Monday, June 20, 2011

The Big Apple

Apart from the general sightseeing I did have an important task to do in Almaty: get my Mongolian visa. (I know what you're thinking, "oh no, not another visa anecdote"; and I'm sorry to bring it up - although I will be brief. But visa acquisition forms a large part of a traveller's daily preoccupation - where do I get it? what documents do I need? how long does it take? do I need to do it via an agency? etc, etc - because, very simply, without overcoming these hurdles you can't do any travelling. And the whole visa system in this part of the world in particular is so arbitrary and capricious. It's a universal rule that if you get two travellers sitting down and talking together, within an hour they will be swapping visa stories. Nevertheless I shouldn't complain, as getting into the EU or United States with a passport from Central Asia for simple tourism purposes is nigh on impossible. But back to the story...) So I made my way to the embassy, which is very inconveniently located in the southwest corner of town in a random residential area down a very nondescript little alley, on Monday morning, only to find a little, handwritten sign tacked to the gate saying that the embassy would be closed until Thursday. I was not impressed.

My view of Almaty, with the ever-present Tian Shan mountains behind decked in an approaching thunderstorm. One of my first pics with my new camera - obviously I need to learn how to use it properly.

Still, I had other things to keep me occupied, not least of which was finding a camera to replace my unfortunate, recently deceased, companion. Almaty may be Central Asia's metropolis, but that still doesn't mean that I was going to have an easy time finding a suitable replacement. I'm not a keen shopper at the best of times, preferring to make a list and execute a quick in-out operation, spending as little time in the shop as possible (the desire to get the deed done at an accelerated pace often leads me to forget to consult my list, resulting in not buying everything I had planned, but that's another matter). From my local contacts I got the locations of several tech stores and set off to see what I could find. Broad, tree-lined avenues may be an easy or elegant way to set out towns especially when you have plenty of room (and Kazakhstan has plenty of room), but they are not conducive to an urban environment that is amenable to pedestrians. No discernible town centre to speak of where one can easily amble from one conveniently located shop to another or pedestrian zone of any note, it took several hours to traipse between the various vendors and size up their wares and compare prices before going online to do some further research and finally making my decision. The next day I made my way over, picked out my camera, a padded bag to carry it and extra batteries. I then handed over my credit card which the vendor handed straight back to me before packing his wares away. Despite being the most developed country in the region your flexible friend will not help you much at TsUM (Tsentralni Universalni Magazin). So I then had to spend another hour trying to find an ATM that would give me a large enough amount in one go for me to return and finally buy the camera. Since then I've been spending a fair amount of time poring over the user manual and trying to come to grips with the multitude of new buttons and specialist functions.

Beautiful waterfall just a short hike from the city.

I also tried to do a couple of day-trips from Almaty, to nearby scenic spots and petroglyphs, but found my attempts thwarted by uncooperative public transport: either there is only one bus a day at a ridiculously unsociable hour, or trains are fully booked with no means of getting aboard, even for a short hop of 100km. In the former Soviet Union trains are oversubscribed and so you have to plan several days ahead if you are planning on hitting the rails, not something I'm generally good at. Nevertheless I managed to fill my time in Almaty thanks to the friendly locals. With a small group I explored some of the nearby hiking trails in the mountains that rise up from the southern edge of the city, where thankful locals can get away from the stress of the big city and into high, alpine valleys decked with spruce and pine by simply hopping on a bus in the centre of town. And on another occasion I was lucky to be invited to a dinner party held by some Uighur friends. Uighurs are best known in Central Asia for their cuisine, especially lagman (noodle and meat stew, which is far better than it sounds) which is wildly popular throughout the region. And so I got to witness how the thin noodles are individually rolled out and spun around in an almost balletic ritual that reminded me of how pizza dough is traditionally tossed in Italy (not that I've actually been to Italy in my travels, but from what I've seen on TV).

The alpine valleys above Almaty are a welcome escape from the city.

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