Apples are from Kazakhstan

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September 22nd 2016
Published: October 14th 2016
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Now that's a strange name for a blog you might say, and I actually agree with you! I have just set out for a 3 week tour of the '5 Stans' and as preliminary reading, I found this great book on Kazakhstan, and this was the title of the first chapter. Now whether their claim is true that apples were first found here, and whether Adam and Eve were in fact Kazakhs, is not really important, but I can assure you that Kazakhstan has myriads of apple orchards and the product tastes great.

A couple of us from the tour arrived first in Almaty as the advance party, to get acclimatised and adjust to the local time. Fortunately the flight over from Sydney via Abu Dhabi with Etihad was pretty uneventful, but a strange thing happened at the latter airport. Given we had almost 5 hours transit, we decided to exit the terminal to stretch our legs but were concerned that having been seated near the rear of the plane, we could be subject to a heavy queue at immigration. Imagine our surprise when we reached immigration to find we were the only ones there - I guess people flying to Abu Dhabi these days are all using it as a transit stop only. To relieve their boredom, I was 'invited' by the immigration official into the supervisor's office where about 6 bored officers quizzed me for around 10 minutes on what countries I'd travelled to before cheerfully checking me through.

The first item on our agenda was dinner at the parents of one of my Kazakh students. Since neither parent spoke any English, we were accompanied for the evening by his sister Aigul and her husband Azamat, who will in fact be coming to Melbourne to study next year. A special dinner of the national dish of Kazakhstan called Besbarmak was served up, along with copious quantities of soup, salad, bread, biscuits, sweets and fruit, with indications that they would be offended if we didn't try every dish! For all you uninitiated, Besbarmak is a dish comprising large flat noodles, with boiled horse meat cooked in vegetable broth. Traditionally, the horse's head is also served up at the table, with the guest of honour (which this evening happened to be me) allowed to have first pick at the fleshy bits, but fortunately our hosts spared me that embarassment. These various dishes were washed down with a combination of kumys (fermented mare's milk) and shubat (camel's milk) - note the bottle of each of these at the bottom left of the dinner pic - further lubricated by a number of shots of vodka. While it won't go down in my top 10 meals of all time, the hospitality will, as our hosts couldn't do enough to make it a great night.

Perhaps a little surprisingly, Almaty looks a very livable city. It has clearly shrugged off most of the Soviet influence and has wide tree-lined streets, relatively disciplined traffic, modern buildings, shopping malls and other facilities and was remarkably clean. It is one of the most climatically balanced places in Central Asia, and has a great backdrop of the snow-covered Zailiysky Alatau mountain range. On the tour, we visited a number of parks, with their various statues and war memorials (can't totally shake off those Soviets!), as well as Zenkov Cathedral (one of the only wooden cathedrals in the world), the very colourful St Nicolas Cathedral, the very extensive Green Bazaar, the Museum of Folk Musical Instruments, as well as Kok Tobe, a hill site accessible by gondola, with an amusement park, cafes, even a small zoo, and great panoramic views of the city.

Almaty has just a fledgling metro system, less than 5 years old and currently comprising only eight stations. But what it lacks in quantity, it makes up for in quality, and while it can never match the grandeur of Moscow's metro network, it is certainly impressive. And the escalators down to many of the stations seemed to go on for ever ... We enjoyed a half day of checking out the various stations and their surrounds, each time for the outrageous fixed price of $0.24. This is also the price for all bus rides, and while taxi fares are also very cheap, we were interested to note the significant use of 'unofficial' taxis, where you just stand at the edge of the street, raise your hand and within minutes (or seconds if you are young and pretty!), a car will pull up and you can negotiate a very cheap fare if that car is going in your direction. It gives a whole new meaning to the process of hitchhiking.

Prior to joining the tour, the pair of us ventured out of town to Medeu, an Olympic-sized ice skating stadium that can handle 3,000 skaters at any time, before heading further out (and up, by gondola) to the ski resort of Chimbulak. We were then surprised to find that courtesy of two more very long gondola rides, we could climb considerably higher up the mountains to the base of a glacier. That wasn't the only surprise. On seeing a fee in the vicinity of 20 bucks for the trip to the top, we thought we'd try our luck at seeking a 'pensioner' discount to be greeted by the advice that admission is totally free for anyone over 65, whether they be a local or a tourist.

For the historically minded, Alma-Ata (its original name) was actually the location of the meeting that finally confirmed the end of the USSR in 1991, when the 5 Stans all joined the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and celebrations for the 25th anniversary of that event were held earlier this year. The city's name was changed to Almaty soon afterwards. In 1998, Almaty was replaced by Astana as the country's capital city, but it still remains the country's business, social and cultural hub.

While it is disappointing that time did not permit us to venture further afield in Kazakhstan, it was certainly a pleasant and relaxing way to start our tour. The caravan will now be moving on to Kyrgyzstan.

Additional photos below
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15th October 2016
That's no escalator - this is an escalator!

You would not want to tumble down that one.

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