DATE: 1-4 OCTOBER 2017
This was our first time in Kazakhstan and the Central Asia region. On Monday morning we walked to Intercontinental Hotel to collect the car from Avis. Hiring a car is much cheaper than paying for a local guide. All the paper work done, payment made and the car checked, we drove back to Iris Hotel (on Furmanov Street) to collect some stuff.
Nik had done some left-hand driving, but that was a long time ago. Obviously it’d take some time before he gets accustome to driving in an unfamiliar vehicle and city. The first 10-15 minutes was rather harrowing especially when we were at the junctions. We almost knock into another car and was honked at several times.
BIG ALMATY LAKE
It was now mid-day and on our way to Big Almaty Lake, we stopped at a restaurant to get some lunch. The few staff at the restaurant did not speak English. And, the menu was in their Kazak language, which was as good as a blank piece of paper. It had no pictures of the food they serve either. So, we just walked out. Very few people speak English here. As for our hotel staff, only the ones at the reception desk are reasonably fluent. So, when ordering a meal, we would point to a picture on the menu and also used sign language.
Anyway, we found the way to our intended destination, the Big Lake, with the help of Google map. Big Almaty Lake is located 2511 metres above sea level. The road going up the mountain is narrow and has many hairpin bends. It was a fairly warm and sunny day. There was a bit of snow on the slopes and at some places the melting snow turned the edge of the road rather slushy.
The scenery along the route was a very spectacular one for the aspen trees had turned into shades of yellow. It was a gorgeous scene of contrasts-brown grass, green junifers and yellow aspen. Nik and I took many photo breaks along the way, snapping away at the waterfall, crevasses, etc. Some people were seen going up on foot. I’m sure they get plenty of time to enjoy the beauty of the surroundings and also to absorb the fresh mountain air. However, both of us neither have the energy nor time for such an adventure.
When we arrive at the Big Almaty Lake viewing area, there were several vehicles parked by the roadside. The serene turquoise lake lies may be fifty metres below. Facing us were mountains covered with a thin layer of snow and beneath our feet, the brown grassy slope had traces of melting snow. Many visitors went down nearer to the lake. I did, too. The lake is a source of potable drinking water for the residents of Almaty. You’d see the huge pipes running along the slopes. All the way, the scenery was absolutely breathtaking. Do enjoy the video.
Despite being a tourist attraction, the only facility available here was a single miserable toilet. A young guy was enterprising enough to sell hot drinks from the back of his car. Later Nik drove a little further up the mountain until we came to a sentry post indicating the end of the road accessible to the public.
THE SELF-DRIVE EXPERIENCE
We drove back to the city in the early afternoon, now Nik more comfortable at steering wheel. But, at the intersection, we were still confused at the traffic movements. A few kilometers before arriving at the hotel, Nik drove into a street whereby a police car was already waiting. The police stopped us and requested for Nik’s passport, driving licence and the hired car documents. The police officer told us that we should not enter the street which has yellow lines. A couple of other cars were halted, too. Apparently, all their roads have yellow lines. It struck me then, the police are up to something. The officer also demanded a Russian translation of Nik’s driving licence. Several minutes passed, the police officer demanded USD 200. Nik said he had no money. But, in the end he decided to give in and parted with a smaller sum. Instead of handing the money over, Nik was instructed to place the money in the car boot, and then one of the police officer picked it up.
Earlier the Avis staff had mentioned about being stopped by the police and that they would ask for documents. Of course, he did not mention about having to give bribes. This unfortunate incident took away our joy and pleasure of driving and visiting a beautiful city. After a late lunch, we returned to the hotel. In the early evening we went out again, this time on foot. It was a bit tiring to go on foot, but we had less jitters upon seeing a police car.