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Old 29th July 2013, 22:23   #1
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Default Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan

A cold Russian welcome by Kyrgyzstan!

It was 8:45pm by the clock, the sun has just set behind the mountains. The dial gauge read -2°C outside, both of us were cold, wet and shivering like a leaf. We were wearing the only warm clothes we had got for the trip. The rarefied air was a bit difficult to breathe in. The car had refused to start after multiple cranks, the engine was still warm, the rear tyre was completely flat, the jack was broken and the flat tyre had refused to come out. The nerves were still frayed an hour and a half after the vehicle had skid wildly on the gravelly, slushy track on which the tyre had burst while the vehicle was doing 80kmph.

The wide plain nearby was filled with snow - and impossible to camp, and our little stove was not working. It had been around three hours since we had seen any vehicle cross us - and we had little hope of finding one during the impending night ahead. There was no in-habitation for at least a 20km behind us and 50km in front of us...

We had come looking for adventure in Central Asia, and it did not disappoint...
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Old 29th July 2013, 22:31   #2
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Default In a nutshell

Our first ever international trip abroad after 6 years of togetherness. A road trip in a land unknown, all alone, with a language unknown. Just the two of us, crazy enough to undertake such an adventure. To experience something new altogether, to make new friends, to discover a different way of living and to enjoy our solitude.

The trip gave us a taste of all kinds of adventures - a continuously changing plan at the spur of the moment, a strenuous day hike through a canyon on a blazing hot day, roads that are just not fit to be called motor-able, being caught in a blizzard with a burst tyre, camping in the middle of nowhere, coming close to the infamous Torugart pass to China, getting stuck in slush with all 4 tyres dug in, a road which scared the living hell out of us and an SUV which could take it all in its stride.

The travellers: Aarti & Harsh
The machines: An Airbus, 2x2 legs, buses, taxis & a rented 4x4 Toyota Land Cruiser

The journey covered the two erstwhile Russian nations of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in a span of 16 memorable days. A glimpse of the journey to be shared:

The route

The region of interst, Source: Google maps
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Our approximate route-map, Source: Google maps
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Day 1: Delhi - Almaty (1650km as the crow flies)

The barren beauty of Tajikistan, another Central Asian superstar of a country
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Day 2: A walk in Almaty (11km)

Zenkov Cathedral in the heart of Almaty city, Panfilov park.
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Day 3: Almaty - Charyn Canyon - Almaty (430km by bus & 8km by foot)

A hot day to remember, at the Charyn Canyon east of Almaty
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Day 4: Almaty - Big Almaty lake - Yurt Camps near Almaty (50km)

The azure Big Almaty lake, where the city draws it water supplies from
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Day 5: Camp - Bus Stand in Almaty - Bishkek (240km by taxi)

Manas, the national icon of Kyrgyzstan, watches over the peaks south of Bishkek
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Day 6: Around Bishkek - Ala Archa National park (40km)

A walk to remember in the Ala Archa National park
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Day 7: Ala Archa NP - Bishkek - Tamchy (Issyk Kol) (250km)

An evening to remember at Tamchy, on the northern shores of Lake Issyk Kol.
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Day 8: Tamchy - Kok Airyk Pass - Cholpon Ata - Gregoriveka NP - Karakol (230km)

As idyllic setting as one could hope for, inside Gregoriveka National Park
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Day 9: The mountains around Karakol (90km)

A burial mound close to the city of Karakol
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Day 10: Karakol - Jeti Oguz - Kumtor Gold mines - Karakol (360km)

The heaviest snowfall we've ever experienced, yet!
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Day 11: Karakol - Kara Sai (167km)

A campsite to remember, at Kara-Sai vast plains
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Day 12: Kara Sai - Karakolka - Kara Sai - Kochokor (350km)

A reflection to remember, near an unknown, unmarked lake
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Day 13: Kochkor - Naryn - At Bashy (300 km)

A sunset to remember, near At-Bashy village
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Day 14: At Bashy - Tash Rabat - Torugart Pass - Song Kol (450km)

A drive to remember, towards Torugart Pass in China
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Day 15: A circumnavigation of Song Kol - Bishkek (400km)

The crown jewel of Kyrgyzstan, Song Kol lake
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Day 16: Bishkek - Almaty (240km by taxi)

A hostess to remember, Zoya and her guest house Crocus, Bishkek
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Day 17: Almaty - Delhi (1650km as the crow flies)

