Suitcase and World: Roadtrip to Almaty.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Roadtrip to Almaty.

Roadtrip lunch break.  Today, it was Turkish food.

Today will be another spent driving - we're on a roadtrip from Bishkek to Almaty, Kazahkstan!  Though the distance between the two cities is not all that far, Lilya told us that crossing the border can take quite a bit of time so she was preparing for a full day's ride.

To get a good start, we left our hotel in Bishkek at 8a.  About an hour later, we were at the border crossing.  There was a short queue of cars ahead us.  The first car was stopped before the gate arm which was manually operated by a soldier.  He only let one or two cars pass across at a time and it was quite a few minutes between cars.  So, short queue was still a long wait.

People were also crossing the border on foot. For us, this is our sixth border crossing but the only one not on foot.  Unlike the other crossings, Lilya and Bahkryt would be taking us all the way to Almaty so for once, I could just sit back and relax.

I occupied myself looking out the window.  Enterprising vendors had set up stands to sell everything from food and drinks to shoes and cigarettes. 

It seemed like forever but we eventually did make it up to the front of the line.  When it was our turn to go, Bahkyrt drove towards the border control building.  Somewhere before reaching the building, he dropped the three of us off along with our luggage.  We walked the rest of the way.  This part was familiar to me :-)

Inside the border control building, Lilya got us entry forms to fill out - it was just a few lines and took less than a minute to complete with her translating the field descriptions.  We then lined up to go through immigration.

The officer who processed my entry was very friendly.  He looked up at me and with a smile, asked, "Chinese?"  I replied, "Yes".  Looking at his very Chinese looking face, I  repeated the question to him. He replied, "No.  Kazakh".  I told him he looked Chinese and asked if he could speak Chinese.  He replied, "No, Kazakh".  I don't think he understood English but it didn't matter, he stamped my passport and waved me on.  I thanked him before heading to customs control.

Customs was a breeze.  They scanned my luggage and waved me on.  Lilya and Pat soon followed.  The three of us made our way outside the building.  We were in Kazahkstan!

But poor Bahkryt, he and the van were still stuck somewhere in border control.  According to Lilya, the Kazakhs are tough when it comes to vehicle inspections and that it could take a while for Bakhryt to be done.  We headed over to a nearby gas station to sit and wait.  As we walked, we passed by clusters of men shouting, "ahl-mah-tee, ahl-mah-tee, ahl-mah-tee".  They were taxi drivers looking for passengers in need of a ride to Almaty.   Of course, Pat and I fit the bill of tourists in need and Lilya could easily pass for one as well.  We walked by all of  them.  The shouts of the taxi drivers did point out to me that I had long been mispronouncing Almaty as *al-muh-tee*....or perhaps, I've been pronouncing it the Western, not Kazakh way.   It's a subtle difference but I did make a mental a note to change my pronunciation to be Kazakh.

Kazakh border crossing.

At the gas station, we waited for what felt like an eternity. At one point, Lilya called Bahkryt and the thought it would be about half an hour before he would be done.  It was longer than that.

Eventually, he arrived and we were relieved to see both him and the van.  We quickly got our luggage in the back and us into the van.  As we rolled down the rode, he told Lilya who told us that the customs officers pretty much tore into the van, checking every nook and cranny for we don't know what.  Given the size of the vehicle, there are a lot of nooks and crannies to be searched for and out.  According to Lilya, he does not like being in Kazakhstan and if this is what he has to endure each time, I can understand why.  Of course, returning back to Kyrgyzstan will be a breeze for both of them.

With the headache of crossing the border behind us, we continued our journey.  It was really remarkable how the scenery changed once we crossed the border.  In Kyrgystan, the flat green landscape was farmland.  In Kazakhstan, it was green, rolling hills.  This is steppe land.  Lilya set our expectations by telling us it would be like this all the way, on our four hour drive, to Almaty!  Groan.....

Light conversation helped to pass the time but the views outside the window quickly became snooze inducing.  Lilya was right....boring landscape.

Every now again though, we would see something that would catch our attention like windmills.  Given that there is absolutely nothing to stop the wind, it makes perfect sense to have windmills on the steppes of Kazakhstan.


Then, there were the crows' nests.  Clusters of them sitting on one tree after the next.  I'm not kidding when I say it was ,iles and miles of trees, miles and miles of crow's nests. 

Countless birds flying to and from their nests.  Each tree looked like a condo building for crows. I've never ever seen anything like this before.

Last, there was the most unexpected surprise!  As far as I was concerned, it was the best thing that happened on this road trip.  It was quiet in the van when out of the blue, Lilya shouted out that she saw tulips.  That got my attention!  I have been dying to see blooms since setting foot in Kyrgyzstan.  We're in the birthplace of the tulip at the time of year when they bloom.  I would have been so disappointed to not see a single one.  Yes, we had seen them yesterday in Issyk Kul and that satisfied my yearning but today, it was icing on the cake.

We had Bahkryt pull over and Lilya and I got out.  Facing us was a steep slope.  I could see the dots of yellow but how to get to them.  The hill was steep and slippery as the earth was parched dry.

But I took it carefully - one slow step at a time.  There were little pops of yellow color scattered between the blades of grass.  The flowers were in full bloom.  I knelt down and took as many photos as I could of the delicate flowers.  These tulip blooms were much smaller in size than the hybridized ones that I'm accustomed to seeing.  Unlike their hybridized cousins, these flowers have very slender, blade like leaves that lie close to the ground rather than stand upright around the stem.  As a result, could barely see the leaves among the blades of the grass.  It was just dots of yellow that catch the eye.  They were so pretty!

