The Crossing of the Caspian

The Caspean sea is the largest body of water, that doesn’t connect to the ocean, in the world. In fact it is 5 times larger than its runner up, Lake Superior and more than twice as large as all of the Great Lakes combined! It has a depth of over 1,000 feet through most of its center. The lake itself sits 100 feet below sea level. Because of its cavernous depth and salinity, geologists rumor that it was once connected to the ocean before the continental plates collided. It’s water are of a royal blue and vibrant turquoise resembling the burnt beaches of the Mediterranean. However, because of its location, with Iran to the South and Russia to the North, it poses a huge obstacle to the overland traveler going from Kazakhstan to Azerbaijan or vice versa. There are no passenger vessel, but a mythed freight ship is talked about a lot on the Internet, so that is the method we chose.

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The ship is not geared or intended for passengers, so they don’t make it a very easy or convenient process. The ships come and go as they please win no regard for time of day or guaranteed arrival times. In the port city of Aktau, there is a ferry management office at 5.29.1. Here you might get lucky and have a Russian lady who will briefly, but hurriedly explain the inconsistent process. A boat was leaving in a few hours, but we wanted a day to enjoy in Aktau before another 34 hours traveling so we opted to take the next boat that came to port. She didn’t understand why we would want to do that, especially since there is no way of knowing when the boat will arrive. We decided that was our best option anyways, handed her out passport and credit card to charge $80 along with our phone numbers so she could call us when the boat arrived.

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We spent the next night tracking our ship on where you can track every boat in the worlds location! We wanted to at least have an estimate as to when the boat would arrive since we would have to leave at a moments notice. We gauged that the boat was far enough to at least get a nights sleep. 9 am our phone rings and we are told to report to the port immediately! We throw everything in our bag ands run to get a taxi, paying him extra to hurry up the process. We get there within 30 minutes of the phone call but have no idea where to go from there. We still have to do customs and security, but we see our ship and we don’t want to miss it! The guards tell us to calm down, that the ship won’t leave for a couple hours, but we try to explain that the lady told us to hurry! The security guards win and we sit down and grab breakfast. Before our breakfast is served, we get a call telling us to immediately go to customs. We grab our food to go and run to customs. We go through customs and everything is cleared and we are ready to board the ship! But we wait. We wait for 5 hours… Finally at 4 we are ushered to the ship and given our living arrangements as the boat leaves the dock to hit the open sea.

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The boat was very relaxing. We practically had the ship to ourselves. There was one grandmother and her grandson and three Turkish truck drivers sharing meals and seen on the dock every once and a while. But pretty much you could go wherever you want, even the engine room, and not see another soul. The recreation options were much fewer than a cruise ship, but the rooms were ample, and food was provided. A lot of time was spent reading, sleeping, and watching movies, as the surrounding scenery hardly changed the whole trip. Open water so wide that no land was visible a majority of our trip. Sunsets and sunrises were stunning though as nothing obstructed our views on the horizon and the clear sea air turned a deep shade of all the colors.

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At 4 in the afternoon we start to see land and the shapes of Baku’s iconic buildings begin to form. I start to pack my bags expecting a soon arrival. We slowly continue to coast past Baku and I start to realize something is wrong. Hours go by, the sun begins to set and Baku is no longer in sight. It turns out that our freighter, not designed for passengers, is taking us a ways out of town to deposit its cargo. 80 km south of Baku in fact. This is a slight disappointment and inconvenience as it is past 2 in the morning and we are in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately a man from our ship lives in Baku and offers us a ride into the city getting us there at 4 in the morning and costing us a steep $50.

Arriving in Baku Old City Hostel about an hour before sunrise was a very good feeling. We had conquered the rumored Caspian Cargo ship and were on dry land even though it took about 34 hours and cost about twice as much as the 15 minute flight would have cost. But the sense of accomplishment and beautiful, relaxing day on a boat were well worth the trip.

Aktau: The Coast of Kazakhstan

I have to be honest, 95% of Kazakhstan is really boring. We have spent about 130 hours on trains and buses all over this country and there was hardly anything to see out the window. This huge country is flat as a pancake and with no signs of life anywhere. But when you stumble across that 5%, usually on the edges of the country, Kazakhstan can be a cultural and natural wonderland!

