Day 1: Delhi - Almaty (1650km as the crow flies)
We both were as excited as if it was our first time out of India, and I think I was much more elated than Aarti. So much so, that we had decided to reach the airport a good 3 hour in advance! To our dismay our flight was delayed by an hour and once the initial euphoria subsidized we realized we had to kill another 3 hours. The flight eventually took off at 1pm.
It was a small aircraft much like our domestic flights except for better leg room, and it was quite empty. We had taken a lot of pain to ensure that we got an “F” window seat. This would have ensured a good view towards the east, while the sun was on the west as we moved North. According to our predictions, the flight should have moved straight over the Himalayas, crossing India somewhere near Leh, then should have proceeded towards Kyrgyzstan and flown over the very region we had planned to visit. Much to our dismay, the flight kept going west, crossed entire Pakistan and then turned North towards Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan before entering Kazakhstan.
We landed at the Almaty International airport at about 5:15pm, 45min behind schedule. It was quite small in size as compared to let’s say a JFK or a Schiphol, but the view from it was of the Zailysky Alatau range south of Almaty. The peaks were surprisingly still covered in white even in the month of July while the clouds covered the rest of the mountains. The immigration procedure was straightforward with the only difference being that the stamp was put on a white slip which had to be “registered” with local immigration police within 72 hours of our arrival. The first pit stop was to get the currency converted. We stopped at a supermarket near the center of the town to quickly get it done. The cashier at currency exchange centers were probably the only rude set of people we found in Kazakhstan. We quickly got $1400 converted to cover all our expenses in that country. We then proceeded to our Hotel - Sarai shik. Aarti and I agreed on three things immediately, -The hotel was expensive, -But it was very good, -The receptionist was hot!
At 14,500 Tenge a night (5600 INR) it was quite expensive, but still a bit cheaper than the other options we saw in Almaty. The evening was spent at a market nearby, struggling to read off a Russian menu of a roadside eatery. The main course was simple to order, Shwarama & Doner Kebab with coke, but the problem came while asking for desserts. We also visited a local store to buy some snacks and drinks, for our long walk through the city.
Day 2: A walk in Almaty (11km)
The day started late as we were in an absolute no-hurry zone. Breakfast was enjoyed at a leisurely pace at the hotel, the price of which was included in the cost of accommodation. The taxi we took to the city center, hardly 12 km away, was pre-arranged by the hotel guys, and costed us 3000 Tenge (1200 bucks) or almost 100 rupees a km. As exorbitant as it was, we had already called for it, and had no choice but to take it. The standard fare, as we figured out later, was 1000 Tenge (400 bucks). Clouds and intermittent drizzling made it a lovely day to walk. Armed with our umbrellas, we began by taking pictures of the vast Republic Square, and the flowers that adorned the sidewalk. The entire town was buzzing with limousines, the explanation for which we found out later. People in this part of the world always prefer to get married on a Saturday, unlike us who have to depend on the sun, stars, Mars and probably even Venus to decide on our wedding dates. Anyway, weddings usually involve hiring limousines to ferry the bride and groom, and thus the flurry of the extra-long cars on the roads.
The next destination on the list, Kok Tobe, was a ropeway in the middle of town, which climbed up a small green hill, providing a panoramic view of the city. Needless to say, this part was the MOST touristy thing on the agenda, but it was fun to do nevertheless. As we ambled to the place where the ropeway began, hardly a km and a half away, we also managed to get a local SIM card for 400 Tenge (160 INR). The hill over the city offered an excellent view and since it was a holiday for most, several locals too had gathered to enjoy the vistas, braving the drizzle. As we walked towards the end of the hill, a group of kids approached us for pictures. The request was again surprising, but we succumbed to the pressure. I was actually enjoying all the needless attention - these guys had probably never seen a black man before! Or maybe it was my funny attire - shorts, t shirt and hiking boots. Souvenir shops and a very touristy zoo were the other highlights at Kok Tobe.
After we descended from the hill, we continued our walk towards the most famous coffee joint in Almaty - Coffedelia. After a long and relaxed break here which included tea and cake, we proceeded towards the second last hop of the day - Panfilov Park. Panfilov Park is a wooded area in the middle of Almaty, and its main attraction is the Zenkov Cathedral, a colourful Kremlin-type Russian church. The Cathedral comes into view suddenly and is surrounded by trees, and so looks all the more striking with its vibrant colours and shiny crosses. We spent some time clicking it from the outside, and then went in. Photography was not allowed inside. Our last stop for the day was the Almaty mosque, which we were too tired to explore from the inside.
Day 3: Almaty - Charyn Canyon - Almaty (430km by bus & 8km by foot)
The day was reserved for Charyn Canyon, a place about 200 km east of Almaty, a 4.5 hour drive away. We’d read in several guidebooks that Charyn is like a mini-Grand Canyon, and we had even seen some footage of it in the Kazakh leg of the ‘Long Way Round’ series. Thus, it became a must-do item on our list. The quoted costs for going to Charyn were exorbitant to say the least. A return taxi with a driver for an entire day was about 18,000 INR, with a park entrance fee of 500 INR. All were aboard the bus by 8 am sharp, and off we went. Thus began the most irritating bus ride of our lives - the cramped seats, no air conditioning, no way to open the windows, the monologue of the tour guide in Russian - it was all too much. The guide in particular got on our nerves. He had a microphone and kept speaking non-stop for the next 4 hours until we reached Charyn. The only ventilation was from two sunroofs along the length of the bus, giving some reprieve from the oppressive heat. Relief from the guide’s monologue came two hours later when we halted at a small pitstop. It boasted of one small shop where one could buy some chips, local snacks and bottled water.
