Back to Tashkent and through Khazakstan
After a very long two days of travelling we eventually arrived back where we started. Tashkent. It really seemed like we just couldn't escape from Tashkent. We were hoping to go straight to the Khazakstan border without stopping in Tashkent but it wasn't going to happen. It was evening when we got dropped by Tashkent Train Station. We went back to the same cheap and grotty hotel and got our room back, mozzies and all.
The next morning we got a taxi to the Kazakhstan Border. Its only a short ride out of Tashkent. We did all the border stuff. Got our Uzbek visa stamped. They didn't even ask to see our hotel registration stamps after all!
We walked to the Kazakhstan entry gate and got our Khazakstan visa stamped. We were flying home in September from Almaty in Kazakhstan. This meant that if we were going to leave Kazakhstan to visit Kyrgyzstan we would need to get another Khazakstan visa before we could come back into the country and catch our flights. Our plan now was to head to Almaty and work out if this was possible or if we would just spend the next 3 weeks in Khazakstan.
Once we were through the border and in Khazakstan we found ourselves in a very tatty little border village. Dirt roads, rubbish, stray dogs and nothing much to do. Our bus to Almaty wasn't until 7 pm so we had to wait around all day in this place. It was dull. If only it were more like Borat's Khazakstan!
When we finally got the bus it drove about 2 miles up the road and then stopped for an hour or so. It was another border point and the bus was picking up some more people. Some crazy and/or drunk and/or drugged-up geeza was happily singing and shouting at everyone. Finally the bus took off again. We drove for 16 hours through the beautiful moonlit night. The road was of varying quality. The night was well-lit by the full moon and I could see the form of the landscape continuously unfolding. But I couldn't quite work out what type of ground it was. I guess I was so used to seeing desert or arable land that it was hard for my eyes to believe that this was just an endless expanse of grassland. Hardly ever punctuated by villages or farms this really was the most vast open plain I had ever seen. An ocean of grass. It looked very strange in the moonlight. It was cold too. I wasn't expecting it to be so cold and didn't have any warm clothes with me in the bus. When daylight came I tried to take some pictures through the window.
Then after hours and hours of grass (I really can't emphasise enough how much grass there was!) we arrived at the city of Almaty. A busy thriving and modern place with a very European vibe.
Street art in Almaty depicting the Central Asian sport called Kokpar where contestants on horseback have to grab the carcass of a goat and get it to the end of the pitch and back again.
We spent a few days in Almaty making our plans. We still felt trapped in a boring city and desperate to get out into the mountains and wilderness that we knew were so close. We looked at trekking maps and phoned David from Stantours who was very friendly and helpful. We decided to go to Kyrgyzstan and then get another Khazakstan visa there before coming back to Khazakstan to fly home. The next morning we got the bus from Almaty to Bishkek.
Grass. In the background the Zailiyskiy Alatau mountains south of Almaty mark the natural border between the expansive plains of Khazakstan and the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. It is the northern edge of the region of Himalayan deformation and uplift caused by the ongoing collision of the Indian and Asian continents. These mountains are the edge of the 'roof of the world'. They are linked to the Highest mountains such as Kailash, Everest ad K2.
We crossed the border into Kyrgyzstan and it was a short ride into the capital Bishkek. We got a minibus straight to Kochkor. Our guidebook told us that Kochkor is a good base for trekking into the mountains.
The ride from Bishkek to Kochkor was a friendly one. Even though the people on the minibus didn't know each other everyone was chatting. There was a rare lively, friendly and innocent community atmosphere which told us we were in a different country.
On the way the minibus stopped at a roadside cafe. We went in and got a meal. The place was small and basic but busy and lively. Kyrgyz men were wearing their traditional tall white felt hats and people were chatting. As I went in I saw somebody eating a bowl of noodles that looked really good. I looked up the Kyrgyz work for noodles in the guidebook and ordered some. They were delicious! Simply the best food I had the whole trip.
The minibus dropped us off in Kochkor at about 11:00 pm. It was a small rural town. Everybody seemed to have gone to bed. We tried to find one of the places to stay described in the guidebook. They are all described as 'homestays' which I guess means that you just stay in someone's home. It was dark. There were no street name signs and no numbers on the houses, which were all in behind big walls. We tried to find it based on the map in the book but just ended up in back alleys and farmyards, dogs started barking at the strangers snooping about.
We walked back to the main square where we had been dropped off and had seen a taxi there. There was no driver in it but after a while he came back and we told him the address of Shepherds Life B&B; 93 Shamen Street. Sounds like something from The Mighty Boosh. It wasn't far at all but we wouldn't have found it on our own.
Our taxi driver went and rang the doorbell and somebody came out and gave us a warm and smiley welcome. They showed us the only room. It was simple but nice. Brightly lit with colourful traditional felt Shydrak covering the floor. There were two single beds either side of the room and a big space in the middle where I would sleep on the floor. They provided plenty of warm blankets. The guidebook described 93 Shamen Street as having a 'farmyard vibe'. It was spot-on! The place had a distinctive smell of... damp sheep? The toilet was in a flimsy wooden shed at the back of the vegetable patch next to the chickens. And our hosts were very pleasant, smiley and friendly. They offered us food even though it was nearly midnight. We were already glad to be in Kyrgyzstan. There was an immediately heart-warming cosy rural innocence about the place and the people.