Real Russia Blog

The Kazakhstan Adventure, Day Three: On the Road to Shymkent - Part One
8
June
2015

The Kazakhstan Adventure, Day Three: On the Road to Shymkent – Part One

A fantastic journey across southern Kazakhstan taking in spectacular scenery, ancient towns and lizards!

I found myself writing so much for day three I felt I would split it in two to make it a little easier to read. So, presented here for you, is part one. Come back tomorrow for part two!

A visit to Sauron Sauran

After finally arriving back at our hotel around 1am of day two, we were up again early to have breakfast and be on our way. The early start was certainly necessary, as we had numerous stops to make along our 500km drive to Shymkent. If I remember correctly, our ETA in Shymkent for dinner was around 8pm; I don’t believe we arrived much before 10pm, such was the amount that was squeezed into the day.

Our first stop on this epic cross-country adventure were the ruins of the ancient Silk Route fortress and city of Sauran. That is Sauran, not Sauron; there are no Hobbits here, though the incredibly well preserved fortress walls do look like they could withstand an orc attack!

The ruins of this once great city are only partially excavated, and are a perfect illustration of where the tourist industry in Kazakhstan is at present. In many countries the excavation would be much further along, if not complete, with everything fenced off and a visitor centre built around it charging entry fees and selling tat. In Sauran, as in many of the places we visited, there is none of that. The site is completely open. There are no gates or fences, no refreshment stands or ice cream vans and no people; though there is a car park a five minute or so walk from the entrance, so it is not completely without modern convenience. This means that when you visit, it is just you, the ruins, the wildlife and the view. A wholly refreshing experience when compared to the, often, overcrowded tourist traps of Western Europe.

The fortress walls of Sauran

The fortress walls of the city of Sauran

The ruins themselves are not on the original site of the city, as it often moved to stay close to the changing course of the Syr Darya, a river that originates in the Tian Shan Mountains. The town and fortress itself was thought to cover a total area of around 200 hectares, though very little of this has so far been explored and excavated. Eventually other local towns rose to prominence, and Sauran itself was abandoned, leaving the surrounding steppe to reclaim it as its own. That the fortress walls are still in as good a condition as they are in many places, so long after the city was abandoned, is a testament to how well they were built to begin with.

At busy tourist locations there is often a lack of wildlife, the huge numbers of people having scared it all away. This is where Kazakhstan comes into its own. Its tourist spots are so rarely visited that the wildlife has yet to flee, meaning you can view eagles, horses, lizards, tortoises and (what Google suggests may have been) great gerbils among many other animals, birds and insects in their native habitat.

While in Sauran I took a number of wildlife photos, some good, some terrible, so here are a few of my favourites.

Sunbathing lizard at Sauran

I am not sure if this lizard is sunbathing or snooty …

Crested Lark at Sauran

A crested lark having lunch

Grazing horses at Sauran

Horses grazing among the ruins of Sauran

The Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Unfortunately our time at Sauran had to end, so we moved on to Turkestan and the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi. Commissioned in the late 14th century, the mausoleum remains incomplete today, though efforts are ongoing to complete, and renovate, sections of the building. It is one of several UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kazakhstan and it is easy to see why.

UNESCO Sign at the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi

The mausoleum is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

The building itself is both visually impressive and imposing, standing at 42 metres, with some very intricate blue patterning around sections of the building and a huge archway leading into the central chamber.

Quick side note, as part of the continuing renovation/building work they tried to match the blue of the older tiling, but were unable to. So when you walk around the sides of the building you can instantly tell which of the tiling is new, and which has been there for many years.

The main archway has become an unofficial aviary, home to hundreds of birds nesting in every nook and cranny available, turning the archway into a wall of bird song and adding to the arresting nature and feel of the mausoleum.

Side note number two, from the side, the mausoleum was designed to look like ‘Allah’ written in Arabic.

The archway into the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi

The main entrance, and unofficial aviary, of the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi

Side view of the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi

The side view of the mausoleum, designed to look like 'Allah' in Arabic – الله

Inside the mausoleum there are many small rooms used for a variety of purposes, such as prayer and teaching, and in the middle is an enormous cauldron, made of seven different metals and used to distribute holy water to pilgrims.

While we were not requested to remove our shoes, and we were allowed to take photographs, as this is a holy site it is best to ask permission for this first and to remember that this is not a museum, it is in active use and so respect should be shown.

After a short walk around the grounds, visiting the excavation of several chambers 100 metres or so from the mausoleum, we headed for lunch, and then hit the road again to continue our journey towards Shymkent.

Check back tomorrow to see what other incredible experiences were left for me during the rest of day three.

