Adventures in The Almaty Region Of Kazakhstan

K in Motion Travel Blog. Almaty Kazakhstan. Tyan Shan Mountains, Near the Border With Kyrgyzstan. Mountain and Mountain Hut

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Almaty Kazakhstan. Dostyk Plaza
Dostyk Plaza

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Almaty Kazakhstan. Almaty 2 Train Station
Almaty 2 Train Station

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

K in Motion Travel Blog. Almaty Kazakhstan. Almaty Metro Line Entrance K in Motion Travel Blog. Almaty Kazakhstan. Almaty Metro Line

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Almaty Kazakhstan. Inside a Metro Station K in Motion Travel Blog. Almaty Kazakhstan. Inside a Metro Station

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Almaty Kazakhstan. Hannah and I
Hannah and I

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Almaty Kazakhstan. Birthday Lunch at Zhajilau Golf Club

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Almaty Kazakhstan. Golf Cart Ride at Zhajilau Golf Club K in Motion Travel Blog. Almaty Kazakhstan. Mountain View from Zhajilau Golf Club

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Almaty Kazakhstan. Mr Deer Deerison at Zhajilau Golf Club

Changing Plans

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Almaty Kazakhstan. Presidential Gate at the First Presidents Park

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Almaty Kazakhstan. Fake Traditional Kazakh Yurts in Village Outside of the City

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Almaty Kazakhstan. Traditional Kazakh Swing in Village Outside of the City

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Almaty Kazakhstan. Famous Shishlyk Place

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Almaty Kazakhstan. Big Almaty Lake at the Base of the Tyan Shan Mountains
Big Almaty Lake

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Almaty Kazakhstan. Tyan Shan Mountains Near the Border With Kyrgyzstan. Beginning of the Hike K in Motion Travel Blog. Almaty Kazakhstan. Tyan Shan Mountains Near the Border With Kyrgyzstan. Beginning of the Hike

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Almaty Kazakhstan. Tyan Shan Mountains Near the Border With Kyrgyzstan. Hiking into Thicker Snow Cover K in Motion Travel Blog. Almaty Kazakhstan. Tyan Shan Mountains Near the Border With Kyrgyzstan. Hiking into Thicker Snow Cover with Rocky Patches

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Almaty Kazakhstan. Tyan Shan Mountains Near the Border With Kyrgyzstan

I probably worked harder for these pictures than I have for any others in my life!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Almaty Kazakhstan. Tyan Shan Mountains.  Standing Near the Border With Kyrgyzstan K in Motion Travel Blog. Almaty Kazakhstan. Tyan Shan Mountains.  Standing with Friends Near the Border With Kyrgyzstan

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.

Charyn Canyon

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!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Almaty Kazakhstan. Roadside Mountains on the Way to Charyn Canyon. K in Motion Travel Blog. Almaty Kazakhstan. Roadside Mountains on the Way to Charyn Canyon.

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!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Almaty Kazakhstan. Charyn Canyon Entrance

We spent hours in the national park, first walking above the canyon.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Almaty Kazakhstan. Standing Above Charyn Canyon K in Motion Travel Blog. Almaty Kazakhstan. Looking Down into Charyn Canyon

Then we made our way down to the canyon floor.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Almaty Kazakhstan. View From the Charyn Canyon Floor K in Motion Travel Blog. Almaty Kazakhstan. Bad Selfie on the Charyn Canyon Floor

And eventually ended up at the Charyn River.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Almaty Kazakhstan. Charyn River at the end of Charyn Canyon

There was also a place called Eko Park near the river, where people could stay in Yurts or Bungalows.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Almaty Kazakhstan. Charyn River at the end of Charyn Canyon. Eko Park Yurts K in Motion Travel Blog. Almaty Kazakhstan. Charyn River at the end of Charyn Canyon. Eko Park Bungalows

We spent quite a while cooling down and soaking up the wonders of nature at the river before heading back.

Keep an eye out for my next post on my travels to Eastern Kyrgyzstan!

