Category Archives: Kazakhstan

One Giant Steppe for Woman

*** Friends, thank you for all the birthday wishes! What a wonderful gift to make it this far in my journey! But above all, the best gift was to ride along the big Kazakh steppe knowing that I have the most amazing friends and family in the world supporting me.

P1030204Giving you all a BIG HUG. BIG, like the size of Kazakhstan!

Love from Oskemen, Kazakhstan
MinWah

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I didn’t land on the moon and I didn’t make any giant leaps for mankind. But the vast Kazakh steppe inspires big dreams.

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From Almaty, I was headed north towards Russia to the city of Oskemen, 1100km across the giant steppe that makes up most of Kazakhstan–the steppe that Marco Polo and Ghengis Khan once traversed. Steppe, grasslands, or prairie, whatever you want to call it, it is a place of large open spaces with not much. Most people say it’s really boring, but for me, it was a place that brought to life the romance of far away lands and a place that makes you believe that anything is possible. (Are you dreaming big yet?)

Highlights of steppe:

– waking up to sunrise and cooking at sunset everyday
– staring at the stars by night
– singing Christmas songs because there are clearly no reindeer
– watching the cloud formations always changing , floating across the big blue sky. Think: Big Sky Country Montana
– feeling a bit like I’m in a Wild West movie

Non-highlights of steppe:

– food is expensive in Kazakhstan. In Kyrgyzstan, a plate of laghman was less than $2. In Kazakhstan, the same costs $5.
– strong headwinds sometimes
– lost iPhone on birthday
– attacked by several aggresive bees who randomly started following me

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P1030031To Oskemen

P1030032Boy, I’m going to miss those melons from Central Asia.

P1030034Qapshagay city–big screen TVs and spiffy casinos? not very Central Asian at all.

P1030037Qapshagay solar farm with solar trackers and fixed-tilt panels

P1030048P1030055this is what the Midwest must’ve looked like when it was just prairielands

P1030102Mir Mama sent me off with her homemade concoction of raisins, nuts, and honey–apparently it makes you strong!

P1030053P1030190cool mauseleums

P1030103P1030054car accident memorials (I think). destroyed cars displayed on concrete. maybe to remind drives to be careful.

P1030056met Nicolas, French motorcyclist whose trip seemed to be nothing but major problems–two broken legs, a broken wrist, malaria (maybe), multiple major motorbike breakdowns, etc. He should really write a book. I hope he finds better luck on his journey ahead! I found his spirit to continue onwards rather incredible–I would’ve gone home after the first broken leg. I asked him how he keeps going; he explained that he keeps going because he has sacrificed too much to go on this trip. In France, companies don’t understand people who travel. He felt he sacrificed his career for the traveling life.

P1030057P1030058sunsets

P1030061a friendly fruit stand lady gave me 2 pirishkis (fried dough stuffed with potatoes and onions). Also, apples galore…makes me think of apple picking at home!

P1030062Taldykorgan

P1030063cool brick making ovens

P1030066smooth paved road with lines makes me giddy!!!!!!!!!!!! the smooth road only lasted several kms though.

P1030075massive earthen warehouses that looked like airplane hangers made from dirt. don’t know what they store there but it seems very austere…

P1030076more indulging in American products. Pringles and Snickers makes a great lunch in the middle of nowhere Kazakhstan.

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P1030083P1030163statues like these remind me that I’m in Kazakhstan and not in American prairielands

P1030092Kazakhstan has tree huggers too

P1030090strange village that looks too eerily like American suburbia

P1030096P1030125this is more of what I expect in Kazakhstan

P1030105this restaurant lady in Sarqan gave me a free lunch!

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P1030128looking back at the Tian Shan Mountains bordering China

P1030129horses

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P1030132“highway patrol” aka road police gave me a huge jar of local honey! mmm…although, this might have been why i got attacked by bees the next day.

P1030134P1030162looks like the WildWest

P1030187P1030230Trains!!