A meal to remember, Beshbarmak, boiled horse meat
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Old 29th July 2013, 22:33   #3
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The prelude & logistics
Before we start sharing the actual drive, it would only be fair on my part to throw some light on the long and painful process through which the logistics were eventually sorted out. Afterall the pre-trip logistics are what makes a 2 weeks’ trip stretch to much more than that - and an after trip blog extends it furthermore. The length and the pain can be felt if you chose to read a rather dull and long account of the logistics, or you can skip the bull, and start reading the meatier part when the log actually begins

When to go
This was the simplest decision of them all. Aarti’s employment contract was ending by end of June so she was practically jobless for the two following weeks. As for me, I had no seminar / conferences to attend during the first week of July and any unplanned activity could easily be rescheduled at a later stage. So the trip date was precise and fixed almost 4 months in advance, between 29th June and 14th July.

Where to go

We decided to go somewhere ‘abroad’ for our next big vacation, however deciding on which country to go to was the most difficult part. We evaluated many ideas such as a road-trip in Europe - to one in the US, followed by the Trans-siberian train from Moscow to Vladivostok and a road trip in Kazakhstan.

Given our dates, Europe was quickly pushed off the table. It would have been just too expensive during the peak summer vacations. All it took us to decide against it was to watch a movie on the Trans-Siberia rail. Don’t get me wrong, the trip would have been awesome but it would have been difficult for us to just sit in a train for 7 days at a stretch. Probably this would have to be undertaken, when we develop that kind of patience and I guess this would come as we age.

Kazakhstan seemed like an interesting option, the flights were cheap and it seemed like a vast country which was largely uninhabited. However a possibility to do a west-coast US trip lured us away from Kazakhstan early on. By mid-Feb a lot of research was done on a west-coast US trip after getting inputs from friends and a solid itinerary was finalized thanks to a close friend. By first week of March we even vetted the plan with our proposed co-travelers when I was in New York City.

With both of us already in possession of a valid US visa all that was needed to be done was to book tickets, hotels, car rentals and just go. But somewhere fate interrupted. A conference, that Aarti had to organize, was tentatively scheduled sometime in July for which the dates could not be confirmed as early as March. As a lot of you know might know, travel bookings to the US are purely market driven and hence late reservations typically cost a bomb, specially if it is near the 4[SUP]rth[/SUP] of July weekend. Thus we had to drop our US plan and immediately we begun revisiting our Kazakhstan plan - a bit more seriously, this time.
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Old 29th July 2013, 22:35   #4
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Arranging for visas

A couple of week was all it took us to finalize our destination as primarily Kyrgyzstan with a bit of Kazakhstan. Being mountain lovers we had to chose Kyrgyz(KG) over Kazakh (KZ), specially during the summer months when temperatures in the plains of KZ soar to over 37°C.

Finalizing the destination was easy, however arranging for visa to visit these countries was another story. The arrival and departure had to be from Almaty in Kazakhstan as it had a direct 3 flight from Delhi, implying relatively cheaper return tickets to the tune of 22k INR per person. Compared to this a flight to Bishkek would have been around 55k INR per person. So to save on costs, we had to obtain a dual entry visa for KZ and a single entry for KG.

These countries have a Russian past and gained their independence back in 1991. However, the visa system is that of an era bygone. To obtain a visa, one has to get an invitation letter from a government recognized travel agency of these countries. They, in turn, charge a hefty amount for this invitation plus one needs to book ‘something’ through them in order for them to invite someone. This particular requirement is specially for non-EU and non-American tourists.

For a typical tourist, this constraint might not have been a bummer, however for us it was almost a deal breaker. We wanted an itinerary with no-set-fixed-English-breakfast schedule. We wanted it to be flexible like all our trips and wanted no taxis or buses. We craved for the flexibility of driving on our own. We wanted to try to communicate with locals without the convenience of a driver who could interpret. We wanted to take on the challenge on discovering a little known country all on our own, at our own pace and at our own terms. Needless to say, travel agents do not like that. Heck, most travel agents we got in touch with could not even understand English language let alone the concept of a trip we craved for.

After getting in touch with almost everyone we could find in KZ and KG, we were finally able to locate one such angel in Almaty, who was an up and coming tour operator. So Madina Dyussabaeva comes into the picture so does her agency ‘Centra Asia Birding Ltd’. She understood our needs, but more importantly our passion. She promised, and later turned true to her promise, to deliver us invitation letter for both the countries. She also promised to help us with arranging vehicles at both the places. We in turn promised to book the services we required in KZ from her, which included accommodation & a rental vehicle.

