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25 September 2008

Did you know – During the Cold War approximately 460 nuclear tests were done in the testing area called The Polygon, about 130km west of the town Semey.  Nearby villages weren’t given any warning or protection when the tests were done.  The Nevada-Semey movement was responsible for bringing the testing to and end after collecting more than a million signatures on the streets of Kazakhstan in a couple of days.  The nuclear test sites were closed by President Nazarbaev in 1991, after the collapse of the former USSR.

The dreaded border crossing went very well actually.  The border opened at 10am, and we were second in line.  In total, it took about 2 hours to get through the crossing.  Most of the time it is passport control first and then car paperwork.  Once we finished on the Russian side, it was on to Kazakhstan.  Not really sure where to go, we just followed some other people.  Again passport control first and then car paperwork.  Everything is fairly efficient. There were 2 forms we had to complete, but in duplicate.  Once that was done, it was onto a very quick customs inspection, and once we got out of the border control area, we had to buy some insurance.

There isn’t much in Northern Kazakhstan.  We stayed the night in Semey, and thought we would treat ourselves and stay in a hotel for the night.  It wasn’t a bad little hotel, and fairly good value for money.  They also had secure parking for the car, which was good.  We left Semey the following day to head south to Almaty.  It’s about a 1000km and even though it’s a tarred road, the road was still bad.

The inevitable happened the following day.  We were both surprised that it took so long to happen though.  We both got a nice dose of Delhi belly.  I didn’t sleep well the night before, and was awake by 4am and very restless with a sore body and feeling a bit dizzy.  After we repacked a few things in the car that morning (which was a bit of a struggle), we thought we would head to the next town.  We were only 30km away, and we (more me, Jacques) weren’t feeling that great.  We got to the town and thought we would head straight to the hospital.  By the time we got there, I was feeling pretty bad.  Very cold, dizzy, aching body and nauseas.  I checked for a fever in the morning before we left for the town, and it was all normal, but have since developed a fever, coming in just under 39 degrees.  They did some tests, took some blood and an x-ray.  After 4 doctors asked the same questions in broken English, and about 3 hours later, they decided to take us to a different clinic.  Mandy in the meantime started to feel a bit worse for wear as well, but still not too bad.  We got to the clinic (our first experience in a Kazakh ambulance – one of those little Russian Yaz vans.  Very old, but still working nevertheless; it was like being in a 70’s retro scene) where they managed to find an interpreter, and we could get our message across to them.  The doctor decided that we should stay overnight, and they thought it would be a good idea to get a drip in me (I think they gave me about 1.5 liters in total, thirsty boy…).  One of the nurses also thought it would be a good idea to have a round of darts on my bum.  I had the privilege of 6 injections in total being thrown into my poor buttock, ranging from painkillers to antibiotics to something else I’m not sure of.

Mandy decided to jump on the bandwagon later that day and made a good challenge for the toilet spot.  She did beat me that night with getting up 4 time more than me for you know what…The following day, the doctor gave Mandy a drip as well and pumped her full of drugs too.  For some reason they didn’t give her any injections.  We’re still not sure why.  Maybe it was ‘pick-on European-men’ day.  We stayed there a second night, and by the next morning, there was no chance of anything getting out anymore after all the drugs and cement sachets they gave us.  Anyway, after a quick chat with the doc in the morning, it was decided that we could leave, with a strict diet of no fried food, grapes, milk, fatty meat and some other things (maybe she didn’t realise that we are in Kazakhstan and almost everything is fried and fatty…) for the next 2 weeks.  Safe to say, we followed the diet for about 3 days.

The hospital food wasn’t too bad.  We always got nice bread, and dinner was soup with bread.  Breakfast was porridge with bread, and lunch was cutlets and mash, and bread of course.  All this always topped off with some sweet tea.  To top it all off, our 2 night all-inclusive stay at the hospital didn’t cost us a thing – how about that!!

