Tuesday 15 October 2019: Sylvia
We had a very leisurely start this morning. There is not that much to see in Tashkent after the wonders of the older cities we have been to in recent days but it has provided a good opportunity to rest before we head off to Kazakhstan and beyond. Our first stop was a monument to the 1986 earthquake that ravaged the city. Although only 5.1 on the Richter scale it demolished 80% of the buildings, killing somewhere between 15 and 200 people and leaving some 300,000 homeless. There was a concerted effort from the USSR to rebuild and this is commemorated in the memorial.
Next we headed to Khast Imam Square and the Kazmati Imam complex. This area, set inside lovely gardens features a mosque, Madrassah and Islamic Institute but is most famous for the small museum featuring one of the world’s oldest copies of the Koran. Most of the buildings here are all relatively new and, whilst impressive with their turquoise domes, they do not hold the charm of some of the older buildings we saw in Bukhara and Samarkand. Roger even managed to take a sneaky peak of the Koran, despite the watchful guards.
We next headed to the Chorsu Bazaar, where we spent a considerable amount to time wandering and observing the clamour of daily life, the huge, domes meat market was particularly impressive with stall after stall of sheep, beef and goats meat in various cuts and forms. We were also taken with the large hall containing stand after stand of small wrapped chocolates and large unwrapped cookies, piled high.
We took the metro back towards the hotel. Like the underground in Moscow this was created during the Soviet era and each station is decorated with different mosaics, marble etc. After a relaxing lunch we wandered through the Amir Timur memorial gardens, passing another statue and several impressive buildings as we made our way back to the hotel.
A massage and a few drinks in the lovely hotel bar rounded out a fairly gentle day.
Wednesday 16 October 2019: Roger
After a good breakfast at the Hyatt Regency we took a stroll down some nearby streets. This city is big on ostentatious buildings, wide streets, lots of parks and has some pretty amazing water features. Great attention is paid to keeping the grounds free of rubbish and leaves. At one point all the local clean up workers were gathered with their trucks while the women swept the streets with their handmade brooms. Some of you may have noticed the trees in a lot of pictures that we’ve put on this blog are painted white up to about a metre high. In the past when I’ve seen this I always thought it was to make them look good but in fact it is line painted on to stop the pests climbing up and damaging the trees.
Ar noon we were picked up and transferred to the airport for our flight to Almaty. Astana airlines had the best and most simplified safety video I have seen on any airline for many years. Airborne we headed north and were soon over the Tian Shan mountains, which seemed to go on forever. We then headed east continuing along the mountain ranges over Kyrgyzstan, and then crossing the border into Kazakhstan and descending, through the smog into Almaty, beneath the snow capped mountains, which around here rise to about 5,000m.
The immigration process into Kazakhstan was easy and the border guards were very friendly. We were met by our guide, Zhadra, and our driver, Ernest, and driven through the town to the Ritz Carlton Hotel. Along the way we received a briefing from Zhadra on the area, which was also invaded by the Mongolians, who were thrown out by the Russians who have been in this part of the world since the mid 17th century. With a population of about 18 million, Kazakhstan is the 9th largest country in the world by area. Almaty has a population of about 1 million, who still burn coal on their fires for heating creating a constant smog here. They also boast a 10,000 sqm ice skating rink. Based on our drive through the town presents as a reasonably affluent city.
Thursday 17 October 2019: Sylvia
We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast with an outstanding view of the mountains and the city from the 30th floor restaurant of the Ritz Carlton where we are staying. The service here is incredible, all the staff have good English and are chatty and obliging.
At 10:30 we headed off to our first stop, the cable car at Koktobe Hill. We wanted to beat the smog and from the top we enjoyed more wonderful views to the mountains and over the city, even while we could see the smog starting to roll in. At the top of the cable car is an odd collection of monuments, side-show stalls, some animals, a few restaurants and plenty of viewing platforms. It felt a bit like the sort of place that might have been popular back in the 70’s.
Our next stop was Panfilov Park, names after one of the generals in the army during WWII. This large, beautiful park houses monuments to WWII and the Afghanistan war as well as a beautiful wooden Russian Orthodox Church, the Ascension Cathedral, originally built in 1906 and recently restored. Like many of the other cities we have visited on this trip Almaty lies in an active seismic zone and has suffered a number of major earthquakes. After a large earthquake in 1887 destroyed most of the city Zinkof, a Russian architect, determined that wooden buildings were safest and set about designing and building many, including the Ascension Cathedral, that still exist today. He was proven right when another large (9+ on the Richter scale) earthquake hit in 1911 and none of the buildings were damaged.
Being autumn here in Almaty the colours are incredible and we enjoyed strolling through the park and admiring the vegetation. We came across a gentleman playing the accordion. After responding to his question “where are you from” he proceeded to play Pokarekareana for us.
Next we headed to the local market to again watch the daily goings on. This was similar to what we had seen in Chorsu Bazaar in Tashkent although smaller and less chaotic. There are apparently 130 different ethnicities in Kazakhstan so quite a melting pot in terms of different people.
