After three surprising weeks in Kyrgyzstan, the journey took an unexpected detour.
The East and Uzbekistan were supposed to wait for eight more days; another huge country was about to catch my attention.
Too big to be totally revealed, Kazakhstan showed me only a few of its innumerable details: Almaty‘s richness, the splendor of its mountains, the desolation of Shymkent and the first blue domes of my Silk Road, in Turkistan.
15 September, towards Almaty ◀ Day 353 🇰🇬 ▶
Kazakhstan, before leaving, was not in my plans. During the trip, however, I heard other travellers saying very good things about it. Mostly – always considering that it is one of the largest countries in the world (I believe the seventh) of the Southern part and Almaty.
My Uzbek visa starts on Sunday, but I decided to wait a few more days to go in … and pass through Kazakhstan first.
Almaty is about 250 km from Bishkek.
In marshrutka or taxi is an easily accessible route, in about 5 hours driving.
On a bicycle, having to cross several uphills and desert steppes, between 2 and 3 days.
Then, again, I opted for intermodality: 30km of pedalling in the morning to reach the border + marshrutka for the Kazakh stage.
Once I passed the customs, I asked a nice kyrgyz gendarme to take a photo of me.
Although forbidden, he replied “DA”.
Kyrgyzs, after all, are wonderful.
So here’s the snapshot of my crossing and of my first bicycle ride (being loaded) of this second part of the trip.
Only 30 km.
Yes, I know, I’m ridiculous (I also laughed at myself during the shot).
But I can also say that I have really come to Kazakhstan riding my bicycle.
Literally … it’s not something wrong.
And I can only be happy about it.
16 September, Almaty ◀ Day 354 🇰🇿 ▶ VIDEO
Almaty caught me from the very beginning; it looks like Bishkek but a bit more modern, cleaner, more tree-lined, more relaxed and closer to the mountains.
Having also found hospitality, I think I will stay here for a few days.
As I always like to do when I’m in a new city, I asked Railya – my Uzbek / Tatar native but living in Kazakhstan host – to suggest me a place to see the city from above. A hill, a mountain, a belvedere, a tower … a panoramic point in conclusion.
“Oh, you can go to Kok Tobe! There is a beautiful view!”
“OK, perfect! And how do I get there?”
“You should find it on the maps. Anyway, just go towards the mountains, sure you’ll find it!”
But then the problems were two:
1) Almaty is half totally surrounded by mountains
2) Sometimes I’m a little too much self-confident
Only after 30 kilometers of continuous climb I noticed that I had set up on the maps – and then followed – the road towards Kok Tobe Restaurant, in one of the many valleys south of Almaty, towards Kyrgyzstan border.
“Very well” I said myself. “I’m tired, sweaty and completely out of the way. As a beginnings in this new land this is certainly not a champion stuff.”
But then I found this place. With a river.
So I stopped, and – who knows why – at the end I was quite glad to be lost.
17 September, Almaty ◀ Day 355 🇰🇿 ▶
Almaty – born as Vernyj in nineteenth century, then become Alma-Ata (whose bizarre meaning is “the father of apples”) and then renamed, as it is known today, during the Soviet age – is the old capital of Kazakhstan and, according to some sources, the most populous city in the country.
It rises on the slopes of high snowy mountains, and develops itself obliquely.
The more you climb up – I was told – the more you meet the fancy, fascinating, spacious, lively and opulent Almaty.
The more you go down the more you immerse yourself in the poorest and most authentic reality of a land that, after centuries of nomadism, has become a young republic founded on gas and natural elements.
Today, on Sunday, I got up to Kok Tobe panoramic point (finally the right one) and then I swirled for the “in” part of the city.
Ugly? Quite the contrary.
Very beautiful to say the truth.
Perhaps a little bit fake, but do not forget that Almaty’s history is almost at the dawn.
The true Kazakhstan is probably elsewhere; and maybe tomorrow, going down to the valley, I will get some more shades of it.
19 September, Almaty ◀ Day 357 🇰🇿 ▶
All the cities are more beautiful when observed from the top of a mountain.
The spirit rises, the eyes spread their wings.
Especially when the summit was craved and achieved with your own strengths.
The view then, from up there, will certainly be magnificent.
20 September, Almaty ◀ Day 358 🇰🇿 ▶
“So how is it going on the job?
And with the girlfriend?
And, tell me, where are you living?”
“Um … no, listen … I’m in Kazakhstan. Alone. And I’m waiting for a night train. To a place called Shymkent. And no, I have no idea how it is. Not even why I’m going there. But I eat so many apples. Is it still good?”
21 September, Shymkent ◀ Day 359 🇰🇿 ▶
Shymkent, strategic base for the Mongols on the ancient Silk Road and current third most populous city of Kazakhstan.
Shymkent, famous in the world for having given birth to the most famous (?) gymnast Nellie Kim and also known as “Venice from the Steppe” or “Sandy Paris”.
Shymkent, “the Magnificent.”
Here it is, Shymkent, with a view on the main square.
Like being in Piazza del Plebiscito in Naples, or San Carlo in Turin.
Well, almost …
With all respect for Nellie Kim.
Ah, how beautiful – and difficult – to be Italian sometimes.
22 September, Turkestan ◀ Day 360 🇰🇿 ▶
I had thought of it as a rest day, but then I discovered that two hours away from Shymkent lies the town of Turkestan.
In the center of Turkestan there’s the mausoleum of Khawaja Ahmed Yasawi, commissioned in 1390 by Timur in order to honor a great Islamic preacher who lived two centuries before him. Today it is a UNESCO site, recognized as the most important monument of all Kazakhstan.
For Central Asian Muslims it is also an important religious place: local beliefs say that three pilgrimages to Turkestan are equivalent to one to Mecca.
All this said … could I ever lose it?
I know that from here onwards I’ll get more and more familiar to such images (probably even more exciting ones), but I feel like being thrown back to the day I entered Jinghong, in Yunnan, and I was facing for the first time the Mekong.
A river that I would have seen for the months to come and which I never got tired of.
In some ways, like that day, today I feel like I’m on a new road.
As if from here, from Turkestan – due to a mausoleum and my first blue majolica dome – I finally began to travel that Road whose desire I nourished for so long, dreaming it as a newborn baby with his first shadows and early colors; an ancient and mysterious path, made up of rich and lost empires, trades and battles, heroes and caravans, pilgrims and fortresses, deserts and princesses, dates and perfume of wine … and immortal history.
Finally, yes, here it is.
Where my real Silk Road begins.