Joining the Road
It’s been awhile since I posted anything here as I’ve been caught up with work and especially that GDPR brain scrambling shiteology. I’ve decided that GDPR stands for God Damn Poxy Rubbish and moved on. So, where am I on planning my trip? When will I be joining the road
In my last blog, as well as blathering on, as I do, about the history of the Silk Road, I also mentioned my first stop, Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. Apart from seeing Astana and the surrounding area, my first journey in Central Asia will be a train from Astana to Almaty.
Before I start on about that, I would like to share an anxiety I was having about the multitude of options available to me from Bishkek onwards. It’s the old kid in the candyshop syndrome coupled with the knowledge that my days are numbered and that I mightn’t have a chance again to repeat this experience.
My journeys start when I first decide that I’m going to a certain part of the world. This provides a focus, a context and a starting point for research. I hit the Lonely Planet guidebooks and specialist independent travel websites. This feeds my imagination and, in my mind, I’m already there. I really enjoy this part of the process amd am a bit of a geek and a nerd; not sure what the difference is between those two. I’m also pretty ok at research, I’m doing a clinical research doctorate at the moment, so well able to organise and categorise vast amounts of information. So far, so good.
However, there’s a downside to this and that’s because there are so many fabulous places to visit. I want to see them all. But reason will suggest that this is not possible thereby leading to a struggle between what I need (reason, my human brain) and want (greed and desire, my chimp brain). This leads to a certain angst. I deal with this by taking a rest from planning and let reason cogitate on possibilities. As a result of this, I can accept that I will only see a tiny percentage of the places I pass through and plan accordingly.
I was also being a bit too organised and recognised some mild anxiety arising from a not complete control of my itinerary. For example, I couldn’t find a route from the Caucasus to Iran. I got a bit anal about this by asking too many questions on websites and being gently admonished by board members. I clocked this and backed off and looked at my need for control and the fear of being lost, out of control and having no control. Old themes for me. I surrendered to Theodron, the Greek god of uncertainty. Ah, that’s better.
The result of all this is that I’ll stick to the beaten path, more or less. I’ll establish myself in a town or city for a few days and mount trips from there to outlying areas.
But just before we start with Almati….
Pack up your Troubles
I wrote in an earlier blog about my pack. I have decided to go with travelling for the whole 12 weeks with only one single carry on wheeled backpack. If I was pretty ruthless about my packing I could manage to get everything in one bag. So being a modern type of a guy, I went online and checked out what was available. I came across this bag which has an overall capacity of 60 litres consisting of a 44 litre main pack and a 16 litre detachable daypack. The bag is on wheels and also can be used as a backpack. Best of both worlds. The only main issue is that it cost over 200€ to buy new. That’s a lot of money but if I sold my existing pack I will get at least 100€ for that so the total cost would be around the 100€ so I could definitely swallow that. I have no choice though. My trip depends on managing my current problem with my foot and this bag would be perfect.
OK, back to Almaty now. At last.
Almaty, formerly known as Alma-Ata and Verny, is the largest city in Kazakhstan, with a population of 1,797,431 people, about 8% of the country’s total population. It served as capital of the Kazakh state in its various forms from 1929 to 1997, under the influence of the then Soviet Union. In 1997, the government relocated the capital to Astana in the north of the country, which is about 12 hours away by train.
It is the major commercial and cultural centre of Kazakhstan, as well as its biggest population center. The city is located in the mountainous area of southern Kazakhstan in the foothills of the Trans-Ili Alatau or mountain, part of the Northern Tian Shan mountain system (ancient Mount Imeon) in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. It is the northernmost mountain range of Tian Shan stretching for about 350 km with maximal elevation of 4,973m (Talgar Peak). Almaty is at an elevation of 700–900 m (2,300–3,000 feet) and where the Large and Small Almatinka rivers run into the plain.
Train from Astana
Once the idea of catching a train from one city with a weird name to another city with a weird name in a country with an even weirder name would have given me a slight case of the heebie jeebies, to say the least. Now, as an old Trans Siberian Railway veteran, no problem at all. I have travelled on dozens of these trains in the past and know exactly what to expect.
There are 2 types of trains, slow and not so slow, aka fast
This is the old Soviet train system, that moves at the speed of thoughts, and has so many warm memories and romanticism attached to it. Trains are relatively spacious and comfortable, and you can while away the hours chatting to your neighbours or looking up from your book, watching the landscape out the window. This is my travel mode of choice.
And then there are faster talgo trains that go about 80% quicker than the slow train and operates on most inter-city stretches as an alternative for the slow train. This is not high-speed rail. The train has max speeds of 150 km/hr instead of 100 km/hr with the slow train.
