Author Archives: lgermany

Kyrgyzstan – Tajikistan via Pamir Highway – Part 1

Leaving Bishkek for the last time, we had 2 long drive days to the Tajikistan border via Osh.  Aigol from the Green Apple hostel wished us luck with a juniper burning ceremony, and off we headed. 

Juniper ceremony - Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan is most definitely a land of mountains – with over 90% of the country actually classified as such.   We started up and over the first mountain range during the morning of the first day – gorgeous scenery of course!

Kyrgyzstan

We passed under several avalanche/rockfalls protectors – obviously, some vehicles were a little higher than they should have been!

Kyrgyzstan avalanche tunnels

And ultimately passed through a 2.5km long tunnel to emerge on the other side.

Kyrgyz tunnels

From there it was down into a stunning valley

Kyrgyzstan

And into a canyon,

Kyrgyzstan

where we found our campsite for the night just off the side of the road.  The guy who owned the abandoned building to the left came and said hello to us and even helped some of our group pitch their tents inside!

Bush Camp - Kyrgyzstan

The next day we were up and out of there fairly early for another full day on the road.   

We stopped just before Osh to finally fill our 800L water tank to the brim at a local tap (first time it has been full since I joined the trip), which took about 45 minutes.   One does wonder why they have to put barbed wire around the tap?!

Filling up - with water

My cook group was on duty for the next 24 hours, so when we finally got to Osh at about 1:30pm – we headed straight to the market to buy what we needed for dinner and breakfast for 20 people.   I’d taken the lead in my group and wanted to cook something “local” as I figured it would be simple to find the ingredients.   To this end, I’d downloaded a recipe for Lagman while in Bishkek and that’s what we were shopping for.

lagman

With the help of Google translate (into Russian) and lots of pointing, we managed to get everything we needed, though finding mutton was surprisingly difficult!   We did get some, but decided to get some other “mystery meat” as well (I suspect it was horse – it was quite dark and gamey) to bulk out the meat content of the dish.   I also bought a heap of pistachios, honeyed peanuts with sesame seeds on them, dried dates and halva to combine together into a “mix-platter” for a local dessert. 

Had just enough time after that to find a shashlik on the street for lunch (oh my god it was good!  I should have ordered 2!), to change my Kyrgyz money into Tajik money, and buy a bottle of coke (it was the first bottle of full-strength coke I’ve drunk since Coke Zero came out … I actually prefer Coke Zero!) before it was back on the overland truck to continue our journey.

From Osh – we joined the famous Pamir Highway (one of the highlights of the trip for me), and we headed up another stunning pass in the late afternoon

Kyrgyzstan

and, once over the top, found ourselves another abandoned building with an area for the truck to set up camp for the night.    Trust me to be on the cook group that is cooking in the snow!

Bush camp - Kyrgyzstan

Fortunately, the cooking kept my hands warm, though my feet slowly froze through 2 pairs of socks and my hiking boots.   Unfortunately, there are no images of the cooking process, nor the outcome – I was too cold and too distracted to think of it!   But – judging from the comments of my fellow travelers and the number of people who came back seeking out seconds – the Lagman was a huge success 😊    As was the desert!   I think several people were surprised to hear that it was all locally inspired.

Filled up my coke bottle with boiling water before heading to bed as soon as everything was packed up.   Yes – the “hot water bottle” trick I discovered last year on the Huayhuash trek is back, and the real reason I bought the Coke in the first place at lunch 😊    

In summary, the night was COLD!  Thank God for the Coke-hot-water-bottle, as I did manage to warm my feet up before falling asleep.   It turns out that whatever the temperature was overnight, I was just warm enough with my sleeping bag and tent.    Of course, had to get up and go to the loo twice during the night.   Tried to make both times quick as possible, but even that short view of the stars was magic.

It was well below zero overnight, because when our cook group got up at 6:15am to start breakfast, we were confronted with a frozen hose from the water tank!  Hmmmm…. Didn’t think of that!    Managed to unfreeze it and put the kettles on for a brekkie of potato/sausage/onion/egg stirfry + tea/coffee + bread.   Everyone else stayed warm for as long as they could and only emerged when breakfast was ready.  My hands were so cold that they’d gone beyond pain and into complete numbness.   Made it very had to pull down my ½-frozen tent!

Back in the (unheated) truck and rugged up with my refilled Coke-hot-water-bottle and my sleeping bag until I defrosted.  I think there were several others in the group who wished they had done Coke-hot-water-bottle thing last night and this morning as well!

On the truck

Up and over yet another stunning pass

Gorgeous scenery along Pamir Highway - Kyrgyzstan

and we were finally approaching the border with Tajikistan.    Unfortunately, we were only 30kms away when we were confronted with this:

Snow on Pamir Highway - Kyrgyzstan

Snow chains went on

Time for snow chains - Kyrgyzstan

And we plunged forward, only to be turned back about 500m further up the road – we just couldn’t get traction.    We stopped an old Russian van (those things really can go anywhere) to ask about the road ahead, but they said that it was completely snowy on the Kyrgyz side, but clear on the Tajik side.   So, no go for us.   

The decision was then made to try the other border that was about an hour or so away … though we’d heard that it was not for international tourists.   It was a lovely drive up a valley to be confronted with a small, padlocked barrier.

