22.06.2012 - 30.06.2012
I’ve now been in Almaty for over a week and it’s been one of ups and downs. It’s only right I think to start with the ups.
Living it up Kazak style.
I’m being hosted at the moment from a lady that I met on couch surfing Gaziza. She lives with her 12 year old daughter and I’ve been a guest in their beautiful apartment for a week now. We are both totally new to the whole couch surfing thing but I think it’s worked out really well for both of us and has been a good introduction to it.
I can’t even begin to describe the levels of hospitality I’ve been shown since arriving and I cannot thank them enough for all that they have done for me. Couch surfing with a family like this really gives you a window into how local people live and I’m guessing my experience of Almaty would have been very different if it had not been for them.
Their apartment looks back to the stunning mountain range and it’s a view that one doesn’t tire of looking at. I hope that I’m pulling my weight around the house and I even went as far as trying to bake English scones for them yesterday. Kazaks in many respects are similar to English people and most afternoons we convene for the incredibly civilized act of afternoon tea.
My wonderful hosts
I’m thinking that I can knock up a pretty mean Shepherds Pie so perhaps I’ll get working on that tomorrow. One of the great things of staying at their apartment has been having access to a kitchen and not eating pasta cooked on my small stove each day.
I was also fortunate enough last weekend to be invited to a small Christian group here in Almaty mostly made up of Kazaks and Uzbeks. The man I’ve been in contact with is called Max, an Uzbek who was forced to flee his country because of persecution for his religious beliefs and is now a refugee here in Kazakhstan under the protection of the UN.
I was invited to one of their houses last weekend for a small worship service and they were also kind enough to cook homemade pizza for me. I obviously didn’t understand much of what was said; hold on let me rephrase that I didn’t understand anything but it was just nice to be in the company of other worshippers and to give thanks and praise together.
The other day I decided it was time to venture up into the mountains behind Almaty. The day before on my way to taking my paperwork to the Uzbekistan consulate I’d run into another touring cyclist an American girl who was with an Australian guy and some locals who live here. The Australian guy showed me to a small bicycle shop where he told me I could find the cities best bike mechanic. I didn’t have time to go in that day so I decided to pop along there the next day. It was there in fact that I met Alexander a well built friendly chap who spoke a little English. He had some medals hanging in the corner of his workshop as well as his credentials from the 2012 Asia Cycling Championships which did confirm that he is in fact a mechanic for the Kazakhstan national team.
After nearly 4000 miles on the bike she needed a bit of a tune up and who better to do so than Alexander. I highly recommend anyone swinging by this way and in need of a first rate mechanic heading straight to Alexander. I don’t have the exact address but if you come off Dostyk Avenue heading north and take a right onto Gogol Street it’s one of the small roads on your left about 200m down the road on the corner. It’s before you get to the Central Recreational Park at the end of the street.
With some minor alterations and more importantly a total retuning of my gears I was back on the bike and heading into the mountains. People had told me it’s a worthwhile trip up to Medeu which is the site of the ice rink and they weren’t wrong. Armed with just my small tourist map of Almaty I headed south and upwards. I hadn’t really intended to cycle up to the top and thus didn’t have any supplies or other form of clothing with me.
The ride up was pretty easy and it’s amazing how much lighter the bike is when it’s not weighed down with a tent, sleeping bag, clothing etc. It’s a nice ride out of the city and the roads are lined with numerous luxury hotels and restaurants as well as some rather plush houses.
I’m thinking about the possibility of going up into the mountains to do a bit of hiking but I’ve been warned by nearly everyone I meet about a rather nasty fly in this region which inhabits the mountains at this time of year and whose bite can be rather, some say deadly! I’ve tried to Google it but can’t seem to find anything on it.
It was about a 15km ride up from the centre of the city to Medeu. The weather in Almaty is notoriously changeable and what had started out as a sunny day soon presented grey clouds and small droplets of rain.
I ventured on past Medeu for a short way to get a better view of the snow capped mountains but decided against heading further up due to the fact that it was getting late and as I previously mentioned I was less than prepared for a days riding up high in the mountains. I’ll return hopefully and head a little bit further up to the ski resort of Chimbulak and possibly beyond.
I’m beginning to learn my way around Almaty. I’ve always been very much a man of habit and once I find something I like I’ll more often than not stick to it. Such is the case with the bakery I found on the first day I was here while searching for the police station. I stumbled across this place and they serve amazing pastries including something that is not dissimilar to that of an English Cornish Pasty, you can imagine my delight on finding this. The girls who work behind the counter now know me as the English guy who comes by on his bike and orders pretty much the same each time!
