Photos from the Kyrgyz capital.
The clock struck 10 just as I was stuffing the last bag of food into my backpack. After one exciting, adventurous week in Kazakhstan, it felt all too soon to say goodbye. But regardless, this was the reality of the situation and I was to journey over land across the border into my final country, Kyrgyzstan. My travel companions were two people I had met only a few days ago: Gautier, a tall French backpacker, and Stefan, a German guy who summitted a mountain with me just yesterday. Despite the time, it was already quite warm and sunny out, but thankfully, a soothing breeze provided some much needed comfort. All that was left to do was to wait for the taxi that our hostel owner, Shakir, had ordered. However... there was one problem. The taxi never came.
After a 20 minute wait, Shakir called the cab service to ask what was going on. "Oh yeah, you guys," said a voice on the other end in Russian. "Our driver couldn't find your place, so he gave up. You're on your own." Initially Shakir, trying to be a good host by protecting his guests, flared with anger. However, he knew getting mad would do nothing to solve the problem, so quickly, his anger turned to determination. "Follow me," he confidently said.
Curious to see what he meant, we obediently followed like dogs behind their owner. He walked out to the street and held up his thumb, and within two minutes, a middle aged man with short hair in a white sedan pulled over. Shakir asked if he could take the three of us to the bus station, and without any hesitation, the man agreed. We piled in. For the second time in my life, I was hitching a ride to catch a bus. First Ireland, no Kazakhstan. Since neither Stefan nor Gautier knew any Russian, I took the seat next to the driver. "Откудда вы?" (where are you from?) he asked while lighting a cigarette. I replied and his eyes lit up with excitement as neither French, Americans or Germans often travel to the country. He then stepped on the gas and we sped off into the distance.
The driver asked about my general impressions of Kazakhstan, wondered if it was similar at all to the States, while doing his best to teach me a few words in Kazakh. The whole ride took about 20 minutes and when it was over, he let us off at this station, crowded with cars, vans, and marshrutkas. "Рахмет"(Thank you) I replied with the one phrase in Kazakh that I remembered. Grabbing our bags, we exited the car, and were immediately faced with a another man in a sweaty gray shirt shouting "Bishkek! Bishkek!" Assuming he was the bus driver, we asked him the price, to which he replied, "2500 Tenge," (about $7). We agreed.
But as it turned out, this guy was not a bus driver. Nor did he even have a bus, just a minivan with three other people already inside. This seemed a bit odd, but since he was apparently the only one going to Bishkek, we got in anyway, assuming it was our only choice. Moments later, he put the key in the ignition, lit up a cigarette, and off we went. And by that, I mean we tore off into the distance like 1930s bank robbers trying to escape the police. Weaving in and out of traffic, on and off the road, we flew past any and everyone in our way, all the while outdated Russian glam-rock blared from the speakers. The cityscape that had once surrounded us quickly turned into open steppe as far as the eye could see.
On we cruised, never relenting all the way to the border (a supposedly 3.5 hour trip that took us about 2). Now it was time to cross the border, but suddenly, something unexpected happened. As we got out of the car, our driver said, "Now I head back to Almaty. You need to find another ride on the other side." I looked back wide-eyed.
"Yeah, it should only be 200 som ($3) each to get to Bishkek."
I protested, saying it was not what we initially agreed upon, but it was to no avail. Still determined, we decided to cross the border and see what we could find on the other side. The whole ordeal was pretty simple even though, to Stefan's dismay, the border guard felt it necessary to make several World War II comments while laughing and shouting, "Deutschland! Nein! Nein Nein!" after seeing his German passport. None the less, we were through in under 20 minutes, only to be greeted by a group of excessively aggressive men shouting, "Taxi! Bishkek!" And by aggressive, I mean literally the most aggressive taxi drivers I've ever seen. The second they saw us, they swarmed down from every direction like a cluster of starving mosquitoes upon a group of sweaty fat men. We unsuccessfully tried to escape, but soon it became apparent that they were the only means of transportation. I turned to a large man and asked the price, to which he said, "500 ($7) som, total." We agreed and off to Bishkek we went.