Picking a train when there are several a day is an important decision where cost is usually secondary to security. My main focus is on when it departs and arrives. I don’t really care if the journey takes 13hrs or 17 hrs. There are 4 trains every 2nd day leaving Astana for Almaty and one on the other day with two on a Sunday. This is what the timetable looks like:
You’d think it would make sense to get the 3rd, as it’s the cheapest and has an overnight section and has a duration of 19 and a bit hours. I could also go for the 2nd one. This is because it leaves and departs at sensible times but takes almost 10 hours longer than the fastest train. The main consideration is that I’d arrive in the morning, having had a comfortable night’s sleep without the worry of oversleeping and missing my stop. I’d also have time to have breakfast and a wash of sorts. Most important of all, I’d be arriving in a new city during daylight when everything is open and public transport runs.
The price of this is 18€ (£15.75) travelling 2nd class sleeper, called Kupe class in CIS nations. A Kupe is a separate, lockable compartment with 4 berths: 2 bottom bunks and 2 top bunks. If the spirit moves me, I might travel 3rd class sleeper. This is 4627 KZT or 12€. It’s called Platzkart and is an open wagon divided in open, doorless compartments of 6 beds: 3 bottom and 3 top bunks. Now that drinking and public drunkenness is not allowed, or at least frowned on by the authorities, this might be a good option to meet local people. I’ll see when I’m there.
If I feel like spoiling myself, I could catch No 4. This is a more modern train and much faster. It’s also more expensive at 44€; almost twice the price of the cheapest. However, it only takes 13hrs and goes to a different station, Almaty 2, which is just a short walk from my hostel. This would seem to be the best option but, again, I haven’t made up my mind yet. There’s no hurry as online booking is only available 6 weeks in advance so I can wait until the end of June to book online. Or just take pot luck!
My Capsule Coffin
I arrive in Almaty at the respectable hour of 10 in the morning, or maybe a bit later if there’s the wrong type of camel dung on the track and the train is delayed. I’ll find a cafe either at the station itself or nearby, have a tea of coffee and eat some of the local food while I let my awareness catch up with the fact that I’m in a new city; a place I’ve never seen before. I love these moments and savour them. It’s what travelling is all about for me; the anticipation and excitement of newness and potential and the hope that there will be something around the next corner to cause my jaw to drop with wonder.
Railway stations in the ex-Soviet Union are, apparently, a marvel to behold. Many were built very opulently in the Tsarist era and are like little self-contained towns with pretty basic and very cheap hotels, eating places, shops to buy mobile phone sim cards, etc etc. I loved arriving and departing them in Russia.
I’ll be staying in a hostel instead of a hotel. Apart from cost, it will be important to have up to date information on what travel routes are available for the next leg of my journey. Also, travelling alone all the time from place to place and not really having a new routes for several weeks at a time can lead to a sense of loneliness or even alienation.
One of the things I like about staying in hostels is that you get to interact with other people. My experience of being in hostels, outside of Europe, is that the majority of people there are not archetypal tourists but a combination of different types of people and ages. I can usually find someone to have a chat and a cup of tea with.
Another big bonus of staying in a hostel is that they usually have washing machines so I can wash off the grime of the road. As I mentioned above, I will be travelling very lightly with only a single change of clothes. Most will be synthetic so easy to wash and will dry very quickly and don’t need ironing. Many have free WiFi so I can write and post my blog and upload my photos to the Cloud.
My hostel in Almaty is called the West Point Capsule Hostel (!) and instead of a lot of bunk beds in a big room, they have built little double-decker capsules painted in a variety of bright colours. My little monkey mind with its crow like curiosity could not resist this, so I booked a few days there. I’ll be in Almaty from early in the morning of the 29 August and leaving for Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan around noon on 1 Sept so I’ll have three and a half days to get a sense of the city and see the sights. My McFlora and O’Fauna will be still getting to know the locals and Almati, with its european
My First Marshrutka
But first, a little about one of those funny words I had never heard before which soon became an important word in my language as a way to get- between here and there. The word is Marshrutka, in Russian, it means “fixed route” or “routed taxis”. It’s basically a mini-bus, of varying and sometimes dubious age, comfort, and safety levels. They are ubiquitous throughout the former Soviet Union and a great way to travel as a local and meet the ordinary everyday people out doing their ordinary everyday activities. Joining the road.
The original marshrutkas were actually shared route taxicabs travelling along a certain route. They were introduced in Moscow for the first time in the USSR in 1938, operated by ZiS-101 limousines, the huge Zils those of us of a certain vintage remember seeing on TV. They offered ordinary people a chance to ride in luxurious ZiS cars, otherwise reserved for high officials. At first they were meant mainly for tourists and serviced mainly stations and airports. Now, they’re everywhere.
