A Travellerspoint blog

Kazakhstan

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

sunny 0 °C
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)

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