About The Award
The Blogger Recognition Award is an award given to bloggers by bloggers. It aims to help bloggers’ get their work recognised by and promoted to other bloggers. As with any award, there are some rules for nominees –
* Thank the blogger who nominated you for the nomination and link to their blog.
* Write a blog post on your site displaying the award that describes why you started your blog
* Write two pieces of advice you have for new bloggers
* Nominate and notify 15 more bloggers
April is a Hospitality and Tourism expert who provides some great tips for travelling with family, friends or sometimes even solo. She has combined her passion for the travel industry with blogging, so that she still has time for mum duties. She loves sharing her extensive experiences with travelling on a budget, especially with her family, in the hopes of helping others realise that they too can reach their travel goals.
What Brought Me to Blogging
I’d like to tell you some grand story about an epiphany that started my blogging life, but the truth is actually quite boring. When I’d travel abroad and tell people about my adventures in other countries, they’d ask for my blog address. When I told them I didn’t have one, they told me I should. It took a while, but I finally listened to them.
These days it can be hard to find accurate or up-to-date information in internet land. So now that I’ve finally started blogging, I want to offer people valuable information about off-the-beaten-path destinations on a budget, whilst entertaining them with my crazy stories. Travel is my passion and I’m currently having a blast visiting all the ‘Stans in Central Asia.
Advice for New Bloggers
I’m a fairly new blogger myself and I’ve realised that this whole blogging thing is a lot more work than you think it’s going to be. It’s almost like having a full-time job on top of your regular job. You will only see small amounts of progress at the beginning, but keep at it. I celebrate every milestone to keep myself in a positive mindset.
If you look on the internet, you’ll see so-called experts telling you not to blog about your passion, but to blog about what people want. I never really quite understood how you, being yourself and very much not other people, are supposed to know what others want? Plus, if you’re blogging about something ‘in demand’ but of no interest to you, you won’t turn out good work. Blog about what you know. Watch your stats and see which post are more popular and write more posts similar to those.
On to my nominations. I’ll just give you a short introduction to these wonderful blogs, so please click their links to find out more about them!
A Finn on the Loose
Laura is a Finnish woman who has lived abroad and is in love with travelling. She offers advice on the top things to do and eat in places that she’s travelled to.
A Femme Naturelle
Shirley from Femme Naturelle is a strong woman advocating for a natural lifestyle. She aims to do this while supporting women on their journey to realising their natural beauty.
Diffusing the Tension
Jen is a wellness and mental health blogger, helping to de-mystify things and create an open dialogue. She even helps others with ecourses!
Plan Act Thive
Pat from Plan Act Thrive (do you see what she did there?) is all about motivating and encouraging people to live their best, peaceful and confident life.
Winds of Jane
Jane from Winds of Jane is an avid hiker and photo taker. Her blog is full of awesome photography and useful information for hiking or travelling in different places.
Random Musings of a Naive Skeptic
As the name suggests, Mukti from Random Musings likes to blog about anything and everything, from poetry to books and social observations.
Lemons and Luggage
Nina from Lemons and Luggage is a vegan traveller who advocates for sustainable travel and is not afraid to voice her opinion on things that matter.
Our Favourite Jar
Claire from Our Favourite Jar sometimes likes to write to get her feelings. Other times she enjoys honestly documenting family life and sharing it with her readers.
The Perfect Whisk
Mansi from The Perfect Whisk found her passion was baking deserts. She shares all her baking tips and knowledge, along with mouthwatering pictures of her preservative and chemical free baking successes on her blog.
Dark Blue Journal
Julie from Dark Blue Journal is a minimalist who shares practical ways to reduce your carbon footprint while practising mindfulness.
Conversations With Lora
Lora from Conversations with Lora is a strong, independent woman who tackles issues like emotional health and offers tips for healthy living.
Anna and Anthony from Greenmochila are Earth conscious travellers who love to have adventures around the world while also protecting the environment where they can.
Life Travel Soul
Fritzie from Life Travel Soul is passionate about travel and photography and aims to inspire though documenting her journey and sharing travel tips.
Farrah from Fairyburger is a Medical resident by day, and probably night. Somewhere in between all that work, she blogs about life, food and travel.
The Bluehill Blogger is teenage blogger sharing insights into life from a uniquely interesting and often ignored, teenage view.
My entry into unbelievable Uzbekistan, via the Dostyk border, was off to a great start. It was quick and hassle-free. Even getting a taxi for the right price was easy. The scenery was also pretty amazing, although it’s kind of hard to capture after sunset. One thing I noticed on my way to Fergana in the unbelievable Uzbekistan Fergana Valley, was that the roads were immaculate. The drivers, on the other hand, were not. Many close calls were had. Apparently, red traffic lights are just a suggestion. Or maybe the drivers were distracted by all the pretty Uzbekistan national-coloured lights adorning almost every lamp post on the way.
Getting to Fergana in the Unbelievable Uzbekistan Fergana Valley
The ride onto Fergana was fairly quick and uneventful. The other 3 people in the taxi jumped out just before the town so it was just me left. I was guiding the driver to my accommodation when he started to ignore my directions and made a wrong turn. He must’ve decided that it was too much trouble and stopped in front of a hotel and told me to go there. That wasn’t going to work for me, so he stopped 2 young boys walking along the footpath to see if they spoke English. They did.
I showed them the map. All the driver had to do was make a u-turn, but for some reason, he was reluctant. The boys ended up finding the phone number for my accommodation online and gave it to the driver so he could get directions straight from the source. That conversation lasted for a strangely long amount of time, considering that the place was only one main road away from where we were. The boys and I joked that the driver must have smoked something because it shouldn’t have taken that long to explain to him how to get to the next road.
Everything was finally sorted and the young boys went on their merry way, but not before saying, “Welcome to Uzbekistan”. After finally arriving at my accommodation, I met Sardar, the owner of Status House, the place I was staying at. Sardar was an absolutely lovely man, who of course welcomed me to Uzbekistan. He then gave me a heap of useful information about the area. He even offered to ask his wife to patch up a few small holes in my small bag.
Sardar advised me that I was the only guest booked in, so had the whole place to myself. Sweet! If you head to Fergana, I’d definitely recommend that you stay there. When I booked he was the cheapest place in town.
Fergana is a fairly nice town without much too much traffic or noise. It also has a lot of green areas and parks where you can sit down under the shade of large trees to escape the heat.
Uzbekistan is bloody hot! The temperature got up to 38 degrees in the middle of the day in Fergana. It gets even hotter in other places! Thankfully the bar that I stopped at for lunch had Uzbek music and misting taps above to keep customers cool.
Slowly Onto to Andijon in Unbelievable Uzbekistan
A local from Andijon, in northeastern Uzbekistan, contacted me through Couchsurfing and said that they would like to host me. I agreed and started heading back to Andijon, even though I’d already passed through there on the way to Fergana. Sardar organised a taxi to take me to the station where I could get a Mashrutka (minivan) to Andijon. And that’s where things started getting weird.
The taxi drivers at the station were saying that the Mashrutkas to Andijon stopped running at 6pm. I was very dubious of that claim and kept reiterating that I wanted to take a Mashrutka, not a taxi. The taxi drivers wouldn’t back down on their claim but did eventually agree to take me for only a fraction more than the Mashrutka price.
Strangely, this taxi didn’t leave full. There was only a woman with a baby in the back seat with me and a man in the front seat. We left before 7pm for a drive that should have taken about an hour. It took over 2 hours because we stopped several times. The first stop was only about 10km out of Fergana in the unbelievable Uzbekistan Fergana Valley. There were a lot of fruit sellers set up on the side of the road. The driver and the male passenger went off to buy some fruit. I admired the sunset.
Pray, Drink, Play
The second stop was only about another 10km down the road, just before we hit Quva. That stop was for the male passenger to pray. While he was praying, the driver suggested I try a strange concoction of horse milk and hot sauce from a roadside seller. He was not taking no for an answer so I had a sip. Somehow the sauce offset the sourness of the milk and made it almost bearable to drink. At the same time, it was pretty gross.
Back in the car, the baby seemed to be fascinated by me and I was able to not only stop him from crying but also make him smile. It was a way to pass the time until we got closer to Andijon. The driver stopped just before we entered the town to give a guy waiting on the side of the road a big wad of cash. That seems completely normal.
