Or: the art of
dicking about slow travel [photos to follow when I get off the train in 3 days time..]
Welcome to the 5th instalment of wanderetta, in which I blog about sitting in cosy coffee shops writing a blog and failing to tango my way through Central Asia 🙂
Almaty (until 1997 the capital of Kazakhstan, still the main city though the capital is now Astana in the north) is a great place to err..travel slowly. I feel curiously at home here – and apparently I look it too as on Friday I got asked 3 times for directions. Or maybe the citizens of Almaty are just an unusually disorientated bunch! It actually should be easy to navigate around the city: like Bishkek it is made up of a grid of wide leafy boulevards with a stunning alpine backdrop. But unlike Bishkek, where the centre is flat and the mountains are rarely glimpsed through the haze, Almaty has a gentle but discernible hillside topography: up (south)/down (north), which offers constant views of the beckoning peaks of the Ile-Alatau range. (Not that I got any photos of them, sorry!)
It also has a bike share scheme (and some cycle lanes), tourist info points, efficient and easy to use buses (20p a ride, likewise the shiny new metro), shiny malls, street food vans and hipster coffee shops:
It’s basically east London, in fact (but better 😉).
So, I arrived here on Tuesday and have been happily mooching for the most part – and I’ll be embarking on the much anticipated (well since last week) 3 night train ride tonight. Apparently, they just opened a new stretch of track which shaves 9 hours off the journey – so now it’s only 60 hours long! I paid just over 7000 tenge for my ticket (purchased surprisingly easily at the well organised Almaty 2 station) – that’s around £16 so I’m expecting comfort and luxury on a par with the original Orient Express… I was vaguely reassured to meet an actual other person taking that trip – a French guy travelling back home, who was in the marshrutka I took here from Bishkek. I think he left Almaty on Thursday evening so he should be there (Aktau) by now! Also on that marshrutka was a Norwegian traveller, and on arrival in Almaty we made a plan to rent a car to do a trip out to the Charyn Canyon a couple of days later (as seen on the cover of the Kazakhstan road map!). I’ve been previously but so long ago – the same trip mentioned in the Bishkek entry – that a repeat visit seemed worthwhile. Having a bit of a history on the roads of Kazakhstan (!) I was appointed driver (plus I don’t think Mr Norway has a licence..) – and so on Thursday, along with two other backpackers (Alaskan and Hungarian – we were virtually a UN delegation) we drove east from Almaty. Well, *eventually* we did, and after a few loops around SE Almaty and a little bit of swearing, we were on the way. As long as you manage to escape from the city, the route is basically, head east and turn left before you get to China. So after 3+ hours (it’s about 200kms) we turned off the road for the last 12 kms down a dirt track (an err enjoyable reminder of driving in Mongolia) and reached the canyon – an impressive site anyway but all the more rewarding for having got there by ourselves!
On the way back there was the obligatory stop at a pastel pink café for shashlik and plov (meat on a stick, rice – all road trips in Kaz involve this, trust me..) and a melon was purchased (ditto). We arrived back around 10pm and I demonstrated my Britishness by being the only one who thought going for a beer would be sensible but the rest of the UN team mumbled about stuff to do and toddled off back to their hostel.
As fun as it was to relocate my Kazakh overtaking nerves of steel, driving for most of the day wiped me out for a lot of Friday and meant that I totally failed to organise myself to get to the big tango thing that was happening that evening – it was quite far out of town and I only realised when it was too late that there had been a specially arranged shuttle bus to get there. Oops. A bit annoyed at my rubbishness, I was determined to try and do some tango in Almaty so last night headed out to apparently, a milonga [tango dance thing] in a very unlikely location in the west of town near the bus station. Needless to say I couldn’t find it so that was that!
I also contemplated trying to do *some sort of hike* – didn’t happen yesterday (weather crap, I was moving from my weird hostel to a hotel for a night of minor flashpacking, also I bumped into the Norwegian so we had a wander round a few sights).
There’s a small lake outside Almaty – it’s called ‘Big Almaty Lake’ – and I thought of trying to get there (maybe today). But I’d also read about the police stopping people from hiking around there now and indeed, I came across the Hungarian later yesterday afternoon who’d been there and had had to cough up a little ‘fine’ to the politsiya. A shame as it spoilt his impression of this country and he decided to head straight for Kyrgyzstan today.
Naked and sweating in a room full of strangers: Arasan Baths
So, final chance for some hiking or something today – but the weather got a memo from Bucharest and it’s raining raining raining. Not happening. If I’m going to get soaked then I’m going to do it as enjoyably as possible! So I’ve spent the afternoon steaming myself at the Arasan baths – a pretty great hybrid of Soviet architecture & traditional Russian banya culture (also some intolerably steamy Turkish rooms).
It turns out that swimming naked in a cold pool under the domed roof of the Arasan, alone apart from 3 attendants looking on disinterestedly, is surprisingly therapeutic. I wanted to do the full on – beat yourself with a bunch of birch twigs (Venicki) thing – which is supposed to be part of the Russian bathing ritual but to the honest the logistics of that bit were too intimidating so I skipped it – maybe next time!
I’m now going to hunt down a few supplies for the train ride before my little detour westwards… but here are a few more Almaty style soviet architectural treats: