Back in Almaty

Sorry I haven’t written in several days. The post travel blues have hit and they’ve hit hard this time. We ended our trip ten days early and that sucked. I mean, I was 50% of the decision making power in that and I did say let’s go home, but actually arriving back home sucked.

We drove 11.5 hours straight to get here, the last couple hours were in the dark and the rain. Raise your hand if you like driving on rural roads in the dark when it’s raining. Then, when we got here there was no toilet paper. We paid someone to live in our apartment all summer to take care of our pets and we left money for things like soap, toilet paper, pet food, and such, the least they could have done was to have bought some toilet paper for us. So at 10PM we had to ask the neighbors if they had a roll of toilet paper we could have. There was also no food in the house. Now, I guess that one’s on me. I didn’t think to ask them to have any food for us, but we were tired and grumpy and the no food int eh house thing didn’t help matters. Then, our animals are all severely overweight. We’ve only been gone 6 weeks!! We feed them a high quality food and keep them on a strict diet. WTF? We left money to buy more if it ran out, but I’m sure I had purchased enough for the summer. Oh. I see. They ran out then bought the cheap, cheap, cheap stuff from the grocery store. So, they had basically been feeding our pets potato chips. I repeat: WTF? We left money!!! But wait! There’s more! Our long hair cat that we left specific instructions to brush daily… yeah… she wasn’t brushed. She’s covered in mats. All this hit us in the first five minutes of our return. And we had had a pretty shitty 5 days already. That’s why we had decided to end our trip early and return home.

I did a thing. Everywhere we live I get a food related tattoo. I have a hamburger tattoo for the US. I have I big plate of dumplings on my back for China. I have a chicken riding a bicycle for Benin (poulet bicyclette-extra points if you get that). I’ve never gotten a tattoo for a country I only visited. Oh my goodness, if I were going to do that, I’d be up to nearly 50 of them by now, but I loved Uzbekistan so much I wanted one. I contacted a tattoo artist I’m fond of and he told me his only free appointment for the next 30 days was tomorrow at 11AM and I said then I guess we’re meeting tomorrow at 11AM. And voila! I have a new tattoo. If you’re in Almaty then I went to Dark Horse Tattoo. I’ve had work done in 4 countries, by 8-9 different artists and this guy is definitely in the top 3 for most gentle. I love having tattoos but normally hate getting tattoos. This one really wasn’t so bad. Kinda made me ready to go back again. The shop is sterile, and everyone is vaccinated. Oh! They have a barbershop inside too.

Pomegranates are the symbol of Uzbekistan. They’re in the art everywhere. You see them in paintings, in tapestries, on ceramics, sculptures, I mean, everywhere! I even got this new table cloth. But you know what? I never actually saw a real pomegranate anywhere. I know they grow them there, they must export them all. Anyway, I will carry a pomegranate with me for the rest of my life.

After my tattoo I was craving some comfort food. Even when I say the guy was gentle, I still had a needle in me for over two hours. I needed some comfort food. To me that’s always burger or pizza. I know, I know… how stereotypical… you can take the girl outta America but you can’t take America always take America outta the girl. So, I’m a member of this FB expats group which I have a love/hate relationship with. Other than posting these blogs I’ve been on a hiatus from FB for many months anyway, but about 8 months back someone posted a question “Who has the best burger in Almaty?” I took this question to heart. I wrote down every restaurant named and I methodically went to every one of them and tried their burger. Some of them were repulsive. Gross. Do these people even know what a hamburger is? How did it wind up on a best of list? Anyway. According to that list, I found the best burger in Almaty. It’s Craft’s double cheese jalapeno burger. I know not everyone like’s jalapenos. So leave them off. I’ll forgive you. It’s still not the best burger ever, come on, we’re in Kazakhstan, but it’s a good burger. Even if I were in the US I’d call it a good burger.

I’ve been shopping almost everyday since we returned. And I hate shopping. The kid’s birthday is Monday and quarantine measures are tight here. Everything is closed on the weekends so I have to get completely prepared by Friday, tomorrow. Oh! Monday is also my first day of work. Ugh. Not really ugh. I love my job. I do. I’ve never loved a job more in my life. It’s just three days of professional development, or as Americans call it: in-service. That’s what I’m ugh-ing about.

She’s turning 15. I’m so proud of her. We adopted her when she was 5.5 and was at the total development stage of a toddler. She could barely speak, was only recently out of diapers, and we were told by the State to not have high expectations for her. In fact, they were pretty damn negative about her altogether. It has been one HELL OF A LOT OF WORK, let me repeat that, A FUCKING LOT OF WORK but at this point she’s only a year behind her peers in school. It’s hard for her, school is really, really hard for her but she’s doing it. She’s in the regular ed program and going into her freshman year of high school and I’m over the moon excited for her. According to all the statistics she should be a pregnant, junkie, drop out by now and instead she’s a hard-working, world traveling, international school student, hopefully on her way to university. You should adopt a kid. You should encourage everyone you know to adopt a kid. Ask me about it. There are a bunch of rumors out there about adoption that just aren’t true, like it costs thousands of dollars. That’s only through the fancy private agencies. We went through the State and so can you. There’s a kid out there that needs you. Call your Department of Family and Children’s Services Today. It’s fuckin’ hard to be a mom/dad/parent but imagine what it must be like to grow up in the State foster care system. Do you think you can do better than that? Then why not do it? Help someone. Shout out to EK Huckaby for the art on the wall. I should send him an email and say what’s up.