P1030138P1030137shared a wonderful lunch these gas station workers near Usharal

P1030148rocketship (of water). filled up 10 liters.

P1030166P1030169P1030173P1030170also what reminds me I’m in Kazakhstan and not American Wild West–Soviet style buildings. Desert town Ayagoz.

P1030185wind was blowing too strong so panda had to be sideways.

P1030176quaint chaixanas (teahouses)

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P1030201decorated bus stops. blue is the color of Kazakhstan. everything in the villages are painted blue and white.

P1030229P1030200also in Kazakhstan– mosques.

P1030198P1030197Big Sky Country

P1030232P1030234more abandoned Soviet blocs

P1030235Trees exist! And they’re changing color!

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P1030246colorful village cemetery

P1030249strange complex outside of Oskemen that looks like a palace

P1030255Oskemen!! quaint houses on the outskirts

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Suddenly, after so many kilometers of flat grasslands, appeared a city! The city of Oskemen. Upon arriving, it felt like I was already in Russia. Most of the people on the streets were Russian and everyone was speaking Russian. There was hardly any Central Asian thing about it!

In Oskemen, I met with Dasha, a couchsurfing host who couldn’t host me, but was really great and arranged for my stay here. She was well-connected with the couchsurfing community in Oskemen. She invited me to her goodbye party the next day where I would meet all her friends and they all spoke very good English. Dasha went to the Kazakh-American University here in Oskemen and has been to the US several times for internships. Like most people who live here, her and her friends are ethnic Russians, but they were born and raised in Kazakhstan. They explained that sometimes they feel more “Asian” than “Russian”. For one, they don’t care that much about vodka.

In the evening I met Alexey, my actual couchsurfing host. I found out he works as an operator at a new solar-cell manufacturing plant in Oskemen. The plant was only built 2 years ago, and is part of a Kazakh government initiative (with partners in France) to develop a solar manufacturing industry in Kazakhstan. The silicon manufacturing plant is in Ushtobe; then the solar cells are made in Oskemen; finally the solar panels are made in Astana (capital of Kazakhstan).

Oskemen has always been an industrial town focused on manufacturing. In the second world war, the factories were moved from other parts of Russia to Oskemen. Nowadays, the manufacturing plans produce tin and other metals. Because of all the industry, Oskemen has a particularly bad reputation for air pollution. I didn’t find the air quality that bad though. In fact, I thought the city was very beautiful and I enjoyed the parks and riverwalks.

P1030258futuristic mosque

P1030259BIG shops

P1030264P1030266Oskemen, a beautiful more-Russian-than-Kazakh city! i was particularly excited about the classical music being played in the parks.

P1030268Dasha’s goodbye party at Pizza Blues (not very good pizza and no blues) but really cool people!

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9/2 Almaty -> Qapshagay

9/3 Qapshagay -> Arkhaly Pass

9/4 Arkhaly Pass -> Balpyq Bi (camp with French motorcyclist)

9/5 Balpyq Bi -> Qyzylaghash

9/6 Qyzylaghash ->Qoylyk (km marker 432)

9/7 Qoylyk ->Qyzylashy (km marker 536)

9/8 Qyzylashy ->Karakol (km marker 655)

9/9 Karakol -> Ayagoz (km marker 779)

9/10 Ayagoz -> km marker 880

9/11 km marker 880 -> Kalbatau -> km marker 1004

9/12 km marker 1004 -> Oskemen

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Headed off to Russia tomorrow. Unfortunately, my Russia visa expires soon so I might not have time to update again until Mongolia. What–Mongolia! That’s the last country!

