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The Mongol Rally Guys

07 Sep, 2009

Almaty: Part Two

Posted by: Scott In: The Rally

The next day our first mission was the find a travel agency. I found one close to the hotel through our Lonely Planet travel bible and proceeded in that direction. However, like half the information in the guide this info was outdated and the travel agency no longer existed, at least in the location listed in the book. No worries though as we passed another travel agency while looking for the first one. We walked into Daphne Travel and asked about available train and flight schedules. Luckily some of the staff there spoke good English, which always makes things a bit easier for us that don’t speak such great Russian/Kazakh. They checked the train schedules online but came up with no additional information that could help us out. As far as flights, there were a number of flights outbound for Almaty but no direct flights to the capital of Mongolia. Apparently nobody ever went to Mongolia, because it was darn hard trying to get from anywhere to there! Our only option was to fly from Almaty to Moscow or Beijing and then take another flight from there to Ulaanbaatar. The cost of these flights would be in the $700-$800 range and they weren’t available anytime soon. Alternately, they had a sub-$500 ticket available on the 4th of September back to London.

I figured that it might be possible to fly to Novosibirsk and catch the Trans-Siberian Express from there to Ulaanbaatar, thus saving at least part of my overland journey into the country. I could only buy the tickets while in Russia or through an online service that was a bit expensive. If there were any available seats I could fly out to Novosibirsk, Russia on the morning of the 4th and jump on an outbound train that same night. As for Collin, he weighed his options and chose with heavy heart the route back home. He wanted to reach Mongolia but things were just getting too complicated and the money had ran out a long time ago. He went ahead and booked the flight back to London on the 4th, where he would stay for a few days with our friend Dave before heading back state-side. I decided to wait on my purchase and check everything out first.

One good thing to come out of this was that this course of action meant that we would be able to visit Kyrgyzstan after all. We were originally planning on driving through the Pamir range in Tajikistan and crossing into Kyrgyzstan from there, driving northwards through Osh and then on to Bishkek. Because of our breakdown we weren’t sure if we would even have the chance to visit the country, but now that we had some time before our respective flights we could afford to make the trip.

We went back to Coffeedelia again that night to use the internet and sip overpriced adult beverages. It looked like there were indeed seats available for the train departing Novosibirsk on the 4th! This was very good news–it wouldn’t save me any cash, what with the cost of the Russian visa and the plane flight added on top of the train fare, but I was pretty sure that it would prove a more interesting journey in the end.

The next day we visited Daphne travel yet again and the helpful staff there arranged the Novosibirsk-bound plane ticket for me. They also assisted us in procuring a Letter of Invitation (LOI) for Kazakhstan, which we would need to re-enter the country after visiting Kyrgyzstan (we had already used both of our entries on the current visa and couldn’t add any to it). Before we departed I learned that the branch owner, Mete, was from Istanbul, Turkey (which I had visited the year before through the Rotary International Group Study Exchange [GSE] Program), and we chatted briefly about my travels there. After that we went for a walk and tried to find the path that led to a hill overlooking the town. Halfway up we found out that our path did not in fact go all of the way up, instead ending abruptly. At that moment the skies opened up and poured a torrent of hail down upon us. Marble-sized hail. Being that we were in the middle of nowhere and there was no shelter about we tried to press ourselves up against some nearby trees and tried to avoid some of the larger pieces of ice from inflicting too much damage upon us. It only lasted a few minutes but by the end of the storm we were drenched and left to walk back to the hotel in our sopping-wet clothes.

On Friday we got up somewhat early so that we could collect our LOI’s from Daphne Travel and visit the Russian Embassy to get my new visa. The letters were ready for us but unfortunately there was a small error on my form so they would have to request that another copy be made up–it would be ready for pickup that afternoon. We hurried from there to the embassy only to find that the embassy was closed for visa applications until 3:00PM. Deja vu. We took advantage of the situation in the same way we did before–by taking a trip to the local brewery, Ultra’s. We sat on the fourth floor balcony this time around. The service was excellent and the food was an amazing value–the business set lunch set costs 700 tenge (less than $5) and filled me up very well. Collin got the Japanese bento box lunch–a bit more expensive but still a good value considering the amount of food and how far away we were from the nearest ocean! Highly recommended if you ever find yourself in Almaty.

We ambled back over to the embassy with plenty of time left before they were set to open only to find that there was already a large queue of people waiting outside of the gates. There was little shade, so everyone was crammed together under a metal awning adoining the entrance. I found a patch of shade for myself and proceeded to wait…and wait…and wait. It seems that everyone who had been there early in the morning had come back to finish up their paperwork or collect their passports/visas–they were being processed first. Collin was sitting across the way, seemingly having a good time chatting to a couple of foreigners. I moved up closer to the gate to make sure that when the time came I’d be able to push my way in (they only let people through one at a time when they were called for by the guard inside the building). This put me directly in the sun, which got to be a bit much after another hour of waiting. After about two hours of waiting I finally got a chance to go inside where I proceeded to wait a bit more before getting my chance to talk to the same guy that we met with on Tuesday. I re-explained what I needed and he told me to fill out an additional form. I brought it back to him. He told me to fill out the other part of the form in Russian. I did that and re-submitted the papers to him yet again. I need to make some corrections here, here, and here. Alright, done. Then he goes through my paperwork and says, “sorry, we cannot issue you a visa. You need a tourist visa, we can only issue transit visas here. If you come back on Monday I can give you the details of a travel company that can assist you with the proper procedures.” Oh no…no way, no way. I explained yet again that all I was doing was flying to the Novosibirsk, jumping on a train, and then I’d be out of the country within a day and a half. A transit visa would indeed work in my situation. “Okay, where are your hotel reservations? You need to book a hotel for two or more days in order to get the visa”, he countered. “I’m sleeping on the train…it’s an overnight train that takes three days to get to Ulaanbaatar”, I explained. How could I get a hotel if I’m not even spending a single night in a city!? This went on for a bit longer, but I eventually convinced him to give me the stupid visa, for which I was charged $266.

From start to finish it had taken almost four hours, and now we weren’t going to be able to catch a bus to Kyrgyzstan as we had planned. Lucky for us we had received an invitation from the guys that Collin had been talking with to meet up later that night for some food and drinks. We walked back to Daphne Travel and arrived just as they were about to close. It was their one-year anniversary day and they were having champagne and cake to celebrate–we were invited to join in the festivities. After that we met up with our group of new friends at an outdoor cafe where we swapped travel stories over a few pints until the early hours of the morning. All four had recently been to Tibet and had attended something called a ‘sky burial’. Now those were some interesting stories! (Google it if you’re interested in learning more…beware of possible graphic content though!)

Pictures have been posted in the gallery.

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