Bob Perry, one of ElderTreks Country Directors, will be blogging from the road as he sets off on an epic 25 days across central Asia as part of ElderTreks The Stans tour. Keep your eyes on the blog as Bob will be posting updates throughout his tour.
If it's Tuesday it must be Almaty, Kazakhstan? Arrived in the wee small hours of the morning, 05:00, which is what all international flights do here, arrive in the wee small hours that is. Not sure what impression I had created in my mind but having received the highly official visa in my passport before I came it was if I expected this whole palaver to enter the country. Well it was all over and done with in 10 minutes. Eat your heart out Toronto Airport. Clear immigration and customs and outside being met by our local representative Ulan. Asked him one time the meaning of his name and in Kyrg it means "first of twins".
The city seems a little out of place here, one can almost imagine Stalin saying "There Will Be A City" and it was done. 6 lane highways through the centre of town, some areas still having the Red Star above the buildings, very Soviet Unionesque. The group all arrived ok via Frankfurt and Istanbul (there's a plug for Turkish Airlines again) and they are a good bunch. From the eldest who has a weakness for red wine to the youngest who is full of beans so we should have all have a good laugh as long as we keep our sanity.
As Almaty is a relatively new city there are limited things to see and do. Part of the day tour of the city includes a ride in a cable car to the top of a hill overlooking the city. You turn one way and spread out is the city of Almaty and it is only then you begin to realize how large it is. Not one 6 lane highway but several. Turn the other way and you are presented with this incredible view of the Tien Shan mountains, covered in snow year round.
The weather later made a turn for the worse but by that time we were inside this incredible old wooden church where there were icons that the locals had saved during communist times and replaced in later years. Interesting diversity in Almaty, you go from being hassled by Tajik women on the street for money for their babies to stores from Brioni, Boss and D&G and they are at full Italian prices folks, no cheapos here.
Then onto Kyrgyzstan. Talk about a scene from a war novel!!! The border crossing looked like all the refugees trying to escape the country, pandemonium everywhere. We had to offload all our bags from the bus, walk through Kazakhstan customs (don't let the locals knock you out the way otherwise you will be there all day) cross the bridge with our bags and go through Kyrgyzstan customs and immigration. $60 lighter in our pockets we were then admitted to the equivalent number of people going in reverse.
After a superb picnic lunch organized by our tour leader Roger it is back in the bus for a few hours drive past cemeteries on the side of the road that look like small villages, to this small village in the Chong Kemin valley. Flanked either side by the incredible mountains of the Tien Shan range, we are staying at the Ashu Guest House, where a local family has created the right "ElderTrekky" experience. Walking to this area, out of the village over what could be laughingly called lanes, and seeing farmers and local people still working the land by hand, planting potatoes. Being welcomed by a local shepherd and him insisting on shaking your hand even though neither of us could understand each other. Just a feeling that they are genuinely pleased to meet someone from afar. A dinner provided by the family that runs the guest house of pilaf and a local sweet made from local crackers and honey, washed down with, yes, Vodka. The rooms seem basic but not. I know that sounds strange but they have installed full bathrooms into each room that is so big you could hold a party but has the feel you are staying at a farm house.
Tomorrow we travel to Lake Issy Kul and deeper into an area surrounded by these incredible mountains so stay tuned.