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Journal Entry:

Monday, October 27, 2003 03:34:37

Central Asia 2003: 15 - Kazakhstan

Saturday, October 25, 2003

We made our escape from the hotel at 8 AM and returned to the café we ate in last night for breakfast. I got my emails caught up while waiting for breakfast to be prepared. Now it is my turn for the trots - I spent most of the night wearing a groove in what little carpet there was between bed and bathroom. It seems to have settled down a bit today, a small mercy I'm thankful for.

It was a beautiful sunny day, so we made several photo stops along with way to break up the monotony of the drive. The bouncing around on bad roads did little to improve the state of my insides. We followed right along the Kazakhstan border for a long while. At one point the road actually crossed into Kazakhstan for a couple of kilometres with no border checks. There were two gas stations located on this stretch, as gas is cheaper in Kazakhstan, so the driver filled up. It was a surprise to see that the border was unguarded - not even a watch-tower. It would be easy to walk across the small river that forms the border.

The driver and guide stopped at a road side stand to stock up on onions and watermelon. The former was going for twelve cents a kilo, and the latter for four cents a kilo. We could see a large factory with high smokestacks on the outskirts of Bishkek. The guide explained it is a coal fired hot water plant that supplies residents of Bishkek with hot water heating.

We made a lunch stop just before the border, then proceeded through a long line of traffic into Kazakhstan without incident, arriving at the Otrar Hotel in Almaty in smog and heavy traffic at 7 PM. Arrangements were made to have us picked up in the morning for a tour before the guide and driver headed back to Bishkek.

The hotel is an old Intourist Hotel, but has been extensively renovated and is not bad. The buffet dinner mediocre, but it was certainly a major step up from the Issyk Kul Hotel!

Sunday, October 26, 2003

Almaty, a city of one million, was capital of Kazakhstan until 1998, when it was moved far to the north to Astana, where the population is largely Russian. At 2,717,300 sq. km. this is the tenth largest country in the world. It is very rich in oil, gas and minerals, including uranium. The population is around 17 million.

Our guide Nazira and a driver with a new Mercedes mini-bus picked us up to show us around. The political situation here is similar to that in other former soviet republics. The president was the secretary of the Communist Party and has been in power since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The constitution allows him two 6 year terms. Trying to shake off the mentality of the Communist era is proving every bit as difficult for people here as elsewhere. That coupled with corruption is holding the country back.

Education is free to grade 11, when those who can go on to university. There are only 500,000 students in the entire country counting, all levels.

The Russians came to Kazakhstan by invitation in 1830 when the government was concerned about being attacked by China and never left. There were a number of uprisings against the Russians that were violently put down, the last one in 1996, only a few years before independence.

The Russians built Almaty starting in 1854. It is a pleasant city, with lots of trees and parks. Most embassies and consuls did not move to the new capital, and neither did the financial and banking sector. The new capital is out in the middle of the steppes, has a harsh climate and absolutely nothing anywhere near it where Almaty has mountains, clear rivers and forests on it's doorstep.

After touring the well done museum, where all written descriptions were only in Russian, we took a walk through part of the city. There is a beautifully restored 54 meter high wooden Russian Orthodox Church in the park. In the main part of the park wedding parties were everywhere, being Sunday. A big surprise was the number of American made stretch limos that had been hired for the occasion!

We drove a short distance into the mountains where there is a popular national park. At the foot of a high earth dam is an enormous outdoor skating rink. We decided to have lunch at an outdoor café in the shade of the spruce trees. It has turned into a very hot day, but this was eased by ample cold beer.

Marilynn was pleased to note that this city has the cleanest public washrooms to date - they are not great, but are survivable in comparison to the many others we have experienced in other countries. After lunch was shopping - no avoiding it! There is a large, quite upscale shopping area with a wide pedestrian street several blocks long. Everything was open, in spite of it being Sunday. It ended only a block from our hotel, so Marilynn and I strolled back that way, stopping at a sidewalk café for a cold drink on the way. The guide and the others had long since gone their own way.

We all decided to try a Czech restaurant that the guide recommended, located only a block from our hotel. Jim was down again with the tacky tummy, so Tom joined us with the last bottle of the Tajikistan wine and away we went. It turned out to be a great recommendation - the meal was fabulous and the two singers who provided entertainment very good. Beer was downed with the meal, after which we had the waiter open the wine and provide glasses - that has been no problem in any of the restaurants we have been in throughout Central Asia. Bringing your own wine to a restaurant that sells it is quite normal. When we finished we headed back to the hotel to try to get a little sleep.

Monday, October 27, 2003

Neither Marilynn nor I got any sleep, so were still awake when we had to get up at 2 AM. The driver and guide picked us up and we were taken to the airport to catch out 5 AM flight to Istanbul. There were no problems with immigration or customs, and the plane was on time. It was an airbus 310 - a large plane with rows of two seats on each side and four seats in the middle. We fortunately got two outside seats on an exit row with loads of leg room, so both were able to catch up on a little sleep.

On arrival in Istanbul we had some drama. I wanted to check to see if our luggage was off loaded here, but to do that it was necessary to clear customs. To clear customs it is necessary to purchase visas for 45 dollars each. I got into a battle with a guy in the visa area, then retreated to try to find someone with a brain in the transit area. Staff here were also treating travellers very rudely, but we finally got the supervisor who explained that it was not possible to get to the luggage area without a visa, but he assured me that our bags would be transferred from Turkish Airways to Jugoslav Airways with no problem - he has a lot more confidence than I do.

He also explained that we could check in for our 6:50 PM flight after 4:50 PM, and that he would give us a pass to enter the transit area provided we left our passports and tickets with him. He finally agreed to hold only the tickets, but would give us no receipt for them. Our original plan was to go into Istanbul for Marilynn to shop and to take a day room in a hotel for a base of operations. By the time we added the 90 dollars in visas to almost 100 in taxi fares, plus a hotel room, it was pretty impractical. I'm also concerned about getting too far from a toilet.

We each had a Burger King hamburger for lunch, then I paid the day admission for use of one of the first class lounges, which includes use of Internet on the most horrible computer I've ever used. It has a Turkish keyboard and each key must be pounded to have it work. The lounge is nice, however and time is not a factor. Next stop is Belgrade for two nights if we get our tickets back, and the question of the day is WILL OUR LUGGAGE MAKE IT?