Today we were supposed to be waking up in a little private cabin on the beautiful Chopin Alta lake then horse trekking up in the mountains before heading off to spend the evening in Tian Shan observatory in Ile-Alatau , Kazakhstan (another gorgeous mountain lake) but due to the mugging incident in Osh we were a day behind and had to miss out on our 2nd lake of the trip! However we refused to get down about it and were still elated from finding Jill’s passport and bag buried in the woods so decided to make the most of enjoying our bonus sunny day in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek.
We got up at quite a respectable time (for us), went for a wander around Bishkek and somehow seemed to find ourselves in some kind of bizarre hardware district, where all the shops and market stalls were only selling light fittings, scrubbing brushes, paint etc.! On the off chance we asked one of the stall owners (in our chut-chut Ruski) if he had any plastic cups, as we’d been sans cups for too long and we’d come to the conclusion that maybe this was the root of our recent misfortune. He brought out two plastic kids mugs, one with Winnie the Pooh characters and one with Disney Princesses on – perfect! We grabbed a bottle of beer at the nearest little kiosk and headed off to find Zhirgal Banya, which for once proved pretty easy as it stuck out from the rest of the environment by resembling a pair of large bosoms. We sat on the wall drinking beer out of our shiny new cups – we figured that we needed to at least have a little bit of beer in us if we were going to get naked in front of a loads of strangers!! Despite the snow the previous night, the sun was cracking the flags today and we had a nice bit sit, watching the world go by and Susan made friends with a fly who was getting drunk on the rim of her cup (Pooh) and tested the macro lense on her new camera (the Olympus TG-3 tough – highly recommended and bonus still hasn’t been stolen yet like her last 2!) before we finished the beer and worked up the courage to go into the banya.
It certainly wasn’t what we were expecting! We were thinking it would be like the public baths in Budapest where there were lots of hot pools to sit around in, but it was actually just like a big communal shower room full of ladies having a wash! We had been concerned that it was going to be full of hot skinny Asian ladies who would put our saggy, out of shape, pasty English bodies to shame, but it was mainly big babushkas so we felt a lot better about that. Jill had brought some conditioner so she claimed a shower and began the lengthy task that is the weekly de-tangling of her travel matted hair. Susan, having noticed that all the ladies seemed to have a plastic bowl and sponges to wash themselves with, decided that she was just going to get straight among it, grabbed herself a spare bowl and sponges and got down to business. After she had finished, she came back over to Jill and whispered:
“Jill! I think I’ve just washed my face with another woman’s bum sponge!”
“What? No way!”
“Yeah, they were sniggering a bit when I was washing my body with it, but then they were totally pissing themselves laughing when I started using it on my face! But then I was like “well I’ve started now so I might as well finish!””
So we laughed at our bad banya etiquette, Jill decided it would be for the best if she avoided the bowls and sponges and we had a sauna (complete with sticks to hit each other with) which was far too hot to stay in any longer than a couple of minutes – yes, we know that’s the idea but this was a HIDEOUSLY hot sauna! The plunge pool was actually the entirety of the right boob (men’s was left boob) so we dove in and had a bit of a laugh with our fellow naked ladies over our screeching about the cold. Afterwards we wandered up to get a massages and were surprised to be ushered into a single room with only 1 masseuse where we had to sit and awkwardly watch each other get rubbed down. Despite the initial unease it ended up being amazing as you could get a lovely massage AND have a laugh with your wife at the same time! Susan was a gentleman and offered Jill first go but it was actually a ploy to suss things out on Jill and not have another bum sponge incident. The massages themselves were SO GOOD (best of the trip for muscle relaxation)! The masseuse was amazing and used those nice hot stone things, and we came out of it feeling both nicely relaxed and energised at the same time.
After the banya we went to a little restaurant nearby that was simply called “Bistro” which served mainly pizza and pasta, was very cheap and full of locals enjoying a nice lunch. We went got a pasta, a pizza and a salad to share – the pizza was gorgeous and the salad came in what seemed like a massive dorito!
After lunch and a few beers it was getting late (nearly 5pm) so we thought it best to head for the marshrutka to Almaty as it’s a four hour journey and we didn’t want to be arriving in the middle of the night, so off we went via a little shop for some vodka and grapefruit sock for the road.