Unbelievable Uzbekistan – Andijon
Once we had made it to Andijon, the driver put me on the phone to his daughter who spoke a little bit of English. She said that my host had lied to me and wasn’t meeting me, as had been arranged and reconfirmed when I’d spoken to him on the phone just 15 minutes prior. I was a bit taken aback by this and super skeptical of what had been said. What made it even worse was that I was asking them to call to my host and they weren’t letting that happen.
They then decided, without consulting me, that they were going to take me to the station. From there I could get a shared taxi to Taskent, which was 5 hours away. At 10 o’clock at night. As I was telling them that wasn’t what I wanted, my host called the driver’s phone. He informed me that something had come up and he couldn’t meet me, so he would pay for me to stay in a hotel. Umm, okay.
The driver took me to the hotel that my host and suggested. It turned out to be the most terrible hotel I’d ever come across. No WiFi. Smelly and mouldy bathroom. Rickety looking single bed with stained sheets. But at least the nice lady at reception served me some tea and snacks.
Unusual Interactions in Unbelievable Uzbekistan
I ended up speaking to one of my host’s friends, Azuz, who said that he would come and meet me at the hotel and sort things out. The driver had been hanging around to make sure that I got checked in okay, but had to go. Azuz met me in the hotel lobby about 10 minutes later and helped me check in. He told me not to worry, that everything was sorted out. He added that my host would meet me at the hotel at 11am the next morning.
When 11am came around, my host was nowhere to be found, but a creepy guy who took pictures of me as I walked towards reception was. After insisting that he delete my photo from his phone, I made a hasty exit. I wanted to find WiFi so I could plan my escape from that town. With the help of some friendly locals, I found a cafe with decent food, WiFi and airconditioning. The last one was what I need the most after walking in the unbelievable Uzbekistan heat for half an hour and witnessing some crazy traffic scenes.
Unbelivable Uzbekistan – Can, Cannot, Can
With a concerted group effort, involving 2 staff members and 2 diners in the cafe, I was able to place my order. I started to relax and browse the ‘net. Just a few minutes later, the staff member who took my order to came back. What I’d ordered wasn’t available, so I changed my order. Amusingly, the same staff member came back another 5 minutes later and said that my original order was now available. Maybe it had been available all along and he’d just wanted an excuse to talk to me?
After bingeing on WiFi for a while, I was ready to pay for my meal and leave. That should’ve been simple enough, right? Well, not quite. When I got to the counter, I only had a large note. They said that they didn’t have change so I offered to pay by credit card. They took my card to some magical place out the back. A short while later, my card came back and they said they couldn’t take credit card. I think they had a problem with their machine at the time. That created a bit of a dilemma as they wouldn’t take my cash or credit card, I couldn’t think of any other options.
I waited at the counter while the staff spoke amongst themselves. It was quite amusing as different staff would come and join the conversation for a bit, then go off and do some work while others joined in. I suspect every staff member was a part of the conversation at some stage. Eventually, after about 15 minutes of deliberations, the one worker in the place that spoke a small amount of English gave me my card back. He then said they were giving me the meal as a welcome to Uzbekistan. How pleasantly unexpected.
My phone was was playing up, which meant I couldn’t get any useful directions from my map app. I stopped a local walking by and asked him how to get a Mashrutka to Tashkent. He was lovely and spoke to the driver of a passing Mashrutka. That Mashrutka would take me to the station where I could get a Mashrutka to Tashkent. The ladies in the Mashrutka were trying to ask where I was from by making a roof over their head with hands. I didn’t get the reference until one of them pointed to herself and said “Uzbek”. It was an amusing exchange. Especially when they thought Hong Kong was in Japan.
At the station, the driver of the Mashrutka I was in, let’s call him driver number 1, took me to the Mashrutka I needed to take. He explained to the driver of that Mashrutka, let’s call him driver number 2, where I needed to go. When I tried to give driver number 1 money for the ride, he refused to take it and wished me a safe journey. The generosity of Uzbeks, who may not have much themselves, is amazing!
Getting to the Unbelievable Uzbekistan Capital of Tashkent
A lady already in the Mashrutka said she was going to Tashkent too. Next thing I know, we’d stopped somewhere and men were crowding around the Mashrutka. One of them grabbed my bag, but I quickly grabbed it back. Then the lady motioned for me to follow her. We ended up in a taxi and she called her neighbour Islam who could speak English. He told me that she was paying for my taxi ride to Tashkent because she thought that taking a Mashrutka all the way was too dangerous. I was starting to wonder why people didn’t want my money that day!
The lady and I got to chatting, as much as you can chat when you don’t speak the same language. I found out her name was Najiya and she was 60 years old. She had to show me her ID for me to believe that last one. She also found out all about my trip and told me that her son lives with her in Chirchiq, a small town about 30 minutes from Tashkent.
Due to several unscheduled stops and a dinner break, we ended up getting to Tashkent much later than expected. Najiya was worried that I wouldn’t be able to find WiFi to contact my host at that hour, so she invited me to stay with her in Chirchiq. It was nearly midnight by the time we got to Nadjiya’s house. I figured we would just go to sleep. Najiya wanted to make sure that I wasn’t hungry or thirsty. She placed a whole pile of food and tea in front of me. Uzbeks take hospitality to a whole new level!
Hospitality Level = 1000
I could barely keep my eyes open. But I didn’t want to be rude to this wonderful person who had just done so much for me. I tried to stay alert so we could talk for a bit. Shortly after, Najiya’s son, Sheruz came home. He was able to speak a bit of English and said I was welcome to stay with them as long as liked.
In the morning, Najiya had to leave early in the morning to do something, so Sheruz made me breakfast and told me about his studies and his girlfriend that he is keeping a secret from his mother. Hospitality and intrigue; what’s not to love about Uzbekistan?!
When it was time for me to leave, Sheruz gave me his phone number, in case I needed anything while I was in Tashkent. He then walked down the road and waited with me to make sure that I had no problems getting on the Mashrutka to Tashkent. I really don’t have the words to describe how awesome and overwhelming Uzbekistan has been so far.
Stay tuned for my next post where I’ll head into Tajikistan.
Kyrgyzstan is a beautiful Central Asian country that was once a major feature of the trade routes of the Silk Road. It’s an adventure waiting to happen. Aside from its natural beauty, Kyrgyzstan is full of beautifully warm and friendly people that will try to help you in any way that they can. This list of things to know about Kyrgyzstan will help make your visit to the country even more memorable.
If you haven’t thought of visiting yet, you should put it on your list right now! Keep reading to learn some important things to know about Kyrgyzstan.
Things to Know About Kyrgyzstan – Language
Most people speak Kyrgyz, alongside Russian. Both languages have huge similarities. For example, the word for cafe in Russian is кафе and in Kyrgyz it is кафеси. Both languages use the Cyrillic alphabet. The Kyrgyz Cyrillic Alphabet has 3 unique characters not found in the 33 character Russian Cyrillic Alphabet.
While speaking Russian will get you through Kyrgyzstan with no problems, it’s also completely possible to travel the country relatively easily with no knowledge of Russian. You can find English speakers here and there, especially in cafes in Bishkek or Osh. There are also many Kyrgyz people using Couchsurfing, who speak English well and are eager to meet travellers.
If you can’t find a common language, you can always resort to hand gestures, body movements translation apps and using props. Kyrgyz people are a patient bunch, so they’re willing to spend time figuring out what you are trying to say.
Kyrgyz English speakers don’t have a strong ‘non-native’ accent when they talk, which means when they do speak English, they are very easy to understand.
I 💜 Signs
Every major city in Kyrgyzstan seems to have an ‘I Love’ sign. some even have 2. Locals love to hang out in front of these signs for crazy amounts of time taking selfies and ignoring everyone around them. Good times.
Interesting Things to Know About Kyrgyzstan – It’s Okay to Hitchhike!
Hitchhiking is a completely safe and viable way to get around Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyz people aren’t afraid of language barriers and will pick you up and chat with you regardless. You will of course, be asked the standard questions; “Are you a tourist?”, “Where are you from?”, etc. Once you answer, don’t be surprised if your new driver will tell you their life story.
Kyrgyz people are friendly and approachable. If you ask someone in the street for help, they will most certainly assist you. Even if you don’t share a common language, they will find a way. They will likely stay with you until your problem is solved satisfactorily
Quirky Things to Know About Kyrgyzstan – 3 Som Coins
Perhaps the quirkiest cash denomination I’ve seen in all my travels is the 3 Som coin. It is worth approximately US$0.04. There are apparently no 5 Som coins. You will instead get one 3 Som coin and two 1 Som coins. Or if you get 10 Som change, it will be three 3 Som coins and a 1 Som coin.
