Almaty – our introduction to Central Asia

Monday 29 September to Wednesday 1 October

Our departure from China could only be described with Bruce’s new favourite word – a schmozzle. The queue to check in was long and slow. Traditional luggage of cases is in the minority. Boxes of all shapes and sizes are used instead. It seemed that every parcel had to be secured with miles of packaging tape, while the check in clerks waited. And there was some question as to what batteries were in Bruce’s bag. They found a tripod and our power board which kind of satisfied them. We were glad to see his case at the other end.

Then there was the extensive search at customs. Partially disrobed, they even scanned the soles of my stocking feet. That also took an age with the normal Chinese chaotic queue where everyone was more important than the other.

We finally boarded “on time” but waited another hour while the hold luggage was sorted out.

We crossed the magnificent snow covered Tian Shen Mountains that run north of the Gobi Desert through to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Almaty was another world. Even as we struggled through immigration there was a cleanliness and calmness we hadn’t experienced for weeks.

Our guide, Marina, had been given the job of helping us obtain Turkmenistan visas. A bureaucratic nightmare. We had forms to complete and correct, then off to the bank to make the payment and back to submit the application before they finished their three hour office stint.  It all sounds pretty mundane, but it is just part of the anxiety in obtaining visas prior to this trip.

And so we had a long deserved rest half day. We tried to visit the Museum to see the Golden Man but couldn’t find a taxi, so it was a walk into the main shopping area and a cup of coffee in the late afternoon.

Marina and her driver/dad George picked us up next morning to see the city. We started with the Zonkov Cathedral, the second largest wooden structure in existence. It was an important day for the Kossaks and the service that was taking place inside was full of the faithful, colourful with chanting.

The Zenkov Cathedral, rebuilt in 1904, following a destructive earthquake is a beautiful golden of the Russian Orthodox style with the obligatory domes.

We then walked to the Green Market. Photography was limited, however Marina ensured we tasted horse sausage, a variety of honeys and dried fruit.

The market was colourful and very organised. Tiny stalls of less than 2m, each with their own goods to display. There were a lot of Korean ladies selling kimchee, fruiterers with beautiful bowls of fruit, dried fruit and nuts, herbs and medicines, salted fish and a massive meat area that was divided into lamb, beef and horsemeat.

We then popped into Kazakstan’s favourite chocolate shop. Ladies were queuing to purchase their favourite chocolate bar, boxed gifts or loose candies.

We called in to the mosque, and with a scarf to cover my head I popped into the ladies prayer room.

Marina then took us to a shopping mall and we wandered through a large supermarket, what we regard as a “modern, living museum”. Marina was surprised that we recognised a lot of brands such as Nestle, John West, Colgate, Mr Muscle and packaging of other recognisable brands with Kazakstan names. It is amazing how entertaining a supermarket can be.

We stopped by the Independence Monument in Respublika Alany,  with a replica of the Golden Man standing on a winged snow leopard. It was in this area that the Zheltoksan riots of 1986 marked the first unrest in Central Asia in the Gorbachev era of glasnost. Our guide remembered being rushed home by her parents as the turmoil increased. An estimated 250 were killed when police opened fire.

Then Marina & George showed us what then knew best, a massive downhill skiing complex which has been used for a number of international events. It is within the city boundaries, very convenient. To stand close to one of these ski slopes is frightening – just imagine going down one!

We drove through the expensive suburbs high on the western side of Almaty, and up to the hill where the television tower is located. It was late in the afternoon and the light cloud was clearing to reveal blue sky, contrasting against the gorgeous autumn golds.

We finished the evening with dinner in the hotel, where Bruce ordered a hot rock fish dinner. That’s the closest he has come to a BBQ for many weeks.

Then it was time to leave Kazakstan. Our driver was Valentina in her rattly Russian 4WD. She kindly chose to take us on the former Silk Road through the steppes. She provided a running commentary as we bounced along the back roads through villages that had been caravessi before Ghengis Khan plundered the area.

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