Last thought for the day – if you want to feel and look like a complete twat, wear the hospital pyjamas (and the slippers which was about 4 sizes to small)…

01 October 2008

Did you know – Out of the 70 or so different varieties of tulips found in the world, about 34 are found here in Kazakhstan.  The tulip is the national flower of Kazakhstan.  Almaty was previously known as Alma-Ata, which means father of apples.  Kazakhstan is famous for the apples throughout Central Asia.

We are in Almaty, and feeling just about 100% after our little getaway to the hospital.  We’ve been here for about 5 days now.  We’ve had great weather with some of the days in the mid twenties.  Today has been a bit cooler though and a bit of rain too.  Almaty is a really nice surprise.  It is a very nice city, leafy parks, wide roads and very European feel to it with all the restaurants and coffee shops (a lot of the coffee shops have wi-fi, they don’t always advertise it though).  Almaty has become very expensive though over the last 3 years.  We briefly spoke to someone we met from Pakistan who works for Pepsi.  He has been coming here for the last few years, and according to his experiences of inflation; it’s about 30% year on year.  The InterContinetal hotel for example charges about US$ 600 per night.  It is all because of the recent oil findings here in the last 5 – 10 years.

We’ve had to apply for our other Central Asia visas while we’re here in Almaty.  We knew we would spend a little bit of time here, and thank goodness it’s a nice city.  We’re also waiting for a small part for the car from Oz.  One of our friends, Alastair very kindly sent it to us with our new car rego papers.  The package is here, but at customs at the moment, and it takes 3-5 working days to clear.  We hope to get it by Friday so that we can get to the countryside a bit.

Like I said before, if you want to come to Central Asia, then be prepared for deadlines with your visas.  You need to be exact with the dates you want.  We are hoping to leave Kazakhstan in the next 10 days to head to Kyrgyzstan where we want to spend about 3 weeks.  From there we want to cross the remote high-altitude Pamir highway to Tajikistan to spend about 3 weeks before we need to be in Uzbekistan by 15 Nov.  People we’ve spoken to so far seems to think it’s not too late for the Pamir, and I was talking to the Consular General of Uzbek yesterday and he said it shouldn’t be that cold yet when we get there.  Lets hope it’s all true.

We’ve done a bit of sightseeing here, going to Gorky Park, and the very impressive Zenkov Cathedral, made entirely out of wood.  Even the nails a made of wood.  It certainly doesn’t look like it’s made of wood.  We also went to the state museum this morning and bumped into a big group of retired Ozzies who are traveling by train from Moscow to Beijing.  Unfortunately for them, they’re only spending the day here in Almaty.

02 October 2008

Did you know - The Kazakhstan flag was adopted on June 4, 1992.  Kazakhstan gained independence from the Soviet Union on December 16, 1991.  The original Kazakhstan flag that was adopted in 1992 had a red ornament but was soon changed to gold.  The blue has a religious significance, representing the sky god to many of these people. A modern interpretation states the blue background stands for Kazakhstan's broad skies, and for freedom. The steppe eagle and the sun represent freedom and the flight toward greater heights and fulfillment of aspiration.

So, we’re still after our elusive little package from Australia, still at customs somewhere.  I think we’ll be lucky to get it before the weekend.  We at least managed to do an oil change today.  The oil is soooo expensive here.  We still have 12 liters of oil with us for one change, but thought we would keep it for when we can’t find oil anywhere.  The oil cost equivalent to about AU$11 per liter.  Anyway,, rather change it than leave it.

An interesting little story for the day, and also of a couple of days ago.  On our way to one of the embassies, we thought we would stop and ask a policeman for directions because the locals don’t have that much knowledge when it comes to road names.  After we got some directions, he of course wanted to see our documents for the car etc.  Fine, no problem.  Out comes one of our swish laminated copies of the Australian car docs and a laminated copy of my licence.  After a bit of chitchat, he pointed to the front door window which has tinting on and said it’s not legal.  No problem I said.  The car is from Oz and only temporary.  He didn’t want to know a thing, and we were running a bit late.  I wasn’t really in the mood for fines or bribery, so decided to get in the car and just drive off.  Luckily he didn’t do anything and we just drove off.