Almaty — Father of Apples, Mother of the World

8/30 – 9/2 Almaty

Almaty comes from the name “Alma-Ata”, or “Father of Apples” because of the abundant apple orchards in the region. But instead of a father, and instead of apples, I found a mother that embraced the world. I called her “Mir Mama” or “Mother of the World”.
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Mir Mama has 6 children of her own, but has many more children she calls “moy sin (my son)” or “moy dochka (my daughter)”. When I arrived at her home that evening, I found an apartment full of young guys and girls staying there. Two guys were her sons–Dimash and Bauzhan; two other guys worked for her (their family runs a handful of convenience stores around the city); and two girls were students at the local university. I asked Mir Mama how she met all these people, and she explained they all came to her shop. Mir Mama’s shop was next to a university, so she frequently gets student customers. If they ever need help, she helps in whatever way she can. For the two guys, they wanted part-time work while studying, so she employed them. For the two girls, they are from far away in Western Kazakhstan and don’t have family here, so Mir Mama lets them crash at her place whenever they need. I told Mir Mama she was a very kind person, and she smiled saying, “Lyublu ludi. I love people…Many foreigners have come to my shop. I have friends in Italy, France, Germany, China, Korea, Japan. Now I have a daughter in America.”      P1020981P1020989

From then on, Mir Mama fussed over me like any mother would. She grabbed all my clothes and bags–regardless of whether it was clean or dirty, Goretex or not, black or white–and she made it her business to wash EVERYTHING through and through. She scrubbed my hat until it turned from brown to beige; she dumped my clothes into the washer with a pile of detergent; she took my sandals and scrubbed those too. I pleaded with her not to wash my jacket (afraid that the Goretex would be vulnerable) but eventually we compromised and she handwashed it gently. After I was all cleaned up, she also took the pleasure in dressing me up: first in her daughter’s wedding dress, for fun. then into clean street clothes, then into pajamas.

P1020972Fairytales do come true! Mir Mama feeling nostalgic of her daughter getting married off

The next day I went to the migration police office again, hoping by some miracle that an officer would just stamp my passport. But no luck–it was Constitution Day, a public holiday. Even the travel agencies said there was nothing I could do except try again on Saturday. So I spent the day exploring Almaty and hanging out with Mir Mama at her shop. She was very excited to talk about me to everyone that came into the shop that day.

P1020976wow, street signs! a rarity in Central AsiaP1020977and bike lanes!

P1020979what happens when you’re stuck in a city due to bureaucratic nonsense. Indulge in fried chicken!! And reminders of home.

P1020978Almaty–very modern city that almost even feels like Europe

P1020980P1020975this is how we close up shop at the end of the day–Mir Mama climbs out and bike climbs in. (Mir Mama lives in an apartment building which would be hard to get the bike in and out of, so we always leave the bike locked up in the shop)

Finally on Saturday, the migration office was open. Mir Mama did all the talking for me and helped me fill out the necessary paperwork. While we waited, Mir Mama flipped through my Russian dictionary.

–First word: “cup. cup of tea” and she indicated that the police officer looked like he needed a cup of tea. (Mir Mama has a great sense of humor)

–Second word: “cuddle” (Mir Mama gives me a little squeeze)

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With registration taken care of, I was free to go, but Mir Mama wanted me to stay an extra day so she could take me around Almaty. Though worried about getting to Russia, I eventually relented. Mir Mama was just too special.

P1020991Home Depot of Kazakhstan. Mir Mama takes me to the big Chinese bazaar on the outskirts of town.

P1020985 P1020986Riding the subway

That day at the shop, a young Chinese guy stopped by. Mir Mama said he was also “moy sin”. Dingzuolong was from Urumqi, but has been studying in Almaty for the last 4 years. He spoke fluent Russian, so he translated for me and Mir Mama. Mir Mama wanted me to have someone to talk to, so she convinced him to come tour Almaty with us. Soon after, another young Kazakh woman (Aigul) stopped at the shop and she decided to come with us too because she wanted to practice English with me. So together–I, Mir Mama, Dingzuolong, Aigul, and Ding’s friend–went to tour Almaty.

P1030008P1030004Kok Tobe–a place similar to The Peak in Hong Kong. That’s us in front of the famous apple statue.

