Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Wide Open Country

Mongolia is a widescreen country. Some claim it is the highest country by average elevation in the world, but since there is no comparative list on Wikipedia I cannot say for certain. Nevertheless most of the country is at 1000m or more and formed of extremely wide valleys separated by seemingly low mountains, though the heights are deceptive due to the distances. You can easily see for 30km or more. The high visibility combined with the altitude means that you are not only closer to the clouds, but you can also see them coming half a day or more in advance, inching towards you like continental plates, and with the same inexorability. All of this adds up to a landscape that is widescreen in the extreme: the vistas are squeezed by the valleys below and clouds above and only allowed to expand sideways. This leads to problems for the amateur photographer who is unable to capture the details, which are inevitably far away, without losing the grandeur of the expanse, and vice versa. My camera's 4:3 aspect ratio fails miserably to capture the awe that I am seeing so I am resorting ever more often to taking sweeping panorama shots to try and get a small idea of the sheer immensity. It'll have to do, but nothing beats seeing it in the flesh.

Cloudscape in northern Mongolia (close to what are, allegedly, the northernmost sand dunes in the world).

Friday, July 22, 2011


 A quick message for all my readers who receive this blog via e-mail. I have been entered into the Blogger's Choice awards for best travel blog (admittedly by myself, but sometimes you need a little self-promotion). If you feel my blog merits it (or even if you don't but would still like to be supportive) you can either follow this link or go to the blog itself and click on the link in the top right and vote for me. Also if you haven't been on the blog in a while there are photo galleries from the trip so far up until Kyrgyzstan (Kazakhstan and more to follow soon) as well as a map of the route I've taken.

All the best, Erik.

P.S. Feel free to spread the word and get your friends to vote for me too!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Trust Fund

At the Mongolian border the asphalt stops. Some would say it's the end of the road, whereas other, more optimistic souls, would say that the road just got wider: the broad, grassy valleys of the high mountain steppe that slope gently up and down from one pass to another are the spiritual home of the off-roaders whose only boundary is the capability of their cars. Often a single track crosses a pass only for it to split into half a dozen or more a hundred metres later as drivers continually strive to find a smoother ride free of corrugations. It's a tough country for cars, nevertheless the backbone of the vehicular population are old Soviet UAZ jeeps and vans, many of which are older than I am. And they aren't treated with kid gloves either, but hurtle along bumpy roads often overladen with twice as many passengers as they were designed for plus luggage and perhaps a sheep as well for good measure.

Lake and mountains in Altai-Tavan Bogd national park. On the other side of the mountains lies China, just 10km away.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Sorry For The Inconvenience But Our Country Is Closed. Please Try Again Later.

Travelling through Russia was certainly far easier than I had imagined. People were generally polite and helpful, the roads were of good quality all the way to the border, I had no trouble with the police (one did stop by me whilst I was hitching, but more out of curiosity and to have a chat than to try and extort money), and hitching was a breeze.

The gorgeous Altai landscape (even the people and the outdoor toilet can't detract from the beauty).

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Saying Goodbye To Stan

My last stop in Kazakhstan and Central Asia was Semey, also known by its original, Russian name of Semipalatinsk. The town is one of the oldest in the north of the country and the centre is dotted with Tsarist-era log cabins, with their reassuringly organic lines, still clinging on to existence amongst the concrete apartment block. Semey is (in)famous throughout the world for its Soviet past where it, or at least a nearby patch of "uninhabited" steppe was home to the Semipalatinsk Polygon where the Soviet Union tested its atomic bombs. In all there were over 100 above ground nuclear explosions. Although the Soviet authorities were not so stupid as to kill their own citizens in the explosions, they kept quiet about the effects of nuclear radiation and fallout so the area is still haunted by abnormally high levels of birth defects and cancers.

The memorial to the victims of the Semipalatinsk memorial. Very moving, but strangely located in a patch of foresty wasteland on the other side of the river from the town.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Steppe Outside

The Soviet Union was the largest country in the world by area by a considerable margin (more than twice the size of Canada at number 2). When it split into its 15 constituent republics the lion's share of that went to Russia, but Kazakhstan still managed to become the 9th largest country in the world (just a Croatia shy of Argentina at number 8). Kazakhstan is a big country. And with most of the 16 million population concentrated around the edges a lot of it is taken up by the wide, flat steppe. In the dryer, hotter south the predominant colours are already yellow and brown, with a little pale green mixed in, as the summer has already set in for a while, but as you head further northwards the deep green of growing grass takes over. The landscape is easy on the traveller, affording you long moments without changing much, allowing for plenty of time for reading and sleeping.

In the middle of this green monotony, springing out of nowhere (relatively speaking, because you can already see it from over 30km away) is Kazakhstan's new capital Astana. Previously the capital had been Almaty, but 14 years ago that title was transferred to Astana (called Akmola at the time, but since the name means White Tomb - not a particularly auspicious designation for a capital - it was renamed, using a great deal of imagination, to Astana, which means Capital), ostensibly to have a more central capital with closer links to Russia, which is still the most important trading partner, although more cynical people claim the real reason to be Nazarbayev's desire to consolidate his grip on power as Almaty was too large and independent to bow to his whims. There were drawbacks to this move though, the mains ones being the vicious winters of the area (temperatures in January often fall to -40 degrees, not counting windchill, as devastating winds come sweeping in from Siberia, making it the second-coldest capital in the world), and perhaps more importantly, that it was a small, provincial town. Since then there has been a frenzied level of construction to create a showcase capital causing the population to triple in 10 years. The skyline has been transformed with new, fanciful towers springing up every year often designed by the who's who of contemporary world architecture, the only constant being the forest of cranes that whir and hum at break-neck speed. All this has come at a price, estimated to be around 10% of the national budget every year. Some of the buildings are indeed beautiful, but there is no over-arching harmony so instead the place feels rather soulless. Some of the more interesting creations include: a giant, indoor aquarium/sea-life centre which includes a 70m long underwater walkway where you can get up close and personal with sharks and other creatures of the deep (must have cost a ridiculous amount as the sea water had to be shipped in especially, and Astana is thousands of kilometres from the nearest sea); a giant 150m high tent with a transparent roof that is home to a shopping and entertainment centre; as well as an entirely new governmental complex with grandiose ministry buildings (although, as opposed to Ashgabat, it does look like these are getting some use).

Shiny new skyscrapers in the new administrative centre of Astana may look pretty...