Real Russia Blog

The Kazakhstan Adventure, Day Two: Poyekhali! - Let`s go!
3
June
2015

The Kazakhstan Adventure, Day Two: Poyekhali! – Let`s go!

Baikonur, the Legendary Launch Site of Yuri Gagarin

An Early Start

Today was the day I had looked forward to more than any other in the run up to the trip. Today was the day my friends were most jealous of. Today was the day we were to visit Baikonur Cosmodrome and watch a Soyuz rocket blast off with supplies for the International Space Station. Not even the rockets failure to fulfil its mission could diminish the brilliance of the launch.

The day itself started incredibly early. Baikonur Comsodrome is around 250km away from Kyzylorda, and our journey there took a bum numbing four hours. The consolation of such a long journey is that it allows plenty of time to savour the view, and thanks to how flat the steppe is, there is plenty of it, dotted with horses, camels and sheep, the core of the traditional Kazakh lifestyle. The uses for all three animals are many and varied, from transport to clothing, and from food to building materials. I will admit, though, that as good as the view was, after four hours on a hot and bumpy coach ride, I did start to tire of it.

Before being granted access to the cosmodrome we had to stop so that a number of other tour coaches could meet with us, enabling us to form a caravan for the last part of our journey. This short stop allowed us to get some fantastic photos of the wild tulips that are found in the area, as well as sign an agreement to be on our best behaviour during our stay.

Wild Tulips in Baikonur Cosmodrome

Wild tulips with just one small part of Baikonur in the background

Since Kazakhstan’s independence they actually rent the cosmodrome to Russia, and around 40 days before your visit you are required to fill in details about yourself for a Russian security check. Unless this check has been made, you will not be granted access to the cosmodrome. Because of this I was under the belief that a Russian visa would also be required. As it turned out, my passport was not checked once. As they say, though, better safe than sorry.

Baikonur lanyard with rocket

My Baikonur pass/lanyard for the day, with the rocket itself a tiny spec in the distance

Here are two interesting facts for you:

  • The cosmodrome itself takes up a huge area, around 7,650 square kilometres in fact, and contains various launch sites for the different rockets.
  • Baikonur was one of three possible sites in the Soviet Union for the cosmodrome and was eventually chosen due to its isolated nature, and its proximity to the equator. I would love to tell you the other two locations, but a) we were overloaded with so much information that day that I have forgotten, and b) the internet has spectacularly failed to provide me with an answer.

The Launch

Just after 1pm the rocket took flight. I shall use Spielberg level video footage to show you what words would fail to:



And with that, we were rushed back to our coaches in order to make a hasty retreat from the launch area. One of the reasons that the cosmodrome was built in a remote location was that rockets such as the Soyuz have a multi-stage launching process; at each stage of its launch various parts are discarded, such as the booster engines used to gain altitude once the fuel inside is depleted. These parts inevitably come crashing to earth and ROSCOSMOS (the Russian Federal Space Agency), presumably, do not want them to hit anyone!

On a side note, while waiting for the launch we had our first ‘Kazakh Toilet Experience’, or KTE for short. I won’t go into details, but I heard opined by someone that the toilets in Kazakhstan were the worst they had encountered. Due to the remote nature of many of the best destinations, there is an understandable lack of plumbing, leading to some unpleasant facilities. Don’t let that put you off though, just be sure to do your leg exercises before going so that squatting won’t be a problem, and remember to keep toilet roll and hand sanitiser in your bag at all times.

The Town of Baikonur and its Museum

Following our hasty retreat, we made our way to the town of Baikonur, formerly known as Leninsk. As the town is technically on Russian land, even though it is inside Kazakhstan, it is unique in that it has law enforcement from both countries patrolling its streets.

One thing that stands out about Baikonur is the fact it seems to be a town trapped in time. Unlike the, relatively, close Kazakh city of Kyzylorda, there appears to have been little new, modern, construction, and so it is a picture perfect Soviet town, with large blocks of flats dominating the skyline, and large communal areas filling the spaces in-between. The recent construction there has been, seems to follow the basic design guidelines set out during Soviet times. For those with an interest in Soviet architecture or history though, it is almost perfect.

I shall skip over our afternoon as it was spent in a conference that was almost entirely in Russian and Kazakh. I will admit, it was all a little beyond my, very, rudimentary Russian language skills!

Before departing Baikonur we were permitted a short amount of time to visit their museum chronicling Russia’s history of shooting for the stars. Among the fantastic artefacts are replicas of Sputnik 1 (the first satellite) and Sputnik 2 (that carried the first animal into space, Laika the dog). We were given a guided tour (one of the few of our entire trip that was available in English) that was very thorough. Perhaps too thorough, as there was a huge amount of information to take in; though, like all the museums we visited, the written descriptions for each item were in Russian/Kazakh, meaning a guided tour is the only real way to get the most out of the experience.

