July 15. Almaty, Kazakhstan.
I wake up upon landing and my neck hurts terribly from having slept all crooked up. Whatever, I don’t even care about the pain anymore, I just need a bed. We find a taxi with the help of a Kazakh guy Gian met on the plane and we’re all relieved at this point. We made it!
Yeah, as if it were that easy. We forgot we’re back in the post-Soviet space, so as in most Russian cities, each address has a “dom” and a “podezd”. Obviously our booking only shows the dom number, so once we get there, our driver keeps going round and round. No sign of any hostel whatsoever.
It’s almost 3 AM local time and the phone number we have from our booking is not working. Great! Whatever, we get off the taxi and say to each other that we’ll figure something out, yet in the back of our minds a deep fear of having to sleep in the street starts getting more and more real.
Fortunately, we find a bunch of locals outside a bar and they manage to help us. One of the girls is able to find the right phone number of the hostel so she gets the full address and the right directions for us and… crisis averted!
An old lady waves at us from the side of the road, we check in and collapse on our beds.
I wake up at 12:30 the day after, and as I enter the common room I find Marta sitting next to a guy with black hair. When she sees me she goes: “This is my brother!” – What! How?!
She says she was walking in the hallway and found him in one of the rooms and was just as surprised. Apparently he had told her he might want to come to Central Asia, if he managed to pass all his exams in time, but then they never confirmed with each other, she just sent him our itinerary and well, he showed up! Plot twist! And then they were four.
I’m still trying to recover from yesterday’s odyssey, so we just lay around for a couple of hours and then let Alessandro guide us through the city, which is, I have to say, not incredibly ugly for a post-Soviet city, but not incredibly nice either. There’s honestly not much worth seeing, apart from the “mini” Arbat street and the Bazaar.
Yeah, the bazaar is actually something! It really gives you the feeling that well, you’re in Central Asia. The food section especially. We enter by chance into the meat department and, if you’re a vegetarian, do not do that! Actually, even if you’re not, don’t ever do it anyways. The smell of raw meat is asphyxiating as dead animal parts, mostly horses, hang down from everywhere. And by animal parts I mean any: intestines and other interiors included. I feel like I might puke so we get out of there as fast as possible.
We buy a local SIM card, which will end up being a very smart move, and keep walking down to the main square and the park behind it. We were hoping to be able to see the mountains from the city, but only some fuzzy peaks in the distance are barely visible.
Whatever, we decide to just focus on how to get to the mountain lakes tomorrow. We found an Ecotourism website recommending some homestays in Saty, a tiny village up the Tian Shan Mountains, from where you can visit all the Kolsai Lakes and Lake Kaindy, the last one highly recommended to us by our friend Jan Japp.
Anyways, this place is about 200-something km east of Almaty, which, on Kazakh roads, equals to 5-6 hours by car. We phone the bus station with our newly bought SIM card and they confirm that there are shared taxis leaving from Saiakhat Station between 6 and 7 AM for about 25,000 Tenge per person.
That’s settled then, we’ll just leave super early tomorrow morning, so we decide to get back to the hostel and chill for the rest of the day. We find a place to eat nearby and I phone the guesthouse in Saty we booked in Omsk, to make sure everything is confirmed. I can’t believe it’s been a month since we were in Siberia, checking for routes in Central Asia. Someone answers the phone, it’s a little girl and as I tell her I’m looking for Mr Temirkhan she goes “папа! папа!”. So sweet. Mr Temirkhan actually remembers me and tells me that yes, they have place for us, for Alessandro too. Nice! I’m really looking forward to get there now.
Back at the hostel we hang out in the common room and meet a bunch of people. An incredibly obnoxious Russian guy starts talking to me and I don’t know how or why exactly but in no time the conversation turns from friendly-ish to aggressive and almost inquisitorial. Like for no reason he starts asking very political questions, mentions Berlusconi and Putin, obviously, and then goes on condemning NATO and asking me what will happen once India and Pakistan, two “great nuclear powers”, will join the SCO. It’s not even what he says, the thing is he says it all as if since I’m from Italy, a NATO member, that makes me one of the bad guys, so all of us Europeans should just tremble cause the SCO is gonna destroy us all. You know those kind of people who are just looking for a fight? That don’t see the common ground no matter what, they just want to contradict you and be right and show you that hey, I’m stronger that you! What an asshole.