Border Crossing - Kyrgyzstan

Gayle and James went to see what they could arrange with the border guards, who explained that that border crossing was only for locals under a treaty with the Tajik government.   However, they were extremely helpful and called Bishkek to see if we could get special permission to cross.  They also called the main pass that we’d tried earlier and told them to send the snow plow down to clear the road.  

Unfortunately, Bishkek said “no” and we headed back up the valley to the main pass to await the snow plough to do its thing.   We ended up camping at the intersection, given it wasn’t clear how long it would take to clear 30kms of snow and it was going to be better to camp at 3000m rather than somewhere along an unknown mountain pass where there probably wasn’t anywhere to camp anyway.    Cook group 6 did a great job – was very yummy.   Then time for an early bed.   Couldn’t beat the view either!

Kyrgyzstan - camping on the Pamir Highway

My tent is the one on the far left in the middle image

Kyrgyz Food

The first day in Bishkek, a group of us went on a walking tour with the amazing Aigol from the Green Apple Hostel to learn a little about the city.  I mentioned to her that I was really interested in the traditional food of the countries I visit and asked her to let me know if we came across anything very typical of Kyrgyzstan.

Along the way, we found this lady selling traditional Kyrgyz drinks in one of the many parks in Bishkek.  The options were: Shoro – a wheat drink, Tan – a salty yoghurt drink, or juice.   Aigol ordered the Tan and I had a sip of that – definitely not my thing.   So, I ordered the Shoro – oh my God – absolutely not my thing either.  I had to surreptitiously pour it out in the garden – I really couldn’t drink it!     Lesson learned – I don’t like traditional Kyrgyz drinks!

Traditional Kyrgyz drinks - Shoro and Tan - Bishkek

A little later on, everyone was up for the suggestion of Aigol that we finish the walking tour with lunch at a Kyrgyz restaurant.   It was quite a fancy place with an extensive menu … difficult to decide what to have!

I ended up ordering the most typical Kyrgyz version of “Beshbarmak on – Naryn”: horsemeat, long noodles, onion.  Yeah – not the tastiest thing I’ve eaten … I think I’m done with Beshbarmaks now 😊

Kyrgyz food - Beshbarmak on – Naryn - Bishkek

I also ordered a couple of traditional breads to go with it – Boorsok is a fried dough that is quite plain, but would be awesome with some sort of sauce or yoghurt to dip into. 

Kyrgyz food - Boorsok - Bishkek

And Kattama – fried layered pastry dough with spring onion – which was very tasty, and went down very well cold the next day for lunch as well!

Kyrgyz food - Kattama - Bishkek

Had a great lunch with Aigol and really appreciate her taking extra hours out to introduce us to some of the food of Kyrgyzstan!

We had another opportunity to try a very famous Kyrgyz dish when we visited the town of Karakol on our 3-day trip around Issyk Kul.   Our driver took us to what looked like a hole-in-the-wall place (but one that was very, very popular with the locals) so we could try Ashlyan-fu, the specialty of the town.

Ashlyan-fu restaurant - Karakol - Kyrgyzstan

Ashlyan-fu is a dish of cold, vinegary noodles with fish.   I didn’t find any actual fish in mine, so maybe “fishy bits” might be a more accurate description!   It was really delicious and had a bit of a kick to it as well (which was a really lovely surprise) – perhaps due to its origins as a Dungan dish imported from China.   This was served with a bread stuffed with potatoes, which was a nice counterpart to the spicy dish.

Ashlyan-fu - Karakol - Kyrgyzstan

Then, when we stayed in the yurt camp, I had the opportunity to try Kyrgyz Plov.  Very similar to Kazakh Plov, and just as tasty.  I do really like this dish 😊

Plov - Kyrgyzstan

So, very happy to have the opportunity to try several Kyrgyz dishes, and I reckon I’ll be back to visit this amazing country in the future!

No longer stuck in the mud!

An update …

After 5 days, James did eventually get out of the mud in Kazakhstan with the help of the firemen, the army and this surprisingly small-looking, but obviously bad-ass truck!   Apparently it had an anchor to keep it stable while it pulled the truck out… 

Rescued from the mud - Kazakhstan

Welcome back James!

Issyk Kul – Kyrgyzstan

While we were waiting for James to un-stick the truck from the Tamgaly petroglyph mud with the help of his fireman and Army friends, we hired a mini-van and headed off from Bishkek for a 3-day tour around Issyk Kul – the second largest mountain lake in the world (behind Lake Titicaca).

Around Issyk Kul - Kyrgyzstan

It turned out that it is a bloody long way around this lake, so there was a lot of hours spent in the minivan driving.   But we did get to the following sites:

Burana Archaeological Complex

This complex is actually the remains of an ancient (X-XIV century) settlement, the most prominent feature of which is the Burana Tower – a minaret from the XI century and one of the first known in Central Asia.    These minarets were typically built around morgues to call the faithful to prayer and to also serve as watchtowers.  At 24m tall, it is only about half its original height (the top part has been destroyed) and is adorned by “ornamental belts” and other decorations.

