Several weeks ago, the land crossing at the border between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan opened to vehicular traffic for the first time since I’ve been here. It takes about fifteen minutes from our house in Tashkent to drive past the ring road and up the M-39 to the crossing itself. After going through immigration and customs on both the Uzbek and Kazakh sides, it’s about another 90 minutes (depending on weather and road conditions) to the Kazakh city of Shymkent (Шымкент). Oh Shymkent – where have you been all my Tashkent tour?
The total distance between the two cities is about 75-80 miles. The first time we went up, it took over 4 hours due to an active blizzard. We also drove half the distance via Kazakh country roads due to road work on the A-2, which continues still. I took an embassy satellite phone…and I was glad I did.
I have an SUV with all-wheel drive and solid tires, but the drive north felt treacherous when the snow was blowing so hard I could scarcely see 20 yards ahead. Even still, numerous drivers in less roadworthy cars raced by us like bats out of hell, responding to low visibility and slippery conditions by increasing their speed, honking, and overtaking semi-trucks on blind curves while flashing their high beams. I grew up near the Lake Tahoe area so needless to say, a lack of experience (or sanity) when it comes to winter driving is obvious to me. I know how to fall back and avoid the lunacy – although in fairness there was a part of me that questioned the wisdom of taking the trip in a blizzard to begin with. I think I was just determined to finally get up there.
The photo below shows the best part of the A-2 southbound at about 26 degrees Fahrenheit…absolutely covered in sheets of black ice.
In the end, I’ve enjoyed both of my visits to Shymkent enormously. One of my favorite things about Shymkent is the Mega Planet mall (formerly Ramstore), where you can shop for electronics and toiletries. This might not seem like a big deal. But the selection and prices are great, and compared to Tashkent (where many products are expensive, counterfeit, or simply don’t exist) it IS a big deal. Kazakhstan’s import game looks strong from here. Perfume, toothpaste, contact lens solution, hygiene items – safe, plentiful, and reasonably priced.
There’s also a Firkan grocery store in the basement of that mall that carries a wide variety of cheeses, alcohol, and international food. Hello, Brie, Chilean wine and shrimp!! Quite simply, it’s worth the trip just for groceries. The first time we went, the temperature was below freezing, and a trunk full of frozen vegetables, cheese and seafood stayed frozen solid all the way home.
Besides the mall, there’s a five star Turkish hotel called the Rixos Khadisha. For as little as about $150 per night, you can stay in an exquisite room and have your buffet breakfast at the Kazakhazia restaurant downstairs, including eggs cooked to order, a variety of fruits and coffees, sushi, fish, nuts, cheeses and meats, and pastries. The first time I saw it, I could not believe my eyes.
If you want to just visit the hotel to have breakfast, breakfast will run you about $9 a person. The Rixos also has an Italian restaurant called Olivia that is spectacular for dinner with a wide variety of pasta and meat dishes, wines and liquors. There’s also room service, although I haven’t tried it myself.
The hotel has a lovely atrium where you can enjoy service from the bar and confectionary, or you can just sit in peace and listen to a yellow canary sing. There is a spa on the underground level offering massages and beauty treatments by appointment, and featuring a heated indoor pool (with so. much. gold.) and a Turkish hamam (steam bath). There’s even an underground parking garage.
As much as I love winter, I am excited to visit Shymkent in the spring. It will be easier to make the drive north, and easier to walk around town without slipping.
Private citizens crossing the border in their own car should be aware that non-diplomats will be obligated to fill out detailed customs paperwork when leaving and re-entering Uzbekistan. Not knowing any Russian or Uzbek may make this difficult. We saw maybe only two local vehicles coming through during our cumulative time at the border, while hundreds of shuttle traders passed through the pedestrian side on foot. Local vehicles undergo significant inspections, including, in some cases, the removal of wheels and interior panels. Of course, we aren’t subject to this because of the Vienna Convention, but it’s something to consider. We did have to show our vehicle “technical passport” which Uzbek authorities issued to me last year. The consular officer in me recommends always being familiar with international laws and procedures (or lack thereof) while traveling, and consulting official sources for instructions and information.