Late last summer Real Russia had the pleasure of working with travel writer Jessica, Collector of Countries (over 50 so far!), of the website How Dare She, as she embarked on the greatest rail journey in the world, the Trans-Siberian railway; well, technically a bit each of the Trans-Mongolian and the Trans-Siberian!
While taking in a hundred new experiences, she found the time to write a few new guides for Real Russia; guides that should hopefully help you, “make the most of the Trans-Siberian railway”, and most importantly, give confidence to solo female travellers that the Trans-Siberian is eminently doable while flying solo.
In addition to this, Jessica has written four blogs exclusively for Real Russia, taking in topics such as what it is like to mingle with the locals, and what it is like on-board the Trans-Siberians famous trains! These will be posted over the coming weeks, so keep your eyes peeled to our social media channels.
For now, we thought we would ask Jessica a few questions, to get a better idea of why she travels, and what inspires her.
1. What is it about travel that inspires you?
I love learning and creating the opportunity for every day to be different.
2. What is it about rail travel that intrigues you?
In the United States, we don’t travel much by train; so it has always seemed like a fancy mode of transportation from the past, but I know it’s very modern and common today.
3. What do you aim to achieve from your travel blog and Instagram, and what inspired you to start them?
I share my travels because I want people along with me, and I want them to see that the world isn’t so scary. That people are as kind as you let them be. And this is best told through stories.
A view of Nevsky Prospect and famous Zinger House in St.Petersburg, Russia. Photo by Jessica.
4. What advice would you give to people who would like to become travel writers themselves?
I have a degree in journalism, so I felt confident as a writer, I just needed to add in the travel. But the advice I give to anyone who wants to write – whatever the topic – is to read more. Read veraciously and you will find the styles you like and don’t like, and it will help you find your voice.
5. What was your favourite travel experience, and what makes it different from the rest?
I ended up going to a Kazakh wedding because I was eating mashed potatoes with my toothbrush. I was on a train in Kazakhstan and had made a cup of mashed potatoes (like a cup of noodles, where you just add hot water), when I realized I didn’t have a spoon. The closest I had was my toothbrush, so I used the handle to stir and started eating. One of my cabin mates was laughing watching me do this and offered a spoon. That started a conversation that lasted the rest of the train ride, and weekend, ending in me going with him and his friends to their high school friend’s wedding because they thought it would be a neat thing for me to experience. It was!
6. What are some of your most memorable experiences travelling on the Trans-Siberian railway?
The first morning on an overnight train, I was up before the sun. I walked from car to car as the sun rose and delighted in the beautiful sunrise that I had all to myself. A few legs later, I was in third class and ended up playing a Russian card game with my new friends for hours. On another leg, I had the cabin to myself and enjoyed the ride to myself, staring out the window and reading.
7. What was the first experience you had that made you realise your passion for travelling?
The first that I remember is that when I was little, my dad travelled a lot for work. He would come back from cities I’d never heard of, usually with a small toy for me. I didn’t care about the work stuff, but I always thought it was so cool that he went so many places (plus the gifts didn’t hurt).
8. Based on your experiences, what do you get from rail travel that you can’t experience with other mode of transportation?
I think that rail travel is the most social form of transportation. Because you have space to get up and around, and a dining car with beer, there’s no reason not to chat with the people traveling with you.
9. What is the one place you haven’t travelled but would like to go?
Very high on my list is Antarctica. When I get back to South America, I’ll have to go.
10. What is the best piece of travel advice you have ever been given?
Always bring a scarf!
11. For someone who has never travelled the Trans-Siberian, what would you say to them about the experience and the adventure?
It’s infamous for a reason. Several days by train, several countries; there’s nothing in my travel past that I can compare it to. But to best experience it, be sure to stop along the way. I met too many travellers who were stopping in Irkutsk and Moscow only, but there is a huge country between those two cities!
Thanks Jessica for your fantastic answers.
Don’t forget to check out her guides to making the most of the Trans-Siberian, and travelling solo on the Trans-Siberian, and come back soon to read her exclusive blog about her incredible adventure!
Oh, and remember, if you want to keep up with Jessica’s ongoing travels, head over to her website, How Dare She, or follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram at jess_ismore.
Novosibirsk is the third most populated city in Russia and Siberia’s largest metropolis, making Novosibirsk the unofficial capital of Siberia. The city was founded in 1893 and was built for the purpose of developing the famous Trans-Siberian Railway Bridge over the River OB.