Burana Tower and Archaeological Complex - Kyrgyzstan

The interior staircase is not for the claustrophobic, and is made out of bricks.  It is a one-way street only so timing your ascent/descent when others are around can be challenging!

Buruna Tower - Kyrgyzstan

Although the tower is what draws visitors to the site, there are other areas to explore as well.   There were many examples of petroglyphs on display.

Petroglyphs - Buruna Tower - Kyrgyzstan

As well as stone sculptures and monuments from the Turkic nomads.  These sculptures typically include features such as hats, clothing, ornaments and weapons, and some are depicted holding a vessel in their right hand.

stone sculptures and monuments from the Turkic nomads - Buruna Tower - Kyrgyzstan

Then there were the giant millstones, used in water mills along the Burana River for grinding the grains the population cultivated.

Giant millstones - Buruna Tower - Kyrgyzstan

And stone columns with different writing systems – including Turkic and Sogdian scripts.

Differnet writings - Buruna Tower - Kyrgyzstan

Unfortunately, we only had an hour at the site, which was nowhere near enough time to explore it properly.   The whole Burana Archaeological Complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site – yes, still finding them everywhere 😊

Petroglyphs at Cholpon Ata

Because you can never see too many petroglyphs, several hours later we stopped at a very large petroglyph field at Cholpon Ata.   This was basically a huge field full of boulders and scattered rocks, and although there was a map of where to find things at the entrance, it really didn’t help at all!

Cholpon Ata - Kyrgyzstan

Hmmm… which ones have petroglyphs?

But, wandering around, I managed to find several of the petroglyphs – a few of which were really, really impressive!

Petroglyphs at Cholpon Ata - Kyrgyzstan

There were also a handful of examples of the Turkic nomad sculptures

Turkic nomad sculpture - Cholpon Ata - Kyrgyzstan

And beautiful views of both the mountains and the lake.

Cholpon Ata and Lake Issyk Kul - Kyrgyzstan

Again, we had an hour here, but perhaps 1.5 hours would be better

Dungan Mosque

Once we reached Karakol – one of the biggest towns on the lake – we visited a couple of specific buildings.  The first was the Dungan Mosque – a very ornate building which was apparently built without a single nail (the wooden sticks are curved in special way to create a stable building without nails).   If it seems to be Chinese in style – it is!  The Dungans were Chinese muslims who left China due to their religion, and this particular mosque was built by a Chinese architect and several artisans between 1907 and 1910 for the Dungan community in Karakol.

Dungan Mosque - Karakol - Kyrgyzstan

Pravoslavik Church

The second location we visited in Karakol was a very intricately decorated Russian Orthodox church built entirely of wood!  Unfortunately, no photos were allowed – so this was the only one I could sneak while sitting in the grass eating a banana.  It was really a spectacular building!

Pravoslavik Church - Karakol - Kyrgyzstan

Jeti Oguz

Leaving Karakol, we headed back out into nature to visit Jeti Oguz – the “valley of the 7 bulls”.  This is a geological protected area, and I have to admit I was puzzled about how they came up with 7 bulls from the formation.  No matter which way I dice it, I don’t get 7.   Would have been great to have had more time here to do some hiking, some of the pictures I’ve seen of the surrounding area are gorgeous!

Jeti Oguz - Kyrgyzstan

Fairytale Canyon

Then it was on to the Fairytale Canyon, which features eroded and multi-coloured rocky formations.

Fairytale Canyon - Kyrgyzstan

Before spending our second night right on the lakeside at the Bokonbaevo yurt camp.

Bokonbaevo yurt camp - Kyrgyzstan

Issyk Ata

Our last day around the lake dawned overcast and rainy.   This was OK though since we really just had a long drive back to Bishkek with only one stop at the waterfall and hot springs at Issyk Ata.   Given it was cold and I hadn’t had a proper shower for a few days, my original plan was to hit the hot springs.  But when we got there, these turned out to be essentially a swimming pool – ie not very natural.

So, I decided to chase after Gayle who decided to hike to the waterfall instead.   It was snowing and absolutely freezing cold, and I never did catch up to Gayle (turned out I went right when I should have kept going straight to find the waterfall), but my quick hike up the valley above the river was very pretty, even if my face froze on the way back as I walked into the wind and snow.

Issyk Ata - Kyrgyzstan

Summary

Issyk Kul Lake is one of the key tourist attractions of Kyrgyzstan.  And although it was nice, I didn’t find it all that spectacular to be honest.   It’s a very big lake and if I were to choose a side – I would say the southern side is prettier (and more remote) than the northern side, which seems to have a string of towns run into each other along the road.  

Not sure if my opinion would change with a different itinerary – and perhaps there are ways to do hiking around the lake with amazing views (I will need to look this up for next time),  so although it was great to get out of Bishkek and see new places, I would explore other areas of Kyrgyzstan before returning here.

 

Ala-Archa National Park – Kygyzstan

One of the days we had in Bishkek we decided to head out to the nearby Ala-Archa National Park for some hiking. Archa means “many groups of Juniper trees” of which there are 4 types within the park. It is only 40km away and it was absolutely perfect weather to enjoy the scenery and get some exercise.

Decided to do the Waterfall Track (2hrs one way) with the possibility of continuing to the glacier, depending on ice/snow. The information panel at the entrance to the park pegged it as a low-medium demand hike, so off we set expecting a nice, not-too-strenuous walk.