Since she was based in KZ, the second step was now to search for a tour operator in KG who could invite us and at the same time give us a rental vehicle. We were already in the last week of April and we had to clues on the KG visa part! To turn matters to worse, Madina could not find a tour operator willing to give us an invitation without advance hotel bookings in KG.

Thankfully, I had been in touch with a certain travel agency in Bishek by the name of Advantour, in early March, but they had quoted an exorbitant price for the invitation letters for KZ. I requested Madina, to get in touch with her and negotiate on our behalf. Thankfully Advantour agreed on Madina’s price offer, and promised to release our invitation letter with a rider that we had to book our rental vehicle through them. More on that later- but we agreed on their terms with a look at the prices on offer.

Kazakh Visa Invitation Letter
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Kyrgyz Visa Invitation Letter
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The visa application at their embassies in Delhi was a cakewalk. In fact, I recall a funny incident here with the Kazakh embassy in Delhi.

We were in Vasant Vihar doing some household chores at a market there, when we crossed the embassy of Kazakhstan. Knowing that we would have to come the next day to apply for our visa, we stopped by and asked the security guard of the embassy timings. The reply was shocking: “Aap kabhi bhi aa jaaye, 10 baje ke baad, passport to humko hi lena hai”. (You can come here at any time after 10am and I will take the passport from you).

Now in any normal situation one would expect to give to one’s passport to an embassy official so the statement was a bit unnerving and we considered it as a joke. The next day, true to his word, the security guard was found in a tin shed garage at the back of the embassy collecting everyone’s passport in broad daylight! It was a weird procedure, but hey whatever works . The Kyrgyz embassy was much more sophisticated though and much more emptier. KZ is visited by many Indians specially ONGC officials given the company’s interests in the oil industry there. The KG embassy guys have hardly any work to do with few tourists or business travelers headed towards Bishkek.
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Old 29th July 2013, 22:37   #5
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Money Transfer

When it came to payments, Madina was more used to a Western Union money transfer from her international customers. However, it is virtually impossible to send money out of India via that route. I asked her if she can somehow charge via paypal or charge my credit card. The response was negative. The only other route known to me was a wire transfer, but as many would know doing an international wire transfer in India is not a piece of cake with many banks mixing up between a IBAN no. , swift codes and account no. easily. It took me almost 3 weeks to get the transfer across to her after one failed attempt. An amount of 280 USD was transferred, of which only 250 reached her - the rest was accepted as transaction charges by the bank. A hefty sum to pay for a stupid wire transfer. With money in her account, her suspicion that I might be a non-serious tourist was lifted and more so when I sent her a copy of our non-cancellable Air Astana flight from Delhi to Almaty. We mutually agreed to undertake cash currency transfer from here onwards to save on wire transfer charges. This worked well for her as well, as like India, KZ & KG businesses appreciate cash business over bank-account-business - thereby saving on taxes they are supposed to pay to the government.

Arranging for Transportation

We had requested Madina to arrange a car rental for us for the days we were in KZ. The rental rates that she turned up were actually not that bad and in the range of 6,500 Tenge to 20,000 Tenge (2.5k - 8k INR) per day. The vehicles were Subaru Imprezza, Pajero and Montero and the quotation included insurance. However these came with a pre-condition of only being used within a 50km radius of Almaty, which was a deal breaker. Even after getting in touch with a lot of car rental companies in KZ, I was unable to get a deal where-in I could use the rental vehicle far away in the countryside. So we had to settle for taxis, buses and other modes of conveyance during our KZ leg of the trip. This also led to shortening of the KZ leg, but more on that later.

It was quite surprising to have found a car rental company in Bishkek, KG, relatively easily. Advantour sent us a quotation in which the cheapest car (Lexus RX300 - 2001 model) was priced at $115 a day and the most expensive (Lexus GX470 - 2004 model) was at $140 a day for a period of 11-15 days. The other cars that lay between that range were Pajeros, Landcruisers, Toyata 4 Runners & Prados.

Lexus GX 470 Source: Evi Auto Center (Car Rental Agency)
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Toyotal Land Cruiser 100 Source: Evi Auto Center (Car Rental Agency)
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Lexus RX 300 Source: Evi Auto Center (Car Rental Agency)
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This was quite a hefty sum to pay for a car rental, but they did not have cheaper cars to rent out. I can understand now, why they don’t rent out cheaper cars, it would be apparent to you as well as the log proceeds. We initially decided to take the cheapest car of the lot but then decided to spend more and get a Toyota Landcruiser (TLC) instead. The logic was simple, We would never be able to buy a TLC in our lifetime so why not enjoy driving one, even for a few days. The additional cost would have been $10 a day, a price worth paying for a TLC over a Pajero . The flipside was that it was a 2001 model, but the travel agent assured me of a good condition vehicle, a promise that they delivered upon in true style.