At first it all seemed simple. Our driver's heavy foot remained steadily down as we followed a single, not-so-well maintained road to the city. But then, we hit the city line and everything changed. The driver stopped, grumbling "Это Бишкек."(this is Bishkek) and motioned for us to get out. We all looked at each other, wondering if this guy was serious. Nothing stood around us, just a sign reading "Bishkek." We were still a good 10 minute drive from the center and our hostel. Stefan protested, "This is not Bishkek! Take us to the center, That's the agreement." But the driver refused, demanding more money. Damn, this guy was trying to grift us too.
We looked at each other then agreed among us, "Ok, first take us there, then we pay."
None of us knew the city at all, so instead of being dumped off in some random area, we decided to play this sly fool's game until we reached our destination. Granted, 300 som is just over $4, but it was the principle of it that mattered. However, just a few minutes later, we arrived, meaning it was time for the confrontation. The driver pulled the car over, and even before we had a chance to leave, he demanded we pay the extra money. Stefan quickly replied, "No" and got up to leave, but the guy wasn't having it. He began to shout louder, insisting we give him the extra 300. Shouts and retorts fired back and forth but finally we agreed upon 150 to finally get this guy off out backs. We were in Bishkek now. It was time for us to enjoy the city and see some mountains, not argue with sweaty cabbies.
And that, dear readers, I will leave you for now, since the story is still ongoing. What shall happen next? Well, I'll answer you in Russian: Посмотрим.
Today, on a hike through the foothills surrounding Almaty, Kazakhstan, I came across...
Last night I decided to wander with a friend from one side of Almaty (a city of 2 million people) to the other... it took over 5 hours and I got very, very hungry en route (but it was still awesome! I just wish I had a potato with me along the way.) Anyway, after seeing pretty much the entirety of the city after dark, it got me thinking about the whole trip so far. Therefore, I decided to come up with some overall impressions about Kazakhstan. Now, some of you may have seen a particular movie a decade ago (as did I) about this place, so with that in mind, let's just say the film might have been slightly off (either that or things changed rapidly over the past 10 years). That said, let me introduce eight impression (because 10 is a boring number) about this glorious nation:
NATURE IS INCREDIBLE
- Kazakhstan has such a diverse mix of nature, from the endless open steppe, to the Caspian Sea coast, to some of the biggest mountains in the world. This was particularly great while staying in the southern city Almaty since some of the biggest mountains are literally within walking distance.
- There's also several mountain lakes over 3000m (2 miles) in elevation.
PEOPLE ARE FRIENDLY
- Kazakhstan doesn't get a lot of tourism, but people are really nice to foreigners and often will want to get to know you. For example, when one local girl, Lera, heard me and other backpackers speaking English in a supermarket, she introduced herself and then went out of her way for the rest of the week showing us all the best parts of the city.
- Shakir (pictured) manages Almaty Dom Hostel, which is also one of the most welcoming hostels I've ever stayed at.
Food is... Interesting
- There is some Russian influence in the cooking (for example, Borscht and Gretchka can be found everywhere), but local Kazakh cuisine is pretty different from everything I've come across previously.
- Fermented horse milk and fermented camel milk can be found at nearly every store in town.
- Both fermented horse and camel taste fairly sour and have bizarre texture.
- Apples originally come from Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan is Developing Fast
- The country has had the fastest growing economy in the world over the past decade and as a result, so much is new and remodeled. Even the capital, Astana, was literally built up out of nothing only 20 years ago. People have told me that it feels like a mix of Las Vegas and Dubai.
Everything is Very Affordable
- A good hostel in Almaty (the largest city), will cost you just about $6/day and going out for a nice dinner should be no more than $5. Public transport is also incredibly cheap and pretty nice.
- And the money is so colorful.
Kazakhstan Drives like Russia. Rural, Back-country Russia (see YouTube)
- Over the past week, I've seen more people run through red lights, swerve around pedestrians at a crosswalk, and pass by with visible collision damage than I can count. It's still not as crazy as Georgian drivers, but pretty close.
- There are also six and eight lane intersections. I do know know how it works.
- Also, for the first time ever, I had a bus driver Skype someone as we drove through town.
