Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Almaty, Kazakhstan Long Distance Bus Station Maps and Schedules

Information taken December 2009. Click photos to enlarge.

It may also be worth inquiring in-person at the bus station about other bus destinations and schedule changes not listed in the Lonely Planet or here (which is many).

Almaty, Kazakhstan

Disclaimer: Due to the single day I spent in Almaty, there is not much I can enlighten the traveler about in this entry.

Unlike my initial thoughts about the "wilderness of Central Asia," Almaty seems like another metropolitan European city, with well-kept buildings, wide streets, and modern buses clogging around town. In fact, while on a bus (50T) I was surprised to hear songs by Juares, as Kazakhstan would be the last place one would expect to hear Mexican music.

Getting around the city is simple, even for those Russian language-challenged. From the train station, there are trolley tracks running down Abylay Khan that can take one to city-center. ATMs are also plentiful, as well as travel agents for onward travel.

While we were there, we managed some logistical tasks that may be of interest to future travelers:
  • Adding passport pages at the US Embassy. Unlike the Russian Embassy, I was able to add pages without advance notice and without working on US Embassy time (eg. not on their scheduled consular hours). This was not possible in Russia, and may be an option for those in a rush.
  • Obtaining a visa for the Kyrgyz Republic in one day. We were able to obtain a single-day visa for $130, although this was a bit of a swindling deal (the consular officer usually takes certified bank order but took our cash instead); the visas were as low as $30, US citizens included, for longer periods of time of processing (up to a week). Keep in mind that visa-on-demand can be obtained for $40 (15 day stays) or $50 (1 month stays) at the Bishkek airport, and there are 3-weekly flights on Air Astana from Almaty to Bishkek as of Dec 2009.
We were not able to do much touring in Almaty, but did take the Kok-Tobe cable car (800T one way, 1500T return) up. I would not recommend doing so on a cloudy day, as nothing can be seen and the cable car is not particularly impressive. Additionally, there is a bus which takes one down for 300T, but this is a huge ripoff - walk instead down the hill the 1/2 mile the bus takes you, and you will reach the public bus drop-off point where it ends. Then, take the public bus to Dostyq Road (50T).

Finally, in the 4th edition of Lonely Planet: Central Asia the long-distance bus station is not accurate, but has moved away from town. Buses can be caught there for pretty much anywhere in Central Asia; minibuses left for Bishkek when full (which was sooner than every hour) for 1000T.

Snowy Almaty, city center

The top of the Kok-Tobe cable car (on a foggy day)

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Getting from Ürümqi to Almaty, via N895

To get to Almaty, Kazakhstan from Ürümqi, China, we took the N895 train departing on Monday at 23:58. The tickets ended up costing $130 USD same-day purchase, but could have been probably bought for the going price of 690 RMB at the train station (however, we thought the train was sold out, but it was 3 carriages that were not even at 50% capacity). If doing the latter, the train station closes at 4PM.

In hindsight, there are faster and cheaper ways of getting to Almaty (our train took 36 hours). These include the overnight buses which travel through the Khorgas pass, or a bus/taxi to the Khorgas pass, walking across, and a bus/taxi to Almaty. One lesser known option but highly recommended by the Alashankou border guard is a train from Ürümqi to Alashankou (departs everyday), crossing the border by foot, and then taking a shuttle bus to the Kazakhstani border where a train meets you and takes you to Almaty 6 days out of 7 (100 RMB for the train to Alashankou, unknown (but low) amount to Almaty). All of these options are significantly faster and cheaper than the international train, which takes upwards of 6 hours to switch gauge. All of these options also run in winter.

Regardless, the train was an enjoyable if slow experience. The carriages were Kazakhstani metal. Bring your own food as there is no canteen car! There is power in the carriages. The border crossing is a different experience; I was interrogated individually for 2 hours by Chinese border patrol, holding up the train in the process. Be prepared to have all of your pictures gone through, and your documents meticulously inspected item-by-item. Anything deemed “not Chinese” will be taken, such as a Lonely Planet map book showing a picture of Taiwan. Although admittedly the interrogation was friendly, it was quite persistent. Also, delete or encrypt pictures if you do not want them taken; besides checking for pictures for export, I found out later that land crossings in Xinjiang practice counter-espionage, where they take any pictures military/infrastructure related from other countries and copy them off of your SD cards.

The international train will arrive at Almaty-2, north of city center.

