Saturday, December 8, 2012

до свидания, Central Asia

I was afraid this would happen...

Two weeks have passed since my last post, and now I'm left with a jumble of photos and memories from across this giant country that is Kazakhstan. To keep this from being too long (impossible), I will let the pictures do most of the explanations, and fill in the gaps where needed

On the road from Aktobe...

artwork in Aktobe

Blurry photo of a happy Emm

After a couple of days hanging out with my American host, Emm, in Aktobe, I was back to hitchin' and trainin' across Kazakhstan. I had over 2,000km (almost 1,500mi) to cover and two weeks to do it. I wasn't in too much of a rush, so I stopped at a few places of interest (or accident) along the way. 

The "Silk road" needed a facelift. Now it's the "Western Europe-Western China International Transit Corridor"

Cramped, yet comfortable, train quarters


The first stop. Aralsk is Kazakhstan's version of Uzbekistan's Moynaq. Faithful readers will remember that Moynaq was the desolate wasteland that used to be a thriving fishing town on the southern end of the Aral sea. Aralsk managed to avoid desolation, but it's definitely not the source of pride it once was.

Aralsk was a big deal in Soviet times

A bit harder-up these days

The sea itself is slightly closer to Aralsk than to Moynaq, but still nowhere to be seen from the town itself. Like Moynaq, there are memorials all over the place and rusty boats in the desert. Unlike in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan has put up some dams to try to save the northern part of the sea, and it seems to be working. Well enough that they can pull enough fish out of there to reopen the cannery, or part of it. (turns out they don't like people wandering around working canneries taking pictures... add that to the "reasons most Kazakhs think Shawn's a spy" list). Between that and its location on a major rail line, Aralsk was a significantly happier place to be than Moynaq.


 Unfortunately, they don't have many options for cheap accommodation, so after a cold night on the steppe, I was back on the road.

Resting on the seashore


This place I was excited for. Many of you know I was once (and still am, to a great extent) super excited about space and space travel once upon a time. This city is the headquarters for the Baikonur cosmodrome, where space firsts like Sputnik, Yuri Gagarin, Valentina Tereshkova, and Laika all launched from. It continues to be used today by the Russian space agency, and many Americans have also launched from here over the years.


Business end of a Soyuz


Because of its history and the craziness that was the breakup of the Soviet Union, Baikonur is technically a part of Russia, despite its location in Kazakhstan. All of the police are Russian, all of the prices are in rubles, the cars have Russian plates, Russian flags are everywhere, and they serve Borsch.


Russian licence plate

The town is clearly proud of its history, and there are monuments on every corner, a neat little museum, t-shirts that say "We were first!" in Russian with a picture of Sputnik, and billboards like this, with a quote from Neil Armstrong about Yuri Gagarin (according to a translation from my host):

"He called us all into space..." - Neil Armstrong

Old Soviet plane

Although the launch site itself is off-limits unless you have thousands of dollars and all the right paperwork, apparently you can still see some of the launches from the city. There was a launch scheduled for one of the days I was there, and I was psyched to get to see my first chunk of metal hurled into space in real-time. Unfortunately, "technical problems" arose, and they rescheduled the launch for 10 days later, so I was left exploring the city itself and imagining what the launches must be like.

The coal plant. Lots of these around...

I was staying with a Couchsurfer, Ilya, who introduced me to his English class on the first night, where I made some new friends who showed me around while Ilya was working. One of them was Don, who brought me to his parents' house for dinner

Hanging out with Mom and Pop

Others were this couple, whose names escape me now but were very nice people. The wife works for the newspaper, and if any of you come across a copy of the Baikonur Daily anytime soon, keep an eye out for a story on a crazy American hitchhiker...

Friendly couple and my host, Ilya (right)


Once I ran out of rubles, it was time to move on, so I went back out to the road and caught a couple rides to the old Soviet capital of Kyzylorda (translates to "Red Capital" in Kazakh). I wasn't really planning on staying here, but hitching being what it is, I ended up here for another night on the steppe. Before setting up my bivy, however, I stopped in a chaikhana for some dinner and met Oleg.

Oleg and I in his chariot
Oleg is a Russian trucker from Taraz, a city in the south of Kazakhstan (despite a Kazakh passport, people here clearly identify themselves by their ethnicity). He speaks slightly more English than I do Russian, and ended up buying me dinner, inviting me in the morning for tea (above), and inviting me to his place in Taraz, when I'm passing through. Noted.