We’re headin’ home

In Aralsk, the husband and I had a heart to heart talk. Kazakhstan has been one bust after another and our next destination was 24 hours away by car. To date, in the past 11 years, we have traveled extensively via road through: the US, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, small parts of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England, France, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Czechia, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Austria, Croatia, San Marino, Belgium, Netherlands, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Benin, Uzbekistan, China, and now a pretty good portion of Kazakhstan. Uzbekistan was the best holiday I can remember having in years, Kazakhstan has just been getting worse and worse by the day. I was feeling a bit bummed about everything ending going home until today one final thing happened that just made me say fuck the rest of this trip. The rest of my travel in this country will be by air, directly there and directly back. At least, that’s what I say now. Let’s see what I say next June.

You have to pay to use toilets here. I have no problem with that. Toilet paper and maintenance costs money. No big deal, but the sign said 50 tenge. The kid paid with 500 tenge and the lady didn’t give her any change. Now… in the big picture… should I really be angry she swindled us out of a dollar? No, I shouldn’t be mad… but it’s the principle of it. It’s “just a dollar” to me, but to her? she stole 450 freakin’ tenge from us and thought she was going to get away with it. Nope. Husband went storming over and demanded our change. It just sums up how everything seems to be going for us these past 72 hours. I’m ready to go home.

So, from Arlask 2 days ago, instead of continuing our journey west, we turned the car east and started heading home. I’m writing you now from back in Turkistan. But this time we chose a fancy hotel. We’re staying in our first, and only, 5 star hotel of the trip. it’s still affordable, $80 a night. Most of the hotels we’ve been staying in the whole time have been really nice places and have been $15-20 a night. We’ve scoffed when we’ve had to pay any more than $30, but I know for most of you the idea of staying in a 5 star hotel for $80 a night is unheard of, and if really is a 5 star hotel. It’s a nice place.

In the US when you look in the bedside table at a hotel, you get a Gideon Bible. Here, at the Rixos, you’re told which direction Mecca is.

And they have a very strange idea of what an Irish pub is. The name of the bar here in the hotel is Irish Pub but it’s the most opposite of an Irish pub as I can imagine.

Oh! remember a few days ago when I complained we tried to find an old fortress called Sauran and wound up in a rural village? We found it!!!! And we found out why we couldn’t find it before. There is a rural village called Sauran and there is also an old fort called Sauran. Someone has put pictures of the old fortress AND LABLED the village as the fortress in Google Maps. I’m sure it’s an innocent mistake, but once again, Google will not accept my edit because they tell me: cannot verify. In addition, the only access to the fortress from the highway is from the eastbound road, so we couldn’t have gotten there the other day even if we had known where the correct location was. It was super cool! We were really happy to have found it and also really happy to have Donkey because we did some off roading to get out to see some of the walls.

We’ve spend almost a full 48 hours just chillin’ in the hotel. We drove 11.5 hours straight to get here and we’ll drive 12 hours to get home tomorrow. We did take one field trip today. We drove an hour away to see another archeological site. This one is called Otrartobe. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and they’re in the process of rebuilding it. There were workers on site and it was neat to see them. We also saw what appeared to be broken ancient pots lined up on a wall. I’m guessing they had dug them up while working.

While we were driving out there we saw the biggest dust devil I’ve ever seen in my life. It was scary. I lived in New Mexico through most of my twenties, I know desert, this dust devil was scary. I even looked up some stats. People have died from dirt devils, roofs have been ripped off, and more. It’s not common, but it happens. This one scared me. So, of course I told the husband to pull over so I could take a picture. It doesn’t look quite so scary in the photo, but believe me, it was moving fast and it was big. For size perspective, that small animal in the photo is a camel.

One disappointment after another

Our past two days could pretty much be described as one big fart noise. First, we were pulled over AGAIN. Oh my god! Cops in Kazakhstan are so corrupt. We’ve driven actually in Kazakhstan, on this trip, for less than a week and been pulled over three times. Each time it was complete bullshit and they were just wanting a bribe. I wrote a specific post about being pulled over in Kazakhstan here.  

This is what our entire drive looked like.

We left our crappy hotel in Turkistan for Baikonur. It was going to be about an 8.5 hour drive. We took one detour that made a trip longer than a straight drive would have been because we wanted to see some ancient ruins. The pictures looked really cool. We drove 2.5 hours, the last half hour was on a pretty rough dirt road to get there. We ended up in a remote rural village and when Google dinged and said “You have arrived” this is what we were looking at:

They were supposed to be ancient ruins from the 3rd-5th century. The thing that really, really pisses me off but these experiences is when I try to make the corrections on Google Maps and my edits are denied. I get a message from Google saying my edit cannot be verified. I know I’ve complained about this before but, once again, who the fuck else is going to verify these things???

