A Travellerspoint blog

Turkistan (and Shymkent update)

But they haven't put their mittens on And there's fifteen feet of pure white snow

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View Round the world in 250 days on Nat and Ev's travel map.

After spending a few days exploring Shymkent we decided it was high time we spread our wings a little and ventured into the country side. The trusty LP had two suggestions, The Mausoleum in Turkistan and a night in a yurt in the mountains. We decided to save the night in the yurt until it was a little closer to Spring and so organised a driver to take us the 200km to Turkistan.

The trip was supposed to take 3 hours. Not with Ayrton Sennavich behind the wheel! As we sped out of Shymmy Nat fell asleep leaving me to fear for both of our lives. The first major problem is that it is disrespectful to the driver to wear your seat belt (it shows a lack of trust in their driving) and as a result seat belts are superfluous and are removed from most cars. One would think that the numerous headstones and roadside memorials we passed would make them reconsider this cultural oddity or perhaps no one has shown them the "reduction in deaths when seat belts were invented" data...

The second problem was lack of audible communication. This inevitably leads to a game of charades. The real danger starts when you pass headstones of famous sportsmen who have perished on the Shymkent - Turkistan road. Every famous person's death was commemorated in story form by our wanna-be theatre-sports driver with both hands whilst we speed along a muddy, potholed, foggy road at 100km. Firstly he would say "champion" whilst acting out whatever sport the particular person was champion of. First was a boxer then a wrestler and then a horse rider of some sort. Once the dearly departeds sport had been correctly guessed he moved onto the style of crash. The most perilous for us was the boxer who apparantly rolled his car 11 times. This was acted out with both hands revolving around each other and moving up and down at the same time. It didn't matter how many times I said Da Da Da he wouldn't stop (and take control of the car by putting his hands back on the wheel) until the prescribed number of spins / rolls had been acted out. Against all odds we made it to Turkistan alive, and Joelvi had shaved a full hour of the normal trip time.

Turkistan itself is a nothing town but it has been an important pilgrimage sight for Muslims for a long time due to a number of 1000 year old mosques and an unfinished Mausleom that is pretty awesome (although we have been told that our next stop, Samarkand, in Uzbekistan is 10 times better). It was a chilly day and wandering around some of the smaller white rooms of the mausoleum felt very much like exploring a fridge. We did find a thermometer in the main hall and the temp was a very fridge like 1 degree. With a bit of wind chill action taking photos outside became a race against time. I regretted ignoring Nat's advice to take my gloves.

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The ride home wasn't quite as harrowing as the memorials had already been pointed out and the fog cleared revealing a very brisk but beautifully sunny day. We did pass some sort of horse gathering. I'm not sure exactly what it was but there were at least 200 horses being ridden around in a tight bunch. I tried to get the driver to stop but either my charades weren't up to his standards or he didn't feel like stopping as he decided to ignore my request. I should have insisted, it's often the things that you stumble upon that end up being the highlights. At least we are guaranteed of seeing some Kazakh horsemanship on the 22 March (Kazakhstans New Year) and what better way to celebrate with a game of goat polo! Stay tuned for that one.

IN OTHER NEWS

Skiing is looking more and more promising as the temperature plummets and we get a few decent snow falls. Sunday afternoon was about 15 degrees in Shym but by late that night the mercury was hovering at 0 and by the morning it was -10. It's was awesome to wake up to a white Shymkent and a flurry of sizable flakes that lasted well into the day. We had another good dump today. Unfortunately we had the contents of a shipping container unpacked on the CR car park when it started. It took 7 big burly blokes 2 hours to repack the whole thing and by the end we were all very cold wet and exhausted. On Friday we head to Almaty for a few days to get our Uzbekistan visas and to hit the biggest (of 2 or possibly 3) ski resort in Kaz. Very excited!

On the Russian front the lessons are powering ahead. We thought we were signing up for one hour two nights a week however every lesson ends up being 2 or 3 hours so it's pretty full on. I think the reason for the long lessons is that Russian is so complicated that it takes that long to cover one rule. It's ridiculously complicated and has way too many rules and way way too many exceptions to the rules. Nat is studying very hard and is endeavouring to learn all the rules. I'm taking a "I'll do it on the night" approach. No prizes for guessing who is doing better, although it turns out I have a natural ability for perfect Russian pronunciation so it's a closer race than you may imagine ; )

One of my friends (a well travelled chap) went to India recently. I asked him how he found it and his answer was so eloquent I thought I would share it with the world!
"India is a sack of sh#t. Still waking up in the morning and just thrilled not to be in India." - anon

You had...these gloves...all this time...and you never told me!?
Duh! Yeah! We're in the Rockies!
I'm gonna kill you Lloyd!

