Our night train to Shymkent left at just gone 10pm. The people at the hostel told us to get there 2 hours before and that had been the drill in Uzbekistan, but after collecting our bags from the hostel and getting a taxi there it turned out we could have arrived 30 minutes before and been in plenty of time. We were a bit disappointed to be leaving on a Friday night as the nightlife in Almaty was just beginning to stir (though not that anywhere remotely decent would have let us in with the outfits we have anyway).
For the first time we were travelling first class. It was a big modern train, we couldn’t see either end from our carriage and a sign on the side suggested it had a top speed of 200kmh. It was costing us NZ$40 each for our small cabin with bunk beds but we’d splashed out so we don’t have to share; given our last night train in Uzbekistan we were sharing a cabin with a harmless but smelly drunk man and the tendency here to take a massive amount of luggage means even if you get lucky with the company you might find you have no room. We’ve done enough night trains when we Inter-railed round Europe to know the best night’s sleep is had when you are on your own and can lock yourselves in.
But let’s be honest not much sleep was actually had, trains bump and rock and make a lot of noise. The train information helpfully told us it was already 26C at 8:30am though.
We pulled into Shymkent after 10 hrs 45 mins, perfectly on time (8:55am). Taxi touts were touting for Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, ok granted its not massively far away, but still pretty optimistic for folk that are coming off a night train we thought. The first taxi tout we spoke to about getting to our hotel wanted 1,000 Tenge, despite not knowing where our hotel was (he tried to call them but no answer). He wouldn’t drop lower than 800 so we moved on and agreed 700 with another (saving us a huge NZ$0.50 but we knew the going rate was around 600 and we weren’t going far so it was the principle of wanting a fair rate). We got in, the driver turned the key and nothing happened. He wasn’t phased though he just took the handbrake off and rolled into the traffic and with a deft flick of the wrist the engine jerked into life.
Between us we found the hotel and we were surprised when we were able to check in. Technically over budget but by far the best deal we could find in a vaguely central location, it was the nicest place we’ve stayed at so far, though effective aircon and maybe a fridge wouldn’t have gone amiss. It has poor reviews from European travellers because the people don’t speak English… but great reviews from Russian guests.
We’d only been expecting to be able to dump the rucksacks off, so on the train we’d got washed, clean, tidy and set for the day, but on being able to check in w
e promptly fluffed around for a couple of hours, finally venturing out late morning.
Since Emma lost the guidebook she now has the task of copying info from the maps in the e-book copies of the guidebook onto our printed maps. As we left the hotel 3 times I said to her was she sure where she had put the location of the hotel because if it was wrong we would be walking in completely the wrong direction and in 35C heat. She was adamant she had carefully taken the location from google maps, but sure enough 10 minutes later when the streets weren’t aligning with the map we worked out we were going the wrong way.
Dushanbe and parts of the Pamirs were late 30’s/early 40’s degree C but Shymkent felt much hotter and more stifling as it nudged 35C. It wasn’t particularly enjoyable and we began to wonder if we could handle our intended day trip the next day given it would take us 2.5 hrs each way on a bus. We put those thoughts to one side.
We found the central bazaar and weaved our way through the stalls and chaos that spilled out from it. We’ve seen enough bazaars and don’t need anything so didn’t bother to go inside and subject ourselves to no doubt great stifling heat, and instead kept weaving our way to the first place we had marked on our map – a nice park with a fountain, some sculptures and a statue. Shymkent doesn’t really have any ‘sights’ as such and we knew it was rougher and scruffier than Almaty and Astana.
We sought refuge on a park bench in the shade of a tree. Marie may have had a brief power nap as the heat and lack of sleep combined. There was still not a whisper of a breeze as we headed off to find a mosque. Next to it was heaps of steps up to a flagpole and a series of obelisks on a small hill, so off we set. When we reached them we realised it must be the independence monument; it was far bigger and more impressive than we’d expected. It also had a nice view from the top. It was dead up there, despite it being a Saturday.
On the way back we took a detour to what we thought was a park but turned out to be a weed ridden little river that widened out into the local swimming spot. We took a break under a tree for a bit before retracing our steps back to the first park where we carried on past it and found the main street. An afternoon breeze had started to rustle through making it more bearable but shortly after that we found a restaurant, a Kazakh take on an Italian – horse meat pizza it was. Since it was all we’d found to eat we figured we were sorted for the next day too.
Afterwards we decided to head back to our digs to freshen up. It’s easy to find where we’re staying, Shymkent might be Kazakhstan’s third largest city but there is a cow that lives in front of the house next door in a pen on the sidewalk.
When we’d caught our breath we headed out in the early evening back to the main street. We explored the other end of it, finding exchange offices (we changed US$50 just to be sure we wouldn’t run short) and a supermarket and a few nice bars and restaurants. With an absence of corner shops we got some water from the supermarket before spending the rest of the evening at one of the bars with a nice outdoor area. It wasn’t late when we left but it had gone dark and we got slightly lost on the way back when we couldn’t quite remember which side street was ours but we knew we weren’t far away so it didn’t take too much finding.
We were slightly alarmed when the hotel’s aircon stopped sometime between showering and fluffing around before going to bed. Opening the window revealed the temperature hadn’t really dropped so we were worried we might boil to death in the night, but after a few weeks of trying to sleep in all manner of beds and places we’re finally reaching the point of being tired enough to sleep anywhere and for only the second night slept solid.
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