Day 46 – 5/7/16
Bishkek to Almaty, Kazakhstan

Today we had to cross over from Kyrgyzstan to Kazakhstan so we were all set for a long day all loaded with food stuff etc to take care of our tummies in case we had to spend a lot of time for the border crossing.

We had to drive just about 35 Kms before we reached Korday, Kyrgyzstan check post before the Kyrgyzstan exit. Michael missed the STOP sign and kept driving followed by Louis only to be stopped by a Police man very politely asking to park the cars at the side asking the drivers to step out with the requisite documents. No documents were seen, only they were threatened to confiscate their driving licence if they did not shell out $ 100 each, reason given was not stopping on the STOP sign. Finally they managed to pause Rs.1500/- each and get out from there. At the Kyrgyzstan emigration, other than the drivers everyone had to get off and walk to the emigration. It was absolutely a smooth sailing for us. We got our passports stamped for moving out of the country. After driving a few meters, it was Kazakh entry point. Here again we had to walk through the emigration minus the drivers with the cars. They had to go through a lot of grilling to check if they were carrying any weapons, drugs, etc., besides checking for all the stuff in the car, with a sniffing dog doing his rounds of the car. Finally Louis had to give away 2 mugs as complimentary, and they were escorted to Customs, which took about another half an hour. We were finished with the border crossing in about an hour, after which had to arrange for third party Insurance for the cars, which was also readily available outside the border.

We were a bit concerned about the length of time at the border, as we had heard about a lot of time being taken to cross the same, however we were done in about 45 minutes, including waiting in the lines to enter, to get our passports stamped out of Kyrgyzstan and then another line for our cars to go through customs on Kazakh side. There were a lot of mashrutkas and shared taxis waiting outside the border to drive people to Almaty.

Hurray, we had crossed another border and were in Kazakhstan, the ninth largest country on the planet which was under Russian control until 1993 when it became an independent state. Kazakhstan now has developed its own good relationships with both the east and west and also adapted its culture to suite both the old and the new.

We headed straight to the hotel at Almaty. We had to drive for about 210 Kms to reach Almaty. We reached around 4.30 pm, after relaxing for sometime went to the City Centre. Moved around in the square for sometime and went for dinner at a nice restaurant. Unfortunately after about an hour it started raining heavily, with thunder and lightning . On our way back to the hotel, we were all wet, as the rain wouldn’t stop.

Day 47 – 6/7/16
Almaty, Kazakhstan

Susanne had arranged for a local guide, Alta, so she could show us around the city. Alta had graduated from the US hence she could communicate very well with us. She along with her husband drove us in two cars for the purpose of convenience. She gave us a brief history about Kazakh

Almaty is the largest city in Kazakhstan with a population of approximately 1.7 million with about 9% of the countries population located in one city, it is certainly a hustling and bustling place to be. It also used to be the former capital of the country, until 1997 when it moved to Astana. The city has a spectacular beauty, located in the foothills of the Trans-Ili Alatau mountains. Asian Winter games were held here in January 2011.

Almaty literally means ‘city of apple trees’, and, also said to be the genetic home for many varieties of apples and the true beginnings of the domestic apple. A good traditional story links the taking of the apple from the tree in the old testament to Almaty. The Turkic name for apple is Alma and Ata meaning forefather, which could lay it open to be possibly the origin of the Apple (The garden of Eden).

We visited The Park of the First President having diversity of various species of plants and interesting landscape solutions. It has the largest fountain with the main jet fountain of 70mm dia reaching a height of 30 mtrs. with multi stage theme light and music. Cultural events & outdoor concerts are organised.

We also saw the monumental sculptural composition “Kazakhstan” in the form of a golden eagle in bronze, granite and marble.

The 371.5 mtrs high Almaty Television Tower built in steel is located on high slopes of Kok Tobe (blue Hill). This structure is not a concrete, but is the tallest free-standing tubular steel structure in the world, designed to withstand earthquakes up to a strength of 10 on the Richter scale.

Then we drove down to The Ascension Cathedral, also known as Zenkov Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox cathedral located in Panfilov Park. It was completed in 1907, and claimed to be the second tallest wooden building in the world. The cathedral survived the 1911 earthquake with minimal damage, even though it was built without any nails, which some bishops attributed to divine intervention.

We visited the Republic Square which was opened in 1980, a largest open public space in the city, flanked by impressive modern edifices on every side, nice alleys and flower gardens. The square is reminiscent of the tragic events of December 1986, when several Kazakh students were killed while protesting. Understand that some of the country’s largest open-air events, parades and protests are still held here even after the capital was shifted to Astana.