Lot's of love,
Ev and Nat

Posted by Nat and Ev 08:12 Archived in Kazakhstan Comments (1)

Shymkent

Your lips move but I can't hear what youre sayin

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View Round the world in 250 days on Nat and Ev's travel map.

The place we are living while in Kazakhstan, the city of Shymkent (Шымкент), is probably not on the list of 'must-see' places when visiting Kazakhstan. Most people see it as a transit town, giving easy access to Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. That or as the place with lots of factories. Shymkent is definitely not as picturesque as Almaty, it is a lot more grey and stern looking, but then this could be because it is coming out of winter here. And despite this, we are really enjoying living here.

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Our apartment is right in the middle of town, on the top floor of an 'individualista' building. Apparently there were only a few different styles of apartment blocks built during the Soviet-era (making it very easy to shop for apartments) but ours is a unique building, meaning it was more likely to have been occupied by the elite back in the day. To my untrained eye it kind of looks like most other apartment blocks in Shymkent - a massive block of run-down cement with corroded pipes sticking out all over the place. You definitely don't want to start thinking about the safety of the gas pipes or water heaters here! The inside is pretty standard fare for this part of the world too – a different type of floral wallpaper in each room and plumbing which leaves a little to be desired (ie you can’t actually put toilet paper down the toilet here). Our pad is pretty much smack bang in the middle of town which is great for eating out, exploring on foot and generally feeling at one with the city. It is nice to have our own little piece of Shymkent and to feel as though we are part of the community.

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Our flat is top left

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Our living / meeting / bed room

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Soviet storage (i guess they didn't want people to feel like they needed more of anything)

We have been doing lots of exploring around Shymkent – discovering the shops, the main bazaar and all the foreboding statues around town. Shymkent certainly has some quirkier aspects… like the massive MiG fighter plane statue (an ode to WWII pilots who trained here) and the three amusement parks (one of which offered the frightening prize you can see in the picture below.

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Amusement park prize - Turns out the US is looking in the wrong central asia country!

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Food has continued to be a highlight of the trip. It’s not that the Kazzak food is particularly gourmet or even tasty but what is lacks in quality it certainly makes up for in the thrill of surprise. Deciphering a whole menu would take a few hours so we normally spend a few minutes trying to work out as much as we can before the relentless waitresses get the better of us and we end up taking what is effectively a stab in the dark. You win some you lose some, we have certainly won more than we have lost. I thought we were onto a sure thing at the local Mexican joint. We ran through an assortment of Mexican dished until we came across some the waiter seamed to recognize. I got the Burritos and Ev ordered the Tacos. The Burritos were spot on but Evs Chicken and Lemon soup was about as far from Taco as you can get.

After the constant harassment in India, walking around in Shymkent has been fabulous. Most people think that we are Russian until they try to talk to us, and since there are no tourists here, usually people are pretty excited that someone from ‘Afstraliya’ would come to Kazakhstan. However the locals don’t seam to understand that Russian isn’t a universal language and despite pleas of "я не понимаю" (I don’t understand) we still get a barrage of questions in Russki. This is particularly problematic when we get wrong number calls and the caller is sure that if they try hard enough and call back enough times we will miraculously understand, as was the case at 2am last night. From our few Russian lessons I can safely say this ain’t going to happen!

All the people that we have met in Kazakhstan have been incredibly kind and friendly. From the waitresses who patiently perform charades to explain what all the items on the menu are. To the man at the bazaar who decided he wanted to pose with the sheep’s head for me. The other day we went into a shop in the evening to buy Ev a cap he had found and fallen in love with. When we got to the cashier, a big Kazak man appeared, and the cashier informed us that he wanted to buy Ev’s cap for him. We’re not sure if he is normally that generous, or if the fact that he had obviously been drinking played a role. Anyway a few minutes later he gave us his cars number plate (we think he was trying to write his phone number but got muddled) and lots of full body hugs he finally let Ev go.

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One sheeps head please

Apart from local drunkards we have made a few friends. There is a lovely (English speaking) Pakistani guy who works at one of the local internet cafes who takes every opportunity to talk cricket, the bread sellers at the bottom of our building who compete ferociously for our daily 25c bread purchase (I almost started a bread war by switching sellers) and a Russian guy from the other internet place who welcomes Ev with a hearty handshake every time we drop in.

