After 8 weeks in China, and some super-long Chinese train trips, we were ready to move onto the next part of our Silk Road Adventure – THE STANS in Central Asia. The first cab off the rank was Almaty in Kazakhstan, but getting there wasn’t going to be a walk in the park. We’d started the planning for this leg of the journey way back in Shanghai when we got our Kazakh visas. Back in 2012, planning our visas for such a long-term trip was a nightmare. It’s much easier now…and you can grab all the latest details in our Handy Hints section on our SILK ROAD page.
Anyway. For the latest chapter in our Silk Road Journey, hang onto your seats and read on….
Well, I guess after over 40 hours of being en route we didn’t end up in too bad a state when we exited Yining train station at 8 am. We’d had English speakers in our carriage from both Kashgar to Urumqi and then Urumqi to Yining so we’d had quite a pleasant time of it. Not only that, one of our new best friends had written that we wanted to buy a bus ticket to Almaty in Chinese. Hence, we thought we had things sorted for the next leg to Kazakhstan. How little did we know!!!! 🤯 😰 😲
The taxi queue looked quite orderly so we jumped straight in and the driver sets off quick smart.
BINGO! Rip-off alert! The meter wasn’t running. One of the oldest tricks in the book and it means you have to bargain…and bargain HARD!
How much to buy a ticket to Almaty?
60 RMB ($10!) 🤑🤑🤑
Stop the cab! That’s bullshit and you know it! And so the haggling began.
Finally, we got him down to 30!!! But we still weren’t happy, as the price shouldn’t have been any more than 20 MAX. Oh well – foreigner tax. We had to get there.
Trying to get to the bus ticket office was all too hard in the end so we got him to drop us at the Yining Hotel, a hotel situated in huge forested grounds with unfortunately NO free rooms, Bugger! So we dropped the packs and I went looking for somewhere else to stay. About 20 minutes later, after checking a couple of local guesthouses with no luck, I found a large hotel wanting $50 a night. Screw it. We had the cash and it was our last night in China and I really couldn’t be asked going any further, I must be getting soft. I trundled back to Tim and the bags and we dragged our weary butts back up there.
The first job before resting was to find this elusive bus ticket office. It was most bizarre. The Kazakhstan border is only 100km due west from Yining but no one seemed to know what the hell I was talking about, even when I showed them a map clearly showing Yining, Urumqi, the border, and Almaty.
Pakistan???? No Kazakhstan …There was even a bus in the carpark of the hotel with Almaty in the window as a destination but no one knew where I could buy tickets????
Very weird. It was like the world ended at the Chinese border!
Finally, in frustration, I headed up the road in the direction indicated by the Lonely Planet. About a km away I spotted an old crappy sleeper bus with Almaty in the window. I asked the drink seller nearby where I could buy tickets and he pointed to a small, dilapidated shed next to the bus and told me to come back at 3 pm. The bus left the next morning at 6 am.
OK. That was progress.
Back at the hotel, we tried in vain to hook up the LAN cable. But it simply pushed the socket into the wall cavity. Bugger! You would expect a bit more from a $50 hotel, but not in China. We do not believe that there is a translation for the word “maintenance”. There’s a whole lot of new buildings going up, but most things start to decay rapidly within one or two years.
Anyway, to cut a long story short I went and got the maid who, in turn, went and got a guy who kind of spoke English who fixed the cable. He then went away and got his computer, pulled up a translation program, and proceeded to try and help us buy a ticket. After a few more puzzled Pakistan??? No Kazakhstan’s!! he finally understood where we wanted to go. He made a few phone calls and then took Tim up the road (quite close to where I had found the other bus) to buy tickets.
Now if there’s one thing we’ve learned in our travels – if it looks dodgy, smells dodgy, sounds dodgy, and feels dodgy – it probably is. The ramshackle buses were out the back of some run-down buildings in what appeared to be a police car park. Hmmm. The bedding in the bus looked like it belonged to homeless people and the guy doing the talking was head dodgy brother himself with a couple of dodgy henchmen.
