Saturday, August 13, 2016

Tales from Kazakhstan

After a nearly sleepless night we arrived very early in the morning in Atyrau, Kazakhstan. We decided to walk to our hotel, even though it was over 5 kilometers away. Nothing like a little early morning excercise! After about a week in hostels and thanks to a special deal, we treated ourselves to the fancy Sweet Home Hotel. Once again coffee, breakfast, and a shower was the recipe to give us enough energy to go out and explore the city for a while. Atyrau is a city spread across both sides of the Ural River, therefore officially dividing the city between the Asian and European continents. The central square and the area along the river are both worth visiting and we even discovered a living compound called "American Village". It seems that employees of the oil companies operating around Atyrau are living there. All that wandering around in the heat really got to us after a while and we decided to have an afternoon rest before dinner and a night time walk in the city. After the sun goes down, the city really comes to life and we enjoyed taking in the festive atmosphere along the river. In Kazakhstan the people speak Russian very well and communication wasn't a problem at all.

The next day we had quite the adventure. We were scheduled to leave Atyrau shortly after 3 PM for Urgench Uzbekistan. In fact, that connection was our whole reason for stopping in Atyrau. So you can imagine pur panic when the woman at the information desk told us that our train had already departed. It turns out that the time of departure was not local time, but Astana time. Why in the world you write departure times that are anything but local time is just plain ridiculous to me. Nonetheless, we had a giant problem on our hands, as this particular train is only going once every 3-4 days. So when a taxi driver offered to speed off with us to catch the train at it's next stop 150 km away we took the risk. Thankfully this story has a happy ending - we caught the train!! That 35€ taxi drive was worth every last cent to get us on that train and keep our plans on track. And we even have another exciting story to tell ;) This train journey was our longest of the trip at 26 hours, so we decided to take 2nd class instead of 3rd and for the last 10 hours of the trip we had our train compartment to ourselves.

We had heard all sorts of horror stories about the Uzbek border crossing. That they look through all of your camera pictures, make you completely unpack your bags and other such nonsense. In our experience the only horror was that both border crossings combined took almost 7 hours from 10 PM to 5 AM and left us completely exhausted. Thankfully we didn't have anything to do the next day except ride the train. As soon as we reached the first real town in Uzbekistan things got crazy in the train. As our neighbour put it - it turned into a bazaar! Food and drinks of every kind, toys, clothes, household items, toilet paper, money exchange - you name it, it was probably available in this train. In Uzbekistan the currency situation is such, that you get over 3x the official rate on the black market and prices are also set according to the black market rate. While changing money on the black market is officially illegal, but on the train it is safe enough and everywhere else we were able to exchange in the guest houses. The bazaar quieted down as we got closer to Urgench and shortly after 6 PM, more than a day after our journey had.begun, we departed the train and the Uzbekistan chapter of the adventure officially began.

When 6700 = 1€

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