huge animal market. No reading descriptions, no checking out a photo, no entering of credit card details and no clicks with a mouse. Here they hand over real cash to buy their next sheep or walking hamburger after a bit of prodding, lifting, squeezing and serious negotiations about the price.
The Tian Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan provide plenty of opportunities to snap panoramas, it was hard to pick ‘the best ones’. This was the glacier at the top of the Uch Tor valley.
The view from (near) the top of the glacier, looking back down the Uch Tor valley.
Looking back up the Kul Tor Valley on the second day of our hike. We descended from the right, and the Karakol Glacier is on the other side of the snowcapped mountains, which we reached via the 4020m pass.
The final scree slope before we get to the beautiful blue Ala Kol lake for our campsite on day 4 of our hike. The waterfall comes straight from the lake.
The last day of the hike, on the final ascent up to the Ala Kol pass (directly above Jude’s head) where it was snowing. Then a long way down to the hot springs in the next valley.
View from the Ala Kol pass at 3860m. Just stunning isn’t it?
A wind-still evening on the shores of Lake Issy Kul with a gorgeous sunset. We had a swim and enjoyed reading our books until the natural light disappeared.
On our way to Lake Song-Kol through another beautiful valley. The road followed the glacial river for dozens of kilometers. A little earlier we had met the hardcore Russian rafters paddling this grade 5 / 6 river.
A deserted track next to a little creek makes another perfect campsite. We haven’t had any problems finding great campsites in both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Our standards have definitely improved since China!
Driving from Tash Rabat (the historic caravan-serai) to Arslanbob (the biggest walnut forest in the world) we drove through this type of landscape for 2 days. The snow on top of the mountains is fresh. On the higher passes we had to plough through 10 cm of fresh snow.
Another issue caused by the terrible Mongolian roads or is it too late to blame those now? The back brake protection plate cracked and had to be removed. We had it welded in Osh a couple of days later for $5. This was the only rainy day during our 6 weeks in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
Our first view of the Pamir mountains as we approach the border with Tajikistan. Peak Lenin at 7,150m is visible towards the right, and the Pamir Highway cuts through the middle of the chain. This was one of the most magnificent views of the trip so far.
When we left the Tamgaly petroglyphs we had our radio on as we were hoping to catch up with Guy and Cheryl who were on their way west out of Almaty as we were approaching. We heard a call and stopped driving when we reached a highpoint, expecting them to be 20-30km away from us, driving towards Tamgaly (we had told them we were coming from that road). To our surprise they were more than 150km away in the hills south of Almaty. We could hear them perfectly and agreed to meet later that day. We ended up parking in a field close to Almaty and spent a great night together catching up on adventures. We won’t see them anymore on our travels as they are now heading back to Russia to enter Europe via the Ukraine.
The next day we drove into Almaty on the back roads. Our goal in Almaty: pick up our remaining visas and have Lara serviced (yep, we have driven nearly 10.000km since her last service in Ulaanbaatar). Before our departure from Australia we were unable to get our Tajik, Uzbek, Turkmenistan and Iranian visas due to their application (date-wise) restrictions.
Our first stop was the Tajik embassy which we found easily. It was open and as we had already prepared the application forms, it was a quick process. They were extremely helpful, interested in where we wanted to go in Tajikistan and happy to add the GBAO permit we need to be allowed onto the Pamir Highway. They allowed us to pick up our visas the next day after 2pm.
Next: the Uzbek embassy. After reading stories on the internet we knew it was open for visa applications from 2pm. We arrived early and were told this is now 3pm. We left to do some other little jobs, including finding a place where we could do the application forms for Uzbekistan again as they need to be done online and we realized when we looked at them at the embassy that they had expired…
A quick lunch whilst waiting for the embassy to open up and that’s when chaos started. People pushing and shoving and the consul forcing his way through the crowds to get to the small gate. There are 4-5 guards, but they don’t do anything. Everybody was firing questions at him and he answered them once he was safely behind the gate. Once it was quiet we also asked our question: can we apply for a visa today.
We could, but we had to wait. Some people were let into the gate and he left down a path next to a massive wall with them to another gate. Later we learned it was even harder to leave this place than it was getting in!
When we were finally allowed in, we entered a small room and were allowed to lodge our application after waiting another 15 minutes or so. We didn’t realise we needed a copy of our passports to apply so had to run back to the car to get some. We get to keep our originals, they add the visa into the actual passport when approved. A good system.