- While a majority of the people are Kazakh, there is a sizeable Russian minority (about 25% of the total population), and everywhere you look, from food, to lifestyle, to architecture, you'll see a mix of the two. Nearly everything is written in both languages, Orthodox churches are side by side with mosques, and it all flows together pretty harmoniously.
- If you are white, it is generally assumed that you are Russian.
- Russian is spoken far more in the cities while Kazakh is predominant in the villages and small, rural towns.
- You'll see influences from a variety of former Soviet states, like Georgian Restaurants and Belarussian shops.
Almaty is One of the Coolest Cities in the World
- I've never seen a place quite like it. People are always out and about, including as I wandered back to my hostel at 2:00am last night, but no one seems too intense about anything. It's like it is a mix of being active yet laid back.
- The city is also gorgeous with the backdrop of mountains and parks so unique and large you feel like you've left a city entirely.
- Trees line every street and every walkway. It's like forest met city and created Almaty.
Photos from a day's hike in the mountains around Almaty. Was it awesome? Yes. Yes it was.
It was late Monday evening as I arrived to the Samara airport in southern Russia The place was small and clean, almost exclusively serving domestic flights with a few key exceptions to former Soviet countries, such as the one I was about to board. Although it was not a particularly hot day out, I was sweating profusely as I stood in the check out line. The total baggage allowance was just 10kg (22lbs), and since I was carrying basically everything I owned (which is by no means a lot but includes an extra pair of running shoes, a laptop, and that cool rock I found in Georgia), I had to work a little magic to make the limit. In other words, I was wearing four shirts and two pairs of jeans, and an unzipped jacket.
I was also a slight bit concerned that there could be some complications due to the fact that Kazakhstan had only just let Americans enter their country without a visa within the past year, but I'd already come this far, what's the use in worrying? Slowly but steadily, the line slinked on until finally I, now about as wet as a golden retriever that ran through a swamp (and probably similarly scented) reached the baggage check in. The lady at the counter seemed a bit shocked by my appearance, but to her credit, she kept her composure and calmly asked me to weigh my bag. Obediently, I did as told, and to my delight, the scale read 9.30kg. Success! Boarding pass in hand, I headed off for passport control, thinking it was all smooth sailing from here on out.... How foolish of me.
Smiling, I handed the lady at passport control my passport and boarding pass. She stared, for the longest time, her face transfixed in a scowl. Suddenly I felt a cold chill down my spine and the sweating stopped instantly. Something didn't feel right. She leaned forward and began asking me questions.
"Why are you in Russia?."
-I work here as an English teacher.
"What's your office? What's their address? What's your boss' name? What's their phone number?"
This was now getting weird. I had flown in and out of Russian close to 20 times by now and never had gotten any question beyond "Why are you in Russia?" Regardless, I answered.
She paused, took out a magnifying glass and began scanning over each page. I began to sweat again in full force. Repeatedly looking up at me in an increasingly uncomfortable manner, meanwhile, thoughts of suddenly getting detained began to run through my head. Then, to my ever-growing horror, she picked up the phone and began to dial.
"Is everything alright?" I asked.
She looked back at me with a piercing stare and held up my passport. "I don't think this is you." she coldly replied.
I tried to keep a calm demeanor but inside, I was screaming in terror, reminiscent of Nicholas Cage's infamous "NOT THE BEES!" yell. Less than a minute later, a police officer arrived. "NOT THE BEES! NOT THE BEES! I yelled internally to myself. It was as if one of those 1950s propaganda films was coming to life, only the clean-cut, ultra conservative looking American was replaced by me, a hairy, sweaty dude with the physical build of an orangutan. It's been two years without incident! How does it end like this!
About a minute later, a police officer was at the booth. He looked young, probably late-twenties, and wore an expression as if to say, 'I'm terribly bored with my job' (which I couldn't tell if that meant good or bad for me). My mind was racing though every possible scenario. What was he going to say? What was he going to do? What insanity was about to go down?!?
Well, actually, none of that. He took one quick glance at the passport, then one back up at me. "It's real," He said very nonchalantly, as if he gets that a lot. The lady seemed furious. "It's definitely him, let him go through," he concluded, trying to get the whole thing over with.