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On the far south east you have the cultural and financial center lined with beautiful mountains, Almaty, and then to the far west is the little port town of Aktau. It doesn’t take up a huge spot on the map, and for backpackers it is typically only a small stop as they wait for the ferry across the Caspian Sea. Even the town is pretty unassuming with huge boxy soviet apartment blocks with a few newer, shinier high rises being built along the coast. No architectural thrills like its Western neighbor, Baku, and significantly smaller population of 175,000 people, but you see most of these people come out at night as they stroll up and down the coastal walkway. Along the rocks during the day we met old fishermen passing away time reeling in a couple fish every hour. When the men heard I was from New York and was taking pictures, they started exclaiming ‘New York Times’!! Then there was the younger, more athletic and ambitious diver who was swimming around underwater shooting spears at the fish. His hard work was rewarded with slightly larger fish, and a much cooler get up. The locals took us along the coast by passing all of the tourist, regular beaches and showing us these chalky white cliff faces. Here we had the whole beach to ourselves as we jumped off all sorts of rocks jutting out of the water and swimming from place to place. The bright teal water contrasted the white, textured cliffs so well and just invited you to swim to relieve yourself from the oppressive summer heat that takes over this coastal beach town. 

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I never pictured being on a beach in Kazakhstan, let alone such a picturesque one, but the beauty and colors resembled something you would see in the Mediterranean. Aktau isn’t quite a destination in itself, but what a pleasant surprise it was to see such crystal clear blue water after traversing the desserts and mountains of central Asia. 

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Aktobe: Contrast of Religions

A lot of cities in Central Asia, you are going to see golden domes breaking out above the skyline. Spires typically surround a more central, larger dome that caps the primary area of worship. But as you observe these places of worship, you will notice the shapes and symbols are different. Creating a more tear drop shape to its dome and topped with a cross is the Orthodox cathedral and the more rounded domes with crescent moons signify the cities Islamic mosques. 

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Central Asia’s nomadic people have been conquered and controlled by so many forces over the centuries. Each controlling force deposits little pieces of culture, political influence, infrastructure, and religion as it passes. Kazakhstan has a relatively short history as an independent nation and thus a big mix of nationalities and cultures influence who it is as a nation today. Here in Aktobe, as you look out over the central town square, you can see remnants of the regions mixed history. On different sides of the square landmarks of opposing, yet culturally and historically significant religions reside.

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From the 8th to 15th century, the Kazakhstan region was controlled by the Arabs. They brought with them Islamic religion from the west and established mosques. The people went through a couple changes of control through the next couple centuries but were eventually taken over by the Russian traders and soldiers who were after Kazakhstans rich resources. The next 300+ years Kazakhstan remained under Russian and Soviet influence. During this time a lot of russian people were moving into these new lands to fulfill working and ruling roles. With them, Russian Orthodox churches and philosophy were brought. Therefore, now most cities throughout Kazakhstan are adorned with beautiful mosques and cathedrals. 

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Camel Life in Kazakstan

Most of our journey through Kazakhstan thus far has been one of huge cities, modern architecture, mountainous landscape, snow capped peaks. However, being the 9th largest country in the world, there is of course very diverse geography. Most of Kazakhstan is in fact a desert. Very arid, flat plains with not so much as a bump in the ground. Way off in the distance there might be a bluff or a little hill, but for the most part, the horizon sits as a very flat line. 

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Two hours north from Shymkent is the small, historic town of Turkistan. Hosting one of Kazakhstans few UNESCO World Heritage sites, Khoja Ahmed Yasawi’s Mausoleum, the town has little else to offer in the very dry desert land surrounding it. Inhabiting most of the flat, desolate land is one of natures most suited creatures. Able to retain its water for a very long time and bear exorbitant amounts of weight in the heat over long distances, the camel seems to be the livestock of choice. Whether they are wild, or being herded, you will begin spotting camels along the side of the road as you approach Turkistan. 