Then, Brandon and I love the website Atlas Obscura. We have guided our trips through close to 25 countries using their site but holy fuck! They really led us astray yesterday. We were really excited about going here. It says we can see the grove where a cosmonaut plants a tree before he goes into space, take a tour of their space center, and there are a couple museums we really wanted to see. So, we left Turkistan, drove 8.5 hours arrived in the city and what did we find? Armed soldiers guarding the border of the city checking permits of each driver before they could enter. Yeah. Um. Atlas Obscura didn’t say anything about needing a special permit to enter the city.  

The soldier had us pull over. We spoke with him via Google Translate and were informed the entire city is a high security site and only those with permits are allowed in. We can apply for a permit but processing takes five days. Also, I showed him a picture of the Cosmonaut Grove and he said no way! That place is top security. No one is allowed there. He’s never been there, he doesn’t even know anyone that’s ever been there. He said there’s no way we would ever be allowed to see it.  

So…. as tired as we were, we didn’t have permission to enter the city and we were in the middle of the desert so we had no choice but to move on. Our next destination was another 2.5 hours ahead. Aralsk, Kazkhstan. Remember when we went to the Aral Sea (desert) in Uzbekistan and saw the stranded ships? The museum was closed, our visa was running out, and we didn’t have time to stay another day to try to find someone to open it for us. Now, we’re waaaaaaayyyyyyyyy on the other side of the Aral Sea, where there are other stranded ships and supposedly another museum.  

The hotel here has a poster in the front with tourist sites to see. There’s a beautiful geothermal pool, a large area of the lake pelicans gather, and some other cool looking stuff. We looked for the placed on Google Maps, but they’re not there. We asked the receptionist to show us where they were on the map and he wouldn’t. Then we asked if we could get a tour guide for the day to take us there and he said yes. Wanna know how much they wanted to charge us? $300!!!!! $300!!!!! I countered with $100 and he was rude to me. He gave me a nasty look, he said no one works for that little here, and he walked away. Okay. Whatever, mister. No one in Kazakhstan works for $100 a day? Just ten days ago we paid a guy in Uzbekistan $30 to be our tour guide for a full 8 hours in 47°C/117°F temps. I’m sorry, I’m not paying someone $300 to drive me out to look at a hot spring and some birds. We decided to spend our day at the local museum then relaxing at the hotel. 

Yeah. There’s no museum. They are clearly building a museum. We asked a guy when he thought the museum will be open: a year from now? Two years? His answer? 9 years!!!!!! That’s 2030!!!! So if you’re planning to come to Aralsk for the museum, I’d make sure to call first. There is a sign that says museum, but that’s it.  

All was not lost. We did walk around on the dried up seabed and we cuddled with a cute kitty that walked by. Then, that guy mentioned the other museum. Other museum? What other museum? Google didn’t even say there was another musem. He walked us a few blocks away to a natural history museum.  

Now, it wasn’t the best museum ever but I enjoyed it. The employees were eager to see us and tried their best to communicate with us even though we didn’t have a common language. Plus, they had this amazing light and they played music for us on an actual gramophone. I don’t think there’s another museum on earth that would play music from a gramophone for me.  

After finding a real musem we went back to the hotel and took a nap. I’ve never been much of a napper but wow! It’s hot and I’m finding it really easy to sleep half the afternoon these days. When we woke up we walked down the street to find a minimarket and bought some ice cream. There’s really nothing to do here. Nothing. It’s just a tiny rural town. Mostly we’re sitting on the bed watching the news. We’ll be leaving in the morning. We’re ready to get outta here. I miss Uzbekistan.  

Pulled Over Four Times in a Week in Kazakhstan and How to Deal With Them

My turn to be pulled over!

Everything is a game here. I was driving a long minding my own business when a cop turned his lights on behind me. He told me I didn’t stop. Didn’t stop where? There was no light, there was no intersection, no nuthin’. He was just making shit up. They see our yellow license plates with the 02 on it which signifies we’re from Almaty and they think it means a big payout for them. The yellow license plate means we don’t legally own our car, the company owns the car. It’s a weird way the laws work here in Kazakhstan. We bought the car with our money but the legal documentation is in our employer’s name and the license plate is yellow instead of white like privately owned vehicle plates are. So we stand out to the cops.

Anyway, back to my story, I was just driving along and bam! flashing lights behind me. It works differently here, you get out of your car and you go sit in the passenger seat of the police car. He was very friendly to me. He made eye contact, he smiled, he repeated that I didn’t stop. I didn’t argue with him, I knew it didn’t matter, it was all bullshit anyway. I said “Okay, give me the ticket so I can be on my way.” He said we don’t give tickets here, you pay a fine. I said okay, what’s the fine? He said 15,000 tenge. I laughed. I said I’ve traveled in over 40 countries. I know how this works. Tell me your bottom number so I can leave. He said 10,000 tenge. I laughed. I said I have lived in Kasakhstan for a year now. I know it’s 5,000. I will pay you 5,000 and then I’m leaving with my family. He looked hurt. He actually looked like I was hurting his feelings. He pulled me over for no reason! He was was scamming me and making me pay him a bribe and when I refused to pay him what he wanted he gave me hurt puppy dog eyes??? 
I told him I didn’t have any money on me, I’d have to go back to the car. I went back to the car, got 5,000 tenge, returned to the police car, at in the passenger seat, closed the door, he wouldn’t take the money from my hands, I had to open the glovebox and put the money in there. And then he said thank you and I got out and walked away. 
Then! Two days later it happened again! But this time Brandon was driving. We’re on this road. We’re not crazy drivers and we’ve been having issues with Donkey, our car, anyway so we hardly ever drive over 90 kilometers per hour. That’s 50 MPH.  At this time we were going 83 KPH. That’s what the cops had us clocked at. Cars are flying past us at well over 120 KPH. Who got pulled over a few minutes ago? We did. Why? The officer claimed we were driving through a village and the speed limit was 60 KPH. 60???? That’s insane! That’s like 30 miles per hour on this highway in the middle of nowhere in the desert.