We were very pleased we had lodged these 2 visa applications and then realized there was also an Iranian consulate in Almaty (when we first searched for it, it only showed details of the Iranian embassy in Astana). Enthusiastic after our successes we drove there. It had moved. The guard gave us the new address, but by the time we got there it had just gone past 5pm. Jon went to have a look and was allowed in, they were very helpful and explained what we needed to apply for a visa. We planned to cycle up the massive hill the next day after we left Lara for her service at the Land Rover garage. Hard work without any gears, as the hill was too steep we had to walk a section.
Lara’s service was a routine question. They took all day to check everything, changing some of the bushes was the only thing needed apart from the usual things done at a 10.000km service. We used our bikes to search for English bookshops and a laundromat, both unsuccessfully. But we did pick up our Tajik visa plus permit and lodged our Iranian visa application which required us to find a specific bank in town, pay the fees and then ride to the top of the mountain where the Iranian consulate is now located. They said they would try to get it back within 2 days (express), but it might take 5-6 business days.
Happy about our progress we did some sightseeing on the bike that day and drove Lara towards the Big Lake the next day. We bumped into Slovenian overlanders on our way up and hopped into their spare seat to get to the top. This is the location of an old space station and we walked around some very old, crumbling buildings whilst talking a lot about their route and plans as they had just driven up the way we were going next. Hopefully we’ll see them again in Slovenia as they were racing back in 10 days from Almaty to Slovenia as they had to return to work!
When we dropped into the Iranian consulate the next day, they told us they would call if express had been possible, but as we knew we had to wait till Friday at least before we could pick up our Uzbek visa we decided to go to Kyrgyzstan first for a hike and come back in a week or so to pick them all up at once.
When we came back from Kyrgyzstan we first wanted to pick up the Uzbek one. We waited, queued, handed in our passports for the visas and waited some more… As we used different passports for our Uzbek and Iranian visas Jon decided to pick up the Iranian visas whilst I waited for the Uzbek ones. Of course, 5 minutes after Jon had managed to escape fort knox, the consul calls me and says we have given him the wrong passport for Jon. Oops. There is no other option then to wait, hope Jon manages to get back inside the Uzbek consulate or I can spot him from the second gate when somebsoy leaves (not often).
After a long wait somebody finally leaves and I spot Jon. I frantically wave to the guards trying to tell them to let him in and luckily they understand. I tell Jon about our stuff-up and we quickly hand in the correct passport. Back to the waiting, but this time Jon has brought our books so we don’t mind.
Another hour later we get our passports back: we now have 2 shiny new visas in our passports! And the best news: we have been given 30 days in Iran!
And the visa story doesn’t end here… As we now have our Iranian visa, we can apply for our Turkmenistan transit visa. This takes about 10 business days, but they allow the visa to be picked up in a different location to the one where you applied. This allows us to apply for it in Almaty and pick it up in Dushanbe in a month or so.
The day before Jude had gone to the embassy which is only open from 10-13. Again we were very lucky as the consul was there who was happy to explain the process and what we needed. The main issue being what to write in the letter requesting the visas.
The next day we go early and after only half an hour we get a bit of paper with a number and a date scribbled on it. That’s apparently all we need to pick up the visas in Dushanbe…. Lets hope it works!
The rest of our time in Almaty was spent meeting friends of friends for dinner and a cuppa, dinners out, repairing our iphone which nearly got nicked and in the process developed a very badly cracked front screen, shopping in big supermarkets for the remote Pamir highway in Tajikistan and fixing Jude’s back tyre which had lots the valve (bad roads?). The latter was fixed for free by the national Kazakh mtb team mechanic Alexander. If you are ever in Almaty and need anything mtb related, look him up at his Crankmaster shop!
But the highlight of Almaty for us is definitely a visit to the old Russian sauna where we get beaten up by a fat babushka with 2 birch leave ‘brushes’.
We went horse riding in Aksu-Zabagyly National Park in the south of Kazakhstan. And boy did we know about it. Of course we had to go Jon and Jude style, so instead of riding into the park, hiking to the petroglyphs the next day and then riding back, we did it all in one day.
We left early in the morning and Bob (no, not the designated driver but a Dutch guy we met in Zabagyly) joined us. It was his first horse ride ever. The horses were well-behaved and we walked out of the small village with eager anticipation, it was our first proper horse ride on the trip and we had been wanting to do some horse riding since Mongolia.
