Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Top Ten Countries Number Five - Central Asia

Zenkov Cathedral, Almaty
Yes, I am going to cheat here and instead of specifying a country, I am going to lump ‘Central Asia’ together in my top ten. Technically I already cheated when I included the UK, right? But for me, Central Asia was the ultimate in ‘different’. I visited Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan over six weeks back in May-June 2011 and had a wonderful time. I visited three countries bordering each other with dramatic differences. Beautiful mountains, flat steppe and searing desert.

Kazakhstan is the biggest of the three, in fact it is the 9th biggest country on Earth. From the cultural Almaty to the mind-blowing capital, Astana, Kazakhstan is full of surprises. Almaty is a wonderful city, the ‘soul’ of Kazakhstan. Wonderful museums and theatre – I went to see traditional dancing there, friendly people, beautiful parks. The Russian influence is unmistakable, but it definitely has a European feel to it. The small but interesting Kazakh Museum of Musical Instruments was an unexpected highlight, where I got to witness a small concert of traditional instruments played. This is in the beautiful Panfilov Park, where stands the impressive and decorative Zenkov Cathedral.
Almaty is surrounded by stunning mountains, I headed up to Medeu one day, a favourite play-area in winter, but also lovely in summer. Kok Tobe is a peak not that far from the middle of town, where bronze statues of the Beatles stand (and sit!), and a cable car takes you up and down the big hill.
Inside Dostoevsky's old digs.
Semey was also a very interesting place. Behind my hotel is a park full of statues of communist figures such as Lenin and Marx. For a time Semey was home to Fyodor Dostoevsky, and today the house in which he lived is a small museum to the great Russian writer. The number one writer in town, in fact all of Kazakhstan is Abay though. This poet was also responsible for translating countless works into the local Kazakh language, and is a national hero.

Palace of Peace and Accord, Astana.

But is he a bigger national hero that Nazabaev, President of Kazakhstan since it became independent of the Soviet Union? Perhaps not. Nazabaev is a man of daring vision, and it was his vision that saw the capital moved from Almaty to the more central Astana. Now Astana is one of the more amazing cities of the world, with countless daring buildings designed by architect Norman Foster. This includes the Palace of Peace and Accord, a giant pyramid inside which are conference halls, a giant atrium and a concert hall, the Byoterek, a 97 metre tall tower resembling an ice cream cone, and the Khan Shatyr, a giant shopping complex enclosed in a tent-like structure, the likes of which you are unlikely to see anywhere else in the world. Come to Astana to be impressed, to be wowed, or even just to wonder ‘why?’ It’s simply an astounding place.

National Museum in Bishkek reminds us of the past.

I headed south from Almaty to Kyrgyzstan. I was now travelling by small mini-buses called marshrutkas for the most part, and every journey was an adventure. The capital of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek, is a really pleasant, smallish city which I liked very much. An interesting museum there revealed that possibly Kyrgyzstan thought that the Soviet Union was still going, but the parks brimmed with a different kind of life, and art. People played table tennis on outdoor tables whilst others took wedding photos by fountains. In the evening, for a dollar or two, I saw an opera in town. Those are my lasting impressions of Bishkek.

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Kyrgyzstan boasts great natural beauty. Lake Issyk-kul, a huge freshwater lake 182 kilometres wide (by 60 metres) gives life to a whole region of the country. Around it I went to reach Karakol on the far end, an interesting and pretty if somewhat ramshackle town with some amazing old houses and a striking wooden orthodox church. I took a jeep up the mountains to a place called Altyn Arashan, and stayed a night in an old, large, wooden shack. It was party night there, the place had a big gathering, and despite the lack of electricity, it was a great night. The next day I took in the stunning and very European mountains as I hiked back to Karakol.

Tombs in Samarkand.
I had to go via Bishkek and again Kazakhstan to get to Uzbekistan. That journey in itself, going from marshrutka to taxi to taxi to taxi, crossing two borders in one day, was an incredible adventure I won’t forget. Bukhara and Samarkand both proved to be amazing places, from the old silk road, with incredible Islamic architecture. Uzbekistan felt very different from the other two Central Asian countries I visited. It was very dry and hot – Bukhara was over 40 degrees, Samarkand just under it.

Statue of Temur, Tashkent.
Despite the heat (and the heatstroke) I adored Uzbekistan. It reminded me a lot of Iran, and there were a number of friendly people I met there on my journey. Tashkent was more like the other countries, its boulevards very wide, and it even had a working metro-system! The parks were the highlight, as were the statues of the greatest Uzbek hero of all, Temur! I visited his museum too. Again there were impressive monuments and fantastic parks, where people cooled down from the heat. Swimming in the fountains was an extremely popular way to escape the heat in Uzbekistan, especially for but not only for, the children.
I’ve rolled three countries into one today, which doesn’t do any of them full justice. They are three amazing countries in the world, at one time they were one country with the rest of the Soviet Union. As individuals, I’m not sure they would make my top ten (they wouldn’t be far off) but together, they are just a brilliant travel experience. You can trek, you can see cities, history, culture, the future. Admire Islamic architecture or breath the mountain air and think you were in Europe. Central Asia offers the traveller so much. The tourist – maybe not so much, but for those willing to go the extra mile in paperwork, Central Asia rewards in bucketloads!

Writings :
Coming February/March 2014 – Short Journeys: Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan

The top ten so far:
10 – Slovakia
9 – Romania
8 – Mali
7 – The United Kingdom
6 – Japan
5- Central Asia

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