A side note is worth mentioning here, the TLC was quoted at $150 a day for 5-10 days and $125 a day for 11-15. We had initially planned for 10 days in KG but extended it by one day to actually help reduce our rental cost by $125 in total and even getting us an extra day. That was a tad stupid on the car rental company pricing policy.

So with a rental rate of $125 a day, with a limited mileage of 250kms a day and an additional charge of $0.35 per km we were all set with our car. To add to that, they had asked for a $1000 refundable deposit in case of damages, fair enough I’d say.
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Old 29th July 2013, 22:39   #6
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One of the biggest challenge in traveling alone in Central Asia is the language barrier. There are hardly people who can speak or understand any form of English. The only unifying language these countries had was Russian, although Kazakh have a different official language and so do the Kyrgyz people. In order to make it logistically possible for us to visit these regions, and do something on our own, we had to learn a bit of Russian to begin with.

Work on this had started sometime in early March when evenings were spent memorizing the Cyrillic alphabet and trying to memorize simple words. There was no point in looking at the nuances of grammar as that would have been an overkill. The stress was more on building as much vocabulary as possible, understanding simple phrases and questions in Russian and hope for the best.

We ended up having a big print out hung on our bedroom wall with Cyrillic alphabets and russian words for a good 3 months and our mobiles and Kindles filled with English-Russian-English dictionaries. The hard work did pay off at a lot of places, specially while ordering food and staring at menus with Russian all over it. And to be damn honest, a part of the excitement of the trip was this challenge itself.

The hanging on the wall (Source: Google Images)
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Travel Literature

It was practically impossible to find logs and blogs writtien in English on the region so we had to rely completely on travel books that we had at our disposal. Books like Lonely Planets are an excellent place to begin researching about a country. In our case they failed to deliver the goods as they hardly have a 40 page book on a country like Kyrgyzstan and a similar sized section on a country as huge as Kazakhstan.

Thus began our search for better and detailed literature which would serve as a detailed guide. Searching in offline bookstores turned to be futile as they are packed with more regular international destinations. Amazon and their Indian competitors came to our rescue. These were the books we referred to:

Bradt Travel guide to Kyrgyzstan (print edition by flipkart)
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Kazakhstan by Justin Dodge (Kindle Edition - Amazon)
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Roaming Kyrgyzstan by Jessica Jacobson (Kindle Edition - Amazon)
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Old 29th July 2013, 22:41   #7
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Maps & Directions

Whether it be an international trip or a national one there is no replacement for the amount of information one can take out from Google Earth. We spent months pondering on different regions, clicking on geo-tagged photographs of various locations and off-the-road places to finalize our places of interests. Some of these were as mentioned in guidebooks, but others were not. We even interacted with a couple of fellas who had done extensive motor-biking tours in Kyrgyzstan and had uploaded geo-tagged images on Panoramio. Sadly, they did not know much English and thus extracting too much information out of them was difficult.

A screenshot of how Google earth was abused by us
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As for Navigation, I would have to take a pause and thank Tanveer for that. Him introducing Zanavi and openstreetmaps to me was one of the best things that could happen on our trip. The pre-marked road tracks as well as my own manually marked GPS tracks worked beautifully for all the off-road adventure we embarked upon this trip.


It was supposed to be do-your-own-thing trip with a very flexible itinerary, thus booking anything in advance did not make any sense. Armed with oru books and our tent we were well equipped to take a last minute call at any point inside the country. However, we did have to book a hotel in Kazakhstan and Aarti eventually narrowed it down to Sarai-shik, a hotel on the outskirts of Almaty. Madina, gladly helped us in arranging for the same.
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Old 29th July 2013, 22:42   #8
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Culture, Customs and Clothing

Both of the countries are predominantly Muslim, but because of a Russian past, one could hardly feel they practice any form of religion in these countries. In our 16 days of traveling around, we found 2 women wearing Hijaabs, and that too with uncovered faces! We met plenty of people drinking Vodka merrily in pubs, restaurants, outside in the streets and on the highway! Safety was hardly a concern (apart from lunatic drivers on the road), since all reports pointed to a country which was much more safer to travel than India for men and women alike. We had to do a bit of reading on their cultural practices and norms as well to ensure that we do not end up offending locals on our travel. This was particularly useful in the interiors of Kyrgyzstan.