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Once we arrived at our destination, as most tourists, we headed straight to the towering mausoleum. The turquoise and blue tiled domes jut out above the rest of the towns muted architecture. Rose gardens surround the tomb bringing extra color and serenity to the place. However, what first caught my true attention was not the mausoleum, but the camel caravan walking behind it. The Mausoleum will always be there, but witnessing these camels being herded by two boys on their bikes is something that is completely foreign to me and may never cross my path. I ran through the fields to catch up to my anthropological interest. The camels followed each other one by one and led me across town directly to one of the prominent mosques. The line of camels and distinct architecture offered me many beautiful photographs of the unique culture of this city. Eventually the camels arrived at their destination where they were milked and led to their troughs of water. I had heard of camel milk before, but had never seen it produced or thought of the people who rely on it for their source of calcium. Unfortunately, I stayed around a little too long and was offered to try some of the milk straight from their utters. I am not a huge fan of milk, let alone warm milk, let alone milk in a strange country from a strange animal, but I couldn’t say no to such a kind offer. 

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As I travel I never cease to be amazed by how different peoples lives can be from mine. When I was 12, I was riding my bike around the neighborhood with my friends, not through the desert to round up our families camels so we could milk them. Yet, that is this kids normal and he won’t become aware of other ways of life until he gets the opportunity to explore beyond his small little village.

Meet Gulnara: The Modern Kazak

If you have never been to Central Asia, your impression may be desserts, mosques, camel caravans, accompanied by a very conservative culture. Traveling through west China and southern Kyrgyzstan, this is what we found. Woman were covered in their hijab and wearing dresses. Men wore long pants and religious hats and the mosques were crowded during there prayer times. Culture and heritage were rich in the clothing and food and language. Yet, arriving in Kazakhstan, particularly Almaty and Astana, the infiltration of western, modern culture is instantly noticed.

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Walking the streets you would think you are in Western Europe and the America and then back again. Infrastructure and culture are very similar to what I would see back home. Young professionals wearing business attire, high schoolers and college kids wearing the recent, stylish brands of cutting edge fashion. Gulnara is a young woman I met on the streets of Astana. She was the perfect representation of the modern adapting culture of the younger generation. Still following cultural and religious regulations of wearing a head cover, yet following the trends of modern culture. I loved her dress as it represented the islamic presence that still is the undertone of Kazakhstan, and even in her modern dress she still represented the national colors of her country. She is a young professional working for one of the top construction consulting companies in Astana as well as entrepreneurial pursuits on the side. This is what it is like being a 26 year old woman growing up in a quickly changing and ever growing country. 

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Modern Architecture of Almaty

Kazakhstan has a deep nomadic heritage and still prides the legacy of its people. Being in the ‘stans’ most people shrug most of the country off as being another desert country as we put it in the same category as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan. We also tend to group it in those social and economic classes as well. Yet our ignorance of this well developed country is put to bed when we see some of Almaty’s star architecture. 

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Despite being a post soviet country, Almaty has seen a lot of recent advancements to its architecture that make a shiny, modern statement. The city slopes up in altitude as the latitude declines to the south. Therefore the southern side of the city sits high above the rest. On the top of this southern slope we see a couple of iconic buildings stand out. We have the pointy Nurly Tau twin towers and the Ritz Carlton Essential center sky scraper. Both covered in glass reflecting the blue sky above to the city below. During sunset the buildings take on a yellow orange as the sky changes around them. The Essentai tower has 41 floors making it the tallest building in Almaty upon its completion in 2008. The Nurly Tau was added to the mountainous skyline in 2010 and fit in as the pointy towers simulate the rocky mountains that sit behind it. These modern towers give Almaty a very modern and becoming look as Kazakhstan begins to rebuild and redefine itself as a developed nation.

