Monday, September 1, 2008

Sep 1 - Bishkek KG to Almaty KZ

We were packed and at breakfast before 8 am. No others we up to join us for a breakfast of yogurt, tea, crepes, sour cream, and apple preserves. Even though Bishkek gets its name from "pishpek" (the churn used for making the mare's milk drinky, "kumys"), we would not have a chance to sample this delicacy.

Radison Guesthouse was the cleanest place we had stayed in, with a flowering central courtyard and a quiet location in a most interesting part of Bishkek. Our choice of regional TV channels was also a plus. This morning, on what may have been a pre-Ramadan special, there were some interesting Muslim music videos. One portayed a teenage boy singing about doing good deeds and keeping the faith every day - really catchy. With not too many changes, it could have been shown at any Vacation Bible School or yeshiva.

After breakfast we walked over to the central area of town, and changed $8 US to get just enough spending money to get us out of Kyrgyzstan. We did a little shopping, and checked the internet. No message yet from Hotel Kazzhol.

When we returned to Radison Guesthouse the British couple was preparing to leave. They had more than enough baggage to fill a taxi to the bus terminal by themselves. We had already plotted a simple one-bus journey to the station. So we said our farewells, giving them the last piece of Mike's coffee gum (which he had purchased in China).

It was 10 am, and time for us to hoist the backpacks and walk three blocks to where we could catch the 113 or 114 bus on the street named Jibek Jolu (Silk Road in Kyrgyz, related to Ipak Yoli in Uzbek). Once again, we passed the blue-steepled Russian Orthodox Church. When we arrived at the station, we had the routine down pat. We were mobbed by the shared taxi drivers going to every destination, including Almaty. We walked past them into the station itself. There, waiting, was a commodious bus to Almaty, nearly full, and ready to leave. The next bus, which would leave in 15-20 minutes, was right behind. This second bus had a nice choice of seats, and only cost 300 sum apiece. Since we had budgeted 350 sum apiece, this was pleasant news. Carol picked out the two best remaining seats; we even had time to visit the facilities and buy cold water for the journey.

At 10:55 am, the bus filled, and we were off.

About 30 minutes in, we arrived at the Kazakhstan border, to cross over. Everyone was told to get off and take their baggage. First we had to exit Uzbekistan, filling out our customs declaration (with special attention to how much money you were leaving with), then get the Uzbek departure stamp. At that point you are out of Uzbekistan. You walk several hundred meters through "no-man's land." You now get in line to get the Kazakhstan stamp in your passport. That being accomplished, you are now in Kazakhstan. This is the process that had taken 4 hours on August 14 and 1 hour on August 27.

As the bus unloaded, our driver said something to me in Russian including the word "buistra," which Mike understood to mean fast or quickly. Anyway, Carol had to find a restroom. It turned out there was a 5 minute line (with a for-you-special fee of 5 (!) som (KG) or 20 tenge (KZ) for the dirty stand-on-the-bricks-over-the hole facilities). So it looked like weren't going to be the first through the line, at the very least. Still, we hustled, and things moved fairly quickly. Pretty soon, maybe 10 minutes later, we were through the Uzbek lines, past the no-man's land, and into Kazakhstan. Mike was encouraged when he noticed that there was someone else from the bus between Carol and himself, so at least Carol wouldn't be last.

We were soon both back on the bus. Although we the most "foreign" people on the bus, we weren't the last to return. Not even close to last. Eventually, nearly everyone was on, but two.

While we were waiting, a local woman came into the bus, selling some piroshki. We had 70 som left, and 4 sold for 60. Surprisingly, they turned out to be sweet, filled with a fruit (apple and pear??) mixture. Not bad for an impromptu snack. Since Almaty (Alma-Ata) means "father of apples," it was a nice intro to the country.

Even after our snack was devoured, still there were two open seats on the bus. The driver and the whole bus was really getting angry now. Finally, the two showed up. Goodness knows what they had been doing. But this episode suggested Froman's Fifth Rule of Travel, which is: Never be the last one back, EVER. There is an associated rule, which is never be the last one on the bus (or the train, or the ferry, etc.). This is clearly not always true, because if it is the last bus of the night, or the last ferry of the day, you want to be on it, last or not. But the last one permitted on the vehicle usually gets stuck with the worst seat, and sometimes gets to stand the whole trip, or to have to sit with luggage on his lap, or other substantial inconveniences.

We were on our way to Almaty, with 240 km of Kazakhstan to go. Steppes to the left, hills and eventually mountains (some snow-capped) to the right. After an hour or so, we stopped for a ten minute break. We both needed a restroom, so Carol took the 10 som we had left and went first. She came back with only 2 som! Imagine, 8 som for use of the facilities. Mike then took the remaining 2 som and dropped it in the box. The guy said something like "%$&% Hey!" Mike got the 2 som back but didn't get to use the WC.