Although the city is very proud of the fact, Novosibirsk is famous for more than just the Trans-Siberian; it is one of three leading scientific centres in Russia, after Moscow and St Petersburg of course. Novosibirsk is also known for being one of Russia’s fastest growing centres of culture with many thriving art galleries, a world famous Opera and Ballet House, and the renowned University of Novosibirsk.
When I was given the task to update our current catalogues with new destinations, Novosibirsk seemed an obvious decision to make mainly for its Trans-Siberian heritage, and for the purpose of covering the Trans-Siberian, Trans-Mongolian, and Trans-Manchurian route. In all honesty, I was equally sold on the idea of having authentic experiences with real locals, and I imagine that this is an experience which many of you will find very appealing.
So what is there to do in Novosibirsk, you ask?
I encourage you to not let the fact that it’s a new city fool you into believing that Novosibirsk has nothing to offer.
Novosibirsk is a Trans-Siberian traveller’s paradise with history at every turn; the culture is vibrant and the locals are very proud of their heritage. The list of activities is endless, a city tour offers innumerable opportunities to get to know Siberia’s new Chicago, and a tour around Akademogorodoc will allow you to immerse yourself in everything that the city stands for, including its Trans-Siberian legacy.
To begin a tour of Novosibirsk, I would venture off into the city with a local guide to explore the all the main sites, starting in Main Square at the Lenin monument, then on marvel at the State Opera and Ballet Theatre.
Following on from the theatre, I would travel to the oldest part of the city, Gorkovo Street, before finishing with a trip to the Ascension Cathedral, St Nicholas Chapel, and the OB River embankment to admire the stunning views as it stretches into the distance.
The last leg of my city tour would include a visit to the old Siberian farmers market, to sample some delicious Siberian delicacies like smoked omul. If you’ve read my food blog ‘A Taste of Russia’, then you’ve already become acquainted with my attempts to make Russian food, so for the purpose of tasting authentic Russian food done right, my trip to the Siberian farmers market would also involve sampling a few Russian dishes.I imagine at the farmers market I would engage with the local traders, learn a few new Russian words, and maybe purchase a Matryoshka doll to take home with me.
When in Russia, do what Russian’s do… or is that Rome?
Vodka, food, and great company is what I call a good time.
My idea of the perfect cultural experience would be to spend an afternoon sat around a dinner table with a local family, and feel as though I’m part of the Russian family by experiencing hospitality, which I’ve been told, is unlike anywhere else in the world. Being able to engage with the locals in the setting of their own home, learning more about their heritage, and briefly immersing myself in their traditions is what I would call an authentic experience.
In my quest to immerse myself in the Novosibirsk culture, I would consider a culinary masterclass and learn the secret to preparing authentic Russian and Siberian cuisine, including pelmeni (which I’ve successfully made before), borsch and shchi. I would quite happily end my cultural adventure here, but I know I would be missing out on the opportunity to become a true ‘Novosibirsker’. With that said, I would spend a day with a local and venture through the lesser known sites to see all the city’s hidden treasures, before trying some of the city’s delicious street food.
All good things must come to an end!
For a city that is only a century old, Novosibirsk has many of interesting and historical sights and stories to tell you. If you’re more of a history enthusiast, I recommend ending your trip in the town of Akademorodok, one of the only scientific towns in Russia, which was the home to over 60,000 scientist during the period of the USSR.
While in Akademogorodok, I would take a tour of the town then proceed to the Open Air Train Museum to see all the magnificent vintage trains, and learn more about the history of the great Trans-Siberian Railway, before continuing down to the embankment of Novosibirskoye Reservoir.
Last but certainly not least, as an animal lover it seems only logical to end my journey by visiting the Novosibirsk zoo to catch a glimpse of some of its endangered wildlife, including the Siberian tiger.
Until next time, do svidaniya (Goodbye)!
Now that I’ve introduced you to the incredible city that is Novosibirsk, feel free to browse through our excursions catalogue, or choose from one of the listed destinations. Remember to keep an eye open for more excursions that will be added over the next few months.
My aim is to expand our collection of activities in Russia and its neighbouring countries, and bring you even more exciting excursions that will enable you to have a truly authentic experience, wherever you decide to go.
