The Hospitable Steppe – Kazakhstan

The fact that I am geographically challenged is well known within my family and friend circle as well as few of you who follow our blog. Even a year-long course in geo-politics and international relations has not helped me grasp how the world is shaped. I have even presented a research paper on Central Asia during this course. So irony died a thousand times when TH told me we are going to Almaty, Tashkent, Bukhara, Samarkand and Astana and I blinked vacantly. My brain could not comprehend where on earth these places are!

TH is a geography/geo-politics junkie and I guess he is on a secret mission to educate me as much as possible. So our travel is also a live lesson for me in so many subjects like geography, post-world war history, political landscape of the countries we visit, their political leaders, economics, aviation, operations research and finance (forex, banking, cash flow management et al).

I; on the other hand; am more interested in the finer details of life – Art, architecture, ancient history, culture, languages, people etc. TH has not awakened to these refined subjects so he royally ignores all these and sleep-walks through my blabber.

So when it was time to take this trip seriously I searched the internet for Silk Road tales and TH did it to understand the socio-economic-political landscape of these countries. Our individual blueprints were in place. You may read different takes on the same travel destinations since both of us perceive and experience different things. Our circuit was Almaty (KZ) – Tashkent(UZ) – Bukhara (UZ) – Samarkand (UZ) – Astana (KZ). Part 1 of the blog is KZ and part 2 is UZ.

Almaty:

The “Stopover Holidays” by Air Astana is really a smashing idea for those who are interested in travelling to Kazakhstan. Only flip side being your stay is restricted to 72 hours. At the risk of sounding pompous, TH and I are Travel Ninjas. We are hardcore and can manage all kinds of mad itineraries without exhaustion. We prepare lists of must-see, must-eat, must-do items to shape our tight schedule and then we rock-n-roll. We had less than 72 hours in Almaty and still we managed to see all of our listed items and had time to do free-wheeling stuff like an impromptu trip to the Big Almaty Lake. Kazakhstan has immense potential for tourism but it hasn’t realized it yet. The Airport, immigration etc. is still in the shadow of the bygone era. It is unheard of in today’s era to make people wait for 2 hours to cross the immigration! Not knowing basic English is the main problem here. Kazakh people are warm and helpful but that does not necessarily help. After our protracted wait (for no reason at all) at the Airport, we were out and about in Almaty. It’s a beautiful city with carefully cultivated greenery. The roads are tree-lined boulevards and most grand Chinar trees are planted all across the city. It immediately teleports you to the romantic era. The city is planned beautifully with a lot of gardens and parks.

Almaty is located in the foothills of Alatau Mountains and the view is breathtaking (when the weather is clear). On the day of arrival, we witnessed torrential rains with spooky sounding winds. It was a scene straight out of a horror movie. We were staying on the 19th floor of Hotel Kazakhstan and we were listening to the crazy winds and rain outside when suddenly the window pane opened violently and the gust and water was inside. Next 5 minutes entailed crazy scrambling for closing the window and saving our stuff from getting drenched.This was our grand welcome in Almaty. 30mins later Almaty behaved as if it has not seen rain in a decade!

We stepped out to hunt for food and some countries make me want to declare that I am a vegetarian! The menu cards are 99% of the times only in Kazakh/Russian. If, by stroke of luck, you find a restaurant with an English menu card, it will simply mention “meat”. Samsa with meat, pasta with meat etc. If you manage to communicate with the server about what kind of meat, it will turn out to be beef or horse. You try to request for lamb or chicken and they stare blankly. Then you try saying “no meat”, and then there is a stern-blank stare. Finally we gave up and ordered for stuff which had big chunks of meat so that we could separate it and eat the rest. Minced “meat” is your worst nightmare.

Almaty has a long history of being on the trade routes and has a lot of tales. It is also rich in heritage and natural wonders. The hill of Kok-Tobe offers a panoramic view of the city and has a wonderful cable car transport which takes you from the plains of the city right up the hill. There is of course the Republic Square where you will hear carefully curated history about USSR and independence therefrom. In spite of the language barrier, the locals are extremely helpful and take great efforts to help you. Comical rounds of dumb-charades and stray English words make up for a meaningful conversation. The Kazakhs have tremendous curiosity about India and Indians. I so wish we had at least one language in common and we could have long and hearty conversations with them!

Our pre-trip research showed that tourists have faced scamming cab drivers and people generally intent on mugging the tourists. But we did not encounter /even witness any such incident. Almaty is reasonably safe to roam around on your own at night. The local Kazakh food is mild and bland. The Kazakhs love their Kefir (buttermilk) as much as I do!:) I had once read a book called “Apples are from Kazakhstan” and they really are from Kazakhstan! One bite into a double tennis ball sized fruit and there is a blast of juice in the mouth! What we eat in India is a sad impostor of the original Apples. We hogged on Apples throughout our stay.

