Thursday, 7 April 2011

Kazakhstan – the end of central Asia

Ask anyone what they know about Kazakhstan and they’ll say Borat. Fortunately this stereotype is miles from the truth; in fact, Kazakhstan is the most modern and Westernised of all the central Asian countries and a melting pot of different cultures.

The first thing I noticed was how organised and quick the border process was, with literally thousands walking across it from Kyrgyzstan. Rather than the usual bureaucratic nightmare of reams of paperwork, multiple checkpoints and bored guards, here there was a single building with many police windows and a decent queuing system. That’s not to say it was perfect: I still witnessed the same old bending of the system by guards. They would purposefully hold up the traffic thereby encouraging people to use the ‘VIP’ lane, where a few Som would get you through quicker.

It was cold and snowy (as usual) when I arrived in Almaty, the home of apples. Yes, Almaty is a derivation of the Kazakh word for apples – the Russians called it Alma-Ata, which literally means Apple father, but that’s just weird. However, it’s commonly accepted that the modern apple had its beginnings in this region. It’s disappointing then that nothing much is made of this fact: no massive apple statue, no apple pies being thrust upon you as a welcome present, very few toffee apples to speak of. No-one wears apple hats and there’s no apple on the flag. Very sad.

Horses on the steppes.
During my stay I met up with two Frenchmen who had – I’m not joking – walked to Almaty from France. Ok, they had hitchhiked for a bit through the first part of Europe, but since entering Turkey they had gone entirely by foot. I had expected some highly enlightened, spiritual beings but they were pleasingly down to earth. I asked them what their very long walk across Kazakhstan was like, since it’s so big, and they replied, ‘Quite boring. It’s just steppe.’ How profound. There were originally eight of them but it’s no surprise that most of them gave up or decided to use other forms of transport. But these two are planning on at least five years of walking to Australia, taking a boat to South America and walking across it. They live off just two Euros a day. I bought them each a beer.

I went skiing, a much better affair then my attempt in Kyrgyzstan. Almaty has just hosted the Asian Winter Games (along with the capital Astana) and as such their facilities are modern and efficient. The piste is large and well-groomed and the lifts are fast and brand-new. I had to pinch myself I was still in central Asia.

Skiing in Kazakhstan.
No stay in a former soviet country would be complete without at least some sort of run-in with overly complicated bureaucracy. This time round it was registration with the police, which is compulsory for all foreigners within five days of arrival. I don’t know why one must do this or what it achieves, but one must jump through the hoops nevertheless. I went to the registration office and found myself in the middle of a mass of people all shouting, pushing reaching for various counters behind which sat expressionless officials. First job: find the window I needed to get to. That was the easy part because I stood out like a sore thumb and a policeman just shouted the number at me. But where was the queue? Silly question: one doesn’t queue, one pushes as hard as one can. It’s survival of the fittest. I squeezed to the front and anchored myself in front of the official with one hand. I waved my passport and migration card at him: he took one look and said something back to me in Russian. I explained that I didn’t understand. He simply said, “I don’t speak English.” I was annoyed, to say the least. I don’t expect everyone to speak English, but I would expect, given that it’s the place all foreigners must register, that there might be at least a sign in another language explaining what has to be done. I shouted at him that if he didn’t help me I would end up breaking the law, but I don’t think he cared.

Fortunately at that moment a voice came out over the crowd: “I can help you!” A kindly old man took me aside and filled my card in for me, helped me get copies of everything I needed, showed me where to pay the fee (yes, you get charged for this privilege), and took everything back to the window for me. I had it all sorted by that evening and I don’t know what I would have done without him.

Paniflov Park, Almaty
22nd March is the Persian new year, though here they refer to it as Nowruz, literally ‘New Light’, and just as if it knew the date, the weather suddenly warmed up, melting the dangerously icy pavements and dropping the icicles that until now had decorated the sides of every building. In the centre square everyone came out to celebrate, dancing to traditional music (as well as slightly retro Kazakh boy bands) and devouring the local ‘delicacies’. One of the most famous and stridently defended of these delicacies is Kumuz, or fermented horse milk to you and I. It’s not as nice as it sounds and I’m amazed anyone can drink enough of the stuff to get drunk.

High above and overlooking Almaty is the hill of Kok-Tobe, which is easily reached by cable car from the city centre. It’s pleasant up there, with good views, but by far the best reason to go is to sit with the world’s only sculpture of all four Beatles. Yes, you can place yourself next to John, Paul, George or Ringo and listen to their songs being played constantly from speakers. I’m not quite sure why it’s there, but I like it.

The Beatles on top of a hill overlooking Almaty, of course.
I decided I needed to see some of the rest of Kazakhstan and so drove off across the steppes with two English teachers and one of their 80 year old dads who was visiting for the week. The empty desert stretched to the horizon but after four hours of driving we arrived at a vast gorge in the earth known as Charyn Canyon. A sign said “Descent”, so we did. It was eerily reminiscent of Cappadocia in Turkey, with natural tunnels, narrow paths and huge red rocks balanced on top of one another, as if sprinkled by frolicking giants. But it was the drive back that made the day particularly memorable.

I’ve never used a GPS and I didn’t see why we should use one now, Almaty being the only city for hundreds of miles around. Surely if we just aimed towards there we’d find it, right? The driver thought better and was determined to make the most of his new toy, a ‘KazNav’. I kid you not. Programmed for Almaty it directed us west, as expected. But suddenly, some 50 km from our destination it turned us left into a small village. This is the thing about GPS: it tells your senses that they’re stupid and should shut up. So we followed it along a tiny, bumpy track which became muddier and muddier and before long we were stuck, well and truly, in the Kazakh mud. No amount of pushing, pulling, lifting and raw digging was getting us anywhere, and after an hour or so two of us went off to knock on a door. It was dark by this point but two local boys took pity on our pleading faces and miming actions, dressed themselves up in suitable clothes and proceeded to help us. More pushing, pulling, lifting and digging ensued; wood was collected to lever under the wheels, the car was jacked up and then down again, and spades were found to move us much mud as possible. We’d all but given up when we tried one last, desperate heave and success! The car was free! We, however, were exhausted and covered head to toe in a rather liberal covering of thick mud.

Charyn Canyon
After a couple of days of rest I was ready for the next leg of my trip. Almaty is the end of my overlanding portion, the end of the romantic idea of seeing how far I can get without flying. I feel faintly sad at this prospect: for all its difficulties and pitfalls, central Asia has been an incredible experience, one punctuated by wonderfully hospitable people, astoundingly beautiful scenery and historic towns. It’s been eye-opening, frustrating and moving, a land where millennia of invaders have shaped the minds and lifestyles of countless nationalities. I’ve passed from some of the most rewarding countries I’ve ever been (such as Iran), through the weirdest (Turkmenistan), to some of the least stable and understood (Kyrgyzstan). But the difficulties I had in places only made it more satisfying.

Next stop: India.

1 comment:

  1. You are right - it is hard to decide if movies like Borat actually do anything good for the reputation of such a country.
    Maybe the saying "There is no bad publicity" is also true in this case. ;)