Country number: 178 (counted from second, proper, visit)
When? July/August 2014, A Steppe too Far, driving through Kyrgyzstan
Who? Group Tour
When? October/November 2017, coming from Tajikistan, going on to Moldova
Who? With the Group Tour and with Farida
The primary city in Kazakhstan is not Astana, the relatively new capital, but Almaty, in the south east.
After the competitively goliath construction in the other Central Asian countries it’s already looking as if the only award Almaty is going to win is Most Boring City. It’s dull and hazy, which doesn’t help and we can only just discern the mountains that surround it, already frosted with snow. (The BBC weather forecast says ‘smoke’). Virtually nothing is written in English and very few people speak the language. When approached people ask, ’Do you speak Russian? ‘Niet’ I reply mournfully.
The driver, Igor, who meets Farida and I at the airport (Shane has abandoned the tour totally now and gone on to Bishkek to collect another country), is very Russian indeed, pretends he doesn’t speak English and is only interested in taking us back to our hotel. Nichego else. So, a hasty phone call to the tour organiser and Boris is your Uncle, we are on a city tour. The mosque is new and unprepossessing. The carpets are frayed. The country is nominally Muslim, but there are few outward signs of this and mosques are not commonly seen or heard. The Green Market is open, but it is surrounded by metal hoardings, as it’s being renovated, there are huge signs saying No Photos and everyone looks grumpy. We beat a hasty retreat. There are a few older wooden style Russian houses with painted shutters and some old brutalist architecture, no longer utilised. Panfilov Park has some Soviet statues. The musical instrument museum here is open, and the wooden building housing it, with its spire, is interesting, compared to most of the others, but the contents are not exactly riveting. We probably achieve the record for taking the quickest tour. The highly recommended timber roofed Zenkov Cathedral is swathed entirely in scaffolding. After trudging right round it we find a way in, but it is so dark that we can’t see what it looks like inside without taking flashlight pictures. Then we notice the sign that says Don’t Take Photos Without Permission.
There are several blocks of very flash shops. Kazakhstan is mineral and resource-rich and is a relatively wealthy country. It’s just not very clear where the money is going. Kazakhstan has been independent since 1991 with the same dictator style president at the helm since that time. Much of the important stuff, ATMs, phones, transport, seems to be run by Qazcom, now spelled Kazcom in the spirit of the new Latin alphabet. Igor is scathing about the grandiose plans made for renovation in Almaty. Nothing ever gets implemented, he says
There are plenty of up market cars creating some awful traffic, so we inch past some more statues, and Independence Square, to our hotel. It seems we’ve seen the best that Almaty has to offer. The guide books say that the tourist industry is very much in its infancy in Kazakhstan. I wonder why.
It seems that Farida and I are the only people ever who have left the Golden Eagle train tour and then returned. A farewell dinner in the restaurant at the top of the Ritz Carlton hotel with the rest of the tour group. The night time views over the city and mountains show Almaty off to the best possible advantage. You can see the bank towers- mock glass covered Soviet monoliths- and the mall.
The forecast for today is fog. I suppose that’s an improvement. Having exhausted the splendours of Almaty, Farida and I are venturing out of town to Schymbuk, a ski resort created for the Asian Olympics, as they insist on calling it. There’s a gondola to the small village affording views of a few swish chalets and the speed skating rink designed, at the president’s behest, to hothouse local talent. There’s a very light dust of snow on some of the runs, but it’s mostly shale and rows of snow cannons, at the ready. Despite the snow, it’s warm, up here the fog has burned off and the peaks are bathed in sunshine. Farida gives the driver hard time- he can’t speak English- as she is determined not to miss any of the scheduled stops made on the commercial tour she was considering. We’ve taken a hotel car instead. The driver is bemused and it takes a fifteen minute phone call and two physical demonstrations before she is convinced that the road up the mountain really is closed. We get to see everything from the cable car anyway.
Back to the hotel, and I’m setting off for the airport – Moldova, via Moscow. I leave Farida with the weary driver. She is visiting Almaty Lake this afternoon and she has decided that she must see the Beatles Monument below the TV Tower on the way.