The main attraction of the Republic Square is the Monument of Independence created by a group of authors under the supervision of Shota Valikhanov. This monument, is a symbol of modern Kazakhstan, a 28-m stela in the center of the Independence Monument, adorned with a figure of the legendary Goldman and a flying winged leopard underneath it. The centrally placed 6 meter tall statue of Altyn Adam, an influential figure in early Kazakh history dubbed locally as the Golden Boy, stands tall keeping watch over the city. Goldman is the remnant of the Saks warrior in golden armor, two children on colts symbolizing youth and hopes for the great future of the Kazakh state; as well as symbolical figures of Father and Mother. Apart from that, there are ten bas-reliefs around the stela, where main milestones of the history of Kazakhstan are briefly written.

We also walked pass the Central mosque of Almaty, a good-looking building, but we didn’t go in as prayers were going on.

Later we passed by the Presidential Palace – a former residence of the president before the shifting of the capital, this building now houses the Akimat (city hall). Entrance to the inside is restricted.

We had to say bye to the Tour guide as we had to join Faizal, Nasir’s friend at his home for lunch. Faizal sent his two friends to pick us up, then came Elvis in his car and we were all headed towards Faizal’s house. Elvis stopped his car and picked up George on the way. When we reached Faizal’s place, there were at least another 10-12 people waiting to welcome us. We were astonished to meet so many Mallu’s in Almaty along with one Mangalorean, Elvis. Faizal’s wife was the cook for the afternoon for so many of us. We relished the lovely Mutton Biryani that she had so lovingly cooked for all of us, along with Payassam followed by tea. Enjoyed the afternoon. We had to say bye to them as we were expecting the Rotarian from Almaty to visit us at the hotel. Elvis was kind enough to drop us back to the hotel.

The Rotarians of Almaty – the newly elected President, Vera Oreshkina, the past President, Lyudmila Fedyukova and Madina Kusaeva along with her two little sons dropped in at the hotel to meet us. We had a wonderful interaction with them and exchanged the Rotary Flags. They were very happy to meet us.

Day 48 – 7/7/16
Balkash, Kazakhstan

We left at 6.30 am so that we could reach Balkash, the largest city in the Balkash lake area having about 66,000 inhabitants, before late evening as we had to drive more than 640 kms. Almost 300 kms road was pot-holed, bumpy, but after that it was okay. But the fear of the cops did not let us drive beyond the specified speed limit. Louis had to pay equivalent to Rs.1000/- as bribe to the cop for getting caught for speeding. Every where they would stand with Radars, Lasers, etc so that they could catch people speeding and extract money from them in the name of penalty, which were bribes as there was no receipts issued.

Anyway we reached around 4.00 pm at our Hotel, Respect, after which we walked to the lake. It was like a beach where there were a lot of people swimming. Also the water was quite warm. After a few photography sessions, we went to a nice restaurant around the lake.

The place was not at all developed. Most of the buildings were from the Russian erase, people did not seem to be well off. It was a quite town without much activity.

Lake Balkhash is one of the largest lakes in Asia and 15th largest lake in the world. It currently covers 16,400 kms. The lake is divided by a strait into two distinct parts. The western part is fresh water, while the eastern half is saline. Also the eastern part is on average 1.7 times deeper than the western part.. Major industrial activities in the area are mining, ore processing and fishing.

Day 49 – 8/7/16
Balkhash to Karaganda, Kazakhstan

After a lousy breakfast at Respect Hotel, we were ready to leave for Karaganda. We met a couple of guys from the organising team of the Silk way Rally from Moscow to Beijing. We had a chat with them with respect to the route etc that they would be taking.

On our way to Karaganda we stopped over at the Memorial built for the Victims of Political Regression from different countries.

We arrived at Karaganda and checked in at Ozz Hotel. It was a lovely hotel with very helpful staff. The room was a bit small, but overall a good experience.

It had an amazing reception console made from old bags obtained from people of the Soviet era based on an advertisement to collect bags on payment of nominal charges. It seemed a wonderful idea. The entire decor of the hotel was very nice.

In the evening, we decided to explore the city. It started with beautiful alleys of flowers, covering the centre of a street. We walked down to the centre square.

Karaganda is the fourth most populous city in Kazakhstan, behind Almaty, Astana and Shymkent. In the 1940s up to 70% of the city’s inhabitants were ethnic Germans. Most of the ethnic Germans were Soviet Volga Germans who were collectively deported to Siberia and Kazakhstan on Stalin’s order when Hitler invaded Soviet-annexed eastern Poland and the Soviet Union proper in 1941. Until the 1950s, many of these deportees were interned in labor camps, often simply because they were of German descent.

One hundred thousand people have since emigrated to Germany. There is also a concentration of ethnic Poles in the city. This is the home city of Kazakh World War II hero Nurken Abdirov. A statue in Abdirov’s honor is located in the center of the city.

After exploring the city, it was time for us to have dinner at the Elvis Restaurant, thus began our journey in search of Elvis.

On our way back from dinner, we walked through the streets to the hotel.

