Information taken December 2009. Click photos to enlarge.
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Information taken December 2009. Click photos to enlarge.
- Adding passport pages at the US Embassy. Unlike the Russian Embassy, I was able to add pages without advance notice and without working on US Embassy time (eg. not on their scheduled consular hours). This was not possible in Russia, and may be an option for those in a rush.
- Obtaining a visa for the Kyrgyz Republic in one day. We were able to obtain a single-day visa for $130, although this was a bit of a swindling deal (the consular officer usually takes certified bank order but took our cash instead); the visas were as low as $30, US citizens included, for longer periods of time of processing (up to a week). Keep in mind that visa-on-demand can be obtained for $40 (15 day stays) or $50 (1 month stays) at the Bishkek airport, and there are 3-weekly flights on Air Astana from Almaty to Bishkek as of Dec 2009.
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
In hindsight, there are faster and cheaper ways of getting to Almaty (our train took 36 hours). These include the overnight buses which travel through the Khorgas pass, or a bus/taxi to the Khorgas pass, walking across, and a bus/taxi to Almaty. One lesser known option but highly recommended by the Alashankou border guard is a train from Ürümqi to Alashankou (departs everyday), crossing the border by foot, and then taking a shuttle bus to the Kazakhstani border where a train meets you and takes you to Almaty 6 days out of 7 (100 RMB for the train to Alashankou, unknown (but low) amount to Almaty). All of these options are significantly faster and cheaper than the international train, which takes upwards of 6 hours to switch gauge. All of these options also run in winter.
Regardless, the train was an enjoyable if slow experience. The carriages were Kazakhstani metal. Bring your own food as there is no canteen car! There is power in the carriages. The border crossing is a different experience; I was interrogated individually for 2 hours by Chinese border patrol, holding up the train in the process. Be prepared to have all of your pictures gone through, and your documents meticulously inspected item-by-item. Anything deemed “not Chinese” will be taken, such as a Lonely Planet map book showing a picture of Taiwan. Although admittedly the interrogation was friendly, it was quite persistent. Also, delete or encrypt pictures if you do not want them taken; besides checking for pictures for export, I found out later that land crossings in Xinjiang practice counter-espionage, where they take any pictures military/infrastructure related from other countries and copy them off of your SD cards.
The international train will arrive at Almaty-2, north of city center.
The flat Kazakh steppe
Kazakh train official
Inside of a carriage
Monday, December 21, 2009
Lading in Ürümqi is like traveling back in time in Chinese history to see my first visit to Beijing in 1997. Our route took us by air from Beijing to Ürümqi, and the contrast on the approach from these two cities is significant. For me, Beijing a decade-and-a-half ago used to be defined by pollution the same way Ürümqi in winter is now. Although it was sunny the winter days I was in Ürümqi, the pollution cloud kept the city in a world of haze and smog. As one of the top polluted cities in China in the winter, it may be worth a visit just for the sights (and smell) of pollution out-of-control. The infrastructure is also less developed from eastern Chinese cities, with buildings (and costs) distinctly out-of-proportion from Beijing (for example, taxis with 6 RMB starting fare).
There is a lot to love about Ürümqi, however (though arguably not much in terms of the other gems in the region, and, you’ll inevitably find yourself in the city if you intend to do any Central Asia traveling). The city has a distinctly multicultural feel unlike anywhere else in China, and is composed of a mix of Uighurs, Han, Hui, and the usual mix of Central Asian ethnicities. Perhaps most telling is the sound of a Uighur speaking Mandarin Chinese in an accent usually only reserved for Caucasians learning the language. We did not get a chance to sightsee much in Ürümqi, but rather got a feel of the multicultural ambiance traveling through the city. There was also surprisingly little ethnic tension or hostility while we were there, which caught us off guard. We were helped throughout by Han, Uighurs, Russians, Kyrgyzs, and a Kazakh couple – the kindness of the people of Ürümqi stands in stark contrast to the violence of 7-5, and had there not been a huge police presence I would not have believed the city to be capable of producing such ethnic tension.
I recommend exploring the southern section of the city (around Hetian Lu), where the Uighur and Russian/Central Asian parts of town are for sensory overload. Food in the city is of particular note; do not leave without trying the lamb kababs sold on the street and lamian, a Xinjiang speciality (although these two are usually adapted to the Chinese palate).
If using Ürümqi as a base for travel, some notes:
- You will want to know Chinese to navigate this city, or at least bring a Chinese friend; English does not go far, and even Mandarin is difficult to use in Uighur-only communities.
- The Lonely Planet: China book is notoriously inaccurate for this chapter!
- Buses to city center cost 10 RMB p/p; taxis no more than 50 RMB.
