A Travellerspoint blog


By Deborah

It's funny, nowhere in China ever felt like home - you always knew you were in a foreign place. Arriving in Ulan Batoor felt a bit like Auckland. I don't know why, I thought it might be the era of the buildings, the mish mash of old Japanese cars or maybe the size of the place. Don't get me wrong the amount of Gers around the city are definitely Mongolian but there are things that take you back home.
Coming to Astana felt homely again! It was definitely having a meter on the taxi that triggered it! After that just being in an oversee-able sized city instead of the metropolises of China, was enough to make us feel comfortable. We stayed in an apartment in the 'old' part of the city. Sorry to keep making comparisons to China but usually there the 'old' part of town was the most desirable place to be... Not so in Astana. When the taxi pulled into the street, I double checked the address thinking "oh shit..." The apartment was lovely and spacious - I was just a bit worried about getting to and fro once you left the gate. It looked like a badly kept part of what I imagine Russian suburbs look like. The tar seal on the road was crumbling and dug up in parts. The houses were like ugly 70's design, with the front doors as one piece of sheet metal hiding the inside front door (it gets cold in these parts I hear), poorly kept concrete gardens. I won't go on but I'm just trying to paint the picture a bit for you
As our first impression, it took a little while to warm to the place. About 60 minutes if I recall properly!! Just the first visit to a corner shop to buy water - Maaike came outside with a surprise for me - DIET COKE AND SPARKLING WATER!! A double happy deal!! I guess it had been a while before I'd seen my two favourites and both in one shopping bag WOW! Astana could do no wrong after that!
In actual fact it more than delivers on the wow factor! It's absolutely futuristic in architecture and culturally it's very European in feel and behaviour. It was for us a total shock factor, coming from the mountains in Mongolia to the warlike atmosphere of Urumqi into this haven of third worldliness. We actually couldn't stop smiling for two days! So many amazing structures and buildings with this beautiful relaxed atmosphere. In fact it was so relaxed we renamed it the 'city of love' (well lust actually, it seemed there were so many couples making out). Or maybe it was spring or just travelling with a 15 year old who seemed to have an antennae for inappropriate behaviour.
Night time was another extravaganza of colour and lights! Astana is being invested in and rebuilt as the new capital of Kazakhstan. It's architecture incorporates the influences important to the evolving identity of modern day Kazakhstan - the nomadic Kazakh people, the old Soviet era, the strong Islamic influence and the desire to be a bold new identity in Central Asia.
We moved onward to Almaty via the overnight train. On the train Maaike and I were in close quarters with a family of four. The compartments were meant for four but both children were small. I kind of think in a train compartment small children should be counted as people too - they are far more disruptive than any other train passengers I can think of ( except that one Chinese man that had swallowed a working chain saw which kept running all night). My fantastic husband and wonderful man johan was with an incredibly lovely lady that fed us all on "kartuska and fried chicken" YUM
Almaty is so different to Astana, it's another experience in itself. An older town with many parks and tree lined boulevards it has that sleepy quality that grows on you - especially in the heat 30 degrees+.
There's lots to see in Almaty but you need to look for it and be there on the day, I think.
Our mindset was somewhere else when we visited. We needed to arrange visas and permits for Tajikistan, research and book more flights and make decisions on "where to next"... Fortunately the wifi here is great and fast, restaurants have great food - everything we needed to relax, refresh and recharge before we head of to the great unknown of Tajikistan!

Posted by Vendrig 08:35 Tagged kazakhstan silk_road astana almaty Comments (1)

Olgii Mongolia to Urumqi China

By Johan

Because the Russian embassy in Wellington dicked us around on the Russian visa application (see earlier post) we were faced with a 900 km overland journey to get from Olgii to Urumqi in China where we would catch a plane to Astana in Kazakhstan.