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Kazakhstan Border to Almaty

Arriving at the Kazakhstan Border to Almaty

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Kazakhstan Border to Almaty. Roadside Scenery
If you squint, you can see the mountains

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Kazakhstan Border to Almaty. Driving into a storm

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Kazakhstan Border to Almaty. Roadside Storm Scenery

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Kazakhstan Border to Almaty. Horses at Sayran Bus Station
Horses at the Sayran Bus Station

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Kazakhstan Border to Almaty. The House Pub Shishlyk
The House Pub Shishlyk

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Kazakhstan Border to Almaty. 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.

The adventures continue here

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Journey to Kazakhstan via Western China

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan via China. Urumqi Train Station

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!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan Via Western China. Urumqi Airport Xinjiang Food K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan Via Western China. Urumqi Airport Xinjiang Food in a Cup

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.

Urumqi Airport

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

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan via China. Urumqi 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

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan Via Western China. Urumqi Children's Park

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!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan Via Western China. Urumqi Children's Park K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan Via Western China. Urumqi Children's Park Ride

I walked around the park afterwards and found it quite interesting. It was full of statues, displays, man-made streams and rides

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan Via Western China. Urumqi Children's Park Statue K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan Via Western China. Urumqi Children's Park Stream

Then just as I was about to leave, I spotted the Great Wall of China!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan Via Western China. Urumqi Children's Park 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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan Via Western China. Urumqi Children's Park. Security Guard with Giant Baseball Bat

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan Via Western China. Urumqi Horse Statue at intersection

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan Via Western China. Urumqi Blue Mosque

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)

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan Via Western China. Urumqi Train Station
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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan Via Western China. Urumqi to Huo'erguosi Train Ticket

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan Via Western China. Urumqi to Huo'erguosi Train Bunk

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

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan Via Western China. Welcome to 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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan Via Western China. Non-Chinese architecture in Huo'erguosi

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan Via Western China. Urumqi Park

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.

Angry Man

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.

Unwarranted Search

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.

Finally Free!

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.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Journey to Kazakhstan via Western China. Huo'erguosi Border
Bye Bye China!

Read my next post for my continuing travels onto Kazakhstan.

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Baños – A Crazy Little Town in Ecuador

K in Motion Travel Blog. Outside of Banos, Ecuador

Heading South to a Crazy Little Town in Ecuador

Having had an enormous amount of fun exploring the Ecuadorian capital of Quito, it was time to head south. I had originally planned on going straight to Guayaquil, but on a whim, decided to take a 1 day detour to a crazy little town in Ecuador called Baños. Why? Because someone told me there was a swing there. True story.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Baños - A Crazy Little Town in Ecuador. Welcome to Banos, Ecuador
Welcome to Baños

It was possibly also because Baños was only a $4 bus ride that was 4 hours away, compared to 8 hours for Guayaquil. I’d been travelling overland for quite a few weeks by that point and wasn’t looking forward to the prospect of spending the whole day on a bus. So I left Quito in the afternoon and got into the Terminal Terrestre Baños, a little bit north of the town, in the evening.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Baños - A Crazy Little Town in Ecuador. Night In Banos, Ecuador
Where to now?

The official name of this small Andean town is named Baños de Agua Santa, or Baths of Sacred Water. That name was given because of the numerous hot springs in the area. Baños was very quiet at night. Although it wasn’t that late when I arrived, it seemed like everyone had already gone to sleep.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Baños - A Crazy Little Town in Ecuador. Empty Street at Night In Banos, Ecuador
Where is everyone?

It was fairly easy to find my hostel because, like Quito, this town had a grid-like set-up. So Baños was turning out to be quite lovely, but it was only when I entered my accommodation, that I realised it was also a little bit quirky. I do love quirky!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Baños - A Crazy Little Town in Ecuador. Quirky Hostel Signs in Banos, Ecuador K in Motion Travel Blog. Baños - A Crazy Little Town in Ecuador. Quirky Hostel Sign in Banos, Ecuador

Semi-Planned Adventures in a Crazy Little Town in Ecuador

The next day, I decided to walk around the town for a bit to see what was going on. It wasn’t long before I was in the town centre and looking at barbecued Guinea Pigs. Yes, Guinea Pigs. Apparently, they’re a local delicacy. So of course, I had to try one. It may have looked a bit freaky. I mean each one on the grill looked like it was about to attack, but it tasted like chicken.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Baños - A Crazy Little Town in Ecuador. BBQ Guinea Pigs In Banos, Ecuador
Would you give it a try?