This is exactly where we were pulled over for going 40MPH in a 30MPH zone

It was clearly a speed trap. Brandon was driving this time so it was him that went to sit in the police car. It was the same ol’ routine. He told the officer to give him the ticket. The officer said we don’t issue tickets here, you just pay a fine. Okay, what’s the fine? 30,000 tenge. Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Naw, come on, this is nothing but a speed trap, I’ll take my chances with the judge, give me my ticket and I’ll come back for my court date. Then he pulled out his phone and marked the location of Google Maps. He said when he did that the officer looked nervous. Suddenly he became really friendly and said since we were guests he was going to let us go with only a warning. He said any time we’re driving through a village the speed limit is 60. The thing is it’s all just barren desert with just one random house off in the distance every five or ten minutes or so. How the hell are we supposed to know when we’re in a “village’? It was nothing but a speed trap. 

Brandon’s sitting in the police car behind me while the kid and I wait

Then, there’s the first time we were pulled over on this trip, a little over a month ago, on our way to Uzbekistan. I’ll re-tell the story here So, we were on our way! We drove about three hours and got pulled over by the police. Now, had this been me of 15 years ago I would have been terrified. Heck, had this been me of 7 years ago I would have been terrified, but me today? Naw. You want to know what we did? Or what my husband did? He laughed at them. Literally. Here’s how it went down,

The kid and I sat in the car; the cops told the husband to come back to the car with him. They tried to get him to pay a $300 USD bribe. He LOL’d at them. He told me one of them laughed when he laughed at the cop. So my husband laughed directly in a cop’s face and then the other cop laughed at that. So, they went back and forth and back and forth the cop trying to get a bribe out of him and my husband kept insisting just give me the ticket. That’s not what they want. They don’t want to give you the ticket. They want you to pay a bribe. In the end, we paid a bribe. $10 USD. Yes, you read that right. $10. The cops originally tried to get $300 out of us.  

We’ve lived in China and Benin. These Kazakh cops aren’t going to get shit outta us.  

The point is If you’re pulled over in Kazakhstan, it’s just a shake down. Remain calm. Wait them out. Insist on your ticket. If they refuse to give you a ticket, which they will, pay them 5,000 tenge and be on your merry way. They’ll try to tell you there’s some huge fee. They’re lying. Just laugh at them. If you’re not as weathered as I am and you can’t laugh at a police officer, just remember to remain calm. They’re not gonna haul you off to jail or anything. They just see you as a pay check and they’re trying to see how much money they can get out of you. Stay firm. It’s 5,000. Don’t give them a penny more. Just keep insisting on the ticket. Say “Write me the ticket. I’ll go to court.” They’ll never write you a ticket. All they want is for you to pay a bribe. And you do get in the car with them. One cop will get out of the car and hang out outside while you sit in the passenger’s seat. Don’t be nervous, everything’s okay. It’s just how they do it here. They might not want to take the money directly from your hands. Set it down somewhere, or open the glovebox and put it in there. Even though they’re shaking you down, they’re strangely friendly about it. Oh, and they might not even care to see your documents. So far, we’ve been pulled over three times. One time they tried to get 150,000 tenge ($300) from us, one time they tried to get 30,000 ($60) tenge from us, and one time they tried to get 15,000 ($30)  tenge from us. Each time we paid 5,000 ($10)  and drove away. 

Turkistan not to be confused with Turkmenistan

We left our hotel and drove toward Turkistan, not to be confused with Turkmenistan. Turkistan is a city in Kazakhstan. Turkmenistan is a country. Driving down the road in western Kazakhstan you have to watch out for camels in the road.

We stopped at a mausoleum along the way. Am I terrible person that I can’t even remember who the dead person was? Some Muslim saint. Sorry, we’ve been to so many mausoleums by now. I was really excited by them at first… and now… well… they’re still cool to look at and I still like dead people but unless it’s a really famous dead person I just don’t pay that much attention to exactly which dead person it is. Does that make me a bad person? 

Anyway, we went to the mausoleum of some Muslim saint and it was a bit annoying. Cool and all but annoying. Before leaving for our trip, I did SO MUCH research on Uzbekistan. I learned it was WAY more conservative than Kazakhstan. Plus, everyone in Almaty told me that. Everyone told me I’d be really uncomfortable there. They all told me everyone there was really conservative and I’d need to cover up. I was told I’d be told to cover my shoulders and over my hair and be careful and well… ya know… dress like a grandma all the time. Okay. That’s cool. Even though I’m a super progressive, way lefty, feminist woman, I can respect others’ cultures. My rule is when it’s simply this is how we do things here I’m okay with it. When it’s this is how we do things here or else we kill you… then naw… I’m not going to your country.  