If you’re still unsure of what you can do to enhance your experience in Russia, Mongolia and China, you might get a few ideas if you read the previous instalment in ‘Let the adventures begin’.
Have you been to Novosibirsk? If you have, what were the main highlights of your trip?
Share your opinions with us on our Social Media channels; Facebook, Twitter and Google+.
So this is it. The last day in Kazakhstan. It was such a shame that the tour had to end. Even after everything that we had seen it felt like we had barely scratched the surface of what Kazakhstan had to offer.
For our last day we had another early start. Charyn Canyon is around 175km from Almaty along, mostly, tarmac roads. Unfortunately, though the roads are tarmac, they are not in the best state of repair. More than once we hit a pot hole big enough to launch me from my seatbelt-less seat into the roof of our minibus. Luckily there were not a lot of brain cells to damage. And even less now! Thanks, in part, to the road quality, the drive is around four hours each way.
Oh, and as an aside, if you are looking to Google Charyn Canyon, some websites spell it Sharyn rather than Charyn. Just so you know.
On the plus side, the roads are about to get a whole lot better as alongside the current road to Charyn, they are laying a new highway that will stretch from China through to Europe to help make the transport of goods to, and from, China significantly easier; tourism too, probably. This new stretch is due to open in April 2016.
Anyway, enough about roads, what about the view. The incredible view. For most of the journey you have the northern stretches of the Tian Shan mountain range running parallel to the road, and it makes for a stunning companion. Completing the view are lush green fields, many full of poppies in bloom. If you didn’t know any better you could swear than Julie Andrews was about to bound over the nearest hill. I cannot attest to whether the hills were alive with the sound of music though.
Like most of the travelling we did, I quickly ditched the idea of reading my Kindle to pass the time. Instead I watched the incredible scenery pass by. No book I had downloaded could compare.
From the moment we reached the end of the 12km off-road canyon drive way, it was obvious that this was the most tourist-friendly location we had visited. We even saw other foreign tourists! Nuns! Who expects to find nuns at the bottom of a sun baked canyon just a hop, skip and a jump from the Chinese border?
Anyway, it is much more developed than anywhere else we had been. There was a car park, an entrance gate, and even a toll booth. Not only that, there were sign posts in English. We felt spoilt. The level of development really showed what Kazakhstan could be capable of with a little effort and money. Unfortunately, this would probably remove some of the charm of the country.
Once we had parked up, we had an incredible view. The sky was blue, the canyon was incredible and there, in the distance, were snow-capped mountains. In 25+ degree heat there they were, in the distance, snow-capped mountains. Not only that, but they seemed to be working hard to hold back all the cloud that could have ruined our day.
The canyon with the snow capped mountains off in the distance
From top to bottom the walk took around an hour. It felt like walking into a Road Runner cartoon. There were even precariously sat rocks that looked like they were ready for Wile E. Coyote utilise in his ongoing war with the Road Runner.
Under the glorious sun it was a lovely way to finish the week, no one rushing us, just a nice, peaceful stroll through amazing surroundings.
As we closed in on the bottom we could hear a rushing river, and after a minutes more walking, low and behold, there it was. And along the banks was a small ‘outpost’. I can’t think of a better word for it now. It turned out, it is possible to stay here overnight. And to facilitate this were several huts and yurts, as well as a bar and lots of outdoor seating. It is the perfect accommodation for backpackers not wanting to make two four-hour drives in one day. It is a shame we were unable to test out the facilities for ourselves. Particularly as the bar prices were not too bad! There were even signposts advertising horse trekking; though we did not have the opportunity for this either.
Accomodation for those who wish to spend a night under the stars
As I took in the surroundings at the bottom of the canyon, I think I was more relaxed and content then I had been at any other point in the tour. The canyon was a lush green either side of the river, a little oasis in this sun baked canyon. It was the perfect place to rest and have lunch after the walk down.
Let me use photos to do the job of my inadequate words.
The Charyn River flowing through Charyn Canyon
The Charyn River coming round the bend
If only we could have stayed longer. But, alas, that was not to be. And so after a brief stop for lunch we turned round, and walked back up the canyon. By this point the temperature really had risen, offering a demonstration of what this visit may be like in the middle of summer when the thermometer can read in excess of 40 degrees. Take it from me, you probably wouldn’t want to be hiking down and back up then. It was rather uncomfortable. So try and time your visits for spring or autumn when the temperatures aren’t quite so high.