The sun was out with all its fury, the clouds nowhere to be seen. So much for our prayers the previous night! The trekking path climbed steeply down the mountain and into a dirt track between the two canyon walls used by 4x4 vehicles. Despite the searing heat, it was fun to walk in the canyon. The walk ended after 4 long, hot and sweaty kms at a very beautiful picnic spot. The Charyn river was in front of us and it was lush green all around. Sort of an oasis in the middle of a desert. The landscape so reminded me of Ladakh - patches of green in the middle of brown.
It was 6 pm by the time all passengers arrived and we finally left the Canyon. The one hour drive on the dirt track was again slow and painful, but once we reached the tarred road, our progress improved substantially. We bought some food at the same shop as we had on our way to the Canyon, and then settled back to sleep some and talk some.
Day 4: Almaty - Big Almaty lake - Yurt Camps near Almaty (110km)
the Big Almaty lake, or Ozera Bol’shoye Almaatinskoye, which provides fresh drinking water to the entire city and is about 35 km away from Almaty at an altitude of 2500 m above sea level. The road bifurcates at the lake, one leading up to the Ozerny pass and eventually entering Kyrgyzstan which is hardly 20 km away from the lake; the other climbs steeply to an erstwhile Russian space observatory. Given the sensitive location of the lake, and the fact that it is located in a well protected biosphere, the government has enforced strict rules on visiting the area.
The temperature in Almaty must have been in mid-30s that day, but in the mountains, just an hour’s drive away, it had dropped to 12. We walked for half an hour on the mountain next to the lake, and then turned back since we were too tired from our trip to Charyn the day before. It had also begun to drizzle, making the temperature plummet even further, and so we ran under the shade of our umbrellas to the car. It was time for us to take our passports out for verification and sing “Jimi jimi jimi, aaja aaja aaja”. Let me explain. Going back a few days, ever since we had come to Almaty, we were recognized as Indians by several locals, and all of them seemed to have heard about our Mithun Da (Chakraborty). Some even sung a bit of “Jimi jimi jimi”, an infamous song from the movie “Disco Dancer”, for us. The road climbed steeply towards the mountaintop which is located at 3400 m ASL. Just before the observatory, there was a barrier with no guards, which basically meant that we could go no further. It is a strange place, Almaty. Within a distance of 35 km, the temperature had dropped from mid-30s to 5 degrees.
It is a small campsite located in the same national park that we were in earlier in the day, but more towards the east from the lake. The setting was beautiful - 6 yurts (4 to sleep, a kitchen yurt and a dining yurt) surrounded by lush greenery with the sound of a stream flowing nearby. A yurt is a large, portable tent with a wooden frame and covered using felt or sheep wool. On the inside, it is typically well decorated with carpets on the floor as well as on the walls. These carpets are locally called shyrdaks and are Kyrgyzstan’s best known handicraft. Yurts are traditional tents used by nomads in the steppes of Central Asia, much like what Rebos are to Changpas in Ladakh. However, unlike Rebos, which are set up in a jiffy, Yurts take at least a day to assemble and one Yurt is typically priced at about $8000. The next day we were to leave for Bishkek, the capital city of Kyrgyzstan, and begin our ‘real’ trip.
Day 5: Camp - Bus Stand in Almaty - Bishkek (240km by taxi)
We left the campsite around 9:15 am. The cabbie was grumpy and kept mumbling to himself, and our co-passenger went off to sleep as soon as the drive began. So we settled in for a hot, uncomfortable 240 km long drive. The procedure to cross over was actually pretty simple - one has to leave one’s taxi and walk with all their luggage into the customs area of Kazakhstan. If you are traveling with non-trolley suitcases, do not worry, there are many porters who would gladly ferry your luggage for you. The process was exactly as it happens on airports - you hand over your passport and the immigration stamp to the officer, he takes a customary glance, asks a few customary questions and off one goes towards the Kyrgyz customs. On the other side, the tourist friendly country had a separate counter for foreigners making the process even quicker. We thankfully met a very helpful guy, Bayestan, who negotiated with them on our behalf and gave very clear instructions to the taxi guy to drop us at the guest house at which we were booked at a pre-negotiated rate. He managed to bring down the fare from 1000 SOM (1200 INR) to 500 SOM for the 25km ride to Bishkek. Aarti had booked us at the Crocus Guest House which, as usual, was located a little away from the center. The approach to the guest house was scary as it seemed to be in a very shady part of town. It was only later that we realized that all residential areas in Kyrgyzstan wore the same dishevelled look, much unlike Almaty.
If one is staying in any of these countries for more than 4 days, they have to get themselves registered with the immigration police within 96 hours of their arrival. Their office timings are between 10am - 5pm and of course they do not work on weekends. At Bishkek, Marat had promised to get this done for us for a charge of 25 USD per person.
Day 6: Around Bishkek - Ala Archa National park (40km)
Day 7: Ala Archa NP - Bishkek - Tamchy (Issyk Kol) (250km)
Day 8: Tamchy - Kok Airyk Pass - Cholpon Ata - Gregoriveka NP - Karakol (230km)
Day 9: The mountains around Karakol (90km)
Day 10: Karakol - Jeti Oguz - Kumtor Gold mines - Karakol (360km)
Day 11: Karakol - Kara Sai (167km)
Day 12: Kara Sai - Karakolka - Kara Sai - Kochokor (350km)
Day 13: Kochkor - Naryn - At Bashy (300 km)
Day 14: At Bashy - Tash Rabat - Torugart Pass - Song Kol (450km)
Day 15: A circumnavigation of Song Kol - Bishkek (400km)
Day 16: Bishkek - Almaty (240km by taxi)
Day 17: Almaty - Delhi (1650km as the crow flies)