Handy Things to Know About Kyrgyzstan – The Water is Potable!
Don’t believe everything you read on the internet! Many sites claim that the domestic water supply in Kyrgyzstan is not safe to drink, but those sites are mistaken. Locals and tourists alike drink the water with no problems.
Don’t waste your money buying one-time use bottles of water. Save the environment and bring your own bottle to fill up from the tap. If you’re still a bit worried, you can simply boil your water before you drink it but that’s really not required.
One of the more quirky things to know about Kyrgyzstan is that people there enjoy carnival-like atmospheres. This can range from the hiring of motorised toy cars and selling of light-up souvenirs in a park, to permanent rides, carnival games and stalls set up in a reserve near a river. You gotta love people that just wanna have fun.
Important Things to Kow About Kyrgyzstan – City Transport
Transport in Kyrgyz cities is cheap and efficient. Buses cover many major routes in the cities and out to the suburbs for 10 Som/US$0.15. They run at intervals of 5 minutes or less. Bus information for Bishkek can be found here
Taxis around the city cost about 100 – 300 Som/US$1.40 – 4.30 depending on the distance travelled. Yandex taxis are also available in Kyrgyzstan and the cars actually have Yandex Taxi written on the side of them. You can use the Yandex Taxi Hailing app to order a taxi if you have data/WiFi access and a phone number that can receive messages in Kyrgyzstan. If you don’t have internet access, you can hail an unofficial taxi by standing on the side of the road. This should cost the same as an official taxi.
Mini-vans that work in a similar way to shared taxis, known as Masrutkas, are available for travel within the city, but the system is very hard to navigate unless you have a local with you, or you can read/speak Russian. There are many numbered Mashrutka routes that cost around 20 Som/$US0.30.
Mashrutkas are the main form of intercity transport. They operate out of bus stations in the cities and drop off on the side of the road in small towns. You can buy a spot in the van directly from the driver, although there does appear to be a ticket desk at the Western Bus Station. Mashrutkas leave when all their seats are filled. A Mashrutka from the Western Bus Station in Bishkek to the small town of Kadji-Sai near Issyk-Kul costs 300 Som/US$4.30 and takes around 3-4 hours.
If you’re a meat lover, Kyrgyzstan is the place for you! Meat is the main feature of most menus in the country, with popular dishes being Shishlyk (barbequed meat on skewers), kebabs and doners. The main meats used in these dishes are beef, lamb and chicken. Horse meat is also a popular dish in the area, given that other foods were often scarce in Kyrgyz nomadic history.
It might be hard to find vegan food in Kyrgyzstan, as even some salads have meat in them. unless you want to spend your whole time eating mushroom Shishlyk. Even salads in Kazakhstan can have meat, so it always pays to check what’s in the food you’re ordering!
Unusual Things to Know About Kygryzstan – People Love Drinking Horse Milk
Horse milk is a popular drink in Kyrgyzstan, probably owing to their nomadic history. These days, it is often sold from containers on the side of the road. There are different types of horse milk with different levels of sourness. Yes, you read that correctly. Different levels of sourness. It’s quite unlike any other milk you’ve ever tasted.
If you want a super local experience, you could stop at a yurt on the Silk Road and sit down for some horse milk and bread with a local family. Even if the horse milk is not to your taste, meeting locals is always nice!
Whenever you go to a cafe or restaurant, you’re almost guaranteed to only hear 80s or 90s English language music. Normally the songs playing are remixed into more mellow versions of the originals. You can actually be listening to a song for a few minutes before realising that it’s a song you know. When you’re in a car however, locals are likely to not be listening to any music, so that that can chat with you. Or they play Kyrgyz music at a decent sound level and just talk loudly over it.
In the major Kyrgyz cities, when you ask a local what the must-see places are, the first thing they will suggest is the local bazaar. The bazaars are seen as the one-stop place for everything you could ever want and some things you didn’t know you wanted. The Osh Bazaar in Bishkek is huge and slightly confusing, but if you keep at it, you’ll find what you’re looking for.
The Jayma Bazaar in Osh is a little bit smaller and easy to navigate. I was able to find what I was looking for within 2 minutes.
On The Roads
While the majority of cars in Kyrgyzstan are left-hand drive, there are also a decent number of right-hand drive cars. Perhaps people drive the later for financial reasons, as they are much cheaper to buy than their left-hand drive counterparts.
Whether they’re on the left or right-hand side of the car, Kyrgyz driver can get pretty crazy. Lane markings are completely ignored at all times and overtaking on the most dangerous parts of bends on mountain roads is commonplace.
Pedestrians can’t escape the craziness either. While legally, cars should give way to pedestrians at traffic lights and designated pedestrian crossings, that’s not always what happens in practice. At traffic lights, turning cars will drive towards you, but will stop to let you cross. Although they may keep inching towards you slowly in a not-so-subtle attempt to get you to hurry up.
At pedestrian crossings, it’s anyone’s guess what cars will do. Most drive too fast to be able to stop for the crossing, while others do the right thing and stop. There is no simple way to cross a road in Kyrgyzstan and pedestrians need to constantly check for cars doing the wrong thing as they’re crossing.
You can read about my adventures in Kyrgyzstan here, here and here.
When I was trying to find out about the Dostyk border crossing from Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan, I ended up with a lot of conflicting and outdated information. If you go back a few years ago, it seems that this border was known for strictly adhering to rules and thoroughly searching everyone passing through it. They also had customs and immigration forms to fill out and you had to declare all foreign currency and medicines. These systems may have been in place because of tensions in the area at the time, but seeing as the situation is calm now, in 2019, things are quite different!
I started my journey to the Dostyk border crossing in Osh, which is part of the Kyrgyz Fergana Valley. Not to be confused with the Uzbek Fergana Valley on the other side of the border. I waited at a bus stop on the side of Lenin Street for the 138 Mashrutka to Dostyk. Inside the van, there was a board with the Cyrillic for Dostyk, ‘Достук’ written on it. The road was good until we were a little out of the city, then it was bad, then it was good again. The whole trip took about 20 minutes.
On the Kyrgyz Side of the Dostyk Border Crossing
The Mashrutka (minivan) dropped us off in a carpark that was about a 50 metre walk from the border. On the right-hand side of the road, there was a huge line of currency exchange shops. Most had the same rates but I found one that had a slightly lower rate than the rest. I exchanged my leftover Kyrgyz Som for Uzbek Som there.
Just after all the money changers were a couple of fenced-in lanes. Almost like cattle gates. They represented the start of the immigration area of the Dostyk Border Crossing. At the end of the lanes were gates where we had to wait for an officer. It felt a bit like we were cattle being herded. When an officer came and opened the gate, I was ushered to the left-hand side after he looked at the front of my passport, while everyone else was ushered to the right.
I felt a bit self-conscious walking down an empty lane while the lane next to me, that was full of mostly women, was not moving. None of the people waiting seemed too worried about it though. I guess foreigners don’t go through that border often, so they were happy to let them through? My lane took me straight into the immigration building where there was a huge line of mainly men. I only spotted 3 other women.
When an old woman with a cane came into the room, everyone moved so she could go to the front of the line. That was nice of them. Then another 2 women with a brood of children ranging from toddlers to teenagers came in. All the men stepped aside for them too. As there were only 2 officers processing a huge amount of people and a lot of people jumping the line, I started thinking that I might be spending a very long time in that building.
Once I got closer to the desks, I noticed that the men were all going to the right-hand desk and letting the women and children that had passed us before go through the left-hand desk. The women were busy not paying attention, so I slipped in front of them and was out of the building 2 minutes later. It was great to finally be back out in the fresh air.
On the Uzbek Side of the Dostyk Border Crossing
On the Uzbek side, they also had the cattle gate thing happening. There was a tourist lane. As I was the only tourist, I went straight to the gate. An officer came and opened the gate as soon as he saw me walk up, then some local women snuck through the tourist lane after me. The officer was really nice and smiley and asked to see my passport. He told me to follow the path in front of me which went straight into the immigration building. The women that came through behind me were ushered into cattle lanes to the right.
