Central Asia Travel Diary

Although we had a long drive today, estimated to be 9 hours but actually taking just over 10), we had a reasonably leisurely start to the day, waking at 7 am and leaving Almaty at 9 am (any earlier would have been pointless because of Almaty's clogged streets).  We began by finding a post office to send our postcards; finding the post office was almost as difficult as finding the postcards yesterday.  I am told that Kazakh people are nomadic, and they have never really understood or used the post.  Using the post office was actually an interesting experience.  I had two postcards to send (one from me, one from Andy), so I was told the cost would be 320 tenge.  The girl working in the post office attached the stamps for me, and postmarked them, so for interest I asked to see the stamps before they were sent.  To my astonishment, I noticed that each postcard had two 50 tenge stamps, making a total cost of 200 tenge.  I queried the cost, and received a very long, loud, angry and animated reply, not a word of which I understood.  Believing there must be some hidden tax or something, I handed over coins to the value of 320 tenge, and after a short pause, received 120 tenge and a dismissive shrug of the shoulders in response.

The long drive today began by taking us across the extensive steppes (grassland plains) to the east of Almaty, a drive of about 250 kilometres through cultivated farmlands and pastures for cattle, with the scenery backed by a range of snow-capped mountains to the right.  After the first 250 km section, we stopped for a fairly early lunch at a small village called Baisent.  This was a colourful and lively village inhabited by Uyghur people who had fled China's Xinjiang province during the Cultural Revolution.  Originally political refugees, they had established a thriving community based on farming and grazing animals, they had planted trees giving the village a cool and shady atmosphere and seemed to be prospering – apparently to the resentment of native Kazakhs.  Certainly Baisent was a marked contrast to the typical Kazakh village (called Nura) that we passed through just a few kilometres further on; it had no trees, no shops, no market and seemed quite barren and lifeless compared with Baisent.  It was suggested to me that Kazakh people are by nature nomads, and therefore so not really understand the nature of sedentary settlements, which is why they (for example) never plant trees.

Actually, I was also told that this all relates to the tendency of men to relax in front of the TV while women love to shop and work.  Apparently this difference dates back to the times when men were hunters and women were gatherers.  Gathering things (i.e. shopping and keeping the house clean) has thus become part of the female genetic make-up, whereas lying still and quietly, which are essential skills for successful hunting, have become the dominant characteristic of successful males, and has since evolved into the higher form of lying on a couch watching television.  I don't necessarily believe this, but it was told to me in good faith today by a Kazakh citizen (okay, I'll tell you – it was a Kazakh male).

Our first and most important destination today was Charyn Canyon, a 300 metre deep "mini Grand Canyon".  Eroded by the Charyn River in south-eastern Kazakhstan, the canyon was a spectacular example of fluvial erosion, and our sighting was all the more thrilling after walking to the edge of the canyon along a pathway of sloping unconsolidated sediments.  We were very lucky with the light, as clouds began to shade the gorge just as we were leaving, depriving the bright orange rocks of much of their vibrancy and colour.

From Charyn Canyon, we proceeded south through some small valleys with some beautiful examples of slope instability, including rotational slumps, active scree slopes and landslides, the most spectacular of which were concentrated near the unfortunately named village of Kokpek.

As we continued south, we climbed in altitude, and the semi-arid grasslands gave way to intense green alpine mountain valleys filled with verdant lush grass backed by snow-capped mountain ranges.  The scenery became more reminiscent of Canada or Switzerland than what one imagines Kazakhstan to be.  In one of these valleys, by now on a rough unsealed  4-wheel drive track that confirmed we were well away from common transport routes, we came across the international border separating Kazakhstan from Kyrgyzstan.  We were the only car on the road, and this high altitude border crossing in the middle of nowhere, well away from any town or village, must be one of the most remote in the world.

Leaving Kazakhstan was a painless procedure of having our passports stamped.  Entering Kyrgyzstan was a little more complex, not because of too much bureaucracy but ironically because of too little.  Kyrgyzstan must be quite a poor country, because they do not supply any entry stamps to their immigration officials, at least not at this frontier. We had a loose leaf visa, which we left with the immigration officials, and so despite the very friendly, good humoured antics of the three immigration officials, who started bleating like sheep and pretending to swim when they saw our Australian passports, were unable to stamp our passports.  They did not seem worried that Andy and I have entered the country without any official record in our passports, so I suppose we should not be worried either – I hope!

Although the roads deteriorated even further in Kyrgyzstan, and in spite of several road blocks requiring small bribes to be paid to allow passage (at monthly salaries of just US$50, these lonely officials in isolated surroundings seem to have been condemned to corruption!), the alpine scenery continued to get better and better.  The mountain valleys are populated by nomadic peoples who raise horses (mainly to convert into sausages for eating) and live in yurts and gyspsy-like caravans, and the scenery in the afternoon light was superb.  The intensity of the green colour of the grass set against the brilliant blue skies had to be seen to be believed.

We did make one stop before reaching our destination, which was in the Karkara Valley at a place called San-Tash (which means 'Counting Stones').  This was a house-sized pile of stones apparently built about 500 years ago by Tamerlane (Timur the Great), the Uzbek ruler who conquered much of the Central Asian region.  He had an army of 50,000 men and horses as he invaded the area now known as Kyrgyzstan.  Before the campaign, he got each soldier to place a rock on this pile.  When they returned, each soldier removed his rock – the remaining pile of stones left a record of how many soldiers had been lost.  The large pile of stones if thus a very telling monument to the loss of life suffered by the soldiers.  Interestingly, the pile of stones had almost no grass or bushes growing on it, hopefully because 500 years is too short a time for dust to settle (in the windy conditions) or for the rocks to start breaking down to form soil, rather because the pile is a fake.  It is really hard to imagine nomadic Kyrgyz folk building such a pile of stones for the fun of it!

We arrived at our destination, the town of Karakol on the shore of Lake Issyk-Kul, which at 170 km long by 70 km wide and up to 695 metres deep, is the world's second largest alpine lake (after Lake Titicaca on the border of peru and Bolivia).  Although Karakol once had a population of over 50,000 people, most of the Russians have now left and the town's population has halved to just 25,000, leaving also a huge number of decrepit and run-down empty shops and buildings.  After changing money, my US$50 was transformed into a brick-like pile of 20 som notes totalling almost 2000 som.  We checked into our guesthouse accommodation, the Neophyte Guesthouse, which appeared basic but comfortable in spite of the dimness created by the town's four-hour electricity blackout.

A filling and cheap dinner at a nearby café completed a really enjoyable and stimulating day which saw us travel over 400 kilometres through two countries, from semi-arid steppes to alpine grasslands, visiting some wondrous sights that would probably be world famous if they were located anywhere else but this isolated corner of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Wednesday 5 July 2006

Almaty to Karakol

Horses on the steppes of Kazakhstan
Lonely check point, Charyn Gorge
Charyn Gorge, SE Kazakhstan
Alpine grazing near Kyrgyzstan border
Entrance to restuarant, Karakol, Kyrgyzstan