While walking around, I spied many random performance spaces, as well as several companies that specialised in adventure tours. Everything from mountain biking and ATVing, to rafting and paragliding near the Tungurahua Volcano. I later found out that Baños was known as the adventure capital of Ecuador; as if I needed another reason to like the place.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Baños - A Crazy Little Town in Ecuador. Performance Area In Banos, Ecuador
Random performance space

I took the last spot on the paragliding tour for that day without thinking that the tour finished too late to get the bus out to Guayaquil. It seems my 1 day stopover in Baños was turning into a multiple day stopover. I was not bothered by that at all, as it was turning out to be a very interesting and crazy little town in Ecuador.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Baños - A Crazy Little Town in Ecuador.Tungurahua Volcano, Outside of Banos, Ecuador

Tungurahua Volcano Paragliding

After about an hour of driving on some pretty windy mountain roads, we ended up at the site where we would start our paragliding adventure. What an amazing view! The clouds seemed to be framing the Tungurahua Volcano perfectly that day. Our guide was a bit worried about the wind strength and advised us that he wanted to wait about 45 minutes to see if it would die down a bit.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Baños - A Crazy Little Town in Ecuador. Tungurahua Volcano, Outside of Banos, Ecuador

None of us had any problem with waiting, because the view was absolutely breathtaking! We watched the windsock in front of us intently and would get excited when it dropped a bit. Our guide was still playing it safe though. Just when we’d all lost hope of being able to get up in the air, he announced that the adventure was on!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Baños - A Crazy Little Town in Ecuador. Welcome sign near Tungurahua Volcano, Outside of Banos, Ecuador

I swear you’ve never seen people get changed into horrible jumpsuits more quickly than we did that day. In that afternoon, we definitely spent more time waiting or in transit than we did in the air, but that 20 minutes where we did get to ‘fly’ was freaking awesome!

Unplanned Activities

Because it was New Year’s Eve, this crazy little town in Ecuador was in full party mode by the time I got back. There were traffic jams being caused by kids holding ropes across the roads to stop cars. The children would only put the ropes down to let cars pass after the occupants of the car had made a donation. Then I noticed there were men driving around town dressed as women. First there were only 2, but then they multiplied.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Baños - A Crazy Little Town in Ecuador. 2 Wandering Widows. Banos, Ecuador K in Motion Travel Blog. Carload Weeping Widows. Banos, Ecuador

I asked a local what was going on and they advised me that these guys were the wandering widows or viudas. It’s a bit of a new year tradition in Ecuador for men to dress in drag. While in drag, they wander the streets, asking for money. These cash handouts go towards helping them start their new lives as ‘widows’. These guys had something slightly different in mind –

Out With the Old, in With the New

So remember those paper mache figurines mentioned here? They are known in Spanish as año viejo which means old year. They are made as a symbolic representation of everything bad and evil from the proceeding year. What do you do with all the bad stuff? You get rid of it, right? But how do you make sure it’s completely gone and will never come back? Stack and burn the effigies!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Baños - A Crazy Little Town in Ecuador. Evil Cleansing Bonfire. Banos, Ecuador K in Motion Travel Blog. Baños - A Crazy Little Town in Ecuador. Evil Cleansing Bonfire 2. Banos, Ecuador K in Motion Travel Blog. Evil Cleansing Bonfire Ashes. Banos, Ecuador

Then how do you ring in the new?

That’s how they do it in Baños!

