I recently returned from a trip to central Asia (Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan & Kazakhstan). It was a fascinating corner of the world, that sees relatively little foreign tourism. What follows is a trip report for the third part of the trip, in Kazakhstan. You can read about the first part of the trip (Kyrgyzstan) HERE and the second part of the trip (Uzbekistan) HERE.
I was awake at 2:30am, and the airport taxi arrived a few minutes early. Its a good thing, as the airport was a circus. The line just to enter the front gate was long because the security goon was hand searching every bag and wanding everyone. Oddly he did none of that for me, and simply commented ‘amerika’ and waived me through. Entering the terminal was more fun, with another security screening. The idiot manning the bag scanner was literally playing with his phone, and not looking at anything. Once inside the terminal, the ticket counter area was sheer chaos. Not orderly lines, but a clump of people. I gradually pushed my way to the counter only to be told that i was in the wrong ‘line’ for Tashkent, and they sort of gestured at one of the other clumps of people. I chose a different group, which took way longer. Once i got to the counter, i placed my passport on the counter, but it was the same nonsense all over again. I gave the guy the dirtiest look possible, and trudged off to yet another line. Perhaps he took pity on me, as a minute later he found me in line and handed me my boarding pass. At this point, i’d been at the airport for 30 minutes. Seems like there are a dozen flights/day here and greater than half go to Moscow.
45 minutes before departure they opened the domestic security line (which had no signage at all). Thankfully that went efficiently, and everyone was placed in a walled holding pen for the lone gate. The plane was a 757 that was likely older than me, as it had ashtrays. Other than that the flight was fine. We landed, a bunch of super rude & aggressive taxi mobsters harassed me. I got a YandexTaxi into the city dropped my bags.
I was trying to find somewhere within walking distance that was open for breakfast. Turns out there’s a huge Hyatt 20 minutes away. I walked there through the utterly dead early morning streets of Tashkent. The lobby had glorious AC, comfy chairs and free wifi. They had a huge breakfast buffet, which i thoroughly enjoyed.
Apparently i was due for an awful YandexTaxi driver. This guy drove like a maniac, and then attempted to demand extra money for driving me to the airport. I refused to pay him extra, and he started screaming who knows what at me in Uzbek as I walked away. The airport went fine, even if its a crappy terminal with bus gates. They did not care that i had a bottle if water, but made everyone remove their shoes for security. The only issue was that there was no where to exchange my remaining Uzbek currency (about $58 worth).
The flight actually boarded a few minutes early, and its more than half empty. There was some drama prior to take off when an overhead bin door refused to latch closed. I was seriously wondering if they were going to hold the flight until it could be repaired. But no, they moved all the bags out of the bin, to just leave it open. Then when they made one last attempt to close, it stayed shut.
The flight was uneventful, and we even got a real jetway when we landed (haven’t one of those since first arriving in Kyrgyzstan). Immigration was fast & efficient (although they eyed my Guinea Bissau visa). I quickly found an exchange window to dump the leftover Uzbek Soms, then had to shake 2 gratingly annoying touts trying to sell me taxi, tour, guide, you-name-it. After that i found ATMs, and, its a central asian miracle, my card worked on the first try. Then it was a quick trip upstairs and i found the domestic departures security and gate area.
As i could see the entire area and there was absolutely nothing good in there, i turned around and found dinner. I swear, its like i changed not just countries, but centuries. Everywhere takes cards, people are wearing clothing that doesn’t look like it was made in a barn or a chinese sweatshop, food menus are not just dumplings, shashlik, and dull salads, and there’s ‘jazz’ playing.
Boarding started nearly 40 minutes before departure, for a plane that was just 4 seats across. They were done boarding with 25 minutes to spare. Air Astana hands out mints before the flight, and has vomit bags in the seat pockets.
The flight itself was uneventful. As everyone was standing in the aisles to deplane, 2 people rushed to the front for no reason, so i figured i would follow. The 1 guy in 1st class apparently took my standing there as an insult to his manhood, and started aggressively trying to shove me out of the way. I gave him some dirty looks and then he started screaming at me in Russian, and shoving me harder. At that point, i yelled back at him ‘what is wrong with you’. Apparently he knew english, and decided to switch his insults to english, and screamed that i was in his way, and then started in with profanity. The flight attendants finally noticed mr crazytown, and he stopped. but it was a bus gate, and as soon as he saw me on the bus, he started in all over again. I ignored him at that point. The hotel was supposed to send a taxi for me, but that guy was no where to be found. As i didn’t want to deal with crazyman any more, i went with the first taxi i found.
When i got to the hotel, unsurprisingly, the taxi couldn’t make change, so i told him that i would go inside. They were expecting me, but were shocked when i explained what happened. They paid the taxi, and also offered me a free dinner.