That pretty much sums Shimkent up. It’s a wacky but very friendly place with lots of quirky buildings, monuments, practices and people. We’re having a great time and I think that is largely due to this cool city.

we're not in Kansas anymore Toto,
Lot's of love,
Nat and Ev

Posted by Nat and Ev 07:29 Archived in Kazakhstan Comments (0)

Almaty

Back in the USSR, you don't know how lucky you are boy

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View Round the world in 250 days on Nat and Ev's travel map.

From the moment we stepped off the plane Kazakhstan has been a weird and wonderful experience. Whilst I had been to former Communist countries before this is definitely a completely different kettle of fish. The soviet era is over but the flavour lingers in most aspects of everyday life. On the other hand Kazakhstan is moving forward in leaps and bounds and the Internet Cafe I'm in is top notch - but I think this adds to the complexities that make Kaz a very cool country to spend a few months in.

We flew into Almaty and were greeted by Andrew and Sarah who head up the Aid organisation we will be working with. They had some friends visiting who were due to fly out that night so we had the chance to check out Almaty with Andrew, Sarah, Max and Inga. It has been a mild winter thus far but the whole country had received a decent dump just before we arrived. A fresh coat of snow does wonders for a big dirty city, it's like a fresh lick of paint and Almaty was looking fabulous for our arrival. Within hours of touching down we were out and about making the most of our day in Almaty. First stop was the Chimbulak Ice rink just out of town at the bottom of the ski resort (which we will hopefully be heading to at some stage).

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Next stop was the Green Bazaar to pick up some fermented horse milk and Horse sausage then on to a local Shashlick (similar to shish kebab) restaurant for some traditional Kazakh food and equally traditional Karaoke. After a very early start and a huge day it was time to crash out for 14 hours of Quality sleep.

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The next day we had the chance to go to a Sunday club in Russian. It was a very cool experience hearing some of Hillsong's finest P & W being cranked out in Russian. The best we could do was hum along. After listening to the message through my translator (Andrew) we met a few of the people Crossroads help in Almaty who give disabled kids a chance to learn and experience things that they normally wouldn't have the chance to. This is a hangover from the soviet system where physically and mentally challenged people were segregated and ignored. It was great to meet people who had dedicated themselves to helping others in this way and it was also encouraging to see the end result of CR work before we had even started helping out.

One of the quirky characteristics of Kazakhstanies (both Russians and Kazakhs) is a fear of the cold. You would think they would have developed a thick skin over the centuries but no, they will crank whatever heating system is available to the max. This was particularly evident on the overnight train to Shymkent. Sub zero outside, high twenty's inside. I was uncomfortably hot by the time we had got to our cabin. We resorted to getting off the train wearing less than we should when it stopped to get our core body temperatures down so we could make it through the night without cooking. We were taken to our flat given a few minutes to freshen up then it was straight to work! But more about Crossroads next time.

One of the first things we noticed is that English is pretty much useless here. No signs are written in English and even the most basic phrases / words such as excuse me and sorry are received with a blank look followed by a flurry of Russian / Kazakh / Uzbek or some other variety of Central Asian tongue (not that we can tell the difference!). This also proves problematic at Crossroads where two of the 9 staff don't speak English and two of the staff (Nat and I) don't speak Russian so lots of things need translation. We have taken up the challenge and have decided to learn Russian. Thus far we have just learnt the Cyrillic Alphabet but next week we start tuition which we will have two nights a week (costing us $3.50AU an hour!). Hopefully we will be able to get around and communicate a little better soon.

After the Cold War, the AK-47 became Russia's biggest export. After that came vodka, caviar, and suicidal novelists.

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Ev and Nat

Posted by Nat and Ev 07:59 Archived in Kazakhstan Comments (2)

Delhi India round-up

Count ‘em out, ride ‘em - Rawhide!

sunny 15 °C
View Round the world in 250 days on Nat and Ev's travel map.

Hello hello, Sorry it has been a while. I will start with a really quick update of the last week in India.

By the time we got back to Delhi Nat had been sick for a few days. I had been very sympathetic but my body could no longer resist and I quickly became empathetic. My body with a strong sense of time and place was waiting to reach Delhi before allowing me to feel the joy of Delhi Belly. Three days on the can with an average interval of 20 minutes. I feel like I had a real Delhi experience. We saw a doctor on Day 2 and by Day 3 it was starting to clear up.

