Borat got it wrong and other great learnings from my first days in Kazakhstan

For those of you are are unfamiliar with Borat, my alternate headline choice was “They call it Almaty. What? It’s the apple city” but I didn’t know how may would understand The Office reference. If you haven’t seen Borat OR The Office, well, then I’m just not sure what is wrong with you.

Anyway, I’ve spent the last few days adjusting to the massive time difference (and by “adjusting” I mean waking up at 2 AM and wanting to go to sleep at 5 PM) and exploring the city of Almaty, Kazakhstan. Almaty in the Kazakh language means “applish” or “appley” – basically the adjective form of apple (or “full of apples” if you want to be boring – I prefer applish). This is because the city is built upon the remnants of massive apple orchards. Apparently during Soviet times, the city was renamed “Alma-ata” but in Kazakh this means some nonsense like “grandfather of apples” and so this name was scrapped at independence in 1991.

Applish or not, Almaty is just a lovely city to visit. I could not be more grateful for this gentle introduction to Central Asia, allowing my tired body and brain to adjust. Almaty is a city of almost 2 million people in far southeast Kazakhstan that sits at the base of the Zailiyskiy Alatau mountain range (essentially a spur of the massive Tien Shan mountains that straddle the border of China and Kyrgyzstan). The mountains, 30 minutes outside the city limits, soar up to 13,000 feet above sea level, with year-round snow fields, gorgeous mountain lakes (like Ozero Bolshoe Almatinskoe – Big Almaty Lake, which I visited today), skiing, and hiking.

Big Almaty lake
Big Almaty gorge

The city is exceptionally clean, with people constantly sweeping the sidewalks and picking up trash (I was told that this is a holdover from Soviet times, when “city cleaning” was a common job) and is filled with trees, parks, and fountains. There are many pedestrian-only thoroughfares, all shady and lined with benches. There are bike lanes and a bike share program (though cycling has yet to take a strong hold in the city and people generally will only ride the bikes downhill, meaning that every day a legion of workers has to pick up the bikes at the bottom of the hill to redistribute them to the uphill stations). There are underground tunnels decorated with mosaics and painted murals, piping Kazakh music, and monitored by security cameras to allow pedestrians to cross safely under busy streets. But even if you don’t use these tunnels, drivers actually STOP and wait when a pedestrian is crossing (without honking!). There is even a new filtered water station for refilling water bottles to cut down on waste. Hardly the backwater depicted by Borat.

Almaty bike share station
Mural in an underground pedestrian passageway

I arrived here on Monday morning after leaving Seattle early Saturday morning and sleeping not really at all for 36 hours. Monday was a bit of a wash but, as much as I wanted to perpetually nap, sit in parks, and drink coffee at the legion of charming cafes with outdoor garden patios for the rest of my time in Almaty, I knew there was more to see and do. So, in that vein, Tuesday I signed up for a pair of walking tours. The first was with an American expat who has lived in Central Asia for 11 years, did a pHD on Kazakh eagle hunters, speaks Kazakh and Russian, and is currently writing a book on murals in Central Asia. The focus of this walk was on the architecture and history of the city. The second was with a very enthusiastic local woman named Zhanar who has made it her mission to put Kazakhstan on the tourism map. This was a food and wine tour in which I put some of the best and worst things I’ve ever tasted into my mouth, both in high quantity, definitely resulting in a significant degree of GI unrest. More on that later. In between these walks, I visited a pair of museums, including one in the former apartment of the man who was the leader of Kazakhstan during the USSR, a splendid Russian Orthodox cathedral, and some very, very soviet memorials.

Ascension Cathedral

During both of these walks, aside from discussing the buildings and landmarks, we talked a lot about the Soviet history of Kazakhstan. Unlike most other former soviet republics, Soviet imagery is still visible throughout the city. Many Stalinist buildings are adorned with the hammer and sickle. The Soviet star features prominently on structures. Large, ferocious statues memorialize Kazakhs who died protecting Moscow (story of the Panfilov guardsmen – google if interested but note that there is some research that suggests that this heroic story was, ahem, embellished to make it a winning piece of propaganda). What was explained to me, first by the American expat and later confirmed by both Zhanar and Pavel (my guide to the lake today) is that many Kazakhs have somewhat fond memories of the Soviet period. Though fond may be too strong of a word – they certainly recognize the weaknesses that led to its downfall and don’t wish for loss of their personal liberty. It’s more that they recognize that during that time there was free health care and free education and less inequality – less worry for personal security and well being. Some Kazakhs have done very well in the new system but a lot feel left behind. Additionally, most of the people alive today are too young to remember the Stalinist purges and massive famines that were caused by collectivization of farms and killed millions of Kazakhs. Their memories are of the relative “good times” of the Soviet period, when the economy was stable, cities grew, and industry and training boomed.

Soviet building near Panfilov park
Bar that has taken up residence in what was a Soviet bomb shelter next to the science ministry (can’t have all the biggest brains in Kazakhstan hit by an American bomb!)
Memorial to the Panfilov guardsmen (Kazakhs who protected Moscow during WWII). Inscription reads “Great Russia, but nowhere to retreat. Moscow is behind us!”
Hammer and sickle on a Stalin-era building. Also, Stalin-era buildings are all pastel colored. Stalin. Not really the type of leader I typically associated with pastels.