The flat Kazakh steppe

Kazakh train official

Inside of a carriage

Monday, December 21, 2009

Ürümqi, Xinjiang, China

Disclaimer: I visited Ürümqi and Kashgar during a politically sensitive time post-“7-5”, when there was no internet or international phone calls into or out of Xinjiang province, as well as little journalist access. Consequently, statements in this blog should be interpreted as a travelogue, not as a journalistic piece.

Lading in Ürümqi is like traveling back in time in Chinese history to see my first visit to Beijing in 1997. Our route took us by air from Beijing to Ürümqi, and the contrast on the approach from these two cities is significant. For me, Beijing a decade-and-a-half ago used to be defined by pollution the same way Ürümqi in winter is now. Although it was sunny the winter days I was in Ürümqi, the pollution cloud kept the city in a world of haze and smog. As one of the top polluted cities in China in the winter, it may be worth a visit just for the sights (and smell) of pollution out-of-control. The infrastructure is also less developed from eastern Chinese cities, with buildings (and costs) distinctly out-of-proportion from Beijing (for example, taxis with 6 RMB starting fare).

There is a lot to love about Ürümqi, however (though arguably not much in terms of the other gems in the region, and, you’ll inevitably find yourself in the city if you intend to do any Central Asia traveling). The city has a distinctly multicultural feel unlike anywhere else in China, and is composed of a mix of Uighurs, Han, Hui, and the usual mix of Central Asian ethnicities. Perhaps most telling is the sound of a Uighur speaking Mandarin Chinese in an accent usually only reserved for Caucasians learning the language. We did not get a chance to sightsee much in Ürümqi, but rather got a feel of the multicultural ambiance traveling through the city. There was also surprisingly little ethnic tension or hostility while we were there, which caught us off guard. We were helped throughout by Han, Uighurs, Russians, Kyrgyzs, and a Kazakh couple – the kindness of the people of Ürümqi stands in stark contrast to the violence of 7-5, and had there not been a huge police presence I would not have believed the city to be capable of producing such ethnic tension.

I recommend exploring the southern section of the city (around Hetian Lu), where the Uighur and Russian/Central Asian parts of town are for sensory overload. Food in the city is of particular note; do not leave without trying the lamb kababs sold on the street and lamian, a Xinjiang speciality (although these two are usually adapted to the Chinese palate).

If using Ürümqi as a base for travel, some notes:

  • You will want to know Chinese to navigate this city, or at least bring a Chinese friend; English does not go far, and even Mandarin is difficult to use in Uighur-only communities.
  • The Lonely Planet: China book is notoriously inaccurate for this chapter!
  • Buses to city center cost 10 RMB p/p; taxis no more than 50 RMB.
  • For flights to Kyrgyzstan (Bishkek), there are nondaily flights on China Southern and AC Kyrgyzstan as of Dec 2009. One may get a slight discount through a China Southern travel agent, but the cheapest option when we were there was 2100 RMB o/w. Flights on AC Kyrgyzstan were less than 1500 RMB o/w, but extremely unreliable. The booking office for AC Kyrgyzstan consisted of two people (one of which spoke no Chinese) working out of a hotel, and we were informed all flights were canceled over December due to low turnout. There are also flights to Osh; in Central Asia, Kayak is rather useless, but finding out all departures/arrivals from airport pages will net you timetables to work off of. To book the AC Kyrgyzstan flight, contact Эрбол at Xinhua Nanlu 786 (Huaqiao Binguan) [ask the receptionist], tel: 0991 8529061, 0991-8528062, or 13999935658. The Lonely Planet information on this is wrong. The above hotel is also good for arranging all things Kazakh and Russian, including overnight buses (it is the hub for business from Central Asia and Russia).

Huaqiao Binguan, for logistical travel information

Keeping warm in winter

Naan, the Central Asian islamic food of choice

Lamb kabab vendor at night

Friday, December 18, 2009

Winter in Moscow, Russia

Although I admittedly do not have summer Moscow to compare it to, Moscow in the winter definitely has a distinct character worth exploring, if only for the four days I was present. Being so far North, the short days and long nights define the days and activities - at the end of December, sunrise occurred at 9am followed by a sunset at 4pm. However, the lack of cars and activity on the Metro shows the life truly starts around 11-12pm; and the ample cars at 2am means a shifted schedule more akin to a college town than a major center. The two times I was there, it was either bitterly cold - with highs of 0F - or passably warm, which was 20F. Needless to say, warm clothing is a necessity, but forget North Face; here, the choices are the local fur and down or freezing (and out of fashion).

