Where did I park my Bentley?
Almaty, Kazakhstan – a travel portrait of a Central Asian flower in the steppe.
We were heading towards the railway station in Tashkent, the Vokzal, our bags were full of bills as the exchange rate in Uzbekistan was of 8000 Uzbek som for one US dollar. The black market was still very much alive and anyone from a waiter to an old grandmother would be offering advantageous rates in comparison to the official banks.
It was highly recommended to have a bag for carrying large amount of bank notes, even a plastic bag would work, everyone has one. ATMs do not often work, not even at the airport. As French and English speakers, we could not communicate with our taxi driver and hoped he would not charge us an exorbitant price for a fifteen-minute ride on one of the deserted roads crossing the capital since he already stopped twice to take some extra passengers, which is apparently common practice here.
Once outside the car, slaves of a dry and hot climate as Timur must have been in his time, we started to queue with our passports to obtain train tickets. With locals passing in front of us with piles of Koreans passports, how could we even complain. We just booked a 17-hours train ride to Almaty, Kazakhstan. The difference between a Soviet platzkart, kupe or SV/Lyux wagon is something that we would soon discover along with who we would travel with. We embarked the train in time and met our new roommates: a middle-aged Uzbek couple boarding with two black sports bags, a bottle of vodka, a sausage and an aesthetic traditional bread (non, patir or lepeshka). The man was tall, skinny and gloomy, while his wife was blond, curvy and as we would soon discover, snored very loudly.
Chacha on the steppe
The train was clean, comfortable, they distributed spotless light blue bed linens, there was a restaurant, a bar and toilet paper, I could not have wished for more! The train departed but after a very short time, it stopped again to allow some officials to board to open suitcases as well as collect all passports. They did not even bother to open our colourful and irreproachable backpacks from a well-known sports brand that every single French person traveling the world has, an excellent indication of who was from my home-country and for me to stop cursing in my native language. Giving my passport to an unknown and mostly corrupted border guard while being locked in a train was not an amusing experience; however, I got my document back and the train moved on.
We were thinking about how to occupy ourselves and as two tourists with too much time on their hands, we proceeded to the bar. We ordered some Chacha which is some Georgian brandy since we did not want to dip our lips in some cheap beers and still remembered the smell of kumis, a drink made out of fermented mare’s milk with a mild alcohol content, I do not recommend it to anyone with a weak gastrointestinal tract. We took out a hand full of Uzbek’s notes but the waitress, to our surprise, declined. We had crossed the Kazakh frontier without thinking of having any Kazakh tenge with us. This also meant that we would not be able to buy any food or water in a train without air-conditioning crossing sterile and arid lands.
As we were debating with the waitress, the surrounding passengers started to be very intrigued by our case and willing to help. In five minutes, a crowd was arguing about the exchange rate from US dollars to Uzbek som to Kazakh tenge, what was the best exchange places and how ridiculous the black market was; which would not help us much. They finally directed us towards an old woman, visiting every wagon and offering on-board premium banking services from her big leather bag bursting with foreign currencies. We were saved, we had enough for three double brandy each and maybe one or two main courses. A few hours later, we abandoned our new high-spirited and effervescent friends of the dining car to enter our suite where the blond pig-faced lady was re-positioning herself with an ear-piercing snore.
We woke up to a sublime scenery, the sun was rising on an endless rocky steppe which occupies one third of the country. Our train was travelling at high-speed to soon reach the ancient capital, Almaaty, meaning “Father of Apples”, and replaced by Astana as capital after 1997.
A few hours later we entered the city and were welcomed the same way as in Uzbekistan, by a crowd of unofficial taxi-drivers screaming out prices in the limited English vocabulary they had learnt. One of them obtained our confidence and we piled into his car. Highways, immaculate glass-buildings, sports cars, fashionably short-dressed women, where were we? Where was Borat and his sisters? What happened to the bride-napping tradition called alyp qashu which consists in kidnapping the bride without her consent? We had reach the Pearl of Central Asia: a country extravagantly rich in minerals, the first one to repay its full debt to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 2000, seven years before it was due.
Our taxi stopped in front of a luxury wine-shop on Abylai Khan avenue, a street paved by coffee-shops and alluring super-markets. Our hotel was neat, clean, had TVs and the receptionist was speaking English, something we were not used to. In addition, it was in front of a splendid and modern coffee called Aurora which could have been directly imported, staff included, from New-York, the regular shoppers were sipping Spritz cocktails in front of some pocket-sized quinoa salads. After weeks of eating Plov and Manti, we requested some vegetarian burgers, sweet potatoes fries and extra-large lattes but overlooked the horse meat dishes, a speciality of the country.
Kazakhs were the first civilization to domesticate the horse but also really appreciate its nutritional aspect. During the Olympic games of London in 2012, the Kazakhs athletes asked for some horse meat to be shipped, in addition to their own caviar. We ferreted out the city in order to visit the Panfilov Park, Green market, Central Mosque and Zenkov Cathedral constructed entirely of wood. My liberal dress code was suspended as I had to wear a scarf in the cathedral, but I could not enter the mosque, as shorts are an offense, especially flower shorts of poor taste. We stopped to admire the Hotel Kazakhstan, a very classic piece of Soviet Modernism from the 1970s. Almaty is vast with Orthodox and Soviet influences blending in with some modern high-class towers and Starbucks coffees. We had another day of layover in this very welcoming city before leaving for Kyrgyzstan and opted for visiting Ozero Bolshoe Almatinskoe, the Big Almaty Lake, which is a natural alpine reservoir originating from tectonic origins and only half an hour away from the city centre located in the Trans-lli Alatau mountains.
