D276. June 4. A day and a night crossing Kazakhstan by train


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When I entered that train, at noon on Wednesday, to reach Astana the following day at ten in the morning, I was full of hopes and expectations, remembering how great my trips on the Transsiberian had been exciting.
But in my compartment, I have had to deal with a drunk guy in his thirties accompanied with his mother, who was taking care of him. We was smelling ethanol like hell, moving all the time, asking me to change bed… Awful.

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And then, in addition, the landscape was kind of dull…1 2 3 4 5 7

And the, after hours of nothing… Something : A lake ! The Balkhash lake , the second biggest lake of Central Asia – after the Caspian Sea.

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Do people live around ? Well, I guess so…

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The Tian Shan Astronomical Observatory with Dilbar

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I met Dilbar at my Almaty’s guesthouse. She was a friend of the tenant, and we started to talk. Finally, she drove me to Medeu, to Shimbulak, to the Lake, and today we were supposed to go to the Tian Shan Astronomical Observatory. But it was closed, and anyway the stars were hidden by the clouds.

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So we had dinner at her place, from where we had a beautiful sunset vision.

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Dilbar is fifty. She has lived for many years in Astana, with her husband you works in the Oil & Gas industry, but she was raised in Almaty – “The old center of Almaty”, does she precise proudly. She is here for the summer season and her husband will join her in a few days.

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For the last two years, she has been a painter. “I paint fishes and ducks, those are the symbols of a happy marriage, and I sell some of them”.

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Though, when she went on vacation to China with her husband last time, “he was doing nothing but reading his e-books, smoking and drinking vodka”. Like many Kazaks, she has been many times to the Emirates and to Turkey, but next time she would like to visit France. “And not with my husband, with a friend”.

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“I’ve always been ready for changes”, did she explain as I was telling her about my sabbatical. “But there’s always been a good reason not to change anything”. That might be why she has lately dropped fishes and ducks to try the Van Gogh style…

D275. June 3. Ozero Bolshoe Almatinskoe

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West of the Malaya Almatinka valley lies its ‘big sister’, the Bolshaya Almatinka valley.
From the top of the road, you should discover the picturesque 1.6km- long Bolshoe Almatinskoe lake (2500m), resting in a rocky bowl in the Zailiysky Alatau foot hills.

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Yes, just after the grass you should be able to see kind of a blue oval stain, this is the lake. The Lake is frozen from November to June and only takes on its famous turquoise tinge once the silt of summer meltwater has drained away.

Capture d’écran 2014-06-03 à 18.07.36When I left the city in the morning, it was sunny. I had prepared a salad, to have a picnic by the Lake. Then, as we were progressing on the mountain road, it started to be grey, the clouds here stuck there. A few kilometers later, and higher, it was snowing ! This is not unusual. We are, after all, those are, again, the Tian Shan mountains !

D274. June 2. Almaty’s palygrounds, Medeu & Chimbulak

The Golden Eagle is featured the Kazakhstan’ flag, and here it is.

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Hunting with golden eagles is a traditional art of the Eurasian steppes, particularly defined as “Horse Riding Falconry” or “The Eagle Falconry” in Central Asia. Professional hunters from Kazakhstan call the practice berkutchy or kusbeguy.

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Berkutchy is a life’s profession, and is often a hereditary one. The relationship of the bird and its master is constant and all-consuming. In the training of a young eagle, the berkutchy must sacrifice his sleep for a long period. For weeks, the growing bird is rendered sightless under its hood until its dependence on its master becomes complete. Such intimacy must turn into a lifelong trust with the eagle – twenty years or more. It is said that as the man trains the eagle, so does the eagle train his man. There is a proverb here : “There are three things a real man should have: a fast horse, a hound, and a golden eagle.

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And here it was, in Medeu, in the outskirts of Almaty. The winter sports facilities here are good enough for Almaty to have made an (unsuccessful) bid to hold the 2014 Winter Olympics.

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The settlement of Medeu, at 1700m, is a scattering of buildings around the huge Medeu ice rink,  10,500 sq-metre. Built in 1972, is made for speed skating and many champion skaters have trained here.
“i used to ice-skate here every sunday”, explains a local, in her fifties or so. “But nowadays, nobody is interested in skating anymore”. Why that, do I ask, naively. “Well, you know, computers, screens, and stuff…”

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From Medeu, the road climbs further to the surprisingly swish Chimbulak ski resort, with a vertical drop of 900m and a variety of ski runs for all levels. The ski season runs from about November to April.

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It takes three lifts to reach the Talgar Pass at around 3200m. On the other side : Kirghizstan ! When I was on the north shore of the Issyk-Kol Lake, I could see those mountains. And as the driver was saying : “Behind those trees is Kazakstan”, I was imagining that : ice, wind, hawks…

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D271. May 30. A kaleidoscope of Almaty

Almaty, Kazakhstan, was founded in 1854, when the Kazakhs were still nomads, as a Russian frontier fort named Verny on the site of the Silk Road oasis Almatu which had been laid waste by the Mongols. Cossacks and Siberian peasants set- tled around it, but the town was twice almost flattened by earthquakes, in 1887 and 1911. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries it was a place of exile, its best-known outcast being Leon Trotsky.

Renamed Alma-Ata (Father of Apples), it became the capital of Soviet Kazakhstan in 1927, and was connected to Siberia by the Turksib (Turkestan–Siberia) railway in 1930. The railway brought big growth and so did WWII, as factories were relocated here from Nazi-threatened western USSR, and many Slavs came to work in them. Large numbers of ethnic Koreans, forcibly resettled from the Russian Far East, arrived at the same time.

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What I have seen in this city is very consistent with what I have seen in Tashkent and Bishkek : a mix of cultures, soviet vision of architecture and urbanism, orthodox churches, creepy buildings and Lada cars but international brands and supermarkets getting in…

alamty kaleidoskope2Frankly, I didn’t find any charm to this city. Though, it is the entry door to the Kazak side of the Tian Shan mountains, where I will go tomorrow with a local I met yesterday… Let’s wait and see…


A couple of things I like about Uzbekistan…

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Do you know what is that ?
No, you are not mistaken, it is indeed a beheaded cow, a real one, on the floor.
Intrigued, we went to the butcher next by to ask him :
“Why (the fuck) do you leave this head on the floor in the middle of the lane ???”
And he answered, proudly :
“This is advertising. Customers stop, see the shop, and think about buying my meat”.
The middle-age sandwich board man was a cow !!! Savvy marketing, isn’t it ?

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An other thing I liked : How easy it is to get from point A to point B in Tashkent.

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You just stay on the road, stare at cars to make them understand that you are interested. They would stop and bring you were you want for a small amount of money. There is a real metro in the city, but it was amazingly hot these days, and the nice thing with this system is that you are brought just in front of the door you head. From the guesthouse to the olympic swimming pool (nice one by the way), from the guesthouse to the syrian lebanese… Awesome.

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Last interesting anecdote : Last evening in the city. I still have 2000 soums and I’d like to get rid of them, as you cannot change this local money. I enter a trendy coffee bar, the Picasso Cafe, and ask about what I could get for this ridiculous amount of money. An expresso may be ? No. A tea ? No. As I’m getting out, they retain me… And prepare for my attention, for free, an ice tea with a lemon slice and a straw… They were not really speaking English but still, we shared a great moment together !!! That’s my last memory of Uzbekistan.