Rather than pay the full 300 RMB ($50)/ticket Tim paid 100 for each of us and got a business card back … Hmm. Be there at 5 am the next morning … Ouch. But it should only take 5 hours, Yay! Weird that the LP says 10-12 though. Hmmm.
As we mulled how early we should set the alarm, it suddenly dawned on us that the quoted times were “Xinjiang time”. Sick of the stupidity of working off Beijing time, the locals had adopted their own unofficial timezone which had a 2-hour difference. Not wanting to chance it though we went back to double-check and found we actually didn’t have to be there until 7 am (BT) for an 8 am departure!
At that point, about 2.30 in the afternoon, we realized we hadn’t eaten anything since the night before, and that had only consisted of a bread roll and a couple of boiled eggs for Tim. So off we went to explore the city and find food.
We found a supermarket, stocked up on beer and crap for the evening, and then tried to find some real food. Surprise, surprise, this ended up being mutton shishkebabs on the BBQ with a slab of bread. We were hoping we didn’t end up with scurvy soon!
We trundled off bright and early the next morning and reached the “bus station” by 6.45 am (BT!). The sky was heavy and threatening to rain on us, but thankfully it held off till we were almost on the bus. The unfortunate consequence of this was that all the passengers then wanted to get on at the same time and we were left trying to fend off the grannies, mount the ladder-like, vertical steps with a full pack on, and take our sandals off at the same time so as not to muddy the rug which all the passengers without beds would be sitting on. Thankfully no slipped discs!
Once on the bus, we squirmed our way onto our allotted bottom bunks. Not too bad for me being only 163cm but damn near impossible for Tim who decided it was more comfortable to sit on the floor. All of a sudden at 7 am, an hour earlier than supposed departure we were off …awesome! Maybe we would be in Almaty by lunchtime and we could register and get our onward visas sorted that day? Wow! … BUT NUP! Not long after that positive thought the trip went to shit … with a capital S!
We arrived a couple of hours later at the border. It was 7.30 Xinjiang time, which I will use from now on as it is also Kazakh time. Everyone got off the bus to have breakfast. What time does the border open I asked? 9 am! WTF. Why did we break our neck to get here only to have to wait for an hour and a half? Still, no probs, we’re cool. No, we don’t need breakfast, we can wait till we get to Almaty in 3.5 hours … ha, ha, ha!!!
At about 8.00 the driver starts up the bus and moves into line. Excellent, we’re about 6 from the front, we should be through in no time once the gate opens. Out jumps the driver and the ticket guy to have their breakkie and they tell us to be back at the bus by 8.30. No probs, we weren’t going anywhere as we were still a bit suspicious we might get dumped at the border!
8.30 comes and goes, and most of the other bus crews are back and revving the engines, but there’s no sign of ours. 8.45 and the front of the line starts to move towards the gates. Still no sign of our guys. At 9 am the gates open, the front buses go through, the buses behind us overtake us and there’s still no sign of them. At 9.30 they finally dawdle back in time to get us on the BACK of the line!!! Even the other passengers were getting hot under the collar by now.
Back on the bus everyone. Excellent! it’s progress, right? But no. We wait. And wait and wait and wait as the line inches forward painfully slow. Beside us, a huge line of massive trucks is doing the same. The sun is out by now and things are heating up! About 40 minutes later we finally reach the gate to the border control, but NO, we still have to stay on board. Another 30 minutes pass before we are allowed to unload our luggage and head for immigration. No probs, it’s only 10.40 am. We have plenty of time.