Our Mongolian guides arranged a ride for us in another one of those indestructible Russian army trucks to get us to the Chinese border about 400 km south of Olgii (at Tai-tashkent?). The first 200 km were pretty easy going gravel and dirt roads but after that we entered the "local traders short cut track". This 200 km hard core off road short cut is only used by local drivers with their small Russian army trucks to cart goods and some passengers to the border. We started that track at night fall around 6 and came out around 4 in the morning. Most of the way it follows a river bed and cuts through the river a few times. Allthough Maaike amazingly slept through quite a bit of it on a bench seat (we now know she can sleep anywhere), Deborah and my double seat shook loose a bit from literally bouncing around for hours. It was quite the adventure including a midnight stop to fix the car. It would have been great to do this in day light rather than the dark of night because from what we could make out in the head lights the scenery and track were very spectacular indeed.
We arrived in a small home stay close to the border around 4am where we slept to 8. After some Kazakh tea (of course) before the short trip to the Mongolia to Chinese border for opening time at 10.

The border crossing itself is a frustrating experience. You stand by a large fence with a small gate where a Mongolian soldier lets about 5 to ten people through at the time. The crowed doesn't believe in queuing and the soldiers seem to prefer to man handle the crowd that is trying to shove themselves through the gate all at the same time rather than organise a bit of a queue.

Not knowing how many people will show up and how long they will let people through the gate, you are kind of forced to participate in this game between the crowd and the gate keeper (it really did feel like a game by the Kazakhs to tease the Mongolian guards). Turns out that after about an hour and a half the crowed dries up and they just leave the gate open after that - aaaaarrgghh if we had known that up front, we would have just stood back and enjoyed the show.

Anyway after the first gate there are about 2 more of these "queues are for pussies" gates, one to get your bags and one to get your passports checked. And that is just to get out of Mongolia!

So by now we were very worried about what to expect going in to China - but it turned out to be night and day difference. Very friendly guards that kept you in your queue as if their life depended on it; no pushing and shoving here. Turns out that despite our "free spirit" we did enjoy the Chinese queuing above the Mongolian push and shove. Quite a few bag checks to get into China but all in all a pretty quick and smooth affair.

You have to walk with your luggage across the 400 meters off no-man's land between the two border control areas. The locals have made a service out of this and they will help you cross the border with a little cart as well as help you navigate the guards and checks. Although he didn't need to help us with our bags, our driver did help us with navigating the check posts and by the time we cleared the Chinese customs he had also organised us a ride for the remaining 500km on Chinese motorways to Urumqi. The smooth asphalt was a welcome change after the night of bouncing through the riverbed and we arrived in Urumqi around 8 that evening.

Posted by Vendrig 09:27 Comments (1)

Eagle hunters - Mongolia

By Johan

Back online after we have been of the radar in Tajikistan - so here's the continued story following our Mongolia adventure at the end of May:

After we finished our horse track we returned to Olgi by truck. We travelled via Sagsai to visit the legendary eagle hunters. We had been looking forward to this since we saw one of the eagles in Ulaanbataar.

I am not sure what I was expecting; maybe a small village of gers with large eagles flying overhead. I was a little surprised when we pulled up to a small house in the middle of Sagsai village. It had a small courtyard with goats and lots of old motor bike and car parts. The guy that was working on an old bike in the yard turned out to be the town mechanic in summer and eagle hunter in winter. The eagle was sitting on the fence keeping an eye on the yard.

The eagle hunters are not part of a separate tribe in a eagle hunter village as imagined. Instead they are individual hunters scattered through the region. They are part of a highly respected "club" that keep the old eagle hunting tradition alive. There are about 50 plus in this area. It was said that in the days of the great Mongol warrior, Genkis Khan had 5000 eagle hunters in his guard alone.

It was not until later in the evening when we went out of the village into the hunting grounds that the magic of the eagle hunter became visible. You could clearly see the change in the mood of both the eagle hunter and the eagle when they were both in their element; you could clearly see the bond between this bird and his keeper.
The birds get either caught out of the nest or caught as a grown bird (the latter are better hunters) - training the adult bird to hunt takes about a month which I thought was pretty fast. Marmots and rabbits at first, then slowly working their way up to hunt foxes. There are even stories of eagles tackling the odd wolf! When you see the size of them and their claws you can believe it too.
Unfortunately the hunting season is in winter so we couldn't see the bird in action. If it was released now it would be too well fed to return to its host. In winter the birds are leaner. The hunter will be on his horse with the eagle on his arm while helpers rummage through the fields to spook the foxes out of hiding. It's pretty impressive to see the eagle take down a fox. (We saw a short bbc documentary clip that one of the guides had on his phone). Once the eagle tackles and holds the prey, the hunter uses his horse to get to the eagle and kill the fox - the bird gets the first cut as a reward.
The hunter keeps the bird for about 6 years when he releases it back to the wild. I was in two minds about all of this. Clearly there is a tight bond between the bird and the hunter but keeping a magnificent bird like this on a leash in town for most of the year didn't really seem right to me. I guess it was a very effective way to hunt I the olden days and now a proud tradition to keep alive. The hunter clearly loved the bird and as it was only a few months from this birds release to freedom, you could see he cherished the time in the field with it; even if it was just for the photo shoot.