Or not!

It’s actually a fairly steep hike up to the waterfall. Perhaps the low-medium rating was more relevant to the mountain climbers who originally used the area as an alpinist camp and training ground.

That said, it was really beautiful – with gorgeous views up the Ala-Archa river valley initially.

Ala-Archa National Park - Kygyzstan

Followed by even more gorgeous views up the other valley leading to the waterfall and glacier.

Ala-Archa National Park - Kygyzstan

We came across some Eurasian Lynx on the way up

Eurasian Lynx - Ala-Archa National Park - Kygyzstan

But unfortunately, the only snow leopard we found was this concrete guy at the entrance.

Snow Leopard - Ala-Archa National Park - Kygyzstan

When we reached the waterfall, it turned out that it was too snowy/icy to actually climb up to the plunge pool (and hence waaaaaay too snowy/icy to head to the glacier without crampons etc), so we sat in the stand of pine trees at the base and ate lunch and explored the river in the immediate area.

Ala-Archa National Park - Kygyzstan

Took my time trekking back down, stopping off for about an hour at my favourite viewpoint to take it all in

Ala-Archa National Park - Kygyzstan

Then took a quick walk up the first part of the Ala-Archa river valley trail while waiting for our transport to leave at the agreed time.

Ala-Archa National Park - Kygyzstan

Have to admit, it wasn’t the most spectacular walk I’ve done in the past year or so, but it was a lovely day out and great to get some hiking in! Oh – and the sign translations were great too 😊

Ala-Archa National Park - Kygyzstan

Stuck in the mud – Kazakhstan

You may remember I left you yesterday with the Overland truck stuck in the mud and the tractor unable to pull it out.    It was a good thing we were meant to be bush camping that night anyway – so we had plenty of food and seting up our tents was what we were expecting to do anyway.   We just expected to do it a little closer to the Kyrgyzstan border.

So the drama continued today…

It had rained even more overnight and I am happy to report that my little Alps Mountaineering Lynx 1-person tent is an absolute winner!  However, more rain is not great when you are already stuck in the mud.   So after breakfast, Gayle, Jane and I headed off to see if we could find some more help.

Stuck in the mud - Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

Walking to get help along the abysmal roads of Kazakhstan

We started off by walking the ~4kms to the entrance to the park to wait for the Park Ranger to arrive.  There were no signs posted on when the park would open or anything, so we sat down to wait.   But then we decided we should split our efforts – so we flagged down passing cars and on our second attempt, we found some super-helpful chaps that agreed to give Gayle and Jane a lift into town (we really were in the middle of nowhere).

Asking for help near Tamgaly Petroglyphs - with Google Translate - Kazakhstan

So they headed in there while I waited for the Park Ranger.

About an hour later, 5 helicopters come thuk-thuk-thuking over the hills to land right near me.   I was most impressed that the girls had brought in the cavalry so quickly!

Stuck in the mud - Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

The calvary! Or not…

Unfortunately, it was not to be.   And when I went over to see if anyone could speak English so I could explain our predicament – it quickly became clear that they were just another group of (much richer) tourists come to see the petroglyphs.   The guy I found who did speak English said he wasn’t sure what they could do, but he would tell the leader about us.   Hmmm…..

About 1/2 hour after that, the Park Ranger arrived, but he was far more interested in collecting the entrance fee from the guys in the helicopters than he was at trying to decipher my charades explaining our tale of woe.     When I finally did get his attention and showed him the photos of our predicament on my phone – he just shrugged his shoulders, said “nyet”, and started going about his business.

I tried again, miming that perhaps he could call someone to help us.  Again, this suggestion was met with a disinterested “nyet”.   Hmmmm….

About 15 minutes later, a lady turned up and so I tried the same routine on her.   More shrugged shoulders and “nyets”, followed by the offer to read a book about the petroglyphs and to sit down and have tea and bread with them.    While that was lovely (and I did both), it was not helping.  So I gave up and walked back to the group and the truck, hoping against all hope that Gayle and Jane had had better luck!

Once I got back, James (the driver) and I walked over to the local farm to see if we could borrow their tractor again.  After much pleading, the answer was still “nyet” – so we headed back to see whether the girls were back.   

Fortunately they were, and not far behind them came a big roadworks truck with a bit of a load of gravel as well … and a dude in uniform on horseback.

Stuck in the mud - Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

We all got very excited as he managed to shift the truck slightly, but that quickly turned to disappointment as he, too, became stuck in the mud.

Stuck in the mud - Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

The good thing about this was that at least we had a local trapped with us now, so they couldn’t ignore us.  The Chief of Firemen had turned up in full dress uniform, and was not leaving either, and  plans were made to bring out a couple of firetrucks to join the fight against the mud.  So there was nothing for it but to cobble together something for dinner and settle in for another night – this time sleeping in the leaning truck.   Pretty sunset though 🙂 

Stuck in the mud - Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

Oh – and the two guys that gave Gayle and Jane the lift into town came to visit us to see how we were getting on 🙂

The next day dawned bright and sunny for a change.  Our Chief of Firemen was still with us, the story was that one of the firetrucks had become stuck in the mud further along the road – but the other one had turned up, along with an engineer and several other men.