Why did I bother to say all that? I said it all because I never had anyone, EVER, say ANYTHING to me about my dress in Uzbekistan. I cover my shoulders. I cover my knees. I don’t dress like I’m going to the club. I mean… come on… look at my dress… And then, the very first place we stopped in Kazakhstan they freaked out and made the kid and I cover our hair hair. They also made some guy wrap a sari around his legs because he was wearing shorts. And everyone here in Kazakhstan had told me it was Uzbekistan that was the conservative place!!!! 

There was a tourist police officer there that was overjoyed to meet an American family and really wanted a photo with us. I didn’t really care but just to make him happy I got a picture with him with my phone too.  

We drove three and a half hours to find the ancient ruins of a village destroyed by Genghis Khan. Google Maps led us astray. Sometime Google Maps REALLY pisses me off because they won’t let me edit the map. When things like this happen to us and I try to edit the map and say the location is incorrect they always deny my edit. They send me a message saying “cannot be verified”. Oh yeah, Google? Who the fuck is gonna verify it? I’m sitting here in the middle of goddamned nowhere Kazakhstan telling you your map is wrong and you don’t believe me???? Ugh. I’ve written them about it.  

So, we arrived in Turkistan and it’s a bit of a disappointment. If you were to believe Kazakh locals you’d think it’s the MUST SEE city of Kazakhstan. I guess it’s all in the what you want in a city. If Gatlingurg, or Dollywood, or Branson are what you want when you travel then hell yeah! Turkistan is your place! This is where you want to come to buy your Kazakhstan souvenirs, your balloons, get your caricature drawn, your spray-painted t-shirt, you can even pay to ride a gondola through the canal right through the center of a shopping center. They even have an Imax theater tyoe thing and a Medieval Times type show with horses. That just ain’t our thing. Not at all. Wanna know something funny? The whole time we were walking around they had these signs posted telling us no pictures allowed. Isn’t that funny? The whole place is clearly made for tourists and yet they have no pictures allowed signs posted. I guess I don’t follow rules very well.  

Eventually we found the historic stuff. There’s not much. Everything We saw a Mausoleum where once again I was yelled at to cover up, by a woman, none the less. She reminded me of all the Trump supporting women in the US. It’s the women keeping us down. Then we went to see an underground mosque. I was excited about it, but my allergies didn’t like it so I had to leave almost as soon as I walked in. Then, way off in the distance we saw this other thing. What was that? Did we really want to walk over there? It was 41°C/106°F out and it was a good twenty/thirty-minute walk away. Alright. Fine. Let’s go.  

Walking over there was totally worth it. I’m not so sure the kid thought so but Brandon and I sure did. It’s the ancient Turkistan city fortress and you could get right down in it and walk around inside the walls. It’s depressing. It’s clear hardly anyone ever goes out there. We couldn’t even use the stairs! They were covered with prickly bushes and we had to climb up the hill to gain access.  

The hotel here sucks. It’s a bottom-line Hilton. Hampton to be exact but I feel like I’m back in China: look but don’t touch. Last night Brandon ordered a Shiraz and was served a sweet white wine, our bathroom door won’t open/close more than halfway, and earlier while I was trying to open the curtains, the entire curtain rod came crashing down from the wall. It’s actually so bad I’m going to complain to Expedia. May as well. We booked through them. I know they’ll give us a discount on our next place or maybe even a free next place. This place sucks. Everything looks pretty, but that’s it. The food sucks too.  

Overall, my rating of Turkistan: 4/10. 

There was one cool thing about the city. Their traffic lights had LEDs all the way up and down the polls that corresponded with the color of the light. This should be a thing everywhere.

Exploring Shymkent

We have attempted to see three different Museums of Victims of Political Repression and failed all three times. The first was only open on weekends even though nothing about that was posted anywhere, the second was closed for renovations, and today, the third was closed because public buildings are all put on lockdown for covid quarantine for two weeks. That’s good. I respect the safety measures but you’d think the receptionist at the hotel would have told us the museums are all closed when we told them we were going out to see the museums today. We only found out because one of the doors was open. all the lights were out but the door was open, wo we walked in anyway and yelled helllloooo!!!!! Someone that spoke English came out and spoke to us. He explained all public buildings are closed for two weeks. And so, we spend the day exploring the public parks.

We went to Abay park. Abay was a famous Kazakh poet, composer, and philosopher and you see his name all over the country. I guess it’s kind of like MLK Jr avenue. I’m not comparing Abai to MLK Jr, that’s not what I mean, I’m only saying you know how seemingly every city in the US has an MLK street or an MLK memorial park? Well every city in Kazakhstan has an Abai street and/or an Abay/Abai street or memorial park. They’re everywhere.

The one in Shymkent is used as a memorial park. World War One, World War Two, the Afghan War, they have a memorial to firefighters and other rescue workers, they have a memorial to an ancient medicine man. The Afghan War memorial really hit me. I guess it was because of what’s happening there right now. As an American and knowing it was us that armed the Taliban, I’m just so embarrassed. We created them. We gave them their weapons and we trained them to help them fight against the Russians in the war this memorial I’m looking at is to commemorate and now what? We created a monster.

