After our short stop in the Middle East, it was time to head north again. Readers of the blog will know that it was my dream to go on Safari, hence our trip to Africa earlier in the year. Michael also had a travel goal for 2017 and that was to visit Central Asia. The other night, I got the idea of interviewing Michael for this post to shake things up a bit, and also to give Michael the chance to share this part of our journey since it was his vision.
DC – Okay travel partner, why did you decide we should visit far-flung Central Asia?
MC: It probably goes back to a lunch I had with my good friend Jack McMillan in Seattle a few years ago. The conversation turned to the Soviet Union, a subject we both follow closely. He told me he had visited all 15 countries that made up the former Soviet Union. At the time, I think we had visited 6 or so, but that gave me the idea that we could also try and visit all 15 countries. A year later, after my lunch with Jack, we were up to 10. The 5 remaining were all in Central Asia so I thought, let’s go for it.
DC – Okay, remind me of the countries we had already visited.
MC: In the Baltics, we had visited: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. In Eastern Europe we visited: Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine. In Transcaucasia and Eurasia we visited: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Russia.
DC – Right. I still can’t pronounce Transcaucasia! But anyway, apparently that left Central Asia. What were the 5 countries you wanted to visit?
MC: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
DC – Since most of us cannot find any of these countries on a map, how about a short geography lesson.
MC: The map below gives a great overview of the region. It shows all of the countries we have visited along with all 5 "Stans". I also found a youtube video that really does a far better job of explaining the past and current history. It is worth the three minutes!
DC – Why don’t you tell readers how you planned our Central Asia visit.
MC: The good news was that American tourists can visit Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan without a visa. The bad news is that the other three “stans” require visas and they're not easy to get. I decided we’d start in Kazakhstan and then see about getting visas for the other countries once we were on the ground. So we booked our first Airbnb in Almaty and flew from Dubai to began the adventure.
DC – Getting visas for the other countries was a challenge. Why don’t you share what we learned?
MC: I was getting a little overwhelmed trying to figure out how to sequence getting visas, the travel logistics and finding Airbnbs on the fly. But we dutifully went to the Uzbekistan Consulate in Almaty with our paperwork all filled out on the appointed day and time. Luckily we had our host’s friend Larissa with us to run interference because we were in a crush of a 100 people and it seemed like there was no real system. We managed to work our way to the front, and apparently, since we were not from the region, we got through. But when we finally got the attention of an official, he told us that he would look at our application, but there was no guarantee we would get a visa and the non-refundable fee was something like $400 each because we were in a rush and, of course, we were American which costs extra. That was it for me. It was clear that Uzbekistan was not interested in welcoming tourists and we learned that Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are even more closed societies and getting visas would likely be even more difficult. So, as you know, we just visited Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. I doubt that we will go back, but we managed to see 12 of the 15 former Soviet Republics. So the trophy goes to my friend Jack who visited all 15.
DC – No regrets on my part! Why don’t you just tell our readers what we DID see and if you were glad we made the effort. Tell us about Kazakhstan.
MC: For sure! We visited the two major cities, Almaty and Astana. Almaty used to be the capital until 1997 when the president moved it to Astana to create a brand new city. Almaty is an old and historic city that sits in the shadow of the Zailiyskiy Alatau Mountains which we could see from our beautiful 13th-floor Airbnb in the center of town. Our host Anastassiya and her husband Paul welcomed us with open arms, and their place was really nice, so that was a good start!
We went on a fascinating walking tour of Almaty with Dennis Keen, an American who married a Kazak women. He really loves the city and gave us unique insights on life there.
We had a fun interview with an online newspaper called The Steppe. Remember how the writer just flagged down a car and asked the driver to take us to the church for the photo shoot? It turns out that anyone can be a “taxi”. You just decide on a price, and if you feel like getting into the car, off you go!
They took some fun pictures of us including one in front of the famous Zenkov cathedral - built without nails, and another in front of a World War II memorial. Kazak forces were instrumental in turning the tide of the war on the Russian front in WWII.
DC: Don’t forget the countryside.
MC - Right. Kazakhstan is the 9th largest country in the world, known for its natural beauty. We couldn’t check into our Airbnb for the first two nights, and our host was out of town, but she helped get us a room at the Dorsyk, a beautiful old hotel, and she also arranged for her best friend Lorissa to look after us. She not only helped us try and get our visas, she also took us out for a day to see some of the beautiful countryside surrounding the city.
We drove up some really winding roads into the mountains to Big Almaty Lake. Along the way we stopped to see a traditional yurt village. Then, we went all the way to the other side of the city, up more mountain roads to the historic ice skating rink where the 2011 Asian Winter Games were held. From there we got on a gondola that took us to way up to the top of the mountain where we had lunch. You can be skiing in under an hour from the center of Almaty! She also directed us to a really modern shopping mall where we got a taste of how sophisticated the city has become. I remember you liked it quite a bit.
DC: It gave me hope. Before we move on, tell us about meeting two special athletes and our adventures trying to watch the Champion's League Final?
Well, as you know, I am never shy about talking to strangers and I really wanted to find a place to watch the finals of the Champion's League football match since we had a family pool going. I wasn’t having much luck, but I saw these two tall, athletic looking men walking near us on our way to the store. So I asked if they spoke English and if they could help me. Bingo. It turned out they had just come from the football stadium nearby because one of them, a former Olympic Gold Medal winner was now the coach of the Kazakhstan Athletics team, and the other a recent Bronze Medal Olympic Decathlete. The next day a major track meet was starting in a nearby stadium and they had been there for set-up. They walked us to the stadium and around to the back where there was a sports bar that would be showing the football match! Later that night, we went back for dinner and were given VIP seats right in front of the big screen to watch the action. The next day we attended the track and field event!