First, logistics. Getting a visa to Russia is a huge pain, but doable once one gets all the rules (see earlier post about this process). We flew into Domodedovo, which is on the southern side of the city; there is an express train (250 руб) that takes 45 minutes to Paveletsky Station. It's probably worth it for the new visitor, but (at least in reverse) taking the metro to Domodedovskya and a bus to DME is cheaper (100 руб bus, 22 руб) and almost as convenient. The shuttles run on New Year’s. Similarly, there is a train to Sheremetyevo (300 руб) but buses can be picked up from Rechnoy Vokzal and Planernaya back and forth. Once inside the city, the Metro is excellent and extensive, and a pleasure to explore the stations. The one caveat is the station names; transfer stations, unlike elsewhere, all have different names and usually only one exit.

Second, registration. Registration (in Moscow at least) is “required” if you stay more than three days. However, this is three business days. Our hotel was willing to do this for us for $20 USD, and advised it even though we didn’t need it (if you stay less than three business days, they legally cannot detain you). Although stories exist of people being bribed by the police regardless, it probably is not necessary unless you are in Moscow an extended period of time.

Third, language. Russian is a very useful language to know if traveling to Moscow, as unlike other European countries Muscovites have not had to learn English to prosper. However, not knowing Russian (as we did not) is fine; but you must learn the Cyrillic alphabet! This is especially true on the Metro, which has very limited Roman alphabetization. Contrary to popular belief, I found Muscovites extremely helpful; those with limited English approached us clearly lost tourists on the street, and those who only knew Russian tried to simplify their language and help us around. Once Cyrillic becomes secondhand, navigating Moscow becomes infinitely less intimidating.

Fourth, food and shelter. We stayed at the Godzillas Hostel (off Tsvetnoy Bul’var) within the Metro Ring, which was extremely well-kept, organized, and definitely highly recommended (dorms from $28 USD, doubles from $35 USD). Food was all around expensive within the Ring; a typical “Russian” fast food meal came out to $5-7 USD, and stolovaya (canteen) cuisine up to $10 USD. McDonald’s was the only resemblance of cheap.

While we were in Moscow, we visited mainly Red Square and sights around the Red Square, such as the Lenin Maosoleum (free), St. Basil’s Cathedral (20 руб), and the Kremlin (350 руб). All of these I found worth my money, although I did not go to the armory. Red Square is a spectacular must-see, although it definitely does show Russia as a semi-police state (especially on New Year’s). Red Square can be seen in a day. Additionally, we went to the Great Patriotic War Museum (40 руб) off of Poklonnaya Gora / Park Pobedy station, which was quite fascinating despite the lack of English. The rest of the time was spent exploring the stunningly beautiful metro, shopping at Izmalylovo Market (definitely worth a visit) and exploring the streets of the city. Izmalylovo Market in particular is significantly cheaper than the market outside of Red Square on Okhotny Ryad metro; we were able to get a Siberian fox fur hat for 1500 руб. Note to save money on tickets, bring a student ID!

In summary, I think Moscow can be seen in 3 days. I regret not having time to see St. Petersburg, but the capital has definitely made me want to revisit Russia in the future (with basic knowledge of the Russian language). It is a fascinating mix of Soviet and Western influence, and has done much to dispel the Western notion of Russian life as backwards; given the design of the city (and the metro) alone one can see that Russia was truly a Cold War powerhouse. The Russian people are also extremely friendly, arguably giving arguably more help than those in New York or Boston. Visa and cost hurdles aside, Moscow is definitely worth a visit.

Kremlin at nightfall

Moscow Metro

Great Patriotic War museum

St. Basil's Cathedral

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Sinaloa, El Fuerte and San Blas, Mexico mission trip

For a weekend, I went on a mission trip with LIGA International down to San Blas, Mx, a clinic next to the larger town of El Fuerte in Sinaloa, Mx. Although I was unable to get out to see the town of El Fuerte much, I had these impressions of the area:
  • The scenery is a bit like what one would find in Guatemala, with arable land surrounded by volcano-like structures
  • El Fuerte itself seems to not have many attractions, though is a good stopover town. Avoid the Hotel La Choza and crash instead at the Rio Vista lounge, which was less than $20 USD p/p shared in a double setup and had views of the Rio Fuerte
If you happen to be stationed at San Blas, there is almost little to nothing to see. With regards to the clinic work, the locals are wonderfully friendly and accommodating; however, I have mixed opinions about LIGA International's mission at said clinic, learning more on the negative side for what I see as a waste of resources. The mileage (and contribution) first and second year med school students can deliver seem limited, if any.

Clinic at San Blas, Sinaloa, Mx