The stamp out for us is painless and we exit into No Man’s Land to wait for the rest of the passengers and the bus to be cleared. While we wait and wait and wait, standing on the hard concrete pavement, we witness the most amazing array of goods being carried through the customs point, and bus after bus get cleared before ours. What was that word again … Dodgy?!!! Finally, another 3 f@cking hours later we are cleared to get back on the bus and drive in a ridiculous 10km arc to arrive at the other border post about 500m away in a straight line …
OK, do we need to take our luggage? No. Excellent, this should be quick then. At least until we got to customs and they told us to go back and get our bags to have them X-rayed. No probs, will do. Go back and get packs. Meantime the driver and his dodgy mate are trying to convince us not to take our packs but to take some of the other luggage which has mysteriously appeared like magic … Ahh, no! What do we look like … total morons?!!!
Bags on the X-ray, no one cares, and we head out through the door and wait. And wait and wait again as new passengers arrive, previously unseen to this point, appear with tons and tons and tons of new luggage and squash onto our bus. Hmmm … We watch the totally dodgy antics as they play out. One woman had about 20 or more loads of stuff! Obviously well known, Zora strutted around like she owned the joint, intimidating anyone not involved in her proceedings. Smarmy cow! Another woman appeared with almost as much stuff, but for some reason had been held up. Obviously, she wasn’t paying someone enough to smooth her progress but she was still throwing her weight around. Another 5 hours later and we finally get going when the second super-bitch realizes she has left her purse at customs! Stop the bus again while she goes back by taxi to get it … Aaaaarrrrrgggghhhhh!
OK, it’s still only 6.30 pm. We only had about 400km to go (we had come 100!) With a straight run through we would be in Almaty by midnight. Huh! I ring the hotel in Almaty to tell them we will be really late. How little did I know … SIGH!
At 7 pm we’re stopped by the cops. At 7.45 we stop for dinner. At 8.30 we get going again and I give up, curl up in a ball and try to go to sleep. The only blessing at this stage was that we met a girl on the bus who spoke excellent English.
At 3 am the next morning the lights go on in the bus and we feel it reversing into a tight driveway, large iron gates closing behind us. Where the hell are we? We are nonchalantly told that we will be sleeping on the bus and we would go to the bus station tomorrow. The hell we were! Tim crawls over all the sleeping passengers on the floor to get our packs and thank goodness the English-speaking girl decides she would rather go home too.
The main road outside is dark and deserted but for a few cars, one of which she waves down. A big black Merc with two big guys in the front. “Don’t worry,” she says …” In Kazakhstan, everyone is a taxi. 😉”
“Don’t worry” she says…” In Kazakhstan, everyone is a taxi. 😉”
For the equivalent of $7 they would take us to our hotel and then her onto her apartment. Too tired to care we agreed. What else were we going to do? Luckily, I had changed our excess RMB at the border so we had the cash.
Driving through the back streets of Almaty at 3.30 am, the thought did cross our minds we might be taken somewhere remote and robbed – or possibly worse! But our new best friend allayed our fears by swapping phone numbers and email addresses like this was the most natural thing in the world.
Sure enough, 15 minutes late we stopped in a deserted area, obviously a market. The driver points across the road at a grim Soviet-style building and tells us this is our hotel. Oh well, at least we weren’t still on the bloody bus!
There were a few stray people about, one of which was large, blond, and pissed. He asks us do we need a place to stay?
‘No thanks we have a room,’ we reply trying not to look and sound too foreign, lost, and vulnerable. The last thing we needed was trouble at this point. But the guy was just being friendly and trying to help. With a nod of his head, he proceeded to stagger down the road, heading to who knows where.
We walk down to the corner of the building, and sure enough, there was the well-lit lobby of the Turkistan Hotel. Yes, they were expecting us. No problems that it was almost 4 am. And yes, of course, they had a cold beer. 🍻🍻 YAY!!! 🎉😁🙏
Alleluia. We had made it. It hadn’t been one of our best days, but we were finally safe and sound in our first “Stan.” And based on the last hour or so, the Kazakhstani people were pretty alright. First impressions can have a big impact on the rest of your experience in a country. Things were definitely looking up.
Cheers to less exasperating travels moving forward!