With trains booked solid and buses too time-consuming, we're flying the friendly skies to the Ukraine.
04.07.2007 - 07.07.2007 23 °C
We cheated. No other way to say it.
Traveling overland across Eurasia in the height of summer travel season is not possible without weeks to spare.
For several days we worked to book tain tickets to Russia, but all were sold out for the foreseable future. The bus? Possible if we were to travel days on end with no stops.
Given the choice of possibly not meeting our fourth traveler, Ben, or cheating, we chose the latter.
Early tomorrow morning we have a flight to Kiev, Ukraine. We will miss spending time in Kazakhstan's small towns, but skipping a second border crossing into Russia is a bit of a relief (though at the least would make a good story).
We've learned that travel is never a sure thing in this part of the world, and an ability to wait or pick up and go in an instant is essential.
Planning ahead, however, is not always possible, particularly if you are not in the country and aren't familiar with its systems.
It's funny because after two months in China we had learned its transportation system well. How to book trains, when to book trains, how long a trip would take, the different seating classes. Same with the buses. Need to get somewhere in China? No problem.
But cross an international border and all of a sudden we faced once again the unfamiliar, which takes time and effort to figure out.
Traveling on your own without a tour group means that a good part of your time is spent figuring out logistics: exchanging money, how to use the Internet, where to sleep and eat, fundamental phrases for communication, and more.
Almaty is a slice of Europe in the Central Asian steppes.
Despite its trials, we rather enjoy diving into adaptation mode and learning to swim again, since we come to know some of the basic details of life and how it compares to other places.
We also run into more everyday characters, like the heavy-set woman at the train station this morning who runs the set of luggage lockers. Subtlety was not her forte. She screamed at us from across the room as we were loading a couple lockers with our bags, well aware we don't speak Russian. She was the sort we've seen elsewhere in Almaty. Our hotel floor attendant, for example, ran her space like a gulag. She alone had the key to the single shower on the floor and our level of cleanliness was determined by her decision to show up at night.
We call these sorts, "Graduates of the Soviet School of Service."
When you're traveling for months on end, you start to revel in creature comforts. Hotel rooms, the one space in the world at that moment where you can shut yourself away, become "home" and little things like shower soap and fresh towels are items of excitement.
An outdoor cafe and a glass of beer on a warm afternoon is the height of pleasure.
A woman sells fermented horse and camel milk at the Almaty farmer's market.
A woman sells honey at the Almaty farmer's market.
In Almaty, we discovered the baths.
Perhaps because of our restricted and unpredictable shower allowances, we were drawn to the city's bathhouse where for two hours we could lounge around naked (men and women seperated) in saunas and plunge pools or get beaten with myrtle leaves by a masseuse.
We came out of there yesterday with all the tension removed from our logistical days of hell. Knocking back a bottle of vodka finished the trick. As a matter of fact, we're headed there again before our 3 a.m. flight.
The Miracle Product
Speaking of vodka, we've come to see it as the Dr. Bronner's of Russia after the "miracle" natural soap that's touted for its many uses. Vodka here is one of the cheapest items on store shelves, cheaper even than bottled water.
So we discovered that besides a drink when needed, it can double as a cleaning agent, a disinfectant for fruits and vegetables, a gift, a mouthwash, a hand sanitizer, a degreaser, and more possibilities we are discovering every day.
As a matter of fact, we've taken to carrying around a bottle in our day pack.