Something completely different.

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Almaty in Kazakhstan was a sudden change from what we were used to, after the behemoth that is China.

We were suddenly in a far more European influenced society, with a greater mix of Caucasian faces. There were sidewalk cafés, far fewer people and polite drivers, who weren’t constantly honking their horns. And in regard to road rules, the humble pedestrian wasn’t at the bottom of the food chain.

The alphabet was Cyrillic and there was a mixture of right and left hand drive vehicles – yet they drive on the right.

Even the beds were softer than in China, which in some cases had been like sleeping on the kitchen table.

Taxis seem to be few and far between resulting in many people, both old and young, hitch hiking.

The word Almaty means apple – the name comes from the very large apples that once grew in the Tian Shan Mountains that dominates the city skyline.

Getting our visas for Turkmenistan was a high priority, and an interesting experience. Our guide, Marina, filled out the forms, they were submitted, corrected and then we were sent off to the bank to pay US$110 for the visas.

Then it was back to the consulate to submit the forms with a bank receipt.

The next day we returned to collect our visas and were given a lecture about the do’s and don’ts of travelling in Turkmenistan.

This was going to be a challenging country.

Touring around Almaty with our guide Marina and George her father, who was also our driver, was more like taking a city tour with friends.

Firstly we went to the the Ascension or Zenkov Cathedral where there was a service being held in remembrance of the Cossacks. There were young and old men in Russian uniforms and those ridiculously large hats that I remember from old cold war movies.

Zenkov Cathedral, completed in 1907, is Russian Orthodox and adorned with onion domes in cream and white. It’s made of timber and reportedly the third largest wooden structure in the world. The leader being the Forté residential block in Melbourne’s Docklands.

Then for a complete contrast we visited the Almaty Central Mosque that was build in the Turkish style in 1999. With over 70% of Kazakhs being Muslim this mosque is large, impressive and very busy, especially on Fridays.

After we visited the major sites Marina took us to the urban areas and we popped into a local market, supermarket and a department store. Here she chatted about life and living in Almaty. Then we went into the burbs to see where the affluent residents of Almaty live.

I wanted a carabina to hold extra equipment on my camera bag and George, who was the ‘outdoors’ type knew exactly where to go.

Our last stop was a walk up to the TV tower, overlooking the city. It was a balmy afternoon and some exercise was welcome. It was also a great opportunity to view Almaty from a high vantage point.

The area around the TV tower contained a mini zoo, an amusement park and spectacular views of the city and the surrounding mountain peaks.

Sadly our time in Kazakhstan was too short as we were only there for two nights.

The road trip from Almaty to Bishkek, in Kyrgyzstan, was made in a Soviet era Lada Niva. It was pouring with rain and I was wishing that we were still in George’s Toyota 4WD.

Valentino, our driver for the trip to the Kyrgyzstan border, took us through some of the villages that were originally on the ancient Silk Road. These caravans could only travel about thirty kilometers per day, which was the distance between the villages. As each village was built on a river, water and provisions were readily available.

It was then onto the highway and across the steppe with the Tien Shan Mountains on our left.

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