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Long route home Our trip all the way home, trying to catch no planes and stay on the ground like civilised people. It's taking us via India all the way to Europe from Japan, the furthest of the Far East...

Al-Almaty, all the time

KAZAKHSTAN | Friday, 12 November 2010 | Views [1015]

A is for Almaty and Almaty is for apples.  This is just one of the many things we didn't know about Kazakhstan but do now.  Of course, there's still much more to learn and we'd certainly like to come back and carry on our all-too-brief Central Asian education.  One of the nicest lessons was that Almaty is a beautiful, cosmopolitan city.  We've largely been in homogenous or sharply delineated regions and it's really nice to be somewhere where no-one cares.  Groups of all ages and class are mixed, as indeed are many people.  Is Kazakhstan in Asia or Europe?  They're gearing up for the Asian Winter Games but then they play in European football.  The people span the spectrum of races and the food features pies and kebabs.  Toilets are sit-down but the paper goes in a bin.  It's impossible to decide - it feels very much like Europe, but then there's still lots of Asian influence too.  It's nominally Islamic, but we see very little of that.

The city itself is spread out along gigantic causeways as though it were designed for a London population when in fact it has Manchester's.  It's also quite odd in that the whole city slopes - North is down and south is up, unlike maps.  Despite the fact it takes the best part of an afternoon to walk around the corner in this super-sized city that reduces it's citizens to pinpricks against it's splendour, we get around the main sights in a day pretty easily.  It's chilly, the pavements are wide enough for ten elephants to walk abreast and they're well-maintained too so we can walk a lot faster than in other countries.  The museum of Kazakhstan is a funny affair - three of five galleries require additional payment.  The permanent collection is small but tastefully displayed.  We even get treated to a bit of English and a picture of Bonnie Prince Charlie which puts us off our pies.  It's all rather bombastic on the subjects of mineral wealth and (especially) the not-a-dictator-but-a-President Nazarbaev.  A short wander from there and we can take a cable car up the hill to a little park and viewpoint, which is something we love to do.  The summit hosts a toboggan ride, arcades, sculpture, restaurants and much else besides, but the main draw for us is the sunset.  It's slow and beautiful, its' red razor's edge tempered by the frosty, foggy air.  Slowly the sun switches on the clouds and they pulsate with purples and reds, soft and warm in the cold air.  It's the perfect spot - squeezed between the mountains and the city.  We miss the end of the display when a group of dental students chat to us for as long as they can carry on speaking English (one of the lads knows both Bristol Rovers and City).  It all ends strangely when they present us with a plaster tooth as a gift - sadly it doesn't fit Oli.

Our time is characterised by people stopping to talk to us, to help us and generally be good human beings.  There are two exceptions - the hotel cashier who brusquely informs us "no see room.  Nothing to see.  Four walls, two beds, window, ceiling.  That is all" and the English expat who insults a Kazakh lady so nastily in the pub that we rebuke him as we leave, leading to his running down the road shouting at us, then us all getting stopped by the police.  Our papers are in order and so after a quick check of bags "Narcotics?"  "No, towels" we're off to our hotel.  The other guy was last seen being loaded into the back of their car.  It's another feature of our stay - cops are everywhere, with guns and looking fearsome.  It's like Tibet or Urumqi, but there's no trouble that we know of - everyone seems to be rubbing along very well indeed, hence all those mixed-race folk. Indeed, the officials we dealt with all had a guileless delight in their country, with lots of smiles and thumbs up from 9 police in a park after we told them we liked Kazakhstan.

Parks are wonderful in Autumn anywhere in the world, and Kazakhstan is no exception.  Almaty has at least two fine parks - Panfilov and Gorky.  The first is a memorial to 28 martyrs of what is called here 'the Great Patriotic War'.  It has a marvelleous main statue of soldiers bursting forth from a map, arms outstretched in sacrifice for their country.  This is faced by an eternal flame of commemoration.  Each of the martyrs has their own statue too and there are various pieces of artillery parked about the place.  The leaves are changing colours and the trees are aflame with reds and oranges, set against an evergreen backdrop.  There are two churches here too, in true Orthodox style they are medievally resplendent with gold and devotional images.  Brutally martyred Christs provide a counter to the solemn statues outside and the whole place feels like a morbid library.  Gorky park is much bigger, we wander for hours through the avenues of golden trees into a funfair.  As we sit drinking coffees and contemplating the possibility of going on the rides, a loud crunch comes from a nearby ride - a carriage has fallen off, babies are screaming and a man is kneeling on the floor howling in agony.  Decision made - another coffee please!  Food is brought (on sticks - that's still Asian) and we relax and watch families playing for the rest of the afternoon.

If you're going:

- try and get a bi- or even tri-lingual map
- the far-away sights are either very troublesome or expensive to reach
- some things are very expensive, some things are cheap, especially local produce, so buy carefully
- shopping is generally of a much higher quality than much of Asia
- most cafes have free wifi


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