Kazakhstan tourist day two

Kazakhstan tourist day two

Picked up outside the hotel at 8 am (after a small but filling English breakfast) Kati says we need to get food for lunch, which it should have spotted as a clue for where we were going but I didn’t. We scoot off to a supermarket which from the outside looks very ordinary but upon entering it is like Aladdin’s cave it is as good as any shop I have seen anywhere the biggest problem is the amount of choice there is and the range of products. They even have a bakery so we get coke, water, crisps (chips), chocolate and some of those local meat filled pastries and are soon back on the road.

We are heading South out of town and are soon in a traffic jam mainly due to the road works for the upcoming winter games than the time of day. There is a 4 lane section of road reduced to one lane which is a particularly difficult spot to use and. There is not a lot of coordination between groups on these things and never any though about the impact to drivers. Exactly the same thing happened in Moscow the other week when bridge repairs closed 6 of 8 lanes on Leningradsky prospect stopping traffic for a couple of days until the president ordered them to open more lanes. The effect was to delay travelers to Sherementyeve airport leaving thousands stranded. (Aeroflot are suing the city council but doubt they will win).

We crawl out of the city eventually and an hour or so we are heading out on the main highway towards China. Not that we are going there but many of our fellow travelers are. Lots of large trucks some looking rather overloaded are mixed with cars of various ages from Lada’s to Lexus’s with a few carts pulled by small donkeys. This leads to many opportunities for issues as the speeds range from 5 miles an hour up to 80. The road itself is wide but uneven with no markings it has grass verges and a double row of mature trees on either side all with the bottom 2 meters painted white which I assume is so that in the dark people will not run off it. I think this is the original “silk road” used by Marko Polo now moving less exotic goods around but still functioning fairly well.

Every now and again there are vendors set up selling fruit and at this time of year Melons. Whatever else they have they all seem to have melons. Some individually and some in groups of up to 15 stalls but all selling basically the same things. What you find in the east is that things are more seasonal so ther are great gluts of things based on when they ripen. In the west this is less pronounced as if you want Strawberries in December or Apples (Did I mention Almaty means apple) in April then they are available. This is because we can import them from different parts of the world so we need never run out which I am beginning to think is not a good thing, granted it is convenient but not sure it is good. Food here also comes in different shapes and sizes. You might think that is obvious but check out you supermarket. EU Regulations or FDA requirements really means everything has to be a particular size shape and color, I challenge you to find a product which does not conform to a “standard” well we don’t have this here. I think there is a price to pay for food all being the same uniform standard and it is probably taste.

There is not much of a view yet, the land is fairly flat although there are hill in the distance we are driving through semi agricultural land, a few sparsely populated villages where knots of people and houses break the monotony. After a few hours I ask for a coffee stop so we pull over at a little shack (I can’t think of a better description) with a sign “Kofe & bap” and Kati inquires about a beverage, the answer is “niet”. I remind them that the sign says “Kofe” as assertively as I can without being rude and suddenly they remember they have some. On reflection maybe it was a mistake as we sit down at one of the 3 or 4 tables are take stock. It is small room and the tables have plastic tablecloths which are sticky. The chairs don’t match each other; there are some Christmas decorations up with look like they may have been there for several decades. At one end of the room there are 2 very large speakers on stands, so large I wonder if they would make the whole place shake when used. On the table there are a few condiments with a sugar bowl covered by a tissue which is doing an effective job of keeping the flies off it. These insects really want to attach themselves to the flypaper on the shelf however it is full and I mean full not a scrap of paper can be seen but hundreds of stationary flies can. Mmmm, coffee arrives and I assume as the water would have been boiled it will be ok although it does look rather weak it is a little too late to back out.

Quickly finished Kati says she will use the facilities and enquires is I plan to use the toilet. I say no thanks I will use the wall outside as it will probably be more hygienic.

Kazakhstan tourist day one evening

Kazakhstan tourist day one evening

After my exertions of the day we are off to dinner with a colleague of Judi’s. I think he is Ukrainian but not quite sure and if I am correct it would seem that people come here without being forced any more.

We are going local, which means local food although the place we stop at is very modern and themed with the staff dressed up in some peasant styles costumes. The restaurant is almost empty but it is Tuesday night and probably more of an impact is the fact that we are in a Muslim country and they are observing Ramadan which is daily fasting between sunrise and sunset. There is one large table occupied by what looks like an extended family with a range of ages from 12 to 90.

We settle in and Judi orders some Kazakh wine which might be interesting or not. Our host chooses several starts for us all of which seem to be either bread or pastry filled with things, a little like the snack I had earlier although this time I think I can de-code what is inside. All I am thinking at that moment is there is another English breakfast waiting for me in the morning but hey that’s several hours away.

Across from us there is a small stage which indicates there are live shows some nights but not tonight, there is also a large TV screen and there are showing what looks very much like “Kazakhstan’s got Talent” or “Kazakhstan Idol”. Either way there is a parade of singers all belting out tunes with a lot of passion but not a lot of melody. There are some older ladies who are dressed in some exaggerated gowns, very bright and kitschy. The men seem to favor puffed sleeved shirts and extravagant haircuts.