Whatever, I’m no game so I just stop talking to him, change seat and focus my attention on a British guy with curly hair, Holly, who, in contrast, emanates positive vibes just by sitting and laying back on the couch, smiling. He’s genuine and simple and you can tell it from the aura he has around him, there’s no construction around him. He’s a biker, so he’s been traveling on his motorbike all the way from England, through the Kazakhstan desert to Almaty and will continue down to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan on the Pamir Highway until Mongolia.
The way he talks about his motorcycle, about being outdoors all the time, about embracing it is very sweet and makes me smile. He tells us how hard it was to ride in the desert and how he loves sleeping outside, in his tent. Marta and I ask him about his life in England and it turns out he’s a physiotherapist and was working for the NHS, until he quit, cause they wouldn’t grant him his 2-year leave.
We would just go on talking if it weren’t for the obnoxious reception lady who tells us off with a disdained look and scolds us: it’s midnight it’s late! Time to go to sleep! – Jeez, What are you my mother? At your orders, general.
Whatever, we have to wake up early tomorrow so maybe it’s better this way.
July 16. Saty, Kazakhstan.
We get up at 5:30 and by 6 AM we’re out of the hostel, directed to Saiakhat bus station. Once we get there, we’re immediately surrounded by gypsy taxi drivers, who offer to drive us to Saty for 300,000 Tenge. What? That means 1500 Euros. “Are you sumashedshii?” I snap at them as we walk away.
We enter the station, well, station, it’s basically a courtyard with a bunch of cars randomly parked in the middle of it. A man approaches us and asks where we need to go. Then he starts yelling: “Saty! Saty!” to the other drivers. One of them comes closer and we start bargaining for the price. Well, I start bargaining, being the one who speaks Russian best among us. The driver starts at 50,000 Tenge per person and I push for 25,000. In the end, we agree on 30,000, although I can feel he is a bit uncomfortable with having to bargain with a woman. Like it’s not appropriate or something.
Still, he agrees to drive us so we start our 5 hours on the road. Once out of Almaty, the landscape gets incredibly beautiful, high mountains in the distance and wide, green valleys. Slowly, the road gets wilder and wilder, unbent by man, as we get higher. It turns and twists, zigzaging through the mountain walls. The landscape alternates, from dry to green, to dry to green again.
Suddenly our car starts making weird noises and… no, not again! No fucking way. The driver pulls over and starts blabbing something about the fact that he put Chinese benzin, yeah, let’s blame it all on the Chinese. The guys collect some rocks and put them behind the back wheels so that the car won’t go backwards once the driver turns the engine on. But no, there’s no way this thing is going up with the four of us inside it.
Well, it looks like we’re gonna have to climb on foot, while the driver struggles to get the car up the slope. Fortunately, somehow he manages, and as we reach the top we see him frantically speaking on the phone, probably asking for someone to pick us up. At least so we hope. I ask him how far we are and what’s the plan and he goes: about 14 km, get in the car, let’s try again. Oh boy.
The road gets worse and worse, but than goodness at least there’s no more steep slopes, so we actually do manage to reach the village, no idea how exactly, but oh well, we’re here!
I call Temirkhan, the man who’s gonna host us for the night, and he says we should wait by the blue mosque and he’ll come pick us up.
He shows up about 10 minutes later with two of his sons in an old SUV. We pay our driver and agree that one of his colleagues will come pick us up tomorrow and drive us back for the same price. We get in the SUV, whose seats are covered in velvet blankets with Kazakh patterns, and we reach our farm house.
It’s completely immersed in the green, hugged by the mountains. The garden is huge and there’s sheeps, horses, and dogs just wandering around freely. We sit on the porch of the wooden hut and simply enjoy the stunning view and the fresh air.
Temirkhan says lunch will be ready in a bit and that he’ll arrange a car for us to go to Lake Kaindy. Meanwhile, Ale asks for the bathroom, and Temirkhan looks at him and replies: У нас туалет на улице. Oh, it’s the hole, again. Whatever, we’re expert at this now, no big deal. I translate to Ale and he goes: “what do you mean ‘on the street’” – “You’ll see, you’ll see”.
