Almaty, Alma-Ata

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Before I start let’s get one thing straight.  I REFUSE TO TALK ABOUT BORAT.  There are fewer things I hate more in the world than that bloody movie.  If Borat is the first (or only) thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “Kazakhstan” then you are a sad ignorant dimwit.  FYI Borat was filmed in Romania, grow some culture and watch Veit Helmer’s poetic Baikonur instead.   I actually met Veit at a film festival, some interesting stories he has about life on the Kazakh steppe…

I landed in Almaty close to midnight, after a full day of flying and no food I was pretty much exhausted.  I wasn’t ready for a big city, after such peace and solitude in the Altai mountains, Almaty airport was a rude awakening to the reality of brash city life.  It was noticeably far warmer here than in Mongolia which was welcoming.  I needed Tenge, a taxi and a place to stay.  The taxi driver who nabbed me at the airoporto was a dreadful creature who ripped me off disgustingly.  I’m used to being ripped off, living in South Africa has done a good job of desensitising me to it.  This dude was ruthless though, he also tried to get me to stay with a friend of his as all the hotels were too expensive.  Bloody barnacles the audacity! I put my foot down and insisted we go to Hotel Saulet sans question.  We had the usual argument about it not being possible for me to come from South Africa because I’m not a “negro”.  He also smashed a pair of my glasses, honestly!

Well, there’s NO place for backpackers to stay in Almaty.  Unless you can find a friend on couchsurfing, there’s just nowhere affordable.  I was lucky to strike gold at the Saulet.  Around 2500 tenge is the cheapest I could find, the other budget accommodation options in the lonely planet don’t seem to exist anymore.  I needed to stay a full week or so in the city in order to sort out my visas for onward travel, heck that was why I ended up in Almaty in the first place.  It was a base to get my Kyrgyz, Tajik and Uzbek visas.  I was constantly threatened to leave the hotel, they’re suspicious of foreigners I was told and there was an impending double booking that was about to catch up with them.  I stood my ground and despite their constant threats, I managed to stay chez soppy Saulet for most of my time in Almaty.  They had really nice breakfasts as at least 🙂  I shared the mangy 4 bed dorm with lovely Liz, an English lass who was doing the Mongol rally until things went awry so she was doing the solo thing comme moi.  She introduced me to Natalia from Ukraine a couch surfing friend.  It was great to have a human connection again, I hadn’t seen or spoken to another tourist in about 2 weeks.  Natalia had been to Almaty several times on business, so she showed us all around town.  What a pleasure to put the maps down and let someone else speak Russian for you.  I remember eating at a fabulous meal at an Uzbek restuarant which was a treat 🙂

Natalia also took us to the gorgeous Panfilov Park with the stunning Zenkov Cathedral.  It was designed in 1904 and is one of Almaty’s few surviving Tsarist-era buildings.  Made entirely of wood (including the nails), it survived the 1911 earthquake, was closed and forgotten about during the Soviet period and in 1995 it was restored as a place of worship.   Inside is an ornate display of Orthodox ware.IMG_8302There is a pretty impressive war memorial in the park which represents the 28 soldiers of an Almaty infantry unit who died in 1941 fighting int the Nazis in Moscow.  Complete with an eternal flame commemorating the Civil War and WW2 victims.  I liked the huge monument of soldiers  mapping out the former USSR.   IMG_8306 IMG_8313IMG_8308

We struck wedding day, there were 6 or so wedding parties happening all around and the park is a must for photographs on the wedding route.  I loved that Almaty was covered in parks, lush green spaces and pristine gardens.  It’s clean, safe and pretty-a city I could easily live in.  I almost forgot to mention the stunning snow-capped Zailiysky Alatau which frame the city so beautifully. IMG_8290

We took a trip out to Medeu & Chimbulak.  My first real taste of the Tian Shan was magical 🙂 It was stunning with great views of Almaty.  I remember watching a documentary on skiers who were heli-skiing in Kazakstan.  People actually can afford to do that? Why yes, the uber rich come out to play here in the pumping winter season.  There was a chopper right near us, didn’t catch a glimpse of who was inside…Oh and of course I didn’t realise that there would be snow on the mountain tops but my sandals held up well!

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Another awesome thing to do in Almaty is to see the Green Market.  It is so colourful and charismatic.  It’s a real hub on the silk road.  It’s probably my favourite market in Central Asia.  Here Mongol,Tajik, Uzbek, Kazakh, Ruskie and Chinese all barter with an impressive selection of pretty much anything you could wish for.  I remember the friendly Tajiks selling their apricots, bless them.  They wouldn’t stop feeding us until we bought some nuts and dried fruit.  When I told them I would be going to Tajikistan they looked bewildered and happy.

Natalia and I spent Sunday morning seeing Lizzy off, walking up lovely Kok-Tobe, singing with the Beatles, and IMG_8346albino spotting (a favourite sport of mine and The Stuart’s on campus).  There seems to be some obsession with a zoo-keeper at Kok-Tobe to collect every albino breed of bird possible.  A white peacock, come on?  “Strawberry fields forever” was playing, a favourite Beatle song of mine!

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The ablino theme extended to the horrific city zoo where stressed white lion and tigers are kept and where stupid people feed ice cream to moon bears.  I hate zoos, these two were no exceptions.  I saw a polar bear (in summer Almaty gets up to 40 degrees centigrade) with green gunge growing in its fur.  Every animal there was stressed beyond belief.  I’m from Africa and have seen more animals in the wild than in zoos.  Seeing rhino, elephant, giraffe in 10X10 inclosures was just harrowing.    IMG_8353

That trauma aside, we strolled merrily around the leafy city saw The Respublika Alangy among countless posters and statues of Nazarbaev around town.  We ended this enlightening day drinking red wine and eating chocolate in The Continental Hotel nogal! A wimba-weh.

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