Kazakhstan #1 – God Almaty

15 Jul

A guest blog by Patrick

As we landed in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s cultural capital, we quickly realized that we had reached a pinnacle of collective exhaustion. Our minds raced with important questions. Why didn’t we get ANY sleep over the past week? Why didn’t we sleep more on the plane? Do you think it’s safe to take a nap in a random park? It was tiring to think about being so tired. Not to be outdone, our stomachs worked on overdrive trying to digest the enormous amount of food we had consumed at not one, not two, but three airport lounges along the way. #prioritypass

After receiving advice from a Kazakh woman that it was definitely not a good idea to take the bus from the airport into town, we promptly exchanged money and headed for the bus stop. Our first experience on Kazakh public transport was surprisingly pleasant – the woman sitting behind us even grabbed Sammi’s head and placed it on my shoulder after she kept nodding off in the other direction. Maybe this wouldn’t be so hard after all!

We made our way across town, through a market with exciting looking fruits and veggies, and to the flat of our amazing CouchSurfing host Alex. He was headed out for beer, but we explained that we were a little tired and were going to have an early evening. We got to know his two cats before falling asleep immediately.

Our CouchSurfing hosts: one of them will cuddle you all night long and the other will snore.

 

We awoke the next morning ready to explore, and Sammi made sure that Alex knew it with her typical morning energy. If she had brought her tail, it would have been wagging. Alex had arranged for us to go camping in the mountains with his friend, but the weather didn’t cooperate so we called an audible and planned a day trip to the mountains and a tour of Almaty instead. We caught a bus outside of his flat and were engaged in an interesting conversation when a woman leaned over and said something in Kazakh to Alex as she was exiting the bus. “What did she say?!?” we asked with excitement. “Don’t talk so loud!” he responded. Oh.

We hopped off the bus outside the subway and had the ABSOLUTE PRIVILEGE of riding the Almaty subway for the first time. It was clean, cheap, and provided plenty of space for stretching. We immediately started to ponder if we could just spend all day riding the subway! “There’s only 6 stops,” Alex reminded us.

With our luxurious underground ride sadly behind us, we headed to a local cafe to meet Alex’s friend Zoe for breakfast. We were starving after going to sleep without dinner the night before, and quickly perused the menu with English translations that the waiter assumed we needed. I turned to the drinks section and was frozen in my tracks. ‘Latte Popcorn’ was listed on the menu. Latte Popcorn? Are my eyes deceiving me? Is that what I think it is? Is this one of those situations where the person who did the translating just really didn’t grasp English? We asked Alex and he confirmed that there was in fact a ‘Popcorn Latte’ on the menu. Given that our friendship with our CouchSurfing hosts was still new, we both tried to contain our excitement as we cooly ordered one each. Our friendship had been forged in rural Jamaica over endless pots of every type of popcorn we could dream up. We invented jerk popcorn. We love coffee because it makes us both crazy. And now, in this remote corner of the globe that we knew nothing about, we had found the epitome of a coffee drink – LATTE POPCORN. We calculated the odds that we would ever see ‘Latte Popcorn’ on a menu again in our lives – they are astronomically low!

Thanks a latte!

 

We had a delightful breakfast eating salad, soup, and a delicious baked veal dish while we discussed American impressions of Kazakhstan. We explained that many of our friends and family were concerned about us because they felt that Kazakhstan is dangerous. To this Zoe responded, “Dangerous? Where?!?” and looked under the table. Apparently Kazakhstan is actually an incredibly safe place. Phew, what a relief!

We caught a bus into the mountains, hopping off at a ski resort where we took the funicular up into the jagged peaks of the Tian Shan mountains. As we were getting ready to board the funicular, Sammi and I were only mildly concerned to find the basic rules of behavior if you are taken hostage posted next to the opening and closing times. “Dangerous? Where?!?”

“Don’t neglect the food.” That’s one you don’t have to tell us.

 

HARD hiking in the dangerous Tian Shan mountains.

 

FUNicular.

 

Is this the hard bit?

 

Public transport in Khazakstan, where the hardest part is not talking too loudly.

 

The funicular ride was gorgeous, and we had nice walk at the top before heading back down into town. Our whirlwind tour took us through Central Park where we were informed that “Almaty is the 2nd best city in the world after New York”, you shouldn’t dance to the military music at a war memorial, and if you buy a can of Yeti you’ll be getting a Red Bull like energy drink (because what Sammi and I need after drinking Latte Popcorns is more caffeine). We made our way to Green Market to work on our Bingo card: camel’s milk (gross), mare’s milk (gross), hard dough candies made from camel’s milk (gross), and the largest horse meat market we had ever seen. Sammi made friends with an Uzbeki fruit and nut salesman that let us try EVERYTHING, which is pretty much our dream come true.

Getting to try everything that you want at the market is HARD.

 

From there we caught a cab to a local restaurant to try some authentic Kazakh fare. While driving through the streets of Almaty, we observed a man reach into the car in front of us from the outside and start running. A man jumped out and started yelling, and before we knew it Alex had told our taxi driver to step on it and run that man down. WE SPED THROUGH THE STREETS ON A CHASE THAT WAS STRAIGHT OUT OF A MOVIE! When we caught up to the guy, Alex jumped out and ran him down! Alex forced him to stop until the man from the original car arrived and explained that the thief had stolen his money. Apparently he was a druggie. Alex calmly jumped back into the car and directed the taxi driver to continue to the restaurant. “DANGEROUS? WHERE?!?”

Watching the England game with real English beer.

After a delicious dinner of plov and handmade Chinese-style noodles which we got to watch them make, we swung by the store to pick up some horse meat jerky and beer for the England-Belgium World Cup Consolation Final. After watching the game we jammed on the guitar and harmonica (it turns out Bob Marley genuinely is universally loved) before heading to bed.

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