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Astana: The Futuristic Ghost Town

Walking around Astana is like being on a 1970s sic fi movie set. Incredible buildings reach for the sky all around you. Unknown architecture peaks around every corner without any sort of familiarity. Futuristic towers line the streets and define the skyline. Yet the streets below lay barren. Parks and benches line the streets, yet no-one occupies them. Black and silver sedans race by, but human forms are hard to come by. The odd street vendor stands on the corner waiting for someone to walk by to buy ice cream. The occasional business man walks hastily by chatting on his cell phone, coat flapping in the breeze. Black suits, black tie are the accepted attire. The rare tourist family strolls the lifeless streets. A few city workers mow the lawn or water the flowers. But despite the amazing views, life is rare. The front of the capital building has a wide open square with beautiful gardens, yet the gardens are not being observed. Wide open spaces, with not a person in sight are occupied only by the geometric forms of architecture. Where are the people? Where is the life? 

Astana Ghost Town
Astana Ghost Town

It is a strange feeling to be walking through such a metropolis, having the whole place to yourself. Especially after china where millions of people fill the streets, hardly allowing room to breathe. The open space is refreshing yet at the same time eerie. The whole city plan is perfectly symmetrical with every building designed to fit create balance. Despite the amazing attention given to every detail of the city, parts of this futuristic metropolis fall to decay. Parks just off the main stretch are abandoned leaving overturned benches and overgrown walkways. Carefully planted and arranged landscaping has slowly been taken over by the wild nature. It was designed for the future population but time and its city has forgotten these beautiful areas. Whether this city will ever grow into its oversized space, only time will tell, but for now it remains a hidden gem and a delightful treat to enjoy such a glamorous city without the fear and restriction of masses of people. 

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Astana: The City of the Future

If you visited this spot on the globe 20 years ago, you would not recognize this futuristic city, nor would you have even been in Astana. In fact 700,000 of the million people surrounding you would have not even existed. In 1997 this place was designated the new capital of the relatively new country of Kazakhstan and is 1998 it was renamed to Astana which literally translates to ‘Capital’ in the Kazak language. Because of its very recent origins and being in a relatively unknown country, it is not too surprising that most people have never heard about this capital. However, after walking around it for a few days you have to wonder how it isn’t a globally recognized city setting the example for future architecture and infrastructure! 

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The design and architecture of the buildings appear to be 50 years in the future. The bright gold, bronze, and blue glass bring the city to a colorful life as the sunset dances in their reflection. Every building seems to be one of a kind with no match anywhere else in the world. Each unique design creates an awe inspiring reaction as your eyes scan the urban horizon. Beautifully crafted gardens fill the walkways that line the perfectly symmetrical city plan. One end sits the presidential palace and 3 km to the other end sits the iconic Hans Shatir shopping center that resembles a needle poking through a balloon. In the middle sits the Bayterek tower that offers an observation point of the beautiful city below. 

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But why is it in the middle of nowhere and why did it suddenly become the most modern looking city in the world. Far away from the Chinese and Russian borders, the capital is a safe place to house the business and administration of the oil and mineral rich nation from its greedy, populous nations. Also, in a country of only 17 million people, but with the natural resources of the worlds 9th largest country, there is a lot of extra money. What we see is the flaunting of an excess of resource money. Some of the worlds most acclaimed designers and architects such as Norman Foster from England and Manfredi Nicoletti from Italy have designed the iconic buildings of the city ahead of its time. Before it became the capital, the small town only occupied small farms and mills that produced the countries bread, but now it is home to almost 1 million people who are leading the world in energy, construction, and finances. Astana is preparing to host the worlds 2017 EXPO that will focus on the future of energy production and management and how it can propel our future. The city is still new and now it seems like a bit of a futuristic ghost town as the city is yet to be occupied. The Kazak government will even pay natives to live in this city to increase its population and help it grow its potential. Right now it is cheap and easy to travel around this city and feel like you own the city. In years to come it very well may likely be a futuristic hub of business and commerce. 

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Big Almaty Lake

If you have ever lost your bearings in Almaty, simply look for the huge wall of mountains. Once you have found the mountains, you know you are looking directly south as the mountains create Kazakhstans southern border with Kyrgyzstan. Though hardly perceptible, the city slowly increases in altitude as you go closer to the mountains. Thus people refer to going up town, as going towards the mountains although it is in fact south. Most maps are also oriented with the mountains to the top of the map, however, it must be remembered when renting yourself that you must flip the map upside down to match a typical north oriented map. Either way, the mountains are a beautiful backdrop and no trip to Almaty is complete without putting yourself deep into these monstrous mountains. 

