Sightseeing aside, there was lots to organise in Almaty. I got my Kyrgyz visa in a day at the shady embassy. Get there early bells, even before it opens. All sorts of odds ‘n sods were lurking about and it was chaos trying to make sense of the queue. The guard at the gate wasn’t too sure if he wanted to let me in at first and told me NO FOTOAPARATUS. The staff inside all but ignored me until I was saved by a lovely Canadian gentleman who helped me fill in the memorizing cyrillic paperwork. He also made sure I’d be able to collect my darn visa that afternoon(for an extra express fee of course). If it wasn’t for him, I’d still be there trying to sort it out. Bless him, he took me his gorgeous son and sister-in-law out for lunch 🙂
The next ordeal was to get my letter of invitation for Uzbekistan. I arranged with the awesome Stan Tours to help me out, and I’d be able to collect my visa in Dushanbe-a huge relief. It’s really tricky to find the Stan Tours office, I’d recommend a taxi for this one. As always, plan to get your LOIs as early as possible. By some miracle my Kazakh LOI took a few days but the Uzbek one would take at least 10 -15 days .
Hell did I walk in Almaty, I averaged 10-20 kms on food per day. Taxis are too expensive to even consider and the public transport too baffling to take. So with a map and friendly people I managed to find what I needed. On one occasion a taxi pulled up to me and a friendly film director and an actor offered to share a lift with me, bless em. It sounds like the introduction to “Taken 3”, but they were legit.
I walked to and from the Tajik embassy, twice. It is the nicest embassy I’ve been to. The ambassador helped me out and was thrilled that I’d be going to Tajikistan. He asked me about my route and had lots of advice to give me in broken English. Kind men have kind eyes, he was very nice and smiled a lot. He made sure I got my visa for just $30 and my GBAO permit for free (you need a permit to travel the Pamir Highway). Also no LOI was needed which made my day. It took a full working day to process wahoo.
The downside was that I was finally kicked out of cheap ‘n (un)cheerful Saulet and was forced to find alternate accommodation. It was hell, after a day of knocking on hotel doors and being refused like a door to door salesman I had to admit defeat that the hellishly expensive and dowdy soviet relic Hotel Zhetisu was my only option. Eek, it was like going back in time to the grey Soviet days. First things first, passport …I handed over a certified copy and told them my passport was at the Tajik embassy. Most hotels want to keep your passport, this happened to me at the Saluet and at almost every hostel/hotel I stayed at on my travels. No hard copy passport didn’t go down well, management had to step in twice to try sort me out. Finally angry babuska at the front desk conceded and let me in-“NO BREAKFAST” unless you want to pay another 30 odd dollars, really welcoming. Of course there weren’t any cheap rooms left and so I was taken to 3rd bloody etage and stuffed in a double en suit room. Every etage has its own landlady, so you have to check in and out with her and hand over the key every time you leave the hotel. Eish, there was a TV with terrible reality shows like Top Model po-ruski and the like to watch. No time for that, I set out to enjoy Almaty at a more relaxed pace. One thing I love about post soviet cities are the concrete monstrosities left behind. I love it, can’t explain it. Soviet architecture and tacky soviet mosaics make me happy.
Waking around the city, I got lost as per usual and ended up fending off creepy drunk security guards who tried all too often to help out. I was trying to find the Almaty Central Mosque, which I did eventually discover with the help of a lovely young Kazakh girl who spoke English very well and went out of her way to help me.
The next day I met sweet Nyla from England. She was off to Turkestan, which gave me the crazy idea to go there as well, I toyed with the idea for some time. Pity I couldn’t join her, but I had to wait for my Tajik visa and there weren’t any more tickets left for that day.
It turned out cheaper to spend the night on the soviet train in 3rd class to Turkestan and another night back to Taraz than it did to stay one night in the dowdy Zhetisu. So change of plan, I’d go Almaty-Turkestan-Taraz via train and Taraz-Bishkek via marskrutka. I double checked that the Chaldybar border post was open to foreigners, did some washing and packed up.
Yay so visas in check and off to Turkestan. Bye bye favourite city in the world..