Friday, 13 July 2012

   On the way from there to the bus stop i fell into conversation, in English, with a Muslim cleric from Bangladesh who was interested in the ‘inter-faith’ dialogue angle of Astana; we also discussed its unique character as a ‘millennial’ capital. At nightfall i opted to head back to the cathedral and spend the night in a better place, behind bushes tucked under a ground floor balcony, though i did come under attack from mosquitoes, and a young chap discovered me at 5 in the morning, without making any fuss. I went to 7am Mass again, at which the Polish priest was saying in his homily that Jesus uses His friends in the world to save it. From there i walked quite a long way, in the direction of a rather Russian-looking high-rise edifice, knowing that the Chinese embassy is opposite. A statue of Mustapha Kemal Pasha, ‘Ataturk’, caught my eye on the way.[1] Arriving at the consulate entrance however, i was soon disabused of any notion that a Chinese visa would be easy to come by; one needs an invitation from inside China. Final confirmation that China was closed to me came afterwards, from first one then another travel agent; it’s necessary to have a residence permit before applying for a Chinese visa. So after a coffee i checked the internet for information about, apparently, the last remaining alternative – Mongolia. From what i could see, the Mongolian embassy was not in Astana, but in Kazakhstan’s ‘former, warmer and cultural capital’, Almaty, about 1000kms south east. In my experience that meant a physical journey thence, by an affordable overnight coach, since no trains were available.[2]
Practically the Himalayas, Almaty
   In the late afternoon of Thursday 9th June, dedicated to SS Ephrem, Columba and Colmcille, only slightly delayed by the coach having broken down, our arrival in Almaty was presaged by a vision of the snow-capped ‘Tian Shan’ mountains - foothills of the Himalayas, but quite spectacular in their own right. It occurred to me that, adorned with such majestic peaks, and with its typically prosperous and tranquil air, Kazakhstan might almost be designated the true "Switzerland with Minarets" beloved of Afghanistan-watchers; except that mountains aren't really typical Kazakh terrain, and nor are there all that many minarets, though it's not unusual to see mosques under construction. I checked into a very handy, inexpensive, clean hostel place at the main bus station.
   Most of the next morning was spent using public transport, on the trail of the Mongolian embassy. Markedly hotter and sunnier weather, and a new type of blackbird with a painted face and barred wings, dispelled any lingering doubts about my being in Asia proper. When at last i got to the embassy, a surprisingly weather-beaten compound in a remote suburb, i learnt that it was not only closed, but would not be open again until Wednesday of the next week, because of the SCO conference in Astana – tidings which, i confess, occasioned my enunciation of one or two oaths. It seemed advisable to make for the second of Almaty’s train stations, on the other side of town, and buy the travel tickets which i needed in any case, and which would almost certainly be a prerequisite for the issuance of any visa or visas. A consideration here was the fact that Kazakhstan and Mongolia do not quite share a border; the most eastern point of Kazakhstan is a tantalising 35 km from the most western point of Mongolia. Flights between the two countries are infrequent and booked up months in advance, so rail travel offered the best hope. With some difficulty, i managed to buy a ticket from the north of Kazakhstan to Irkutsk, near Lake Baikal in Siberia, and from there to Ulan Bator, capital of Mongolia. Then in sultry evening conditions after dark i found my way to a place where i’d left clothes to dry in a courtyard between some tower blocks, and availed myself of a reasonable night’s sleep.

[1] When in Turkey on the previous pilgrimage, i had felt a certain sympathy for the Turks, in supposing that they are without much of a ‘wider family’ in the world. This sympathy was entirely misplaced; many peoples of central Asia, including the Kazakhs, are their ‘cousins’, with strong linguistic, religious and cultural ties, no weaker than, for instance, those of the British with peoples on the continent of Europe.
[2] The arcane demands of visa applications and their purchase must surely rival the lack of goal-line technology in football for shear ludicrous inconsistency with 21st century advances in other areas. 

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