Once we had reached the top we had a few minutes in which to rest, before we hopped back in our minibus and started the four hour journey back to Almaty.
We made one, brief, stop on the way back at a fascinating roadside market full of people selling, seemingly, everything you could imagine. From fresh produce to toys to tools. It was all bustle and colour. Given the proximity to the busy road, though, I would not have vouched for the taste of the fresh fruit and veg on offer. I don’t imagine car exhaust fumes add to the flavour particularly well.
The market had a line in 'unofficial' toys – if only Batman really was an Avenger!
And that was that. At 3am the following morning I was up and prepping for my transfer to Almaty Airport for my flight home. A journey that was much easier than my journey to Kazakhstan I am pleased to say.
So there you have it. Kazakhstan. Wrapped up in ten blogs. Of course, as I have mentioned, I barely scratched the surface, so hopefully next year I will have the opportunity to return and see everything that I missed, and maybe even hop on a train or two!
See you then!
Before starting, I would just like to point out that I was very tired on day six, and a little under the weather too. So my note-taking suffered, my memory vanished and, as such, this will probably be the shortest blog yet! Oh, and that sound you can hear, the smallest violin ever.
The day started in Aktau, Kazakhstan’s only seaport. It is a city that was formed in order to home those who mined uranium from the surrounding region. Don’t worry, though, you won’t come home radioactive if you visit. The city has grown significantly in the 60 years since its founding, with a population of around 180,000 now. Despite this large population, there appeared to be very little to recommend in Aktau as far as tourism is concerned; though there was a rock and roll/British themed pub, although I think its pool table must have something wrong with it because I cannot be that bad at pool can I? Its main selling point is as a base for exploring the wider Mangystau region.
We did not spend long in Aktau though during day six, and we were soon on our way to our first stop, the Karagiye Depression.
It is at this point that I will mention that finding out reliable facts about many of the destinations within Kazakhstan can be fiendishly difficult, due in part, I suppose, to the lack of global tourist interest in Kazakhstan over the years. For instance, we were ‘reliably’ informed by our tour guide that the Karagiye Depression was the fifth lowest point in the world. My internet searches have ‘reliably’ informed me that it is, variously, the sixth, seventh, or eighth. It is for this reason that I would forgo fact-finding when thinking about travelling in Kazakhstan in favour of ‘experience-finding’; you will drive yourself crazy searching otherwise. Besides, it is the experience that really matters.
And the experience in the Karagiye Depression … is ok. It didn’t particularly grab me. Others in my group felt different, so what do I know? What made it interesting, for me, were our attempts to drive down into the depression. In the run up to our visit there had apparently been quite a lot of rain, and this rain had washed away the track that we were to take once we had left the main tarmac road. Not only had it washed the topsoil away, though, but it had left large cracks in the ground where the water had obviously created temporary streams. This made the drive into the depression very challenging for the drivers. Before we knew they had only been roped into this job a few days previously we thought their driving skills were impressive. Now, with the knowledge that they were not professional drivers, their ability on the difficult terrain is incredible.
The most impressive part of the depression were a number of white rock formations. If I remember correctly, and I may not, the white of the formations came from salt deposits. As I have little else to say about this area, here are photos instead!
A rock formation in the Karagiye Depression
Wave-like rock formations in the Karagiye Depression
Stop two in the Mangystau region was Sherkala Mountain near a small town called Shetpe. What makes this mountain stand out is that it is entirely alone, rising out of a flat plateau. In this way it bears a similarity to Uluru in Australia. Oh, it also looks remarkably like a traditional Kazakh yurta.
Sherkala Mountain, looks like a yurt no?
It was here we were to have a traditional lunch; but first we had a chance to walk around a little. After a little exploration I found a little stairway that looked as though it could lead upwards to the top of the mountain. At the very least I hoped it would head inwards, to a cave of some sort. Unfortunately there had been a rock-fall and so the stairs had been crushed, and the entrance to the mountain completely blocked. So that was the end of that mini-adventure!
Once we had finished lunch we were very quickly told about ‘friendship bread’, which is traditionally made on a Friday and shared among friends and family. We were also offered the chance to try some, and it was very nice; but them freshly cooked bread is never anything less than fantastic.
One of the highlights of my day happened while we drove away from Sherkala Mountain, though, when I did my good deed for the day by rescuing a tortoise from certain doom as it very slowly crossed a road, dodging the first traffic we had seen in hours! He didn’t seem too grateful though, as he waved his legs around trying to claw me before I placed him gently to the side of the road.
