Cultural Learnings In Almaty

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April 19th 2012
Published: May 16th 2012
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As the plane landed I felt genuine trepidation. “Why the hell am I in Kazakhstan?!”. This question with the subject changing from time to time to another “stan” was to become a recurring theme of this trip. As I stepped through the plane doors, away from the safety of the BMI flight, I was confronted with sight of what can only be described as a “North Korea-esque” soldier. I felt like getting right back on the plane.

Alas this culture shock was short lived. The streets of Almaty are paved with petro-dollars. Once a Soviet backwater, pre-Borat Kazakhstan was best known as Stalin’s destination of choice for troublesome minorities from Germans to Koreans. A gas fuelled boom has transformed the country.

I was arriving at an ungodly hour so I booked accommodation and a transfer from the airport in advance. When I say in advance I mean as I changed plane in Heathrow. I was picked up in a trusty UAZ jeep and dropped off at Valentina’s guest house. It’s one of the few options for independent travellers in Almaty. The phrase “in Almaty” is slightly generous as it’s quite some distance from the centre. However the owners are particularly helpful and it’s not too difficult to get to the centre.

As instructed I took a minibus to edge of the city centre, and then a second bus to the actual centre (again “in Almaty” is a subjective term). As a seasoned traveller I was perfectly capable of following such simple direct instructions. I took the correct minibus and found the correct bus without difficulty. Unfortunately it was travelling in the wrong direction and I ended up seeing considerable more of the outskirts of Almaty than even the most generous Lonely Planet author would deem necessary.

Incidentally as I waited for the bus, I was standing beside a young couple with a baby. It was approximately 11am and they were both casually drinking Bacardi Breezers. I was almost tempted to take a photo of this odd sight but I decided it was far too early in the trip to be beaten up.

Kazakh people bear disappointingly little resemblance to Sacha Baran Cohen. Not surprisingly they’re very similar in appearance to their neighbours in Mongolia. About a quarter of the population is ethnically Russian allowing me (with my fair hair and hostile facial expressions) to seamlessly blend.

The city itself is pleasant with wide tree-lined streets and a few interesting buildings. You’d know you’re not in Europe but it could easily pass for a city in Russia. Unfortunately as I tried to follow the LP walking tour of Almaty the city appeared to be experiencing a freak monsoon. The entire city is built on a slope. This combined with poor drainage meant the streets rapidly turned to fast flowing rivers. After only a short time I was knee deep in what I can only hope was at least predominantly rain water. I quickly planned my escape.

I had hoped to visit the country’s futuristic capital Astana in the north but unfortunately it was just too far out of the way. I went to the train station to get a ticket to hopefully sunny Tashkent. Pretending I can speak rudimentary Russian has become somewhat of a hobby for me since I first started travelling in former Soviet countries. The speaking Russian part shows no signs of improving but the pretending element is going from strength to strength. I managed to get a ticket with limited fuss. The only difficulty was the initial confusion followed by hilarity that I had an apostrophe in my last name.

The next morning as I was having breakfast in the guest house a large group of German geologists arrived. The owner introduced:

“This is Aidan; he is from Ireland but is living in the UK. I think he is spy for Irish government”

If only he knew how dull the reality was.

I decided to splash out on 2nd class train ticket as I’ve had mixed experience with 3rd class in the past. I found my compartment and inside the 4 person berth there were at least 10 people. Not the ideally start to a 24 hour journey. Fortunately they were just saying their goodbyes and as the crowds dispersed only 3 other remained. There were two women from Uzbekistan, one Russian and one Uzbek. The third woman was a Russian Kazakh. It was interesting to see the dynamics in this motley crew. Although bemused by my presence, everyone was extremely friendly and generous to me. They shared copious amounts of food and were quiet patient in communicating using a combination of hand signals and speaking slowly loudly in Russian. However, the two Russians had little time for the Kazakh woman though, and they barely shared a word the whole journey. As time went on in this trip the divide between the various ethnic groups became clearer and clearer.

Geopolitics aside the journey was pleasant but uneventful. The rolling steppe unfolded out the window slowing changing to desert as we reached Tashkent. I was concerned the border crossing with cost a small fortune in bribes but evidently it wasn’t possible to delay an entire train to scam one foreigner.

Soon after we crossed the border there were people scurrying through the train with enormous duffle bags full of cash. This is a common enough sight in Uzbekistan and is the result of years of hyperinflation. The people were changing money at black market rates. For some reason I decided against changing my money on the train. Evidently this wasn’t a wise decision…

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