A Travellerspoint blog

This blog is published chronologically. Go straight to the most recent post.


Wonderful summer day with lots of sunshine and excitement - boarding the Greyhound bus in direction to the international airport of Montreal is a great way of beginning an adventure of a lifetime. Ahead lays circumnavigation of the world roughly along the 45th parallel with the help of Turkish airlines which conveniently connect the New World with the core of the Old World.
The new international airport of Istanbul, claiming to become one day the largest airport that the world has ever known, is a picturesque pit stop at the shores of the Black Sea. Exceptional enough as it is, it revealed itself in even better light through the balcony of the business class lounge. One can end up there by paying thousands of dollars or by mistake of the computer involving last minute changes to an itinerary and thus spoiling plans concocted eight months in advance. Turkish airlines are apparently no ordinary player in the airline market just because they fly to more countries than any other airline. They have the attitude of serving the customer flawlessly even when the computers fail.P1190970.JPG
After a second sleepless night of airplane seats and whiny brats it is Bishkek airport where the dawn is going to break. Crowds hardly exist and taxis on offer are numerous. Downtown Bishkek is a serious distance away with enough transfer time to get acquainted with the local atmosphere with the help of the driver-cum-guide. Here the first contradiction comes up; Bishkek being famous for its alpine air being polluted by soot belching trucks in front of the very eyes of the newcomer. This minor problem is quickly forgotten in a deep sleep state that follows in a superbly located “Hotel Avenue”.
Next day is filled up with a stroll along the main “Chuy” avenue. This central thoroughfare for many years went under a different name, just like practically all other streets in town, and the confusion that immersed as a result still makes bad jokes on explorers and locals. Mind you the town has a square grid and getting lost is practically impossible. Bishkek has its own version of Soviet glamour with huge central square where all the administrative power is concentrated. The new sacred object is located there, the national flag, backed up by a mythical hero – the horse-riding Manas; the Soviet republic has come into its own for good.
Kyrgyzstan’s claim to fame is not Bishkek though. It is the Tien Shan Mountains and the Issyk Kul Lake that attract the inquisitive folks. The mountain ranges are snow-covered year-round and possess serious trekking opportunities for the people in good shape. The lake offers leisure experience in wonderful natural setting – 1700m high, this second largest alpine lake has water warm enough to let people soak for hours in crystal-clear, slightly-salty liquid. The lake can be a destination on its own as a resort spot on the North Shore or a smart detour (the South Shore) on the way to Karakol, the capital of the region where originally the Russians staged their Central Asian explorations into China.
There are different ways to reach the same goal – public minibuses or private taxi. The first version is very cheap and very crowded which means very hot in the summer and similar experience one can enjoy in Bishkek itself to receive first-hand impressions of the local transport conditions. The second version is a great option when a smart driver offers upgrade with stops along the way as opposed to fast door-to-door transfer. Stops include swimming in the lake, exploring the peculiar “Skazka” formations and visiting an alpine gorge where the first cosmonaut of the world has been.

Posted by assenczo 14:54 Comments (0)

