Waking up in Almaty is a dream. It’s quiet on the broad morning streets covered green with dancing leaves whispering in the summer breeze. We’re staying downtown, but here that term doesn’t evoke a repetition of towering concrete. Instead, Almaty wanders out in a series of low-lying buildings and crosshatched square boulevards. Parks fill almost every third block, many adorned with busts of soviet leaders, and almost all pouring over with gardens full of roses every shade of the sunset. In the mornings on weekends and when the afternoon begins to slow into night, people fill the grass and the benches: families having picnics, young mothers huddled in knitting classes, pre-teens swimming in the fountains, and bashful couples intertwined on soft-lit park benches. The days last long and move slow.
At noon the café’s begin to fill, the trickle becoming a pulse as the day wanes to darkness. Now, in midsummer, the sun is warm and benevolent. Almost all dining is al fresco flanked by multiples of flower shops in an ode to the romance of Almaty. At midday, mist wafts down from the rafters in set intervals to cool down those who still complain it’s too hot. In these summer nights conversations spill from covered terraces filled by the soft glow of hanging lights reflecting off canvas overhangs; the ever-present sweet, round smell of shisha mixes with a patio of different perfumes and fills the air. Sometimes the chatter is cut by music, light lounge in the afternoon and even live jazz in the evenings. Other times the streets swing between the new and old: the bass from the trunks of young Kazakstani’s listening to Russian rap, the twang of the dombra against the wail of a Zhetygen, said to have been made by a man who had seven sons that each died at war --that’s why it sounds like it’s always crying. But always the nights are punctuated with laughter, close greetings of old friends or bashful introductions to new ones.
It’s here that we float for days, not in the east, nor Europe, nor the soviet, but in beautiful cracks that Almaty slides between them all.
Almaty is no longer the capital of Kazakhstan, that title now goes to Astana, but it’s still the biggest city and the cosmopolitan cultural pulse of the country. Full of trees and lush with vegetation, it was named after the apples that used to grow in abundance here. Apples no longer fill the city either –although it is said to be their ancestral home—but small hints, like a neighborhood called the Kompot (a kind of juice) where all the streets are named after different fruits, hark back to this heritage
Many travelers, especially those by motorcycle, pass through here as quick as possible. Spending only a day, or even less, in the city on their way to rest of Central Asia, either because they think it’s too expensive or because they write it off as less interesting. And perhaps had we not been offered to give it a chance, because of visa’s and all that comes with that, maybe we too would have just cruised through –shocked and impressed by the mountains, impressed by how clean and picturesque all the street are but hollow to anything more. Instead we had the luck to stay. Moreover we had the luck to meet amazing friends beginning literally within the first hour we were in Alamty, to becoming close to them in the lazy days we spent talking, laughing and exploring the city. Through this Kazakhstan became closer to home than any other place we’ve been on this trip. We were absorbed into Almaty. Having brunch picnics in the park next to the president’s residence where a security guard stands hands behind his back in a bed of roses or staying until late under the moon at cafes, the city’s existence became our own.
We don’t do much in terms of sights, but we stayed long enough in Almaty that we could actually live. We went to friends’ houses for home-cooked meals; we drove up into the mountains at night (past the worlds highest skating rink) just to see the lights, and then in again the day to have lunch at a local ski resort. We not only got to play soccer with a friend’s company team, but also managed to catch a qualifying game for the UEFA Europa leagues. Each time, Almaty opened up a different side: the crisp, clean air of the mountains, the warm comforting hospitality of close and caring friends.
At the game, there’s a fervor in the night that I never knew Kazakhstan had for soccer. The crowd is in full chants for Kirat, the home team. Young kids and adults screaming in tandem for the love of the game. Kazakhstan usually excels in power sports (weightlifting, boxing, wrestling etc) and although it’s not on display tonight, it’s presence still lingers in the air. They don’t sell beer in the stadium, and Alibi (alley-bee), one of our closest friends in Almaty who came with us that night, explains the reasoning for that like this: “There are 16 million people in Kazakhstan. About 8 million of those are men, and about 5 million of them all think they are Mike Tyson or Muhhamed Ali. If we sell beer, everyone will want to start showing off their skills.” But in the stadium that night, there is no tension. When Kairat wins 2-1, the city rejoices. The streets are full of yellow and black-checkered flags and fans leaning out the windows of cars yelling in unrestrained joy.
Maybe half of feeling like you are home is having a house, and the house we were given in Almaty was nothing less than perfect. We
stayed in hostel dorm that was more comfortable and more private than almost any of the hotel rooms we stayed in China and had a rooftop view
of Almaty that is unparalleled. Days are drawn out when you can see the colors of the city change across the mountains, the blues and greens of dawn creeping in across the base the deep reds of
dusk falling fast across face.
We also ate. A lot. In Almaty, we’re told “in the competition of which animal that can eat the most meat, the wolf comes in second. The Kazak comes in first.” The centerpiece of this diet is horse meat, and whether served over noodles in classic Beshbarmak or as thick-cut steaks, it’s ridiculously good. The meat is tender and flavorful, but also extremely lean. It’s not one of those meats that tastes “good” because it’s a novelty. It’s actually really good. And like the rest of the food in Almaty you can have it as nice or as casual as you want. Beshbarmak we eat at the hostel, with meat Alibi has brought from his family farm. The home-cooked dish is soft and close to the bone and we eat it by hand, the way it’s meant to be done. Horse steaks we eat two ways. One night I have it in a classic style with mashed potatoes at a re-opened, re-designed soviet hot spot. Another afternoon, Jie’s ex-co worker, an anarchist Russian geologist who used to work on the soviet nuclear project, takes us out to have melting, marinated slices of it that you cook on a hot stone while he recounts stories of navigating paramilitaries in the Congo.
Beyond just horse, food in Khazkstan is often the intersection of local variations on flavors from Russian and other central Asian dishes. Soups with egg, dill, and kefir (or maybe sour cream?); “caucus” salads rich with roasted cauliflower, eggplant, carrots, and squash; pilaf (with slow-cooked meat, or sweet with dates and raisins, and always with perfectly spiced rice; manti, the central Asian version of baozi with more juice and less dough; bell peppers stuffed with ground beef and rice; and an amazing range of bread and samsas. For drinks we sip on lemonade and tea –although neither of which is really like what is it is in other places. The former is more like a carbonated cream soda, although with watermelon it might actually be the ultimate summer drink; the latter is usually served sweet and infused with fruits and herbs, sometimes with milk. We also try a range of semi-fermented milks. Kafir, camel milk, horse milk, all sour with the slight bite of alcohol. None of which I can really say I would drink often, but all of which are worth a try. Of course there is also always vodka, which here sells for as low as $3 per half litre…
One day on a walk with a friend over a hill that overlooks Almaty she turns to me and asks, “Have you ever heard of how the eagle lives?” We stop at and look out over the city. “When they know they are going to die they fly as high as they can, only stopping when their body gives in and they come crashing back down.” In Almaty we can relate. Not feeling like we will die, but rather knowing we will have to leave, we’re able push ourselves higher in the sky, hoping to look back and see as much as we can before we come back down.