Made famous by Borat, my Skype photo and just a place I wanted to see. We noticed in the local paper that there was daily direct flights from HCMC to Almaty.
So we booked, to go in February……I arranged visa’s via a complex process involving a battle with DHL and Singapore, but the passports eventually arrived back…..then we realised it would be winter and not just any old wintery place; I looked at the temperature charts, -10 to 0 being advised. Shit, I have never been anywhere like that, we looked for clothes in the local market, and you can imaging trying these on in 36c and high humidity in crowded markets….fits like a love sir!…F’me mate get it off I am going to pass out!! Cathie had a return ticket, which would have been forfeited as she was not returning having found a full time job, so Cathie returned to Australia and brought back our winter kit, such as it is.
We took off and landed at 7pm, snow everywhere but welcomed by Slavan who turned out to be our driver for the week – I had booked through a tour company, who now I realise rather ominously had said …we don’t get many tourist in Feb so your group tours – they were all group tours – will likely only have you and your wife on them…, and that is what happened. We were deposited at our hotel and ironically had to open windows as the place was so hot. The hotel was Soviet style, Kasakstan was part of the USSR, it was where the political prisoners, including Lennin when he pissed Starlin off, were sent…I only found this out when, which is my habit, I bought some books to find out about the place I was visiting, I tend not to do it before I go, don’t want to be put off, it is best to be in situe otherwise you would never go anywhere and just watch Discovery channel.
Breakfast was a strange mix of attempts to satisfy some western taste but the majority was distinctly local including horse meat etc. Horses are close the heart of Kazacks!
Cathie bought a lovely book “Apples are from Kazakstan”, it turns out that what we eat as apples all originate from a single apple tree that grows wild, it is the genetic forebear of all apples, and the Caspian sea was the first major oil area and the list of …bugger me is that so…. goes on.
Kazakhstan was home to Genghis Khan, it is a mix of Tibet, Mongolia, China, Northern Slavic peoples, and is home to the Russian steppes, which I remembered from school. It is simply and amazing place and like Vietnam has had its Dynasties, revolutions, conflicts, occupations and through all this a rich cultural tradition – we even made it to the ballet to Anna Karenina. Almaty is not the capital anymore but is the hub of trade and culture, is surrounded by soaring mountains which are part of the Himalayas, and to the East, which we went to, lay the large mountains that separate the country from China. The Silk route traversed the country and thus we found a connection to Jordan…trekking over those mountains thousands of years ago must have been some effort, let alone making it to Jordan and then Africa.
We saw the sights of Almaty, parks, Christian Orthodox churches, which our young guide for one day had never been inside of as he is Muslim, as is the whole country except for a small group of Christians, but both get on, it is hard for us to understand the discrimination and down right brutality that Muslim groups have been victims of all over Europe, down through Russia, India and modern day Myanmar, which whilst not paralleling the WWII treatment of the Jews, both groups have suffered over 2000 years, and Kazakhstan’s Muslims are no different, the treatment during the USSR occupation, for example, was just appalling. The middle east conflicts are part of a much larger picture which I am only starting to understand, it seems to me that this mutual mistreatment by others may hold a small starting point to reconciliation – one thing for sure without the bigger historic picture being understood and accepted nothing will be resolved.
Almaty has many Soviet style monolithic style buildings – they are big, ugly and massive; the parks have many statues to the fallen heroes particularly related to WWI and WWII – we forget that the USSR lost over 20m people during WWII, is it any wonder that Stalin setup a buffer – but the treatment dealt out to these countries post WWII was horrendous.
Ironically in some ways Almaty is home to one of the worlds top Ski resorts which sits high above the city, but you can’t see it because of the smog layer, as you drive up and then catch the ski lift the snowy wonderland reveals itself – it is wondrous and so unexpected, and was packed. Apparently the slopes are so steep and fast that many find the first decent so frightening they are hesitant to go again. It is also home to many of the winter and European snow sports, in fact in the middle of Almaty is this odd looking structure, which turns out to be the ski jump used in competition.
We really need not have worried about the weather as it was perfect, clear skies with a temperature range of -10c to 5c but importantly with no wind. As we drove around the country side we saw the poverty (Borat did portray this accurately, and I will cut him some slack that he was doing so honesty to bring this to our attention), small houses some drab and decorated, Mosques – austere in design but in each town, many road side stalls and bakeries, we sampled the wonderful flat bread. There was one instance where we passed a lot of men and women standing on the roadside in the middle of nowhere – they were selling fish. Protein is important, obviously, and there a many fish farms, we even visited one and caught trout – Cathie catching the biggest!
To conclude we ventured out East wards towards the mountains and the border with China to see the gorges – well we didn’t make it and the van got bogged in the snow as we venturing across the start of the Steppes, a vast flat white with snow covered stretch of geography that goes on for thousands of miles North…it was a pity, but gave rise to much laughter and digging by Slavan with me standing around watching and Cathie marveling at the Geography of it all and taking a few snaps.
I could rattle on, if you get a change to go, do it. How you enjoy the pics.