DC: We packed a lot into that week! We also spent time in Astana, the capital, but first, we went to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, which is almost harder to spell than chrysanthemum.
MC - Yes. Our original plan had been to see Almaty and then move on to Uzbekistan, and the others “stans”, including Kyrgyzstan. But since we were only going to get to two countries, we decided to go to Bishkek and then go to Astana before traveling on to Europe because there were more flight options from there.
DC - Tell us about Kyrgyzstan (that’s a lot of consonants) starting with how we got there.
MC: The travel planning for these countries was challenging. First, finding Airbnbs that I thought you’d be willing to stay in, and then finding transportation. There weren’t reliable trains or decent buses, and the flights were expensive. I certainly didn’t want to drive and try and cross the border on our own since we’d read it can be intimidating for foreigners. So, with some help from a travel agent, we hired a driver to take us from Almaty to Bishkek and help us cross the border. The four-hour drive cost just 22,000 KZT ($60.00). The worst part of the trip was the bathroom stop where both of us were traumatized by the state of the “facilities”. I won’t go into detail.
Kyrgyzstan is a small, poor country. Although it shares a long border with its neighbor, Kazakhstan, and both countries start with the letter “K” and end in “Stan” that’s where the comparison stops. Kyrgyzstan's GDP per capita is ranked among the lowest in the world and is a tiny fraction of their neighbor's because they don’t have proven oil reserves. Oil and natural gas can make or break a country in any part of the world.
But I am really happy we went because of the friends we made and a chance to see a really different culture. Our humble Airbnb in the capital city of Bishkek was in a perfect location right next to the main square and within easy walking distance of the things a person needs to see in Bishkek. Although our host was out of the country, we connected with another Airbnb host whose listing we almost picked. He was anxious to meet us and practice his English, and happy to show us around his city and the beautiful countryside. His name was Azamat and he became our sidekick.
By the time we left, Azamat had taken us to several historic sites inside and outside the city. He took us to do a little hiking in the mountains, to the crazy Osh Bazaar in the city where you haggled for a beautifully embroidered coat you fell in love with. We also went to a free classical music concert one evening in a beautiful park with his wife and young daughter.
To top it off, he organized a radio interview for us with Sputnik, the infamous Russian news network - which was a weird "Big Brother" sort of experience, as well as a long-form interview with a glossy lifestyle magazine called The Best. In both cases, Azamat was our translator. His English skills were limited so it will be interesting to see how the stories come out.
DC - And then there was the yurt experience, tell us about that!
MC: The most unusual thing we experienced in Bishkek took place in our own backyard. On our second day, we noticed a large yurt had been erected in the parking lot of our apartment building. We learned from Azamat that someone had died in the apartment complex and it is a Kyrgyzstani custom for the family to erect a temporary yurt, and hold what amounts to a wake over a three-day period. Friends and family came and paid their respects to the deceased whose body had been prepared and placed inside the yurt. The woman all wail and cry from inside the yurt, while the men stay outside. Afterward, there is a burial and a big feast. At least that is what we think we understood. All I know is there was a dead person in our parking lot and you were a little freaked out.
DC - Okay, take us back to Kazakhstan and our visit to Astana.
MC: Astana became the capital in 1997 when the president decided to take a fairly obscure city of 250,000 on the Russian border and turn it into a Central Asian version of Dubai, or Brasília. And maybe to be little closer to his pal Putin. This planned city has grown in 20 years to a bustling city of almost a million people. Astana is host Expo 2017, the prestigious international gathering of over 100 nations lasting from June through September of this year. The theme is “Future Energy” and we decided it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to attend. Plus our host got us tickets to Cirque de Soleil!
We spent a day at the Expo and visited a couple dozen pavilions. Our favorite was the American pavilion which was staffed with recent college graduates who were burnishing their resumes by volunteering as guides. They were so enthusiastic about our country and reminded us, in spite of all the daily negative news coming out of Washington DC, that we’re proud to be Americans.
Exhibits in the each pavilion showed how that country was addressing the critically important global issue of renewable energy. Just saying ---- I didn’t see a single exhibit touting the future of coal - including ours. We also did a fun interview with an English newspaper called the Astana Times. The reporter spoke English, was young and smart so we ended up with two fun interviews in Kazakhstan.
DC – Can you sum-up what we’ve learned now having visited 12 of the 15 former Soviet Republics?
MC: They are more diverse than I imagined. They are not pieces of a single jigsaw puzzle but rather distinct states united by the simple fact that Soviet Russia once occupied them. Politically, some look East, some West. They have different resources, landscapes, climate, architecture and food. They don’t share a common language and they believe in different gods with distinct customs and traditions. Instead of 15 republics all rowing in the same direction set by the latest 5-year plan like under Soviet times, now each country is the captain of their own ship setting their own course for the future. Physically, the Kazaks looked more caucasian and are more western in their appearance, while the Kyrgs looked more like their asian neighbors and retained more of their traditional culture and dress.
DC – Thanks Michael. I am really glad we visited this part of the world. But I have to say I am looking forward to going to Germany and some more traditional travel.
MC: Me, too. I have seen two “stans” and that’s enough for now. Thanks for the questions. Another great learning experience for both of us!
Thanks for following along!
Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads