June 17, 2008

Silk Road III Day 9: crossing into Kazakhstan

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Checked out of the hotel this morning, and hopped into the van to go to the border crossing at Chernyaevka. This is one of only two land border crossings between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, and is about 30 minutes by car from Tashkent.

After being dropped off, we dragged our luggage to the checkpoint. It was 8:30am but there were already lots of locals swarming around. There were two lines leading up to the counters, and we decided to line up at one of them. There were tons of people pushing and shoving around us, and a lot of locals simply chose not to line up and bypass us. The scene was honestly pretty chaotic. In the end, we had to shove our passports through the window opening and in the face of the officials in order to get their attenion. The locals were doing the same and we needed to make sure that they don't cut in front of us.

After getting our passports examined, we dragged our luggage to the building further ahead, only to find that this was actually the real immigration checkpoint! Once again we line up, and try to fight off the local who seem to just squeeze past us without having to be in line. Anyway, as we were blocking the traffic for locals, the immigration officials decided to process us relatively quickly, and finally we surrendered our customs forms and successfully exited Uzbekistan!

As I walked towards the area where some people had gathered, I saw a blonde woman talking to Stan and Eric. This was Anna, our tour guide on the Kazakh side. We quickly filled out the immigration form and lined up at the counters. The process seemed a lot smoother here as there were multiple counters (instead of 1 or 2 on the Uzbek side), and they were using passport scanners and computers! Quite an improvement over the other side...

One hour after we got off the van on the Uzbek side, we were finally through immigration and had entered Kazakhstan! We leave the checkpoint and look for the van. For some reason, the van wasn't parked anywhere near the border gates, and we had to drag our heavy luggage a long way. I was pretty frustrated at Anna and didn't understand why she couldn't have asked the driver to come closer to pick us up. In the middle of all this, I decided to take a picture of the Kazakh side of the border to remember this experience.

We still have a long day ahead of us, so we drive through Shymkent towards Turkistan. The differences between the two countries were immediately apparent to us. The roads on the Kazakh side were nice and smooth; the landscape was the beautiful steppes, which Central Asia (and Kazakhstan in particular) was famous for; there were white clouds contrasting against the blue sky; the horses seemed larger, healthier and their coats shone in the sun. Everything just seemed better on the Kazakh side compared to the Uzbekistan that we had seen over the last week.

We stop for lunch after a couple of hours in the middle of nowhere. Initially the restaurant appear to be out of food and closed, then Anna managed to convince them to serve us. Aside from the usual salad, and having them slice up the melon we had brought from Uzbekistan, the main event here was deep-fried fish. We hadn't had fish or any seafood in a while, since Uzbekistan is a double-landlocked country - meaning there are at least 2 countries between it and the ocean in any direction. Kazakhstan is a bit better but still landlocked. The fish here was of the freshwater kind...Anna couldn't quite explain what exactly it was, and we weren't able to determine from its chopped up remains... It was a welcome treat, although they did add a lot of salt to it (probably to make it go better with the draft beer that they were serving us).

Our first stop of the day was the Otrar Museum. We had a English-speaking guide showing us around, and at the end he asked us to sign the guestbook since we were the first visitors from Taiwan. Well...apparently a Taiwanese woman had just beat us to it 1 week earlier, but since she was in a group of French tourists her nationality was not known to the guide.

We move on a bit further to the ruins of Otrar. Otrar has the historical distinction of having slaughtered the first trade delegation sent by the Mongols, thereby incurring the wrath of Genghis Khan and triggering his decision to invade Central Asia, wiping out pretty much everything in the path of his army of 200,000. Not much is left here, and due to time constraint we did not linger for very long.

It's another 2-hour drive to Turkistan, where we visit today's highlight - the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi - one of two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kazakhstan. Though it remains unfinished, the mausoleum is an important example of Timurid architecture, and is significant in that it is the resting place of the famed Sufi teacher. Both the teacher and his daughter are buried within the compound.

We also pass by the rose garden outside. I am sure at one time (perhaps a few weeks earlier) the garden would have looked truly beautiful with all the blooming roses of various colors. Unfortunately, today most of them looked wilted as a result of the extreme heat in these parts. No matter how well you irrigate, flowers just can't take 45C heat for very long...

We take the long drive back to Shimkent, and again we are stopped by the police on the way. On our first day in Kazakhstan, we get the first taste of police corruption... The cops just try to use every excuse to impose a fine on our driver, failing which he apparently said: "Can't you just give me something?!" Oh well. It is Kazakhstan, after all.

Arriving into Shimkent, we get our first look at a reasonably-sized Kazakh city (population just under 1 million). As in the Uzbek cities we visited, the city is very green with lots of trees lining the streets. But we pass by a number of large, bright electronic screens showing all sorts of advertisements. Now this is something we never saw in Uzbekistan, and it takes a certain level of prosperity for people to afford these things.

Hotel Sapar is actually a converted apartment building. There are two apartments per floor, and each is a 2-bedroom suite with a large living room and kitchen. Furniture is a bit dated but the place is clean. After spending a few nights in regular hotel rooms, we are unaccustomed to this sudden increase of space! We end up having dinner in the restaurant downstairs at a pretty late hour, and order up the usual salads including a mix of rice, corn, potato and veggies that was quite yummy. We also get an order each of beef and mutton, and for the first time in recent memory I find the taste of the mutton fat to be a little beyond my threshold. But I am not going to complain at 10pm... I'm just happy that I can stay in and not have to venture outside in search for food.

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