As he comes back we start wondering if there’s even a shower and come to the conclusion that we’ll probably have to use buckets, Olkhon Island style. Still, nothing can be worse that Olkhon from this point of view.
Lunch is ready: plov with Kazakh bread, some sort of чебурек, and chai. We sit at the table in the living room with Temirkhan, his daughter Sinbad, two of is sons and two other guests. Temirkhan doesn’t seem big on chatting, he has this strange aura of earnestness and distance from the world. Like, there’s even a tinse of sanctity in it, like he comes from another reality and you can’t really get in there. There’s something weirdly likable about this silent, serious and smiley man, who’s facial features look like they’re carved in stone.
Lunch is delicious and after some 4-5 cups of chai we head outside and wait for our ride to the lake. Fortunately, they didn’t offer us Kumis, the traditional fermented mere milk. If you come across it, do not ever try it. Like, seriously, NEVER.
Our jeep is finally here and our driver is a boy who looks no older than 16-17 and who has beautiful, almond-shaped blue eyes. We start our ride toward the lake, which is really more like a rally: we’re jumping through holes and bumps, crossing streams, cruising through forest tunnels. Clouds of dust float up from the ground as we pass and almost blind us. Marta and I had the great idea of sitting in the back, the back door being a mere opening, no glass not even a plastic window, cause “hey, we can better see the landscape this way!”. Yep, and by the time we enter the lake area my has turned from brown to white.
Our driver parks the jeep in a clearing, smiles, points us in the direction of the lake, and disappears behind the door of a yurt.
We walk down to the lake and WOW. It is stunning. The color of the water is so blue it seems unreal. It’s actually more green than blue. Trunks of trees emerge from its surface. Emerge, not float. It really looks like they’re literally standing on water.
Lake Kaindy was originated indeed as the result of a huge landslide triggered by an earthquake sometimes at the beginning of the 20th century. That explains why the dried-out trunks of submerged trees rise above the water surface. Wow. It’s breathtaking. Probably one of the weirdest, most interesting places I’ve been. It’s incredible what nature can create isn’t it?
We enjoy the amazing view, fill our bottles with fresh water from a stream and lay in the sun till it’s time to get back.
We find our driver working on some wooden structure with a bunch of other guys: they’re building a hut or something. We hop on our jeep and start our ride back. Two guys who were working on the hut with our driver follow us in their car.
Then, suddenly, their car stops while crossing a stream. One of the guys gets out and well, something is wrong with the engine or whatever, and they can’t get it going again. Oh man, I feel ya.
Not to worry though! Our driver pulls out a robe and a chain and hooks their car to ours. We’re gonna pull them! One of the two guys jumps on our jeep and rides with us, hanging on the outside, holding himself onto the roof. Gotta love the Kazakhs!
He then smiles and asks me if I’m married, which is apparently a fairly legit question over here, and I lie: “Ehm, yeah, yes I am married”. He’s kind of handsome. For a second, I imagine how it would be to fall in love with a guy like him, I mean for a European girl. What it would mean, like leaving everything and being his wife here in the mountains and doing whatever Kazakh wives do. Hell no, like, no way.
Back at our farm house, we really need a shower. We’ve got dust everywhere. Temirkhan tells us not to worry, he’ll prepare the sauna for us! Sauna? No, shower! Bath! And he goes: yes, yes we wash in the sauna!
So Marta and I go in first. It’s burning hot in there. We grab a bucket each and start filling it with water, mixing the steaming one with some cold one from a sink not to fry ourselves. And yes, one bucket, two bucket, god it’s hot in here, three buckets…
Once we finish, we get dressed and exit the sauna hut. I gotta say, I feel reborn. Really. My limbs are all relaxed and my whole body is at peace. Sauna shower. Look at that.
It’s now Ale’s and Gian’s turn, we wash our clothes and then sit on the porch. Meanwhile, Temirkhan sits with us and opens up a little and starts telling us about the Tian Shan mountains and his family. He even shows us the family book that goes back by some 200 years. They were all mountain farmers and as he speaks about it such pride and love for his land comes out of his eyes.