We had one day left and decided to make a dash to Agra. We saw the minor sights which were all really great, we even humoured our driver by visiting a few emporiums and almost fell in love with a Persian carpet but as the afternoon got late we decided it was time to bring our time in India to a close in the best possible way, Seeing the Taj Mahal at sunset! All I can say don't go to Agra on a Friday if you want to see the Taj, it's closed. Whilst it was very heart breaking I need to come back to go skiing in Kashmir so I'm sure we will have another chance to see the Mighty Taj.

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That concluded our time in India so we thought we would let you know what India has meant to us.

Nat's thoughts

The first time I came to India I LOVED it. At least I really liked it while I was there, and began to love India in my memories of travelling there. This time my experience of India hasn't been quite so rosy. In part I think this is because the novelty factor wasn't there this time - and so the hard things in India became annoying rather than quirky. And there is a LOT to find annoying in India... I'll just give you my top five:

1. Dogs are everywhere. Now I don't like dogs at the best of times but in India you can't escape the filthy, mangy creatures which roam the streets at all times. I'm sure they all have rabies. And they spent half the night barking.

2. Nothing is clean. We're budget travellers. We know that the hotel rooms we stay in are not going to be luxurious. However, when you start to spent a little bit more money on a hotel room you hope that the result will be at least a new level of cleanliness. Instead our experience has been that more money is more likely to buy you AC or a TV in the room - while the level of scunge remains the same. Nice.

3. Harassment from all corners. Most people will tell you that one of the hardest things about India is how much everyone harasses you. In Delhi if you walk down one of the major streets in a tourist district for 100 metres you are likely to get yelled at by 100 people offering/strongly recommending you take up their offer of a hotel, a rickshaw, a taxi, food, Internet etc etc. And when I walk around without Ev I get a whole other list of offers (usually starting with 'hey sexy baby')! Saying no to these offers usually requires saying no about four times and ignoring people entirely. And it takes its toll - fending off people all day long is exhausting and leaves me feeling like I am completely heartless.

4. People lie to tourists a lot. I know that not everyone in the world is going to be truthful but it did feel as though every second person we met lied to us directly. Most of these experiences did seem to happen in hotels though.

5. India makes you sick. In total I was very sick for a total 7 out of 31 days which is rather more than I would like! And I'm not a sickly person. But Delhi belly is not a joke and seems to happy to everyone, no matter how careful they are.

Now I've had my whinge - I should say that there have been lots of things I have enjoyed about being in India a second time. The places that I have enjoyed the most have been:

1. Munnar - the scenery here was absolutely stunning. Beautiful tea plantations spread for miles around

2. Darjeeling and Gangtok - again the mountain scenery was beautiful and the towns a little bit smaller and more laid back (probably because it was the off-season for them!)

3. Alleppey - this was probably my favourite town. The backwaters were beautiful and wandering around on them offered a lot of insight into people's lives in the area.

4. Delhi - I'm not 100% why I like Delhi so much but I think there is definitely something excellent about big cities where you can explore different sights and areas for days. My favourite moments were when I discovered little shopping enclaves in the middle of nowhere.

Aside from the specific places I loved, it has to be said that the advertising is on the money... India really is incredible. India is an assault on the senses. It is the loudest, most colourful, smelliest place I have ever been too. It has incredible food and drinks, a dense and complex history and offers so much to see and do. And some of the people we met (usually the ones not involved in the tourism game) were incredibly kind. Despite all the harder parts of travelling here I would still recommend that people visit sometime (although maybe only for a couple of weeks :) - I don't think there is another country that is anything like India.

India According to Ev

I'm so glad we came to India. I was really scared about lots of how I was going to cope and on the whole I think I've come through the 5 weeks all the better for having seen India. It's a crazy place and on the whole I have really loved it and I think in time I will look back very fondly and the things we have seen and done.

There are a few things I have come to accept as being quintessentially Indian;
- A horn loud enough to deafen the unlucky soul it's honking at
- The ability to litter no matter how beautiful and pristine your surrounds are
- A complete disregard for personal space
- Hocking spit everywhere and making the most foul noise possible in the process (to be fair I think China has this one won hands down but the Indians are trying to match them)
- Backwards bargaining is expected
- The right to view westerners as a meal ticket. This one was hard to come to terms with. I think we have a strong sense of justice that sometimes clouds the reality that even though we are getting scammed and don't like it, it's only a couple of bucks. It's hard not to overreact.

