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Published: April 12th 2019
Everyone with whom I spoke said how lovely Almaty is. It is pretty, and has many parks throughout, but it is also a rapidly growing modern city complete with traffic jams morning and evening. It seems many people want to live there; there is a feeling of freedom and laissez-faire. No visa is needed to enter Kazakhstan, which was refreshing especially after the difficulty of even getting a visa to Turkmenistan, and also after our trials trying to get our whole group into Uzbekistan. Except for the long delay at the Tashkent airport (no reason given), we simply walked into Almaty after deboarding the plane, and met our van and newest local guide. One of the reasons I enjoy being here so much is our lovely young guide, Dina, who is effervescent and funny, who, on our first night, brought us enormous apples from her family's apple farm. We learned that this was especially appropriate as the word Almaty means full of apples, or father of apples; the climate and soil here are perfectly suited to growing huge, delicious apples. During our days in Almaty our amazing and very perceptive local guide, Dina, also brought us cans of local beer to taste, tiny ornaments to remember her and Kazakhstan, and for me, since she noticed that places where our group ate either did not know how to prepare food for a vegan, or were not alerted in advance to be able to prepare anything at all, and that I politely sat at many meals with an empty plate while everyone else was eating (something that has never before happened in other countries where I've travelled), she brought me a small stuffed baked pumpkin that her mom had made. Paying attention to each person's needs is one of the most important and necessary things a guide can do to create a successful tour, and Dina is one of the most excellent, kindly, observant and thoughtful guides I have ever known. I hugged her and thanked her, asked her to please also thank her mom, and brought that beautiful little pumpkin to dinner to share with everyone that night.
Each day was full of happy activities; we spent time in parks, museums, at the Green Bazaar (where one can buy everything one could ever want), eating lunch in a yurt, and watching a show with live birds while visiting the Sunkar Falcon Farm. Hunting with falcons, hawks, and eagles is part of Kazakhstan history and culture. As we sat on low wooden benches, well covered in blankets wrapped over our warm coats because of the cold at this altitude, we watched as one of the men dressed in a classic Kazakhstan hide coat rode into the show arena on an elegant horse. The pair of them looked and moved as if they were one perfect unit. His also having a hooded hawk perched on his gloved arm as he rode was extraordinary. Watching these men unhood trained hawks, falcons, and eagles and free them to soar off into the sky after their prey was breathtakingly beautiful. Four times these enormous birds swooped so close to my head in their flights that my hair was blown as if by a great wind. One woman screamed when a hawk passed close by her, but never did they actually touch us. These are immense birds! The head trainer, ornithologist, and falconer Pavel Pfander is an accomplished showman; he was quite funny and had the small crowd laughing several times, but was deadly serious when the time came to rehood the birds. This was the most dangerous part; falcons, hawks, and eagles do not desire to be hooded and will bite at the trainer to try to avoid becoming incapacitated, but these trainers have great skill. Each bird was successfully, if scarily, rehooded and rode off on the arm of the assistant. That was a magnificent performance and all too short. Snow covered mountains surrounded us; we were transported back centuries for a very brief time, imagining the nomadic life of the hardy people who lived here, some still hunting with falcons, some still embracing this lifestyle, offering us a glimpse of history in this beautiful setting. For me visiting the falcon farm was the best part of the day, and I am very grateful to have been there.
Our last full day on this trip was also spent in Almaty, but this morning we drove half an hour to take a lovely twenty minute cable car ride up to the Shymbulak Ski Resort, seeing incredibly stunning mountains surrounding us with even higher snowy peaks in the distance. Having been warned of how chilly it could be at the top, all of us layered well, some even wore wool hats and gloves, but when we alighted from the cable cars the temperature was a truly balmy 19C/66F degrees and the sun was warmly shining. Coats and hats came off, some people sat in the outdoor restaurant chairs in their shirtsleeves soaking up the sun, and a few of us began to explore the area. Skiers of all levels were schussing down, stopping only a few feet away from where onlookers sat; it was a gorgeous setting with sun and snow and mountains all around. I wanted to take the chair lift up to the top but was told only skiers could do that, but it was possible to take an enclosed car to ride up and down. We didn't have quite enough time for that, so I contented myself by watching the skiers and exploring the few walking trails there, enjoying the pure fresh air, the beautiful snowy April slopes, and the welcoming warm sunshine. Being there was heaven on earth.
Kazakhstan is an enormous country; Almaty is only in the far southeastern corner, a speck on the map. There is so much more to explore and discover! But returning is doubtful, as there are still so many countries I have yet to visit. My memories of these three Central Asian Silk Road countries will probably have to last me for a lifetime, but who knows what future delights and surprises are in store for any traveller? There is so much yet to see in this world.
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