We have another lovely dinner and spend the rest of the evening outside, looking at the mountains.
July 17. Stay, Kazakhstan.
We wake up at 6 AM and Symbat has prepared for us an amazing breakfast, so we sit in the living room and enjoy it as we wait for our driver. Jeez this little girl is barely 14 and already has to take care of all the housework, including cooking for guests at 5 in the morning. And I thought I wasn’t spoiled..
Our new driver arrives at 7. We hoped for a better car, one that at least looked more reliable that the one we took on our way in, but no, if anything, this one looks even older and more rickety. Well, let’s just hop in and hope it gets us back to Almaty.
We thank Temirkhan for the hospitality and give him the money for our stay. he doesn’t even check them, just thanks us in return and smiles.
We get in the car and get ready for the descent. It wouldn’t even be so bad if it weren’t for the heat. We are literally burning in a furnace. We told the driver to stop at Charyn Canyon on the way so that we could visit it and after a couple of hours he pulls over and here we are, staring at the Canyon.
It’s the second biggest canyon in the world after the Grand Canyon and it is stunning. It’s interesting how water can create such things, such shapes in the rocks.
We ask the driver if it’s possible to hike down and he says that technically yeah, that’s possible, but also quite dangerous on this trait so we decide to stay safe and just enjoy the view from the top.
The rift is about 80 km long and the part we’re looking at is the Valley of Castles, which is named this way because of its unusual rock formations that go down by some 100 meters.
We walk along the edge for a while and damn it’s hot. The sun is burning my skin and we’re almost out of water. We head back and hope to find some refuge in the car, but that only makes it worse, considering it literally turned into a furnace, giving that there’s no shade anywhere.
We hang in there for some 3 more hours till we’re finally back in Almaty. We get to the hostel, jump in the shower and chill for the rest of the afternoon.
It’s actually a national holiday today and as I’m laying in my bed, the hostel owner, who is also the son of the obnoxious reception lady, knocks on the door and invites me to try some of their national products. He has a glass of what looks like milk in his hand. Oh no, please no, don’t be Kumis.
He gives me a glass and goes, all excited: try it! try it! I close my eyes as I swallow a gulp and realized that, wait, this is actually not that bad, doesn’t really taste like Kumis. And indeed it’s Shubat, which is fermented camel milk, instead of fermented mere milk like kumis. I mean, not that I’d go on drinking it every day, but at least it’s drinkable. Oh no, here he pours another glass.
Gian walks in and as soon as he sees the white glass in my hand, barres his eyes and starts walking backward, trying to escape. Too late! The owner has already spotted him and poured a glass of Shubat for him. He looks at the glass, fear in his eyes, as I tell him “relax, it’s not what you think it is”. He then warily looks at me and turns his back on the owner, as he takes a sip and makes a face, although it does agree with me that this is actually not as bad as we thought. I guess camel beats mere!
And if you think we’re overrecting about this whole fermented milk thing, you clearly have never tasted kumis.
There’s also some sort of fried bread on the table, we take a bite, oil coming out of it from every side, it’s called Baursak.
We spend the afteroon talking to the owner, who turns out to be way friendlier than his mother, and who genuinely wants to know what we think about Kazakhstan and Almaty and gives us tips about Central Asia. He then goes: “you know what we central asian people say about each other? The Kazakh organize everything, the Uzbek work their asses off, and the Kyrgyz stand there and watch”. That’s an interesting description, a fairly accurate one, we’ll come to witness.
He also explains that yeah, President Nazarbaev has been in power for a long time, about 25 years, and yeah he holds a lot of power, so some may see him as a dictator, but the important thing is that he did good for Kazakhstan, he has fought corruption, kept the peace, made the economy boom and hence the people of Kazakhstan are doing well thanks to him. So really, who cares about who holds the power, when criminality is down and the economy is good? He’s just like a very controlling father who’s only looking out for his children. Go visit Kyrgyzstan and you’ll get it, he says. Democracy there yeah, many government changes, but also lots of riots, lots of corruption, poverty and criminality all around. You’ll see.
Well, we’re definitely curious now.
We decide to spend our last Kazakh evening in the city, having dinner in the center and just strolling around.