Sunday, May 31, 2015

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan & China 2015

Exotic, curious & off the beaten track 
You and I can join together to take on a Silk Road trail !
A replica of a Tang dynasty painting on a wall 

" After my retirement in 2006 at the age of 56, I started a joke. I told the world that I would like to travel like a teenage backpacker. That started the whole world laughing ! But I believe in you reap what you sow - age is no barrier " 

" The world is big and I want to go out and see it - a teacher in China said these words in her resignation letter ! " 

" However difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do & succeed "

" My 24 days traveling solo to Central Asia (Kazakstan & Kyrgyzstan) and the provinces of Xinjiang, Gansu & Shaanxi, China from 8-31/5/2015 - My first open mind & hard earned visit to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan & a down the memory lane visit to Xinjiang " 

Travel Itinerary : Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) > Xi'an (China) > Lanzhou > Urumqi > Almaty (Kazakhstan) > Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) > Almaty > Urumqi > Lanzhou > Xi'an > Kuala Lumpur 

Total cost incurred (24 days) : Rm3,754 (US$1,040)

Airfare (Air Asia-KL>Xi'an>KL) : Rm1,038
China Visa: Multiple entry valid till July 2015
Kazakhstan Visa: Visa free for Malaysians till July 2015
Krgyzstan Visa: Visa free for Malaysians
Hostels-dorms (total) : CNY734 + Euro$30 + US$20=Rm623
Airport shuttle bus (Xi'an) : CNY50=Rm29
Airport shuttle bus (KL) : Rm20
Trains (total) : CNY1,283=Rm750
Long distance buses (total) : CNY460 + 11,400 Tenge + 400 Som = Rm524
Food: CNY700 + 1,491 Tenge + 432 Som = Rm470
Entrance fees: CNY88=Rm51
Taxi: CNY41 + 1,635 Tenge = Rm58
Metro: CNY10 + 400 Som = Rm32
Bus: CNY62=Rm36
High speed boat: CNY120=Rm70
Sundries: CNY90=Rm53

Hostels (total-20 nights) : CNY734 + Euro$30 + US$20
Xian (7.5 nights) =CNY327
Lanzhou (6 nights) = CNY240
Urumqi (3 nights) = CNY167
Almaty (3 nights) = Euro$30
Bishkek (2 nights) = US$20

Food: CNY700 + 1,491 Tenge + 432 Som
Sundries: CNY90
Metro: CNY10 + 400 Som 
Taxi: CNY41 + 1,635 Tenge 
Bus: CNY62
High speed boat: CNY120
Entrance fees: CNY88

Trains (total) : CNY1,283=Rm750 (US$208)
- Xi'an > Lanzhou > Xi'an: CNY186
- Lanzhou > Urumqi > Lanzhou (high speed trains) : CNY1,097

Long distance buses (total) : CNY460 + 11,400 Tenge + 400 Som = Rm524 (US$145)
Urumqi > Almaty > Urumqi: CNY460 + 10,100 Tenge
- Almaty > Bishkek > Almaty: 1,300 Tenge + 400 Som

Exchange Rates : US$1=Rm3.61(Ringgit Malaysia); Euro$1=Rm4.07; Euro$1=60 Som (Kyrgystan); US$1=180 Tenge (Kazakstan); Rm1=0.585CNY (Chinese Yen)

Image result for central asia map
Central Asia 

Xi'an>Lanzhou>Urumqi>Almaty>Bishkek (3,520km)

There were 3 things in mind when I planned this overland visit from Xi'an, China to Central Asia
- A down the memory lane visit to Xinjiang since my first backpacking visit to this province in May 2006 - a lapse of 9 years !
- My first open mind visit to two Central Asia countries bordering China ie Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan
- Taking the newly launched high speed train service from Lanzhou to Urumqi

The total distance covered on this overland visit starting from Xi'an to Bishkek via Almaty & return is about 7,040km:

Xi'an > Lanzhou (train) - 653km
Lanzhou > Urumqi (high speed train) - 1,776km
Urumqi > Almaty (sleeper bus) - 860km
Almaty > Bishkek (minibus) - 231km
Total = 3,520km x 2 = 7,040km