In the building, I walked straight up to a processing desk. The guy on the other side wasn’t as smiley as the first guy, but still very nice. He stamped me in and handed back my passport with smile and said, “Goodbye and good luck”. Then came the customs check. I put my stuff the conveyor belt then picked it up at the other end. The officers were busy searching other people’s bag, so I started to walk outside. I then heard someone call out to me. Thinking I was going to get searched, I started walking back, but the man just said, “Hello, welcome”. I had successfully crossed from Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan with no dramas.
Getting into Town From the Dostyk Border Crossing
I was expecting to be mobbed by drivers trying to get me in their taxis upon exiting the building, but that didn’t happen. A few guys approached me asking where I was going and then the negotiation started. I was heading to the town of Fergana, about 100km from the border. The first guy suggested 100,000 Som/US$11, so I replied with 30,000 Som/US$3.50. He then went to 35,000 Som/US$4, but I wouldn’t budge from 30,000. That guy gave up, but another nearby guy motioned that he would accept 30,000 and I should go with him.
I put my stuff in the car and he advised that we needed 3 more people. I thought this would take a while, but 5 minutes later, he told me to jump in the car and we were off. One of the guys in the back of the car said, “Welcome to Uzbekistan” and asked the usual questions. Then everyone was pretty silent for the rest of the trip.
The whole process of getting from Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan via the Dostyk border crossing took just over 30 minutes. I had arrived at the Kyrgyz side of the border, via Mashrutka, at 7pm. By 7:35pm I was happily on my way to my next adventure in the Fergana Valley of Uzbekistan. You can read about that adventure here.
Hitchin’ A Ride Along the Silk Road to Southwestern Kyrgyzstan
My friend Argen in Bishkek had suggested that I should try hitchhiking in Kyrgyzstan. He told me it would be easy. As I was a foreigner, I would get picked up in no time. I’m always up for new experiences, so why not? What better place to try than the Silk Road to Southwestern Kyrgyzstan?
Kadji-Sai to Balykchy
It was only about a minute before the first car driving through the small town of Kadji-Sai stopped. The driver’s name was Asmut and his English was excellent. I have a knack for finding the English speakers in places where other people can’t, apparently. Asmut was probably the first decent driver I’d come across in Kyrgyzstan. He slowed down for towns, which I hadn’t seen any other drivers do. I found out he was on a business trip and lived in Bishkek. He took me to Balykchy, the town at end of the Lake Issyk-Kul.
I noticed a lot of stalls along the side of the road in Balykchy selling dried fish. I was told by a local in Kadji-Sai that there was no fishing allowed at the lake, so I really had to wonder where these fish came from!
My good luck with finding English speakers continued when I decided to check if a local service station in Balykchy had a toilet. It did! There was also WiFi and the staff spoke some basic English. It seemed like a good place to rest and refresh. As I walked out of the service station, I saw a huge Kyrgyz flag in the middle of an intersection and stopped to take a photo. It was then that my second ride stopped and asked if I needed a lift.
Balykchy to Tokmok
In the car was a family of four and a grandmother. None of them spoke English, except the primary school-aged son, but he only really knew a few words. They took me to the town they lived in. It was called Tokmok and it was quite small. But there was plenty happening on the side of the road on the way.
There were a few cars stopped with flat tyres. Other cars had stopped to help them out! How nice of them. Locals apparently love to make word or picture formations on the sides of hills, out of stones. I’m not sure why, but someone had gone to the trouble of making the FedEx logo on a hill in the middle of nowhere. Everyone needs a hobby, I guess?
I also saw quite a few people with small barrel barbecues on the side of the road selling cooked corn. They waved their corn-grabbing tongs above their heads to get the attention of passing motorists.
One of the most interesting things I saw on the Silk Road to southwestern Kyrgyzstan was the unique domes of mosques in the area. In every other place that I’ve seen mosques, the roofs have been smooth domes. The domes in Eastern Kyrgyzstan have raised bits on them that almost make them look quilt-like. I actually think they look pretty cool!
When we got to Tokmok, the driver dropped his family off then said, “I’m taxi, give me money”. I said, “Take me to Bishkek”, then he said, “Haha, okay goodbye”. Cheeky git. As he’d dropped me in the middle of town, I had to walk a bit to get to the outskirts.
Tokmok to Bishkek
My next ride along the Silk Road to southwestern Kyrgyzstan came from Jazmek, a security guard at service station in Ivanovka. Ivanovka is actually only about 10 minutes from Tokmok. It started to get difficult to get a ride there. I don’t know if it was because I was getting closer to Bishkek, or because it was getting late.
While I was on the side of the road, a local boy called Hazhik came to my rescue and waved a car down for me. It was a relief to finally be on the road again. I soon noticed that the driver and the other woman in the car weren’t talking to each other. Furthermore, they had angry looking faces. Had I just interrupted a fight?
The woman actually spoke to me, via a translation app when the driver stopped to get some fuel. She was really nice, but as soon as the driver got back into the car, her angry face reappeared and she didn’t say another word all the way to Bishkek. So that was probably the most awkward things got on the Silk Road to southwestern Kyrgyzstan.
Silk Road to Southwestern Kyrgyzstan – Bishkek to Osh
Argen had told me that I would only have to go just outside the city centre in Bishkek to pick up a ride. So that’s what I did and it did not work out as I would’ve hoped. I figured that I needed to get further out of town, so I jumped in a Mashrutka (van) to a town called Kara-Balta at the intersection of the Osh-Bishkek Highway.
That did the trick and I was on the move along the Silk Road to southwestern Kyrgyzstan within minutes. The first car that picked me up was only going to a small town about 20 kilometres down the road. From there, I flagged down a van with a very excited driver motioning for me to get in.
My new friend, Ulan was eager to chat and knew a small amount of English. He gave me some курут or Kurut, a local hard, salty milk snack often eaten when taking long trips. He advised me that it goes well with beer.
Waterfalls and Horse Milk on the Silk Road
After several hours on the road, I’d been drifting in and out of a sleep state, until Ulan stopped on the side of the road. He pointed to my right and encouraged me to get out of the car. I thought he meant for a stretch, but there was a cute little waterfall in front of me! The waterfall ran into the Kara-Balta River. The Pamir Highway (Silk Road) follows this river for several hundred kilometres.
When we were getting close to a yurt village, Ulan asked if I wanted to drink some horse milk. As it’s a popular drink in the region, who was I to refuse? I’ll try anything once! He stopped his van in front of a yurt and asked an old lady near it if she had horse milk. She did, so we went inside her yurt, where we sat down on the ground near a table in the middle.
Suusamyr to Pelmennaya
Unfortunately, Ulan had to drop me off not long after that. He wished me good luck on my travels and left me at Suusamyr. I’m not even sure if this place counts as a town, because I could only see one building. I guess it serves as more of an intersection for the road going to Osh and the road going to Talas, where Ulan was heading. Of course, there was a statue there.
When I looked around me and saw almost nothing, a small thought that it might be difficult to get a ride crept into my head. It was chased away seconds later when a green truck stopped. The driver opened the passenger door for me and I saw that he had a mouth full of gold teeth. His name was Latim. He was also eager to chat with me, although he didn’t know any English at all. He showed me a photo of his granddaughter on his phone, then used the calculator on his phone to tell me his age.
Time for Dinner
It was slow going in the truck as the road is super windy. Plus there’s a lot of up and down because of the mountains. After several hours, we stopped at a place called Pelmennaya. It had the first non-yurt structure I’d seen in hundreds of kilometres. Latim told me to take a seat at one of the tables outside, while he went inside to organise our dinner.
He came out maybe 10 minutes later with some other guys, who were going to have dinner with us. They told me their names, but I forgot almost instantly as I’d had a long and tiring day, that was still far from over. Another man named Andre came over to speak to Latim. I found out later that Andre lived in Jalal-Abad, about 100km from Osh. Latim had asked Andre if he could take me to Jalal-Abad, because he was worried that the truck was too slow. What a sweety!
I had definitely gotten the gist of what was going on but Andre called his daughter, who spoke English, just to make sure. Andre’s son Vlad was also travelling with him. Neither Andre or Vlad spoke more than a few words of English, but they were armed with a translation app.
Pelmannaya to Osh
It was almost dark by the time we got back on the road. Vlad was asking me many questions through the translation app. Perhaps the funniest moment was when he guessed that I was around his age when I’m clearly much older than him. I’ll take the compliment anyway.
We stopped at a place called Isabelle Cafe at about 1am for a food and toilet break. I’d fallen asleep during the ride, so I was surprised that we were still several hours away from Jalal-Abad. Osh was still another few hours from there. I’d originally thought I could make it to Osh by midnight, but now it was looking more like 4am.
