Monday, May 26, 2008

Kazakhstan Adventure, Part 3: Ever Wandered?

Readers of previous posts may have been surprised by the lack of Borat references. Indeed, Erik was prepared for local indignation directed at the movie, but it seems as passe here as in the US. He also saw no signs of the official Kazakh tourism ad campaign, "Ever Wandered?"

Thursday was a free day, but the local hosts had arranged an excursion around town as well as to the nearby sports venues of Medeu and Chimbulak. Cristin had prepared a thorough list of Almaty highlights for Erik, and he had been systematically hitting all of the recommended locations on his walks about town. So, the in-town excursion hit few new and notable spots.

The tour guide chattered non-stop. She clearly loved her city, and was also adept at avoiding answers to tough questions. Indeed, one interesting phenomenon is that interlocutors sometimes constructed clever non-answers to inquiries about sensitive social, political, or historical matters. However, Kazakhstan is not Belarus or Turkmenistan. There is no palpable climate of fear, and many citizens genuinely admire the president's management style and the results of his policy choices. He is particularly popular among many Erik spoke with because of government policies that promote higher education and opportunities abroad. If fully contested elections were held, the president would likely win handily. The Kazakh approach to governance more closely approximates China's model of free enterprise coupled with limited political contestation, rather than nascent liberal democracy.

In addition to stopping by familiar attractions, the tour guide also escorted the group to Almaty's main mosque. The exterior was reminiscent of Samarkand's architecture, and the inside featured lovely tile work. A few people were praying and some were taking a nap on the mosque's spacious floor. While it is not as impressive as the grand mosques of Istanbul, its presence and popularity reflects post-Soviet changes in Kazakhstan. One question Erik hoped to have answered was who financed its construction. Several years ago in Kyrgyzstan, he was told that financiers from the UAE were building mosques. Indeed, money from several sources in the Islamic world has reportedly facilitated mosque construction and is a "soft power" gesture from Iran and other Gulf states.

The tour continued out of town to the mountains. The first stop was Medeu, an outdoor speedskating arena nestled in a valley at the foothills of the Tien Shan mountains. The facility is stunning, framed by the green mountainsides and snow-capped peaks, and it must be a real treat to watch events there. Erik was curious about how fans actually get to the rink, however, as parking for private cars seemed to be lacking for such a large facility. Medeu also featured a "staircase of health" - over 800 steps up the mountainside that host an annual amateur race (the prize - a new TV). Lawrence's Red Dog would be proud (Erik is now a regular at Dog Days, a fitness group led by a feisty former marine for over 25 years. Red Dog loves to have his trainees run steps and hills).

After soaking up the view at Medeu (around 1500 meters above sea level), the tour continued up to Chimbulak, a ski resort. As the van ascended the circuitous path, Erik's ears popped and struggled to catch up to the change in pressure - a bad sign for later. At the top, over 2000 meters above sea level, Erik decided to take the ski lift up for an even better view. For 400 tenge (120 tenge = $1), visitors could rent coats since the temperature dropped substantially in the higher elevations. The normal process was to buy a lift ticket, then go to another vendor for a rental coat. However, the ticket woman offered Erik her coat (so she could pocket the 400 tenge). Erik agreed, but then could not slip the sparkled ski jacket over his shoulders. Marina, another interviewer on the trip, generously traded her borrowed coat for his, and everyone headed up the lift.

The view from the top was indeed spectacular (see the photo below). The snow-covered rocky peaks, wrapped in wispy clouds, seemed close enough to touch, and the green valleys below glowed in the sunlight. Small wildflowers - purple and yellow - accented the deep green grass. The top was quiet too - only the hum of the ski lift was audible. A second ski lift offered a trip further up the mountain, but there was no time to explore higher altitudes. After loading in the van, we began a rapid descent that became painful. Erik's ears could not equalize the pressure changes quickly enough and he was soon temporarily deaf (Erik is susceptible to this problem and often encounters it on planes).

The final stop of the day was dinner. The original plan was to dine at Almaty's only Thai restaurant. But, its $100+ price tag per person caused a change of venue. On a terrace overlooking the ersatz Eiffel Tower, the group broke bread together. As the sun set, moths began to attack diners (especially Erik's table), and showed a distinct preference for Georgian wine. Almost everyone at the table had to fish at least one moth out of a wine glass during the meal. Erik had whole, fresh, grilled trout that was moist, flaky, and delicious. Trout is a local favorite, and having it grilled without any accompaniment was the best way to enjoy the catch of the day. Although he had trouble hearing some of the conversation, everyone chatted about a wide range of subjects from Kazakhstan's education policy and electoral politics in Georgia, to food and entertainment preferences. As the sun disappeared and the moths directed their attention to Almaty's bright lights, we capped off the meal with dessert and strolled back to the hotel.

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