Financials & Estimates

A biggest area of concern for any traveler is of course the budget itself. So far we had been quite frugal on our trip spendings in the past, but an endeavor of this proportion was about to cost us a bomb. A careful and in-depth planning was done to estimate accommodation, fuel, visa, flight and all other related costs. The google-doc itself spanned 14 individual sheets, with each one cross-referencing the other and picking up items like conversion rates and eventually it came up a with a total budget for multiple itineraries as they evolved. (Yes, geek alert.)

The careful planning did help us on budgeting nicely so that there were no bummer of finding any hidden costs later on. The contingencies were well accounted for and this way we enjoyed each moment of our trip despite minor cost escalations.

We had budgeted 3.4 lakhs for the trip excluding contingencies. We ended up shelling out 3.25 lakhs in total. So the percentage change from budget was hardly 5% and that too on the lesser side which made us happier. Although much of this would be attributed to a far over-estimation of food & accommodation in Kyrgyzstan while under-estimating contingencies & other hidden expenses. Luckily for us, In the end, they kind of balanced each other out.

A breakup of costs (estimates only) among major heads
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The Itinerary

The planned itinerary before the trip looked like this:
Day 1 : Delhi - Almaty (flight)
Day 2: Almaty city (walk)
Day 3: Almaty - Charyn canyon - Almaty (bus)
Day 4: Almaty - Big Almaty lake - Yurt camps in the mountains near Almaty. (taxi & walk)
Day 5: Camp - Bus stand - Bishkek (taxi, bus & walk)
Day 6: Bishkek city (we were supposed to get our car on this day) (car rental from here onwards)
Day 7: Bishkek - Cholpon Ata (Issyk Kul)
Day 8: Cholpon Ata - Karakol
Day 9: Karakol - Barskoon
Day 10: Barskoon - Kara Sai (camp)
Day 11: Kara Sai - Barskoon - Naryn province (camp)
Day 12: Camop - Naryn - Tash Rabat (yurt camps)
Day 13: Tash Rabat - Torugart pass (china border) - Bosogo (camp)
Day 14: Bosogo - Song Kul (yurt camp)
Day 15: At Song Kul (rest day/ buffer day)
Day 16: Songkul - Bishkek - Almaty (car rental return - bus to Almaty)
Day 17: Almaty - Delhi (flight)

Obviously, the best laid plans change on a road trip and that adds to the charm of the whole thing. We had our plans changed, and altered. Even the draft itinerary had a gaping hole, as we were trying to do an “un-marked” road from Kara Sai to China border, but were unsure of the exsitence of that track.

Border Permits
As we were traveling pretty close to the Chinese border in KG, we had to pre-arrange our border permits. It cost us $40 a head and was arranged by Advantour with any fuss.
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Old 29th July 2013, 22:44   #9
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Default Pre-trip hiccups


The weight limit on Air Astana was 20kg for the check-in-baggage (per person) with an additional 8kg as carry on. We began to pack our bags a couple of days in advance for the trip to ensure maximum efficiency. Weather predictions in these countries showed the general temperature to be in the range of 12 - 35 degree celsius, so we decide to pack as few woolens as possible. As there were camping nights, so we had to pack in our tents and sleeping bags too. There were not going to many laundry days, as it would have been expensive so we thought of maximizing on layered clothing. However with everything packed the way it was we were exceeding our weight limit by quite some margin.

Eventually we ended up buying an ultra-lightweight tent which we had our hearts set on, for quite sometime. A Quechua 3 men-tent for 7500 bucks. We decided not to take our sleeping bags, instead we decided to buy a quilt at Bishkek and donate it on the way back to someone in need. This way we economized on our weight and volume constraint, and maybe get the return on investment by spending less on expensive and cleaner accommodation.

A laptop was a necessity since it makes life so much more convenient with a barrage of gadgets from phones, to tabs and multiple charging equipment for the car. Again thanks to Tanveer for lending his Belkin car power inverter. That was a godsend for the trip.

Disasters just before the trip

There’s a saying among travelers that the few days before the trip are the days most crucial for its success. If traveling in groups, partners often back out during the last few days. If the car has to break down, it does so a day before. If there’s an urgent meeting planned, it happens a couple of days before the trip.