We ended up getting to Jalal-Abad around 3am. You would think that there was very little chance of getting a ride at that time, but surprisingly, Mashrutkas were still running! Andre and Vlad found another guy that spoke a little English and was also going to Osh. They told him to look after me.
I finally arrived in Osh at 5am. It had taken more than 18 hours to get there from Bishkek. As you could imagine I was super tired, so I found myself a bed and got some much-needed rest.
Osh, The End of the Silk Road to Southwestern Kyrgyzstan
Osh is the second largest city in Kyrgyzstan, after Bishkek. It’s about 20 times smaller than Bishkek though, population wise. I think it’s main claims to fame are the river that runs through it and the mountain in the centre of it. You would be correct in assuming that I made my way to the top of that mountain.
I decided to head up to Sulayman-Too, or Solomon’s Mountain at night. I’d figured it would be much cooler, as the daytime temperature was 35 degrees. My main reason for doing it at night was that I thought it would be much less busy. Boy, was I wrong! It seems to be a super popular spot at night too. I’m talking at about 9 or 10pm. It doesn’t get dark in Kyrgyzstan until after 8pm in the summer.
I spied the Ак-Буура Ak-Buura River on the way up. This river starts in the Alai Mountains and is 148km long. The first part I saw didn’t look too bad, but down near the city bazaar it looks pretty horrible. There are actually pipes spewing brown liquid into it. I’m not even going to speculate on what that liquid is and where it’s coming from.
Back to the mountain, I found a shortcut up via a dirt trail. That dirt trail intersected with the stairs that the city had installed. The stairs were fairly irregular and the rocks underfoot in some areas had been coated with a strange shiny, slippery substance.
The Top of the Hill
Once I got to the top, I encountered a fairly sizeable crowd of people hanging out, taking selfies and such. I pretty much ignored them as realised that I had a 360 view of the city below. It had only taken 10 minutes to get to the top for the awesome view, so definitely worth it!
There was a huge Kyrgyz flag at the top and the constant wind meant that the noise of the flag moving could be heard for quite a distance from the peak.
I noticed stairs going down on the other side of the mountain, so I went down that way. I found a cafe, then a park at the bottom. People in the park were hiring out motorised toy cars for kids to drive around. As I’d also seen that in Bishkek, I guess it’s a Kyrgyz thing?
The scenically beautiful Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan was once a major stop on the trade routes of the famous silk road. Things are much different these days. Continue reading to find out all about the quirks of eastern Kyrgyzstan!
After a 3 hour drive in a Mashrutka (minvan) from Almaty, we arrived at the Kyrgyz border. There was no line on the Kygryz side and the immigration officer was quite lovely. He welcomed me to Kyrgyzstan and I was out of there in about 2 minutes! On the walk from the immigration building to the next Mashrutka, I was offered at least 20 taxis.
I’ve gotta say at the point that Kazakh drivers could be pretty crazy at times, but I think Kyrgyz drivers have them beat. I tried not to pay too much attention to our position on the road until I realised at one point that our van was passing a car on it’s right, that was already passing the car to it’s right. On a two-lane highway with cars fast approaching from the opposite direction. Who needs rollercoasters, eh?
The Mashrutka dropped me off at the Western Bus Station in Bishkek and the driver kindly called my friend Johny, before driving off. Johny is a friend of a Kyrgyz friend I met while travelling a few years ago. He answered my million and one questions then helped me get some money changed. Then he had to go off to work. He dropped me off at a cafe to wait for my host Argen, who was also busy working late. After 2 hours in Bishkek, I was convinced that everyone in the city worked way too hard!
Once Argen arrived, it was fairly late, so he drove me to his place and brought me some local food to apologise for his work taking longer than expected. He was eager to hear about my adventures around the world, so we stayed up talking way later than we should have, despite the fact that we were both very tired!
I made my way to the city centre the next day to do some exploring. I noticed that things were much cheaper in Kyrgyzstan than they were in Kazakhstan. That was great, considering that Kazakhstan was already a lot cheaper than other places! One thing that was weird though, was the 3 Som denomination of coins. When you got 5 Som change, it would be a 3 Som coin with two 1 Som coins. In 81 countries, I had never come across this denomination before!
The city centre is very open and clean. There seems to be a lot of sculptures, statues, fountains and flowers. The fountains only seemed to run at certain times of the day though, so you had to be in the right place at the right time.
The Quirks of Eastern Kyrgyzstan in Bishkek
Some fun things I noticed around Bishkek were happening in parks. There was a general carnival kind of atmosphere with music, bubble blowing and fairy/candy floss. In addition to that, there were lines of bikes and scooters being hired out. Perhaps the cutest thing was the motorised flashing toy cars available for kids to ride around in. Then possibly the most gimmicky, was the ‘train’ driving around the city centre.
While I was wandering around, I needed some help to find a place I was looking for. Luckily I had a phone number for the business. I asked a local couple if they knew where the business was. They didn’t speak any English, but still helped me by calling the number and waiting with me until someone from the business to come and get me. I couldn’t imagine anyone doing that for me back home, even though I can speak the language!
Getting to Issyk-Kul/Ысык-Көл
I met an interesting Australian lady named Jenny in Bishkek. She was retired and spent a great amount of her time travelling the world. I only hope I’m still doing that when I’m in my 70s! Jenny was heading to Kadji-Sai, a small town near Kyrgyzstan’s largest lake, Issyk-Kul. She invited me to join her and we were on our way.
After walking around trying to find the Mashrutka to Kadji-Sai, Jenny and I ended up getting a public bus, number 53 if memory serves correctly, to the Western Bus Station for 10 Som/US$0.14. From there, we got a Mashrutka (minivan) to Kadji-Sai for 300 Som/US$4.30 each. Kadji-Sai is a small town near Issyk-Kul, the second largest mountain lake in the world. We stopped at a place called Ak-Zhol for 30 minutes on the way. This place had awesome mountain views and some interesting statues.
Perhaps one of the less appealing quirks of Eastern Kyrgyzstan was the driving. Our driver was pretty erratic and there were more than a few close calls. I think the only thing that stopped him having a major accident was the police few cameras set up along the highway. We had initially wondered why the van kept suddenly slowing down. But once we spotted a camera and saw some cars on the other side of the road flashing their lights to warn others, we knew what was going on. From then on, whenever the van slowed down drastically, we’d have a peek out the window to look for the camera.
The Quirks of Eastern Kyrgyzstan in Kadji-Sai/Кажы-Сай
The first thing you notice about Kadji-Sai, besides the huge lake and mountains surrounding it, is that it is very small. The whole town consists of about 5 cafes, a resort and about 3 small magazins. Magazin is the local name for a store. The second thing you notice is that no one speaks any English, which is a little strange for a place that has a pretty big summer tourist season.
The Quirks of Eating in Kadji-Sai
Eating in Kadji-Sai was an adventure! Only one place had an English menu, but the translations were so bad that an omelette with meat, turned out to be an omelette with meat dumplings.
At other cafes, we had to rely on people who didn’t speak English, to translate Kyrgyz menus into English. Of course, that worked out super well! Nah, it meant we ended up with liver shishlyk, (шашлык, barbecued meat on skewers) when wee had ordered lamb shishlyk.
What was even more amusing was the hand-written bills given to us at the end of the meal. With a 10% service charge added, of course! That seems to be standard throughout Kyrgyzstan though.
We finally noticed a hut by the lake that had Shishlyk, so we decided to give it a try.
They’d actually made some effort to decorate it inside and it all looked very welcoming. They even gave us blankets to use when it started getting a bit cool. Unfortunately, they only had chicken shishlyk at the time, which was fine, because that’s exactly what we were in the mood for.
The chicken did take quite a while and was still a little undercooked, but this hut still seemed to be the best food option in town. At under 200 Som/US$2.80 per skewer, it wasn’t bad value either
The Quirks of Eastern Kyrgyzstan – Chipboard For Construction
Apparently, the cheapest wood composite material known to man is used to build houses in Kadji-Sai. Considering the extreme temperatures of the area, 30 degrees plus in summer and 20 or below in winter, I wouldn’t have thought I’d be the best choice. It would make the whole building process a lot cheaper though.
The chipboard used for the walls is then coated with a concrete veneer, so it doesn’t look like it’s made from chipboard when it’s finished. The place that we stayed at didn’t bother with the veneer though, so both the outside and inside walls, plus the floors were all just chipboard. It didn’t smell great. It also looked like someone had just given up halfway through construction.