We also walked through this park on a university campus with student art displayed and a large tulip water fountain at the end.

Then we found a giant Lenin.

The three of us had Samarkand style plov and Coca-Cola for lunch and the total was $4 USD. The plov was better than the plov we had at the fancy, high end place in Tashkent two nights ago. I’m still disappointed in that place.

I’m back at the hotel now and planning to go to sleep early. We’ll wake up and drive to Turkistan in the morning. Not Turkmenistan, the country, but Turkistan, the city in Kazakhstan.

We got Donkey to the Vet

As you know, we’ve been having car troubles with Donkey, our car, since day one and he’s needed to see a quality vet. We found one we trusted in Samarkand, he ran thorough diagnostics, told us Donkey would be okay for the trip, but the repairs we needed could not be done in Uzbekistan. This is because 90% of the cars in Uzbekistan are Chevrolets and Donkey is a UAZ Patriot. He told us to be careful but we’d be okay. He said as soon as you return to Kazakhstan stop and get your car repaired. So! Here we are in Shymkent getting our car repaired.  

Yesterday was a full comedy of errors. I knew it was going to be hell and I know how much stuff like that stresses my husband out, so I took a hit for the team and volunteered to handle it myself. I told the hotel I wanted to take Donkey to a UAZ specialist, but do they listen to me? Of course not. We just went to some shade tree mechanic that claimed to know what he was doing. And they wouldn’t listen to anything I said because, you know, I’m a woman. I had to raise my voice and act like a crazy woman more than once. It was reminiscent of my days in China. A woman knowing anything about cars here is likened to a monkey knowing about cars. You only think it’s bad in the US. Here, even the fact that I know what the battery is is a mind-blowing fact to the mechanic. So, trying to get them to listen to me is quite a feat and sometimes I have to resort to acting like a crazy lady. Suddenly, when they have a foot stomping, arm waiving, American, white lady yelling at them they just do whatever it is I’m telling them to do just to make me calm down.  

Eventually, after four hours of complete incompetence and running around from one place to another and getting constantly getting the run around we FINALLY went to the UAZ center. The place I had requested to be taken in the first place. Just for added fun, it’s 37°C/99°F outside and there ain’t no A/C anywhere here. So I was dealing with my sick Donkey, the hotel people wouldn’t just take me straight to the UAZ repair people like I asked, none of the mechanics would listen to me because I’m a woman, and omfg, it was hot, and it took four hours to find someone that would listen.

Finally! When we found a UAZ guy I literally pushed the guy from the hotel out of the way, used my phone with Google Translate and talked to the mechanic myself. I told him “I don’t care what this guy has told you. I don’t care what he says. This is MY CAR and it’s MY MONEY. If you are a UAZ mechanic and this is a UAZ center then YOU are the person I want to repair my car. Run all the diagnostics you want, run all the tests you want, check everything, please fix my car!” He laughed and the guy from the hotel shifted his weight but I did not care by that point. I was beyond annoyed.

We got Donkey back today mostly repaired. The mechanic says he fixed everything he could fix in one day. There is one more thing that is a more major repair. He said we’ll be okay to continue our trip, it’s not an emergency, but we should get it repaired when we return to Almaty. This brings me back to it all should have been found by our mechanic in Almaty before we left for our trip. He knew we were leaving for a MAJOR road trip. I told him to check the car and make sure it was prepared for it. We broke down on our very first day and we’ve been dealing with issues stemming from the problem throughout our entire trip. Every mechanic we see asks us in not exactly these words but : Who the fuck is your mechanic? He’s a fucking idiot. He’s the mechanic that was recommended to us when we arrived in Almaty. He won’t be touching our car again.

That’s what we get for taking people’s advice. We had a similar issue with a French teacher in Benin. He was terrible, but he was the one recommended by someone at the school so why would we not trust he’d be good?

Leaving Uzbekistan for Kazakhstan by road

First, I forgot to mention a couple places we went in Tashkent, the Geology Museum and Ming Urik archeological site we went to the other day. They were both great. I’m not really into rocks and wasn’t too excited about the geology museum but they ended up having an awesome collection of fossils collected in Uzbekistan and I love fossils. Then, upstairs they had an incredibly impressive collection of stones from Uzbekistan. We weren’t allowed to take pictures in that room. I’m tellin’ ya’ I’m not into rocks but I enjoyed this museum. If you’re in Tashkent you should go.

Then, oh my goodness we’ve seen a lot of ruins on this trip, so many we may be… dare I say… burned out on them… but what I liked about Ming Urik was that they’re right in the city. While standing among the ruins you can look right our on modern day apartment buildings. That’s neat.

Last night, since it was our last night in Uzbekistan, we decided to eat at a fancy Uzbek restaurant for dinner. We’ve enjoyed the local food we’ve had but we’ve mostly eaten at side of the road joints and way off the beaten path places or even in people’s homes. We thought we’d try a high class place. Sadly, I was disappointed. The tomatoes were bland and I’ve been shocked for the past month by how Uzbekistan has the best tomatoes in the world. We didn’t order lamb chops, but we were served lamb chops, and they were prepared well done, or in other words: ruined. The laghman (noodles) and norin (different noodles) were both good but the plov was dry. This was supposed to be one of the best Uzbek restaurants in the country. I beg to differ. I’ve had far better Uzbek food during this trip.