Posted by Vendrig 09:21 Comments (2)

Horse track in Altai Mountains

By Johan

The horse trekking in the Altai mountains always promised to be a highlight - and it fully delivered. The hospitality of the Kazakhs in the Altai mountains is heart warming and the landscapes are extensive and impressive.

Our Altai mountain adventure began with three failed landings in a smallish twin prop plane. Fog/rain closed the first two airports we tried to land at. Third time lucky we landed safely 200 km north, close to the Russian border, where we waited for better weather. We arrived in Oglii about 6 hours later where we met our guide, Japper, and our cook, Ruska.

We also were introduced to Igor, our own personal Russian army truck. A cross between a VW combi van and a Unimog. 4wd with large wheels and, as we found out later in the trip, fairly indestructible. It was Jappers pride and joy and it had no problem with the 200km off-road into the mountains to our first ger camp.
It was pretty late by the time we arrived for our first Kazakh welcome. Amazingly any stranger can rock up to a ger and the people will invite you in (and insist on it) and present you with Kazakh tea and a variety of foods including Kazakh tea, bread, various forms of cheese, jam, cream, lollies, etc.

We were going to experience this many times more (generally two or sometimes three times per day) - the genuine friendly and unquestioned hospitality never seized to amaze us and we were truly humbled by it. Sometimes our cook or we would share some of our food with the hosts as well as a courtesy and this sharing established a quick bond in which you become 'part of the family' pretty quick.
On our first day of riding we met Dashgu, our horse whisperer. He would accompany us on the track while Japper and Ruska would take Igor on the road to meet us for lunches and evening camps. We were on the horses for 9 days and travelled approximately 230 km from the Potanin Glacier on the Russian/China/Mongolia border to Khoton Lake further south on the Mongolia/China border.
The horses were pretty easy to handle although Debs one did seem to have a mind of its own from time to time; it regularly went slow to drop back followed by a vigorous trot to get back with the pack (often setting my steed off on a trot as well so we would both be bouncing our way back to Dashgu and Maaike). It's a great way to see the country and we thoroughly enjoyed the horse riding. 360 degree views and beautiful scenery that was hard to do justice with our cameras. For me the highlights were the treks we did to the glacier and the one to the waterfalls area by lake Khoton. The trees, river, snow and mountains by the lake really reminded us of the cowboy movies from Montana, USA. I do note that by that time we were riding one handed and we DID actually manage to herd some goats along the way; so dreaming of cowboy status was totally appropriate.
After 9 consecutive days on a horse, We learned that it's not your bum you should be most worried about as an inexperienced horse (wo)man but your knees. I guess now we know why Cowboys have bent legs. Coming off the horse at the end of each day I resembled a very very old man (some would say even older than I look) until I could get my knees functioning again. Luckily the stiffness in the knees only lasts for a couple of minutes and I could return to my younger self.
The weather was great almost every day, although cold at times. We knew we were a bit early in the season so the snow and cold nights weren't really a surprise. We were well prepared and just wore everything we owned on a cold day, peeling off the layers when the icy wind died down and we enjoyed the abundance of sun. during our ride on day 8 we did have a 4 hour storm with ice rain coming in almost vertically in the face which pushed us close to our limit. The hut with a warm fire and plenty of Kazakh tea (naturally) at the end of that ride was an absolute God sent. Dashgu's dog which had made friends with Maaike and had followed us for the first 7 days, must have sensed that storm because it was that morning before the storm that he decided to call it quits and walk back home.
He probably also got sick of some of the less hospitable guard dogs we encountered by the Gers. The guard dogs were generally fine with us but they did give the dog a hard time at times. The Kazakhs have dogs to fend off the wolves at night. All the little goats, lambs and calves get rounded up in a pen at the end of the day and the dogs warn the farmers at night if wolves are nearby. Plenty of barking going on at night so naturally we kept close to camp after dusk. One night when we camped in our own little 3 person tent about 200 meters away from the main ger, it was pretty cool to see that "Maaike's Dog" sat next to our tent the whole evening and night standing guard. Very useful indeed to keep the live stock away from our tent during the day and the wolves at bay in the night.
The two days by the lake were especially great. It was a summer ger camp where many Kazakh families take their ger, family and lifestock to enjoy each others company and graze their herds on the rich grass fields that surround the lake. We set up our own little 3 person ger amongst three related family Gers so we were quickly adopted. I became a ladie's personal goat catcher and Deb was roped in to become the family photographer. Fair to say that our little portable Polaroid picture printer we brought along was a great success and by the end of the day all three Gers had a small photo collection on the ger wall.
Kazakh Gers are beautifully decorated with colourful carpets that the ladies of the house fabricate by hand during the long cold winter months. In summer ger life is pretty hectic with herding, milking, combing goats for kashmir and of course 2000 ways to process and preserve meat and milk. I can tell you that some of the fresh yoghurt and cheese made from yak milk is absolutely delicious. Some of the mutton based dishes (dried sheep/goat meat) can be a bit greasy at times, but the flavours of the slow cooked meat are very yum combined with various breads and dumpling variants. Ruska treated us eggs for breakfast and veggies and even fresh salads from time to time to complement the mutton soup so we were very happy with our menu.
We genuinely missed our horses the last day when we used Igor to travel further south on the way back to Olgii to visit the eagle hunters (refer to next blog).

