Saved: December 29th 2012April 9th 2011
Kazakhstan, the ninth-biggest country in the world, was the first stop on my third solo adventure. Nothing like the nation depicted by the fictional character Borat, KA3AKCTAH was an oil-rich central Asian republic doing very well for itself. Skyscrapers were shooting up all over Almaty and Westerners on the scent of a dollar to be made were arriving in droves.
My trip to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan was a visa headache of epic proportions. Letters of Invitation and pieces of paperwork written in Cyrillic were passed back and forth via email, which together with the fees I had to shell out to smooth the way forward, made it a bureaucratic nightmare. As it stood, I had one visa stamp already in my passport, Kazakhstan’s, and hopefully with bit of luck, I’d pick up the other two on arrival at their respective airports.
Landing late afternoon at Almaty Airport, the outside scene was almost alpine. An impressive range of jagged snow-capped mountains dominated the horizon. As we taxied in however it was clear we were not in Switzerland but were in fact in a former Soviet-republic. The impressive amount of Antonovs, Ilyushins, and Yaks parked around, most looking as if
they had not flown in a long while, were the first indication - the majority belonging to the now defunct Kazakhstan Air. Some large red Cyrillic lettering spelled out Almaty Airport on the terminal building, and when we entered the actual terminal, the customs officials waiting for us were all wearing uniforms and gigantic dinner-plate hats. They were so huge and cumbersome-looking that I wondered whether they gave the wearer any neck problems.
My visa was thankfully okay, and I was soon stamped into the Republic of Kazakhstan. Even better was the man with my name written on a placard waiting for me in the arrivals hall. He doubled up as my driver into the centre of the city. “You have arrived at right time,” he told me as we set off. “Only two days ago there were snow blizzards in Almaty!”
Very quickly we joined a wide three-lane highway populated by drivers all eager to be auditioned as stunt drivers of doom. Swerving was always at the last second but my driver seemed to take it all in his stride. The mad driving would always come to a dramatic standstill whenever a pedestrian stepped onto one of
the marked crossings. Brakes were jammed on with such haste that squeals of rubber could be heard. Evidently running down a pedestrian was a big no-no in Kazakhstan.
The airport road depicted a scene of Almaty that resembled other former Soviet cities I’d been to. High-rise apartment blocks interspersed with the odd bit of green park giving the city a slightly grim and gloomy look. Locals were stood at bus stops, while gangs of women armed with huge paintbrushes toiled at the base of trees, painting them white.
“This highway follows what was once part of the Silk Road,” mentioned my driver as we headed up another wide boulevard lined with shops and bus stops. He was referring, of course, to the ancient trade route that had once crossed from Europe to China, with Almaty being one of the major trading centres along the way.
The Kazhol Hotel was actually quite nice, despite the name, even if it did offer horse on its restaurant menu. I was actually temped by it to be honest, but after such little sleep I elected to give it a miss, instead opting for steak, which came with some stirrups and a
name tag which read Mr Cloppity.
The next morning was an extravaganza of sightseeing. First stop was the magnificent golden-domed Central Mosque. To get there I had to cross busy roads after busy road where every driver was mindful of me crossing. It was actually disconcerting at times because all I would have to do was step into the road and a car would screech to a halt. There were a few police cars about, and like their airport counterparts, they contained policeman donning large dinner-plate caps.
Not far from the mosque was Zelyony Bazaar, otherwise known as the Green Market. I browsed some of the stalls, passing clothes, flowers, and vegetables until I came to an area that specialised in plumbing equipment. I wandered onwards, finding myself in a cavernous meat hall split into sections according to the animal type for sale. I trotted straight for the horse section. Serving women wearing headscarves were stood about looking faintly bored, but I wasn’t and couldn’t help but stare at the dangling horse penis for sale in front of me. I really fancied taking a photo of it but didn’t dare. I was getting funny looks as it was
and so I moved away, wondering what the horse sausages were made from. I could easily imagine a scene in a local Kazakh abode. “Ah yes, love. I think I fancy a bit of roasted horse dick with my salad tonight.”
Panfilov Park was largely empty except for some families with toddling children. One end of the park was dominated by a huge Soviet-style war memorial commemorating soldiers who had died fighting the Germans in the Second World War. It was a fairly typical Soviet-style sculpture, full of heroic poses and proud gestures, but it was still impressive. Just in front of it was an eternal flame, a fitting reminder to the soldiers who’d lost their lives.
I was getting hot and bothered and could only blame the people of Almaty for that. When I’d gone for breakfast that morning, I’d looked outside to see what people were wearing, a good indicator of the temperature I reasoned. Everyone I could see was wearing a jacket and some were even sporting hats. Satisfied that it was fairly chilly, I finished my breakfast and donned my fleece. Bloody hell, I thought, when I’d stepped outside. It was really hot, but
being too lazy to return to my room, I was soon sweating, wondering why everyone else was wearing coats.
Not quite in the same league as St Basil’s in Moscow, the Zenkov Cathedral was still a pretty good building. And it became even better when I learned that it was made entirely of wood, even the nails, and was in actual fact the second tallest wooden building in the world. But it was the colours that were particularly fetching: yellows, red and blues, making it almost toy-looking. In a small square nearby, children and their parents were in attendance, most feeding the pigeons but some waiting to ride the solitary horse that patrolled the square.