The tourist trap at the foot of the mountain
We took a bus in order to come closer to the mountain and then had the option to either walk or share an old car commuting from the Tien Shan Astronomical Observatory to the bus stop for a highly-negotiable fee. Two tall Nordic-looking tourists were walking and trying to stop the cars passing by, which were unfortunately all saturated with locals. The tourists were speaking Russian and had money, they would be the perfect ones to share a car with. An old man, with an even older car, a Lada which might have been from the 1980s, rolled down his window and shouted that he would drop his passengers and come back to pick us up afterwards, he fulfilled his promise and a few minutes later we were compressed in the tiny car. The two tourists were actually journalists traveling to various extravagant places year after year and delivering talks and debates on an online platform.
Our driver told of his youth in a Soviet camp not far away from we were and his German origins while showing us a few pictures and not looking at the route. His was born in one of the many gulags Stalin erected in this country. He was one of the 120 nationalities that are represented here. We stopped at the lake while the rest of the crew went all the way to the observatory. Surrounded by mountains, an angelic slightly hazy cobalt surface was spreading in front of us, and there was no one else. We saw a few placards in Kazakh and Russian but did not pay much attention to them and walked in direction of the lake where a cyclist suddenly appeared and was washing his face.
After a few pictures, we decided to leave but three officers with weapons emerged in front of us. They started to talk to us in Kazakh and then Russian, which we could not understand to finally explain with their hands and a few English words that it was forbidden to come so close to the alpine reservoir and that we were requested to give our passports. Judging by how armed they were and the lack of pleasantries, we handed our documents, the cyclist had to do the same. The officers asked for money, a fine adjusted to what we had in our pocket. This was an issue since without this money we would not be able to go back to the city. We managed to explain to them that they had to take us to the police station to pay this fine, this way we would save on the taxi and have a nicely written Kazakh fine, a good souvenir.
Paying closer attention to their uniforms, they had holes in it and were not all similar, same for the guns, why would they be officials? Why not some citizens waiting for tourists behind a bush and appearing as they leave to racket them knowing that they would not dare to argue? Which proof did we have? Uzbekistan made us very reluctant to trust uniforms and the local authorities since uniforms can be bought or found and local authorities are corrupted.
We refused to pay, explaining that they would either bring us down to a police station in the city centre or we would just walk away. They pretended to not understand but soon recognised that we were too poor to give away the equivalent of fifty US Dollars that easily. They let us go, swearing at us. Our two Nordic friends fell into the same ambuscade but ran away from it thanks to their Russian knowledge and an obvious lack of funding as well.
“Kazakhstan greatest country in the world”
We did not see any cars going back to the centre and had to walk back to the bus stop. We walked in front of the restaurant where Vladimir Putin went with Nursultan Nazarbayev during one of his diplomatic visits despite Kazakhstan trying to increase its independence from Russian-led alliances as was expressed when the country expanded trade linkages in the energy and agriculture sectors with Ukraine. Nursultan Nazarbayev has been holding on the president seat since 1991 and received 97.7 per cent of the vote in April 2015. The five-year-term for presidents does not apply to him.
This was our last day here and would not come back before the ten days we would spend in Kyrgyzstan trekking to the Ala Kul , Son Koul and Yssyk Koul lakes, we would miss this comfort, and our little layover in Bishkek confirmed this very promptly. This “Land of the Wanderers” left us very perplexed about Central Asia. Almaty’s landscape has similarities with New York during the 20th century while a significant percentage of the population kept its nomadic habits. The average person lives with 330 US dollars a month; whereas, orders for Bentley’s are skyrocketing. Kazakhstan, along with Azerbaijan, are new luxury destinations, mostly thanks to the abundance of oil and metal resources. The contrast between the Soviet past and an ostentatious future is powerful. The aesthetic juxtapositions are cacophonous but captivating. When we would get back, maybe we would manage to reach Baikonur Cosmodrome, the main launch site for Soviet and Russian space exploration from where Sputnik 1 took off.
In the early morning, we left for Sayran, one of the bus stations of Almaty, another Stallinist empire style building, which looks like a victim of Dinmukhamed Kunayeva, a leading Kazakh Soviet communist who convinced Moscow that he could transform Almaty into an appropriate capital of the Republic of the Soviet Union. However, it was opened in 2015 and was just made to be utilitarian. We now had to find our Marshrutka, an economical mini-van carrying passengers for long distances for a few tenge. This time we made sure to have some Kyrgyz som with us to not be left at the frontier, unable to pay a freshly-invented fee for foreigners. We would miss these French fries from the Aurora coffee place, I could already sense it.
Sandra Lambert was born in France to then live in Canada, the United Kingdom and Singapore. After a Master degree in Business and Economics at University College London (UCL), she started her career in finance at Bloomberg. She recently left her role to travel the world and explore secluded places.