Kazakhstan pt.2 – Almaty

Series Links:

Part 1 – Arrival

Part 3- Charyn

Part 4- Hiking and horses

Part 5-Altyn Emel

Part 6- Homecoming

Almaty is Kazakhstan’s second city. It used to be the capital but that honour was moved to Astana, a new city for government officials built out of nothing, resplendent with fancy conceptual architecture. But Almaty has history, and it certainly doesn’t lack for geography either. It lies in the foothills of an impressive mountain range, and is thick with trees (it’s called a Garden City and is historically associated with Orchards). So many trees, in fact, that I for the first time in my life I was in a city complaining that the trees were obstructing visibility. And it’s a good thing there are so many trees, because another thing that crowds the place is traffic. Kazakhstan is rich in oil and not shy about burning it. Almaty’s tree-lined roads bear the iron horses of the modern horde.

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That’s far from the only contrast in the city. Some areas are clearly flush with money, with flashy looking offices, luxury boutiques and hotels clustered together in enclaves of capitalist triumph. Leading towards the upper part of town near the state buildings and statue of the Golden Warrior is a row of English-signed pubs and offices with plenty of suits in evidence. Just beyond that loom the great state buildings dating from the Soviet era. The whole place is a patchwork of East and West, modernisation and tradition, capitalism and communism. In many areas, the stitching is glaringly visible.

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The citizens are for the most part central Asian (and Central Asian Kazakhs can identify as a variety of ethnic groups on which I am not at all qualified to comment) with a significant Russian minority. Western European backpackers are not common, and were assumed to be Russian a few times during our stay. We also noticed a visible Korean minority, and accompanying them were restaurants, karaoke bars, and plenty of K-Pop to be heard around town. Our hostel was just round the corner from a Korean restaurant and we had a couple of nice dinners there, despite selecting our dishes by randomly pointing on the menu and smiling hopefully.

a mosque just around the corner from our hostel.

a mosque just around the corner from our hostel.

As I mentioned, westerners are rare, and a young couple with coloured hair, tattoos and piercings rare enough to attract a few stares and comments. People were always polite and the young Kazakhs who could speak more English came across as friendly, proud of their country’s successes but internationally-minded, many hoping to travel and get work experience abroad in Europe, Turkey, Russia or Asia. We kept an eye out for any interesting youth subcultures, but they were either few and far between or very well hidden. Count: 1 cute goth girl spotted on a metro platform, 1 heavy metal fan running a small electronics kiosk, and some young skaters around Abay street. Given how much we were sticking out, I wasn’t surprised by the attention, but it was pleasant to find that when people had something to say, it was complimentary and a nice contrast to the hostile catcalls and jeers a goth/punk looking person can still get in Europe.

Speaking of the European experience, we ‘westerners’ can often have an inflated sense of ourselves and our importance on the world stage. Travelling outside the Anglophone sphere of influence can be a healthy reality check. Kazakhstan itself is larger than Western Europe and looks mainly to Russia, Asia and Turkey for news and cultural exchange. People don’t always have such nice things to say about their neighbours in the other ‘stans though, especially Uzbekistan. This kind of rivalry isn’t uncommon among bordering nations, and Kazakhstan is doing the best out of the bunch economically and might have a tendency to look down its nose at its less prosperous neighbours.

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Getting around in Almaty can be a somewhat frustrating experience. There isn’t a lot of tourism infrastructure around, and the little there is mainly Russian. Most of the streets are not signed, and we had to navigate by finding a street sign and counting streets/consulting our maps from there. Sometimes it look a lot of walking just to find a sign and figure out where we were. The bus routes are similarly opaque. Routes or schedules are not shown at the stations, and you cannot always see the name of the bus stop itself. Fares are collected kind of haphazardly – in some cases people paid the driver upon boarding, other times upon leaving, or there was an official present on board to buy tickets from. While riding, I carefully scanned the passing scenery for signs and counted stops to try and keep track of where we were. Still, getting lost in Almaty at least provided some insights as to daily life of the citizens off the tourist path. There’s one metro service running in a crooked line through the city. It’s nice and spacious but doesn’t cover a lot of ground, and if you want to see most of Almaty you’d better get used to riding in a stranger’s car.

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Most people in Almaty actually get around via a kind of hitchhiking. The pedestrian stands at the edge of the road, sticks out their hand with digits extended just above waist height, and waits for an unmarked car to pick them up. They tell the driver where they’re going and propose a price. In this process, you might have to try a few times before you get someone who wants to go in your direction, but the locals swear you can always catch a ride anywhere around town with persistence. It’s cheap too, you can zip around the city for less than a euro per trip. These unofficial taxis are ubiquitous, but illegal, and the conscientious officers of the law check occupied cars to make sure that they get their cut. The black market cabbies are sanguine about these kickbacks, just a standard part of doing business in Kazakhstan, and they still come out profiting. This method of travel isn’t confined to the busy city – we saw plenty of people on the long stretches of road between settlements out in the steppes, waiting with the same gesture.

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Kazakhstan is a predominantly Muslim country, but aside from some impressive-looking mosques and domed cemeteries, you wouldn’t know it from walking around Almaty. The people do not wear religious dress, and when I spotted a bearded and robed fellow on the grounds of one of the mosques, my first thought was that he must be the Imam. There are several lovely mosques and orthodox churches to see in Almaty, but going by publicly displayed imagery and the way the Kazakhs talk about their country and history, it seems to me that the reverence of the people seems to be less directly towards religion and more to their national and cultural identity and nomadic history. Prominent symbols are the horse, the eagle, and the ancient golden warrior, all of which hark back to a romantic, mythic history. There is some awe-inspiring natural scenery to found outside the city (covered in the next blog post) that makes me wonder if the people have found it hard to forget Tengri, the ancient sky-god.