- For flights to Kyrgyzstan (Bishkek), there are nondaily flights on China Southern and AC Kyrgyzstan as of Dec 2009. One may get a slight discount through a China Southern travel agent, but the cheapest option when we were there was 2100 RMB o/w. Flights on AC Kyrgyzstan were less than 1500 RMB o/w, but extremely unreliable. The booking office for AC Kyrgyzstan consisted of two people (one of which spoke no Chinese) working out of a hotel, and we were informed all flights were canceled over December due to low turnout. There are also flights to Osh; in Central Asia, Kayak is rather useless, but finding out all departures/arrivals from airport pages will net you timetables to work off of. To book the AC Kyrgyzstan flight, contact Эрбол at Xinhua Nanlu 786 (Huaqiao Binguan) [ask the receptionist], tel: 0991 8529061, 0991-8528062, or 13999935658. The Lonely Planet information on this is wrong. The above hotel is also good for arranging all things Kazakh and Russian, including overnight buses (it is the hub for business from Central Asia and Russia).
Friday, December 18, 2009
First, logistics. Getting a visa to Russia is a huge pain, but doable once one gets all the rules (see earlier post about this process). We flew into Domodedovo, which is on the southern side of the city; there is an express train (250 руб) that takes 45 minutes to Paveletsky Station. It's probably worth it for the new visitor, but (at least in reverse) taking the metro to Domodedovskya and a bus to DME is cheaper (100 руб bus, 22 руб) and almost as convenient. The shuttles run on New Year’s. Similarly, there is a train to Sheremetyevo (300 руб) but buses can be picked up from Rechnoy Vokzal and Planernaya back and forth. Once inside the city, the Metro is excellent and extensive, and a pleasure to explore the stations. The one caveat is the station names; transfer stations, unlike elsewhere, all have different names and usually only one exit.
Second, registration. Registration (in Moscow at least) is “required” if you stay more than three days. However, this is three business days. Our hotel was willing to do this for us for $20 USD, and advised it even though we didn’t need it (if you stay less than three business days, they legally cannot detain you). Although stories exist of people being bribed by the police regardless, it probably is not necessary unless you are in Moscow an extended period of time.
Third, language. Russian is a very useful language to know if traveling to Moscow, as unlike other European countries Muscovites have not had to learn English to prosper. However, not knowing Russian (as we did not) is fine; but you must learn the Cyrillic alphabet! This is especially true on the Metro, which has very limited Roman alphabetization. Contrary to popular belief, I found Muscovites extremely helpful; those with limited English approached us clearly lost tourists on the street, and those who only knew Russian tried to simplify their language and help us around. Once Cyrillic becomes secondhand, navigating Moscow becomes infinitely less intimidating.
Fourth, food and shelter. We stayed at the Godzillas Hostel (off Tsvetnoy Bul’var) within the Metro Ring, which was extremely well-kept, organized, and definitely highly recommended (dorms from $28 USD, doubles from $35 USD). Food was all around expensive within the Ring; a typical “Russian” fast food meal came out to $5-7 USD, and stolovaya (canteen) cuisine up to $10 USD. McDonald’s was the only resemblance of cheap.
While we were in Moscow, we visited mainly Red Square and sights around the Red Square, such as the Lenin Maosoleum (free), St. Basil’s Cathedral (20 руб), and the Kremlin (350 руб). All of these I found worth my money, although I did not go to the armory. Red Square is a spectacular must-see, although it definitely does show Russia as a semi-police state (especially on New Year’s). Red Square can be seen in a day. Additionally, we went to the Great Patriotic War Museum (40 руб) off of Poklonnaya Gora / Park Pobedy station, which was quite fascinating despite the lack of English. The rest of the time was spent exploring the stunningly beautiful metro, shopping at Izmalylovo Market (definitely worth a visit) and exploring the streets of the city. Izmalylovo Market in particular is significantly cheaper than the market outside of Red Square on Okhotny Ryad metro; we were able to get a Siberian fox fur hat for 1500 руб. Note to save money on tickets, bring a student ID!
In summary, I think Moscow can be seen in 3 days. I regret not having time to see St. Petersburg, but the capital has definitely made me want to revisit Russia in the future (with basic knowledge of the Russian language). It is a fascinating mix of Soviet and Western influence, and has done much to dispel the Western notion of Russian life as backwards; given the design of the city (and the metro) alone one can see that Russia was truly a Cold War powerhouse. The Russian people are also extremely friendly, arguably giving arguably more help than those in New York or Boston. Visa and cost hurdles aside, Moscow is definitely worth a visit.
Great Patriotic War museum
St. Basil's Cathedral
Sunday, December 6, 2009
- The scenery is a bit like what one would find in Guatemala, with arable land surrounded by volcano-like structures
- El Fuerte itself seems to not have many attractions, though is a good stopover town. Avoid the Hotel La Choza and crash instead at the Rio Vista lounge, which was less than $20 USD p/p shared in a double setup and had views of the Rio Fuerte