For us, it was a call by our landlord for evicting our premises rented for the past 6 years and a front page news item mentioning a crashing rupee. We had to shift flats, a week before our departure - It was a painful and exhausting task, but it was done. Had it not been for our non-refundable flight tickets, we might have postponed the trip by a week. Anyone who has ever shifted a set household could sympathize with us on this front.

The rupee had slid from 54 INR to a 1 USD in early May to 58.5 by the time I had arranged funds to convert currency. Thankfully the very next day, the rupee rose again to 57.5 only to fall to the depths of 61. We managed to catch the local trough, but still had lost 3.5 rupee to a dollar already. The expected expenses had been increased by 6.5% which is a lot considering the baseline was > 3 lakhs INR. That was a whopping 20k lost, a typical budget for our 4 day trip. That is fate for you, and such things happen.

Despite our setbacks we were all set and super-excited for our first ever and long-awaited international trip together.
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Old 29th July 2013, 22:47   #10
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Default Day 1: Delhi - Almaty

Finally it begins!

It was a much awaited Friday morning, and finally we were rolling. The last piece of the logistical puzzle was to place our steeds in trusty hands for two weeks. The bike went to my cousin, who used this opportunity to ride out to Ajmer on the RE. The Esteem went to a friend of mine and we were on our way to drop off our Safari at my in-laws’ place in Gurgaon.

We both were as excited as if it was our first time out of India, and I think I was much more elated than Aarti. So much so, that we had decided to reach the airport a good 3 hour in advance! To our dismay our flight was delayed by an hour and once the initial euphoria subsidized we realized we had to kill another 3 hours. The flight eventually took off at 1pm.

It was a small aircraft much like our domestic flights except for better leg room, and it was quite empty. We had taken a lot of pain to ensure that we got an “F” window seat. This would have ensured a good view towards the east, while the sun was on the west as we moved North. According to our predictions, the flight should have moved straight over the Himalayas, crossing India somewhere near Leh, then should have proceeded towards Kyrgyzstan and flown over the very region we had planned to visit. Much to our dismay, the flight kept going west, crossed entire Pakistan and then turned North towards Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan before entering Kazakhstan. To rub salt on our wounds, it was a very cloudy day thus there was hardly anything to see outside. Moreover I spilled some beer on my clothes and stunk of it.

Flight plan, expected (Red) vs actual (Green)
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Air Astana, notice the symbol on the tail
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This was probably over Afghanistan
Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan-day01_0000d.jpg

This was definitely over Tajikistan
Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan-day01_0000e.jpg

We landed at the Almaty International airport at about 5:15pm, 45min behind schedule. It was quite small in size as compared to let’s say a JFK or a Schiphol, but the view from it was of the Zailysky Alatau range south of Almaty. The peaks were surprisingly still covered in white even in the month of July while the clouds covered the rest of the mountains. The immigration procedure was straightforward with the only difference being that the stamp was put on a white slip which had to be “registered” with local immigration police within 72 hours of our arrival.

Madina was waiting outside to receive us as she had promised. The first pit stop was to get the currency converted. We stopped at a supermarket near the center of the town to quickly get it done. The super rude cashier did not understand a bit of English and was acting as if she was doing us a great favor. The cashier at currency exchange centers were probably the only rude set of people we found in Kazakhstan. We quickly got $1400 converted to cover all our expenses in that country. It was there Madina explained that they call their currency “Chengyey” rather than “Tenge” as one writes it.

We then proceeded to our Hotel - Sarai shik. Aarti and I agreed on three things immediately,
  • The hotel was expensive
  • But it was very good
  • The receptionist was hot!

At 14,500 Tenge a night (5600 INR) it was quite expensive, but still a bit cheaper than the other options we saw in Almaty. We had limited days in cities so had thought of splurging on luxuries on some days. Thankfully breakfast was included in this rate to lessen the pain of shelling out so much money.

The evening was spent at a market nearby, struggling to read off a Russian menu of a roadside eatery. The main course was simple to order, Shwarama & Doner Kebab with coke, but the problem came while asking for desserts. Aarti was super confused and amazed with the fact that sun used to set at 8:30pm and there was still twilight as late as 9:15 - 9:30pm. She kept on raving about this for the first few days of the trip. We also visited a local store to buy some snacks and drinks, for our long walk through the city.

