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Published: March 29th 2019
I came to Almaty with three very specific and intricately important goals for my trip: 1. Wander aimlessly, 2. Gorge myself shamelessly, and 3. Search for camels relentlessly.
These lofty goals took me all over the city, into countless cafes and even into the countryside and I am proud to say, I was pretty productive during my time in Almaty.
I spent much of my time on foot exploring the pedestrian friendly streets of Almaty in search of anything that interested me and in search of nothing at all. This unstructured quiet time allotted me the brain space to really observe the city around me and the people who call it home.
Here are some of my very random and often insignificant observations:
1. The people of Almaty have a high expectation of cleanliness. I was pretty struck by how there was not any trash laying about anywhere. There was no grime or grit. There was no odor of any kind. Even in the below ground walkways used to avoid street crossings, there was not a homeless person asking for money, or a trash
can overflowing or the smell of urine at all. There was no evidence of dog owners not picking up after their pets. Honestly, there wasn’t any rubbish of any kind. I have no explanation for it, but it was so noticeable I found myself almost looking for some rubbish or debris or some sign that someone did not pick up after themselves.
2. The citizens of Almaty are a stoic bunch. I physically blended right into the community which was a pleasant surprise because I am accustomed to traveling in countries where I am taller, larger, have lighter skin color and dress far different from the locals. That was not the case in Almaty. The dead giveaway that I did not belong? I have a bad habit of smiling. I began to wonder if smiling was against some city ordinance or if you had to pay a special tax if you were caught smiling.
3. The women of Almaty are extremely elegant. Age did not matter. Weather did not matter. Time of day did not matter. If you were a woman in Almaty out in public, you were put together in a sophisticated, glamorous
way. I quickly figured out, the women of Almaty did not leave the house without three things: 1. A coat with the largest fur hood their shoulders could handle, 2. false eyelashes and 3. resting bitch face. They sashayed down the street in elegant heeled boots and they dressed as if the sidewalk were a runway.
Needless to say, I was underdressed for the occassion, in fact, for every occassion. If I had 100 tenge for every time I saw someone stare at my boots, I could have stayed in Almaty one more week. I considered going to a store to buy dressier boots, but simply got too lazy which is just one more indicator I was not a local.
4. English is not abundant in Almaty. The three languages of Kazakhstan are Kazak, Russian and English, but I would say English isn’t even a close third in availability. Most cafes had English menus they could hand you, but the wait staff was rarely pleased when I told them I only spoke English. That meant sometimes they avoided you as much as possible and still provide decent service, or they jockeyed around to see
who had to wait on you. In one restaurant I entered, the waitress literally dropped her shoulders in exasperation and let out an audible, disdainful “ugh” when I told her my predicament of being unilingual.
5. Almaty exists in a bubble universe that ends as soon as you cross the city limits. The glamour and cosmopolitan nature of Almaty is left behind at some imaginary barrier and on the other side of the line is rural Kazakhstan. Rural Kazakhstan is just as you would expect, more poverty, less glamour, barren countryside and open spaces of nothiness. The steppes are beatiful, but harsh. The villages are warm and welcoming, but lack any glitz. The modern feel of the city is only found in the city. In rural Kazakhstan there were outhouses, the buildings were utilitarian and life just seemed more difficult.
6. In a country known for having major winters, Almaty‘s snow management is a little suspect. Streets seem to get cleared and some sidewalks are de-iced and pedestrian friendly, but it is not uncommon to walk down stairs or some sidewalks completely covered in ice. The unexpected ice rinks are suprisingly treacherous. When I
was walking around one day after a snow, they were large crews of city employees using garden tool like gadgets to chip away at the ice. The practice seemed exceptionally tedious and inefficient, but I never saw any sidewalks with salt or de-icer on them. I can only assume this is a city or country that isn’t as litigious as America because I could see potential lawsuits around every corner.
7. Almaty is a quiet city. The traffic runs smoothly without honking or blaring. The streets are not shared with animals or carts. The vehicles follow the well orchestrated traffic lights and signs and drivers yield to walkers. When the city is covered in snow, the silence is almost deafening. Even when groups of people walking together pass by, there is very little sound of chatter or laughing. I am not sure what makes it so quiet or if it is simply a cultural trait, but Almaty is a great place to walk with your thoughts or get a great night’s sleep.
8. It is hard to sum up the essence of Almaty without using the word “cosmopolitan.” I know it can be an
overused word and may not sufficiently describe the depth of the city, but it just seems to fit like a perfectly tailored glove. I told a loved one they must add Almaty to their travel list and that I am already trying to figure out how to return in the spring or summer. Their reaction was “Why?” And when I said because it is a wonderfully cosmopolitan city, their next response was “There are lots of cosmopolitan cities all around the world.” I understand the sentiment, but it taught me two things: 1. stop inviting this person on trips, and 2. figure out a better way to describe Almaty.
When people think of the wonderful cities of the world that are culturally rich, ripe with great eating, easy to navigate and, yes you guessed it, cosmopolitan, they think of London, Paris, New York... I have been to those cities multiple times, and I know I am going to make some enemies here, I would chose Almaty over all of them. It just has an elegance, ease and energy that left me wanting more.
9. As frequently as people stared at my too casual boots
in Almaty, people back home asked about my sense of safety. “How did you go to a city like that and find your way around?” “Didn’t you feel scared?” ”Was it safe?” “Weren’t you worried about getting kidnapped?” While I appreciate their concern for my wellbeing, I cannot stress enough how safe I felt in Almaty. I was not reckless or naive about the world. I was aware of my surroundings. I kept my wits about me, as best as I can. But not once did I feel like I was in a precarious or dangerous situation. I am sure this is going to make even more enemies for me, but I truly felt more at ease walking in Almaty than I do in Kansas City. Full disclosure, I was staying in and spent much of my time walking around in the “nicer“ parts of Almaty, but even when I strayed away from the central shopping and dining areas into residential areas or business areas, there was not a sense of concern.
10. I am convinced that Almaty has the highest per capita of hipster barbershops of any city in the world. Okay, I have no research
to back this up, but it seemed like every block had a very chic barbershop that attracted a young, hip crowd. I am disappointed I didn’t snap any photos, but they were always full of guys hanging out and I thought I might look strange taking a photo of them.
11. Getting around Almaty is nearly seamless, with a few exceptions that must be worked around. I was told Uber works like a charm in Almaty, so my plan was to use it when I thought I needed a ride (which turned out to be never), but I also thought I would use it to simply map out my route. Since you can input a location and it shows you the exact route to take and the distance, I thought it would be great to give a visual reference. I tested my Uber app in my hotel room the first night and it looked great. Then it crashed and kept saying it needed an update. I never did get it to work. So, I relied on Google Maps, but it was a little testy and slow at times.
Then there is the issue with
getting lost in translation. I had a map, I had my phone, I had my internal compass that has yet to fail me and I have map reading skills, but it does not account for the lack of Roman or Latin alphabet letters on signs. In other foreign countries I can look at a map and even if I can’t read the street names, I can match the street signs to the map. Well, that doesn’t work too well when your map uses Roman letters and the street signs are all in Russian letters. Oh well, it all worked out.
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