Could this be all? The most anticlimactic ending to the most terrifying airport ordeal (excluding JFK), ends with the reassurance of this chill security guard? Angrily, the lady stamped my passport and let me through, clearly upset that her power trip fell short. Quickly, I grabbed my passport and ran towards the gate, making sure to get away in case she felt the need to call me back for further questioning. Thankfully though, no such thing happened, and soon, I was off to Central Asia, relaxed in my seat with a huge smile of relief.
After a rather interesting ordeal with passport control leaving Russia at the airport (which will be discussed soon in story form), I landed in Almaty, Kazakhstan at 5:00am. Sleep deprivation aside, I made my way towards the city center and got a few pictures. More will be added at night time.
Every direction, left, right, up, and down, there are people. Over fifty of us in one train car alone. Some are old, others young. There are families, solo travelers, groups of friends, a squad of soldiers, and an old man with his dog. Along the walls can be seen two levels of small, fold-out beds, the lower close to the floor while the upper, just below the ceiling. Through the middle of the wagon runs a narrow walkway, just big enough for one at a time. At either end is a bathroom. Windows line the sides, but only a few of them open, making it a bit difficult to air out the various scents of humanity. Adjusting my pillow, I laid down flat on my back, just able to fit without falling out, and gazed out the window. All around me, some people chatted among one another, others snaked, while several had already gone to sleep. We were headed south, going from the Russian cities Kazan to Samara, and there were sixteen hours left to go.
It was my second such ride within a week, the first being from Moscow to Kazan, and like the first time, it seemed as if I was the only foreigner in the 3rd class, open compartment. It was no place of luxury, as comfort and space were minimal. I knew, by the next morning, I would probably be a bit sleep deprived and my back was going to be sore. That was exactly what happened previously, and this time the conditions were exactly the same. I knew this going into it, and still willingly made the choice to travel by train without any hesitation.
It's hard to explain why, but despite the discomforts, there's something wonderful about going across the world's largest country by train. Even before I began, I was drawn to this romanticized idea of riding the rails through overgrown birch forests and along wild untamed rivers. Just roughing it with a few dozen other random people, from a culture on the other side of the world for this one brief moment gave be a certain sense of excitement that was unique in unto itself. And the fact that this was just something routine for the rest of my fellow travelers only added to the feeling. It added to the whole humanity aspect of it and served as a stark reminder of just how unbelievably big the country is.
I wondered (maybe just because I'm weird), who these people were and where they were heading to. Could they be moving to start a new life? Maybe visiting relatives or close friends? Whatever the reason, I just found it so interesting how each person seemed to have their own routine and method. Some sat together and drank tea, others liquor, while about half just kept to themselves and settled into a book or movie on their phone/laptop. And somehow it all worked. The atmosphere was uniformly relaxed and no one seemed (at least visibly) to be bothered by the many hours ahead. Likewise, no one complained whenever the train stopped for a while. It was just all part of the journey that all of them had done before and will do again.
I would be lying if I didn't say this whole thing was an ordeal. It absolutely was. 30 hours in the span of a few days in a small space surrounded by tons of others is by no means a luxury. But, that said, I cannot stress enough how it's all worth it. I got to see so much of the earth I, in no other way, could have, and I got to do it by myself as a foreigner (tourists don't seem to go to Samara). And yes, there are many people who have done this for the whole seven day Trans-Siberian route (maybe even some of you reading this have). I can only imagine that you too had a unique, yet incredibly substantial experience, probably even far greater than mine. It was not the easiest thing in the world, nor was all of it pleasurable, but given the opportunity, I'd travel this way every time.
After a 16 hour train ride down the Volga river (and thankfully more sleep than the first ride), I've arrived in 1970s Soviet Union (aka Samara). However, I don't say this disparagingly, because as someone who studied history, this was so interesting. Unlike Kazan, Samara was almost entirely residential and industrial, pretty much without any cafe's, supermarkets or downtown area. So for me, being my usual odd self, spent the first day and a half wandering down random neighborhoods, taking pictures and trying out the new camera. Plus this was the first location in Russia where I've ever found a beach with sand. Anyway, here's what I've got so far and soon I'll add a story it.
In all it's glory.