Lake Issyk-Kul was the reason that we had gone to Kadji-Sai and it did not disappoint! Issyk-Kul means warm lake in the Kyrgyz language. Despite the below-freezing temperatures the area is subject to in winter, the lake never freezes over.
What’s even more interesting, is that archaeologists have discovered artefacts of a 2500 year old advanced society in the lake. I just liked the fact that it’s quiet and you can sit down with a book and contemplate the big issues of the world. Or just clear your mind and breathe in the tranquillity.
The adventure continues in my next post when I attempt to hitchhike along the Silk Road from Kadji-Sai in the east to Osh in the southwest. Stay tuned!
Kazakhstan is an awesome and expansive Central Asian country that has almost every kind of landscape imaginable. It’s a hidden gem that hasn’t been overrun with tourists yet. It’s most definitely worth a visit and should be near the top of your bucketlist! Before you go, You’ll need to read this list of 12 Things to Know About Kazakhstan.
3 Important Things to Know About Kazakhstan
Most people speak Kazakh, alongside Russian. Both languages have huge similarities. For example, the word for cafe in Russian is кафе and in Kazakh it is кафеci. Both languages use the Cyrillic alphabet. The Kazakh Cyrillic Alphabet has 9 unique characters not found in the 33 character Russian Cyrillic Alphabet.
If you can speak Russian, you will have no trouble travelling in this area. If you don’t speak Russian, you can still get by with props and hand gestures. People are really friendly and patient when trying to work out how to help you.
It can sometimes be amusing using props, pointing, calculators, pens, hand gestures, body movements and translation apps to get your message across. But if you want a rest from using your body and props to try to explain things, you can always head to the big shopping centres, where many of the staff can speak at least basic English.
Kazakhs are some of the most approachable people in the world. They are super friendly and helpful. Even if they can’t speak any English and you can’t speak any Russian, they’re willing to assist you.
They will also stay with you until your problem is solved. Say you hail a taxi using a taxi app, but the taxi can’t find you. Your new Kazakh friend will call the taxi, then take you to the taxi and make sure you get safely into the taxi and that the taxi knows where they are going.
Want directions but can’t speak Russian? No problem! Locals will use google translate to help. This always produces laughs over the inaccuracies of the translations, but you will get where you want to go eventually.
If you need assistance while in Kazakhstan, you can approach anyone in the street and be guaranteed that your problem will be solved in short order.
Despite what the internet may say, the water supply in most of Kazakhstan is absolutely safe to drink, without boiling. If you’re still a bit worried, you can take your reusable bottle to many cafes and restaurants, where they will refill it. Or you can simply boil your water.
2 Things to Know About Transport in Kazakhstan
Transport in Kazakh cities is cheap and efficient. Buses cover many major routes in the cities and out to the suburbs for 150₸/US$0.38 or 90₸/US$0.25 with the local transport card. They run at intervals of 5 minutes or less. Bus information for Almaty can be found here
Metro systems are relatively new in Kazakh cities and are therefore not that well developed, in terms of coverage. At 80₸/US$0.21, they are cheap, clean and efficient ways of travelling in the city centre. Metro information for Almaty can be found here
Taxis around the city cost about 1000₸/US$2.60. You can use the Yandex Taxi Hailing app to order a taxi if you have data/WiFi access and a phone number that can receive messages in Kazakhstan. If you have no internet access, just stand on the side of the road and put your hand out like your hailing a bus. An unofficial taxi will stop for you within minutes.
Shared taxis are available for inter-city routes, with prices that vary depending on the distance travelled. The 4 hour drive from Zharkent to Almaty should be about 4000₸/US$10.
Mashrutkas, which are vans that work on the same principle as shared taxis, operate out of bus stations. You buy a ticket at the ticket desk and then present the ticket to the driver at the platform. Mashrutkas leave when all their seats are filled. A Mashrutka from the Sayran Bus station in Almaty to the Western Bus Station in Bishkek costs 1800₸/US$4.70 and takes around 4-5 hours.
If you want to head out to attractions like Charyn Canyon or Kolsai Lakes in the east of the Almaty region, you have the option of joining a tour, hiring a car to self-drive or hiring a car with a driver. Tours are expensive and generally only run on weekends. Car hire can cost over US$100/day and may be difficult with the condition of some roads. Hiring a car with a driver can prove to be the cheapest and easiest way to go. A whole day trip to somewhere like Charyn Canyon would cost around 35,000₸/US$89
2 Interesting Things to Know About Kazakhstan
The Old and New Capital
Almaty was the capital of Kazakhstan from 1991 to 1997. It may no longer be the capital, but it’s still the cultural and commercial centre of Kazakhstan. It is said to be the origin of the modern apple. The first part of the name Almaty means Apple. Hence the apple heart in this picture.
The Almaty city centre is very developed and pedestrian friendly, due to initiatives of the previous leader. Outside of the city centre however, footpaths seem to magically disappear and you have no choice but to walk on narrow roads where cars will pass way too close to you.
The second largest city and capital of Kazakhstan, was known as Akmola from 1997-1998, then Astana from 1998 to 2019 when it was renamed Nur-Sultan, after a former Kazakh leader. Despite the recent name change, it is still widely referred to as Astana both online and locally.
For a place that has a decent number of Muslims and Christians, you won’t see many mosques or churches. While they hold their faith dear, Kazakhs will not necessarily outwardly show it by wearing certain clothes or worshipping at churches and mosques.
If they are Muslim, they will stop what they are doing at prayer time, face Mecca and complete their prayers before going back to what they were doing previously. If they are Christian, they will pray when they have some quiet time. What a delightful way to honour one’s religion and keep up with other important things in life.
3 Things to Know About Dining in Kazakhstan
If you love meat, you’ll love Kazakhstan! They eat a lot of meat there. The main meats are beef, lamb and chicken, but horse meat is probably the most popular. A very common dish in the region is Shishlyk, which comprises of pieces of meat on skewers. The meat is cooked on an open grill then served with onion.
Kazakhstan probably isn’t too vegan-friendly, unless you want to spend your whole time eating mushroom Shishlyk. Even salads in Kazakhstan can have meat, so it always pays to check what’s in the food you’re ordering!
A popular drink in Kazakhstan is Horse Milk. You can find people selling it from containers in some areas. Kazakhs have several different words to describe horse milk according to the age of the horse and the sourness of the milk.
Beer With Straws
This qualifies as possibly one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen. Every beer served in every pub, club or restaurant comes with a straw. I personally think it would be weird to drink beer with a straw and most people seem to take the straw out as soon as they get the beer.
2 Quirky Things to Know About Kazakhstan
Kazakhs love listening to English language music, with a twist. All shopping centres, restaurants and sporting clubs seem to have mellow versions of mainly 80s and 90s music, with the occasional 21st century hit thrown in for good measure.
On The Roads
One curious thing I noticed when I looked out of the window of the car I was in, was that drivers in some other cars were sitting on the opposite side of the car. The majority of the cars in Kazakhstan are left-hand drive, seeing as they are driven on the right-hand side of the road, but there are also quite a few right-hand drive cars. These cars are mainly imported from Japan and are about 5 times cheaper than their left-hand drive counterparts.
Some Kazakh drivers are crazy no matter which side of the car they’re driving from and traffic can sometimes be insane. Another thing that might take a bit of getting used to, is that traffic lights and pedestrian lights can be green at the same time. That means that cars turning a corner will drive towards you while you’re crossing the road, but they will stop and wait for you to cross.
If you’re looking to read about some cool adventures in Kazakhstan, have a look here and here
If you’ve found this list of Things to Know About Kazakhstan useful, go ahead and pin it for later! :o)
The Problem With WiFi in the Almaty Region of Kazakhstan
Hannah, who I’d met in the Chinese border town of Huo’erguosi, and I had finally made it to the capital of Almaty region of Kazakhstan. Unortunately, we’d been unlucky when trying to use the WiFi in our accommodation. We decided to catch the bus into the city. The bus driver was very nice. He helped us work out that we were on the right bus through the use of hand gestures and a translation app. While on the bus, we saw a huge shopping centre called Dostyk Plaza. We figured that’d be the place to get WiFi. We were right and as a bonus, all the staff there spoke English! The menus were even in English, so we knew exactly what we were ordering.