To add insult to the tinting situation, we thought we would go to one of the mountains close to Almaty today.  Very nice drive to the mountains.  Before long, we got to a boom entrance to the area we thought was the National park.  We knew there might be a charge to get in, and thought this was the place.  Another car pulled up next to us and gestured to just go through.  Just as we started to leave, a policeman came out of the little building and of course wanted to see our documents again.  He came up to the car and said the same thing about the tinting on the front windows, and wanted us to take it off.  No chance about that.  After playing dumb for a few minutes he told me to come with him to the little office, but in the meantime also commented on how dirty the car was.  Whatever, I thought, so what!!.  After standing around in the office for a few minutes and him carrying on about something, he eventually decided not to let us go through.  The reason, the car was too dirty!!!!  We can only go in one the car has been cleaned and the tinting has come off.   So we had to turn around, and couldn’t go to the ski resorts in the mountain.  I think he was just trying to be a complete dick about the whole thing.  We might try again tomorrow, or over the weekend when the roads are a bit busier.  Lets hope that someone else is on duty next time we go.

Until next time… 

11 October 2008

Did you know – Most accommodation (houses, apartments etc) in Almaty do not regulate their own heating in the winter.  The heating comes on around mid October and stays on until mid April, and you do not have control over how hot or cold you want it.  If it’s too hot, then you have to open a window and endure the –30 degrees outside.

Now we know what it feels like to be at the mercy of some idiots with a bit of authority in an office somewhere, custom officers in this case.  Yes, that’s right, we are still waiting for our package to clear.  Our visa for Kazakhstan expires on the 16th, and we were told that it should clear on the 14th.  We’ll see whether this is the case though.

With the moaning over for today, we did manage to get out of town a bit during the week.  We decided to head east, to the Charyn Canyon and also to Kolsoe lakes.  It’s not that far from Almaty.  I think it’s about 300km or so.  We got to the canyons late the afternoon, just before sunset and got to the gates just before the ranger was going to close them.  After a bit of negotiation, we managed to go in for the evening and he said we drive down to the bottom.  Excellent, we thought, and we gave him a lift down (also because we didn’t know the way) to the bottom of the canyon where he has his yurt (same as the Mongolian gers).  Turned out to be a good thing that he came with us, because the one section of the road down is going through a very narrow section.  We managed to get through with a bit of guidance from him.  I think we had a few centimeters spare on each side of the car.  We spent the night there, at a very nice camping spot next to the river.  After yet another lazy start the following morning, we went to explore around the canyon, having to negotiate the narrow section of the canyon again on the way up.  My driving skills weren’t the same as the previous day, and I managed to damage the pvc holders for the tent poles.  Nothing serious though, just scratched it a bit.  The canyons are really beautiful, and definitely worth going to.  We’ve never been to any canyons before, which made it even nicer for us.

Next stop was the lakes, but we wouldn’t be able to get there that day.  We yet again managed to find a nice storm and we headed straight for it.  Luckily it blew over in an hour or so and we even managed to cook some dinner without having to worry about rain.  The storm was unlike any other we’ve experienced before as well.  We were at about 2000m above sea level, and the clouds were really dark and also very low.  It looked like you could get out and touch it.    Again, we had a bit of hale or sleet.  I really don’t like hail at all.  I think it must be from living in Australia for a while.  They have really horrendous hail sometimes in Sydney.  We’ve never experienced it, but have seen how devastating it can be.