After some trotting and admiring the scenery we entered the mountains. The horses were great and allowed us to enjoy them almost effortlessly. But after 3-4 hours in the saddle we were feeling it already and we hadn’t even reached our lunch spot yet. We enjoyed morning tea near a ranger’s hut with some fruit trees around it and had to be careful not to sit in bear poo. We never saw any bears unfortunately, but they certainly enjoy the fruit and seem to be hanging out in this area a lot.
After reaching our lunch spot we had another short ride to the petroglyphs in the rain. It didn’t make them any less impressive though. There was a small gallery with an amazing view over the valleys, showing us the impressions of an artist who lived thousands of years ago. Simple, but elegant they just sit there slowly eroding away to the elements. Only being admired by people who take the effort to get there. Beautiful.
As thunder and lightning was now all around us, we high-tailed it back down the mountain and were soon riding again in sunshine where we enjoyed a fast gallop through one of the valleys, these horses love to go! Fantastic. By the time we dismounted back in the village we had been in the saddle for 10 hours and our bums were not impressed with this record.
We had already hiked down to the Aksu river in the Aksu canyon the day before with Bob and an Italian family, where we had a quick swim in the glacial waters before racing back up to the top. Our guide didn’t allow us to go for a hike along the river due to permit restrictions (read ‘her laziness’) and we had to catch up with Romeo in his Italian leather loafers and shirt and tie after our naughty dip.
On our way to Almaty we stopped at yet another Unesco World Heritage Site (we stopped counting as there are so many): the petroglyphs of Tamgaly. Unlike the lone 5 or 6 petroglyphs in the mountains of Aksu-Zabagyly NP, they have discovered around 3000 petroglyphs here, some burial mounds, graves and foundations of houses. All dating back to the Bronze age to the early Iron age. We had a lovely archeologist as our guide and he showed us not only all the petroglyphs, but also 2 of the local hallucinogenic plants the shamans would have used to help them into their trance and a local version of the black widow (spider) that eats the male after mating.
Our last stop in Kazakhstan was the Sharyn Canyon. We arrived quite late and asked if we could camp there (imagine a game of sherades and you get the picture of ‘asking’ as no English is spoken and our Russian is still non-existent). No problem. We drove in and were seriously impressed with the shapes and formations the wind had created from the red sandstone rocks. We found a perfect spot, perched right at the end of a flat ridge line above all those beautiful shapes and overlooking the canyon. After dinner we enjoyed the stars before going to bed, but we couldn’t sleep. By that time the wind had picked up, probably wanting to show us how she makes these funky shapes from rock.
We removed all the tent poles that prop up our entrance and windows, strapped the whole tent down to stop it from flapping itself to pieces and tried again to sleep. We couldn’t. Lara was rocking and rolling like she was on an angry ocean and the noise of the tent in the wind that felt like it was about to be blown off the car, made us move the car in the middle of the night. Back the way we came along the narrow ridge line, crawling to the safety of some low hills which blocked the wind a tiny, tiny bit. Enough for us to crawl (the opening of the tent was now very small and low as we had strapped her down) back into the Taj Mahal and try to catch a few more zzz’s before daybreak.
Needless to say we were a bit tired the next day. We explored the top of the ridge and then tried to find a way down into the canyon with Lara as we could see tyre tracks down there. We found the track down and the ranger miraculously appeared to negotiate a fee to open the gate, but then told us Lara wouldn’t fit as she is too high. We jumped out to start our walk down when a 4WD with 4 Kazakh guys arrived at the gate too and we hopped in the car with them. Hassan, Hassan, Azamat and Marada had driven from Almaty to Sharyn Canyon to test Hassan’s new car and have a picnic.
Their Prado only just fitted through the narrow gap created by some random rock fall across the path and we were happy we left Lara high and dry at the top of the canyon. The ranger had been right, she would not have fitted. It was a fun drive down and we loved the scenery all around us. At the end of the track was a little green oasis with a picnic table overlooking the fast flowing river.
The guys asked if we wanted to join them for lunch, but unfortunately we had to get to the border that day so we couldn’t. We hiked back out of the canyon to pick up Lara who was faithfully waiting for us where we had left her.
Thousands of flamingos live in an area full of small and big lakes just to the southwest of Astana. We found the visitor center in Qorghaljin, a small town to the east of the lakes and were lucky to find it open. First there was no guide available – why hadn’t we booked was the question – but then Alexander appeared out of nowhere. We were about to head off with our Russian-only speaking guide when 5 Frenchies turned up. They also wanted to see flamingos and despite the fact one of them lives in Astana, they too didn’t know you were supposed to book it in advance.