Everything was going along swimmingly until about 1pm when the internet stopped working. As our accommodation also had internet that wasn’t working, we just figured that Almaty had crap internet. We decided to move on and catch a bus to the Almaty 2 train station. There we’d try to sort out some train tickets. It was at that point that I canned my plans to go to the Kazakh capital, Nur sultan, formerly Astana. Even the ticketing staff said the tickets were more expensive than normal. Hannah sorted her train ticket and we headed to the nearby Metro.
It seems that the Metro is a rather new addition to the city of Almaty. There are therefore only 9 stops currently in use, starting from the Moscow Station in the city centre and finishing near the Almaty 2 Train Station. It’s lovely, clean and cheap, at only 80 Tenge, or around US$0.20, for a ride
A Drama Unfolds
After we purchased our token to get us into the station, we made our way down to the platform. There we were approached by a local who told us that we shouldn’t go outside after 6pm because of a meeting. We were quite confused as to why a meeting would make things dangerous, so when we reached our destination, we tried to ask the staff if anything unsafe was happening.
Unfortunately, the station staff didn’t speak English, but they found a passenger who did. He explained there was going to be protests against the government in the city centre. He didn’t think things would be unsafe. Never the less, he gave us a suggestion for somewhere a little bit out of the city centre where we should have no problems. He confirmed that these protests were also probably the reason that the internet had been unusable for most of the day; the government was blocking all social media, except for Twitter.
Hannah and I hung out until it was time for her to head to the Almaty 1 train station for an overnight train to Shymkent. Shortly after she left I got myself some cheap local food for 1000 Tenge, or US$2.60. It had to be remade 3 times because they kept forgetting parts of my order, but at least I had coloured water to give me something to look at while I was waiting.
Meeting My Host in the Almaty Region of Kazakhstan
The internet problems meant I hadn’t been able to reach my prearranged host, but I finally got in contact with her and went to her workplace. It turns out it was her birthday, so I got there just in time for a birthday celebration with her work colleagues.
My host, Aika had to then go back to work, so she organised for one of the staff to take me on a tour of the grounds of her work on a golf cart. The views were delightful, especially the snow capped mountains in the background.
I also made a new friend. He was very inquisitive. He liked eating leaves and sniffing cameras. I called him Mr Deery Deerison and he was much smaller than I expected a deer would be. He looked at me with terribly sad eyes when I left.
Aika had organised an expedition to one of the snow-capped mountains in the Almaty Region of Kazakhstan, near the Kyrgyzstan border. I’d been drooling over since I’d arrived in Almaty. Unfortunately, the weather had other ideas. The forecast was for heavy rain and storms, making it unsafe to attempt. Instead, we decided to go to a village quite a distance out of town. Then Aika’s car decided that it didn’t want to make the trip when one of the tires went flat. Luckily, Aika had invited some friends along and they were going to meet us near the gate of The First Presidents Park. We just had to get there without a car.
Luckily that is not a huge ask in Almaty. If you just stand on the side of the road with your hand out like you’re hailing a bus, it won’t be long before someone stops to pick you up. These unofficial taxis should cost the same amount as official taxis. They have been known to try to take advantage of tourists by charging them higher prices though. It should never cost more than 1000 Tenge to get anywhere within the city.
Once we got to the park, I noticed more than a few women walking around in wedding dresses. Aika informed me that the Presidential Gate at the park is a popular place for people to get married in the Almaty Region of Kazakhstan. While we were at the park, the rain started pelting down. Aika’s friend came around that time, so we didn’t have to spend long in it.
A Quiet Place Outside of Town
We then drove for over an hour to get to a village near a ski resort. Obviously, the ski resort was closed for the summer. The village was full of fake Yurts. I mean, they looked exactly like Yurts, but they were permanent structures that weren’t made from the normal canvas materials used for Yurts.
Aika’s friend pointed out that there was a traditional Kazakh swing there. Several people could stand on it together and swing from side to side.
The reason we’d come to the village was to ride horses to a nearby hill. Due to the weather and the fact that there was a private function happening in the village, it wasn’t possible to get horses. We instead drove back to a famous Shishlyk place in the city.
Shishlyk is a very popular type of food in Kazakhstan. It generally consists of pieces of meat, sometimes with vegetables added, on skewers which are barbecued on an open grill. They are then served on a plate with onion added. The food was awesome, but the wait time wasn’t. We were fast approaching hangry by the time the food got to us.
Hiking the Snowy Peaks of the Tyan Shan Mountains
When the weather cleared, the expedition to the snow-capped mountains was back on! We got a super early start and met some of Aika’s friends at the First President’s Park then made our way to the mountains.
There was a lovely little lake, called Big Almaty Lake on the way up, near the base of the mountains. I was told that it didn’t look too good at that moment because it was only about half full. I still thought it was pretty though.
The mountains are located in the Ile-Alatau National Park, which is quite close to the Kyrgyzstan border. We were scaling Пик Туриста or Tourist’s Peak. Such a lovely sounding name, but it was far from a lovely hike. The beginning of the hike wasn’t too bad as the snow cover was quite thin.
As we got further up the gradient increased very quickly, the snow cover got thicker and we started to encounter huge rocky patches. The sun was also super intense and the snow was so bright in some areas, that even with sunglasses on, I had to close my eyes momentarily. That all made it very tough going.
I probably worked harder for these pictures than I have for any others in my life!
You would think we did all the hard work on the way up, right? Nope. It started snowing while we were up the top, which made it all the more treacherous on the way down.
There wasn’t one person in our group that didn’t slip and slide at least 5 times on the way down. I actually ended up sliding down on my butt for a while, because it just seemed easier than trying to walk down.
I’d decided to follow up my cold snowy mountain hike with something that was almost the complete opposite; a walk through a hot canyon. The Charyn Canyon is about a 3-4 hour drive from Almaty, on mostly good roads. There was some absolutely gorgeous mountain scenery on the way too!
When we got to the Charyn Canyon National Park entrance we had to exit our car to pay the entrance fee. The attendant told us it was 750 Tenge or US$2, which is about 250 Tenge more than we thought it would be. Our driver spoke to the attendant and then we didn’t have to pay. Score!
We spent hours in the national park, first walking above the canyon.
Then we made our way down to the canyon floor.
And eventually ended up at the Charyn River.
There was also a place called Eko Park near the river, where people could stay in Yurts or Bungalows.
We spent quite a while cooling down and soaking up the wonders of nature at the river before heading back.
After taking an overnight train from Urumqi to Huo’erguosi in the Xinjiang province of western China, I’d finally arrived on the Kazakh side of the border. I had met a fellow Hong Konger, Hannah in Huo’erguosi and we’d decided to stick together for a while. The next part of our journey would take us from the Kazakhstan border to Almaty, the old capital. Things were moving rather slowly at the Kazakh border. Even though there were only the 6 people from our bus in the hall. The lady at the immigration counter was quite nice though. After stamping my passport she said, “Good luck with your travels. Welcome to Kazakhstan”.
Welcome to Kazakhstan!
From there, I entered another area where I had to show my passport to a young man standing near a gate. The gate lead to the customs area. The man looked at my passport and said, “Welcome to Kazakhstan”. I then entered the customs area where I had to 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 our journey from the Kazakhstan border to Almaty. An hour or so later we were dropped off at a small bus station in Жаркент/Zharkent/Jarkent. Before my friend Hannah and I even got out of the van, we were surrounded by men. Of course, they were trying to get us to take their taxis to Almaty. They tried to grab our bags from our backs. They had assumed that we were going to go with them before we’d even had a chance to weigh up our options.
Let the Negotiations Begin
The drivers 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. In truth, we just wanted them out of our faces. 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. That friend 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 each. With everyone finally on the same page, a mother and daughter with a 7 month old baby jumped in the car. With that we were on our way.
Settlements and Scenes Along the Road From the Kazakhstan Border to Almaty
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 than 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.
Into the Storm
I was using the scenery to take my mind off the fact that I might not survive the ride. It was then that 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.
Hello Almaty Traffic
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. That was 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.
Time For Food After the Long Trek From The Kazakhstan Border to Almaty
We found a pub called The House Pub to have some dinner after our long trip. None of the staff spoke English. The menus were also 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 for two people. It was delicious. When we finished the meal, they gave us the biggest notes possible as change. Then they 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.
Meeting the Locals and Trying A Local Treat
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. 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. We spoke to her on the phone, then less than 2 minutes into the conversation she was asking us about ourselves. After she’d ensured that we all understood what was going on. The guys in the shop 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.
