David Rich 1100 Words
120 Kazakh Tenge = $1
Kamikaze Kazakhstan Borat-Style
Walking around Kazakhstan’s former capital of Almaty was like walking into a convention of female Russian tennis stars, the streets seemingly strewn with willowy lasses fringed with icy blonde hair, a welcome change to an unnatural expectation that most everyone would be unglamorous buffoons, resembling Borat. What a relief after a wee hours’ arrival at Almaty airport, a confounded inability to decipher Cyrillic so that I queued in the wrong passport line and a luggage carousel disaster that sent packs, suitcases and duffels flying like the climax to the cultural leanings of the glorious nation of Kazakhstan.
Almaty in late summer is similar to trudging the Saharan wastes in the noon day sun, fortunately relieved by unending legions of trees that have transformed Almaty into a city disguised as a forest. Without trees Almaty would be uninhabitable in summer. Perhaps that’s one reason the current dictator, democratically elected like in some other countries, arbitrarily carted the capital to Astana, a then minor town in the far north near the Russian border. Because Kazakhstan is the size of Western Europe Astana is really far from anywhere except Russia. The pervasive Russian influence is reflected on the shelves of the average Kazakh supermarket, approximately 34% of which are stocked with 8217 separate brands of vodka, a traditional inspiration for comedians like Boris Yeltsin.
Highways outside all cities are jammed with impromptu kiosks stacked with fruit, offering watermelon the size of VWs, truly tasty tomatoes and pearly grapes, complemented by fish ranging from large, red and floppy to dried. The highways are otherwise a vast game played with ceaseless competition between motorists and radar cops. The traps are situated for effectiveness, too close over the top of a hill to avoid careening into. But the Kazakh cops have gone this old ploy one further, setting up fake traps with lolling cops reading newspapers a few hundred meters before the brow of the next hill where the true trap springs live and well, scooping up freshly accelerating motorists like a vacuum cleaner. I never rode a bus more than an hour without the driver getting popped for speeding, such as during my initial foray into the wilderness to what the Kazakh tourist office brazenly hyped as the little Grand Canyon, with which even a non-comedian would have a field day.
The grand Charyn Canyon looks more like Monument Valley with a thousand foot (300 meter) ditch down the middle, crowned with a serpentine torrent of a river at its end where Kazakh tourists pack the banks with picnic lunches. I was pleased to find at least one brazen chap wearing an off the shoulder, one-piece bathing suit, which a British comedian named Sasha would have envied nigh unto death.
I was trapped, an unsuspecting victim into other expeditions ballyhooing the Kazakh wilderness, such as to inspect Aksu Canyon, so narrow and deep the river was the merest glint of blue glacier-melt, and what good was that? The best sashays were into the mountains forming the hundreds of miles (also hundreds of kilometers) of mountains separating the south of Kazakhstan from the north of Kyrgyzstan, glacier capped behemoths accessible a few miles (also a few kilometers) south of Almaty. With English-speaking compatriots, one of whom spoke necessary Russian, we schlepped up a steep pipeline, gingerly teetering up to Big Almaty Lake, a milky blue concoction three miles from the Kyrgyzstan border, sitting below what the locals ominously called The Observatory. This concoction of telescopes, second largest in the old Soviet Union, was bolstered by a cadre of Kazakh agents bent not only on kyboshing border drug smuggling but also wiping visiting English speakers off the ping-pong map. We acquiesced in unending friendly games of table tennis, blinking as blurry orange balls flew past eyes fatigued from balancing up precipitous slopes on a rumbling pipeline. We escaped the next day by trudging up to Kosmostansia Pass, the most advanced Russian experiment in particle physics, incidentally manned by serious types uninterested in fielding questions fired by probing Western journalists and who’d apparently never heard of any Western comedians.
The Kazakhs I met were true characters, from Karla, featured in Central Asia’s most popular English language guidebook. She’d trained at the American Embassy and achieved employee of the year in 1995, the plaque reading to Karlygash Makatovoa…ever present cheerfulness…resolved numerous serious problems and raised spirits. This American double-talk concealed Karla’s true service, holding off eleven Kazakh policemen wielding Kalashnikovs who strongly insisted on boarding an American jet flying a diplomatic flag. In her spare time Karla organizes tours for befuddled Westerners and rents out various apartments in Almaty, the most expensive city for sleeping in Central Asia, while composing jazz music, raising a precocious daughter and playing a mean jazz piano.
Irina was born to a German family in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan during the old Soviet regime, grew up in Almaty, emigrated to Germany and then Canada, a fluent Russian-speaker and invaluable resource to such as I who couldn’t even decipher the Cyrillic alphabet. She led our happy troupe through the intricacies of a bureaucracy abandoned by the Soviets, up the mountain valleys frequented in her childhood and down her memory lane. Irina was instrumental in corralling Alikhan, a former Soviet-Kazakh jet pilot who hosted and planned two penetrations into the Tien Shan Mountains on the border with Kyrgyzstan. Alikhan’s ambition to become a fighter pilot was inspired by the exploits of Yuri Gagarin, who Irina in her childhood had been taught was the first into the cosmos, which I erroneously interpreted meant first on the moon. I bedazzled our pilot-host with tales of my stint in the U.S. Air Force Band, which I understood Alikhan to mutter was the kind of target Soviet bombers enjoyed, better than Gary Powers.
Though Alikhan was the head of eco tourism for south Kazakhstan he’d never heard of the country’s newest monument, perhaps the world’s greatest and most interesting building, an edifice that reduces the view across east Shanghai from the Bund to a collection of Tinker toys. See www.khanshaytr.com for a video of this 150 meter (500 feet) high city, transparent for voyeuristic viewing, with natural solar winter heating and summer cooling. This skyscraper city is a Xanadu pleasure dome with Dubai style megalith, an Oceanarium hatching sharks for presidential pets, with squares, beaches, streets, concert hall, and golf course. Notwithstanding this and other Kazakh marvels the locals I asked far preferred life under the old Soviet Union, reasons ranging from people were nicer to each other then, and everyone had jobs. I suspect the real reason was the old Kazakhstan was before Borat.
When you go: Fly to Almaty by Air Arabia from Europe or Air Astana throughout Asia for about $1000 roundtrip, double the price from North America. Karlygash can be emailed for apartment accommodation in Almaty or tours at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visas for Central Asia can easily be arranged through Stantours by email at email@example.com, or see www.stantours.com.