The highlight of trip was our dash to the Big Almaty Lake! It was always on our agenda but the day we got up to venture out, it was extremely cloudy and people told us, that the lake will be foggy and the weather is not right for the visit since it’s high up in the mountains. So we did the entire circuit in the city and leisurely spent time on Kok-Tobe. We reached hotel at 5.05pm and as soon as I opened the room, I saw sunlight trickling on our bed and I turned back and told TH to call our local guide to arrange for a tour to the Lake. He looked at me with incredulous expressions and said “Are you serious!” I said “Of course I am, tomorrow morning we leave, sunset doesn’t happen till 8pm and we will take 50-55mins to reach the Lake. HURRY UP.” By then TH had regained his senses and swiftly sprang into action. We had arranged our ride to the Lake in next 30mins and were on our way at 5.55pm 🙂 The driver was an angel who must have been a champion at Need for Speed. I cannot describe the amount of passive braking I have done from the back-seat throughout our drive to the Lake! We reached the breathtaking location within an hour and it was a view of the paradise! We were still scrambling to go down to the banks of the lake when TH noticed fog entering the lake bowl from left. You can see the same in our photos too. It was ethereal to see the crystal waters of the lake, snow-capped peak in the background, lush green slopes under our feet with wild flowers scattered around, sun trying to break-in and be a part of this party and fog crashing in to steal the show! We barely managed to witness this wonder for 4-5 mins but it was the most beautiful I have had a privilege to behold and I will be eternally grateful to the driver for driving us up there in the nick of time 🙂 we even told the tourist company to convey it to him specifically since we could barely exchange 5 words in English.

The drive back to our Hotel was chilled out and we saw beautiful panorama which we had missed while going up. TH and I normally believe that the journey is more important that the destinations. But, this is a classic example of how the destination was worth sacrificing this journey (at least while going up). The Gods must really be happy with us in those 3 hours when we were allowed to witness the splendor of the Big Almaty Lake. We literally made hay while the sun shone 🙂 and continued on our onward journey.

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Astana:

The last leg of our Central Asian adventure was again through Air Astana’s stop-over holidays – 72 hours transit in Astana. Astana is a quintessential modern city and understandably so. The city became the capital of Kazakhstan in 1997. Prior to that it was a settlement turned town in the Kazakh steppes. The town was converted to a modern city as per the vision of Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev. I am not a fan of modern cities. And that is a constant point of contention when we travel. I have not shown any interest in traveling to Dubai or Singapore as I find it extremely boring to look at high-rises. But TH enjoys watching the zenith of human development. I conceded since my interests were taken care of in Almaty, Bukhara, and Samarkand.

Astana skyline is dotted with magnificent replicas of famous structures across the world. You will find a bit of Dubai, Singapore, London strewn across the main street between the Presidential palace and Khan Shatyr mall. The Bayterek monument is a must-see place for no reason 🙂 The Kazakhs throng the place to catch a glimpse of an impression of the palm of Nursultan Nazarbayev. There was a long queue to get inside the tower and another one leading upto the actual palm impression. While we were standing in the queue, a group of Babushkas were coming down. One of those grannies just stopped right in the middle of a narrow staircase to scrutinize me from top to bottom. I assumed she was satisfied because then she broke into a wide smile and asked “Indian?” I was almost on the verge of irritation for her unabashed way of checking me out. But I realized it’s the same curiosity for my nationality that made her do it. So I responded “Yes!”. She took my hand in her hand and squeezed it tightly to convey her love, happiness and blessings. This exchange was precious for me and made my visit to Bayterek worthwhile. At the risk of repeating myself, I consistently feel drawn to such countries where such human exchanges happen and that so far has happened in Asia. Superficially this exchange will look like just a casual encounter, but if you look closely you can’t miss the warmth! TH is still perplexed why that granny was so affectionate towards me and not him 😛

TH made sure we saw the prominent landmarks in Astana. We walked from the Presidential palace up to the Khan Shatyr market. In Astana too, we saw elaborate wedding troops having their photo shoots on the backdrop of Bayterek tower. That seems to be the rage these days. Brides looked ethereally beautiful and grooms were dapper. They all got out from stretch-limos and trotted around with an entourage of photographers, light technicians and best men and bridesmaids. We had seen similar process in Russia too. These guys seem to spend a lot on weddings too. We are same in more ways than one 🙂

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Astana for me was a good example of what can be achieved if your country’s leader has vision. It’s an ambitious project undertaken by Nazabayev. The city is already undergoing reconstruction. The buildings that resembled soviet bloc development are being razed down and new glass and steel structures are erupting. TH felt immense satisfaction after we ticked off Astana. For me “the granny and me” story is the highlight of my Astana stay 🙂

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Read about your adventure in Uzbekistan – The Hospitable Steppe – Uzbekistan

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