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Another rallying symbol for the Kazakh national identity is the figure of the head of state, Nursultan Nazarbayev. His visage appears frequently in various propaganda images around town, as well as along the country’s long stretches of highway. Nazarbayev is an interesting character. He was the First Secretary of the Communist Party when Kazakhstan was a Soviet Republic and was elected the first president of the newly independent Kazakhstan. Nazarbayev has enjoyed an uninterrupted, nearly 30-year reign and reinforces this with a cult of personality and a stoking of nationalistic feeling designed to unite the Kazakhstan’s various ethnic groups behind their leader. The few locals that I managed to speak to about their government seemed supportive of the president, while at the same time decrying the corruption of other government officials and institutions such as the police and customs officers. As one might imagine, democracy and freedom of expression in Kazakhstan are not up to international standards and the authoritarian vibe made me a little uneasy, especially when police or soldiers were around, which was a lot of the time.

Appropriately for this continuation of leadership, Kazakhstan’s soviet past is proudly honoured, and nowhere more prominently than in the Park of 28 Guardsmen, a place which reminded me of Berlin’s Treptower Park Red Army memorial, although Almaty’s memorials are bolder and more interesting.

a serpent-sighting

a serpent-sighting

serpent shown for scale (no pun intended)

serpent shown for scale (no pun intended)

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A big part of our stay in Almaty was trying as much exotic food and drink as we could. The national food isn’t particularly vegetarian-friendly. Harking back to the steppe lifestyle, animal products dominate the menu. Plov (meat and veg with rice) and shashlik (barbequed chicken or beef on a skewer) are ubiquitous and tasty. We also tried the national dish beshbarmek, horse meat served on a noodle soup. It might be an acquired taste, but personally I didn’t like the horse meat very much. My favourite dish I tried there was manti, a kind of dumpling stuffed with shredded meat and vegetables and served with dipping sauces. Food and drink is very cheap in Almaty compared to European cities and we managed to have a great time dining at top rated restaurants in the city for about 6 euro per meal. Our personal favourite restaurant was Rumi, an Uzbek themed restaurant in the city centre, but I’d have to say that my best meal in the country was some kind of meat-and-onion filled pasty that our driver bought for us in a roadside village, way out in the steppes. Wish I’d gotten a bag of those to go.

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We visited the Green Bazaar, Almaty’s famous open market. The bazaar is lively and busy, with throngs of people browsing, hawking, snacking and observing. The place is huge and multi-levelled, and we didn’t have much tolerance for the frantic crowd, so we threaded through an outer layer of souvenirs and tourist pap into a food court were we loaded up on nutty candies and various sweet cheeses. Free samples were given out left and right as the vendors competed for attention, calling out in several languages. A few of the traders tried out their German on us, and congratulated us on the World Cup victory, an honour which we graciously accepted this honour on behalf of our host country. We left with full bags and the impression that the fast-talking salesmen had loaded us up with way more than we could stomach, and, despite our attempts at haggling, probably come out of it very well.

No discussion of Kazakh cuisine would be complete without mention of kumis (fermented mare’s milk), the traditional drink of the steppe people, and shubat, a similar beverage where the animal of choice is the camel. I have to admit that to my palette, used to the mild taste semi-skimmed milk in my youth and mainly rice milk in more recent years, these drinks were strong, sour, and not very agreeable. Kazakh friends have since assured me that the brands available in supermarkets pale in comparison to more ‘authentic’ varieties. I remain skeptical, but should I find myself back in central asia, perhaps there’ll be a Round 2.

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We also went to the Kazakhstan Central State Museum, the building itself qualifying for historical interest along with the other big, brutalist soviet structures in the same district. Sadly the museum itself was not too impressive on the inside. A large chunk of the museum was inaccessible due to an electricity failure, others only available through a complex system of accessibility via different tickets. The staff were unhelpful and the security took a special interest in keeping an eye on us, making us feel on the whole rather unwelcome. The exhibit covered Kazakhstan’s story from prehistory (with some rather laughable 1920s hollywood-esque dinosaur models), to the modern day, with a few interesting artefacts from the periods I was most interested in (the Scythian culture and successor peoples, as well as the khanate), it still ended up feeling a little scant. Their special exhibition of golden coins and jewellery from an ancient burial site was a highlight, only accessible with a premium ticket, but a must if you’re visiting this museum.

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After a few days in Almaty we were itching to get out in the nature. We spent an evening on the high hill of Kok Tobe, where there was a permanent funfair and a few shops and cafes for the entertainment of families and youngsters. We watched the sun set over the stark and majestic mountains that proudly proclaim themselves to the local urbanites on a daily basis, and I felt envious of the residents, having such beautiful and dramatic scenery so easily accessible to those living in the big city. I only hope that the dynamism and enthusiasm for petrol and urban development in modern Kazakhstan is matched with careful conservation so that future generations can continue to benefit. We had made big plans to head out to some key natural spots far from the city, but we were going to start a little closer to our base. We take on the mountains, steppes and desert in part 3.

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~ by theserpentscircle on March 28, 2016.

3 Responses to “Kazakhstan pt.2 – Almaty”

  1. Looks like an interesting place!

  2. Can’t wait for your next instalment.My subscription to the National Geographic has run out,so this fills in the vacuum nicely.

  3. […] Part 2- Almaty […]

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