Stuck in the mud - Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

The chief of fireman is in full dress uniform holding a shovel here

First step was to get the roadworks truck out of the mud.    So while they were busy working on that, we set about building a road out of stones.

Stuck in the mud - Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

I’m not sure what UNESCO would say about this — but we were on the opposite side of the hill to where the petroglyphs where so fingers crossed we didn’t destroy anything!   It was also every Australian’s worst nightmare – turning over stones that, quite often, had spiders (and in one case a snake) lurking underneath.    And that was how we spent most of the morning.   Building roads, rebuilding roads in slightly different places, and trying to do what we could to help the efforts to free us.

Meanwhile – how were we communicating with our rescuers?  None of us spoke Russian or Kazakh and only one of them had a few words of English.   Why, by Google Translate of course 🙂

Stuck in the mud - Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

They eventually freed the white truck, and took the high road around to begin our rescue.

Stuck in the mud - Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

However, when they reached where we were stuck, they, too became stuck in the mud.

Stuck in the mud - Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

More digging and road-building ensued to free the firetruck, which then attempted to pull us forwards out of our bog.  

Stuck in the mud - Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

No joy!  And they actually broke off the anchor point from the front of the truck!

Time to go back and dig out the second firetruck from its bog to see if we would come out with two vehicles pulling.    For us, time for lunch!

Stuck in the mud - Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

An hour later they were back, this time attempting to pull us out backwards once they had charted a firmer base heading up the back of the hill with the petroglyphs.

Stuck in the mud - Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

You have probably already guessed how this ended up…

By this stage, we also had the mayor of the town out on site and a plan was made to move us on to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, while James (the driver) continued to work with the firemen to free the truck.  So, at 2pm we offloaded our bags from the overland truck into one of the Ladas that seem to be able to go absolutely anywhere for transport to the visitors centre in town, and we hiked the ~6km to join them.

Stuck in the mud - Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

The mayor of the town is in the top image wearing the black velvet jacket

The mayor had arranged for a minibus to come pick us up and take us to the Kyrgyzstan border – free of charge – so when that turned up a couple of hours later, we all piled in and headed off, saying goodbye and good luck to James and his new friends.   

On the way to the Kyrgyz border

We passed through the border at about 11pm with no hassles and were picked up by another minibus sent to collect us by the owner of the hostel we were staying in in Bishkek.  Our fingers are crossed that James gets out soon!

Oh – and we made the papers in Kazakhstan in the Society pages!  Get Google translate to read it for you 🙂  The details are not terribly accurate (there are no French, Italians or Koreans in our group, but a lot of Australians 🙂 ) – but who cares!  We made the society pages!!

 

 

Tamgaly Petroglyphs – Kazakhstan

First day on the overland truck started with a quick overview of the truck itself, where everything goes and how everything works.   Then it was loads of photos with the owners of the hostel and off down the tiny backstreets of Almaty in our humungous beast!

Madventures crew with our truck

Took forever to get out of Almaty, and then several hours to drive the 120km to the Tamgaly Petroglyphs – Kazakhstan’s roads are shockers!   We turned off a very bad paved road where the sign indicated, and headed down a very bad dirt road.  Which then deteriorated further into a very bad dirt track…  

on the way to Tamgaly petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

Are we absolutely certain this is the way to this major tourist site?

When we finally found the petroglyphs site – it turned out that we had come in the back way!

Madventures truck at Tamgaly Petroglyphs -Kazakhstan

Ah, no. This would be the back way. Oops.

Tamgaly is a UNESCO Heritage listed site consisting of around 5000 petroglyphs, many of which depict hunting scenes, animals and people.

Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

Animal Petroglyphs

Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

Hunting scenes

While others describe “sun-head” deities with a halo consisting of a circle, and many rays and points.  These are unlike anything I’ve seen before (very different to the petroglyphs at La Silla Observatory) and very cool.

“Sun-head” deities - Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

“Sun-head” deities are very distinctive human figures with circular “halos”. There are 4 of them in this image, 2 on the rock on the left and 2 on the darker rock on the right, along with many dancers.

There is even one riding a bull!

“Sun-head” deities - Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

The petroglyphs date from the Bronze Age (13th/14th Century) through to the 20th Century, with the earliest carvings also being the largest and the most deeply drawn – most likely with stone or metal tools.

Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

And while the petroglyphs were the highlight, there were also a burial ground consisting of stone cysts and boxes with adults and children buried on their left sides with their heads facing west.

Burial Site - Tamgaly petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

Unfortunately, we only had an hour to explore the site – I reckon 2hrs minimum for the main site would have been better.   But because it had taken us so long to get there, we had to push on for our bush camp near the Kyrgyzstan border.

We managed to get a couple of kilometres up a different road (recommended to us by the park ranger) when disaster struck, and we became seriously and hopelessly bogged.

stuck in the mud - Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

Stuck in the mud

As the time for our extraction lengthened, our tour leader set out for the main entrance to the petroglyphs to enlist the assistance of the park ranger.  Unfortunately, he’d already packed up for the day and gone home.  So we then they tried the locals at a farm we had passed on our way in.   Apparently they weren’t exactly enthusiastic about helping, but once they were shown the photos of our predicament, they agreed to drive their tractor and try to help pull us out.