As many of you will have heard my application for a Russian visa here in Almaty was turned down on Tuesday. It was a major disappointment and a real blow to me at the time. I’ve been using an agency here that have a good track record of getting Russian visas for foreigners and all was going so well. The paperwork was all filled in; I had the LOI (Letter of Invitation) which I’d also had to purchase and have sent express mail to here from Moscow. In fact I’d lost count of the amount of emails I’d sent back and forth, checking and double checking all was okay.
I received an email from the guy at the agency the day I was supposed to meet his Russian colleague at the consulate to apply for my visa. They’d received news that the consulate in Almaty was no FAR from happy about issuing visas for Russia to people on short-term visas such as myself these days. This was a recent development as only a couple of weeks ago he’d assisted in getting a couple a tourist visa for Russia. It should be pointed out that in this part of the world regulations change quickly and one should never fully trust what they read even in an official capacity when dealing with things such as visas.
Nevertheless I went to the consulate at least half confident that in the case of this new regulation begin enforced I might be able to persuade them otherwise. Once inside the building it was once again very much a case of waiting, more waiting followed by a spot of more waiting. It seemed that there was only one window open for dealing with foreigners and that lady wasn’t at her position. When she did finally arrive after an hour everyone shuffled up to the window in the most unorganized manner and we once again, waited. I was clutching my pack of documents and passport which must have totaled over 12 pieces of paper. When it came to my turn I pushed my documents under the glass window and smiled nervously hoping that my smile might once again break down the rather stern looking lady behind the glass.
I answered the questions about why I want to travel to Russia and informed her about my charity bike ride. She then got to my Kazak visa in my passport and immediately stated that this wasn’t a multiple entry visa and therefore totally impossible for me to get the Russian visa here; and that was that. In the space of less than a minute the weeks of preparing, emailing and filling in forms was shot down in an instant. My papers were pushed back under the glass and before I even had time to protest I was shoved to the side and the next person was up.
The Russian girl who was with me could do little; she spoke hardly any English and merely shrugged her shoulders. A very kind Iranian man translated from her that it might be possible to go to the capital Astana and apply there but she couldn’t guarantee anything. The Iranian man passed on his condolences and I walked out of the building slowly, totally deflated.
On the walk back to the apartment all I could think about was how I’d failed; how it now looked unlikely for me to be able to cross all the way from China to the UK on my bike. I started to think about what people back at home who had sponsored me would think if I had to complete part of the journey by getting on a plane or a train. It didn’t do anything to lift my spirits.
I got back to the apartment and immediately broke the news to Mum and Dad via Skype. They tried their best to be upbeat and say that God willing this would happen and that I shouldn’t lose hope but it was hard for me to share their optimism.
Once off the phone I decided that feeling sorry for myself and my situation wasn’t going to do any good. I had to assess my options and start thinking in terms of solutions not problems after all we always have options. Mine were as follows:
Head south through Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and then Northern Iran and into Turkey. This is a little complicated, I’ve already applied for my Uzbek visa and it’s only 7 days which is certainly not enough to get through the country. I’ve also heard that securing a visa for Turkmenistan is notoriously difficult and in the event you do you also need to have a guide travelling with you to accompany you through the country. And of course then there is the small matter of Iran. I’ve met lots of people who’ve travelled through this country and from what I hear it’s both a beautiful and friendly country. On the other side of that coin I’ve also heard the numerous reports strongly advising against any form of travel in this region. The Iranian guy in the consulate also suggested it might not be such a good idea.
My other option would be to head west in Kazakhstan as I’d originally planned and try to get as far west as possible before jumping on a plane to Kiev thus missing out on Russia totally. This is really something I don’t want to do.
The third option was the one I’d thought about and also the one offered by the guy who has been dealing with my application here. Applying for the visa from your home country is apparently far easier and as a result my passport is now in London and the processing for the visa started on Friday and should take six working days. I was initially worried it would take longer what with the whole of Britain shutting down for the Queens Jubilee celebrations but I’ve subsequently been told that once the application is lodged and as long it was before the public holiday on Monday then all is okay. Then it’s just matter of having it sent DHL back to Almaty for me to pick up. It costs a little extra this way what with express delivery services but if I can just get that piece of paper in my passport it will be worth it.
So fingers crossed and prayers are welcome, I’m hoping to have it back by the 12th. Then it will just be a case of picking it up and then taking my passport to the Uzbekistan consulate and hopefully (again) collecting my Uzbek visa. Then it’s back on the bike for the 13th and head the 870km to Uzbekistan. I have to leave Kazakhstan on the 20th and re-enter on the 21st to activate the second 30 days on my visa before heading north-west.
My head is just awash with numbers and dates and when and where I have to be at certain times but I’m keeping positive that I will get both the visas I need. If not, well I have some contingency plans but let’s cross that bridge if and when we get to it.
In the meantime I shall continue to enjoy the wonderful hospitality shown to me so far by all I meet here in Almaty. More updates to follow.