Our hotel in Bishkek, the Futuro Hotel, offered free transfers from Bishkek to the Kyrgyz side of the border, about 45 minutes away, so we were happy to at least have that leg taken care of, even though it's the easiest bit. Of course, a different staff member informed us, like, the day we were leaving that that freebie is not for guests staying there through their tour companies (NoviNomad had booked our stay). So that's a big old pile of bullshit; someone remind me to drag them on TripAdvisor. So instead of our plan of freeing it to the Kyrgyz border point (called Kordai, which is super close to how you pronounce Kodaly, the name of Gavin Creel's character in 'She Loves Me'), we could pay for a taxi there and then get a Kazakh-only marshrutka or taxi the rest of the way to Almaty, or we could taxi to the Bishkek bus station and get a marshrutka from Bishkek all the way to Almaty. We didn't like the thought of getting across the border at Kordai and then not having our transport figured out for the Kazakh leg - the cars and vans waiting on the other side could charge extortionate prices since we had no other choice. Thus! Marshrutka the entire way it is! This is where I would use that emoji of the face with the eyes bugging out all scared and what not.
After I cursed out the staff at Futuro for being stupid (just kidding I'm so polite irl), a taxi took us to the bus station in the center of Bishkek, along with another guest from the hotel. This other passenger was a Russian man probably mid-20s or 30s. We figured it's a short ride and we might as well split the fare. How bad could it be? Guys it was so awkward. He asked where we were going and where we were coming from and we sort of said the long and short of being long(ish)-term travelers, and you know what his response was? "Are you rich?" I almost cracked up but come on who says something like that? I wanted to be like, "What are you, American? Only Americans think you have to be rich to travel" (because they don't get any vacation time) (also hey soon Russians might all be given American citizenship for funsies so I guess I was right) but we just kind of said um no...? like...we're normies but also that's an inappropriate question? He was kind of scary though (are all white youngish Russian men??) so we didn't say that last part. No etiquette lessons given today!
Once we got to the bus depot (it was for sure a depot and not a station, just like a mess of a parking lot with vans and cars jutting out in all directions and PEOPLE EVERYWHERE), we found a ticket window and bought two tickets to Almaty. I think it was the 10am marshrutka we bought tickets for. We were pointed to one of the white vans, which had about 6 little rows of seats (2 on one side of the aisle, 1 on the other) plus 4 seats across the very back. So this is a SMALL little van and there are seats for more than TWENTY passengers. Also the windows didn't open and it was hot. Erma. We boarded (luckily this minibus situation had a little compartment in the back for luggage, not like our Lake Baikal shitshow) when there were about 10 people already onboard, and most of the seats up front were taken. I almost choked on the fear that we'd have to sit in that dreaded back row (girl I will THROW UP on you) (by 'girl' I mean 'whoever is sitting in front of me in a slightly better seat') but then I noticed two seats about three rows back that I thought were taken but had just a water bottle on it. I said omg let's sit there and if anyone comes be like what water bottle I didn't see anything (I know I'm a monster). Luckily no one claimed it.
We were told we had about 10 minutes so I went to the bathroom, stretched my legs, and tried to be okay with how dehydrated I was in preparation for at least five hours in a crammed minivan without fresh air. I was doing an okay job at calming myself but then I noticed that we were not leaving. We didn't even have a driver visible in the vicinity. More and more people kept boarding - it got full. Twenty minutes past go time and still no driver. This one girl got on and off, on and off, talking to someone who maybe worked there but maybe was just a drifter? She was wearing a Mickey Mouse ear visor and we of course started imitating the Russian model on "New Girl" who said "why don't you get in your spaceship like Mick Mouse" and that helped for a minute but then MORE TIME KEPT PASSING and we KEPT NOT LEAVING. Then two more people arrived and they were apparently this girl's parents. I'm saying girl but she was like our age it's not like this was an abandoned child (despite the visor). I was like well they're not getting on our van anyway, it's full. But no there was a thingy up by the driver's seat that could be clamped down to make one solid row so the three of them crammed in next to the driver, who finally showed up. I was livid that we had apparently been waiting for 45 minutes (THAT'S RIGHT) for random people who could have just gotten on a different marshutka (there were like 1000!) instead of delaying ours that long but okay breathe. The driver backed out of his parking spot and pulled around to the main section of the lot, where you are supposed to drive. But instead. Instead he got out.
And he smoked.
I could cut a bitch.
Finally he got on and we left, about an hour late. It is very, very difficult for me/anyone who cares about anything to deal with this sort of chaos in things that could clearly be better organized. Z tried to calm me down by reminding me that our last train of this long trip would be going to Berlin. GERMAN TRAINS. That shit'll be so on time it'll blow your mind! Helped a little.
