Generally I find myself disliking Lufthansa more often than liking it: lousy food, intransparent bogus pseudo-tax/surcharge pricing, crap service in case of problems, seat allocation for travellers with toddlers in the noisiest area of the plane – the list is long! Having said that it is only fair to also mention the occasional pleasant surprise with Germany’s carrier no 1 – in this case a much liked bump-up into business class. Thank you, Lufthansa.
I love arriving at new places and experience the exciting difference in smells and sounds! Although Almaty at 4 o’clock in the morning didn’t greet me with all of those new sensations, I knew I wasn’t in England when I was faced with Kazakhstan queueing technique at the airport; the locals were all trying to cram themselves into the “queue” for Residents and if your mind and elbows weren’t sharp as razors, you quickly found a whole family of locals miraculously appearing in front of you. At that godawful time of the morning I should have known better and chosen the “German queue”, a nice and orderly formed line with lots of personal space – and as it turned out, just as fast (or slow).
After a few hours of sleep I was ready for Almaty. First stop Green Market (Zelyony Bazar) where I stepped into an explosion of smells! Meat, vegetables, fruit, Hello Kitty backpacks, metal spare parts who knows what they were for, bras the size of babyhats – you name it they had it!
Remembering the absolutely wonderful pickled cucumbers from my Moscow days in the 80’s, I decided to buy my lunch here and bring it out into the warm sunshine. Three words of Russian and the use of fingers was enough to complete the transaction.
Travelling is fantastic, if you allow yourself the time to enjoy the day as it comes, just around the corner there is another unexpected highlight! Crossing the park back to the hotel in the last warm rays of sunshine, I came across some kids practicing martial arts on the grass. Kids and mothers are the same all over the world – the kids were larking about and the mothers were proudly taking pictures of them with their mobile phones!
The next day I decided to warm up my hiking legs before our Three-Day-Trek and took a driver to Aksay Valley. At a remote spot, monks built a small monastery in 1917 to avoid repercussions for their faith. The monastery was closed in 1921 but in 1993 some monks returned to live a secured life in the mountains. It’s a lovely walk up through fruit orchards where the monks have painstakingly laid stones to form stairs up to the monastery. A little further up the hill, passed the church, you get a wonderful view of the mountains, valleys – and the spreading city of Almaty. I ate my lunch in the shade of a tree overlooking Almaty on one side and the towering Tian Shan mountains on the other – remembering how wonderful life can be!
Back in Almaty – work again! But this time I didn’t come alone but was accompanied by my wife Anna, who I met travelling and we are still travelling well together. Anna, all keen to explore the secrets of Kazakhstan, arranged a three day hike through the Northern Tian Shan Mountains. We were picked up at the hotel on Friday morning, punctual at 7am, to be driven into a small valley just East of Medeo. At around 1800m the ride ended and the hike started. We went straight up to the Butakovsky Pass at almost 2900m. Not a walk in the park exactly, but a beautiful hike rewarded by a spectacular view over snow capped peaks over 5000m:
The walk down Butakovsky valley through fields of wild raspberries was another highlight until we reached the Talgar river, a rather wild mountain creek. We found a beautiful campsite right at the river – the instant noodles from the gas stove were a highly deserved dinner after a long (after all, we are desk bound city dwellers) hike.
The next day Anna and Alexander set off to another exciting hike, while I had to watch the campsite to shoo off wolves, bears, snow leopards and mind my sore knee. It seems that rolling back and forth in an office chair is rather insufficient preparation for a hike like that. I shall roll faster in the future to be better prepared. Anyway, Anna and Alex had a wonderful hike with great views and some interesting little observations on the way: looking at a glacier our guide couldn’t quite remember whether this particular glacier had merely a number or an actual name – quite a different approach to the alps where every semi-persistent snowfield has a well known name. Here in the Tian Shan a glacier gets interesting when it stretches over 10 km. Some impressions from the hike:
On our third and final day we hiked up to the Small Talgar Pass at 2800m and continued to the Big Talgar Pass at 3180m. That is also the top of the Shymbulak ski resort and accessible by cable car, so there were quite a few people from the city enjoying the beautiful weather and nice views from there. It has been a wonderful hike with a great guide – thanks Alexander and the guys from Tour Asia Travel Agency – it was not cheap, but very well organised and worth the bucks. And the promise to work with professional guides was certainly kept with Alex, who had climbed Makalu at 8,463 meters (27,765 feet).