P1030016P1030018sunset over Almaty

Kazakhstan – the Last Stan of All

“Sincerely yours, this is Stan” — Stan, Eminem

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8/27 Bishkek -> Kazakh border -> Alga

With visa in hand, I was finally headed to the last Stan of the trip–Kazakhstan. What a relief to be done with visas! I had two large pizzas and fried chicken to celebrate before heading off. After the Pamirs, the most important thing I learned was how to take better care of myself, which meant: enjoying the luxuries that are available when in the city. Luxuries like fried chicken and pizza!P1020955P1020956To the Kazakh border and Almaty. The border crossing was smooth, but there was still one piece of bureacratic business left to do– registration with the migration police. I read from other blogs that normally you can’t get the registration at the border, but there were several cases of “cute Japanese girls” getting it there. I hoped I could pass as a cute Japanese girl. Unfortunately, that was not the case. There were too many people trying to cross the border at the same time, and the border officials were far too busy. I would need to register in Almaty.
P1020957not much between Bishkek and Almaty

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8/28 Aga -> Targap

P1020959Last Stan Kazakhstan! Eminem’s “Stan” playing in my head

Over the next few days, I discovered that Chinese is a useful language to know in Kazakhstan and makes for some interesting experiences. The first example came this day:

At noon, I stopped for lunch at a local chaikhana (restaurant/ tea house). The lady manager started chatting with me and when she found out I was Chinese, she excitedly pointed to the guy next to her (one of her regular customers), expressing that he was Chinese too. The guy started speaking to me, but I couldn’t understand what he was saying. I thought for a moment, trying to process whether it was Kazakh or Russian or a mix of both, when I realized, he was speaking Chinese! It was very hard to understand him–his accent was very heavy and his words had no tones (which makes a huge difference for a tonal language like Chinese). His grammar was also not like a normal person would speak. “Hua bu dong? Language don’t understand?” he asked. He left before I could find out more about him but from our brief interaction, I concluded he was probably Uighur.
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8/29 Targap -> Almaty (largest city and ex-capital of Kazakhstan)

In the morning, I stopped to buy yogurt and bread at a small shop. An elder from the village was also there and when he saw me, he started speaking in Chinese. What a surprise! Kazakhstan was the first place this happened–where people would just start speaking to me in Chinese. When I responded to the elder though, he didn’t seem to understand much of what I said. Anyways, he was very polite and helped me get what I needed from the store. His Chinese also seemed better than the guy from the day before. I supposed that he must have learned some basic Chinese from Chinese workers living nearby.

I was in a bit of a hurry to get to Almaty so that I could get registered. The next day (Friday) was a holiday (Constitution Day), and then it would be the weekend, so probably the government offices would be closed. By law, you must register within 5 days of entering the country so waiting until Monday would be too late. My little legs pedaled as fast as they could, but even so, I didn’t make it into the city center until 6pm. By the time I weaved through the maze of city traffic and found the migration police office, it was already closed. My heart sank. I walked up to the two lady police officers standing outside the door, hoping they would take pity on me. Instead, they grumpily said they were closed for the day and told me to come back Sunday.

With a sigh, I left to find the nearest shop to buy a SIM card–I had arranged to stay with a Couchsurfing host in Almaty and I needed to call her. The nearest shop was just a small stand with barely enough standing room for 2 people. The woman behind the counter helped me out, and while we were setting up the phone, she gave me a big bottle of ice tea. Then corn. Then two pieces of fried dough stuffed with potatoes. Then a sandwich. Then a piece of kinder chocolate. “Ustala, da? Tired, right?” It was nearly dark at this point and it was halfway across town to the couchsurfer’s place, so I ate to get my energy level back up.

But the more I lingered at the shop, the more Mom worried about me, and she urged me to come back home with her to wash my clothes and take a shower. When I tried to explain that my friend was waiting for me, she insisted that it was not good for me to go in the dark (which was true). She said she would take care of me that night and I could go see my friend tomorrow. I couldn’t refuse her. To make sure I understood her orders, she even called her Chinese-speaking friend and had him translate everything. Funny how you can never say “no” to your Mom, even when it’s a Mom you just met in a foreign country halfway around the world and you don’t even speak the same language.

And so, I went home with Mom.