Just to make things more interesting, the Kazakh language seems to use a different alphabet, based off of Cyrillic. So now i have to figure out whether i’m even attempting to read russian before attempting to sound words out.
I didn’t have the best night. The AC wasn’t working very well, and it never cooled down much over night. I was up at 6:30am, and out by 7am for my day tour around the region. The first stop was nearly 2.5 hours drive north to the ancient walled city ruins of Sauron. The drive itself was fine, with a 4 lane freeway. The scenery was mostly vast flatness. Occasional wheat farms, but mostly stubby brown grasses with random horses and camels grazing. By the time we reached Sauron, it was already 41C outside.
Sauron itself existed from the 8th through 14th centuries as a merchant/trading city along the silk road. Much of the original outer mud brick wall is still present, and some of the interior structure foundations as well. It was one of the largest walled cities in the Islamic world at its peak, with 15k residents. It received its water via an ancient Persian style aquaduct system that ran underground from mountains that were nearly 120km to the east. As a side note, my guide said that most tourists in this part of Kazakhstan are actually Americans & British.
Afterwards, we drove back south to the modern small city of Turkestan. We stopped at a large mosque & mausoleum built in the late 14th century. Its also the biggest sufi muslim pilgrimage site, so there were a lot of people there.
The last stop was the ancient walled city of Otrar. Its biggest claim to fame was that it was the first city sacked by Ghengis Khan as he rampaged west. There was a lot of restored wall, but not much else remaining. At this point in the day it was like 115F, and was absolutely miserable in the sun. We finished at 2pm, and drove back to Shymkent.
I went back to the same hotel, as i had nearly 7 hours until my flight to Astana, and i wasn’t going to sit at the hot, boring airport for that long. I dropped my bags, and went into the hotel restaurant. I got a beer (it was nothing special), and they gave me some peanuts too. They had AC, which wasn’t icy cold, it was way better than the 120F outside. Eventually, i had dinner there as well.
I took a YandexTaxi to the airport. They just opened the ticket counter when i arrived, and shockingly, the terminal wasn’t hot. Boarding via the bus wasn’t too bad, and the plane was ready 15 minutes before departure. While waiting, i noticed a bizarre looking plane on the tarmac for ‘Sunday Air’. While minding my own business waiting for the plane to take off, the guy sitting beside me taps me on the shoulder. He asked if i spoke english, and when i confirmed, he asked where i was from. I told him, and he laughs, and said that he thought i was Egyptian. I tell him again, i live in california, and he said “like a real American?”. He seriously didn’t believe me. Then he asked what i thought of kazakhstan, and where i was staying tonight. Its never dull on this trip. After we landed, some jerk attempted to shove me out of the way because apparently he didn’t agree with the fact that i was waiting for an old guy to grab his bag. I guess its just normal in this country to be a complete jerk on airplanes.
I slept ok, but not enough. I went to the breakfast buffet at 9am, and it was mediocre garbage. Small selection, lots of stuff not refilled, low quality. Also, there seems to be some american school group here. Tons of 14 year olds everywhere, being obnoxious.
I didn’t do much of anything in the morning, and took a 3 hour nap in the afternoon. My food poisoning has returned. I suspect it was never fully killed off after the first round of antibiotics. I started taking cipro tonight. Some insect stung or bit my left wrist as i was walking back to the hotel tonight. It stings a little, and i have a red spot.
I felt absolutely awful when i went to bed last night. Muscle aches, lethargy and overall meh. I slept ok, and feel somewhat better this morning.
For lunch, i walked to what was supposed to be the best pizza place in all of Kazakhstan. It did not disappoint. Its honestly some of the best pizza i’ve ever had anywhere. Really good. They got everything right, the dough, sauce & cheese. Even the staff spoke english. I’d be tempted to return for dinner, but its over 30 minutes walk.
After that i wandered around the city a bit. I’ve concluded that i dislike Astana. All the blocks are insanely huge. Its like 15+ minutes to walk 1 block. The buildings are either bizarro Dr. Suess stuff, or ugly central asian hulking monstrosities. There aren’t many trees. Eventually i ended up at this huge circus tent looking shopping mall. Even the mall was dumb. It was 6 levels, yet i never could find the food court. And the only way to move between levels was to walk the entire length of mall, as the escalators were always at opposite ends of the level.
I went to a burger place for dinner. It was fine, but nothing special.
The flights home were long and frustrating. Spending nearly 24 hours flying is not fun.
Do I regret going to Central Asia? Not at all. But at the same time, this trip was often hard, frustrating and stressful. Its not a forgiving part of the world, even without food poisoning. At the same time, it was a fascinating place, with a tremendous amount of history. I’m not sure whether I’d ever return, but it was worth seeing, if only once.
Hundreds of other photos from the trip are posted HERE.