In comparison with the Tran-Siberian train ride from Moscow to Vladivostok - the total distance is about 8,400km - so a major challenge awaits you if you one day could like to take on the Trans-Siberian or Trans-Mongolian or Trans-Manchurian train journey ! Thanks god, I had already done the Trans-Mongolian train ride (Moscow > Irkutsk/Lake Baikal > Ulan Bator > Erlian) in May 2009 ! The longest train ride I had ever taken in my life thus far ! A famous writer from the Lonely Planet made the following remark - "The Trans-Siberian is the big train ride; all the rest are peanuts". The total distance is equivalent to a third of the globe ! Peanuts or no peanuts, treat yourself to a canister of macadamia or hazel nuts each time you accomplished a great journey !

Indeed it was a hard earned trip and a severe test of my mental & physical strength to complete this visit involving the three countries - what a wonderful outcome !

Given an opportunity, I could like to visit Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turmenistan & Azerbaijan. Hopefully this dream could be realised soon !

Travel Highlights :

Almaty, Kazakhstan

Medeu, the highest Olympic ice skating stadium (1,691m high), Almaty

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Ala Too Square, Bishkek

Urumqi, Xinjiang China

Da Baazar / Erdaoqiao, Urumqi, Xinjiang

Lanzhou, Gansu China

Sculptures of the Mother River - The Yellow River, Lanzhou
Bingling Si & Grotto, Gansu - an UNESCO world heritage site

Xi'an, Shaanxi China

Little Wild Goose Pagoda, Xi'an

At any stage of our life and as a citizen of a country, we may experience either worry or joy in any thing we do. But through good governance, a country can prosper and bring about a better well being & quality of life for her people . Singapore & Switzerland are classic example. As a citizen of the world, we too have our worries - climatic change, food crisis, pollution & religious conflicts etc

Ordinary people through perseverance & belief are most likely to succeed in achieving their dreams. Dream is the main driver and if your heart carries a dream, you can transform yourself from an ordinary person to become an extraordinary

Almaty, Kazakhstan (2015)

Total costs incurred (4 days) : Euro$20 + 16,706 Tenge + CNY510 = Rm715 (US$198)

Hostel (3 nights) : Euro$10 x 2 + 2,000 Tenge (Almaty Central Hostel-dorms)
Food:  1,491 Tenge
Metro: 240 Tenge
Tram: 80 Tenge
Trolley Bus: 160 Tenge
Taxi : 1,635 Tenge
Long distance bus (sleeper) : CNY460 (Urumqi>Almaty) + 11,100 Tenge (Almaty>Urumqi)
Sundries: CNY$50
Exchange Rates: US$1=180 Tenge; Euro$20= Rm4.07; CNY1=Rm0.585

Both Almaty & Astana were in my travel plan but I skipped Astana due to communication issue with my hostel.

My visit to Kazakhstan was braced with anxiety as it involved taking an overnight sleeper bus from Urumqi to Korgas, a Chinese border town, 3km from the Kazakh's border and then continuing the journey to Almaty.

The sleeper bus I took in Urumqi was full & over loaded with parcels & cartons of goods (stacked inside the luggage compartments along with passenger's bags & belongings) destined for Almaty. Given such scenario, I wasn't sure whether the bus was safe to travel in long distance ! In another instance, the co-driver of the bus collected from each passenger an extra CNY30-50 as 'welfare money" for passing the Kazakh's border post - I scratched my head on why this subtle payment as I had to pay a hefty CNY460 for a sleeper bus ticket (24 hrs drive) from Urumqi to Almaty. However, on my return from Almaty to Urumqi, no such payment was collected by our driver !
From Urumqi to Korgas, the highway was smooth and well maintained but on the Kazakh side, there was no highway so a slower ride but overall it was still a pleasant ride !

Due to an early Friday morning arrival (05.00) of our bus in Korgas bus terminal, we had ample time to have our breakfast at a row of shop houses in front of the bus terminal. Others took a morning stroll at a nearby garden to take some fresh air ! Also, there were free lance money changers at the Korgas bus terminal so I did change some money (US$100=18,000 Tenge) in order to pay for my food, transport & hostel stay in Almaty !

