October-November 2017: The final stop on the Central Asian part of the journey before my flight to Thailand.
Kazakhstan is known amongst travellers as a novelty destination. There is so little to see or do here. A country the size of Western Europe, but flat, desolate, empty and devoid of features. The nomads did not leave any trace of history here, except in the faces and customs of the locals. The land is not blessed with the heavenly mountain chains of Kyrgyzstan, nor the historical silk road cities of Uzbekistan. The silk road itself made only a glancing blow to the south of what is now Kazakhstan, in the town of Tamara, but the relics from this past are all but destroyed. Kazakhstan is the world’s 9th largest country, but who really knows anything about this place, and who in the world really cares? The west's popular knowledge of Kazakhstan comes primarily from the totally inaccurate, not to say unamusing, film Borat. In reality Kazakhs are Asian in appearance, and far from being a backwards place is one of the most cosmopolitan and advanced countries in the region. Being in Almaty feels almost like being in a British city, with it rows of chain stores and trendy restaurants that are lacking from the other capitals of the region. I check into the hostel, which is hipper than a bearded man riding a fixie bike. Tattooed locals with shaved heads check me in as I fill out a number of mandatory forms, I've left the laissez-faire chaos of Kyrgyzstan behind, and am back in a controlling police state. Kazakhstan is one of those countries where the ruling communists simply changed their skins and regained control.
I've booked 5 nights stay here, and I tell myself that these will be a relaxing few days before the fast paced action of Southeast Asia. The next day I take in the sights of Almaty, interspersed with frequent coffee and nibbles. The compulsory stop at the former soviet square, now called president’s square. This is the biggest one I've seen, and also the ugliest; no mean feat to achieve that accolade. Every post-soviet country has struggled with what to do with their mini-versions of red-square. Kazakhstan's solution was simply to board up as much of the square as is possible and to stop people walking through it. It is here that I finally see the towering mountains that form the border with Kyrgyzstan right on the doorstep of the city, till now they had been obscured by the high repeating concrete towers. The square has an impressive, if a little eery, air to it. I move on to the national museum, this fills less than an hour as many of the exhibits are closed, or demand that I pay more money to see them after already paying to enter the museum, which I find a little annoying. There are many stuffed animals of the indigenous species of the region, and historical weapons and dresses of central asia. I've very rarely enjoyed museums if I'm being honest with myself, and this is no exception.
Next I take the cable car upto Kök Töbe, a hill over Almaty, that is towered over by much higher snow capped mountains. The cable car, surprisingly, was not built by the Russians, but looks brand spanking new. Almaty has a little money compared with its neighbours, and they are not afraid to splash it about. The ride is very pleasant, and Almaty looks actually quite pretty from a distance, covered in a light autumnal mist. The mountains are also impressive, as they seem to rise from nothing, reaching impressive heights in such a short space of time. At the top of the hill is a statue of the Beatles, listed as one of Almaties top see sights. Why are the fab four here, and what have they to do with Almaty? How dare you ask such impertinent questions! Don't question, just accept that some things are inherently mysterious. A queue of teenages wait thier turn to take a selfie with Ringo, George, Paul and John. I am somehow able to overcome the urge and move on.
The last stop of the day is the green market, a traditional Central Asian market in the heart of Almaty. Atmospheric, but not as impressive as Tashkent. I'm here for another reason though. I want to try the local delicacy kymyz. If you think that the idea of fermented horse milk is unsavoury then you have vastly underestimated the horror of this experience, there are no words that adequately describe how corrosive this stuff is. The lady who serves me eagerly awaits my response, and I am able to unconvincingly nod my approval and more is thrust upon me in a litre coke bottle. I take it away with me and discreetly dispose of it out of sight. At the end of my time on this planet I can look my maker in the eye and say with conviction that I made the most of my human experience. I went to Kazakhstan and sought-out fermented horse milk. I nearly vomited, but at least I tried it, and I am richer and wiser for the experience.
