I had only been in Almaty for about 20 minutes, and already I had managed to embarrass myself.
We were all sitting in the backseat of a smoke-scented taxi with a busted windscreen, heading to our hotel, and chatting with the driver Andre, who could speak some pretty decent English, having spent a few years living in Belgium as a young man.
After chatting for a while, I asked him something that I had not been able to find out about online: “Do you know where we can sleep in a yurt?”
Andre frowns, and takes his eyes off the road for entirely too long to look at me very strangely.
“A yurta?” He makes the shape of the round house ubiquitous with the nomadic tribes of Kazakhstan. “You want to sleep inside this?” He starts to laugh and shakes his head. “No no, this is crazy. Smell inside is very bad. Nobody will do this. Why you want to do this?”
Maybe it would be the equivalent of a tourist arriving in America and asking if there was some dodgy trailer park they could spend the night, rather than a nice clean hotel? I have no idea. Maybe once upon a time a yurt was still commonly used as a dwelling, but is disappearing in the country’s march to modernity. I had thought that it might be a nice experience to sleep in a yurt once in my life, if only for a night. Oh well!
Never in a million years did I ever expect to have the chance to visit the ‘glorious nation’ of Kazakhstan. But when my husband’s job had to send him there for two weeks, I knew this could be once in a lifetime opportunity not to be missed.
Not being familiar with Central Asia, I had to do some serious research to understand a bit about where I was going, and what there was to see. And the more I read, the more excited I became.
But first, you may be wondering, where the heck is Kazakhstan? (Don’t worry, I had to brush up on my geography too.)
It’s the largest land-locked nation in the world, bordering Russia, China, Kyrgystan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. And, like its neighbours, it is an ex-Soviet Union country, with a very strong Russian influence. Russian is the number one language, followed by Kazakh. The people there are a really fascinating mix of ethnicities, some with blond hair and blue eyes, some with Korean and Mongolian and Chinese backgrounds, and the ethnic Kazakhs, a traditionally nomadic people who had tamed wild horses around 8000 B.C.. And that description just barely scrapes the surface of the incredible history and culture of this place.
A surprisingly easy six hour flight from Hong Kong took us to the old capital city, Almaty. It turned out to be quite a scenic place, with large tree-lined boulevards, large parks with fountains and monuments, and, of course, the ever present mountains that tower over you at all times.
Some parts of the city seem modern, with trendy cafes, shopping malls, Starbucks cafes and Toni and Guy hair salons. But the old USSR influence is still very tangible. You can see it in the architecture, and feel it in the imposing walls, gates and fences that surround presidential palaces, with a seemingly never ending supply of policemen who take great joy in stopping people for bad driving, and trust me, everyone drives badly. I mean, I thought Trinis were bad, but Kazakhs really took it to a new level!
While in the city, we did the typical sightseeing of popular spots, such as the Green Bazaar, a massive marketplace selling fresh produce, meat, spices, dried fruits, and lots and lots of honey. You can also stock up on some great counterfeit goods like fake Lego from China. Nearby was the Panfilov Park, and the famous Zenkov Cathedral, which unfortunately was getting a facelift and was covered in scaffolding. We did, however, get to see an orthodox baptism ceremony for a Russian family.
All in all Almaty is an interesting place, and thanks to Uber incredibly easy and cheap to get around, with most things within a 15 minute car ride. But the real interesting stuff was what came next, when we drove 200 km out of the city, and into the middle of nowhere, to see the wild side of Kazakhstan.
Stay tuned for the next post!