Our last visit of the day was to what our guide called the ‘Valley of Castles’. So called due to some amazing rock formations in the 215 million year old mountains. As with the majority of our visits over the tour, we were the only people there, so the silence added to the wonder of the formations.
A castle like rock formation in the 'Valley of Castles'
And that was day six. To finish up, I thought I would share with you two facts we were told about the use of camels during the course of the day:
1. Bactrian camels (those with two humps) are used for food.
2. Dromedary camels (those with one hump) are used for milk.
So there you go.
See you back here soon for day seven.
Day five found us preparing for two flights, covering around 2,600km; a prospect no one looks forward to. What we were looking forward to was a few days by the sea, the Caspian Sea, in the Mangystau region that makes up the western-most portion of Kazakhstan. With temperatures creeping up, the prospect of a nice breeze off of the sea was certainly enticing, though I was excited enough as it was. Who doesn’t get excited at the prospect of visiting the seaside after all!
I will gloss over the flights. Flights are flights. I will say they were both very good, with nice food as well as clean and modern interiors. We flew first with Scat Airlines, followed by Air Astana. I will also say that with a window seat I was afforded some incredible views of Kazakhstan. The landscape of the country is remarkably varied, we flew over lush green steppe, arid desert and pure white salt flats; to say nothing for the lakes and rivers.
Upon arriving at Aktau Airport we were greeted by a small fleet of off-road vehicles ready to whisk us away. Unlike the first few days, on which everywhere could be accessed by a standard vehicle, in Magystau it would be nigh-on impossible to get to some of the best sights without an off-road vehicle. It was very nearly impossible to visit one of our day six destinations even with off-road vehicles. We found out later that our drivers were not professional drivers, but in fact had been pulled in off the street in the days leading up to our arrival purely because they happened to own off-road vehicles. One of the drivers was a jeweller who had trained in Italy! They were very, very good though.
Our first stop was at a couple of yurtas that had been set up near to the sea. We were there to eat a traditional Kazakh meal, listen to traditional Kazakh music and watch some traditional Kazakh games.
A traditional Kazakh yurta. And a horse.
We were led into the first of the two to see how a traditional yurta may have looked, including several pieces of, very colourful, Kazakh handicraft. A favourite among many of those present, including myself, was a collection of what their creator called ‘Kazakh chandelier’s’. They were indeed very chandelier-esque; colourful woollen creations that dangled from the ceiling, lit up peferctly by the little light that entered through the hole in the roof.
A 'Kazakh Chandelier'
Next was a display of Kazakh horse wrestling. That’s right, horse wrestling. As in wrestling on the back of horses. The horses themselves don’t wrestle; though they looked like they would probably win in a fight with Hulk Hogan if forced. As I understood it, two competitors were meant to attempt to force the other to lift their backside off of the saddle on which they were seated. In actuality it looked like they both had their backsides in the air many times before the referee blew his whistle.
Take a look for yourself below:
If you can pick a victor out of that you understand the game better than I!
The second game we were shown was, for lack of a better name, ‘kiss chase’. But on horseback. The game is played between one boy, and one girl, with the boy aiming to catch the girl to give her a kiss, and the girl trying to catch the boy in order to hit him. The winner is whoever catches the other first. I don’t know about you, but when I was at school both parties normally ‘won’. The boy always kissed the girl, who inevitably hit him afterwards.
This was all followed by a lunch that was accompanied by traditional Kazakh music and singing. Once again we had beshbarmak, though this time we had the addition of shubat. Shubat, for those who don’t know, is fermented camels milk, and it is not nearly as revolting as that probably sounds. It has a sour yoghurt-like taste to it, with a bit of a tang. I couldn’t decide whether I liked it or not, though I think I would fall on the side of like, if pushed.
Two young ladies in traditional Kazakh dress. And me!
Oh, and did I say this was all by the sea?
The Caspian Sea
Once we had finished lunch we took a quick walk along the coast before hopping into our waiting cars and travelling for a few hours to reach Shakpak Ata. For me, the area around Aktau was a little dry and barren. Quite close to what I had expected Kazakhstan to be like before I arrived. Give me green and full of life over barren any day. As you travel across this section of Mangystau it becomes increasingly apparent that the primary source of income for the area is oil. At times the oil derricks seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see. In fact, it looked a little like a huge farm for giant robotic prey-mantises (prey-manti?). This is not to say that it doesn’t have its own, industrial, charm.