After waking up with frost on the inside of my bivy, I decided to find a hotel for my next night. I spent it in Turkestan, which is basically an extention of the Timurid relics of Uzbekistan (like in Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva), that happens to fall on the Kazakh side of the border. It was pretty cool, but after several months in Central Asia, you start to get tired of big turquoise-tiled mosques and mausoleums of old dead muslim men.

Mausoleum. The facade wasn't finished before Timur died, so they just left it, scaffolding and all

 As memorable as the mausoleum was Turkestan's smog. For a tiny town, it sure produces a lot of smoke. I was thinking of friends in Wenatchee during the summer's fires as I struggled to breathe walking from dinner to the hotel. To avoid smoke inhalation, I spent most of the evening reading indoors.

That's coal smoke, not fog.


 So Lonely Planet devotes a decent chunk of the book to this town, but it turns out that the authors (and most tourists) probably weren't here in the winter. Most of the attractions are the national park and the mountains nearby. After my snowy mountain experience in Kyrgyzstan, I wasn't too psyched to get any more frostbite. Instead, I explored the town by foot and spent way too long staring at a computer figuring out Africa logistics...

Zhas, my host, and I

The couch

Santa's popular, but it's for New Years, not Christmas


 As promised, I gave my trucker friend, Oleg, a call when I got to Taraz. He happily came and picked me up (naturally, "5 minutes!" turned into 45 on Central Asian time), then brought me straight to his hairdresser, Zula, with whom he had an appointment. True to Kazakh hospitality, however, I left the building with a fresh trim of my own from Zula, free of charge.

"i go get cut. hair. many cut. cut cut cut. cutterpillar"

Then, he took me on a whirlwind tour of Taraz, where he seems to know everyone, we swang back by the train station to pick up his sister from the Moscow train, then headed to his parents' house for dinner of soup and fish:

Poppa Oleg, Momma Oleg, Sister Oleg, Oleg


 Finally, on to my final stop in Kazakhstan, and in Central Asia: Almaty. After 10hrs in a train skirting just a few dozen kilometers from places I'd visited in Kyrgyzstan 3 months earlier, I arrived in the old capital and biggest city of Kazakhstan and met my new host, Dave.


A view of the city (and its smog) from Kok-Tobe hill

I'll trade mountains for steppe any day...

After a brief respite in Shymkent and Taraz from the snow and cold, I was back in the thick of it. Not as cold as the west, but plenty of snow. Apparently there was a big storm a week or two ago that dumped 2ft or so and destroyed a bunch of trees. Since then, it's been slowly melting and turning to ice, which makes walking fun.

trees down

Mr. Snowman

New Years' trees

Almaty is the most developed city not only in Kazakhstan, but all of Central Asia, and it's quickly noticeable. In this case, "development" leads to a very western, cosmopolitan and European feel. Dave and I went to an Italian restaurant for dinner my first night and you can find anything from Burger King, KFC and Hardees to Japanese, Korean and Chinese buffets. There are loads of fashion boutiques from France, or with French names so they sound like they're from France, everything is crazy expensive, and in addition to the expected Russian, I've also heard plenty of English and Chinese spoken on the streets. Here are some images from the last couple of days:

$6 Chinese buffet!! Feels like home...

Old Cathedral. Russian Orthodox folk are big on gold...

The Fab Four immortalized on top of Kok Tobe

So, that's Kazakhstan! Almaty will be my home for the next two days, then on Tuesday it's off to Morocco, via Istanbul!

It's been an amazing 5 months in Asia (hard to believe it's already been that long!), filled with plov and meat and bread vodka and Russian profanity and long roads and hospitality and old buildings and and mountains and steppe and snow and heat and city folk and country folk and sickness and health. I feel incredibly fortunate that I've been able to have all of these experiences over these months to fill this blog and share with you all.

That being said, I'm ready for a new continent.

Either embracing Borat's publicity, or a very coincidental marketing choice


  1. Shawn, your journey through Central Asia has truly been an adventure, but I'm excited for you to see a new continent as well:) Have a sweet time in Istanbul before hopping over to Morocco!

  2. Shawn; The Smith family is enjoying your adventure through the blog. You go places most of us can only imagine; all those "Stans" that we hear so little about. We look forward to more posts with details of your trip.

    John & Marilyn

  3. I'm glad you're having a rock star adventure... but mostly I'm jealous :) And I miss you.