Almaty was a fairly flat city but it did have a noticeable gradient as I headed south. In the distance I could see the mountain range I’d seen at the airport. Large department stores and posh-looking restaurants were on both sides of the street, and this part of town had an air of affluence about it. The people on the street were paying me no heed and so I began to study them a little more. By my reckoning, about three-quarters were ethnic
See a horse penis inside!
Kazakh’s, displaying a faintly Chinese look about them. The remainder were Russian-looking types, the girls with blond hair. Another notable feature was that no one was obese or overweight. Perhaps this was linked to the fact there were no McDonalds, KFCs or Pizza Huts in the city. To calm my pounding feet, I stopped in a popular coffee house and after the expensive, but nice, coffee, I was off again, heading to the Dawn of Freedom Monument.
It was a strange-looking thing, depicting a woman with what looked like wings. She was holding both arms in the air and seemed to be releasing a bird of some kind. Constructed in 2006 it was a memorial to people killed during the 1986 unrest when protestors were shot at by the Communist police.
Not far away was the imposing former Parliament Building, so immense in size that it took ages just to walk past. In a nice little park behind it, the Presidential Residence stood proud. With the nation’s capital moved north to Astana in 1997, I doubted very much whether the president was in attendance, but nevertheless, I had an amble around the park, looking at some of the
statues on offer. Families with small children were also enjoying the warm spring of Almaty, posing for photographs in front of some.
The current president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, had been in control of Kazakhstan since its independence in the early 90s. He has been accused by some of not allowing fair elections, and by others of siphoning off at least $1 billion in oil profits into his own private accounts. Whether any of this is true or not, one fact stands out. As the aging president has got older he has expressed a desire for Kazakh scientists to come up with a cure against ageing to enable him to rule for even longer.
Like a lot of nations once under control from another country, Almaty had a large and striking monument placed in the centre of a ceremonial square. This one was called, appropriately enough, the Monument to Independence, and consisted of a tall stone pedestal with a replica of the famous Golden Man at the top. The Golden Man was the costume of a warrior dating from the 5th century found near Almaty in 1969. It soon became the national symbol of Kazakhstan. After a quick walk around
its surrounding statues, I headed east towards the cable car station.
The artfully named Kok-Tobe cable car only took five minutes to reach the top. Plenty of other people were up at the hilltop complex with me, most enjoying the wonderful view of Almaty. Children weren’t bothered by the views though; they were more interested in shoot the duck type stalls. I few stalls had been set up selling overpriced touristy stuff, but I ignored them and walked over to the small zoo which I soon found out specialised in chickens from around the world. Further on, in a tucked away part of the complex was perhaps the most peculiar sight: all four Beatles, standing around a bench while Beatles’ music was softly piped though. And towering above it all was the TV Tower.
Parks were a common feature of Almaty, often full of families enjoying a leisurely outing in the spring sunshine. Teenagers sat canoodling on benches and it was plainly clear that the Kazakhstan portrayed by the character Borat was at odds with the one I was seeing. But I wasn’t the only Englishman to realise this. Vinnie Jones, ex footballer and now film star, went
so far as to actually ridicule Sacha Baron Cohen’s depiction of this central Asian nation.
I knew this because he’d recently been in Almaty for six days to star in a Kazakh film entitled Liquidator.
In my wanderings I found several large billboards advertising the film. When casting for the main parts, I later found out that the Kazakh director, feeling that no local actors would possess the required menace for the role, had decided to hire Jones. Luckily for the British actor though, he wasn’t required to speak any Russian, and in fact didn’t have to converse at all. His part was that of a mute assassin.
While in Kazakhstan, Vinnie Jones proved popular because as well as his acting, he also promised to spread the word about how great the country was. He was also reported to have enjoyed the Kazakh national dish of horse meat and pasta, all boiled up in a tasty soup.
I came across a bar named Mad Murphy’s that according to my guide book specialised in stout. I entered, finding myself in a bar filled with screens showing the Grand Prix live. “I’m sorry, but we have no Guinness or
Murphy’s,” said the girl behind the bar. “And we also don’t have any local beer. In fact the only thing we have is Heineken.” I nodded and accepted this, sitting down to watch the remaining few laps of the race.
For my final morning in Almaty, I plodded westwards in search of St Nicholas’ Cathedral. Like other places of worship in the city, old women sat huddled at the entrance rattling tins but I got through unscathed. The church was stunning, finished in pastel blue and topped off with a magnificent set of golden onion domes which glinted in the sun. Satisfied with my sightseeing in Almaty I headed back to the hotel to pack.
The taxi journey to the airport was like sitting through a 1970s version of the Eurovision Song Contest. Whether the music was Kazakh or Russian, or even representative of the current popular music scene in Kazakhstan, I had no idea. But the driver had it on full volume which soon took over all my waking thoughts. One hellish song finished only to be replaced by an oom-pha-type song, complete with accordions. As we passed the outskirts of the city, the dirge continued unabated,
with song after song sounding like it needed Terry Wogan to laugh at it. And then came the worst song ever, full of wailing and strange melodies. Inexplicably, the driver turned it up, nodding his head as we careered along the airport road.
I arrived at the airport with my ears ringing and my senses numbed. After paying the fair I checked in for my Uzbekistan Airways flight to Tashkent. Part two of the ‘Stan Tour was about to begin. Strengths:
-Safe and fairly clean
-Cars stop for pedestrians
-Beautiful cathedrals and Mosque
-The view from the cable car is great.
-Breathtaking mountains overlooking the city Weaknesses:
-Seeing the sights involves a fair bit of walking
-Hardly anyone speaks English
There are more photos below