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And if you are looking for an amazingly beautiful destination to begin your wandering through the mountains, Big Almaty Lake would be a great place to start. The lake is now used for harnessing hydro power to be used in the city so to one end there is a dam and water levels are changing depending on demand, however the other side has maintained natural beauty. The aqua blue waters turn to green pined fields turn to snow capped rocky mountains. The shades of blue are incredible as the sun begins to peak above the mountain range. The trickling of glacial streams can be heard flowing into the lake. Birds chirping as the summer weather makes the mountain climate more bearable. Colorful flowers fill the valleys in between the mountains and begin to bloom as the sun hits them. 

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The lake is the primary destination in the mountains. We were slightly disappointed to not find an accompanying array of hiking trails to take us through the mountains and around the lake. Unfortunately, with the Kyrgyzstan border being just a bit further in the mountains and top secret Kazakhstan observatories being based around the lake, there are many police and security around. We had to show our passport twice during our hiking and a few roads and trails were off limits for us as Americans. However, we we able to go deeper into the mountains by following the road the wiggled its way up to the glaciers. The higher we hiked, the taller these mountains seemed. They appeared to grow as we were hiking, becoming giant monsters of rock and snow. Eventually we got to the snow line however and we felt like true mountaineers. Though we were hiking through the snow, the sun was hot beating down on us and the snow felt good as it cooled us down. The lake grew smaller and smaller as we looked down the ravine, but the colors got richer as the sun rose higher in the sky.

When we returned to the city below, a strong sense of accomplishment came over us as we were able to look back at the wall of mountains and point out specific snow patches we had stood at the base of on our mountaineering expedition.  

Kidnapped in Kazakhstan

It all started as we were trying to buy SIM cards for our phones. There’s a mini mart right across the street from our hostel, so we figured that would be our best bet in finding one. We asked the cashier, but she couldn’t help us. But the man in line decided it was his duty to accomplish this task for us, after all, he knows 10 words of English. His favorite words being “Welcome to Kazakhstan!” He takes us outside and we try to explain what we need. He half understands. We know how to solve the problem, by walking down the street to the next store to buy a card, but decide to humor him. He ultimately fails at fixing our phone, but the Asian culture is to not disappoint, especially a guest, so his next logical step was to offer us a ride to the store down the road. We oblige so we jump in his truck. He seemed friendly enough. He introduces us to his coworker and we start having a very simple conversation in broken English and Russian. One of the few phrases I have learned so far is “beautiful mountains” as it seems to be appropriate in every Russian speaking country I have been so far. This is quickly perceived as “do you want me to take you to the mountains?” And then not knowing how to respond, we are on our way driving to the mountains after we left the hostel expecting to be gone only 5 minutes across the street. A little bit of me thought of how dangerous this was with two scruffy strangers in a beat up pickup truck who don’t speak English, yet the mountains called my name loudly. So with no other option, nothing else planned for the next two hours, and a strong desire to be in the mountains, we went.

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It was a hilarious journey. The man was the most welcoming person and as we went he shouted out his favorite phrase at everyone we passed in a thick Kazak accent. “Welcome to Kazakhstan!” We went through the rolling green hills that housed some of the most beautiful homes I’ve seen in Central Asia. Eventually we made it to the end of the road with a trickling river and a hiking path that lead further into the mountains. On our way home he took us to the most popular restraint in the whole city, visited almost exclusively by locals. Almost a hundred tables, yet seating is next to impossible to come by. We ordered traditional food and shared in jokes and laughter as I had one of my first Russian conversations without having to use my notebook!

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I share this story to share of central Asia’s incredible hospitality. Of course I don’t recommend getting in random cars with strangers and letting them take you where you don’t want to go, but usually they are simply excited you are here and want to show off their amazing countries. Most other places they are trying to scam you of money or take advantage of you. But here they just want to practice English or get a selfie with an American. So I would encourage you to be knowledgeable, but allow your unique whiteness take you on incredible adventures and meet amazing local people because they always know best!