Time to Retire
After a long day, we were tired. 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.
Journey to Kazakhstan Via Western China. First Stop – Urumqi
I was super excited to finally be in Xinjiang on my journey to Kazakhstan via Western China. I’d wanted to go to this province for quite a while. That was probably due, in part, to the many awesome days I’d spent in Shenzhen eating at Xinjiang restaurants, run by Xinjiang people. So of course, the first thing I did when I got off the plane was find myself some Xinjiang food!
Having some food in my belly made it a bit easier to face the northern Chinese accent. It’s definitely not my favourite Chinese accent. I find it downright impossible to understand at times. It’s widely known in China as ‘Err Speech’ because many words sound like they’ve had ‘err’ randomly added to them.
Unlike most other airports in China, the WiFi at Urumqi Airport requires a Chinese mobile number to connect. The code needed cannot be sent to foreign mobile numbers. I’d imagine this would be super inconvenient if you’re just passing through. China requires you to register your passport details to get a local SIM card.
Urumqi’s New Metro
There was a shiny new Metro system in Urumqi, so I thought I’d utilise it to get into the city. It only cost ¥5 (US$0.75) and it’s very clean and efficient, but only half of the planned stations are open. I went to the current terminus station, Balou. I was treated to a beautiful view of mountains behind the city as soon as I got out to street level. The next thing I saw was the police doing some riot drills with traffic cones. They were young and seemed to be enjoying it far too much.
Children’s Park in Balou
I noticed a park nearby, called Children’s Park 儿童心園 and decided to have a look. As in many places in Xinjiang, there was a security checkpoint where you had to get your bags scanned before you could enter. I asked one of the security guards where the nearest cafe was, so I could get WiFi and charge my phone. He said he would let me use his hotspot. Another guy then came out of the little office on site and said I could sit down near the water cooler and charge my phone. How very nice of them!
I walked around the park afterwards and found it quite interesting. It was full of statues, displays, man-made streams and rides
Then just as I was about to leave, I spotted the Great Wall of China!
And a security guard near the exit on the other side of the park carrying an oversized baseball bat. Just what you wanna see in a kids park.
I noticed a few interesting things while walking through the city. One of them was workers using a blow torch to clean a footpath. Then I spotted a horse statue in the middle of a major intersection that claimed Urumqi is the Top Tourist City of China. The place is lovely, of course, but with recent issues in the area, I think this claim may be quite dubious.
Security and Segregation
If you’re not aware, the Xinjiang region of China is home to a large minority population of Uighurs descended from Turkic Muslims. In recent years, the Chinese authorities have cracked down on this minority by making it hard for them to show any outward signs of their faith. That means there is CCTV everywhere. The city also seems to be separated into Uighur and Chinese zones. I saw one Mosque in the city that was beautiful and some police came along and told me I couldn’t take a picture of it. I got one anyway.
On my way to the station, I had managed to walk into a Uighur area. The city area right next to it was super developed, with large footpaths and marked lanes on roads. The Uighur area, on the other hand, had none of this. I had to walk on the road for several kilometres while passing through this section. The disparity between the ethnic groups here was painfully obvious. It’s also very worrying considering that the full name of the province, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, includes Uighurs. The government however, is intent on excluding and persecuting them.
Journey to Kazakhstan Via Western China. Train to Huo’erguosi (Khorgas)
Due to the perceived tensions in the area, security was tight everywhere. There was a passport check before entering the station area. Then a security check, including a free pat down for everyone, to enter the ticket sales area. Then there was one final check to enter the train departures area.
I was assigned a top bunk in the train, but then found out I could climb up there! I asked the other people in my room if they wanted to swap, but they were just dicks. The lady checking tickets even asked them and they were kinda mean to her. She informed me that there were no other lower beds, as the train was full. Luckily, a guy from another cabin overheard us talking and said he would swap with me. I ended up in a cabin with his workmates, who were actually pretty cool. We had a great time chatting, drinking, (yes, there was alcohol for sale on the train), and finding out about each other.
The train ride was quite lovely. It was very smooth the whole way, so it wasn’t hard to get some sleep in. I’m glad I chose it over the bus, which takes the same amount if time, but isn’t nearly as comfortable. The train pulled into the Huo’erguosi station, about 6km out of town at 08:20. My passport was checked on the way out of the station and I made my way into the town to find a bus to Kazakhstan.
Journey to Kazakhstan Via Western China. Second Stop – Huo’erguosi
At the second stop on my journey to Kazakhstan via Western China, I was welcomed by a police checkpoint at the entrance to Huo’erguosi. All cars were stopped there. Even people going through on foot or bike were halted. I had to show my passport again and it disappeared with one of the officers for about 10 minutes. I was a bit urked at having to wait so long, but was glad when I could finally leave.
The architecture of the Huo’erguosi didn’t seem very Chinese. Perhaps there’s a big Kazakh influence, being so close to the border. I had a bit of time and saw a park near the bus station, so I decided to check it out. Not only did they want to scan my bag, but they also wanted to see my passport. To enter a park! I decided I didn’t need to see the park that much and continued to the bus station.
Journey to Kazakhstan Via Western China. Getting to the Border
By now, you could probably guess that there was another passport check to get into the station. A guy who was standing outside the station escorted me inside, I presume because he gets some kind of commission for whatever ticket I buy. As I was at the ticket desk deciding which town I wanted to go to, I met a fellow Hong Konger. We both paid ¥70 for a ticket to Жаркент/Zharkent/Jarkent. We decided to stick together to try to work things out, as the station staff had given us almost no information about where to go or when the bus was leaving.
It turns out that the bus wouldn’t leave until it full. But conveniently, there was a waiting van that was willing to take us to Zharkent for an extra ¥20 each. We said we’d do that, but we wanted to go out and get some food first. There was a bit of confusion as to where the food place was because their northern accents were hard to understand. One of the guys ended up going out to some food for us and refused to take our money when he returned. Free food always tastes better!
Journey to Kazakhstan Via Western China. Border Annoyances
About 5 minutes later we were in the building on the China side of the border. A building we didn’t leave for nearly an hour. The immigration part was easy and the lady stamping us out was quite nice. After clearing the immigration area, I was stopped by an angry-looking guy who asked me if I had a laptop. I said yes and he told me to step into a roped-off area to wait.
I tried to ask him why, in both Mandarin and English and he just decided to stare at me instead of answering. After 10 minutes of that ridiculous standoff, I was done. I approached the desk behind the immigration area to see what was going on. Luckily the guy at the desk was much nicer and said that they were waiting for female officers to be available to search me. Wait.. what?
I asserted that I had done nothing wrong, but they said it was the procedure in China. I pointed out that I’d never been searched at any China border, so they then changed their story. Apparently, they have to search everyone going through the border for the first time. I pointed out that they didn’t search my friend, who was also going through the border for the first time, so they went back to the ‘procedure’ excuse.
I was ushered into a room and they asked to look in my bag. I complied and opened it. One of the ladies must have been a trainee. She was happy to leave my bag packed and just feel around. The other lady told her that she had to check each item individually. She then unpacked my entire freaking bag and slowly unfolded and patted down every piece of clothing.
Next, they wanted to check my laptop and mobile phone. Not just visually, they wanted to look at the contents, especially photos. Obviously, that’s a massive invasion of privacy, but it didn’t seem like I was getting out of there unless I complied. I watched the lady trying to find stuff on my laptop. Her lack of English proficiency or knowledge of the filing system on my computer meant that she didn’t know where to look. After 30 minutes of clicking she hadn’t even managed to open one file. I’d call that a fail on her part.
The other lady with my phone was having similar problems. She only managed to open a few Wechat messages and videos from travels I’d completed almost 2 years ago. The funniest thing in all of this is they’d missed an entire section of my bag which included another camera. They had essentially just wasted an hour of not only my time, but the time of the 6 other people waiting in the van that would take us through to Kazakhstan. For nothing.
Upon exiting the building, we got back into the van for a one minute drive to another passport check, because the 50 million so far weren’t enough, haha. That was the last check and we were finally out of China and wouldn’t have to worry about anymore unneeded security checks! All in all, Xinjiang is a lovely region, but the ridiculous security that has been set up to combat a situation that the Chinese government itself created is absolutely bonkers. Prepare to be annoyed and frustrated if you choose to travel there.
Read my next post for my continuing travels onto Kazakhstan.