We were happy to share our guide and followed the dust cloud of Alexander to the lakes. It was a bit of a disappointment as we only saw 3 flamingoes through the spynos (binoculars – verrekijker), far in the distance. We couldn’t go to the lake where 1000’s of them are hanging out as they had their young who couldn’t fly yet. We did see heaps of other birds, had a great time with the Frenchies and on the way back to town Alexander spotted a mole on the track which made my day.
Instead of driving back north to the main road we decided it would be way more fun to drive further south on the dirt roads, picking up the main road near Jezqazghan to continue south to Sauran. The main road was not so main road after all, with huge sections barely more than a dirt track until we reached Kyzylorda. But all of these roads offer stops with shelters and vehicle inspection ramps for the modern traveler, the inspection ramps are even big enough to put whole trucks on them and they are used a lot. Maybe an idea for our Ozzie or European roads?
It took us 3 days to drive from the lakes to Sauran, an ancient adobe caravan-serai in the desert, once giving shelter to the caravans traveling along the famous Silk Road.
We loved Sauran with its crumbling mud walls, the mysterious dug up foundations and paths and a lone young herder on a donkey who came to visit us for a few hours. We spent hours walking in and around the historical caravan-serai, trying to imagine what it would have looked like in its heydays. As darkness fell we made use of the protection of the magnificent walls of the caravan-serai, just like the old caravans once would have done. We were rewarded with a stunning sunset and a clear starry night without any mozzies – yes, I was in heaven.
The next morning we drove to Turkistan. A small town with a stunning mausoleum for Yasui, the founder of the Yasauia Sufi order who wrote a lot of poems and sermons that were easily understood by ordinary people and therefor remains very popular. For the first time on our trip Jude had to cover up as this is a pilgrimage site and active place of worship for many muslims. Outside the mausoleum there are many women who are not covered up, even wearing hot pants, as Kazakhstan has a very moderate islamic population (about 30% of Kazakhs are muslim).
The mausoleum is stunning, almost entirely covered in blue and white glazed tiles with intricate patterns and designs. The front façade was never finished and is still showing the wood and mud of the structure, but the wooden doors were finished and also show a craftsmanship which is hard to find nowadays.
It is very different to the mausoleum for Aisha Bibi which we visited a few days later. The latter doesn’t have any glazed tiles, but has carved terracotta tiles placed in symmetrical patterns on all sides.
Right next to the mausoleum for Yasui is an underground mosque and bathhouse where pilgrims could have a bath and a massage before worshiping, very civilized. We wished the bathhouse was still operating, but unfortunately it had been turned into a museum some years ago.
In Shymkent we explored the colourful bazaar. They sell everything, but we were mainly interested in the food sections. Every food type has its own area and we strolled from the dairy section, to the dried and fresh fruit stalls, through the meat area where they were making sausages still stuffed into the animal’s intestines and past the delicious smelling bread and deep-fried goodies. We saw dried fish and every juice you could possibly think of, including all combinations, and bought some fresh salads for lunch as well.
We tried on some fur hats, but couldn’t imagine wearing them with this heat (I am sure we’ll think of this day in a few months wishing we had bought the biggest of all as the heating in Defenders might not be up to the task of keeping us warm in a Turkish and European winter…). After all the walking on the bazaar we had gotten hungry and found a restaurant in a little park that sold shashliks and beer for Jon. A great way to end our visit to Shymkent even though we now had to drive through the dark on the potholed road out of town to find a camp site.
PS I know this is a flash from the past, but if you enjoyed the little videos, we have finally been able to upload the little video Jon made from Laos – Jon and Jude go farming. If you go to that blog and scroll down you’ll find the link towards the end of the post (above the recipes). Enjoy!
Kazakhstan, our first Stan of the trip, and Jude’s first Stan ever, and we enter with excited, but nervous anticipation. We’ve read about the hospitality Kazakhstan is so famous for, but also about their ever-present police force with orange batons. Keen to make an extra bit of cash when they can… Will it be true or are these stories, about hospitality and orange batons, hugely exaggerated? We were to find out soon.
Our border crossing from Russia into Kazakhstan couldn’t have been easier or more pleasant. It was fast, efficient and on both the Russian and Kazakh side we were lucky enough to find English speakers to help us out. The Kazakh lady at passport control was very chatty and helpful, a great start. She even took the time to teach us ‘hello’, ‘good-bye’ and ‘thank you’ in Kazakh (‘saliem’, ‘saubol’ and ‘rajmijet’). She also told us we would have to register our visa with the immigration police within 5 days otherwise we’d be in trouble. This is something that happens automatically when you fly in, but not when you cross by car.