Another totally irrelevant factoid. In Turkey, a marshrutka is called a Dolmus. The name is derived from Turkish for “seemingly stuffed” referencing the fact that, in days past, these taxis were often filled to the brim. They depart from the terminal only when a sufficient number of passengers have boarded, just like in Russia and Central Asia. I bet your life feels more complete now that you know that.
The Russian word “маршрутка” is the colloquial form for “маршрутное такси”, which literally means “routed taxi” (“маршрут” referring to a planned route that something follows, and “такси” meaning “taxi”). The word “маршрут” is from the German word “Marschroute”, which is composed of the words “Marsch” (a walk, march) and “Route” (route). Talk about round the houses etymology!
I get far more pleasure out of scooting around on a rusty old minibus with a load of babushkas than all your onion domed churches and cathedrals. Except when the the bus is hurtling downhill on a mountain road with the abyss beckoning us to oblivion.
This is an excerpt for a Russian website called Russia Beyond where the writer talks about marshrutka. They really catch the essence of these eccentric modes of travel:
Marshrutkas and their drivers are commonly mocked in Russian popular culture. For example, the information signs in these vehicles are often humorous, with texts such as: “10 minutes of fear and you are home. Roller coaster ride is 25 rubles;” or another that is inspired by the 1917 revolutionary logo: “Land to the peasants! Factories to the workers! Money to the driver!” There also can be warnings such as, “Don’t slam the door, it can break off and fall on your foot.”
Since a marshrutka doesn’t stop at every bus stop, the driver asks passengers to shout louder when a stop is needed, otherwise he can’t hear you and you’ll miss your stop.
The extreme speed of marshrutka driving is also a target for Russian humor, and the popular TV show, Comedy Club, composing a song about a marshrutka driver participating in Formula 1 racing in Sochi: With “squeaking brakes” and “smoking tires” a Sochi resident leaves Fernando Alonso crying, overtaking him at a speed of 300 km/hour on the opposite side of a serpentine mountain road.
After Almati, I’ll be leaving Kazakhstan and entering Kyrgyzstan. It took me ages to learn how to spell that! It’s another of those words that soon becomes an integral part of my life when on the road. I’ll travel by marshrutka to Bishkek and joining the road again.
For those of you, like myself, who like to know the background of things, here an excerpt from a Wikipedia article on Kyrgyzstan. It’s pretty interesting. I have left most of the links in because they are also interesting. There’s also another good article on WikiTravel
The Kyrgyz Republic (Kyrgyz: Кыргыз Республикасы, translit. Kyrgyz Respublikasy; Russian: Кыргызская Республика, tr. Kyrgyzskaya Respublika; Dungan: Хырхызстан), or simply Kyrgyzstan, and also known as Kirghizia (Kyrgyz: Кыргызстан, translit. Kyrgyzstan [qɯrʁɯsˈstɑn]; Russian: Киргизия, tr. Kirgiziya [kʲɪrˈɡʲizʲɪjə]), is a sovereign state in Central Asia.
Kyrgyzstan is a landlocked country with mountainous terrain. It is bordered by Kazakhstan to the north, Uzbekistan to the west and southwest, Tajikistan to the southwest and China to the east. Its capital and largest city is Bishkek.
Kyrgyzstan’s recorded history spans over 2,000 years, encompassing a variety of cultures and empires. Although geographically isolated by its highly mountainous terrain, which has helped preserve its ancient culture, Kyrgyzstan has been at the crossroads of several great civilizations as part of the Silk Road and other commercial and cultural routes. Though long inhabited by a succession of independent tribes and clans, Kyrgyzstan has periodically fallen under foreign domination and attained sovereignty as a nation-state only after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Since independence, Kyrgyzstan has officially been a unitary parliamentary republic, although it continues to endure ethnic conflicts,revolts, economic troubles, transitional governments and political conflict. Kyrgyzstan is a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Eurasian Economic Union, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the Turkic Council, the Türksoy community and the United Nations. So, they’re well connected.
Ethnic Kyrgyz make up the majority of the country’s 5.7 million people, followed by significant minorities of Uzbeks and Russians. Kyrgyz is closely related to other Turkic languages, although Russian remains widely spoken and is an official language, a legacy of a century of Russification. The majority of the population are non-denominational Muslims. In addition to its Turkic origins, Kyrgyz culture bears elements of Persian, Mongolian, and Russian influence.
I’ve sort of exhausted my enthusiasm now for writing about places I haven’t visited yet. It seems a bit dishonest and incongruent to be writing like I already have personal knowledge of these places. I’m currently just an armchair traveller and a few months away from joining the road for real.
I’m doing this to help me focus but also to have something to read in a few years time, following the completion of the journey.
More later about Bishkek and the continuing road untravelled.