We spent 18 days in Kazakhstan enjoying the country while we did and re-did visa applications. The next couple posts will be a summary of our experiences and impressions from our time there, a great place full of great people.
Almaty is only 300km away from the Chinese border but there's an entire world of difference in between. Maybe it should have been an indicator of how much things would change when the border guards asked Jie if he knew Jackie Chan (unfortunately no), but in a matter of hours we left a country we knew so well and were re-absorbed in to one that surprised us thoroughly.
The road from Khorgos to Almaty is a series of small villages with tin roofs and broad open steppe where the wind tosses both the bikes and piles of sand back and forth across the road. This scene iterates constantly in different variations until you reach Charyn canyon one of Kazakhstan’s great geological wonders and apparently only second in size to the Grand Canyon. We don’t realize this until we get to Almaty. We’ve heard the name but we just cruise through the path that cuts the high edge of the canyon, not unimpressed but definitely not overwhelmed. After getting out of China by what seemed to be dumb luck, we just want to make it to the city as quickly as we can.
The first restaurant we stop at on the steppe sets the tone for our time Kazakhstan. On a small dusty corner of a small dusty town, we choose it based on the pictures displayed in the outside window and what seems to be a pretty large and well thought out wood interior. Once inside we’re taken to the back to a wide covered patio and where a massive yurt (or “yurta” as they’re called here) is squeezed next to where the courtyard meets the wall. Jie took a year of Russian at Middlebury and we manage to fumble our way through ordering from a menu full of surprisingly western choices: steaks, pizza, schnitzel. For some reason the outdoor area of the restaurant is plastered with larger-than-life size posters of flamingoes. At first I laugh, wondering why a restaurant in Kazakhstan is so interested in a tropical pink bird, but then I find myself thinking that maybe they have flamingoes too (they do!), and maybe I just really know nothing about this place and what’s in store…
We settle on stroganoff and a beef & cheese lasagna type thing. I thank the young Kazak girl serving us. She nods first with a smile, and then something pops into her head: she turns, and replies, "not at all," a line from some long-lost dialogue in English class finally used in real life. It’s tough no longer being able to speak the language. But over the next couple days our broken Russian and Kazak generally us by.
The first few days in Kazakhstan are consistently like this. Ill be the first to say that I didn’t know much about the place before we came, but the Kazakhstan turns out to be much different than even the little bit that I expected. Even basic things I was wrong about. For instance, I never even realized Almaty was next to the mountains –I’d always saw it on a map and assumed it was in the desert.
For me, there were two initial surprises when first coming in to Kazakhstan.
First, Kazkstani’s (a word to donate the nationality, not the race –that’s Kazak) are extremely diverse. Jie and I could both be from Kazakstan. People looking every range of East Asian to Western Caucasian fill the streets. Blue eyes alongside deep brown; blond, black and brown hair mixing in the crowds. Most of all –at least in the city— everyone seems to mix together constantly, something different than the other racially “diverse” cities we’ve been to (i.e. Urumuqi). Kazaks, Russians, Uzbeks and Ukrainians mixed across generations have left behind a mix of strongmen and seriously gorgeous girls (note to single men, Almaty apparently has a 4:1 ratio of girls to guys).
Kazakhstani’s also blend across religions. Muslims, Russian Orthodox and other Christians make up the majority of the religious, but churches (like Zenkov Cathedral, a massive wooden church said to be built with no nails, and one of the only tall structures to survive a 1911 earthquake) share space with an assortment of mosques, that range from the elaborate to the small, private and community-focused. More unique is that religion even varies widely within families, like a friend of ours with a Muslim father, Orthodox brother and himself agnostic. Overall religion here seems rather relaxed: not hidden but not aggressive. It feels like a different kind of attitude. As another friend put it when we brought up the subject: “I’m not religious now, but when I get older maybe I’ll be Muslim one day.”