My three highlights have been:
- The Backwaters of Kerala
- Munnar Hill Station
- Food in India is sensational from Aloo Gobi to Nestle Bar One (30 cents of mars like goodness)

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I still haven't worked out how the little bucket in the toilet is used?? Might save that investigation until next trip!

And the most important statistic....

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Do NOT go in there!
Nat and Ev

Posted by Nat and Ev 08:13 Archived in India Comments (1)

Auli and Rishikesh

And I still haven't found what I'm looking for

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Our quest for snow was, to say the least, an epic. Kashmir has some of the best skiing in Asia and with an airport within 1 hour of the Gulmarg ski area it's a tourist friendly option. Tension between India and Pakistan had been quiet for a while with both countries making an effort to end the 50 year old conflict. When we were planning the trip we were thinking this could be an option pending a pre ski DFAT check. Unfortunately for us and for the people of Kashmir the news wasn't good. Our second option was touted by Lonely Planet as India's premier (non Kashmir) ski resort. We looked in vain for snow reports, web cams, anything to give us an indication of snow. The only report we could get was from one of the hotels in Auli who told us that the lifts were working and people were skiing. We decided to take a punt and headed off for a week in the hills.

Auli is not so tourist friendly. Basically we travelled for two days - a 7 hour train and 1 hour rickshaw on day one and a 11 hour share jeep trip through some of the windiest roads I have ever been on. 300kms of constant s-bends. To be fair the jeep was supposed to only take 6-8 hours but with two rock slides (one assisted by TNT) and a flat tyre it turned into an exhausting day.

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Ganges in the Foothills

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Roadworkers stop traffic for a blast

Auli is a 20 minute gondola ride from its service town Joshimath. Upon arrival in Joshimath we headed to the gondola to get to our accommodation for the night. It was then that the full extent of how bad the ski situation was fully hit home. The manager of the gondola told us that while the gondola was working the other lifts were non operational (due to lack of snow) and our accom was as a result a 3km walk down the hill from top station. Not that keen on a night hike with all our gear we decided to stay in Joshimath and to check out the sitch the next day.

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Mountains behind Joshimath

3am and the Indian cuisine / lack of hygiene (Indias not Nats) finally got the upper hand starting a 12 hour toilet-a-thon for Nat. With 90% of the channels in Hindi and the bad reception due to the mountains we ended up watching ESPN and Animal Planet way way too much. In the process we learnt a lot about the FA cup and snakes care of Austin Stevens, a South African version of Steve Irwin. http://www.animalplanet.co.uk/austinstevens/index.shtml

The next day after some serious medication we were ready to hit the slopes. As we ascended out of the valley the surrounding ranges became visible. It was a truly awe inspiring view and this time the skies were crystal clear. We passed over the place where we intended to stay and realised why the lift wasn't operating. The biggest patch of snow inbounds was 1m by 20m.

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Nat tried on some hi tech boots and took her pick of the fluro straight edge skis and we were off on an uphill hike to find some rideable snow. I resorted to stopping ever 300m or so and providing Nat with Chocolate incentives to keep her momentum up. It worked and by stop 3 (which was at a cool little Buddhist Gompa) we could hear cheering coming from further up the mountain.

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Ev pre hike just above Top Station

We arrived at temporary base camp. Still a good 1000 meters or so to go but at least we knew we would get a run in. It turns out we were far from alone. We had timed our day on the snow to coincide with the Indian Army Uttaranchal Divisions race day. Fortunately they had restricted themselves to a 200m course and the upper slopes were all ours.

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One run was enough punishment for us and we headed back down to Joshimath for some more Austin Stevens. The return journey was just as arduous but we decided to stop in Rishikesh to break it up a little. Rishikesh was made famous by the Beatles who hung out here in an ashram for a few months, writing most of the white album before becoming disillusioned and returning to the UK. Ringo actually went home early because he wanted more meat. What a little trooper.
www.thebeatlesinrishikesh.com
I too became disillusioned very quickly. Such a beautiful town set on the Ganges in the foothills of the Himalayas, it's a shame about all the neo-hippys.

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Holy man, Holy river

Back to Delhi and hopefully a Kazakhstan Visa!



The way I see it, if you're gonna build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?

Ev and Nat

Posted by Nat and Ev 07:09 Archived in India Comments (1)

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