The further away from civilisation we drove, though, the more the scenery came into its own. It was still very dry and arid, but this is actually what made it beautiful. By the time we reached Shakpak Ata some of the rock formations were remarkable; particularly those that make up the exterior of the ‘underground’ mosque.
The walls of the outcropping of rock that the mosque is built into is honeycombed in an incredible fashion. I kept expecting giant bee’s to fly out of the holes at any moment.
The Shakpak Ata 'underground' mosque
Sitting in front of the mosque is an ancient necropolis, a cemetery, in which lie graves and mausoleums dating back hundreds of years. We had to be very careful where we stepped as many of the headstones had crumbled away into nothingness with the passing of time and so were difficult to spot.
The mosque itself is relatively small, a single room with four main areas and many carvings in the walls. In the rear of the mosque are some very large, deep stairs that lead to the top of the rock outcropping. At the top the view is huge. Vast. With the Caspian Sea as the perfect backdrop. Particularly under perfect, cloudless, blue skies. Like many of the best parts of Kazakhstan, due to the lack of infrastructure it is a nuisance to get to, but it is well worth the effort.
The view from the top of the Shakpak Ata mosque
Our time there had to end, as we had one more stop to make before heading back for dinner and much needed sleep. Next up were the, strangely named, ‘globular concretions’ at Torysh. Try saying that five times quickly.
They may well be one of the most unusual natural sights you are ever likely to see. Practically perfectly spherical ball of rock after practically perfectly spherical ball of rock. Now try saying that quickly five times! It is an incredible phenomenon. Scientists still cannot agree on quite how they formed or where they came from. Some think they may have formed around dead ammonites, others say that they have volcanic origins, while there are those that claim they were formed in glaciers over millions of years; and those are just three of the wildly different theories. The fact that they retain a certain mystery even now, though, only adds to the awe that you feel while standing among them. And besides, some mysteries are better left unsolved. Though one member of our group hit upon a popular theory, maybe they are dragon’s eggs like those in Game of Thrones!
Were the 'globular concretions' built around these ammonites?
The 'globular concretions' under the evening sun
And that was day five. We were lucky to be greeted by another incredible sunset on our way back to Aktau, though. And it is with an image of this sunset I leave you. Quite fitting I think.
Our beautiful sunset
Join me next time for Sherkala Mountain and challenging terrain!
After a later start than I had become accustomed to, we started our day with a short drive to Sairam, a small town on the outskirts of Shymkent.
While in Sairam we took in the Sairam History Museum, to find out about this small towns influence on the history of the Silk Route, as well as a mausoleum built over the tomb of Ibrahim-Ata, the father of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, whose place in Kazakh history you can read about in my day three blog.
I am sorry to say, though, that I found the Sairam History Museum a little disappointing. There seemed to be only a few items within the museum, though everything is well kept. As is common, there was no language other than Kazakh on any of the signs, and the museum guide only spoke in Russian, although our tour guide did translate everything for us. I would not necessarily recommend visiting. I will admit, though, that my view may be coloured somewhat because I prefer to explore museums in my own time which, due to the language barrier, was not possible.
Our next stop was the Mausoleum of Ibrahim-Ata. It was the smallest of the mausoleums we had seen at this point, and after the grandeur of day three’s architecture it was a little underwhelming. Though, in reality, it isn’t really the architecture that is important, it is the meaning and significance of the mausoleum to people. If you are interested in the history of Islam in Central Asia and Kazakhstan then it is an interesting stop as a monument to the father of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, but otherwise it is perhaps not worth venturing to.
Once we had finished in the, underwhelming, Sairam we set off for Aksu Canyon, something I was significantly more interested in, despite my fear of heights.
Once we left Sairam, the day became much more interesting. First we were to head to an area that our itinerary called ‘Devils Bridge’, though I can find no mention of this name online, before heading to see a section of the 15km long Aksu Canyon.
'Devils Bridge', complete with unfortunately placed gas pipe!
