Central Asia Travel Diary

Unfortunately, we had a very early flight today that limited our ability to catch up on sleep.  The alarm rang at 4 am, as we were being collected at 5 am to go to airport for our 7:15 am flight to Almaty in Kazakhstan.

Tashkent is one airport where you really do need to arrive 2 hours before flight time.  Nothing happens quickly (except the rush of people to jump the queues!), and the customs process is almost as extensive leaving the country as entering.  I couldn't help reflecting that our itinerary includes two more entries into Uzbekistan (a total of three entries for this trip).

Our flight to Almaty was fairly short, lasting just 1 hour and 20 minutes.  The flight, with Uzbekistan Airways, was on one of their newer Western aircraft, a British-built Avro RJ-85 (registration UK-80003), a small but nonetheless 4-engined high-wing regional airliner.  Although the seats were quite roomy and Andy had good views from the window, three negatives of the flight were (a) the dry plain cheese rolls served as food, (b) no vomit bags provided, and (c) I left my Central Asia guidebook in the seat pocket when I alighted.  I guess I must have been more tired than I thought, or perhaps I just distracted by all the gleaming Tupolevs and Antonovs standing on the tarmac at Almaty Airport, framed by a magnificent backdrop of snow-capped peaks.  Anyway, subsequent phone calls failed to locate the book – frustrating but probably not worth claiming on travel insurance!  As it turned out, I was able to borrow a very weatherbeaten copy later in the day – on pain of death to return it in a couple of weeks as I pass through Tashkent.

We were met at the Airport by Marat, who unlike the driver in Tashkent, spoke English extremely well – and often!  The good news is that he will be our driver for the next few days as we drive through Kazakhstan and into Kyrgyzstan.  We had some great discussions on changes in Kazakhstan, comparing life today with life during Soviet, which of course he experienced first-hand.

We went first of all to our hotel, the Kazzhol, which was basic and adequate with quite a central location.  Food prices were about double those at the Rovshan in Tashkent, but still extremely reasonable compared with most other countries, and presumably just a reflection of Kazakhstan's higher level of economic progress compared with Uzbekistan – there are far fewer Volgas, Ladas and Zhigulis here compared with Tashkent, for example, and considerably more evidence of new building projects.  (It is interesting that the proportion of Volgas on the road can be used as an indicator of economic development in this part of the world – "the Volga factor").  How many people, or families, control Kazakhstan's economic development, and hence destiny, may be an interesting question to ask, however.  There is also more evidence in Almaty of a strong Russian presence than we saw in Tashkent, and as Russians provide much of the higher level employment skills in the Central Asian economies, this may help to explain Kazakhstan's relatively vibrant economy compared with that of Uzbekistan.

After an hour to settle into the hotel and, of course, obtain some local currency (this time at a rate of 118 tenge to the US dollar), we began an extensive tour of Almaty.  We started by seeing some of Almaty's Soviet-era grand buildings and plazas, stopping for some time at the Palace of the Republic before driving and then walking up to the hill to Köktyube for spectacular views across Almaty, backed by its snow-capped hills to the south – and some very welcome cool drinks.  Almaty is a young city that is almost totally Russian – indeed Soviet – in character, but its mountain backdrop provides a very pleasant and at times spectacular setting.

After a little more driving through the city, we stopped in to see the magnificent Russian Orthodox Zekkov Cathedral, which is one of the few surviving tsarist-era buildings surviving in Almaty.  Built of wood, apparently without a single nail, it was used as a storage shed and later a museum during Societ times, and was re-opened for worship just 11 years ago in 1995, which explains its vnew 'feel'.  Finally,  we bought some postcards after a surprisingly extensive search (postcards are not a common item in Almaty!) and then walked back to our hotel along the pedestrian plaza of Zhibek Zholy.  After a great meal in our hotel, we went for a short walk (to change another US$10 – just to make sure we could eat lunch tomorrow) before returning to our hotel for a relaxing evening – especially for Andrew who dropped off to sleep at about 8 pm – I think I managed to wear out my 15 year old son – quite an achievement for any father!!!  I finally got to sleep at about 11:15 pm, just as Andrew was ready to wake up and party.  Fortunately, he contented himself with writing a postcard instead.

Tuesday 4 July 2006

Tashkent to Almaty

Soviet-era fountain, Almaty
Almaty, capital of Kazakhstan
Zekkov Cathedral, Almaty