The Planet's Eye

Issyk Kul, the second largest alpine lake in the world at the altitude of 1700m above sea level, is not promising warm waters but its name which literally means “warm lake” is not a misnomer as some specialists would have you believe. The temperature in the summer is such that one can stay immersed for unlimited time without danger of overcooling. The sensation is even more incredible since the lake is surrounded by year-round snow-capped mountains. After this rather sizzling experience one can explore the so-called “Skazka” area which has some peculiar formations but nothing exceptional except for the views of the lake which is the only redemptive feature considering the crowds crawling around backed up by drones buzzing overhead.
The Bokonbaevo road leads up into the heart of the mountains (built and managed by the Canadian firm exploiting the gold mine on the Kyrgyz/China border) and offers easy access to a location enjoyed by the first cosmonaut of the planet – Yuri Gagarin. Conveniently, local part-time nomads have set up camp of yurts with horses for hire handy in case of a need to explore the steep Tien Shan surroundings with their dashing waterfalls and thin mountain air.
At the end of the road that skirts the southern shore of the Issyk Kul Lake lays the capital of the Russian Empire Wild East currently going under the name of Karakol. Its history as a trading post is still visible in the shape of Russian merchant houses from the 19th century and a wooden church of the same era in their vicinity. As if to illustrate the geographical position of the town in the middle of Asia it has also a peculiar mosque built in Chinese style with curled-up roofs, made by the Chinese immigrants who developed the local agriculture. And last but certainly not least the nomadic Kyrgyz side is represented particularly vividly on Sundays during the animal market gathering. So, Karakol has been blessed with quite the variety of attractions considering its remoteness and size.
Just outside the town, practically at the lake side, is the place where the famous Russian (and by extension European) explorer has been laid to rest. Mister Przywalski was a military man with no passion for military service so he managed to obtain from his bosses the permission to follow his heart and become the first “White Man” to stray into the depths of Mongolia and Tibet from the outpost of Karakol. For his achievements and service to the Russian State and Geographical Society he received honours, substantial grave monument and a couple of “things” named after him. Most importantly it was the Przywalski horse – the original wild horse of the planet that as a result of the discovery changed the wilderness of Asia for the finest zoos of the world. Second comes the naming of the town Przywalsk, that same Karakol of nowadays.
Natural extension of any trip to Karakol includes raids into the Tien Shan Mountains but this is not for people who are not physically prepared for tough treks over several days. One half-measure would be the use of the local ski lift but unfortunately for the amateur mountaineers it is closed in summer unless of course some solid amount of dough has been served which makes it unattractive proposition.
Within a couple of days most of the “attractions” are pretty much covered and it is time to go on. One of the most natural things to do is to continue on to Almaty in Kazakhstan but there is a catch. The route back to Bishkek and the border post adjacent to it is a waste of time (but not money most surprisingly). There is a border post east of Karakol which is not developed and has been opened only in the last several years in the summer months. As a result, the public transport is non-existent and hence the private transportation niche is slightly opened. There are a couple of internet-promoted businesses that do just that - transfers from Karakol to Almaty with a stop at the Charyn Canyon thrown in (if desired for an extra fee). Both options are expensive but not prohibitively and considering the lack of competition it becomes obvious that they offer a good service for a “fair” price. The company that offered the better price was managed by certain Sergey who was very prompt during the internet communication and later as well. His problem and by extension his customers’ problem was the fact that he did not control fully his “employees” or drivers who were trying to up-sell in direct negotiations with the customers once they were in the vehicles. The first one chosen for the Bishkek – Karakol leg of the journey was a rather pleasant fellow who offered the “upgrade”, quoted the price and waited for “yes” or “no” answer. The second man though was a “businessman” of the crookish variety who made some shenanigans in order to extort 15 extra US dollars. This amount is not going to bust somebody’s budget (especially those folks’ on around-the-world trips) but to leave a very unpleasant aftertaste it certainly can which is to be remembered and communicated with the world. It is not clear why similar types of people (who are thumbing incessantly their smart phones) would try to cheat in the modern circumstances of internet web-chats, Facebooks and so on “word-of-mouth” tools. It is simply counterproductive in the long run.

Posted by assenczo 14:54 Comments (0)

"Arizona" and Almaty

There is a natural phenomenon located midway between Karakol and Almaty. The Charyn Canyon is promoted as similar to the Grand Canyon in the US South West. Unfortunately, these folks who say so have no idea what they are talking about. Nevertheless, it is a pleasant stop along the route and worth the visit. The problem is that the drivers have to do return trip Almaty – Karakol – Almaty in a day to make it worthwhile which does not leave much time for fooling around in the canyon (one or one and a half hour max when three hours are needed) which of course is not ideal. Moreover, in the best traditions of how to ruin a place the local “businessmen” have devised a taxi service into the canyon itself for the unfortunate many who are in a rush or do not want to walk up or down or both. So, Goodbye Nature! Long Live Administrative Mediocrity!
Almaty is the former Alma Ata – capital of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic of the USSR. It lost its capital status to Nursultan, former Astana, Akmoly, Akmolinsk, Tzelinograd and Akmola!?! Do we have a problem here? Anyway, Almaty of today is a beautiful city in a magnificent setting at the foothills of the Tien Shan Mountains. The city has a simple grid layout (made confusing for drivers by one-way streets) with boulevards lined with stately buildings and numerous fountains. The mountain waters have been tamed into a maze of canals, some of them visible along the streets. All the fountains are festively lit during the night and are a wonderful place for the locals to congregate and the visitors to soak up the atmosphere. Major landmarks include the humongous central square with is administrative buildings and President’s slogans hung upon them. The central museum is located close by, covered with turquoise dome, very much reminiscent of the mosques of Samarkand. The food and beverage “scene” is thriving along newly pedestrianised avenues in a myriad of properties and styles. The hotels seem to offer exceptional value for money even in the very center of the city. Gems of architecture include the only surviving building from the tsarist era – a “gaudily” coloured church in a lovely park joined by memorial to the victories of the WWII. A museum stuffed with musical instruments from Bulgaria to Japan and every other country in-between is located nearby.
The best spot for great vistas is a hill not far from downtown, made even closer by a snazzy cable car, where locals love to go for R&R. Major attractions include the upside-down house, the Beatles Monument and the TV tower (unfortunately off limits to the plebs).
In short this is the best urban area in Central Asia by far and worth a visit despite its politically declining status and the lack of modern steel-plus-glass monstrosities.