Vehicles & passengers queuing at both the Immigration complexes (China & Kazakh) for customs clearance and passport processing were bureaucratic and time consuming ! The large morning crowd (Friday) at the Chinese immigration counters became rowdy and this prompted the Chinese Immigration side to impose a control on the queue so that there was no jostling of people at the front line ! It took 30 mins for me to have my passport stamped - so be patient at all times !

At the Kazakh's side, a line of buses & vehicles were seen queuing at the front gate of the Immigration and it took two hours before our turn to enter - so another round of long waiting there. Although passport processing took 10-15 mins but unfortunately our bus was held up by the Kazakh's Customs due probably to goods clearance & duties problem. Guessed what, our entire passengers had to wait for 3 hrs before the bus was allowed to leave the Customs complex ! A few impatient ones decided to take an alternative transport option to Almaty. All in all for this black Friday, it took us more that half of the day to pass through both the Chinese & Kazakh border posts ! The fault lied squarely on the 2 bus drivers due mainly to greed for transporting an overload of goods at the expense of the passengers !

By the time our bus arrived in Almaty, it was well passed mid-night - what a "wonderful" start in my first day in Almaty ! A taxi tout offered to take me to my hostel for 3,000 tenge (US$17) for a 5km drive but after ringing my hostel, I managed to bring the price downed to 700 Tenge (US$3.80).

On the 2nd day, I did a walkabout near the Astana Square & park and took Metro to a few touristy places around town. I took public buses to the Medeu Olympic ice skating stadium - highly recommended & a very worthwhile visit when you are in Almaty. For those who love nature & outdoor activities & if you have the time, you could visit the Big Almaty Lake, Alphine Park, Turgen Gorge, Charyn Canyon etc.

I was very impressed with the internal d├ęcor of some of the metro stations in Almaty - you paid 80 Tenge (US$0.45) for each ride regardless of the number of stops !
A hard earned visit indeed for my first visit to Kazakhstan - no regret at all coming here ......

Medeu - The Olympic ice skating stadium in Almaty, a candidate city in 2022 !

Image result for kazakhstan map
Map of  Kazakhstan

Metro underground stations in Almaty

Front entrance of a Metro station
My first encounter in a Metro station in Almaty
Long & steep elevator
Light box wooing Kazakhs to visit Malaysia
Light box in Metro promoting Malaysia tourism
Take your time to admire
Very artistic 
Good morning ! Almaty
A five colour rainbow Metro station
Waiting for a train  - be patience !
Am I in an aero space station in Almaty !
After a steep elevator descend - now you see the real Metro !
This station is my Blue Eye boy ! 
Moscow Metro Station in Almaty
Really looked like a Red Moscow - bright & elegant ! 
The new Metro train in Almaty
Spacious, clean & comfortable seats to your delight !
Magnificent looking 

Astana Square

Park named after 28 Panfilov Guardsmen

Almaty Train Station 2 - daily train services to Astana, capital of Kazakhstan

Sairan Lake - near the Sairan International Bus Station

The snowy Tien Shan mountain in the background

Border crossing Bishkek/Almaty - after immigration clearance (takes about 15 mins), minibus waits for passengers at a nearby petrol kiosk to continue its journey to Almaty 

Countryside scenery from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan to Almaty, Kazakhstan

Modern windmills at work
No trees, only shrubs 
Country side scenery - a bit of greeneries
Country homes , quiet & serene 
A telecom tower standing tall

Countryside scenery from Almaty, Kazakhstan to Korgas, China

A brief stop to ease yourself  at the road side
Little greeneries 
Bare & arid landscape
Low plants amid the vast arid land 
Shrubs dominate the landscape here
A shepherd and his herd of sheep & horses
Inching towards Korgas 

My morning breakfast at the Sairan bus station

My dinner at a restaurant midway between Korgas & Almaty - a 1/2 hr rest for passengers & drivers

Fried beef noodles, Kazakh style - 600 Tenge (US$3.30)