Alright, one last point about the Soviet history (for today) and then I promise to move on (though, really, I could talk about this all day). I mentioned earlier that I visited the Konayev museum (house of the Soviet leader of Kazakhstan until the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. The museum was tiny and very odd, mostly filled with medals and light propaganda about Konayev. The real treasure, and worth every cent of my $1.25 (500 Kazakh Tenge) admission fee, was the 14 page booklet translated into awkward English that effusively detailed every bit of Konayev’s life in truly reverential terms. If Konayev is actually Jesus, then I think this booklet is pretty accurate. Otherwise… well…maybe there is just a LITTLE bit of truth to Borat. A favorite quote, “Unfortunately, we perceive, that the present youth do not remember the necessity of protecting and saving such sacred monuments from any dangers. Because of that, we are obliged to explain the holiness of such monuments to our youth. It is the duty of everyone who considers himself a Kazakh.”

OK, so onto what everyone really wants to hear about. The food. On Tuesday afternoon, I met with Zhanar, a bubbly local guide who taught herself English so she could understand the words to Tupac. Zhanar took me on a 4 hour food and drink extravaganza though the streets and alleyways of Almaty, chatting constantly about history and the environment and the greatness of Kazakh people. Her enthusiasm was quite infectious, though I remain unconvinced about the health benefits of mare’s milk. We started our eating at the Green Bazaar, an indoor market reminiscent of markets throughout the Mediterranean – multicolored piles of dried fruits, nuts, and spices, racks of sausages, stands adorned in pyramids of cheeses, plump berries, and, of course, plentiful apples. I sampled thick, gooey figs; plump dried apricots the size of a fist; pecans so rich and fatty that they almost tasted like chocolate; macadamia nuts as smooth and rich as butter; fresh raspberries and juicy watermelons. Then we entered the meat and dairy section and the fun stopped. J/K, it was still fun – if terror counts as fun. As most of you know, I’m a vegetarian in the states but tend to be pretty loose about it when traveling (because I don’t want to offend people or miss out on experiences because of dietary restrictions). So I went into this tour determined to try everything I was handed. I just didn’t think the first meat I would be handed would be horse sausage. Followed shortly thereafter by some sort of cheese product that is produced by boiling and drying the cheese into a hard little pellet that resembles astronaut food and doesn’t require refrigeration because it is, in fact, no longer cheese but rather a dry, crispy yet powdery, horrifying little nugget of putrified whey. This was washed down with a swig of mare’s milk which is, to put it mildly, a God awful acidic, rancid substance and I’m surprised foals don’t just give up and refuse to live (my equine vet friends may argue that most foals actually do exactly that). Zhanar assured me that it is full of healing properties but I honestly think I’d rather remain unwell than drink that again. Then I tried a different type of boiled cheese (soft boiled, if you will) that resembles, in both taste and texture, a mildly mildewed sponge. This was washed down with camel’s milk – which is only good if you’ve recently consumed mare’s milk.

After the Green Bazaar, we headed to two separate restaurants to try some other Kazakh delicacies. The first was a tiny canteen with paper napkins (like actual pieces of brown paper with zero absorbency) and a hand written menu – as Zhanar said, “It reminds us fondly of USSR times!” – that served borscht (beet soup) and some sort of dumpling with beef, as well as a heavily milked Kazakh tea. The second was a “fancier” canteen with modernized Kazakh favorites, where I sampled beet salad, various fried breads filled with chunks of meat or cabbage (bilash and pieroshky), plov (a rice pilaf dish with – you guessed it – chunks of meat), sea buckthorn tea and some fancy little cakes. Finally, to wash down my distended, dough and meat filled abdomen, we went wine tasting.

Yours truly with a giant array of foods – mind you, this was stop number 3 on the food tour. So, yeah, I’m definitely losing weight. Thanks for asking.

Arba vineyards, located in a valley outside of the city with a tasting room downtown, is doing its part to put Kazakh wine on the map. I tried 8 samples and they were all genuinely delicious. Not in a “delicious because I have been wine tasting all day and have no idea how anything tastes anymore” kind of way but truly delicious. Their Riesling won a gold medal recently in an international blind tasting contest. Of course, the tasting was preceded by a 10 minute “promotional” video espousing the virtues of Kazakh wine and a glossy handout (can’t beat the Soviet out of them just yet) but the tastiness of the wine made up for it.

My delicious wines and promotional material

Other highlights of Almaty included the lovely museum of folk instruments (a remodeled building with nicely labeled displays – including English! – and Kazakh music piped into the rooms) and the big Almaty lake. Lowlights included my terrible attempts at Russian, which have assuredly traumatized the city, and my inability to find un-gassed bottled water (probably because I can’t read the Cyrillic labels). I decided to try to learn Cyrillic after being gently shamed by the expat on our walking tour. What I’ve learned so far is that the “P” makes and r sound, the “B” makes a v sound and this: “ж” – is something out of hell that apparently makes a Zh sound. It’s going well.

Kazakh museum of folk musical instruments

Tomorrow I leave this lovely city on a morning flight to Astana, the capital. Astana was recently (~4 months ago) renamed “Nursultan” – the first name of the president who led the country for almost 30 years. More on this to come. I will be flying on Air Astana (in lieu of a ~30 hour train ride), which is the national airline (though perhaps it has to change its name to “Air Nursultan”?). I have great confidence in this airline. As my lonely planet guidebook puts it “All of the former soviet republics swiftly formed national airlines from whatever Aeroflot planes happened to be parked on their runways on the day after independence.”


4 thoughts on “Borat got it wrong and other great learnings from my first days in Kazakhstan

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