Stuck in the mud - Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

Totally stuck in the mud – and, unfortunately the tractor didn’t help.

But the big beast was not budging!   After about 15 minutes of trying and what seemed like almost succeeding getting us out, they signaled that they had to go, and took their tractor and left us still stuck in the mud.   Given none of us speak Kazakh or Russian, it is unclear whether they were going to come back in the morning or not… Hmmmmm…

Unexpected dinner at Tamgaly petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

Unexpected dinner at Tamgaly Petroglyphs. Good thing we were meant to be bush camping further along the road, so were equipped with supplies!

So we resigned ourselves to camping where we were for the night.  Luckily we were ready for a bush camp, so we set up the tents, cooked dinner and retired for the evening just as the rain started. 

Welcome to Overlanding!

 

BTW – this link has more information on the petroglyphs.

Almaty’s Green Bazaar – Kazakhstan

Dennis’ “Golden Quarter” walking tour was fantastic, but it wasn’t the reason I initially contacted him.  Those of you who have been following along for a while won’t be surprised to know that he also offers a foodie tour in the Green Bazaar of Almaty.   Of course, I was in!

Green Bazaar entrance - Almaty - Kazakhstan

Entrance of the Green Bazaar

We were met by another traveler – Benjamin from the US – and headed in to start off with a traditional Kazakh lunch at one of the restaurants in the market.  

The menu looked like this

menu at restaurant - Green Bazaar - Almaty - Kazakhstan

I’m really having a hard time getting used to not being able to read anything or understand anything.   I’m so used to travelling in Latin America where, now that I speak Spanish, everything is easy.    Dennis translated for us and made some recommendations, and we ended up with a few different dishes.

Both he and Benjamin ordered Plov – the very typical rice, carrot, meat dish that is really, really tasty.

Plov - Green Bazaar - Almaty - Kazakhstan

Just to be different, I ordered an interpretation of beshparmak, which usually consists of flat noodles topped with onions, meat, and horse sausage.  This version was called “meat, Kazakh-style”, with the meat broth mixed in to form a soup.   This was also good, but I thought the Plov was tastier.

A version of beshparmak - Green Bazaar - Almaty - Kazakhstan

And we decided to share a serving of Manty, dumplings with pumpkin, meat and herbs inside.   This was made even better by the ladzhan – a chilli side that is often served on the table.

Manty - Green Bazaar - Almaty - Kazakhstan

All rounded out by tea, of course.   This time tea with lemon 😊

lunch - Green Bazaar - Almaty - Kazakhstan

We each paid 1,200 Tenge (less than US$4) for all this food!

lunch - Green Bazaar - Almaty - Kazakhstan

Next thing was to head off to explore the Green Bazaar itself.   First of all – the whole place is incredibly clean, and looks like it has been organized by a person with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder!   It is immaculate!

Green Bazaar - Almaty - Kazakhstan

Everything has its place – there is the section for dried fruit and nuts and the like

Dried fruit and nuts - Green Bazaar - Almaty - Kazakhstan

The section for pickled items, where Dennis had to sweet talk the security guard because you are actually not meant to take pictures in the Bazaar.   However, because Dennis knows all the vendors there, they allow his guests special privileges 😊

Pickled things - Green Bazaar - Almaty - Kazakhstan

The section for dairy produce – where we were plied with samples of all the different products by this lovely lady who is a friend of Dennis’ wife.

milk products section -Green Bazaar - Almaty - Kazakhstan

We tried a variety of different sweets – some made from cheese products and condensed milk, some made from grains and condensed milk.  All were delicious, but my favourites were those with the more caramel flavours (ie the ones with the condensed milk 😉 )

milk products - Green Bazaar - Almaty - Kazakhstan

We tried fresh camel’s milk.   Now – this is not the first time I’ve had a camel-milk product.   Back when I visited Mongolia, I have the distinct memory of visiting a family and being given a massive hunk of camel’s cheese.   It was almost inedible!   See, the thing about camel’s milk is that it is a VERY tart/sour taste and is VERY strong.   My first sip of the milk here took me right back to that hunk of camel cheese I endeavoured to eat 9 years ago…

We also tried the dried salted curds – again, something I encountered in Mongolia, and again, not my favourite thing to eat in the world (actually, the Mongolia trip is the only trip I’ve ever done where I have lost weight).   I don’t exactly remember what it was like in Mongolia, but this one was extremely salty … I don’t think I’ll be buying some for the road, though it does keep incredibly well!

dried salted kurds - Green Bazaar - Almaty - Kazakhstan

From there we headed over to the meat section, where they use the whole animal – absolutely nothing is wasted.

meat section - Green Bazaar - Almaty - Kazakhstan

Nothing is wasted. Yes, those are sheep heads in the bottom image!

This included a section specializing in horse-meat (very common here) and particularly horse-meat sausages.

horse meat section -Green Bazaar - Almaty - Kazakhstan

Almost right beside, was the smoked and cured meat section, where we indulged in yet more samples – this time of the dried horse-meat sausage (very tasty!) and a salami that had been made out of horse-meat.