Hotel Sarai-Shik, quite chic
Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan-day01_0001.jpg

Shwarama and Doner Kebab anyone, sounds familiar does it not?
Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan-day01_0002.jpg

With all the focus of the trip on the interiors, we had given no thought of the walk we were supposed to go on the next day. We had no clue of the places of interests in the city itself. Realizing our mistake, we rushed back to our room and thankfully the lonely planet was really helpful. It took us practically 10 minutes as the book suggested the ideal walking tour to make the most out of the limited time we had.
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Old 30th July 2013, 11:48   #11
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Default Day 2: In Almaty City (Saturday, 29th June '13)

A walk to remember
The day started late as we were in an absolute no-hurry zone. Breakfast was enjoyed at a leisurely pace at the hotel, the price of which was included in the cost of accommodation. It was a standard continental fare with a mix of cold cuts and hot sausages along with the normal additions like juices, breads and cornflakes. There was nothing local about the breakfast and the hotel lived up to its tag of being a European joint.

The taxi we took to the city center, hardly 12 km away, was pre-arranged by the hotel guys, and costed us 3000 Tenge (1200 bucks) or almost 100 rupees a km. As exorbitant as it was, we had already called for it, and had no choice but to take it. The standard fare, as we figured out later, was 1000 Tenge (400 bucks).

We reached the town square at about 11:45 pm, and there we began our 8 km walk which had been chalked out by the Lonely Planet guys, and covered everything that a tourist would want to see in the city. Clouds and intermittent drizzling made it a lovely day to walk. Armed with our umbrellas, we began by taking pictures of the vast Republic Square, and the flowers that adorned the sidewalk. As we were gazing at the huge pillar at the Square, a group of well dressed locals approached us. They wanted a picture with us. This was kind of a weird request, but we agreed. It seemed that the family was visiting Almaty, and most probably were there to attend a wedding. We could not ask much more as language was a problem, but they did drop a few Indian names like Raj Kapoor, Indira Gandhi and Mithun Chakraborty!

The walking route for the day (Source: Google Maps)
Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan-day02_0001.jpg

Almaty's administrative center at the new Republic Square
Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan-day02_0003.jpg

Flowers and statues adorn all streets in Almaty
Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan-day02_0007.jpg

Meeting new people
Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan-day02_0016.jpg

A vertical panorama of the pillar on which the statue was kept, and the book below
Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan-day02_0022_stitch.jpg

The entire town was buzzing with limousines, the explanation for which we found out later. People in this part of the world always prefer to get married on a Saturday, unlike us who have to depend on the sun, stars, Mars and probably even Venus to decide on our wedding dates. Anyway, weddings usually involve hiring limousines to ferry the bride and groom, and thus the flurry of the extra-long cars on the roads.

The next destination on the list, Kok Tobe, was a ropeway in the middle of town, which climbed up a small green hill, providing a panoramic view of the city. Needless to say, this part was the MOST touristy thing on the agenda, but it was fun to do nevertheless. As we ambled to the place where the ropeway began, hardly a km and a half away, we also managed to get a local SIM card for 400 Tenge (160 INR). The outgoing calls and the data charges were expensive, but thankfully the incoming was free which was the most important part anyway. After all, we did not need to call anyone in Almaty.

The hill over the city offered an excellent view and since it was a holiday for most, several locals too had gathered to enjoy the vistas, braving the drizzle. As we walked towards the end of the hill, a group of kids approached us for pictures. The request was again surprising, but we succumbed to the pressure. I was actually enjoying all the needless attention - these guys had probably never seen a black man before! Or maybe it was my funny attire - shorts, t shirt and hiking boots . After the second session of photoshoot, we began looking at the locals in a different light. We could see some of them wanting to approach us but then deciding against it. I can now understand what ‘firangs’ feels like in India when people mob them for photo-ops. It is a mixture of happiness with a confusion that probably they think of them as jokers.

It was lunch time already and the only open restaurant at the top was super expensive. We eventually ended up ordering a cup of coffee and one measly (but tasty) potato for 2000 Tenge (800 INR). Souvenir shops and a very touristy zoo were the other highlights at Kok Tobe. Being the animals lovers that we are, it was interesting to see different species that we had never yet seen in our lives, including a Llama from Peru!