Before I get into the story, I need to let you know that this nearly never happened. It was my last full day in Kazan before a 16 hour, scoliosis-inducing train ride to Samara and I was showing the city around to friends I had met in Moscow. We were on a fairly calm walk through the Kremlin when, for no apparent reason, Mother nature decided to be a jerk and began mercilessly throwing down sheets of rain, soaking us and flooding the streets. We needed shelter and we needed it fast. We ran down the street, with at first nothing catching our eye. But then, suddenly, we noticed this big red star on a house-like building with a sign jutting out that read Музей Социалистического Быта (Socialist Lifestyle Meseum/Soviet Lifestyle Museum). And although I'm not the biggest enthusiast about museums, this would suffice for our current situation. Who knows, I thought, maybe this could be a bit different after all.
Turns out it was different. Very different, but in the most awesome way imaginable. Right upon entering, it became clear that it was not the place to move from one exhibition to another, viewing an endless amount of large scale displays. Nor were there any curators, audio guides, or grandiose artifacts to be found anywhere. There was, instead, space that consisted of an upstairs and downstairs room that were both lined wall to wall with seemingly everything that was ever made for regular people during Soviet times. And I mean everything. There were hats, milk containers, bars of chocolate, cigarettes, movie posters, newspaper clippings, political cartoons, buttons, pins, athletic sneakers, arcade games, Lenin paraphernalia and pretty much anything else that could be involved in daily life.
Meanwhile, as I walked from a Lenin poster to a display case of 1980's Russian punk t-shirts, I began to hear some music, similar to that of 70s and 80s hair bands in the US. I looked up, and sure enough, music videos of Russian hair bands (presumably from the same time frame) played on a small TV hanging on the front wall. And even though the music was just as bad as the western bands of the same genre, I couldn't help but happily laugh and watch. It wasn't because I liked the music, but because this was this side of Soviet life that you never hear or think about. It is always presented as cold, serious and oppressive, which makes it easy to forget that they too had goofy musicians with ridiculous haircuts that enjoyed using lasers way too much.
As this was all going on, the owner of the museum just chilled by the entrance, next to his collection of signed guitars from Russian and Soviet bands (which he called 'Rock and Roll Hall of Fame'). After checking out the guitars (including several from the Russian punk-rock band Leningrad) which were all dedicated to the owner himself, it soon became clear to me that this whole display was comprised of random things that he personally owned and collected while growing up in the Soviet Union (by the looks of it, mostly from the 80s), and never bothered to throw any of out. And I couldn't be happier he didn't because with this collection of the random, everyday junk used by Soviet citizens he presented such a clearer image to the past than any museum or monument possibly could have. This was the commoner's historical exhibition to a communist country. It can't really get much more fitting than that.
Leaning Tower of Kazan
You've heard of the one in Pisa Italy. Maybe you've even seen it (but hopefully you didn't take one of those terrible pictures where you pretend to be holding it up). But I'm not here to talk about that. Since yesterday, I came across another leaning tower. This was entirely by accident, for I had no idea it even existed, but when I walked into Kremlin of the Russian city, Kazan, I was greeted by a giant, tilted spike made out of brick and with an archway at it's base. It was nothing like the other, colorful, ornate buildings within the walls. It was sparse, tall, and fairly intimidating, as if it was built from another time and for another purpose. I had to know more, so before crashing into a deep sleep from travel fatigue, I willed myself to do some research. Though the validity is debatable, here is what I found.
Once upon a time, in the year 1552, there was a 22-year-old Prince of Moscow named Ivan Vasilivich (later known by the title 'The Terrible') who was hoping to expand his empire past the Volga River and into Siberia. There was only one problem though. His enemy, the Tatars, controlled this region, and their capital, Kazan, sat on bank of this very river. Not known for his patience or diplomacy, Ivan went to war. Fueled by his adolescent angst, he marched an army of 150,000 soldiers to the gates of Kazan and sacked the city, thus absorbing it into his ever-growing territory.