Now to begin our last day. Sad face. I’ve really enjoyed our month in Uzbekistan. So, we woke up and I found us a place for breakfast using Google Maps. Black Bear Kofi. The coffee was terrible but the food and the service made up for it. I don’t think they get many English speaking tourists at their coffee shop because we clearly made the sever very nervous. It was cute. Even though the coffee was so bad I’d still go back if I lived there. I’d just have tea and food.

After breakfast we went back to our hotel, packed up, and left for the dreaded border. And…. it wasn’t so bad!!!! Only two hours this time!!! Still a bit absurd. The whole time we were there we only saw two other cars. That was it. Why did it take us two hours to get through customs? Go here and show them your passport, now go over there and show them your passport, now go over there and show them your passport, now go back to the first desk and show them your passport again, oh! we forgot to check your visa! Come back! Where’s this document? Where’s that document? Let me see your passport again. Now go over to that desk so they can check your passport, now go to that desk so they can check your passport. Now take every last thing out of your car and run it through the machine. Everything. Oh! Now you’re entering a new building you have to run your purse through the machine for this buidling, we don’t care that we just watched you do it outside on their machine, now you have to do it inside for our machine. Now let me see your passport. And through it all I don’t think anyone ever even looked at our PCR test results. That’s a bit worrisome. I guess that’s why Kazakhstan is on the CDC’s level 4 warning list. Yay us.

I had to ask the border guard a couple times before he let me take this picture.

We drove to Shymkent where we have stopped for the evening. We found a nice hotel called Megapolis. They have a great restaurant. I wasn’t expecting much, but Brandon had Chicken Kiev and I had a delicious salmon pasta. Trinidad had a burger. I didn’t take a picture of it. It was just a burger.

And here I am sitting in the lobby writing finishing this post up feeling bummed about being back in Kazakhstan. I will admit it feels like home though. I do like it here. I lived in China for three years and it never felt like home. Every time I left when I returned “home” all I felt was dread and anxiety. I liked Benin and I like Kazakhstan. It feels like home here. When we crossed the border Trinidad said “It feels good to be home” and it made me smile to hear my 14 year old American kid say that about Kazakhstan. But is she really American? In any way other than paperwork? We left the US when she was seven. She knows little more about American culture than many of you know about Kazakh culture. She’s grown up a citizen of the world and as we crossed the border into Kazakhstan she said “It feels good to be home” can I really call her my American kid? I guess that’s a conversation for another time. I’m ready to go relax in the room now.

A Few Days in Tashkent

Our time in Uzbekistan has come to a close. Today is our last full day here. We loved it here. Our initial plan was only to stay two weeks but we’ve ended up staying a whole month and we would have stayed longer if our visa allowed us to. We rushed to get back here to Tashkent to see several places we had skipped on our way into the country and now we wish we hadn’t because everything’s closed!

The place we were the most interested in seeing, The Museum of Victims of Political Repression, a museum dedicated to the victims of Stalin’s Great Purge, was closed for renovations along with the State Art Museum of Uzbekistan and the State Museum of History of Uzbekistan.

So what did we see? We went to the Muyi Moborak Madrassa where they have one of the oldest Qurans still in existence. It was written on deer skin and completed in the year 651, only 19 years after the death of Muhammed. Even for an infidel like myself it’s neat to see such a piece of history. For many people it was a real religious experience to be there. We even saw one woman brought to tears. I wasn’t brought to tears but I do like history.

There’s a story about this particular Quran. This was the first book version of the Quran to exist. Before the verses were only jotted down on bones and rocks. The guy that wrote this book did it for posterity. He was murdered by a riotous mob as he was reading the Quran and his blood was spilled on it. To this day you can see the blood stains on the book.

They also had a large collection of other Qurans. I especially like the cute pocket Qurans.

And!!! Locked away in a special place they have two hairs of Muhammed’s! Yes! that Muhammed! The Prophet! It was a pain for us to figure out where it was. I read about it in a fifteen year old BBC article. When we got there we saw the Quran, it’s prominently displayed, but no hair. We asked the security guard, and he said no. Then we went back out and asked the ticket guy and he said yes it was in there. Then we went back inside and asked the security guard again and he said no. Then we went back out to the ticket guy again and he said the tour guide would come soon. When the tour guide showed up he explained the situation to us.

They do have the hairs but they are under tight, tight security. He said he had worked there for ten years before he was allowed to see them. He said they used to have them on display but people tried to touch them and kiss them and it became too much of a problem so now they keep them locked away. So, I guess, maybe, I stood a few feet away from two of Muhammed’s hairs.

We went to a really nice World World II memorial park and museum. The memorial park was my favorite part. They had amazing art outside. The museum was interesting. It was high class. Clearly, they spent a LOT of money on it, and I mean a LOT of money, and yet their English placards were almost comical the translations were so bad. Now, you may think I’m being arrogant complaining about such a thing since I’m in Uzbekistan but this place is only a year old and they must have put millions of dollars into it. In the year 2020 they could have found a fluent English speaker to translate their placards better. Brandon and I are both history teachers with a strong knowledge base from this time period and even we struggled to understand what the sign was supposed to say most of the time. I still loved the museum and encourage you to go if you’re ever in Tashkent.

