Almaty was the capital of Khazakstan until 1998 when it was replaced by Astana, but it is still has the reputation of being the most cosmopolitan city in Central Asia. We were there just for two days when the Khazaks were clelebrating Victory Day making it even more lively.
Children were marching and singing songs in the streets, old people who were veterans from WW2 were standing alongside soldiers by the park monuments to be taken pictures of and the young people were raving with us in the clubs like there was no tomorrow. Some being quite rich and insisted on buying us drinks for a small chat that usually only consted of them only asking about our nationalities and what had brought us to Khazakstan as that was as far as their vocabulary reached.
On our guided city walk we got to visit a couple of museums, we saw a beautiful cathedral built only by women and the Tian Shan mountains laying South of the city, separating Khazakstan and Kyrgizstan. There is a cable car going all the way up from the city to the Chimbulak Ski Resort, laying at around two thousand meters height but we decided to rent a van with a driver for a cheaper price plus having the possibility of stopping at several viewpoints along the way.
When getting off the train in Urumqi (pronounced Uru-Muchi), the capital of the Xinjang province, we felt that we were no longer in China, but in one of the Central Asian countries. This was muslim China and food, people, buildings etc were much different to what we had seen in Beijing.
When asking Chinese people about Urumqi people had been saying that it was beuatiful, had the best barbeque in China and was dangerous. There had been violent riots here in the past and the streets were full of military police making sure that nothing went on. It felt quiet and safe, and we walked around with our local guide to explore the Mosque, the Bazaar (market) and a park located on top of a hill.
When the evening came we sat down to have some shish kebabs, or Shashlyk as they are called here, and some beers that we just bought from the nearby store. Evening turned into night and people started heading back to the hotel, but as it was our last night in China we wanted to spend our last Chinese money (23rmb/3USD) on a couple of beers and kebabs, but then some Khazak people from the neighbour table invited us over and insisted that the rest of the evening would be their treat.
They kept buying kebabs and beers for us until the restaurant closed and then they asked us to come home to them for some more food and drinks. Again they insisted on paying for the taxi and we were on our way to a local home, with only a couple of dollars in our pockets and no understanding of the local language. It was the best decision ever. We ended up spending the whole night eating horse meat, drinking beer, singing (mostly Norwegian childrens songs) and dancing. It was all quite hillarious, with us speaking no Khazak or Chinese and they speaking no Norwegian or English, but we still managed to understand quite a bit, like that they thought we looked like Leonardo di Caprio and Charles Darwin and that they wanted us to join killing their sheep. We kindly declined and got on a bus back to the city in the morning.
Only fog, rain and wind when we were at the Great Wall
I had arrived with the night train from North Korea early in the morning and was looking forward to meeting my friend Robert who would join me on a month long trip along the Silk Road.
I had already seen the most important sights that the city had to offer on my last visit to Beijing, but agreed to go to the Great Wall if we could go on a quick trip to Badaling, one of the most touristy
and closest spots to Beijing, being just an hour drive away. We picked the cheapest tour of 180rmb, which was a horrible idea as the reason for beiing so cheap was that the driver would let us off at multiple souvenier shops to get paid from letting then try to push on us jade jewelery, tea and lots of other things that we had no interest in. The weather was also horrible with lots of rain and no sight at all so we drove back after having spent less than an hour at the Great Wall. What a bummer.
Things got a bit better in the evening when we went to a couchsurfing party in the Wudaokou area where most the foreign students live. A draft beer at “the Red House” was just five Yuan, so the students would usually sit there until midnight and then they would move on to the clubs close by. We went to a student bar called “Sugar Crush” which was absolutely crazy. They had beer pong tables lined up and several times throughout the evening they shouted free shots for everyone waking their shirt off. It more like the American college movies than anything else I have seen before. We spent more than two hours trying to find the way back to Dragon King hostel where we stayed, after several taxi drivers had given up and just asked us to get out. Having an adress to go after, preferably in Chinese would have been of great help.
We met up with our small group of two aussies and two kiwis who would join us on the 32 hour train ride to Urumqi and the rest of our Silk Road adventure with Vodkatrain.
North Korea must be one of the Worlds most expensive countries to travel to, as it is one out of just three countries in the World where tourists are required to be accompanied by a guide at all times. The other three countries being Bhutan and Turkmenistan. Itineraries can be custom made to include not only cities, but also beaches, mountain hikes and skiing in ski resorts, but you will have to pay 1000RMB/100GBP upwards per day.
I did not have a budget for a big tour and decided to go for a day trip from China, which is the only way you can go without having to fly into the country. On the South Korean side they only let you go to a so called demilitarised zone/DMZ, which would not really classify as North Korea.
