Experiencing Kazak hospitality
Today saw me arrive in Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan and my base for probably the next two weeks as I organize yet more visas for both Russia and Uzbekistan.
The ride from Shelek to Almaty was pretty straightforward and whilst the previous two days had seen me ride through some rather remote areas I now found myself making my way through small villages every 10 to 15km.
The bike and I are being tested more and more by the road which doesn’t really seem to be getting any better. I find myself having to work harder as each bump and crack in the road offers up resistance to my forward movements.
The density of traffic also increased about 40km outside of Almaty and with cars coming up beside me sometimes a little too close for comfort I needed to have my wits about me.
Anyone for a quick kick about?
I’ve been looking forward to my arrival in Almaty and have heard great reports from people who’ve visited here. It was imperative that I get here today so that I still have one day to go and register my visa tomorrow. This added layer of bureaucracy seems to be a hangover from old Soviet times. Despite the fact that my passport and arrival card were stamped when I crossed the border foreigners are required to register their visa within 5 days of arriving in the country at specific offices in major cities. For most people this isn’t a problem as they are able to complete this on arrival at the airport or make the relatively short trip to Almaty by bus in less than a day. However, I’m now on my third day of riding and as the 5th day will be a Saturday and hence the office is apparently not open I need to get this done tomorrow or risk being fined.
Almaty is known as the "city of apples" or "city of apple trees" and was the capital of Kazakhstan until 1997 when it lost that status to the current capital Astana. An American guy in Urumqi was kind enough to give me a book ‘Apples are from Kazakhstan – The Land that disappeared’ by Christopher Robbins a travelogue which looks into all things Kazak. I’ve started reading it and it’s very informative as well as humorous. However I may well hold off on reading the rest until I hit further West; things will get pretty remote out there and it will be good to have something to keep me amused during my nights camped out on the steppe.
I arrived on the outskirts of the city by mid afternoon; entering from the east you climb over some small hills which cut through a kind of grass valley before descending into the city itself. The first thing to say about the city is that it possesses a quite magnificent backdrop to it in the form of the stunningly beautiful mountain range right on the doorstep of the city to the south.
Almaty is listed in the top 50 expensive cities in the world and a couple of kilometres into the city it was plain to see the affluence and wealth clearly on display in the numerous fashion boutiques which lined the streets.
I’d arranged to ‘couch surf’ here and if I’m being honest had spent part of the afternoon wondering what to expect from my hosts. I’d completed all the required information on the website and contacted some people from it with a view to staying with them for a couple of days. I’d also given them the address of this blog so as they could find out a little bit more about me and what I’m trying to do.
I decided to take up an offer of accommodation from Gaziza who shares her apartment with her 12 year old daughter Adina. I sent her a couple of text messages once I arrived in the city and she pointed me in the general direction of her apartment. I managed to find the general area of where she lived just opposite the central football stadium but was having problems finding its exact location. Thankfully two young guys came along on bikes and we got chatting, they were kind enough to call Gaziza and 5 minutes later she came down to where I was waiting and I’d met my host.
I was taken to her beautiful apartment which has the most amazing view of the mountains. I think we were both a little nervous about what to expect but I could immediately tell that this was someone I could trust and it was a welcome relief that she spoke such good English. This was my first experience of couch surfing and hers also.
I met her niece, a university student who’d been staying there and then her daughter Adina before being given a guided tour of their lovely home. I feel incredibly blessed to have been invited into their home and Gaziza showed me to ‘my room’ and really made me feel immediately at home. I cannot thank them enough for inviting me into their house and the chance to stay for a few days while I get my bearings in the city.
Later that evening I witnessed once again the wonderfully warm hospitality that has been so evident so far of my time in Kazakhstan. A traditional Kazak meal was prepared and I felt a real sense of honour at once again being invited to stay. The food was really delicious and consisted of mostly boiled lamb and another kind of meat which I gladly tucked into. With the second piece of ‘mystery’ meat being happily chewed by me Gaziza in a very matter of fact way informed me that this was in actual fact horse! I’ve never eaten horse before and perhaps if it had been pointed out to me that this was in fact horse I may well not have eaten it. People can debate the rights and wrongs of this and in England I’m sure there will be people who may be slightly disgusted by this and perhaps think it wrong. However this is Kazakhstan and when in Rome…….hold on…..when in Kazakhstan…… Horse meat is considered a very clean meat here and a kind of delicacy and I have to say in all honesty that it tasted absolutely delicious.
After dinner we took a short walk around the area where I took the opportunity to find out more from Gaziza about life not only in Almaty but in Kazakhstan in general. There is so much to learn about this new and mysterious land for me.
Gaziza started to get some messages from her daughter saying that evening tea was ready and that they were awaiting our return. Here I got to meet one of her sisters and we all sat down to drink tea and nibble on an assortment of delicious dried fruits and nuts, chocolates and biscuits. It was all incredibly civilized and, how should I say, terribly English.
What an incredible first day in Almaty.