Hey! Hi! SUP. Yo. You’re reading about a trip that took place 6 months ago (May – June 2015), which means that I am sadly no longer in Central Asia. However, that trip was awesome enough that I feel compelled to write about it in a series of blog posts, because it’s unsurprisingly … kind of difficult to talk about three different countries’ worth of text and photos and consolidate that sucker into one blog entry. Also, I’m likely a) nostalgic, b) itching to travel again, c) guilty about having so many orphaned photos on my HD, or d) all of the above. Anyway, let’s do this, before I start getting random plov cravings.
When I told people where I went for summer vacation, the response I gave was … probably not what they were expecting.
OTHER PERSON: “Oh, where’d you go?”
ME: “Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan.”
OTHER PERSON: ………..o wow
And this usually prompts the question: So why did I want to go to Central Asia?
Registan Square had always been a staple on my travel bucket list since I was in high school, back when I owned a hardcover book of 100 places I had to see before I dropped dead or else my life would amount to some meaningless existence, but hopefully less drastic. Known as the “noblest public square in the world”, Registan’s all the way in Uzbekistan, a country which happens to hold many distinctions, such as one of two doubly landlocked countries in the world and one of a few countries on my Places I’d Love to Visit that Happen to be Infeasibly Far Away list. Convincing myself to go wasn’t hard. History, mountains, architecture, the far-removal from my current state — there was a lot I wanted to explore, but translating that want into plane tickets and a passport stamp takes a lot more gusto and tedious paperwork than just imagining it in your head.
Flashback to fall 2014.
My friend Rebekah had gotten accepted for a Fulbright in Kyrgyzstan last year, and when we realized that 1) Kyrgyzstan was pretty darn close to Uzbekistan and 2) we both wanted to go to Uzbekistan, like, really fucking badly, it didn’t take long for us to create a Google Doc and throw in all the places we wanted to visit. Azerbaijan! Turkmenistan! Kazakhstan! The less fun stuff, like calculating vacation days and visa restrictions, began to factor in. Eventually, we whittled down our two-week itinerary to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, tossing in ideas here and there as the months passed by, until we came up with the following: we’d spend some time in Almaty, chill at Rebekah’s place in Bishkek, go horseback riding and camp in a yurt near the Ala-Too mountains, and hit up the Uzbek trifecta of Bukhara – Samarkand – Tashkent. Phew.
We did all of those things and then some — I mean, I camped in a frickin’ yurt, for crying out loud. I had what was probably my most difficult experience getting lost in translation. I visited Samarkand and was, yes, in total awe. And hey, if my first 36 hours of travelling were any indication, this was one hell of a trip. This is how it got started, all the way back in May.
THURSDAY, 6PM: Spend the night before and all day relentlessly packing. Buy speculoos for Rebekah and silently hope they don’t get squashed in my luggage. Board the flight from SFO to Istanbul.
FRIDAY, 5PM: Arrive in Istanbul. Kill 3 hours by grabbing a quick and predictably uneventful dinner at the airport.
FRIDAY, 9PM: Fly out to Almaty. Sleep it out.
SATURDAY, 5AM: Arrive in Almaty at 5am (yes, local time), which means poor Rebekah has to get up (or not get up) at butt-o’clock to come pick me up. I honestly do not envy the Turkish Airlines pilots who have to fly at ungodly hours, because how do you fly at 3am HOW.
Almaty is — crazily enough — only three hours away from Bishkek (over in Kyrgyzstan), which is actually the total amount of time I spend on my work commute every day. Not only does this make me cringe about the percentage of my life I have spent to-and-from San Francisco and Mountain View, but it makes me sigh at the proximity of all these cities and countries compared to the congested, big ass state that is California.
SATURDAY, 6AM: Drop off your stuff and freshen up with a shower. Bruteforce the jetlag out of your system by walking around Almaty at the crack of dawn on a Saturday. Marvel — in your bleary-eyed state, of course — at the suspiciously clean streets, the wide sidewalks with the overhanging trees, the cleanly marked bike lanes that far outclass those of San Francisco and even Portland, the balmy weather, and the silence unusual for any big city. Recognize how hungry you are but can’t really do anything about it, because nothing’s open — yet.
SATURDAY, 7AM: Walk along Arbat, a wide pedestrian street normally known for its shopping and cafés, but it’s too early for that kind of hustle and bustle. Head to the Green Bazaar (Zelionyj Bazaar), where local goods and produce are sold and haggled. Sample nuts, dried fruit, qurt (grape-sized balls of dried yogurt), Korean salads, and tandyr nan.
SATURDAY, 8AM: Walk around the Respublika Alany and get a kick out of the Zailysky Alatau mountain range peaking out from the building silhouettes and clouds. Stop by the Presidential Palace. Don’t crane your neck too hard as you stare up at the Independence Monument. Check out that winged snow leopard, though.
SATURDAY, 9AM: Get a bit of fresh air as you stroll/walk/run through Panfilov Park. Draw your eyes towards the Ascension Cathedral (Zenkov Cathedral), which looks like a sister to St. Basil’s and is too hard to miss with all those Disney-like whimsical colors and patterns. Realize that the entire cathedral is made of wood and later find out that it’s the second tallest wooden building in the world.
Make your way to the very heart of the park, where the Panfilov heroes are commemorated in a series of WWII monuments.
SATURDAY, 10:30 AM: Get nourishment in the form of brunch, now that cafés are opening up. Realize exactly how sophisticated Almaty is, from all the many shopping centers to the wide tree-lined sidewalks to the terraced cafés to the ultra-new subway system. Order some coffee to get some caffeine into your system, because you’ll need it for the ride into Kyrgyzstan.
SATURDAY, 1PM: Grab your bags, get on the marshrutka (a shared mini-bus/van hybrid) for a three-hour ride across the Kazakh-Kyrgyz border into Bishkek. Welcome to Central Asia, kid. The day’s barely halfway over and your trip’s just getting started.