So first step would be to book a mockup itinerary with refundable flights and hotels in order to get a double entry visa to China and be able to travel there freely. As long as you register your visa in a hotel or at a police station within 24 hours after arrival (72hrs in rural areas) you will be fine doing it this way.
I booked my flight to Shenyang which is the biggest close city to North Korea, just a five hour train ride away that only costs 94RMB/10GBP for a hard sleeper bed. I booked my train tickets through chinahoghlights.com and got a reference number to pick up the train tickets at the station.
Then I sent a booking request to a Chinese agency in Dandong called Dandong International Tours (link) to hear when they were running group tours to Sinju. In the summer time this will be almost every day except Mondays, but in the Winter time there might be weeks in between the tours. My day had a departure for a Chinese group confirmed so I could join them for 1290RMB/130GBP or even cheaper at 800RMB/80GBP had I been Chinese. An independent tour with the same company would have cost 2490RMB/250GBP which would have been pretty much the same experience as going with a group as I got my own Engliah speaking guide anyway.
The tour was a great from beginning to end and you can read more about it in my next post.
The Friendship Bridge – see the right one has been destroyed?
Sinju Kindergarden known for training child performers for the annual Arirang Mass Games
The first thing we did when going to Sinju was to make a stop by some huge bronze statues of Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il standing in front of a newly built monument. We were everyone were asked to buy flowers, bow down and place them at the feet of the statues, which to me felt a bit funny. I therefore asked if I could chose not to buy the flowers, but got then the guide just showed me her Kim Jong Un pin, which every North Korean carries by their heart and said “we respect our great leaders here, and so should you when visiting Korea”. The battle was lost and I paid 20rmb for contributing to building the sea of flowers that were lying at the feet of the great dictators.
The grand monument and statues seemed to have a bit of a holy status, as they could only be photographed by a professional and then we got to buy printed versions of the photos from the North Korean photographed afterwards. For the rest of the tour we were told that we were only allowed to take photos when being at our stops, with lots of rules like not being allowed to take single person shots and we were told that all pictures would be Examiners by the border guards when leaving the country afterwards. When I managed to shake off my guide at one of the stops I took some great pictures from the window at one of the stops overlooking the Yale River Park where children were playing joyfully in a broken ferie wheel until a man shouted in Korean and my guide came running and asked me to delete the pictures at once. I then decided not to try taking pictures of people any more and that I would give the guide some good tips after the tour was over for being yelled at over something that was my fault.
We then visited a cosmetics factory where they made soap, make-up and toothpaste was being made. It was so uninterresting that I asked my guide if we could just sit outside and talk in the sun instead. The guide was the same age as me, and I showed her pictures from Norway, South Korea and China and told her what it all was like and pushed my questions a bit further every time to know what life was really like in the Worlds most closed country. She seemed to enjoy watching photos and hearing my stories, but at the same time she seemed to genuinely believe that her government acted in her best intentions as she was free to date whoever she wanted, choose whatever job and education she wanted and when she turned 26 she could apply for marriage where the government would supply her with an apartment as she then would move out from her parents house. If she lost her job, which rarely happened the government would give her 300 grams of rice a day until she found a new job. She laughed a little when I told her that the story of Kim climbing DPRKs highest mountain in his suit had reached our country as well and confirmed it to be a true story. I guess she had her limits to what she could tell me.
While the rest of our group went off to do various activities like bb gun shooting in a park we just walked around continuing our conversations until driving off to lunch. A grand luch with lots of beer, food and entertainment, which kind of made us forget about the bus rides in between every stop where no one smiled and everyone were just continuing with their jobs of watering plants, carrying rice on their shoulders and digging up the soil in the fields. It seemed like they were not allowed or at least not supposed to wave at us, as if they were not at all curious about us or as if we were not even there. It was a funny feeling.
The last stop visited was a kindergarden famous for music, drama and arts- the highlight of the trip in my eyes. Here we visited classes with disiplined children listening to their teachers and watched them draw highly detailed drawings which was crazy for children at such a young age (up to six). The Chinese people in the group were still a bit drunk from lunch and started playing on drums, hugging the children and grabbing children against their will to take pictures with them- quite provocative for me to watch. They were even smoking in the hallway entrance of the kindergarden the ignorant Chinese. I forgot all about it when they showed us how they had trained for the Arirang mass games, which is a huge show taking place in Pyongyang every year. The children were singing, playing all kinds of instruments and performing dramas including scenes of war and acrobatics. It totally blew me away and was the perfect ending of a trip to the DPRK.