Signed Soyuz rocket image

This image of a Soyuz rocket is signed by Astronauts and Cosmonauts who have departed from Baikonur

One quirk of note, that is important to remember if you are planning a visit, is that if you would like to take photos inside the museum you must pay. In Roubles. Remember, you are technically on Russian soil after all. Luckily they will accept Tenge, but be sure to have the correct amount, or close to the correct amount, as the change they give will be in Roubles at a rate they have decided, and you probably won’t want to carry a pocketful of Roubles, that you cannot spend, for the rest of your trip. For me, permission to take photos cost 800 Tenge, or about £3. Souvenirs are priced in Roubles also.

A replica Soyuz rocket on display in Baikonur

A replica Soyuz rocket on display in Baikonur – amazingly the actual rockets are bigger!

As the evening came it was time to hop back on the coach and venture back to our accommodation in Kyzylorda; with a short stop over at Korkyt Ata Mausaoleum.

An Incredible Sunset over Korkyt Ata Mausoleum

The mausoleum was built to honour Korkyt Ata, a man who lived in the in the 8th and 9th centuries. He is said to have travelled throughout Central Asia bringing happiness to people through his music and poetry, inventing what is claimed to be the first stringed instrument, the kobyz.

On any ordinary day the mausoleum would have been a stunning monument to Korkyt Ata but, with the help of a stunning sunset, we were treated to quite the view.

Sunset across the steppe at Korkyt Ata

Sunset across the steppe at Korkyt Ata

Inside the monument the centrepiece is an amphitheatre-like tiered bowl, inside which traditional folk shows and concerts are often presented. We were not lucky enough to see one that evening, though. My favourite element was the ‘wishing pyramid’ that is down a set of stairs and through a small doorway to the rear of the complex. It is a large, white, indoor pyramid in a pyramid shapded room with a small skylight in the ceiling, around which you are meant to walk three times and then make a wish. Inside this room it is very peaceful and still, the perfect combination after a hectic day.

After 30 minutes or so we moved on for dinner before finishing our long journey home, arriving back in Kyzylorda at around 1am. It was a very long day. No rest for the wicked though, as the following morning we were up early again for another epic journey from Kyzylorda to Shymkent via Turkestan, featuring some very photogenic lizards!

Real Russia Blog

The Kazakhstan Adventure, Day One: The Day that Nearly Wasn`t
1
June
2015

The Kazakhstan Adventure, Day One: The Day that Nearly Wasn`t

A Delayed Beginning to a Unique Adventure

The Failed First Day

To say that my Kazakh trip did not get off to the most successful of starts quite possibly understates it a little. I was originally scheduled to arrive at Almaty airport, as per the tour itinerary, on Sunday morning. Due to a delay in my flight from Birmingham, though, it was going to be impossible to make my connection in Istanbul. To make things worse, the only flight that Turkish Airways could book me onto was a flight with British Airways scheduled to depart from Heathrow Airport a full 24 hours later, delaying my arrival in Kazakhstan until Monday morning.

This alteration of my flights meant that I had to miss several brilliant excursions in, and around, Almaty. I shall not spend too long on what I missed. In fact, I shall list them, as I cannot really pass comment on what I was not actually present to experience!

  • Panfilovtzev Park, a park dedicated to the heroes of the Great Patriotic War (World War Two).
  • The Ascension Cathedral, also known as Zenkov Cathedral, a building that is made entirely of wood; there were no nails used in its construction, so it is pretty unique!
  • The Kazakh Museum of Folk Musical Instruments, a museum that even offers music classes, including on the traditional Kazakh Dombyra.
  • Almaty Central Mosque, one of the largest mosques in Kazakhstan, standing 47 metres tall with a capacity of 7000.
  • Republic Square and Monument of Independence, dedicated to Kazakhstan’s rich history.
  • Big Almaty Lake, a stunning lake that is 2,511m above sea level and surrounded by mountains topping 4,000m.
  • Sunkar Falcon Farm, where guests are taught the importance of falconry in the lives of Central Asia’s nomads.

Arrival on the Actual First Day

With that out of the way, what I did manage to experience, once I had arrived, was two relative extremes. The morning was spent visiting the Shymbulak Ski Resort in the Tian Shan mountains, with five inches of snow on the ground, and the afternoon was spent half-way across the country, under a clear blue sky in a ‘semi-desert’ that left me wishing I was wearing shorts!

But first, I shall back up a bit.