In the evening I went to the ballet. Another kind leaving present of the Russians. It's a date of sorts, with a girl I met on tinder. She's an English teacher, she tells me that her ethnic background is half Kazakh, quarter Russian, one eighth tartar and one eighth Uighur (from modern day western China). It's an interesting look. She's dressed immaculately, as indeed is everyone here, and I feel a little out of place in my backpackers garb. The ballet is an interesting experience, and another tick on the things that must be experienced by my fleshy being before it turns irrevocably into dust. There is not much chemistry between me and the young lady, so we politely say goodbye to each other and disappear from each other’s lives forever. It was good to have the company and the suggestion of going to the ballet though.
My flight to Bangkok is not until the late evening, so I still have the whole day in Almaty. For comfort's sake I pay for the nights stay in the apartment so that I can use the place until 11pm, rather than cart my heavy bag around all day. The day is clear and sunny, if a little cold, so I head to the mountains. Near to Almaty there is a small ski resort by the name of Shymbulak. It's still November so it is not open to skiing yet, but the lifts are still working, so it's possible to go there. It also has an olympic sized ice rink, which they claim is the highest in the world. Because of the high altitude many of the speed skating records are set here. The resort is 40 mins on the bus, and on the way I get chatting to an old Russian man who speaks quite good English, together we take the series of lifts up to the summit of the resort at around 3000m. It’s covered in dense snow up to my knees and the view is incredible. In theory you can see Almaty from here, but the city is covered in a dense fog. My Russian companion is keen to start a three hour walk from here, but I'm not dressed for hiking through knee high snow, and don't quite have enough time, so we part company. I hang around in the deep snow, savouring the cold weather, as tomorrow I am heading to tropical climes, before descending back to the town. There's just enough time to do a spot of skating before I go back to Almaty. The ice rink has a quite magical setting under the damn and high mountains which I have just descended. It's quite quiet here, and again I am the only tourist. The rink was obviously built by the soviets, replete with its decour; reliefs of sharp jawed homo-sovieticus scatting stoically surround the rink. And then back to my apartment.
The taxi picks me up at 11pm to go to the airport, where a 1am flight will whisk me overnight over the Gobi desert, China, the north of Thailand and to Bangkok, where who knows what awaits me. An abrupt change to my travels, and one where the Soviet and Central Asian narrative comes to an end.
At the fall of the Soviet Union the country splintered into 15 different states; this trip has taken in 9 of them, as well as three that were once also communist. Turkey was the sole exception to this theme. What then ties all of these countries together? The answer is very little, each has its own spirit and flavour. Except that most of these countries have been left with a political legacy of corruption and dysfunctionality. In Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan the ruling communist simply donned nationalist clothing and continued business as normal; these three countries remain some of the most politically restrictive and oppressive regimes on earth. Ukraine and Georgia have functioning democracies, but combustible ones, and both countries remain partially occupied by Russia. Kyrgyzstan is democratic on paper, but still censors the press, and has only managed one peaceful transfer of power after three disputed elections. Everywhere inequality is rife, and skepticism about politics abounds. Many of these countries are rich in natural resources, but the money from these sources always lands in the pockets of a handful of powerful individuals. Lithuania and Latvia remain poor countries by most standards, and recent reports put the freedom of their presses into question. Only Estonia stands alone as a success story; yet even there the Soviets left behind a sizable minority of disenfranchised Russians, who can be manipulated into causing trouble at the will of Moscow. Only in Estonia do the natives look at the Soviet Union with disgust; everywhere else there is a common longing for those forgotten times of certainty and stability. The Russian empire is dead, but the legacy is not forgotten; train-lines, opera houses, grand metro stations, vodka, dysfunctional politics, oligarchies and corruption stand as monuments to this crumbled empire. I'm glad at last to be ending this leg of the trip. And yet almost without exception everyone in these complex and alien lands has shown me nothing but unquestioning warmth and generosity. Never have I felt threatened or endangered, nor have I once felt unwelcome. It is not without a tinge of sadness that I finally leave the Soviet empire and head to Southeast Asia.