About an hour before reaching Almaty the steppe stopped, it got greener, trees started to dot the landscape, and then suddenly on the horizon, the Tian Shan mountain range appeared. It was impressive to see, covered in snow not just on the peaks. To the west heavy rain came down just in front of the mountains. The first dromedaries were grazing along the road. Driving into Almaty seemed to never end. The city develops from the plain into the mountain, the lower areas being poorer and the posher districts located higher up. I stayed at the same hotel as last time, in an area of town where the streets are lined with big trees, that in the summer heat offered a very welcome chill.
In 2013 I had passed Almaty on my way back to Europe, and had met Zhannat, a university friend of a friend of mine from Madrid. 6 years later, we met again now. On my first night in town I was exhausted from 13h on the road. We went for dinner and have each other an update on the past six years. The next day some chores were waiting for me. 10kg of laundry, food was needed for the days ahead, I fuelled up, and caught up on emails. In the last hours of the afternoon I joined Zhannat in a café before we went for dinner. The Georgians are the Italians of the former Soviet Union, they guarantee good food wherever you find them. They also have good wine, I’m actually looking forward to touring their wine country on my way back. They also have very tasty Chacha, the equivalent to Grappa, and the one Zhannat and I had didn’t leave a hangover, also not with a few Negronis at the end.
The next morning I rolled down the mountain to the main road for quite a while, and then drove east towards the Naryn Canyon. I had crossed it in 2013 further north, and wanted to hike it this time at a spot further south. There were quite a few tourists on the 40 mins trail, mostly Chinese, and the river at the end offered a great refreshment in the brutal heat. The road from there lead into the Tian Shan range, roads were mostly decent, and the landscape got more and more beautiful. Endless mountain ranges with snow on their caps, hilly landscapes under them, with horses and cattle roaming around. I drove for quite a few hours with 2 Russian jeeps, and when the road started to get really bad I new the border to Kirgizstan was getting closer. And indeed soon the crossing appeared. The Kazakh side took a bit longer, and a very curious young customs officer inspected the entire content of my car, and often asked if he could have things. I left him a bar of Golia Bianca candy I had bought in Italy, hoping he would leave me and try stuff alone. On the Kirgiz side we had to wait. The generator of the border station was down, no power no border controls. I met the Russians inside the two cars I had driven with. “Where are you guys from?” “Russia, a city you won’t know. Perm.” “Of course I know Perm, I was there two weeks ago.” We started to chat. A border guard came asking for help with the generator, and two of the Russians went with him. A few minutes later the generator started to give promising signs. Then it restarted. This really fulfilled all stereotypes about two Russian dudes, a broken machine and a hammer. Anyway, the border was open again, and we made it through easily. I remembered that the Kirgiz were friendly and easy going at the border.
Down the mountains the road went from gravel track to perfect tar. It got late, I was tired, and as I drove into Karakol I realised camping would not be a good idea. The weather forecast promised good weather, the sky said otherwise, and after the dusty road from the border the Mini had gotten washed in heavy rain just before entering town. I visited a desolate wooden Orthodox Church, a reminder that this was a Russian frontier town a long time ago. For the night booking.com showed a very neat hotel that I went to check out. It was indeed very clean, beautiful mountain style, warm shower, $40. And they recommended a place across town with local food. Remembering my scary experience with a local restaurant in Osh, I was happy to follow their advice, and I was lucky. Great laghman and monte, local pivo, friendly service.