Posted by Vendrig 09:18 Comments (0)

Ulaanbataar Mongolia

By Johan

After our great oriental experience in China, our brief 2 day visit to Ulaanbataar (aka UB) almost felt a little bit like stepping back into New Zealand. More familiar buildings, emptier streets and Mongolians with an almost kiwi like laid backness. Our guide, Ingeriam, was of Kazakh descent; something she was very proud off.
She took us to the Mongolian national museum and although we generally are not that hot on museums, we found it really interesting to step through the history of Mongolia with its many tribes of indigenous people affected by strong dominating influences of both Russia and China. Despite times of oppression by the Chinese and especially the Russian communist parties which almost wiped out a lot of the Mongolian and Buddhist heritage, the Mongolians seem to have good current relations with and respect for their two super power neighbours. Nevertheless their pride in their own Mongolian and Kazakh history is evident in how they tell the story of Kublai Khan, who united the first tribes, and his grandson, Ghenkis Khan, who United all of Mongolia and who created one of the biggest empires in global history. In modern history, Mongolia and UB especially have become surprisingly westernised from the early 90's following their break away from strong Russian communist party influence. The times of oppression are represented in the monument in front of the museum.
UB has a small city centre of modern Russian style buildings and a few high rise office blocks surrounded by a large area with a mixture of small houses with colourful roofs and Gers, the round tent like dwellings used by the Mongolian nomads throughout the country. It's a bit of an odd sight to see these Gers mixed in with permanent buildings in small fenced of sections. It's a big contrast to the feeling of absolute freedom the Gers depict in the rest of Mongolia where you see individual or small groups of two or three Gers in endless open fields and valleys with no fences what so ever as far as the eye can see.
A visit to a cultural show with traditional Mongolian dancing and singing was very cool too. An hour or so of really high quality performances including some very impressive "throat singing" which sounds somewhat like somebody has swallowed a didgeridoo. Maaike made fiends with a girl in the audience who was keen to practice her English and Facebook connections were done on the spot :). Yes, although not quite as in your face as in China, the mobile revolution is also strong amongst the younger generation in Mongolia.

We really liked our visit to UB - the luxury hotel, the slight European feel and an interesting glance into the history of the Mongolian people made it a great transition from China to our upcoming Kazakh adventure in the mountains of western Mongolia.

Posted by Vendrig 22:38 Comments (0)

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