Day 50 – 9/7/16
Karaganda to Astana, Kazakhstan

We left the next morning for Astana with a detour to The Karlag Museum of memory of political repressions victims of Dolinka Settlement located in a monumental two-storey building with columns, where Administration of the Karaganda corrective labour camp of the People’s commissariate of internal affairs had been housed until 1959. It was a depressing experience to hear about the story of the people who were taken as prisoners.

After spending about an hour and a half, we left the place, heading to Astana. On the way we stopped over at a small restaurant, where they could provide us only with rice, brown curry and chicken. There was no vegetables. I asked her only for rice and curry, no chicken. Louis managed with coffee and bread.

We then drove towards Astana with heavy rain, lot of diversions, road was under construction hence full of muck. Oh what a filthy drive. The moment we crossed the bad road, there started fears of spying cops with Radars, Lasers, etc., stopping you for speeding. One cop stopped us and was asking Louis to get on to their car, could not make out what his intention was. Only thing what he was trying to say was you were speeding, but we said we were not. Finally they seemed to have got fed up and let us go. Escaped without any bribe. Absolute corrupt policemen, no receipts for finest collected. Observed drivers stopped for speeding would pay some money and get away.

Finally after trying to maintain the speed limits reached Astana. Since we were in Astana for 3 nights decided to take it easy and just relaxed in the hotel.

Day 51 – 10/7/16
Astana

We decided to explore the city of Astana which is the capital of Kazakhstan straddling on the Ishim River in the north of the country. We first went to see the 97m-tall Bayterek tower which offered a panoramic view of the city and decided to go to the observation deck. We had to wait in queue for a long time as there were Indian dignitaries who had gone up to the Observation deck. Among the dignitaries was the current Indian Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, Mr Chandrababu Naidu.

Later we took the Hop on Hop off bus, but the bus after 2 stops and too much waiting time, mentioned that they will be doing only part of the route. Also the English audio wouldn’t work, so decided to jump out of the bus at the giant, transparent tent like Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center which houses a shopping mall and indoor beach resort. Got a refund for the tickets too.

We saw The Ak Orda Presidential Palace, a beautiful building topped with a massive blue-and-gold dome.

The Nur-Astana Mosque, is the second largest mosque in Kazakhstan and in Central Asia. The 40-meter (131-foot) height symbolizes the age of the Prophet Muhammad when he received the revelations, and the height of the minarets are 63 meters (207 foot), the age Muhammad was when he died. The structure is made of glass, concrete, granite and alucobond measures.

We then met the Rotarians of Astana, Mr. Tim Wawn (expat from Australia), Mr. Gareth Stamp (expat from Wales), Mr. Forming Van Haelst (expat from Belgium) and Mrs. Lyazzat (a local), and exchanged the Flags. It was a wonderful meeting and we shared a lot of information. The Rotarians here do a lot of good work, especially with children of special needs, besides a lot other projects.

We decided to meet up with Mrs. Lyazzat the next day and see the good work she is doing for the children of Astana.

Day 52 – 11/7/16
Astana

Morning after breakfast we called up Mrs Lyazzat, who most willingly accepted to come and pick us up. She runs 3 social clubs for almost 500 needy children of Astana providing them with free academic growth, motivation, and cultural activities, funded by Samruk Kazyna Trust. Her daughter assists her along with other administrative staff. Special faculties come to provide training in specific fields. It was nice to see her enthusiasm to help needy children.

We met His Excellency, Shri Harsh Kumar Jain, Ambassador of India in Kazakhstan along with his wife at his residence in the evening. A very humble, simple couple spent more than an hour with us discussing various topics. We were very happy to meet them. Enjoyed the lovely Indian snacks and coffee. They too loved driving and had driven to various destinations during his earlier posting at various countries such as Ukraine, Russia, UK, etc. We took their leave and they insisted their driver would drop us to our hotel, which we could not refuse.

In the evening, we walked along the river to take a ride in the boat to see the beautiful lightings, however after waiting for almost an hour, got tired and walked out of the queue. We had dinner and then, walked back to the hotel.

Day 53 – 12/7/16
Astana to Petropavlovsk

Today we drove about 500 kms from Astana to Petropavl, also known as Petropavlovsk, a city on the Ishim River in northern Kazakhstan close to the border with Russia. Most of the drive was on good roads, except may have be about 50 kms which took more than 2 hours of our driving time on under construction road with diversions, etc. Anyway we reached Hotel Green absolutely tired. After about 45 mins of freshening up, went to the City Centre looking for a place to exchange currency to Russian Ruble.

Petropavl was founded in 1752 as a Russian fort extending Russian settlement and influence into the nomadic Kazakh territories to the south. The fort got its name after two Christian saints, apostles Peter and Paul. It was granted the status of city in 1807. Petropavl was an important trading center for silk and carpets until the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Once back, we had dinner and retired for the night. All set to enter into another country – Russia!