There were other wildflowers blooming on the hillside.  Unfortunately, I didn't recognize any of them.

No day long road trip would be complete without a lunch break.  We took ours at a restaurant, situated along the highway. It was a Turkish restaurant.

On the way to the front door, I was stopped in my tracks by this view.  What?  I can get a döner kebab?  I had to have one.  We had a choice between chicken and beef. I opted for the chicken but I didn't want to order until I check what else was on the menu.

Inside, it was another cafeteria style place.  Again, few people were around so we had the servers all to ourselves.  They insisted on walking down the line with us, pushing our tray along.  What gives?

In the end, I wanted my döner kebab.  Chicken please.   Pat ordered the same.

Our sandwiches were delivered to the table, wrapped up in a sheet of paper.  In retrospect, I thought maybe the döner kebab was suppose to be a to-go item, not for eating at the table.   Otherwise, why bother wrapping it up. I was curious what was inside.  There were bits of chicken, carrot, cabbage and French fries bound together with a mayonnaise-y kind of sauce.  Definitely a Kazahk version of a Turkish döner kebab.  It wasn't bad.

After we ate and before we got back in the car, we went to the convenience store next to the restaurant.  There, we bought a 2 liter bottle of birch sap water, Kazakh brand, a package of wafer cookies and.....drum roll please.....

....sashlyk flavored potato chips!  And guess what?  They tasted exactly like meat tht had been grilled over an open flame.  Made my day!

By mid afternoon, buildings started to come in to view.  We were nearing the big city.

Another one of my favorite memories of today's ride had to do with Lilya and statues of people.  Lilya is a veritable store of knowledge about statues. I notice this when she was taking us around Bishkek.  She not only knew the name of the person that the statue represented but she also could give us a brief history of the person.  Of course, you could argue that the statues in Bishkek are all of famous people and so it would not be surprising that she would know all about them.

But.....on our way to Almaty, we drove past countless statues and wouldn't you know it but she knew all about them as well and these were Kazakh, Kyrgyz historic figures.  I even pointed out her *talent* to us and it quickly became a friendly joke between her, Pat and I.  She kept us entertained as we rolled into Almaty.

Compared to Bishkek, Almaty is a much larger city - more buildings, more traffic, more people.  I felt like a small fish in a big seemed overwhelming somehow as we've not been in a really big city since we spent time in Tashkent - both cities are about the same size in terms of area.

We were in the heart of downtown Almaty when Bahkryt turned down a side street.  At the end of the block, he pulled over in front of our hotel - the Astra Hotel.  We got out and with out luggage, followed Lilya inside.  She helped us get checked in and told us that tomorrow, our Almaty guide would be in the lobby at 9a to take us for our city tour.

It was sad so say goodbye to Lilya.  Except for Shevkat, who spent about six days driving us around Uzbekistan, she was the guide we spent the most time with.  She took very good care of us and I will miss having her around.  As I shook her hand and thanked her, I gave her her tip.  I then walked with her back out to the van so I could say good bye to Bahkryt and give him his tip as well.  Both of them had to turn around and head back to Bishkek so we wished them a safe journey.

Pat and I took a few minutes to settle in the room before deciding to head back out.  The room was hot and the air conditioner was not on. I threw open the window as wide as I could.  

We got a map from the front desk and Pat mentioned the issue with the AC.  Of course, the receptionist said he would take care of it but I was skeptical.  I just hoped the room would be cooler by the time we got back from our walk.  Pat had done some reading on things to see/do in Almaty and there was a suggestion in the Lonely Planet guide book to go to a place called Arbat which supposedly mimics the famed shopping street, of the same name, in Moscow.  I had been to Arbat in Moscow when I was there in 1996 but unfortunately, I don't remember it all too well so I really couldn't compare the two.

We walked back towards the main road that Bahkryt had driven on, Raiymbek Avenue.  We crossed the main road - they have very good traffic signals here that both drivers and pedestrians obey.

Along our walk, we kept our eyes out for a place to have dinner.  There were at least two possibilities which we kept in mind as we strolled on.

By the time we reached the point on the map where Arbat should have been, we didn't see anything that looked like a pedestrian only shopping area.  As we looked at the map, a young Kazakh man stopped by and asked if he could help.  We told him we wanted to go to the Arbat and we showed him the map.  I was hoping he could point us in the right direction.  He spoke very little English but basically, we were way off track.  By that time, I thought which way we had to go but we would have to head back towards the hotel and go the same number of blocks in another direction.

Disheartened, we decided to go back to the hotel and leave Arbat for tomorrow.  On the way, we popped into one restaurant that looked like it served Chinese food.  Unfortunately, no one spoke English and the menu was all in Kazakh (or may Russian?) with no pictures.  Too bad because I'm sure the food would have been good and I was curious about Kazakh Chinese food.

Across from our hotel was a store.  We crossed the street to see what it was and indeed, it was a store.  I was hoping it was a small eatery.   

We decided to go around the block and see what was there.  What was there was a shopping mall.  Nothing interesting.  Nearby that was the train station. Not interested.  Then, a small restaurant.  Interested.  Until we found no one spoke English and the menu.....all words and no pictures.  We left.
Last resort for a meal.  The hotel restaurant.  Closed.  I gave up.  Thankfully, I wasn't hungry and neither was Pat.  We decided to skip dinner and fill up at breakfast.

The room cooled down as the sun set.  It was relaxing night.  Tomorrow will be another full day of sightseeing so plenty of good rest is in order.

I am happy to be in Kazakhstan!

Goodnight from Almaty!  ("ahl-mah-tee"....I'm practicing my pronounciation)