05 August 2008

Kazakh Kudos

Kazakhstan had a cloud hanging over it from the beginning due to the Russian bureaucratic intransience over double-entry visas. Never mind that I had full backup authorization for a double-entry visa, checked the box and paid for a double-entry visa, I received a single-entry visa. In short, I was entering Kazakhstan at my own risk, with no clear land route out.

But the entry in the wee small hours of the morning was warm and friendly. The Kazakh immigration officer, in his big flamboyant hat, got on the train with his sophisticated computer and was the first border official this trip to speak English and the first ever to access my new Hi-Tech data chip. He smiled at me and said "Welcome to Kazakhstan."

The landscape from the train going south out of russia didn't change much--verdant green forests and rough board wooden houses with the same freshly painted blue and white shutters at first. But soon the houses themselves began to be freshly painted--left over from the shutters, perhaps. The trees gave way to sparser, harsher terrain that every so often was punctuated with what looked like miniature model cities with scattered dome structures--Moslem cemeteries to remind me that I am now in an Islamic country. At every stop along the route there were a bevy of ladies selling homemade perogies and other goodies displayed happily in baby carriages. The train I was on was going all the way to Tashkent and full of jolly Uzbeks. They kept insisting that I continue on with them and didn't seem to understand my potential problem at the frontier with no visa for Uzbekistan. Ominous warning for what I was to face when it came time for me to leave Kazakhstan going across one short stretch of Russia to Ukraine.

Arriving at 4:30 am in Almaty is not the best of options. No public transport and only greedy sleazy taxi men who wanted DOLLARS, lots of them, to take a crazy American anywhere. Luckily, there are usually cheap hotels of some ilk near most train stations worldwide and I found a place within walking distance that would take me in.

Setting out on my first day of discovery, I found Almaty to be a truly beautiful green, green city--nestled up against the mountains with parks everywhere. I lost count after the first day. Wide clean streets with lots of wheelchair ramps, some that looked a little scary to me. Litter containers are ubiquitous, painted green to blend with the trees and frequent recycling bins. It was not my intention to spend all my time in and around Almaty, but circumstances surrounding my objective of traveling on out of Kazakhstan by train gave me no other choice. I needed a Russian transit visa in order to continue my trip as planned.

I made the best use of my time by taking trips out of Almaty to see some of the surrounding countryside. My first trip was to Charyn Canyon which has been compared to the Grand Canyon in the US. Smaller, but every bit as lovely, I was given the choice of going with a local group and a tour guide who spoke only Russian at a local price, or in a private car with an English speaking guide at an exhorbinate tourist price. Do I have to reveal which one I chose? The local experience is the one I travel for. And the travel Gods were with me. The morning of the excursion a young Estonian man was on the bus who happily volunteered to be my translator, so I got the full local experience without losing out on any information.

Walking into the canyon the trail was a bit tricky in places, but nothing too energetic. On both sides, red clay walls deeply fissured and the only limitation was your own imagination in deciphering the various rock formations. Many large rocks were precariously perched atop others looking all the world like they could topple off. The path we took wound down to the river running through the canyon where we relaxed and had lunch.

The return trip took a decidedly scary turn when our guide veered off and litterally had us scaling the canyon wall. No one had warned me that my insurance should be fully paid up, but one false step and I could be lying in a heap at the bottom. Perilous as it was, I did survive and the views at the top were spectacular.

My next excursion outside Almaty was to the three mountain Lakes of Kolsai over near the border with China. Again I went with the local tour group and after a night's ride on the bus we were booked into small family guesthouses in a village near the lake region.

The lakes were magnificent and although the climb to the second lake tested the stamina of the most hale and hardy, the breath-taking view on arrival was well worth it. Crystal clear deep blue waters surrounded by jutting peaks set amidst alpine meadows. After a rest, lunch and a swim-break for those hearty enough to brave the 7 degree celsius water, tearing oneself away from the beauty of the lake was made all the harder knowing full well the difficulty of the trail. Later that night, back at the guesthouse, the Russian sauna was much appreciated by my aching muscles.

The following day on the rickety bus going up to the third lake (created by an earthquake about three decades ago) the group decided to serranade me with a medley of songs representing each of their various ethnic backgrounds. A true magical moment.

Other excursions included two trips to Modeo in the mountains near Almaty with it's world famous skating rink, scheduled to be the site of the Winter Olympics in 2011. On the second visit I continued further up the mountain to Chimbulak, home of the ski resport. It got colder and colder the highter we went, and I was quite pleased to snuggle into the Russian-era Army greatcoats that the guys running the lift at the top produced.

Although a very special country, visiting Kazakhstan turned out to be my fiscal "poison pill." It is an expensive country and the overwhelming cost of getting out of the country nearly "broke the bank." Special thanks for this go directly to Russia. First by refusing to give me the double-entry visa initially in Bangkok and then the exorbitant blackmail attempt in Almaty demanding I pay $450 for a lousy transit visa just to ride 8-10 hours on a train across a desolate stretch of land they claim that lies between Kazakhstan and Ukraine. So, I fly out to Kiev a little sad not to be on the train, but the choice was between disappointment or disgust. Disappointment at being 'derailed' or personal disgust over giving in to Russian greed. At least I headed to Ukraine with a clear conscience.

No comments: