I initially thought Kazakhstan was going to be the worst country I’ll ever visit. There would be nothing but farms and small villages with a few sparse over-priced hotels in their main cities with not a lot to do or see. I was very wrong about this. Kazakhstan is awesome.
I went to Almaty for the weekend, and I was blown away by how modern the city was. Kazakhstan certainly has its rural villages out in its wide expanse of plains and deserts, but the cities are much like any city in the west and nicer than most cities of comparable size in America. Even with all the modern amenities, it still has that Russian/Soviet/Kazakstani vibe which makes it truly unique. The reason for the modernity is largely due to recently discovered large oil reserves near the Caspian Sea in Eastern Kazakhstan which have helped to develop and modernize the country. All of this influx of cash has helped to create a upscale culture in Almaty with fancy cafes and bars throughout the city. Walking around Almaty felt like walking around any nice European city.
We left Friday afternoon from Bishkek and took a taxi to the border with Kazakhstan. This took about twenty minutes and once I arrived I noticed that you could even take a marsrutka (local bus) from цум right to the border. Visa laws recently changed allowing Americans to come to Kazakhstan without a visa. This made the border crossing hassle free and within 20 minutes, we cleared both checkpoints and made it to the taxi area on the other side. Our options for the 2-3 hour journey to Almaty were either a shared van which would stop frequently and take a while for maybe $10 or pay $15 for a shared taxi and they’ll drop you off at an address in downtown Almaty. Ask to be taken to a specific place or hotel or they’ll drop you at the bus station and you’ll have to get another cab to your place. Its just a waste of time and money to get two cabs. We took the shared taxi and they go when full. Fortunately there were two spots left and two of us which made that easy. We had a group total of eight people but we were traveling separately because some wanted to leave a few hours earlier.
2-3 hours later and after a little struggle finding a hostel with space, we made it to a place called “74/76” which had rooms with 6 beds (three bunks) for $10 a night. We went out for dinner, walked around a bit, and went to bed after a long afternoon of traveling.
The next morning, we all went to the столовая (cafeteria) down the street for some Russian breakfast. We had a group of eight originally, but we split into a group of 5 and 3 to see some sights in the city. I went with the three — John from San Diego and Andrew from Texas. Both of them speak really great Russian so that made the day a lot easier. We walked around the city, saw some of the sights and by 1 pm, we made our way to the National Museum. We got the student discount and paid something like 50 cents for entrance to the museum. Usually I think most museums suck (because most genuinely do), but this one was quite interesting. They had a lot of information about old Kazakh herders and nomads and a really interesting bit about Kazakhstan’s involvement in WWII fighting alongside Russians. It was almost all in Russian, but the pictures and model exhibits were cool.
On our way out of the museum, we stopped off in the gift shop and were looking at some of the items when two guys said “woah are those guys speaking English?”. We ended up starting up a conversation with them, and we learned that these two guys are acting teachers in Almaty for the summer. They had a friend from graduate school in NYC that was Kazakh and she recruited them to come back to her country to teach for a summer. These guys made pretty good money and frequently brushed elbows with the rich and famous of Kazakhstan who were taking acting or voice lessons from them. I guess if you teach acting, you’re in high demand in Kazakhstan. Anyways, there experiences made for some pretty great stories about Kazakhstani and Russian culture. We ended up going to lunch with these guys and spent the rest of the afternoon with them going around and seeing the city. These guys were really funny and entertaining, and their odd stories about living in Kazakhstan were absolutely hilarious. It made for a very fun afternoon. We made plans to meet up again later that evening to go to some of their favorite bars and clubs in Almaty.
That afternoon, we rode an old and extremely unsafe gondola to the top of a nearby mountain where they had a roller coaster/luge ride, carnival games, and a petting zoo. The view was quite nice and the strangeness of the carnival place at the top gave us more than a few good laughs.
The view from the gondola
This is one of the many Kazakh families that wanted a photo with us. I asked for one as well!
Later that night around 9:30 we went out to a place called Jeans Bar which was a upscale denim themed bar with a live band. We ended up getting pretty rowdy on these corona-ritas and shots of some random homemade Kazakh liquor — at least that’s what the bar tended told us in Russian. After a few hours at the bar, we grabbed a cab and headed over to a night club, but unfortunately I cannot remember the name. It had a live band downstairs and a DJ upstairs and a pretty half/half mix of Russians and Kazakhs. One of the funniest things in Kazakhstan is the taxis. There are actually no taxis in the normal sense of the word. When I think of a taxi, I think of a vehicle that says “Taxi” on it and drives people around as its primary purpose. Almaty has none of these. Rather if you want a taxi, you flag down a random car and tell them where you want to go and name your price. You don’t have to worry about a random car not stopping, they always do. Its usually 500tg to go anywhere. You tell them 500 in Russian, пятисот (peet sot) or pizza as our new American friend said. He told us you can just get in a cab and say “Go to x, pizza”, then pay 500. Our friends speak no Russian by the way. Its close enough to пятисот that it actually works. Any car can be a cab if the driver feels like it so when you flag one down, it might be someone who is actually trying to drive people around or it might be a guy on his way to the grocery store not in any rush who sees a quick opportunity here to make a few extra dollars.
I think the funniest part about the night club was when we met this incredibly racist Russian guy. There’s making racist jokes and then there’s honestly believing everything you say. This guy honestly believed himself. He started off by telling us that BBC and CNN were “shit” and we should really get the true story and watch some RT (Russian state television). Someone can make reasonable arguments against BBC and CNN compared to other news sources, but to then argue for RT as a suitable replacement? Are you kidding me? He then asked me if I liked Kazakh women more than Russians. I told him I did, and he responds “ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!”. How could I like such an inferior people to the Russians? Then when we told him we live in Bishkek, he yells “YOU LIVE IN VILLAGE!” I mean, Bishkek is pretty shitty, but its not a village. This guy just loved to hate on Central Asians. It was pretty funny until you realize he means everything he said. Oh, Russians…
The next morning was pretty painful, but around 12, we took a cab to the bus station and hopped on another shared taxi back to the border. It was another 15 dollars back to the Kyrgyzstan border — all bribes included. When we got closer to the border, a police officer was stoping random cars and told us to pull over. I watched our taxi driver place 1,000tg into his registration papers before he handed it to the police man. A few seconds later we were on our way. We weren’t doing anything wrong, just a legitimate taxi service between Almaty and Bishkek, but when the police want bribes, you have to pay up even if you aren’t doing anything wrong. We crossed the border again with ease and took a marsrutka back into town for 20 som. Once I got home, I hit the books and tried to catch back up on my language studies.
All in all great weekend. Another set of stamps in the passport and another country checked off the list.