Our dinner arrives and I miss getting the voting number for the Diva with the bright orange outfit. I am having “Beshparmak” which should be interesting. When we ordered I had the choice of Pig or horse I of course chose horse. It’s not my first time and I have had Cheval in Switzerland and it’s not that bad its just meat and I think easier to digest so it may be better for you. The word Beshparmak means five fingers which is the eating method although I am not going that far. You know I cannot resist the specials an consider myself fortunate that there was no Kumys or Mypalau on the menu a Kumys is fermented horse milk Mypalau is from a camel. What arrives is something like a sliced roast beef, not very thick but quite lean. It is on a bed of flat pasta just like you would use for lasagna and some boiled onion rings. There is a clear sauce which makes the whole thing a little watery. It tastes fine and I tuck in.

Judi is having Plov which we know as Pilaf but its origins are somewhere around Tajikistan or Iran (both close by) and it was first mentioned in some records of Alexander the Great in Bactria which was an eastern Iranian province, probably the birthplace of Alexander’s wife Roxana and geographically located in modern Afghanistan. It was known to have been served upon his capture of the Sogdian capital of modern Samarkand. Alexander’s army brought it back to Macedonia and spread it throughout Europe. (Thank you Google). The difference here is that the rice is simmered in a stock and it really improves it.

The other diners are now saying prayers lead by an elder and everyone falls silent to listen. Once complete everyone at the table gets up and either shakes hands or kisses everyone else. The older ladies go around and collect all the bread and Manti they can lay their hands on to take home with them. After a great deal of hugging they make their way to the exit. It will be dawn soon enough and the fasting will begin again.

We finish up and chat for a while but given we did not start until 9:30 pm it is now late and I have another adventure tomorrow. Katie said the Canyon is far away and we need to get an early start so she would pick me up early at 8:00 am (early? everything is relative)

Kazakhstan tourist day one,

Kazakhstan tourist day one,

So day one of this short adventure and guess what, a full “English Breakfast” is waiting for me. I’m getting a little fat on all of these, note to self need to stop travelling for a week or two. After eating far more than I need or should have I wander outside to wait for the guide. Not exactly sure what I will get as it was arranged by Judi’s firm. What turns up is a huge Toyota 4*4 with two people in it.

Kati (I assume Ekaterina) and Natasha. The first looks about 18 and the second about 60. The first is the driver and translator the second is the Kazakh speaking official guide. This should be “Interiesna” for some reason I have to sit in the back so the guide can jabber to the driver and first tell her where to go and then read aloud from her notes the details of where we are.

First stop the biggest of the two train stations although given it is not a particularly impressive station I am not sure why they think it is worth stopping for. There is a statue of Abylai Khan who was some sort of founder or protector of the city anyway Kati described him as a “great pitriot and munager” which says a lot about her English. I think it will be a long day.

We crisscross the streets of Almaty for a while stopping only long enough for me to poke my camera out of the window to take a couple of quick snaps before we are off again. Blue Mosque, New Ice stadium for the Asian winter Olympic games next year (it is actually just winter games and participants are members of the Olympic council of Asia and a very big deal around here). Circus, Basketball stadium, and a lot of road works in preparation for the aforementioned games. This work however does have a bonus for me it means we will not be able to go up and see the world’s highest open air skating ring as the road is closed between 10 am and 10 pm for repair. They do offer to take me up at midnight but I decline the offer as it is not a world heritage site or great historical monument it’s just a skating ring.

We stop briefly at a park in the middle of town where there is a WWII monument to the fallen hero’s which is very impressive and a Cathedral which purports to be the second tallest wooden building in the world and built without the use of nails. It is an impressive sight with lots of copulas and some very impressive icons inside. I manage to get the attendant to sell me a couple of candles to light whilst my driver explains she is an Evangelist and does not believe in this sort of thing, I comment that I am hedging my bets just in case.

The park has plenty of people in it and lots of small children. Kati explains that the President says they need to build up the population which had fallen by 2 million over the previous decade so they are doing their best. Given Almaty was noted as the 30th most expensive city in the world (higher than Los Angeles and Toronto) you have to wonder if this was a contributing factor to the population decline as kids are expensive.

One place on my list is the “Green Bazaar” which is really an indoor market. It gets a big write up in the guide books but I find it slightly disappointing. Now if you have never seen an indoor food hall where they cut up animal carcasses and hang the bits from the stalls then it would be exciting but I have seen many and this one is just ok. There were some interesting items though as the food here has that exotic theme. I will find out later as I plan to have the local delicacy “beshparmak”.

We stop for coffee and sit outside on what turns out to be a warm day. I still cannot see the nearby mountains as they are covered in clouds. I know behind these there are snowcapped jagged peaks just waiting to be pointed at my by Nikon but not right now. We have some form of bread which is stuffed with meats and things, it tastes fine but I am unable to distinguish exactly what it is so I use my “they will not try and poison me” theory and continue.

We release the guide at this point as she is actually slowing things down. There is so much history around here that it seems to take forever to read and translate. One thing I am finding out is that there is a huge wealth of Stone Age artifacts which I plan to see in a couple of days. I also find out that this was an area where people in the past were exiled in their millions (see Stalin, forced migrations and famine and this commentary on one case in millions azer.com/aiweb/categories/magazine/73_folder/73_articles/73_exile.html).

The population is only 65% Kazakhs 23% Russian and a fair number of Germans and Eastern Europeans. A point which strikes me is how much of an ethnic mix there is it’s to my shame and ignorance that I assumed that they would all have straight black hair and slightly Asian features. There is a large mix of people and many are fair or brown haired tall people who would not be noticed in and European city the country is bigger than Western Europe but it seems full of European people.