The ride to Kordai wasn't too bad. The van dropped us off at the start of a long pathway towards the customs building. At one point on our walk, there was a counter with little forms to fill out - our customs declaration, I guess. I say I guess because it was in several languages but not English, so who knows what I signed off on. Fortunately a kind Greek person who does this route a lot (I don't know) helped us fill out our forms. We had to do Kyrgyz exit customs first, which was very simple and straightforward. We got in the 'Not locals' line. Then we got into the main hall, where I witnessed two incredibly disturbing things. One was the giant welcome sign in the hall that read: "WELCOME TO KAZAKHSTAN. GOOD LUCK." what the EVERLASTING TUCK?? good luck? why do we need luck? what's going to happen to us!! So, so disconcerting. The other was the state of the hall itself, which was the site of one of my probably top 5 most distressing attempts at queueing. There were tons of windows with agents, but people didn't know how to spread out so that you could join all the various lines. There were just mobs of people up at the front of the hall, and then there was so much line cutting and it was hard to see where to go omg it was a messsss. We got in a particularly bad jumble masquerading as a line but it was near the Greek person in case we had an issue so we stayed. It was easy though; we made our little 'we're just poor hungry tourists' faces and got stamped through. On the other side was Kazakhstan! But more importantly - a toilet!
I really was only about 50, 55% sure that the mashrutka - with our bags - would be there when we got out but there he was! About 15 minutes after we got out of the building, all our fellow passengers were out and we were ready to drive for hours through Kazakhstan to Almaty, the best city that used to be the capital but it got too crowded so they moved the capital thinking that people would want to go to there but of course no one did because Almaty has STUFF and good stuff at that and Astana like doesn't. Literally Astana was an empty pasture when they made it the capital in the '90s. I'm sure now they have like buildings and roads but Almaty is still better. So I've heard.
Oh man I was thirsty! I am so eager for regular life when I can drink all the water I want and then have access to toilets. We had a stop about halfway through, somewhere between 90 minutes and 2 hours. It was this big Kazakh version of a rest stop, with a restaurant, shop, and public (paid) toilets. One Kyrgyz girl from our van paid for my toilet! I didn't even know and then the lady motioned to say it's taken care of. How nice is that?! Sometimes people are nice! There is no better gift you can give me than the gift of a bathroom break!
Almost everyone went into the shop and bought ice cream bars - it was hilarious, like we were on a school trip. Mick Mouse saw we were clearly not Kyrgyz or Kazakh and ORDERED us to try this one kind of ice cream, her favorite. I was like oh I don't eat dairy Mick Mouse. Mick Mouse started talking to us and not just ordering us to buy things and it turned out she lived in Berlin! We love Berlin! We told her as much. She said some other things but I was distracted with how badly I wanted ice cream and how fitting it was that I probably wouldn't be able to find vegan ice cream until we indeed get to Berlin.
Finally we got to Almaty, at about 4:30pm. Oh man I was so hungry. The station was under serious construction so we were dropped off kind of far from the actual entrance, which was not great because obviously I had to go to the bathroom as fast as possible. And just as fun, once I got to the station there was no sign for the toilet so I had to ask this random babushka in a cafe and she said it was around the back of the station and underground. Not a great start, Kazakhstan! Then we had to find a taxi to get to our hostel, Sky Hostel, our first in a while but one with strong ratings. Also every hotel in Almaty was weirdly expensive (it's very surprisingly cosmopolitan!) so this hostel was our best doable option. With our packs and all our crap, we walked up and down the street asking cab drivers how much to go to the hostel neighborhood, and they all said WAYYY more than we were told it should be, because why wouldn't they, we were ignorant tourists with all our luggage who needed a ride! Extort! We went up and down, back and forth in the heat and our state of exhaustion and each driver we found gave a higher price than the last. Finally we said f this, f it all, because guess what we found out?
Almaty has Uber.
Yes Uber is problematic (worst board of any modern company?) and I would never use it in regular life if I had a choice, which I can't imagine not being the case, but when we were stranded on the side of the road during our first hour in Kazakhstan and it was cheaper than the cabs were asking? Yes please! It was a super nice car that came, too.
The hostel was a little weird - Sky Hostel is located on the 11th floor of a regular building. Like you have to go in and take the ONE TINY BARELY WORKING elevator to reception on the 11th floor while regular workers and other citizens are using it too to get to whatever else was in that super shady building. So ridiculous. Luckily the hostel itself was fine. The girls (seriously children) working reception were completely inept but we were used to all that by now. Our room was on the 10th floor so we had to walk down the flight of stairs to get to it - the stairs that didn't exist in the lobby and don't actually take you to the lobby. The stairs are just from like floors 10-13 for the hostel use and blocked off below and above! So weird. Luckily the room was fine but the view from the 10th floor landing, hoo boy:
But we will talk more about the city itself in the next post. The rest of this one is just going to be about our fantastic dinner!
So we didn't really see any of Almaty on our first night but we had a wonderful dinner after an all-day ridiculous adventure crossing from one stan to another. After we get some much needed rest, we'd have two days to see all the sights in this promising city.