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11 | Almaty Region

23 - 24 April (Tue - Wed)


Ventured into the Shybulak mountains via a gondola. Sunny at the bottom with blizzard white-out conditions at the top. Fortunately, a mountain lodge offered a crackling fire and wine. Also, took a sunny day-trip to Charyn Canyon (200 km east of Almaty) and marvelled at unique rock formations found in Central Asia.

Tuesday: Charyn Canyon

The tour included a 3-hour drive each way to Charyn Canyon. I really did not know what I was buying but I was expecting a bit of mountain hiking. It actually involved an area of Kazakhstan (KZ) very similar to Southern Utah. Magnificent red rocks and a hike in an ancient canyon meandering toward the Charyn river. I thought this tour might include others from the Hostel but my companions were a German family of three from outside Berlin staying at a budget hotel.

The 19 year-old son had real good English and a fascination with everything Japanese. His father drove a truck and had some English and his mother worked in a butcher-shop and did not speak much at all.

Mr. Schulze had bought an obscure holiday destination as a birthday gift for his wife, but they had a history of going to unusual places. He said that for 6 or 7 years they would take month-long camping holidays to Iceland every summer. They were a pleasant family to spend a day with. We enjoyed KZ soup and beers by the river and exchanged stories about East Germany - before the wall came down - and my life in Japan and Australia.

Nothing but prairie for 6-hours round-trip and so the young son and I found a common interest in Japan and his rational for wanting to earn a bachelor's degree in Japanese language and economy from an obscure German university. I told him of my love for Japan but did not encourage his "anime inspired" Japanese desires. I told him that if he was serious about building a career that he should become a discipline specialist - like economics - not a country or area specialist. I suggested that Japanese might be a useful hobby but it would be dangerous to build an entire career on things Japanese. I had spent many years thinking of such matters during my nine years in Japan. It was a complicated exchange of views. I did not pop his bubble but expanded his vision of how Japan might better fit into building a career. I sensed some appreciation, as I don't think he had ever met someone with so much foreign-understanding of Japan.

Our driver had no English except for one word - money money. Yes, it seemed that he wanted us to pay for gas but we refused. He did not fill the tank full in the morning and later we saw him take some money from another driver at Charyn Canyon and then we stopped again for more gas on the way back to Almaty. When we got to the Canyon, he had no tickets and no money to buy tickets so we paid for the tickets into this KZ national park. We were given the impression that the Hostel would reimburse us - and they did.

On the drive back I bought him a late lunch - great roadside shish kebab stop - but did not give him a tip at the end. I thought it odd that a tour should expect us to pay as we go since we had paid for the tour in advance. It was not his fault, as the driver, but the tour organiser - who ever that was. Also, the vehicle's fuel pump was making funny sounds and he kept stopping and looking at it. We four wondered if we might not make it back to Almaty. I assured everyone that if we had a breakdown, we would certainly be saved by KZ hospitality and to enjoy the adventure.

Some great pictures of Charyn Canyon but I’ve been to Southern Utah so many times so nothing special. Mr. Schultze invited me for a beer that evening but I thought we had spent enough time together so I suggested later but later never came. I looked up their hotel email address and asked the hotel to pass on my best wishes to this Germany family just before I departed Almaty.

That evening I ate at an Italian restaurant where I had fettuccine with horse meatballs that taste kind of sweet.

Wednesday: Shybulak Mountains

Wanted some real coffee - freeze-dried does not work - and so found a local place that was busy, which seemed like a good sign. Great coffee at the last available table and was shortly joined by Jeanna, who was also looking for a good cup of coffee. She had just flown in from Astana - the KZ capital - and was going to spend a week in Almaty working in a beauty shop. I think she specialised in nails - her English was not that great but helpful. I told her of my plans to go up to the mountains that day and she told me of a ski resort that had a gondola to the top. That sounded grand and I thanked her for helping me plan my day.

Fortunately, the Shybulak Mountains are much closer to Almaty City than Charyn Canyon.

The bus did indeed stop at Shybulak Mountain Resort - just as Jeanna assured. It was sunny and I could see mountain tops. A$15 for a ride to the top and I signed on, but within minutes the gondola was consumed in clouds and before too long I was riding in white-out conditions. There was snow at the top and skiers, and a very pleasant lodge with a fire and a nice red that made me happy, but useless for securing good pictures. The mountains were not the destination - just part of the journey…

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