Back to my descent out of the clouds over Almaty. I do not think I have ever had as stunning a view greet me while landing as I had that morning. Having expected ‘dry and arid’, as I mentioned in my introductory blog, I genuinely thought, if only for a moment, that the aircraft had taken a U-turn over Europe and flown back to the UK. To the north, the landscape was a rich green as far as the eye could see but, as lovely as this view was, it was not this that took my breath away. It was when I turned to look south that I was stunned. The northern section of the Tian Shan mountain system looms large over Almaty, covered in snow and rising to over 4000m. After the incredible flatness of the landscape leading up to them, one could be easily forgiven for seeing the Tian Shan and thinking that this is the edge of the world, that this mountain range, stretching as far as the eye can see, both east and west, is the wall that stops us from falling over the edge.

Almaty and Skymbulak Ski Resort

And what about Almaty itself? It seemed to me that they had decided to build a city in the middle of a forest. Every road appeared to be lined with trees on either side, making it one of the greenest, leafiest, cities I have had the pleasure of visiting. An opinion that only further cemented itself upon landing and being transferred into the city itself.

Unfortunately, though, I did not have much time in Almaty itself, as no sooner had I joined the tour group than we were whisked away to Shymbulak, our first port of call.

The thoroughly modern resort of Shymbulak is around 16 miles south of Almaty and was recently completely renovated in preparation for the 2011 Asian Winter Games. Shymbulak is perhaps the most ‘westernised’ of all the places that we visited in Kazakhstan. While I would love to tell you how good the skiing is there, we were limited to a short photo opportunity. Given the amount of snow on the ground though, particularly given this was the end of April, I can only imagine the skiing conditions are pretty good throughout the winter.

Shymbulak Ski Resort, Almaty, Kazakhstan

A very quiet Shymbulak Ski Resort

We were lucky to have the resort to ourselves that morning, so we were afforded a peaceful and serene view of the Medeo Valley with the whole of Almaty spread out below us. In the near distance we could even see our next destination, the Medeo Skating Rink.

View into Almaty from Skymbulak

The view from Shymbulk into Almaty

The Medeo Skating Rink is the highest rink in the world, sitting 1,691 metres above sea level, and is also absolutely enormous, with a surface area of 10,500 square metres. Unfortunately there is no ice coverage in April as, due to the weather, it would be too costly to keep it at the correct temperature as it is completely open air, so our view of it was less than spectacular. In fact, it more closely resembled a car park with spectator seating; though, given the quality of some of the driving I witnessed in Kazakhstan, watching people attempt to park could be quite an entertaining spectator sport!

We were then rushed down to the National Museum of Kazakhstan for a disappointingly brief visit. I won’t go into detail on everything we were told, this isn’t a lecture, but I will say that the museum itself seemed to be very good. It is relatively modern, open, spacious and well laid out, with a lot of items on display. The only negative really is the lack of world languages on any of the signage, so if you want to get the most out of your trip there I would highly recommend a guide to talk you through all of the exhibits.

Kyzylorda

Following our short time here we were back on our coach and heading to the airport for an internal flight to Kyzylorda. Upon arrival the airport is every bit the regional airport one would expect, lacking even a luggage conveyor; all the bags are left in a pile in the arrivals lounge, leading to a bit of a scrum as people try to get their bags as quickly as possible.

The slightly basic airport does not represent Kyzylorda as a whole though, as the town itself is very nice. There has obviously been a lot of investment here since Kazakhstan became independent and, alongside the many green spaces and colourful flower displays, the city has a very modern feel.

Camel Monumnet in Kyzylorda

A monument in Kyzylorda for which I apparently forgot to take down a name

After a quick refresh at our hotel, we were offered a quick drive around Kyzylorda, including a visit to the local train station which, in true Soviet style, is an incredible building, with a lovely large open square in front. This station offers journeys to both Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, and its largest city, Almaty, both of which are easily accessible thanks to a direct train from Moscow; though I would recommend making the journey part of a tour, covering the distance in stages, as Moscow to Almaty alone can take over three days!

Kyzylorda Railway Station

Kyzylorda Railway Station

Our last port of call for the day was dinner, an official function that was being held for international businesses and tourism agencies. This was my first chance to try local Kazakh cuisine, though given the ‘silver service’ offered, it was not really offered to us in a traditional way! Of everything that was offered I had most been looking forward to trying the horse meat. I was also quite pleased to try baursak, a kind of fried bread. Our entertainment for the evening was a mixture of local folk singers, and folk music. Unfortunately my manners got the best of me in this instance, meaning I took no photos or videos, so I have nothing to show you, but rest assured, it was very good.

And so ended a 36 hour day for me; from the UK, through a frustrating inability to sleep sat upright on a plane, to a long day travelling half way across Kazakhstan. Sleep came very quickly, though I was not to get very much as it was after 11pm when we returned to the hotel, and we were expected to be up for breakfast by just after 6am the following morning for another busy day!