Friday, 27 July 2012
Day 124 - Almaty Kazakhstan.
Driving through the 350km of countryside between the Chinese border and Almaty, it felt suitably remote and backward – as we in the West associate with this part of the world. We were struck by the immediate but expected contrast between Kazakhstan and China. The buildings are mainly run down and of the Soviet era, the general store is filled with bread, milk, cheese, pastries and more than one type of beer, and everyone speaks Russian.
What we weren’t prepared for though, was that when we got to Almaty, we would feel like we had already arrived in Europe. The roads are wide and new and there is the usual range of grand parliamentary and government buildings, high rise apartment and office blocks, international hotels, restaurants, bars, supermarkets and so many lovely parks and leafy streets, not to mention the snow capped mountains surrounding the city. We are no longer automatically celebrities just because of the colour of our skin, in fact other than a few very subtle differences in fashion we could easily be locals. We hadn’t expected that to happen until much further towards Europe.
When we first arrived we drove around the city to try and look for the area we should be getting accommodation and hanging out in – just like we do in every city. We really couldn’t figure it out though. There were plenty of nice bars and restaurants, and we came across a couple of hotels. We could even guess where the centre of town was; we just couldn’t find anything that looked like a hostel or a guesthouse or anything along those lines. We couldn’t even find an internet cafe.
Not sure what else to do, we pulled up at the Holiday Inn and went inside to see if they’d at least have a map. The Holiday Inn in Kazakhstan is quite a posh affair, and the reception staff were exceptionally helpful. A man with completely Asian features, but blue eyes and light brown hair, standing at least 6 feet tall, took our case on board, while his very pretty blue eyed, black haired, pale skinned Arab colleague helped him out. Not only did they have a map for us, they were also more than happy to help us with accommodation. Apparently there aren’t really hostels or anything like that in Almaty. If you can’t afford to stay in a hotel, you can hire an apartment. Well this sounded fun... and possibly expensive, and we had no idea how we’d go about organising it. Fortunately huge blue eyed Asian man was more than happy to help, and offered to make some phone calls on our behalf – no strings attached. The pale skinned Arab lady translated the phone conversation as it was happening; it would cost 10,000 TT ($66) between us, but I think this was for two apartments each sleeping two. Realising that this was more money than we were hoping to spend, huge blue eyed Asian man told us about the particular stretch of street where people (usually ladies) stand at the side of the road dangling bunches of keys. It feels a bit underground and black markety, but the fact that we were directed there by the reception staff at the Holiday Inn was somewhat reassuring, so we gave it a go. The first lady we asked shook her head, indicating she only had space for two people. The next lady waved her hands a bit and did some meaningful pointing and yelled a lot of Russian at us, and then we followed her down the road, through the underpass, along the street a bit more, into the garden/car park of a housing complex, through a bullet proof door, up six flights of stairs and through another bullet proof door into what would become our home for the next week (or so). It’s a very small, but adequately clean and suitably retro two-room apartment, with a real European bathroom – shower curtain, Western toilet, and toilet paper! We drew lots of pictures and counted on our fingers several times, and eventually came to the agreement that it would cost 6,000 TT ($40) per night and we could all sleep here as long as two people don’t mind sleeping on the floor and we would be quiet and not disturb the neighbours.
The house warming for our apartment in Almaty was quite a do – we drank the local brew that is sold in the supermarkets straight from taps, watched the Russian music channel and ate doner kebabs around our two person kitchen table. We invited all our friends over, but everyone seemed to be predisposed in another part of the world. In the week that we’ve now been here we’ve come to feel very at home. Our daily routine is something along the lines of: go to some Embassies/Consulates during the day, then go home for a little bit before trekking down to McBurger which has become our local wifi hang out. Come dinner time we like to get doner kebabs from the guy on the corner (he’s our favourite in the area), and hit up a cool bar down the street called Pintas.
We’ve had some wins and some losses during our various Embassy visits, but more about that later.