June 19, 2008

Silk Road III Day 11: Charyn Canyon

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Another early morning. Today's destination is Charyn Canyon, east of Almaty and about 3-4 hours by car. Having showered the night before, I get up to wash my hair. No hot water. @#$%&*!! This is a hotel that charges USD 200 a night, and NO HOT WATER?! The last time I stayed in a hotel without hot water, I was on a remote island in Indonesia and I paid USD 20! It's a good thing we argued with the travel agent, and made him swallow the USD 140 difference he wanted to charge us for booking the stupid Hotel Eurasia (instead of Kazzhol Hotel as we originally wanted).

We set off on the road. Almaty is actually quite a beautiful city. As we first leave the city limits, the view back towards the city was pretty stunning. You have green fields (or yellow wheat fields) in the foreground, and luscious, rolling green hills beyond, and finally you see tall, snow-capped jagged peaks in the background. With the Alatau Mountains - part of the Central Tian Shan Mountains - south of the city, you can see snow on some of the peaks even in the summer.

After about 3 hours, we reach the access checkpoint. The driver gets out and greets the guard, who sits inside a standard cargo container that is now his post. From here on it's gravelly terrain, and we crawl at the pace of 20km/h for another half-hour. We finally reach the edge of the canyon.

It's a very pretty sight. No, it does not compare to the Grand Canyon. But it doesn't matter, it's still pretty enough. After snapping a few shots on the edges, we carefully descend down to the canyon floor, and begin our long walk northeast. In this direction, we are actually descending in terms of altitude, and this makes the walk a bit easier.

I constantly pause and snap pictures in all directions, loving the bright, royal blue sky that contrasts so well with the red rocks. For the most part, the sky was pure blue - no clouds at all in the sky. This section is aptly named the Valley of Castles, as there are indeed a number of formations which resemble remnants of castles built on ledges.

After a while we reached the end of our trek and come to the present Charyn River. Since I was wearing my swimming trunks, I was determined to dip into the river for a bit of refreshment. As I was just getting my feet wet, I realized that the water of the river was actually freezing cold! I couldn't stand having my toes in the water for more than 30 seconds, and quickly step back out onto the banks. After a bit more thought, I decided to step back into the river, eventually wading so that the water was halfway up my thigh and just getting the bottom of my trunks wet. I discovered that I could dig my toes into the warm sand at the bottom of the river. This was actually very nice, and I was able to treat my feet (and toes) to a nice sauna session. The water was flowing along the river at a very fast pace, and judging by the temperature, this must be the melted snow that has come down from the peaks of the Alatau Mountains.

Now for the tough task of walking back (and climbing up)! We actually trek back past our original point of descent, so that we reach a path up the cliff with railings that we can grab onto while climbing. By the time we reached our van - and totally out of breath at this point - we had ascended around 250m in altitude starting from the banks of the Charyn River.

We stop at the Chilik village for lunch. We down bottles of Russian and Kazakh beer for refreshment, and chow on laghman that is Uygur-style and very similar to the ones I have had in Xinjiang. Keeping in mind that the Charyn Canyon is less than 100km from the border with China, this would seem to make sense. The noodles here are handmade (拉麵) and chewy, while chilli powder has been added to the topping to make it spicy. We also enjoy mutton and onion served on a hot plate, again with chilli powder sprinkled on top.

We return to the hotel late in the afternoon. After a brief rest, we decide to venture out and see the city. At the suggestion of Lonely Planet as well as the Air Astana inflight magazine, we head to Coffeedelia on Qabanbay Batyr (intersection with Furmanov). This is clearly THE place to come for coffee in Almaty - a trendy setting with a large outdoor section where youngsters come to see and be seen. We found a staff who spoke pretty good English and helped us with our order, and the desserts here are definitely delish. I had an excellent key lime pie. However, we never hooked up to the free WiFi connection that was mentioned in guidebooks.

Enough of looking at cute girls and passersby. It was time for dinner. We head to Zheti Qazyna, another venue mentioned in LP. This was a very impressive establishment. In fact it is three separate restaurants - with a European fine dining section (plush velvet chairs and all), a Chinese-Japanese section in an open courtyard, and a section for Central Asian cuisine. You can order items from all three parts and mix it up.

Determined to give wine another try, I order another bottle of Georgian red. This time I asked the waiter to show me a bottle that is fermented dry, and we chose a bottle of 2004 Teliani Valley Teliani. This is actually 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, and even though the wine is a bit on the young side, it was a reasonable bottle of wine that was accepted by international palates like ours. And the price of USD 70 seemed a bit more reasonable.

Speaking of wine, the restaurant actually had a pretty impressive wine list. Aside from the usual suspects of Champagne, Bordeaux, Opus One...etc, I saw several vintages of Sassicaia as well as some Brunellos and Barolos. The two most expensive listings were the 1988 Petrus and the 1994 Petrus, with the latter going for USD 6,000. Given the London bonded broking price of GBP 650 per bottle, I thought that the restaurant price was quite reasonable given its rather remote location. The price of the '88 was an even more reasonable USD 4,000 or so, given that it costs GBP 700+ lying in bond.

We order up a storm here. A plate of mixed meats serves us beef, horse meat, horse meat sausage and mutton. Bowls of beef brisket in clear broth with noodles - Chinese 清湯牛腩麵 with dill sprinkled on top? Pretty yummy. A bowl of beef ravioli/dumplings in tomato-based soup was also popular. Then we had the most delicious besbarmak, and two orders of very, very yummy lamb chops grilled with spices and garlic. Wow!

I was determined to buy some CDs of local musicians on our last night in Almaty, so we walk through the Zhibek Zholy pedestrian street and find ourselves in Meloman - a bookstore/cafe/CD/movies/electronics boutique. I found a couple of CDs from Dilnaz Akhmadiyeva, a pretty and famous female singer profiled in the Air Astana inflight magazine. I also pick up a couple of other gems, and I am satisfied.

We hop into a taxi and head back to the hotel to crash. Still having problems with hot water. And the bathroom stinks of you-know-what. Four-star hotel my ass...

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