Cured products - Green Bazaar - Almaty - Kazakhstan

Then there was the dried/smoked fish and caviar section

dried fish - Green Bazaar - Almaty - Kazakhstan

The spices section

spices - Green Bazaar - Almaty - Kazakhstan

The honey section – Kazakhstan is very proud of its honeys

honey - Green Bazaar - Almaty - Kazakhstan

And the “eastern medicine” section, where you could buy brews to cure all manner of ills, as well as other more exotic things like frogs, snakes and crickets.

eastern medicine - Green Bazaar - Almaty - Kazakhstan

I actually tried one of the dried crickets dipped in honey – the vendors were all looking at me so expectantly!  

Eating crickets - Green Bazaar - Almaty - Kazakhstan

Eating crickets with honey in the Green Bazaar. To be honest, it wasn’t great…

All I can say is thank goodness for the honey!  That was lovely, the rest of it really just tasted like dry dust…  And yes I was kinda chewing on what felt like wing-bits for a while afterwards…

Our final stop was downstairs to the fresh produce section.  This was less nice than upstairs given it was quite dingy and dark – and the produce mostly consisted of root vegetables, herbs and apples.   Almaty actually means “apple”, and Kazakhstan is renowned for its apples.   They are particularly proud of the Aport apples – which grow to be quite large.

fruit - Green Bazaar - Almaty - Kazakhstan

Then to top it all off, I actually had a tomato that tasted like a tomato 😊   Those of you who know me, knows this is one of my ultimate tests of food … and it was delicious!

tomatos - Green Bazaar - Almaty - Kazakhstan

 

Recommendation:

If you are interested in markets and trying local foods, can definitely recommend Dennis’ Green Bazaar tour with Walking Almaty.

Cost:  USD$30 + cost of the meal (~USD$5)

Time: 2 hours

Walking Tours of Almaty – Kazakhstan

During my travels last year, I discovered the joys of “free walking tours” in many of the cities I visited (a particular highlight were the Cusco by Foot walking tours I did in Peru).   Almaty also had a free walking tour available, but I decided to go a different route and head out with Dennis, of Walking Almaty, an expat American who has studied Eurasian culture, who has an awesome website, and who I thought could offer a slightly different perspective.    I decided to try his “Golden Quarter” tour to begin with.

golden quarter map - Almaty - Kazakhstan

I met with Dennis at the Statue of Abay – Kazakhstan’s favourite son – and, indeed, I think Dennis offered a different perspective than a standard walking tour would.    For example, one of our first stops was the old Geological Institute where he explained that although many of the buildings in Almaty adhere to Russian architectural trends, many of them are actually made out of local stone – either granite or limestone – rather than concrete.   The Geological Institute, for example, is a fairly brutal architecture, but is made out of limestone, and you can still see fossil shells (or where they were before “smokers picked them out in their boredom” as Dennis put it) within the materials making up the edifice.   How cool this this?!

Limestone constructions - Almaty - Kazakhstan

Then there were the aryks – water channels that run throughout the city that direct the meltwater from the mountains to water the trees within the city.   All gravity fed.

Aryk - Almaty - Kazakhstan

Then there was the Academy of Sciences or “Centre of Knowledge”.   A massive structure where the brightest minds of Kazakhstan congregated during the Cold War.  

Academy of Sciences - Almaty - Kazakhstan

Because of this, it was a prime target for US missiles, and so had a series of underground bunkers surrounding it.   This one is now an underground, gay nightclub – underground in every sense of the word.

Underground Cold War bunker - now a nightclub - Almaty -Kazakhstan

A lot of these large governmental buildings are painted in pastel colours – the theory being that it brightens up the city during the long winter that they endure here – a practice adopted from St Petersberg.    And although the architecture is Russian, a lot of the embellishments on the buildings use Kazakh symbiology – particularly variations on rams’ horns.

Kazak symbiology - Almaty

We also visited this cool Eastern Calendar fountain that is styled for the eastern zodiac.  However, several of the animals we classically associate with eastern cultures have been replaced by Kazakh versions.   For example, the tiger is replaced by the snow leopard, and the dragon has been replaced by a snail??!!

Eastern Calendar fountain - Almaty - Kazakhstan

Vladimir Tverdokhlebov (the designer) depicted most of the creatures with wings (even when wings are not appropriate) and with their heads twisted back to look over their bodies.   This was inspired by the animal style jewelry of the Scythian people – an important part of Kazakh culture.

One of the really neat things about the design of Almaty is the alleikas,  quiet “streets” within the residential areas of the old town that are really lovely ways of getting around the city while avoiding the main thoroughfares.   Almost like parks – they offer peace and tranquility in the heart of quite a large city.

Why are the bases of the trees painted white you might ask?   Dennis actually has tons of answers to questions like these on his website 😊.  If you are ever planning on visiting Almaty – I recommend reading his stuff beforehand!

The other thing to note in these residential areas are the filled in balconies of the apartments.   Originally the Russians gave these apartments to people so they would have a place to live, but they could not make any modifications to the buildings.  Ultimately, with the departure of the Russians, the people ended up owning these places for themselves and many of them elected to close in the useless (remember it is bloody cold in Kazakhstan for the majority of the year) balconies to form what are called loggia – I just love all the different unique and personalized styles!

loggia - Almaty - Kazakhstan

Many famous people lived in these apartments and each building proudly displays a plaque announcing who it was that graced the premises, and between which years.   This is helpful to figure out when the edifice was built, as it is generally the initial year of residency of these famous people.

