Sunday, 26 June 2011

A couchsurfing minibreak in Almaty

Reading the small print of visa regulations is a particular pastime of mine and I had found out that it was possible to travel to Almaty in Kazakhstan on a Kygryz tourist visa, thereby negating the need and expense of getting a Kazakh visa. However, when we asked Mike, the Honorary British Consul, about this he wasn't aware of the rule. The border is only about 20 mins away from Bishkek so we thought we would give it a try not actually expecting it to work. The Kyrgyz stamped us out and we waited nervously at Kazakh immigration expecting to have to do a lot of explaining but it was no problem at all and we were allowed straight through.

Not actually expecting to get to Almaty, we hadn't done too much research on what there was to do. We did, however, know that accommodation was expensive so had arranged to couchsurf with John. Couchsurfing is a fantastic organisation which enables travellers to get in contact with people to host them. Back in Sheffield we had hosted couchsurfers, although not many as Sheffield doesn't seem to be big on the tourist hit list in the UK - can't understand why. Not only are there obvious financial benefits (you surf for free although we like to take a gift or cook one night) but it is a great way to meet local people. When travelling it seems easy to meet every other nationality in the hostels and hotels where backpackers stay apart from any local people. Couchsurfing with John in Almaty we had landed on our feet again as it turned out that he worked at the University as a lecturer in Journalism having worked as a journalist throughout Central Asia. This gave James a chance to ask him and his colleagues about freedom of the press in the region which was useful for his Churchill Fellowship research.

Just 4 hours away from Bishkek, Almaty was a bigger and smarter version, the oil wealth obvious. We encountered our first traffic jam in months and initially found it too busy, but within a morning we had soon slipped back into city life and enjoyed a proper coffee and even indulged in some gratuitous spending in the shops. As Almaty was actually a city before the Soviet era, unlike Bishkek, it has some nice older buildings although the Soviet architecture dominates. In 1998 Almaty ceased to be the Kazakh capital when this status was moved to Astana. However, it remains the capital of apples as it is said that the fruit originated in the Almaty region. It was a pleasant stay and for a short while we didn't felt like backpackers but it was back to a traveller's life in Bishkek dominated by visa battles and navigating the piles of washing up at the Bishkek Guesthouse.

Zenkov Cathedral in Panfilov Prak


Second World War monument - very Soviet

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