We enjoyed a traditional Kazakh lunch, much more flavourful than the Uzbek food we have been eating, at Natan restaurant, with its vibrant interior decorations.
Then we headed out of the city and up into the mountains, passing numerous resorts and hotels along the way. Not only has Almaty been impacted in the past by earthquakes but also by mudslides flowing down from the mountains. Now there are large dams and walls along some of the rivers to stop this occurring again. We headed to Big Almaty Lake, which, at up to 40m deep, is one of the main water reservoirs for the city. A series of pipes manage water flow back to the city, some also powering turbines to generate electricity.
The lake itself is stunning, a deep milky blue colour and nestled into the mountains making for some picturesque photographs. There were several others around, all looking for the ideal instagram shot, striking multiple poses and taking shot after shot. We found it all quite amusing and very different to our ‘one shot and move on’ approach.
We headed back down the mountain, stopping near the base to attend a very entertaining raptor show. Pedro, our articulate and amusing host kept up a steady patter as he demonstrated a number of different raptors, from a tiny owl through to the majestic Golden Eagle that, once trained, is capable of hunting a wolf. He had several of the birds fly low right over our heads. It was a highly enjoyable forty minutes.
Zhadra had mentioned during the day that Kazakh wines are much better than Uzbek so we decided to try some out and headed to Arba Winery for a tasting. Four whites and four reds each, all passable and some extremely drinkable. My preference was a very nice Gewurtztraminer, while Roger’s favourite was a Pinot Sape, which is a blend of Pinot Noir and Saporavi grapes. It was a fun way to finish the day.
Friday 18 October 2019: Roger
Assel, the maître-d at the hotel restaurant, greeted us with a smile and a welcome as we arrived early for breakfast – early being 0800. Downstairs, or should I say 30 floors below by lift, Zhadra and Ernest were ready and waiting. We headed off through the thick traffic. All the cars on the road are modern and in good nick; this place looks like it is thriving. According to the net it is the 70th richest country in the world. We stopped at a set of lights and a quite well dressed woman was walking down between the cars, hand out as if asking for money, I asked Zhardra if there was a shortage of work here, “There is plenty of work just some gypsy types don’t want to work and beg for money”. Just like NZ i thought but we don’t have any gypsies.
We stopped at the local supermarket to get some snacks for lunch – a really well presented and stocked place it was too.
We headed north past the edge of town then turned east on AH5, a 2 lane each way, very smooth concrete highway, Ernest pushed the banana Merc along at a comfortable 150kph – the road was pretty quiet. We passed a large plant with a huge plume of steam heading into the sky. I asked Zhadra if it was a gas power plant and was informed it was to heat Almaty, 50kms away. I doubted the answer and Wikipedia informed us that in fact it was a gas power station.
Second language guides are not always good with questions off topic. We cruised east on the AH5 for about a 100k. The land is flat and all farmed, crops, sheep, cattle and an unusual number of horses, many of pony size, I presume for the horse meat market.
Interestingly mobs of cattle grazing in large paddocks were normally accompanied by a mounted horseman, often with a dog, who just seemed to sit and watch them graze. Just after a large abandoned flour mill from the Soviet days we turned right and headed southeast on a two lane road, which in places was a bit rough. A couple more turns and 3-hours into the journey we reached the Castle Valley Road, having climbed to 1300 meters over what seemed like flat land through this extensive valley.
At the end of the road a gate barred our way. Zhadra went over to a building and a bloke in military uniform drew the gate aside and we drove the few hundred meters to the car park. Some steps took us down into the Charon Canyon, or as Zhadra had described it, miniature Grand Canyon. I don’t think she really realises just how big the Grand Canyon is. Now, for the first time since we entered Central Asia some 14 days ago, it had rained last night and the skies were overcast and not the bright blue we had become accustomed to. We wandered down past these small but unique cliffs as Zhandra pointed out how with a bit of imagination, or in my case a huge amount, the various shapes of the rocks balanced on rocks were everything from a dinosaur to a Russian Lada car. We strolled the 3km to the rather picturesque Charon River where there is a little camp set up. We relaxed enjoying the scenery and some snacks.
Sylvia had spotted some people walking up around one of the large rock features and suggested we night go back that way. Zhadra was quick to point out it was way too dangerous, we would have to go the way we came. The camp was at about 900 meters so it was a gentle climb back to the car park at 1300m. Not far up the track one of the local taxi vehicles came past and Zhadra jumped aboard leaving us to enjoy the stroll. By now the sky had cleared showing up the colours in the rocks much better.
Along the way there were a couple standing atop a cliff in formal wear with a drone circling around above them. Was this a proposal or was it the end and he was about to toss her from the cliff?
With winter approaching we spotted lots of small rodents, often carrying large pieces of vegetation back to their burrows in preparation.
We drove down to the observation point from where we looked north to the mountains of the Chinese border and then it was time to journey back to the city. As we headed west to our south there were two rows of high voltage pylons. I wondered if they were exoprting power to China. I asked the question but was told they were for the small villages up north, which didn’t make sense. A check on the net and Kazakhstan exports not only power but also gas and minerals to China. It had been great to have a day out and look at a little bit of this vast country.