There was an Almaty marshrutka parked up when we got to the bus station at Osh Bazaar, so we got on, bagsied the back couple of seats and poured ourselves a vodka. It was a nice posh marshrutka with a TV in it, playing a Russian drama series that of course we couldn’t understand but we tried our best to figure out the plot. At the border we were kicked out of the minibus and had to walk through and meet them at the other side. There were hundreds of people standing in a massive queue that didn’t seem to be moving in the no-man’s land between the Kyrgyz side and the Kazakh side, all with huge wheelbarrows of goods. Thankfully we managed to squeeze past them, got through Kazakhstan immigration no problem (we were wondering what else could go wrong for us at this point – maybe we were wrong with our research that Kazakhstan is trialling a visa-free system for UK citizens this year?) but then once we got out the other side we had no idea where our minibus was! There were a few minibuses there but we had no idea which was ours! Luckily we spotted someone we thought was on our bus (he had a bright red leather jacket on) and headed towards the group of people waiting there, and a lady who had sat just in front of us on the bus and who spoke good English recognised us and told us the bus hadn’t come through yet but we should just wait there. She was called Kundis and was really lovely (she even paid for us to use the toilet as we didn’t have any Kazakh money)– she was from Kyrgyzstan and was on her way to Almaty from Bishkek to pick up her friend from the airport. We asked her about all the people queuing with their stuff and she told us that it was people bringing things from Kyrgyzstan to Kazakhstan to sell as things are so much cheaper due to them importing a lot of goods from China – apparently the gates would open up for them at around 3am to let them all through. It was freezing cold and we felt very sorry for them stuck there all night!
Eventually the bus turned up, we all got back on and we continued our journey, vodka sock drinking and viewing of the quality Russian TV show. We told Kundis our theory on what the storyline was and it turns out we were right on just about everything! For the rest of the journey she made sure we knew what was happening – it was great stuff. We want to watch it with subtitles on at home – she said it was called “The Long Way Home” but we haven’t been able to find anything by that name that isn’t about war or Paralympians. We were sad to leave Kyrgyzstan as it’s so gorgeous.
We arrived in Almaty at around 11pm, so due to the lateness of the hour and since an update from Vita said she had still had no joy getting through to the observatory, we decided that we’d just stay the night in the city (damn it – LAKE DENIED AGAIN!). We’d booked quite a nice hotel (Hotel Kazzol) for the next night to suffocate in a bit of luxury, so we decided that we’d stay there and have a luxury TWO NIGHTS IN ONE PLACE. Imagine that? Not having to pack all your stuff and move about for a whole day? Unfortunately the Hotel Kazzol was fully booked that night, but the similarly luxurious looking hotel next door had a room for us. We were sure that we could cope with moving our bags one building away the next day and the nice boy who carried our bags was eager to help after we a) made him laugh at us a lot, b) gave him a big tip and c) The Pickwick Papers. The room was nice enough (lovely comfy bed, thorough guide on how to tell if an earthquake is approaching by observing the behaviour of various animals…) and we just dumped our stuff and headed straight out for a nightcap. There wasn’t much round by our hotel that was open, besides “Esperanza” – a huge neon lit nightclub complex about 10 minutes’ walk away. There was a strip bar, a karaoke bar and a “retro disco” so we headed down to the latter where we were searched on the door before having our hands stamped (no cover charge – whoo!). The place was HUGE and quite busy for 2am on a Monday night. The dance floor was full of stunningly gorgeous, glamorous and aloof Kazakh girls dressed very much in a Russian style (short skirts, high heels, TONS of makeup), wiggling and pouting with THEMSELVES. IN THE FULL LENGTH MIRROR. If we were that gorgeous we might be able to kill a bit of time checking ourselves out in a nightclub mirror, but I’m sure after 5 minutes we’d be wanting to do some shots or dance to Boney M or have some craic with people like normal folk to on a night out. But no, these lasses obviously could not get enough of their own reflections! Not that you could tell they were happy about it like as it also appeared not to be the done thing to crack a smile.
We had a few drinks and smoked the ridiculous skinny girly tabs that Jill had got from the bar (they had obviously offered her the choice from the girly drawer instead of the man drawer – “I WANT SOME FAT ONES FROM THE MAN DRAWER PLEASE!”), a random man kept sending us over shots of tequila and we had a hoot doing shots and dancing with a lots of the fellas who seemed to be over the moon to have some girls to cut their mad shapes with. We even ended up awarding a prize to the best one but unfortunately for Kazakhstan their best dancer was from Armenia! We got some tips from him on where to dance in Armenia before finally admitting defeat from our long day and wandering back to the hotel via taking amusing photos of us sitting on some giant plastic dogs we found at the roadside.