A little about prices in Kazakhstan. Of the 5 core Central Asian 'Stans (Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan), Kazakhstan "stans out" financially. Uzbekistan has a little bit of oil, but Kazakhstan has a whole lot of oil. One result of this is that Kazakhstan has a bunch of really wealthy people. However, it also has a growing middle class, much larger than in any of the other Stans. It also has higher prices. Much higher prices, as we were to discover later today.

25 cents to use the bathroom is quite high for this part of the world, but there you have it. We were now in Kazakhstan. There was also a cafeteria at this reststop. While we weren't going to eat there, a quick look at the menu revealed that most of the plates were at least 400 tenge ($3.33) and some were as much as 700 tenge ($5.83). These were much higher prices than any we had seen at any time on this trip.

The countryside gradually gave way to small communities, some with house with dacha-style roofs. Then came rows of apartment houses. By three pm, we were in Almaty, Kazakhstan (our plane left from Almaty at 12:30 pm the next day). The bus left us in the Sayran bus station, about 5 km west of downtown. We had decided to continue on to the Kazzhol Hotel, where we had tried to register online. A few quick queries later, we were told to take the 94 bus. Bus fares were 50 tenge (42 cents) - quite reasonable. A 94 bus came by, so we got on. Cross street markers were hard to find, so we eventually got the whole front of the bus ready to advise us when our cross street arrived.

After several kilometers past commercial and residential areas, we got off. Three blocks to the north, and a dogleg to the east, and there we were at the hotel. We walked in. We asked for a room with two beds, toilet and shower, which we believed to be the standard room listed in LP for 10900 tenge ($90). The woman at the desk said they had room. Mike tendered the credit card. The woman swiped it, and handed the slip to Mike to sign. 17000 tenge!!! ($142) Sticker shock in the extreme. We insisted on looking at the 10900 tenge standard room. It was a dinky little space with one narrow too-soft single bed. We then looked at the 17000 tenge room. It was what we had come to know as a standard room (using the Chinese terminology), but the beds were also soft, the room was small, and not well furnished. This room was inferior to the $40 room we had had in Tashkent, or the $40 guesthouse room in Samarkand.

What to do? Next door stood a similar hotel. Their 2 bed room was only 16000 tenge, but it was sold out, and the best they had was the 28000 tenge deluxe suite. ($230+). This was now getting surreal. Carol looked again at the Lonely Planet guidebook. A block and a half away was the ecotourist information office. Perhaps they could hook us up with a homestay.

So we got the visa charge for 17000 cancelled, and walked over to the eco office. Locked tight! This was really getting to be a bummer. The dorm accomodations listed in LP were on the south side of the city, and we were now too pooped to venture into another wild goose chase. We cogitated and finally decided we were just going to sleep at the airport. Like Victor Navorski in the film "The Terminal," which we had viewed in our guesthouse room not 48 hours previously, we were on our own.

We cashed another $30 or so, so that we now had over 6500 tenge. This would serve for a nice meal, a good breakfast, 3 hours on the internet (300 - 350 tenge an hour, not the 50 cents an hour we had been used to paying) and a 2000 tenge taxi ride to the airport. This was starting to feel like we were in New York or Chicago or Los Angeles, not Bishkek, Osh, or Tashkent.

By this time, we were hungry, very thirsty, and there was nothing to be done but get some quick eats for our backpack-burdened selves. The guidebook suggested going to the (fortunately nearby) Yubilleyny Food Market.

At Yubilleyny, we purchased two composed salads, 3 stuffed grape leaves, a 1.5 liter bottle of water, and a 1 liter carton of tomato juice, all for about $8. Outside we found a stall selling tortilla-wrapped doner kebabs with pickles, cucumber, carrot shreds, french fries. ketchup and mayo - talk about fusion cuisine. We ordered two, at 300 tenge apiece (higher than what we were expecting). Oh, so good. We were revived.

It was now close to 6 pm. We walked three or so blocks back to an internet cafe we had seen, and spent three hours there. The price was 300 tenge an hour ($2.50), not the 50 cent or so equivalent we had been paying. We spent about a half hour researching the art of sleeping in airports (e.g., sleep on the arrival side, not the departure side), and making a list of all of the planes that were going to be leaving from the airport and when. The Almaty airport turns out to be a busy 24-hour airport, with flights leaving and arriving every several hours all through the night. We figured we could at least stay there, even though we had doubts about being able to actually sleep there. The rest of the time was spent getting our blog up to date.

A little after 9 pm, we started looking for a taxi to the airport. None were coming along our way, but eventually we noticed one parked on the street. We went up to the driver, agreed on a 2000 tenge fare ($16.67 for 10 km), and we were off. We got to the airport a little before 10 pm. Our adventure of coming home had started.