Finding the immigration police to register became our first mission. We decided to try our luck at the first town instead of waiting until we reached Astana, hoping it would be easier to find and register in a smaller town. Finding the immigration police was easy in Pavlodar, and thanks to the help of Violet, the registration process was possible. She spoke fluent English, immediately offered her help with translating when she realized we didn’t speak any Kazakh or Russian, offered her address to register us (the officer wouldn’t accept a random hotel address) and filled in all the paperwork we needed (as they were only written in Russian)!
As we were hungry when we left the immigration police, we decided to go to a café for lunch before buying our sim card – our other job in Pavlodar. Unfortunately Violet couldn’t join us, but as we were having our lunch Baurzhan came to our table and said “Welcome to Kazakhstan”. We had a quick chat, he was there with his dad Yerken and some more family members and after we finished our meal they came over to prove that the famous Kazakh hospitality truly exists!
Baurzhan first took us to a mobile phone centre to help us get our sim card, making the process smooth and simple. And that night we stayed in their family home. As Jon was really keen to try the local specialty they were talking about – beshbarmak (horse meat boiled on the bone and horse meat sausages with layers of pasta and boiled onion rings), they even called a restaurant to book it for that night (it takes quite a few hours to prepare). More family joined us for dinner making it an amazing night spent with lovely people in a gorgeous restaurant where the room looked like the interior of a yurt. They made us feel extremely welcome and at home, and also showed us (though not by choice) the orange batons are not exaggerated either.
Showing us the sights of Pavlodar in their car, Baurzhan accidentally drove into a street where you’re not allowed to drive after 10PM due to street racing problems. Immediately an orange baton (lit up at night) was flashed at us and we were pulled over by the cops. Luckily he came off lightly with only a warning, but we realised we need to be careful in Kazakhstan.
They taught us a huge amount of Kazakh history and interesting facts about Kazakh life which goes back a long time to the origins of the 3 clans. Even today a young couple who want to get married must make sure they have no grandfathers shared for 7 generations!
The next morning we spent with Baurzhan in Pavlodar before we sadly had to move on again, but not until we had had lunch in a cozy café with traditional home-cooked food somewhere in the back streets of Pavlodar, sharing a table with strangers as seats became available in the busy place. It was decorated with USSR memorabilia and even a Lenin statue inside. Great!
To make sure we would have no problems leaving Pavlodar, Baurzhan followed us in his car until we were past the police check across the bridge. Every town seems to have these police checks where traffic is forced to a crawl and they can stop you at random. Just to check your papers or if they think they have spotted something wrong.
From Pavlodar we drive to Astana, which means capital in Kazakh. The president decided he wanted to move the capital there (it used to be Almaty until 1997) and has turned a small provincial town into the new Dubai with many building projects on the go. Our bikes come off the back again (first time since Beijing!) for a tour of Astana. We cycle to:
- Khan Shatyr – a huge tent style shopping centre, impressive but not our thing apart from the icecream place.
- the huge flag pole and Atameken – a sad copy of Madurodam where they show a miniature Kazakhstan, fun to walk around but it all looked a bit neglected. Jon loved it though as it has many miniature models of all sorts of oil and gas fields from the entire country on display.
- Baiterek Tower – a sort of crystal ball in a tower where you can go up to the top for a view over the city.
We also walked along the wide boulevards and cycled along the river where we saw a group of K1’s (kayaks) paddle past. All very pleasant with lots of impressive and imposing buildings.
Our first stop in Astana was the Tajikistan embassy though, to see if we could get our visa here, but they referred us to the consul-general in Almaty. And we also needed to find a garage to fix a bad leak in the radiator hose (more damage due to the bumpy Mongolian tracks?). It happened on the way to Astana, luckily Jon noticed it otherwise we might have blown the engine! To our surprise we are told to go to the Land Rover garage around the corner when we stop at a random garage – we didn’t even know there was one in Astana.
As usual they are extremely helpful, have English speaking staff to help translate and get to the job immediately. It will take a few hours, but they think they’ll have it finished by that night, giving us time to explore Astana and even have time for a cuppa at a café. Turns out the managing director is an Aussie character called Mike with a very interesting life story, we’re looking forward to seeing him again in Almaty where Lara is booked in for her next 10.000km service.