We tried to find a wax museum but, big surprise, it was closed. It turned out to be a huge labyrinth of mostly closed businesses. I thought I was going to have an anxiety attack walking around in there. Then, when we finally gave up and were walking away, we walked into a place with a sign that said restaurant, the people working there just looked at each other, and they refused to serve us! It was a really shitty 45 minutes.

We went to the Tashkent Polytechnic Museum. It was neat. We learned about the history of automobiles in Uzbekistan. I’ve mentioned a few times that 90% of cars here in Uzbekistan are white Chevrolets. It’s pretty weird. Apparently the Uzbek government has a deal with GM. Here’s an example of what it looks like to drive down the street here:

And just for you, Rie-Rie, we had dinner at a Korean Restaurant. It was good. Authentic. Koreans are the largest ethnic minority in Uzbekistan. Stalin forcibly relocated them here. This place felt like there was a Korean grandma cooking for us in the back. It was cute, to the server, probably the owner, we just looked like American tourists, so he was worried about us and the hot sauce. He came running over and insisted on pouring it for us. He was very worried we would use too much. Little did he know we’re world travelers, we’ve lived in western China and western Africa two places where they like extremely spicy food, and we know what we’re doing. We placated him then just waited for him to walk away before adding five times as much as he had given us.

We took our PCR tests this morning because we leave Uzbekistan in the morning. We have to cross the dreaded border. Ugh. We know even though we’ll be the only car there it will still take us 4-5 hours to get across. Are they fucking with us or are they incompetent? My answer to that depends on my mood. There are always some things we don’t like about travel and crossing that border tomorrow is something my husband and I are really not looking forward to. I keep blocking it out of my mind.

The Long Drive to Aydar Lake

I’m a bit behind on writing. Sorry about that. Three days ago all we did was drive. We drove almost 500 km in a day. That won’t mean much to a lot of you so I’ll translate: 310 miles. I know that doesn’t sound like much but the roads aren’t great, think rural state highways in Tennessee, and the speed limit is 80 km per hour/50 MPH most of the way. So, imagine driving 300 miles on crappy roads at 50 miles per hour. We were tired.

We were trying to make it to Aydar lake in one day but with two hours to go we gave up. The thing that was the real deciding factor for us was we weren’t 100% positive there was even a place to stay for us when we got there. I had seen one obscure reference to a hotel on someone else’s blog once during my research for our trip and my husband had found a pin on Google Maps that claimed there was a hotel at the very end of a road but there was no name and no contact info. We were going on faith in Google Maps and faith in other people. Oh! And we hadn’t eaten all day. So we quit.

Finding a hotel ended up being more of a hassle than it should have been. We pulled into a place with a big sign saying HOTEL, but they wouldn’t take us because we were foreigners…it was reminicient of China. We drove on for another 30 minutes and found a place right by an airport with okay reviews, by now the hunger and exhaustion had really sunk in and all we wanted to do was get some food and sleep and the parking lot was blocked off by bricks! There was nowhere for us to park!!! It was as if the place was only for walk up customers from the airport, drive up customers were not allowed.

We were too fucking exhausted to even deal with pulling over, going in, and asking where to park. We drove on.

We finally found a place to stay and it sucked. It looked beautiful! It really did! The A/C in our room didn’t work. It blew air, but not hot air. We had it set on 17° C/63° F all night long and yet it never even got cool enough to pull a sheet over ourselves. We were miserable. The bed was uncomfortable, plus I got food poisoning from the restaurant. It’s my first time to have food poisoning, I think, in over 3 years. That might not be true but I can’t remember having it. It’s been 3 days since and my stomach is still not back to normal.

The next day we woke up early and drove the remaining hour and a half to the the lake. Did I mention we were going on faith in Google Maps? Cos we were in the middle of the desert. At on point we turned off the main road and were driving down a dirt road and all we could see anywhere around us was desert. It was kinda hard to believe there was going to be anything there, but we were going to try.

We found it! And someone that worked there spoke French! We speak French! It was awesome! An Uzbek and an American do business in French! It was such a relief to be able to communicate in a language we have a much stronger grasp of than Russian. I mean, our French isn’t perfect, far from fluent, but it’s basic conversational and our Russian is barely beyond where is this/yes/no/please/thank you/fill it up please.

The room was very basic. I can’t imagine many, if any, of my American friends wanting to stay there. They were simple dorm style rooms: tiny with nothing in the room but two twin size beds and an air conditioner that worked. The toilets were shared, outside, a good five minutes’ walk down the sidewalk from the room. The food was simple but delicious.

After the French speaking man left communication became more difficult but the staff tried hard and we’re easy going. They were very excited to have Americans at their place and a little confused because they thought we were French, understandable.

When the sun started going down a bit we hit the lake. It was amazing. It was incredibly shallow forever. We went out about 300 meters before the water was to our shoulders. We just kept walking, and walking, and walking until the hotel was far in the distance and the water was still at our knees! The temperature was perfect and everything about it was relaxing until the dust storm rolled in. At that point we had no choice but to go inside. They served us dinner, we ate, we slept, we woke up in the morning, we packed up, and we drove to Tashkent.