Things were moving rather slowly at the border, even though there was only the 6 people from our bus in the hall. The lady at the immigration counter was quite nice. After stamping my passport she said, “Good luck with your travels. Welcome to Kazakhstan”. From there, I entered another area where I had to show my passport to a young man standing near a gate to the customs section. After looking at my passport, the man said, “Welcome to Kazakhstan”. I then entered the customs area where I had present my passport to a man sitting at a desk. He just asked if I was travelling by myself and then said, “Welcome to Kazakhstan”. I’m guessing they want me to feel welcome? Done!
After everyone from the van cleared immigration, we continued on to Жаркент or Zharkent. An hour or so later, we were dropped off at a small bus station in Zharkent. Before my friend Hannah, that I’d met in Huo’erguosi, and I even got out of the van, we were surrounded by men trying to get us to take their taxis to Almaty. They were trying to grab our bags, assuming that we were going to go with them before we’d even had a chance to weigh up our options.
They wanted to charge us 4000 Tenge (US$10), which is what some locals had told us it would cost. We told them we had to change some currency first and they said we could do that on the way. We really wanted them to get out of our face. We thought that offering a lower amount, 3000 Tenge (US$7.80), would do the trick. Most of them left us alone at that point, but one of the guys agreed to that price. He then ushered us to his car. We confirmed at least 5 times on the way to the car that he was accepting 3000 Tenge.
After we’d been sitting in the car for a few minutes, he handed us his phone. He had a friend who spoke Mandarin who then proceeded to try to convince us that we had to pay 16,000 Tenge or US$40. Obviously, he thought that because we weren’t locals, he could trick us into paying for the whole car. We reiterated that we were only paying 3000 Tenge. With everyone finally on the same page, a mother and daughter with a 7 month old baby jumped in the car and we were on our way.
We hadn’t driven for long before we came across a small town which consisted of mostly yurts. It reminded me a lot of my travels to Mongolia. I didn’t see any yurts once we’d driven past the village. The rest of the way was dotted with mostly double story houses with A-frame roofs. They look a lot nicer that the flat roofs seen in many other places in Asia.
The scenery along the way was spectacular. We were driving through a strip of flat land that ran through the middle of 2 mountain ranges. Our taxi driver was a little bit crazy and refused to follow the curves of the road. That meant that when we came to bends, he just kept driving straight while weaving through the marked lanes. I guess that’s fine when there are no other cars on the road, but he was doing it when other cars were present too. I was starting to doubt that I’d make it to Almaty uninjured.
I was using the scenery to take my mind off the fact that I might not survive the ride, when I noticed some ominous looking clouds up ahead. Sure enough, within minutes, we entered a torrential downpour. The driver was doing around 120km/h at that point and the rain didn’t make him slow down or stop ignoring traffic rules. Even more terrifying was the fact that his windscreen wipers barely worked, so visibility was very low.
Luckily the rain didn’t last long and shortly after it stopped, we hit an automated toll plaza. There was one slight problem, the automated part wasn’t working! I presume the guy had an automatic toll device in his car, but the gate wasn’t opening and the adjacent gates weren’t opening for other cars either. The driver reversed a little then re-approached the gate several times, to no avail. Eventually, after waiting at least 5 minutes, an attendant started speaking through the ticket machine in our lane and after a bit of conversation, the gate was opened and we were on our way again.
We made it to Almaty by 5pm but then got stuck in some crazy traffic. It felt like we had to wait for a ridiculous amount of time at each set of traffic lights because cars could barely move when the lights turned green. To add to the chaos, no one seemed to be following the marked lanes. Weirdly, even though they drive on the right-hand side of the road in Kazakhstan, we spotted many cars that were right-hand drive, amongst the majority of left-hand drive cars.
We arrived at the Sayran Bus station at about 5:30pm and went to the money changer in the station to convert our money to the local currency. Strangely, the lady at the money changing window gave us the biggest notes possible and wouldn’t split them into smaller notes so that we could pay the driver. That wasn’t the first time that night that someone would act funny when it came to giving change.
We found a pub called The House Pub to have some dinner after our long trip. None of the staff spoke English and all the menus were in Russian, so it was interesting trying to order. We eventually ended up ordering some Shishlyk, a local take on BBQ meat on skewers. It only cost 5200 Tenge, or US$6.50 for the whole meal and it was delicious. When we finished the meal, they gave us the biggest notes possible as change and didn’t want to change them for smaller ones so we could split the bill evenly. I don’t know why these people seem to have problems with smaller denominations.
Hannah wanted to get a local SIM, so we went to a nearby phone shop where the staff were very lovely and helpful. It took some work and I think we were in the shop for over an hour trying to get it sorted. At one point, the guys in the shop realised that they had a friend who spoke Mandarin and enlisted her help to make sure we all understood what was going on. They then gave us a local salty treat called Qurt.
It didn’t look pretty and tasted kind of intense. I think Hannah was expecting it to be sweet, which meant she was super surprised at how salty it was. Qurt is usually used when travelling long distances as it’s small and keeps well for a decent amount of time.
After a long day, we were tired, so we used the Yandex Taxi-hailing app to get a car to our accommodation. Taxis in Almaty are only around 1000 Tenge or US$2.50 to go almost anywhere in the city area. The good thing about using the Yandex app is that you don’t have to worry about struggling with the language barrier. The price is also set before the ride, so you won’t get ripped off. The driver didn’t want to give us change at the end of the ride though, so instead, we had to underpay him because we didn’t have any change ourselves.
We finally got into our accommodation, thinking that we’d be able to use the internet for a little bit before we went to sleep but apparently, the WiFi was having issues and didn’t work for us. The woman checking us in was tired and unwilling to answer our questions, so we just gave up and went to sleep.
The adventures continue here