Who lived where - Almaty - Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan is quite big on its tile mosaics and Dennis was giving me the rundown of a couple of particularly awesome pieces on the hotel across the way from the Opera House.  The Enlik Kebek Mosaic is laid out like a comic book – the blue delineations are like the different panels in a comic – and tells one of the most famous epic stories in Kazakhstan.   Yes, it is about rival men battling it out to see who gets the girl.

Enlik Kebek Mosaic - Almaty - Kazakhstan

The other mural depicts the Silk Road – in the image below you see only 2/3rds of it, showing the olden days of Kazakhstan and camels walking towards the new Kazakhstan (which you can’t see – but which shows the iconic Almaty hotel etc).

Silk Road Mozaic - Almaty - Kazakhstan

We then caught the metro – always an interesting thing to do!   Almaty’s metro has taken 20 years to build, but only had 9 stops!   You pay your 80 Tenge (AUD$0.34) in exchange for a token, which then goes in the barriers.

Almaty Metro - Kazakhstan

The Almaty Metro only has 9 stops

The stations themselves are so deep underground that you almost get vertigo from the escalator!

Vertiginous escalators - Almaty Metro - Kazakhstan

They are all absolutely pristine and each is decorated differently.   Can you spot the odd thing out in the top image, which depicts the Silk Road in one station? 

Almaty Metro mosaics - Kazakhstan

Finally, we headed to one of the most important churches in Almaty – Zenkov’s Cathedral.  Because it was Easter Sunday, there were loads of people, and the priests (what are they called in Russian Orthodox?) would come out periodically and bless the “Easter Bread” that people had bought to the church for just this reason.   There were plenty of smiles and plenty of holy water being thrown around in the process!

Blessing Easter Break - Zenkov's Cathedral - Almaty - Kazakhstan

All in all, this was a really interesting walk through the streets of Almaty.  I still suspect it is quite a different take on a typical walking tour, which would undoubtedly just visit all the key landmarks and explain their history.  I found this insight into the more “everyday” features of Almaty much more interesting – so thank you to Dennis!

 

Recommendation:

I’d definitely recommend Dennis’ Golden Quarter walking tour for something a little different.    Dennis is a great guide and very easy and interesting to talk to. 

Cost:  USD$30

Time: 2 hours

Charyn Canyon – Kazakhstan

Breakfast this morning was porridge made with Manka (semolina). Sooooo much better than regular porridge, though this could be due to the unknown amount of sugar that was put in it before it was served to me 😉

Manka - Semolina porridge - Kazakhstan

We said goodbye to our hosts and left the village of Saty with greatly improved weather, calling in to take a quick peek at one of the ubiquitous Islamic cemeteries that dot the landscape here.

Rural village - Kazakhstan

Typical white house with blue trim in Saty (top) and images from one of the ubiquitous Islamic cemetaries that dot the landscape

We re-crossed the broad grassy plains with the herdsmen, but this time with great views of the Tian Shan Mountains

Tian Shan Mountains - Kazakhstan

Herder in the large grassy plain where the animals graze – in front of the Tian Shan Mountains

and stopped off at the Black Canyon

Black Canyon - Kazakhstan

on our way to our key destination for the day – the Charyn Canyon  

This is the most touted natural feature of Almaty region, and, although beautiful, it wasn’t quite as impressive as I had imagined.   It would have been great to have more time to explore more than just this famous part of the canyon, and to see it in different light – rather than the harsh midday sun.

Charyn Canyon - Kazakhstan

It is about a 3km walk along the bottom of the canyon – through the Valley of Castles initially (reminiscent of the Grand Canyon)

Charyn Canyon - Valley of Castles - Kazakhstan

Valley of Castles

and onto the “Witches Gorge” – so known because people would leap to their deaths off the cliffs, spurred on by the call of the witches – and the Charyn River.

Charyn River - Charyn Canyon - Kazakhstan

We ended up seeing 2 snakes (something that got Emil very excited) and quite a few of these little guys – gerbils I think.

Wildlife - Charyn Canyon - Kazakhstan

After exploring the Canyon for a few hours, we started the long road back to Almaty, stopping along the way for a very late lunch at an Uighur restaurant.  

We had our own private partitioned space, and I asked Emil to order something for me that I hadn’t tried yet.  He ordered Kazan Kebab and Etken Chay (Uighur milky tea) for me.

Uighur restaurant - Kazakhstan

Uighur restaurant – we had our own partitioned section. I had the Kazan Kebab and Etken Chay

Both were delicious – made even more so due to the fact that I was starving.   And it was a lovely ending to the trip.

 

Recommendation:   

I can highly recommend the 3-day Kolsai Lakes, Kaindy Lake and Charyn Canyon tour offered by Almaty Tours.  Although it is a bit pricey, you are really well looked after and the places you visit really are spectacular.

Time:  3 days

Cost:  USD$390 which includes everything: transportation, lodging, meals and entrance fees

Oh, and Almaty Tours also give you a welcome pack 🙂

Almaty Tours