For some men, the takeover of an ancient and powerful city would have been enough, but Ivan wanted more. Being a firm believer of the idea 'to the victor go the spoils,' he intended to take the daughter of the city's Khan to be his bride. Her name was Söyembikä, and when Ivan confronted her with this proposal, she had some terms of her own. She told him that she'd only agree if he built a tower, just for her, taller than anything else in the city. Ivan, known for his affinity and appreciation for large structures, accepted the challenge, and just six days later, the Söyembikä Tower was complete.
Confident, like a cat bringing a mouse it just caught to its owner's doorstep, Ivan prepared himself for his new bride to be, but Söyembikä had one more trick up her sleeve. She told Ivan that she wished to see her whole city from the tower, so she climb to the top. Then, in one final act of defiance, she jumped to her death. Ivan Vasilivich may have taken the city, but he made a terrible* mistake thinking he could take her. And from that point on, Russia, incorporating the Tatars, became the multi-ethnic and multi-religious state it is today.
*yes I did make that joke
After having my ticket scanned by the guard, I stumbled into the Kazan-bound train from Moscow's station. Seeing as the time was just before midnight, my first priority was to find the bed I had been assigned. Shortly, I came upon it. A small, tucked away fold-out, close to the ground and right next to the bathroom door. But since I specifically made sure to purchase the cheapest ticket available, I can't really complain. Quickly, I laid down my things as the train began to pull out of the station.
Now, maybe it was the excitement of the trip, maybe it was the constant shaking of the train, or maybe it was the guy with digestive issues that kept walking by to use the bathroom every 20 minutes, but whatever the reason, I was only able to get about one cumulative hour of sleep. Nonetheless, when we finally arrived at 1:00 in the afternoon the following day. I roused my delirious self up to the door, and ventured out to the capital of Tatarstan and Russia's third most prominent city (behind Moscow and Petersburg).
Yet, despite my desire to explore, my body seemed to be thinking otherwise. I was stricken by a terrible headache and, despite it being fairly warm outside, I had a bad case of the chills. This made me a little nervous. Could I be getting sick on the very first day of the trip? Maybe I was just overtired from the lack of sleep. Either way, I made my way to the hostel I booked, stopping here and there to take a few pictures. Once I checked, however, a thought came to me. It had been well over 24 hours since I had any coffee. So, before unpacking my bag, I quickly made a cup for myself and. to my relief, felt instantly better. Turns out the sickness was just the effects of a caffeine detox.
I then decided I'd make the most of my first day and head to Kazan's Kremlin (Казанский Кремль). That is where I'll stop the mini story and switch to the pictures. Please enjoy.
Today, 1 July 2017, I depart Moscow for Kazan, but before I left, I went for a walk around the center and took a few pictures. Enjoy!
One year ago, I was foolish, young, and blogless. My plan was to finish my year teaching and then embark on a journey across the world's largest country on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. However, as the year went on, I met many, many people who were doing just that route. At first. this made me more excited, but after a while it made the trip seem to lose a bit of its luster. I wanted something weird, unusual and bizarre. The railroad (albeit still awesome) began to sound like something regularly traveled. That's when I took action. I changed my plans, to make a haphazard journey upon which normal people wouldn't dare or care to venture. I will, instead, travel down the Volga River and into Central Asia. Therefore On 1 July 2017, I depart on a 15 hour train ride from Moscow to Kazan and begin.
Still trying to work this out, but will mostly include the following:
- Russia (Moscow to Kazan. From Kazan, going down the Volga to the Caspian Sea)
- -Moscow - Start
- -Kazan - Capital of Tatarstan
- -Volga River (including cities like Ulyanovsk, Samara, and Saratov)
- -Eurasian Steppe
- -Many Russian trains and the characters who frequent them
- -Almaty (largest city and former capital
- -Taraz (2000+ year old city
- -Ancient Silk Road sites
- -Cool Hats (look up Kazakh traditional hats. They're awesome)
- -Bishkek (Capital)
- -Tian Shan Mountains (nearly twice the size of the Alps)
- -Lake Issyk Kul (one of the highest mountain lakes in the world)
Where will I go? What unfortunate yet entertaining mishaps will come my way? I'm going to document each day of this trip, from every story to every snoring person in a guest house, to every animal (hopefully goats) that I try to befriend. There will be towering mountains, mighty rivers, vast steppes, and maybe a yurt or two!