Привет, this is the place where my adventure into Kazakhstan begins, the Huoerguosi China-Kazakhstan border. As soon as you approach the intimidating looking border, you are approached by men looking to make Chinese Yuan to Kazakhstan Tenge exchanges. My 1,500 Yuan exchange for upwards of 40,000 Tenge, so I felt like a rich man. I have never had 40,000 of any currency before in my life, so this was thrilling!
But the border crossing was not.
I entered the stifling building in hopes that the crossing would be painless, but waiting for me was a chaotic scene. The Chinese Immigration side seemed to be taking a break, and people, mainly Kazakhstani with massive amounts of belongings were packed tightly into the room. The majority of those crossing the border had made bulk purchases in China to bring back to Kazakhstan to sell. Finally, the Chinese Immigration agents returned and in a frenzy bags and people, people and bags made there way to the line. In my confusion, and fear of the unknown of Kazakhstan waiting for me on the other side, I willingly obliged to carry a little old woman’s few packages as she muttered a few words to me in Russian. My instinct was to make a friend in the midst of this linguistic paralysis, but as we started winding through the line, images of Locked Up Abroad entered my mind. My opinion of the sweet woman prematurely changed as I envisioned the next 30 years of my life stringing Christmas lights in a Chinese prison after being caught with drugs. The Chinese security guard reinforced my thoughts by acknowledging that the woman was trying to cheat me, so I immediately dropped the boxes and bid adieu to the woman who told me to call her Mama.
I finally made it up to the Chinese immigration agent and received my departure stamp, with a polite xie xie (thank you in Chinese), I muttered my last word of Chinese for the next month of my travels and entered into the Russian/Kazakh speaking world.
The process continued on as we had to take a bus through “No-man’s land” to the Kazakhstan border. This part took the longest, but it gave me an opportunity to people watch and observe the Kazakh people. Turns out they are just like other people, with a unique look. About half of the people looked ethnically Kazakh, with black hair like East Asians, but a combination of East Asian and Caucasian facial complexions. The other half had a Russian appearance. I was immediately struck by this diversity.
And the last leg of the border-crossing was the Kazakhstani immigration side, painless and taking one or two minutes maximum. From the border, all people are required to be transported to Zharkent, a town about half an hour from the border, which would have cars and buses to take people to Almaty. Upon getting out of the bus, I was overwhelmed by individuals eager to take passengers to Almaty in their cars. Luckily, this guy below found me (I am blanking on his name now) and took me to a local restaurant before taking the 4-5 hour journey to Almaty.
Kazakh Beef Lagman and Milk Tea
My driver and I hit it off despite us sharing nothing of one another’s language. Using hand gestures, I was able to learn a lot about him including that he was from Zharkent, made about $1,000 monthly from driving to Almaty and back daily, slept in his car when he wasn’t home, had a wife and two children to support, and that he had the hots for Shakira. As we baralleled down the thin highways at 140 km/h, we taught each other English, Kazakh, and Russian and listened to Russian techno infused pop songs.
My first impression of the landscape was that I had come to the Texas that is west of San Antonio. There was plenty of open space, vast deserts, minimal wildlife. We stopped momentarily at Charyn Canyon, the second largest canyon in the world after the Grand Canyon. I, unfortunately, only got to see the smaller portion of it though. Every so often, we would drive through a small town with a few tin roof houses, convenience stores/coffee shops/dining halls called “Kafesi”, and liquor stores. I had no idea that I was coming to the Southern USA when I came to Kazakhstan.
Welcome To Almaty
We eventually rolled into Almaty late into the evening, but forgetting to write down any information about the hostel, we made several calls and internet searches. After a while of my buddy searching and being as helpful as possible, we found my home for the next few days, a hostel called “Popcorn Hostel” run by the cute little Rufiya and her intimidating husband Roman, who was dressed in Soviet-style military attire. They greeted me with green tea and a warm smile from the start, and trembled with excitement when I handed them the first US passport that they had gotten their hands on.
