Thursday, June 30, 2011

Historical Turning Points, And Crayfish

The road from Almaty was initially a railway. The town of Kopa is a forgotten stop on the edge of the steppe on the line heading west out of Almaty. Only one train a day stops there and on that particular day I was the only person to get off. It is, however, the nearest town with any sort of public transport to Tambaly, where there are the greatest collection of petroglyphs in Central Asia. OK, perhaps not one to get the hearts racing, but interesting nevertheless. I sat myself down on the road out of town hoping to get a ride the 30km out to the site. At least the tumbleweeds kept me company. My wait wasn't as long as expected and the very first car that passed took me all the way there (hitching is not only reasonably common in Kazakhstan, but I also don't feel uncomfortable asking for a free ride here where the standard of living is significantly higher than the rest of Central Asia). And in a textbook example of things generally working out in the end, as I was wrapping up my visit of the site, and beginning to wonder how the hell I would get out of there, I spied a group of visitors (the only ones to visit that day apart from me) who had obviously come by car. So I went over to see if I could bum a lift, at least to the main highway. They turned out to be a group of 3 Mexicans living in China, a Kazakh girl (girlfriend of one of the Mexicans) and her father. Certainly not people you would expect to meet in the middle of Kazakhstan. Nevertheless they said, sure, they could take me to the highway as they were going back to Almaty that evening anyway. And so once they had finished visiting the site themselves we set off. I was happy as I got to practice my Spanish which was encased in a sizeable coating of rust, but at least I was still able to conjugate the verb chingar in several different levels of impoliteness, which impressed the Mexicans considerably. As we approached the highway Aina (the girl) suggested I come crayfishing with them. It was getting late, it was in my general direction and I had never been crayfishing before (hell, I hadn't even ever seen a live crayfish before) so I heartily agreed.

Monster from the deep comes face to face with a crayfish.

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.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Apple Strudel

There are some things that we consider to be so quintessentially of a certain place or culture that it comes as a shock to learn that its origins are often very different. There are many examples: who can imagine England without tea, Italy without football, Wall Street without (neck)ties, or even Ireland without potatoes. Yet these come from China, England, Croatia and Peru respectively. And why am I thinking about the origins of things? Well, I am now in Almaty (formerly Alma Ata), Kazakhstan's biggest city and former capital. The name means "Father of Apples" because, believe it or not, the common apple, that is so much a part of the European landscape and even culture, has its origins in the foothills of the Tian Shan. Similarly the walnut, another European mainstay,  is also from the region, with the region of Arslanbob at the eastern fringes of the Fergana Valley being home to the largest walnut forest in the world.

And although Almaty can only count on apples for making it unique in the world, it is certainly unique in Central Asia. Arriving from Bishkek I was greeted by the standard wide, tree-lined grid of streets of Russian imperialism. But there were obvious differences to other towns in the region: rubbish bins conveniently placed all over town, a cycle lane (though to be honest, that was a little deceiving as I was to later find out, as I was let off the bus on the only street in town that actually has a cycle lane) and even drivers who stop at zebra crossings to let you cross - something I haven't experienced since perhaps Poland. Indeed, Almaty is an island of Western order in the sea of Asian bedlam (not that I dislike Asia's organic chaos, which is very stimulating and exciting). Upmarket boutiques, swanky bars and restaurants, flash cars and designer clothes are all commonplace and your average Almatian is as refined and educated as their counterparts in Amsterdam or Andalucia. Although Almaty is no longer the political capital of the country (that title, as of 1997, belongs to Astana) it is still very much the commercial and cultural capital. Certainly a far cry from the image we might have in the West where, for the majority, the only Kazakh personality that is known is Borat, Sacha Baron-Cohen's fictional racist, homophobe, anti-Semite, chauvinist. Interestingly, when talking to Kazakhs about him they are quite savvy and realise that it was actually Americans who were being ridiculed in the film, and are glad that their country got some publicity (the president, on the other hand, didn't get the joke and the film was banned in the country).