Posted by assenczo 14:58 Comments (0)

Samarkand's comeback

Almaty – Samarkand is a short hop by plane. Well, the flight involves the inescapable change of planes and more importantly, terminals in Tashkent – the hub of Uzbekistan Air. If it is not stressful it must be comical – exactly the way it feels now – miles of distance and months of time away. First, the Uzbek service desk person explains that your hand luggage is too big and has to be checked under, despite the fact that it has travelled around half the world to get there in this shape and form. While she is receiving some mild resistance for this frivolity the (what must have been) boss comes by and promptly asks about the nationality of the passenger. When informed that the person in question is a proud holder of Canadian passport suddenly the mood changes and the Boss authorises a laisser-passer on board with the original hand luggage. WOW! Canada has a spell over Uzbekistan! All Canadians are to rush over before the fascination has disappeared and the magnanimity has gone with it!
Feeling good, one (the Canadian) boards, flies and lands at the international terminal of the Tashkent airport. The domestic airport uses the same airstrip but the building is at the opposite side of the runway. As a result, taxi is needed which in turn calls for money changer (not that the taxi driver won’t take crispy US dollars). Well, there is more than one passenger trying to do just that. Time passes quickly (and it seems to pass even more quickly when trying to catch the next plane) while young bank employees count the enormous amounts of local soms equivalent to a couple of USD banknotes.
Next stage is the taxi-hiring process. The first line of taxis advertises more expensive rides and the vehicles are right there to be looked at. The price is a bit steep and being in Central Asia it is always worth to look around for a bargain. And the bargain itself comes up to the seeker in the shape of an aspiring businessman who has his vehicle parked a bit further, in the parking lot. For the amount of 5USD the passage is guaranteed, and then a little impromptu interview with the airline ticket handler about possible immigration to Canada is staged while the bags are checked under and the traveler is off to Samarkand - the place of legends.
What is legendary about the Samarkand airport though is the cumbersome delivery of the checked bags. The airport does not seem to have a belt somewhere in the bowels of the building and the luggage is delivered into the departure hall by truck and than by hand. Maybe improvements are on their way but meanwhile thank God that the tourism industry has not caught up to the news that Samarkand is “on sale” and Uzbekistan is a visa-free destination.
After this unusual “off-load” comes the usual taxi bargaining and with some stamina and luck the passage is negotiated to the liking of both parties involved; the visitor is crammed into a small Korean car, besieged by new sights and taxi offers for new trips on his merry way into new-old Samarkand.
Samarkand has several spots of particular interest that include the rejuvenated Tamerlane Tomb, Registan Square, Shah-i-Zinda Necropolis plus mosques and mausoleums in-between. The intellectual dilemma or the dilemma for intellectuals is whether what has been done in renovation terms is done properly. Some folks apparently cry foul that the monuments have been practically ruined because of over-reconstruction while others seem to enjoy what they get without too much hesitation. The first group employ old pictures from the 19th centuries when Samarkand was the exotic place to visit for Russian adventurers, explorers and military men. The scenes are of utter devastation by time and poverty. If this was the state to be preserved it would not have been fare to the contemporary visitors or to the monuments since Samarkand of legends is Samarkand of its heyday not of its demise. So, despite the unconvincing details here and there visible from very close range, it seems preferable to have this version of grandeur than its miserable relative.

Posted by assenczo 15:08 Comments (0)

Tamerlane's Source

An extra day is needed in order to reach and enjoy Shahrisabz, a neighbour of Samarkand’s. In the vicinity of this town with hard-to-pronounce name the famous/ infamous Tamerlane was born. Despite this claim to fame Shahrisabz is nowhere near the architectural marvel of Samarkand – the capital of the Tamerlane’s Empire. There was no Uzbekistan in that time so he made his own empire stretching from Mongolia to the east and Istanbul to the west, Siberia to the north and Indian Ocean to the south. While most of his victims are cursing the day he was born, the beneficiaries of his military exploits in modern day Uzbekistan have to only revere him. Not much is left of Tamerlane’s presence - just two towering ruins left practically untouched by modern-day restorers, all for the minimalists to enjoy. What is even more enjoyable though is the populace itself especially on Saturday morning when all wedding couples seem to take their photos on the way to eternal happiness. There is particular style of wedding dress and matching hair dress that make them all look alike, all fourteen of them on this particular sunny day. They love to pose for/with foreigners and it is not clear who is more excited to be in each others’ photo albums or Instagram series. All this activity is presided over by imposing Tamerlane monument perfectly fitting in the perspective with Tamerlane ruins.

Posted by assenczo 15:09 Comments (0)

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