I was asked to help my Korean employers Indian partners in Kazakhstan in March 2005. I agreed and so we went through the routine of applying for a visa — “I am sorry, Mr Thompson will need to attend the embassy personally” this would not have been so bad except that I had to walk up hills on the hilly side of Seoul past bodies of mountain goats that had died from exhaustion trying to climb a little higher).
I naturally checked the weather in Kazakhstan every few days and numbers like -17 Celsius and such were of some concern, especially as the cold weather clothing I had purchased in Norway was still in Australia. Isn’t it always the way? Still, I remembered a valuable lesson from the Norwegians which was “layers”. Layers give you warmth. It worked.
I arrived at night on 3 March 2005 at Almaty Airport. What was I expecting? Well, having been a part of the Soviet Union for a while and after having to have traipsed to the embassy in person for a visa application, I was expecting bureaucracy running rampant. My first problem was that the staff on the Asiana flight I took to Almaty did not give me any arrival forms to fill out (I must compliment the Asiana staff though as their service was efficient and pleasant). I therefore expected problems. Immigration, however, was a breeze – no forms were required, partly because of the invitation letter that needs to be shown to get a visa initially and partly because you must register with the police if you are staying in the country longer than five days. The immigration guy scanned my passport, stamped it, suggested I should enjoy myself and it was done.
Almaty airport is small and modern, really, quite a pretty little airport (and as I was to discover later, the perfect opposite to the large Soviet Style Airport at Karaganda). Try to arrange to be met by your hotel or friends if this is the first time in Almaty. Taxis are unmarked (so yes, any car could be a taxi – you just assume that the car that stops when you stick your hand out on the street is one) – they also do not have meters. It is therefore necessary to negotiate the price of the trip before getting into one.
I can’t recall if there was a Bureau de Change (Wenschel, Cambio) at the airport. I even looked again on the way out and cannot remember seeing one. There is probably one there but I can’t recall seeing it. It seems, though, that dollars are OK though as the bellboy at the hotel gratefully accepted the dollar I gave him as a tip. There are money changers all over the city, usually in the supermarkets (go figure).
In Almaty there is a wonderful mix of many 40 year old Soviet style buildings so you could be in Moldova, Warsaw or anywhere in the old Eastern Bloc. Russian is freely spoken, English not so freely, Kazakhstani by fewer folks than speak Russian. There are also some quite pretty buildings as well (see the gallery in Thomo’s Hole) and newer buildings are in a pleasant style.
The city is at dark but shops are open late as are Taberna (taverns) and bars and casinos. Most signage is in Cyrillic only so sometimes it is necessary to stick your head in a door to see what the shop is. It is bloody cold there in winter, with a dry heat in summer.
The specialty of the country is horse – eating dog is a no-no. It is fun when Koreans and Kazakhs sit down for dinner – the Korean says “what is meat?” The Kazakh says “horse!”. The Korean says “horse is friend, we do not eat horse”. The Kazakh says “same with dog”. 🙂
Having said that, the food is quite excellent there. I particularly liked the local soup, a chopped sausage soup called Solyanka. Eggs also figure prominently and something like bacon and eggs in the morning will come with three fried eggs (unless your preference is for a one egg omelette).
I asked my friend Asel (a co-worker initially but a friend now) about the history of the area. This was a great question to ask as was her answer (especially if your hobby is wargaming). Asel noted that the area started out populated by the Sakae. These were blonde or red-haired people with blue or green eyes. It was around this time that the Amazons were here as well, although Asel tells me that they did not actually cut their breasts off to help their archery but rather they bound the right breast or constantly rubbed it with a rock when the woman was young. This stunted the growth on one side but leaving a normal breast on the left.
After the Sakae, the area had received invasions from various Turkic tribes, Mongols, Huns and Arab Conquest armies. Latterly it was the Russians. You sort of get the picture. Almost every nomadic invasion that passed from east to west passed through the area. This is quite notable in the population today where the appearances of the local population vary from eastern to western in appearance, even within the same family.
I should also state that the people are incredibly friendly and helpful. A very hospitable group and I certainly look forward to a chance to go back there in the future some time.
Karaganda (Qaraghandy in Kazakh)
We flew to Karaganda for a couple of days on a Tulpar Air Service provided flight. The flight was on the ubiquitous (in this part of the world at least) Antonov AN-24 aircraft. As with the Tupolev I flew in Moldova, the overhead luggage racks in this aircraft are just that, racks. On the Internet there is a man collecting safety cards from aircraft and he wanted one from a Tulpar AN-24. I can inform him that on the flight to Karaganda and the flight from Karaganda there were no safety cards on the aircraft. Heck, Asel’s seat belt contained no buckle and could not be done up. We did arrive, however.
Karaganda is an industrial town in the north of the country. As the weather was improving in Almaty, it was still cold in Karaganda, especially when we arrived when it was around -12 or so.
There are some photos from around the town in the Gallery here. I should note that Karaganda airport is huge, old and built in the Soviet style. In fact Asel fell apart in laughter when whilst driving through Karaganda we drove past some old apartment buildings.
I said “they look like they were built in the 1960s or 1970s”. She asked how I could know that. I said that it was because they were Soviet in style. In fact, my words were (in English with my best Russian accent), “Soviet building is like Soviet woman – big, strong , ugly!” Asel is still laughing about that.
Overall, I must say that I really enjoyed my stay in Kazakhstan. I do want to go back, if for no other reason than to spend some time in the museum in Almaty which I believe is quite good.
If you get a chance to travel to Kazakhstan, then do – try and avoid mid-winter though.