The second surprise to me was how massive the Russian influence is in Kazakhstan. Having not been to Russia, this is by far the most Russian place I’ve ever been. In fact I’d say that Tibet and rural Xinjiang are less Chinese than Kazakhstan is Russian. Of course, it’s ex-soviet (and some smaller villages still feel pretty soviet), so I should have known. But on top of being part of the USSR, Kazakhstan was also major site for re-settlement and deportation during the darker days of the Soviet Union and is still the site of major Russian institutions, like the Baikonur Cosmodrome , Russia’s space-launch facility. Almost everyone in Kazakhstan speaks Russian, and for most in the city it’s their first language. Russian media –songs in the streets, ads on the walls— is almost ubiquitous in Almaty. More interesting to me though is how positive this influence is viewed. Coming from the U.S. I never realized how little I knew about Russia, and how negative what I did was. Almost all Kazakstani’s, especially those middle-aged and older seem to refer fondly to soviet times, the opposite of the average Chinese reaction to Maoist times. They speak of a clean, well-functioning and equal society, an Almaty where you could pick apples off trees in the streets and berries from bushes in the park. A place where doors were always open because everyone was materially the same.
One day sitting in a café eating shashalik (Kazak meat skewers), transfixed to the Russian music videos playing from the TV hanging from the rafters, I realized I’d never seen a Russian music video. I’d never heard modern Russian music even until I was here. I never realized how nice Russian could sound. The next night, sitting listening to a friend play jazz in Russian at an open-air café, the experience is overwhelming. It’s more like a romance language than the harsh, aggressive tones that fill western movies and video games: the round swinging sounds like Portuguese, tongue rolls like Spanish. An ebb and flow like the slow life on Almaty streets, dulcet tones resounding in warm summer nights.
Back on the road from China after lunch, the steppe begins to slowly fade. We pass quickly through a deep valley and are shot out into a long trail of urban sprawl that hugs a small highway –a road that’s anywhere between two and five lanes depending on how people want to drive. Drivers here aren’t necessarily worse than they were in China, but they have habits that make us feel a lot less comfortable on the road. First, around 1 in 5 drivers seem to think they are in F1 –and sound like it too. They fly through extremely short stretches of road no matter how many lights are up ahead or how deep they are in the city. Probably more worrisome is that drivers like to pass you at extremely high speeds without any warning. No honk, no lights, just the sound of wind rushing by. I never thought I’d miss the honking in China, but in the end I guess it did serve some purpose. On the other hand, motorcyclists here (the small select few) are all extremely friendly. Every person on a motorcycle waves to us as we go by in a kind of tacitly understood brotherhood –it doesn’t if we have all our decidedly “long-distance” gear on or not. For motorcyclists on their way to Almaty, be aware that the city has many seemingly random streets that motorcycles aren’t allowed on. Most are major roads, but look out for signs above the speed limit with a round red circle around a motorcycle emblem.
After another 60km or so down the P-17, Almaty emerges. Spilling forth from under the shadow of the re-emergent, Tian Shan (Tien Shan/Tianshan) mountain range , the city sits majestic. Having left the border in the early afternoon, we arrive in the city in the dark, still not really believing that we’re here. We stumble with a map, trying to make a plan based on the little information we had put together before we left. We don’t really know where we are, nor how we really got here, but even in the first night we are overwhelmed by Almaty, a place unlike the days and thoughts before it.
The city couldn’t feel farther away from China. A decidedly European feel, Almaty looks much more like Stockholm than it ever does Shanghai. As one friend say one night out at a local café: “we are seriously so close [to China], but I don't feel the Chinese influence at all." And if fact, the only real China anything we see in two weeks in Almaty is written on boxes being hauled back and forth across the Kyrgyzstan border. But just because it’s not noticeable, it doesn’t mean that people don’t think about. “Kazakhstan looks happy on China,” another friend says as we pass the empty hull of a Chinese shipping container, “but a lot of people are scared. We’re stuck in between China and Russia, what are we supposed to do?”
It’s a sentiment best summed up in a joke we heard here:
In the year 2050, Nazarbayev (Kazakhstan’s first and only president, who loves ambitious development plans like the current one for 2050) wakes up in Astana (the capital city) and realizes his plan has worked. Skyscrapers fill the city, the streets are modern and clean, the city new and cosmopolitan. In celebration he goes to his local corner store to buy a beer. He gets to the counter and pulls out a bill, but the cashier refuses. “Sorry,” she say, “in China we only accept Renminbi.”
It’s only at moments like this when the two seem to cross. We’re on a continuous path, but arriving here it feels like we’ve started a whole new section of the journey.