The Golden Hoard
Well we managed to find our way out of Russia via a pretty expensive one day stay in Orenburg and into Kazakhstan. Our train was actually heading to Uzbekistan and we had a very pleasant few hours with an Uzbek couple on their way home. We were expecting to arrive in Aktobe at around 7.00 am as up until now all of the trains were timed on Moscow time - two hours behind Orenburg. What we didn't realise was that as soon as we crossed the border we changed to Astana (capital of Kazakhstan) time - one hour ahead. This coupled with the odd phenomenon of actually going back a further hour (Aktobe time - are you following this?) meant that we were dumped on the platform at 4.00 am wondering what had happened to the sun!
We made our way out of the station past a throng of taxi drivers to find an ATM for money, and then back to the station to try and work out what had happened to the time. We sat in the very seedy waiting room with a few drunks for about 45 mins and then decided to have a look at the station dormitory where we paid around 4 pounds for two beds in separate dormitories where we at least got to sleep (well I did) until around 9.00 am - or was that 10.00?
Actually Aktobe turned out to be OK after a fairly 'slow' start. We found a Travel Agency to book our tickets to the next town (Aralsk) - and more importantly onwards from there. Eventually we discovered a nice hotel with a clean room and a nice bath, and managed to relax for a while. It was immediately obvious that we had not only crossed into a new country, but also changed continents at the same time. Things in Kazakhstan are just that bit more chaotic, that bit more open to negotiation and, most importantly, the people are far friendlier and more curious. This made itself clear when we were trying to book accommodation in Aralsk (our arrival time was 3.50am) when the ladies in the hotel cafe insisted on marching Anne over to the telecom office and making the call on our behalf.
We had decided before we set off that the one place we wanted to see in Kazakhstan was Aralsk. This former port on the edge of what used to be the Aral Sea is a desolate and forlorn place, but does have the somewhat unique 'sight' of ships rusting in what is now a desert. The Aral Sea was once a freshwater lake about the size of England fed by two large rivers flowing down from the mountains in Southern Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. In the 1950's the Soviet government in Moscow decided to divert most of the water from these rivers to irrigate the steppe and grow cotton (the area is still one of the worlds biggest cotton producers). This has resulted in the Aral Sea essentially drying up - the former fishing ports around the edge are now desert towns, all of the endemic fish species are now extinct as are many other animals and plants. The presence of fertilisers, pesticides and other chemicals (the USSR's chemical and biological research centres were located on an island in the lake) have resulted in the former sea bed becoming a toxic dust bowl which is frequently blown up into clouds of stinging sand. Nice place for a holiday then.
Our overnight trip down from Aktobe was enlivened by a whole family heading off to a wedding (we are in the video!!) and Sulatanat - a young woman who needed some English practice. We arrived at Aralsk at 3.50 am (note the theme developing here) and found a shared taxi to take us to the hotel we had booked earlier. We had to wake them up, but we got a pretty basic room (Anne thinks it was the only one habitable) and slept until dawn. Aralsk is a community in serious decline for obvious reasons, in fact I cannot understand why anyone stays there at all. You have to admire the stoicism of these people who cling on in the face of one of the worst man-made ecological disasters on the planet. We walked out over where the lake used to be - you could tell we were on the lake bed by the millions of shells underfoot - and took photos of the ships that were stranded in the port when the 'tide' went out. Ironically some sported the hammer and sickle insignia of the regime that destroyed them.
True to form the train out of Aralsk was at 4.45am - we had been driven back to our room by a dust storm in the early evening where we dozed until 3.00am. The lady in the hotel had organised a taxi and we headed off 'plaskartny' (dormitory) class across the vast moonscape of central Kazakhstan along with a group of former fishermen from the other side of the lake. The desert landscapes here were stupendous - just sand as far as the eye could see with only the occasional distant mountain range to break the monotony. We arrived at Turkestan around 5.00pm (for a change) and decided to stay for a couple of days to wash the poisonous dust out of our hair if nothing else. Turkestan is home to Kazakhstan's most touted tourist sight - the Mausoleum of Kozha Akhmed Yasaui. We were guided by another young Kazakh eager to practice her English (thank you Honey - the tour was excellent - and nice shoes!) around the very large mausoleum and the adjacent underground mosque.
Next up was a bus ride to Shimkent through the cotton fields and into what are essentially the foothills of the Himalaya. The driving test in Kazakhstan consists of giving the government 100USD in exchange for a licence. As this is an oil rich country with a fair number of young men with wealthy fathers you can imagine what it's like on the roads. Fortunately our bus driver was old enough to realise that it's OK to drive at less than flat out, and not to overtake on bends on the crests of hills - or was it just a clapped out old bus? Shimkent was a mess - a Soviet style planned city which has grown rich beyond it's capabilities. The traffic was chaotic to the point where it was often quicker to walk than to take the bus, the market had spilled into the streets and was competing for space with pedestrians and cars, and everywhere was noisy in the extreme. The only good thing we can say about Shimkent was that we found a hotel where we could get BBC world TV - for the first (and probably last) time on the trip.
Next day we thought that we had seen enough cities for a while and so headed off to a village in the hills called Zhabaghly which we had read had a basic tourist infrastructure (ie toilets for Anne!!) and was set just outside a spectacular national park. The village was truly set in stunning scenery amid snowcapped mountains and pasture land. We spent a couple of days walking in the hills and breathing clean air and generally recharging our batteries. We stayed in a (it has to be said quite posh) guesthouse run by a chap called Yevgenny. The room was provided with full board (didn't see anywhere else to eat anyway) and we shared our meals with Ruth and Karl from Berlin who were on a three week tour of the country, and who were very good company (hope you got home OK - we looked for you on the train and in Almaty).
We went back to Shimkent to pick up the overnight train to Almaty - not the capital of the country but easily it's biggest city. Anne got given a Kazakh hat which she is very pleased with, and it was nice to be on a train going through mountains for a change instead of endless flat plains. Almaty is where the oil money is being spent and is quite expensive in places. We got charged 3.00GBP for a beer in one cafe - we have to check the prices carefully now!! It is also more like a Russian city than any of the other Kazakh ones (ie traffic keeps to it's side of the road and stops for traffic lights). The setting is good with a backdrop of snow capped mountains, but the air quality is a little suspect - we caught a cable car up to one of the adjacent hills to get a view of the city, but the most obvious impression was of a layer of brown smog outlined against the white mountains.
This is our last stop in Kazakhstan - which promised to be the most difficult leg of our journey. It fact it has turned out to be better than either of us hoped mainly due to the very friendly and generous people. We both have some regrets that we didn't also explore Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan (expensive and difficult Visas were the main reason), but we have our tickets now and it's next stop China.