Entering the first Caucasus country from the east will take you to the little known Republic of Azerbaijan, a mostly Muslim country with a lingering soviet past. Apart from its appearance as hosts for the 2012 Eurovision finals, the country is most known for its massive oil reserves under the Caspian sea, responsible for some impressive economic growth, and the transformation of the capital city of Baku where modern architecture now blends eloquently with the medieval old town, Icheri Sheher. The abundance of oil under the sea is evidenced on land, with hundreds of unusual baby mud volcanoes which expel mud bubbles of methane gases. These made world news in 2001 when they erupted in flames and burnt for several days. The country plans to make further headlines with an ambitious Dubai like $100B project, the artificial Khazar Islands, an archipelago of 55 islands and the world’s tallest building, Azerbaijan tower – at 1050m.
Still feeling the effects of its Soviet ruled past, don’t be surprised if while touring Kazakhstan, you are treated like a criminal. Constant passport checks by police, requests for bribes to avoid “problems”, and sometimes a need to register your location with police every five days rather than just once, can get you in sticky situations such as where a phone is handed to you with an English speaking Kazak sternly informing you that you require an “attorney and translator”. After a ridiculous amount of paper work, visits to a lawyer and the case decision formalised by a police chief, followed by payment of a fine to a government bank account, all because you did not register your accommodation a second time as you could not read the immigration card written in Kazak, you learn that there is no flexibility with the Law here, and that the safest thing to do is just get out of the country as soon as possible to avoid overstaying your visa – a crime that results in jail or deportation, and an even larger fine. Of course it is difficult to exit the country when the police hold onto your passport for days due to the horribly slow process of a simple administrative fine, while at the same time telling you that you must leave country to avoid overstaying. Do not expect common sense here.
With much time spent waiting for available transport across the country, days spent in the Migration Police offices, further days spent sorting out a visa for the proceeding country to enable escape, and searching for accommodation that is not four times more expensive that the rest of Asia, all the while eating mediocre food, it’s understandable why tourists who visit do not always have glowing reports (and why there are no good photographs to share). It’s not all that bad though, many of the locals can be extremely accommodating, and intriguingly Kazakhstan has some of the most beautiful women of any nation. Unfortunately there are no photos of beautiful women to post, so please accept this image as a summation of Kazakhstan, a Mercedes Benz mustering a herd of Kazakh horses (one of their most popular meats).
If you want to enjoy some of Kazakhstan for yourself, it’s safer, cheaper and easier to just rent a copy of Sacha Baron Cohen’s film “Borat”. It may not even be filmed in Kazakhstan, but it is suitably politically incorrect, and far more entertaining – and yes, bride kidnapping is still a reality here. Alternatively, visit beautifully rugged western Mongolia where many Kazakh people fled to during soviet rule, and as a result maintain a traditional Kazakh life with little soviet influence.
Heading west directly from Mongolia into Kazakhstan is not possible overland due to roughly 50km of a China-Russia border. A Russian transit visa to traverse the north side of this border would be the quickest route across, but heading through the recently opened (to tourists) border crossing into Xinjiang province takes to you an unusual part of China not often considered by most. A place of extremes, Xinjiang province is roughly the size of Alaska, contains the furthest point on earth to any ocean, has the second lowest depression in the world at 144m below sea level and consequently has the hottest temperatures in China. The province is culturally and ethnically characterised by the Uyghur people, a Turkic ethnic group, rather than the usual Han majority group. Instead of chow mein and dumplings, it’s mutton pilaf and kebabs.
As one of the world’s least densely populated country, Mongolia is a country of vast open spaces, nomads and mutton. At the countries center, along the Trans Mongolian railway lies the coldest capital city in the world, the rather bland Ulan Bator. Venturing out of the city is where you discover Mongolia’s rugged beauty and great hospitality. To the south lies Asia’s largest desert, the Gobi, which is constantly growing further into the north of China. Heading into Western Mongolia gives an immense sense of isolation. Here you find Kazakh nomads who fled Kazakhstan because of the “Russification” since 1920, and set up permanent residence in the Bayan-Ulgii province. To see the best of the country it’s suggested to tour the country using your own vehicle (or a guide), however attempting to master your own way around on public transport can be an experience in itself.