Friday, June 10, 2011


Kyrgyzstan is a land of mountains, but also of lakes (and also of horses, but I'll touch on that later). To get a true taste of the country, both metaphorically and literally, you need to leave the towns and cities - Bishkek feels like a relaxed, provincial eastern European town - and head for the hills, where the nomadic Kyrgyz soul resides. The first place I made for was Issyk Kul lake (a bit of a tautology as kul means lake in Kyrgyz). Talk to any Kyrgyz person and they will tell you that you haven't seen Kyrgyzstan until you've seen Issyk Kul, which is seen as the jewel in the country's crown. It is indeed a special lake. Although Kyrgyzstan is a small country, smaller even than Britain, the lake is one of the biggest in the world (10th by volume, and 7th deepest). For the landlocked Kyrgyz it is their beach destination and is suitably equipped with hotels, deckchairs, parasols and all other beachy paraphernalia. Even the water is salty. However, due to it's high altitude - 1600m - it's not particularly warm despite its name (which translates as "Hot Lake"), as a brief dip unequivocally demonstrated. (The name refers to the fact that, because of its depth and high salinity, the lake never freezes, even in the depths of winter.) This means that the "beach" season is very short, outside of which there's barely a soul to be seen. Not that I was particularly interested in taking a dip, the surrounding landscape is far more interesting to me. The lake is surrounded on all sides by tall mountains and in the east, on a clear day you can spot the challenging 7000m peak of Khan Tengri on the tri-border with China and Kazakhstan, lording it over the other lesser mountains of the surrounding Tian Shan range - not that I ever saw it as at this time of the year the mountains are almost constantly shrouded in a blanket of cloud, at least at the higher elevations.

A "popular" beach on Issyk Kul, framed by a spur of the Tian Shan mountains.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Close Encounters Of The Foreign Kind

I never knew my paternal grandfather who died of cancer a couple of years before I was born. All I know of him is through faded photographs and my father's reminiscences. One anecdote has particularly stayed with me. When my grandfather visited London from Czechoslovakia in the 70's he would wander around the local neighbourhood, but he would leave his watch at home on purpose. This gave him an excuse to go up to people to ask them the time and so strike up a conversation and use his limited English. I do something similar. I like asking people for directions. Often it is necessary as maps and signs are often inadequate, but usually I will ask more often than is really required so that I can practice my limited local language skills and create a human contact. Rarely does anything bigger come of it, but a transient conversation and a smile are the ephemera that make travelling special. I think my grandfather and I would have got along well.

These contacts are the palette that colour my days: even the dullest places can become exciting and the most cosmopolitan metropolis a morgue depending on who you meet. Tashkent is supposed to be Central Asia's cultural capital whilst Bishkek is but a backwater with, quite frankly, nothing going on. Yet for me the roles were reversed thanks to the people I met. Tashkent was OK, but Bishkek has been a revelation. I've met some fantastic people who have led me down the rabbit-hole of unexpected activities such as playing ping-pong in the central, Panfilov park on a Thursday afternoon and going to a private, Soviet-era banya in the bowels of a swimming pool complex. The most unexpected though was through my couchsurfing contact here, a girl named Selbi. A very forceful and energetic individual who is an activist for LGBT rights in Kyrgyzstan. That in itself is extraordinary as in the region homosexuality and even sexuality issues in general are ignored, swept under the carpet and plain denied. Although homosexuality has been legalised in Kyrgyzstan (as opposed to all the other Central Asian republics where it is still illegal) it isn't recognised and there is still much discrimination and certainly little understanding. So when she invited me to come along to a gay club in Bishkek I was very eager to see what it would be like. I was surprised to find that it was in a very central location and not hidden (although it wasn't advertised as a gay club), though the bouncers at the door made sure that only known clientele and foreigners got in (foreigners aren't seen as being homophobic and so are accepted as LGBT supporters). The club itself was pretty ordinary and could have been anywhere. There wasn't even that much overtly homosexual action, but instead it was a place where the LGBT community could let their hair down and relax and have a party without fear of interference. It was nice for me too as I put on my best T-shirt and dusted off my dancing shoes (well, sandals) and bust some uncoordinated moves on the floor. It seems to be a universal law that gay people are not just better dressers, but also better dancers. It was funny to see that there were two groups at the club that night. There's the hard dance fans with their pumping beats, but as soon as I Will Survive hit the amps they fled the dancefloor to be replaced by the camp, cheese crowd (to which, I must admit, I belong). Seeing that there is a gay scene in this, in certain respects, conservative part of the world and that the LGBT community is working to make its voice heard and get its rights.