We found ‘Devils Bridge’ without too many problems. It is so called because a 30 metre drop has been carved into the land by the river below, leaving a half metre gap where it is possible to jump across. I didn’t. My fear of heights won the battle with the jumping ability of my legs, and so I took the actual bridge across the gap. The view was very nice, provided you stood with your back to the road bridge across the gap, as it had a bright yellow gas pipe running alongside it. The highlight of ‘Devils Bridge’ was an elderly gentleman riding on the back of a donkey, herding goats. Not something you see every day.
A goat herder on donkey-back near 'Devils Bridge'
As we were taking in the scenery it turned out that our driver, who had driven so confidently and at breakneck speeds on day three, did not know the way to Aksu Canyon, and any local he found to ask could not help him. So when we left ‘Devils Bridge’ we started to drive around looking for it. You would think a 15km long canyon carving open the view would be quite noticeable! Over an hour later, upon learning the directions, we were finally able to make our way to the canyon. Where was it you ask? Well, the road that led to where we were planning to view the canyon was about 15 metres away from ‘Devils Bridge’, with around five minutes of driving from that point. So it took us well over an hour to travel five minutes further along the canyon it seems we were already at. Something to remember if ever you visit! Like I have mentioned before, tourism is not big yet in Kazakhstan, so there are not sign posts to every view of note!
Our driver regained his confidence at this point as, with several hundred metres of clear ground to his right, he decided to drive within inches of the edge of the, at this point, 50+ metre drop into the canyon. My stomach turned cartwheels. Thankfully, we parked up a few metres after this and I was able to escape and put a few metres between myself and the edge, enabling me to fully appreciate the view.
And what a marvellous view it was; from the green pastures on either side of the canyon, down through the varied, and colourful, layers of rock making up the canyon walls and to the fast-flowing, and incredibly blue, river at the bottom. While the weather didn’t live up to its end of the bargain, it at least managed to not spoil things by raining.
The view across Aksu Canyon
The gentleman in the top left of the photo shows the scale of Aksu Canyon
Like many of the excursions on our tour of Kazakhstan, time was not on our side, and so we only had a short time to explore this small part of the canyon. Eventually we found a well-worn path down to the river at the base of the canyon in the distance, which was quite exciting, but, by the time we had walked to it, we were called back to the minibus to move on.
If I had to point out any negative to the whole trip it was the amount of time that my group and I were given in places such as this. We were given 30 minutes to an hour in areas you could easily spend whole days walking around. Because of this we only scratched the surface of what this incredible country has to offer. A good excuse if ever there was one to go back! Though it was all understandable to an extent, as our hosts where excited to show us as much as their fantastic country as possible.
Our final stop for the day was to have dinner, with a difference. We had been invited to eat at the home of a local family. If you ever get the chance to try this, in any country, take it. The food tastes immeasurably better, and the experience is head and shoulders above what a restaurant can provide. I would suggest, though, going with a group smaller than the 15/16 people I was with. In such a large group the intimacy of this kind of experience is lost a little.
As we arrived we were all greeted by the patriarch of the family who introduced us to his family, and extended family, including a young girl (perhaps around four or five years of age) who seemed utterly bemused/perplexed by all these foreigners invading her home.
Our gracious hosts
Following these introductions we were led to the dining room where we all sat cross legged, or tried anyway, on the floor with a full spread of food laid out before us; a veritable feast. And that was before the main course of beshbarmak had even been served!
I promised yesterday to tell you about beshbarmak. Well, it is a relatively simple dish of meat (traditionally horse), potatoes, carrots, onions and pasta-like sheets, that is meant eaten with your hands; hence the name beshbarmak, as this means ‘five fingers’. Traditionally it is served alongside a sheep’s head, which is set before the most honoured guest, from which different parts are served to the other guests, each part with a different symbolic meaning. For instance, if my notes are correct, and if I can decipher them, ears are served to children to help them listen.
Traditional Kazakh beshbarmak
As is traditional, most of the meal was prepared fresh by the daughter-in-law, Kellin; this even includes things such as the butter, which was made from the milk of their neighbour’s cow. We were lucky enough to watch her make the pasta for the dish, by rolling out balls of dough until they were incredibly thin.
Once we had finished eating, the father read a section of the Quran to give thanks for the meal, before we all thanked the family for their fantastic hospitality and headed back to our hotel. After a very average morning, Aksu Canyon and the family meal were something special. Two more reasons you should visit Kazakhstan.
And so our time in this area of Kazakhstan was complete. In the morning we were to board a plane in Shymkent heading for Aktau on the Caspian Sea, via Almaty; but that is a story for another day.