Thursday, August 26, 2010

Kazakhstan Can

Friday morning saw me at the bus stop across the street from the Kazakhstan Hotel. Waiting. Finally at 10 am the special bus pulled up and all of us with our daypacks slung over our shoulders scrambled to get a seat. Fifty Tenge and forty minutes later we were up the foothills to Medeu, a pretty huge skating rink in the pines.

Nobody else seemed to be going any further, so I had to pay 1500 Tenge for a taxi ride up, up, up the 7 km or so to the Chimbulak ski lodge. Construction was going on all around for the upcoming Asian winter games in January. I followed a group of hikers around through some construction, and found out that the ski lifts were still working. I paid my money and hopped on board.

There is nothing more peaceful and quiet than riding a ski lift in the summertime. You're going away from the lodge, and surrounded by trees and hills and grass silently sailing by. What's more, the sky was a perfect blue, and even here at around 9,000 feet it was t-shirt weather.

At the top around half of the people were hanging around near the lift, and we others drifted off walking further up. Man, it was steep for bad, old knees. Above me was the craggy rocky top of Communism Peak. About a half mile and about 250 meters up I made it up to its cwm (great Scrabble word), the bowl-like depression at its base. I sat in the grass for a while and then headed back down.

By now many more Russians had made it to the top of the lift, and they were gabbing and gabbing away. I'd hate to be here on the weekend. I rode the lift down, and now it was the opposite experience, heading back towards civilization. The taxis were adamant about 1000 Tenge per seat to get to Medeu. I was tired of paying extortionate amounts, and decided to walk.

Big mistake. The road was super steep, there was construction all around, and my knees were getting beyond shot. After around 800 meters I gave up and hailed a cab and paid him his money.

Now the wait for the bus. When it arrived there was a mad dash with too many people and too few seats. I was pushing aside little old ladies (and they were pushing back pretty hard). I wasn't proud of myself, but there was no way that I was going to stand for the next 40 minutes.

We arrived back next to where John teaches, so I stopped off to see him at his office. Then it was down a few blocks to a place I had noticed on my walk yesterday. Pizza Hut. It was overpriced and not very good. But now I could add Kazakhstan to Yemen, Nicaragua, Andorra, Luxembourg, and the 20 other countries that I've had Pizza Hut in.

Saturday was supposed to be one of my rare 'off' days where I had no adventures planned. But Ilya the Ukranian had showed up last night to Couchsurf, and he informed us at 8 am that he had hired a car and driver to take him 30 miles away so that he could photograph some old apple trees by the side of the road. We were invited along, so we pulled on some clothes and went.

We wound up in an area you wouldn't expect to find in Kazakhstan. It kind of looked almost tropical, or like the mountains down South, with a hazy atmosphere, lush overgrown vegetation, and valleys and steep hills on the horizon. Of course, this was the summertime. In winter it would be frigid and impossible to reach. But now it was dotted with all kinds of claptrap structures, neglected farmhouses which were the summer dachas of any number of city folk.

One of them was Nina, a 60 year old Russian who came to ask why John was taking pictures of the construction of old tires she used for a retaining wall. When she determined that nothing sinister was going on, she invited all of us, John, me Ilya, and the driver, in for tea, bread, jam, homemade cheese, etc..

Nina loved to talk. And talk. John had an appointment at 2, but was too polite to break in. I would have had no trouble being rude, but couldn't speak Russian. Finally the situation was brought to Nina's attention; she was a little upset that son Sasha wouldn't be able to take us to the Russian saint shrine somewhere off in the hills. But Ilya was game to stay. Don't worry, he'd find a way back. I joked that this was the last we'd see of him. He was one of those people who had too much friendliness and too little smarts.

For the last few days I had had a lot of fun deciphering all the Russian signs. It turns out that most of the modern words, such as 'supermarket', 'hot dog', and 'bowling', are pretty much the same once you transliterate the Cyrillic. Which means that you can actually figure out alot of things. But now at 4 pm John and I had to figure out what the Russian was for 'antihistamine'. Although one of the reasons I had left New Mexico was to escape my allergies, they had followed me here with a vengeance, and I was going through at least 8 Benadryl a day.

They didn't have Benadryl in Almaty. But 'antihistamine' in Russian is 'antigystamine;, and they did have several types of those. At very high prices. I chose the cheapest one and hoped that it would do the trick.

Next we took a bus to a hypermarket and got a few provisions. Then back to the apartment, freshen up, and John and I went down to meet his Kazakhi fiancee at the vegetarian restaurant. Govinda's. Run by the Kazakhi Hare Krishnas. And just as we arrived so did around 30 of them, all decked out in saris and robes and chanting away.

The food was underly spiced and overly greasy, but what the hey. How many vegetarian restaurants were there in Central Asia? To John's knowledge, this was it. We walked back through the hot, muggy night. It had been pretty damn hot the last few days. John said that it was about the worst he had seen so far.

The next morning I was up at 6 and out the door for my big bus excursion. It started three miles away, so I just held out my hand. The first car stopped, I told him my destination, offered 300 Tenge and off we went. The way it works around these parts is that virtually every other car is an informal taxi, and as opposed to the formal ones, most of these guys are really nice and reasonably priced.

There were two bus loads of us going out to Charyn Canyon. Almost all working middle class Russians and Kazakhs. About three hours on the road, and then 45 minutes to go 6 miles on a gravel road. It started out flat and agricultural, and then morphed into slightly rolling brown wasteland. When we got to the end we all got out and started walking downhill through the canyon.

It would have made a nice state park in Arizona or Utah. The canyon itself was only a few hundred feet high, but the main attraction was strangely eroded rock formations along the ridges. After about three miles of down, down, down, we arrived at a moderately wide river with shady trees alongside.

I couldn't rest all that well, since I didn't know the particulars on how and when we were supposed to get back. But finally someone told me that the bus left at 4. It was 2:20 and I am the world's slowest walker, so I started back.

It's not that it was horribly steep. But it was 95 degrees. And the two liters of water I had brought along weren't enough. I arrived at the top wiped out and dehydrated.

The bus didn't leave until 4:30 because of dawdlers. As we rode back I noticed once again all the impromptu fruit stands by the side of the road. There were many giant piles of hundreds of watermelons. I wondered how they thought they could sell them all. Then I saw someone putting 10 watermelons in the trunk of his car. Then I realized that the seller would have to take all of his unsold watermelons home with him at night. And then bring them back the next day.

We were back in Almaty at 8:30 and I was at John's apartment at 9. Ilya was there with a giant swollen foot. Sasha had talked him into trying a motorcycle, he had crashed, and had spent the entire day at the hospital. A couple of other Couchsurfers had also arrived.

I took about the 9th shower I had taken since arrival, and bustled about getting my things together. A taxi came at 11 and took me to the airport. There is exactly one flight a day between Almaty and Bishkek, a small prop plane, and it leaves at 1:30 am.

At the airport I was annoyed that taking pictures at airports is verboten, and the police there wore ridiculously oversized green Soviet army hats on their small Kazakh heads. Also that I hadn't taken a shot of one of the Presidential billboards. Nazarov (?) seems to be still completely bought into the Soviet ideal, and his picture is inveriably comically stiff and pasty, standing there as if he has just successfully concluded another five year plan.

Ah well. Stare at the walls for awhile. Then board the plane.


Post a Comment

<< Home