After accompanying me to the local Kafesi to buy some toothpaste, Rufiya and Roman persuaded me to come get some local “shashlik” kebab with them. Little did I know, it was soon to turn into a vodka-filled event with intermittent pints of beer, shashlik, and the forcing of many Kazakh vodka shots back. In our drunken state we discussed Kazakhstan’s history, Almaty, and their lives. Another group of Kazakhstanis with a mix of Russian and Kazakh looks approached us and started downing more shots with us. A few of them were well known journalists and TV broadcasters in Kazakhstan, I couldn’t believe I was meeting the Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters of Kazakhstan! One of them gave me a 100 Tenge note that was no longer in circulation and was the first bill of Kazakhstan when it claimed independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. It has stayed in my wallet with me ever since.
I woke up in a hungover fog, but felt the need to make the most of my time and explore Almaty. Almaty translates to the “full of apples” in Kazakh and was the capital until just before the 21st century when Astana, an extremely futuristic looking city based in the center of the country (equidistant from China and Russia) took over the title. Nevertheless, Almaty remains the cultural hub in Kazakhstan and the only city with over a million people. With apple trees everywhere, Almaty’s name is very much accurate.
Walking around, I was taken aback by the lack of people on the streets. My Chinese city mentality, where a small city contained no less than 6 million people, was still in place, and I couldn’t believe that just a few hundred kilometers from China was a “big” city with just 1.6 million. I immediately fell in love with the urban decay and the remnants of the Soviet Union that were still present.
Gorky Park, not a single person in sight, lots of abandoned amusement park rides, and graffiti!
The 28 Paniflov Soldier Memorial Park, dedicated to 28 Kazakhstani soldiers who lost their lives fighting Nazi Fascism in WWII
Apples, Apples, Apples at the Green Bazaar. The perfect city for starting a cider business.
Orthodox Church in 28 Soldiers Park
I was also impressed with the way that Almaty was planned as a gridiron city complete with bus routes, a metro (which I never was able to find), and even a tram. If one of those wasn’t in reach, Almaty practice is to hitch-hike, or basically stop any car, and if they are headed in your direction, they will pick you up - sort of like a primitive Uber! There was greenery and parks in easy reach, so one never has to feel overwhelmed by the lack of nature that happens so commonly in other major cities around the world.
Innovative Art Museum in a Car Park! Super Clever
I was most surprised by the food in Almaty, or the lack of national dishes and little restaurants serving national dishes. Almaty was filled with western-style restaurants, most notably Italy and Turkey, but even with the help of friends, I wasn’t able to easily find any traditional style Kazakh food. Perhaps that is due to the Kazakh, Russian diversity of the city (Almaty is 80% Russian) or the hopes of westernizing the city after the fall of the Soviet Union. Perhaps it was just due to my horrible Russian language ability. Luckily, one of my friends whom I traversed the city with, recommended we go to a super market and buy some horse meat and the local Kazakh cheese. We sat in a park and devoured the fatty snack, and I was satisfied with at last finding local Kazakh cuisine.
Perhaps the national dish of Kazakhstan, horse meat and a cheese with a yogurt-like consistency. (Not Pictured) imported mexican tortilla wraps :)
Not a single McD’s in Kazakhstan, but McDoner is the popular alternative
Shashlik for Days!
My friend, an Uzbek man based in Almaty doing his doctorate thesis on the Innovations in Wheat Production in Kazakhstan. He brought me up Medeo and then tried to seduce me with shashlik.
I was only in Almaty for four or five days before leaving Kazakhstan and heading to Kyrgyzstan. It had left a much greater impression on me than I would have expected. I wasn’t anticipating the liveability of the city and the little cultural treasures and nature around every corner. Furthermore, as I continue to travel this Earth, the people of Kazakhstan were hands down some of the nicest and most welcoming people I have come across.
My hostel buddies. All Kazakh and Russian. Not an ounce of English spoken. Rufiya tried to set me up with the girl holding me by putting us together in an all-female dorm.
Almaty from Kok Tube hill. Almaty is an increasingly modern city with some European flair and little remnants of the Soviet era.
Medeo, A quick bus-ride south of Almaty
Bus ride from Almaty to Bishkek (Hello Texas!)