The weather wasn’t that great the following day.  We got to the lakes early afternoon after a very nice and scenic drive through the mountains.  We had to spend the afternoon sitting around and not being able to do much, because it was raining.  I at least managed to finish the book I was reading.  We are just out of the tourist season, and there was no one else there.  The few guesthouses and yurts were all closed up, and only a few local people still around.  After resting and sleeping way too much, we were greeted by a beautiful day the following day.  A chance not to be missed, we decided to go for a walk to see if we can get to the second lake.  Suppose to be a 3-hour walk.  One of the local dogs also took a liking to us (I think probably because we gave her some dried apricots) and walked with us all the way, waiting for us when we stop and leading the way.  We never made it to the second lake though (which is a real shame, because it’s suppose to be the nicest one out of the 3).  We didn’t feel comfortable on some sections of the track.  It was really steep and it was wet from the rain of the previous days.  We decided to turn back after an hour or so.  Nevertheless, what we did see was still very nice.  It took us another couple of days to get back to Almaty.

14 October 2008

Did you know – You can buy socks at one of the local market in Almaty made from dog hair ‘wool’.  It is said that dog hair is about 8 times warmer that Angora wool.  It also supposedly has properties to relieve symptoms rheumatism in you bones and joints.

Today was a day for celebration – at long last, our package cleared at customs and was delivered.  Alistair, thanks for organizing it all, and sending it to us.  Much appreciated!!  We picked it up this afternoon, and I got to work straight away to fit.  Not really a difficult job, just a bit fiddly.  You have to take the steering wheel off as well as steering cover etc to get to it all.  Our celebration however turned into disappointment.  The part Alistair sent was correct, exactly what we asked for.  It did however not fix our problem.  You would think that someone who works for a Toyota main dealer and specialize in electrical systems would get it right.  In our case, the ‘not-so-specialist’ Toyota specialist who looked at the car in Ulaan Bataar didn’t get it right.  We still have the same problem.  We might have one more go at the dealers here to see if they can fix it before we head off tomorrow.  Our visa for Kazakhstan expires on 16 Oct, so we’ll have only one more day to get to the border.  Luckily it isn’t that far from Almaty.

On a brighter note, we’ve met some really nice people the last few days here in Almaty.  The first person we met is from South Korea.  She just started her own guesthouse here in Almaty.  She very kindly said that we could use her facilities while we use our own ‘hotel’, so we’ve parked outside her guesthouse for the last few days.  It is also in a very quiet location, so we get a good night’s sleep too.  Her name is So Young, and she is very friendly and extremely helpful if you have any questions.  Have a look at the links page on our site for her contact details.  So Young, thank you so much for letting us use your facilities and for doing some more laundry for us and letting us hang out with you.  It was very kind of you.

The other person we met is from Kazakhstan, but currently lives in the USA with his family.  We met Ayan at one of the wi-fi hotspots.  He came back to Kazakhstan on some business.  Most of his family still lives here though.  He owns a car sales business in Indiana, so if there is anyone who might need a car in the USA, he’ll be able to sort you out (we’ll put his details in out links page as well).  He very kindly took us to dinner one night and also tried to get our package from customs a bit quicker with some of his connections.  He also invited us to go to one of the markets today to go and buy a fur coat for his mother.  We had a really good day with him – thanks Ayan for being so kind to us and for your help with trying to clear our package.  Have a safe trip back to America, and we will definitely come and visit when we are there.

Talking about fur coats, we’ve never seen so many coats in our lives.  The market is about 5km long and you can find anything there.  There must’ve been about 200 shops/stalls all selling fur coats.  There is no way in hell that you would see that in Europe or the States, but you can definitely understand why they wear it here in Central Asia and also in Russia.  It’s definitely not a fashion statement, but more of a necessity because of the extreme weather they experience.  We can definitely understand why they wear it.  I think I would also wear one if I had to live here and experience winter temperatures of –30 degrees.

Lastly, we would also like to say a BIG thank you to Alex and David here in Almaty.  If it weren’t for Alex and her office manager’s effort to get our package from customs, we could’ve easily been here for another 2 weeks…at least.  Alex, we really appreciate all your effort and also a big thanks for all the new reading material you and David gave us to keep us busy on the road.

We will be leaving Kazakhstan tomorrow to go to Kyrgyzstan.  Fingers crossed please that we don’t have issues at the border!!!