These stretch limousines were found all over the city due to wedding celebrations
Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan-day02_0026a.jpg

The cable car and the rope-way to Kok Tobe
Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan-day02_0030.jpg

Locals enjoying Kok Tobe along with us
Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan-day02_0037.jpg

A panoramic view of Almaty
Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan-day02_0039_stitch.jpg

A bunch of kids excited to see Indians
Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan-day02_0056.jpg

Falcons caged in the 'zoo' at the top
Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan-day02_0059c.jpg

The expensive potato
Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan-day02_0066.jpg

Who would have thought - a Llama in Almaty!
Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan-day02_0072c.jpg

We missed this restaurant, looked a bit cheaper than the other one
Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan-day02_0076.jpg

For some reason there was a statue of the Beatles here
Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan-day02_0085.jpg

Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan-day02_0087b.jpg

The queue of Hummer limos
Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan-day02_0088.jpg

Kok Tobe, a colourful entry
Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan-day02_0092.jpg

Last edited by Rehaan : 30th July 2013 at 15:11. Reason: Picture edited. Decent language on TBHP only please. ;)
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Old 30th July 2013, 11:56   #12
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Default re: Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan

After we descended from the hill, we continued our walk towards the most famous coffee joint in Almaty - Coffedelia. After a long and relaxed break here which included tea and cake, we proceeded towards the second last hop of the day - Panfilov Park. Instead of walking on the main road, we took the bylanes, and in one came across a cat that was walking leisurely on the road. Aarti was quick to approach it, and on finding it friendly, she picked it up and brought it to me. We played with the fur ball for a few minutes, and then let it go since we were getting late. Otherwise, we would have gladly played with it longer.

Palace of the republic
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Hotel Kazakhstan, pretty expensive
Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan-day02_0096.jpg

The cafe dotted, pebbled pedestrian streets of Almaty
Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan-day02_0115.jpg

Something to do with films I suppose
Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan-day02_0135.jpg

The national flag of KZ
Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan-day02_0135c.jpg

State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater
Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan-day02_0139.jpg

Graduation day
Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan-day02_0139c.jpg

Pit stop at Coffedelia
Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan-day02_0141.jpg

Some lovely houses in the city
Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan-day02_0144b.jpg

Weird graffitti on the wall
Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan-day02_0144c.jpg

Panfilov Park is a wooded area in the middle of Almaty, and its main attraction is the Zenkov Cathedral, a colourful Kremlin-type Russian church. The Cathedral comes into view suddenly and is surrounded by trees, and so looks all the more striking with its vibrant colours and shiny crosses. We spent some time clicking it from the outside, and then went in. Photography was not allowed inside, and a mass was in progress, so we exited quickly. Moving on in the park, we came to a clearing where families had come for an outing - there was a small train ferrying kids around the park, a horse-drawn carriage, kids feeding pigeons, mothers strolling with their infant kids. We sat on a bench and observed typical Kazakh families enjoying a Saturday evening, and were amazed at how something as simple as observing people in a park can give you an insight into their culture.

Young sales people at Panfilov park
Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan-day02_0148i.jpg

The Zenkov Cathedral
Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan-day02_0155c.jpg

Locals relax and enjoy a sunny saturday evening at Panfilov park
Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan-day02_0155.jpg

Tabarish (comrade)
Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan-day02_0172b.jpg

Our last stop for the day was the Almaty mosque, which we were too tired to explore from the inside. We thus clicked a few pictures of it from the outside, and then hopped into a taxi to return to our hotel. The taxi driver was very friendly and despite him not knowing any English, we managed to have a decent conversation with him. He offered to take us around the city, but as we were heading out to Charyn Canyon (200 kms from Almaty) the next day in a tourist bus, we declined. We, however, did ask him to drop us to the bus pick-up point the next morning, and he gladly agreed. This last piece of conversation was aided by the hot receptionist as it involved time and location info, which we could not afford to mix up.

After freshening up, we went to the restaurant opposite our hotel for dinner. The menu was in Russian, so we stuck to what we knew - Shashlik (a very common Central Asian dish, basically mutton tikka) and Manti (which we knew of due to our regular visits to Afghan restaurants in Delhi). Much to my discomfort, the restaurant owner made us sit on the floor - traditional style - but it was fun.

We hit the sack early that night, as we had an early morning the next day. We prayed for it to be cloudy, but God of course does not answer all our prayers, does he?

The Central Mosque
Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan-day02_0173.jpg

Dinner, traditional style
Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan-day02_0176.jpg
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Old 30th July 2013, 15:08   #13
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Default re: Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan

Thread moved out from the Assembly Line (The "Assembly Line" Forum section). Thanks for sharing!
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Old 30th July 2013, 16:44   #14
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Default Re: Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan

Its great to see a log on travel to Central Asia! Hooked on and rating the thread a 5 star. Keep it coming. Waiting to read the self-drive bits.
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Old 30th July 2013, 16:44   #15
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Default Re: Central Asian Diaries - Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan

Excellent !! Rated 5 stars
Thank you for this wonderful travel blog and hooked on to this for more updates
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