Swing on The Edge of The World

This was the reason I’d initially made the detour to Baños, so now that the craziness had died down, it was time to do it! There are a few ways of getting to La Casa Del Árbol, or The Treehouse, which contains the ‘Swing on the Edge of the World’. Some people might choose their transit method depending on how bad their hangover is, I guess. A round trip in a taxi would cost about $15, or there’s a public bus that goes up for around 50¢. It only departs about 4 times a day though. You could also walk the 10km up the windy mountain road, but I chose to take a hiking trail that I found behind the town!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Baños - A Crazy Little Town in Ecuador. Banos from the hiking Trail to Casa del Arbor, Ecuador
Baños from the hiking trail to Casa Del Árbol

Getting There

The trail was actually quite steep, as it goes almost directly up the side of the mountain. Although I didn’t see a single soul on the trail when I went up, it was obvious that the trail has become popular with visitors to the area. I came across a few makeshift tin sheds or wooden shacks labelled as bars on the way up. Only one was open, but I presume they’re all open during the busy season, to fulfill your refreshment needs.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Baños - A Crazy Little Town in Ecuador. Bar on the hiking Trail from Banos to Casa del Arbor, Ecuador
Bar on the hiking Trail from Baños to Casa Del Árbol

There were also many farms and greenhouses on the way up and at one point, the trail became the dirt road that the residents use to access their properties. Not that any vehicles were using it at the time. It was very quiet and peaceful actually. I finally found my way to the car park for Casa del Árbol, where there were signposts to help me on my way. There is a large area at the top which has been cordoned off, to make sure that people pay their $1 entry fee. Inside that area are some small ziplines and play areas for kids, but my eye was on the prize!

La Casa Del Árbol/The Treehouse

K in Motion Travel Blog. Baños - A Crazy Little Town in Ecuador. Casa del Arbol, Ecuador
Casa del Árbol

After walking past the zipline and park areas, I laid my eyes on the Treehouse. While I wouldn’t say that the area was super crowded, there were certainly a few people there. That of course meant that there was a bit of a line. I reluctantly joined the end of the line because what else was I going to do after going all that way? Some people were freaking out about the fact that they were about to swing over the edge of the mountain. I offered my support to calm them down while I waited for my turn. It turns out the whole thing is quite serene. It probably feels more like floating than anything.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Baños - A Crazy Little Town in Ecuador. Egde of the Mountain at Casa del Arbol, Ecuador
Edge of the Mountain at Casa del Árbol

Swing to Heaven

What isn’t serene is what’s on the other side of the mountain. That’s probably where the thrillseekers would want to be. You see, some enterprising soul has decided to capitalise on the popularity of the treehouse by creating a ‘Swing to Heaven’ behind the treehouse. While it may not be everyone’s idea of heaven, for $4, it’s a pretty cheap thrill.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Baños - A Crazy Little Town in Ecuador. Swing to Heaven at Casa del Arbol, Ecuador
Swing to Heaven

🇪🇨 Ecuador Summary 🇪🇨

In a few words – surprising and crazy
Language – Ecuadorian Spanish
Currency – United States Dollar (USD)
WiFi availability – 📶📶📶📶
All hostels/hotels seem to have pretty decent WiFi. In smaller towns, you could easily walk back to your accommodation if you can’t find WiFi elsewhere
Transport – 🚗🚗🚗🚗🚗
🚍 Intercity coaches run regularly and generally end up costing about $1 per hour of travelling
🚐 Buses run regularly in cities/towns and cost around US$0.50 per ride
Roads – 🛣🛣🛣🛣🛣
All roads were sealed and in good condition, although some mountain roads were quite narrow.
Scenery – 🌳⛰🏞🏖🌳
Ecuador is very green, with mountains, waterfalls, rivers and forests inland, then beaches in coastal areas
Prices – 💰💰
Ecuador is a budget travellers paradise! Accommodation is fairly cheap and a meal from a street vendor will rarely put you out more than $4
Border efficiency – 🛃🛃🛃🛃
Aside from a little bit of a wait on the way in, immigration officers seemed to be on-the-ball and processed visitors fairly quickly
Overall – 👍👍👍👍👍

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The adventure continues in the Northern Peruvian Frontier