It’s all rather civilised here in this little corner of Central Asia. As I sit here on free wi-fi sipping my hazelnut latte in an air-conditioned cafe, it’s hard to believe that just outside the city limits you’re into the dusty scrubland and impressive canyons shunted up against the towering Tian Shan in the south.
All in all, Almaty’s a rather pleasant spot. Although just across the mountains from China, there is a strong Eastern European vibe, with leafy boulevards, countless fountains and gently rusting trolley-buses. The variety of faces is similarly striking – a huge family of Kazakhs dawdles alongside peroxide blondes with fake nails, whilst swarthy men leer at those in miniskirts from the doner kebab stalls. Kind of like a 1980s version of Edgware Road really, but with nicer weather.
The Central Asia component is never too far away though, of course – I was happily browsing the dried fruit and healthy-looking horsemeat sausages at the bazaar before opting for a rather tasty kimbap from the local Korean community – present in Almaty largely thanks to another of Joe Stalin’s helpful contributions to ethnic diversity. The cherries are huge and delicious, tomatoes and peaches all neatly displayed on tables in tidy pyramids and the alluring smell of kebab manages lingers in the air. Be warned, this is not ideal for those with hangovers.
The whole city appears to have come to a standstill for the Kazakhstan vs England qualifier tonight – I’ll be heading along to the stadium in a few hours, obviously spoiling for a good ol’ fashioned crowd brawl – and the English masses have been piling into the roadside bars all afternoon getting tanked up, waiting for the proceedings to begin.
All a bit surreal really, trekking across half of Asia to drink beers with the boys from Stockport in the Guns and Roses bar. At least there’s no shortage of kebab and chips once we all get thrown out after last orders.
There are only two types of car in Kazakhstan.
That is the considered conclusion I reached after a good 12 hours in the country. The first is a dilapidated Lada, normally parked in a hedge or rusting away quietly outside a roadside shashlik joint. The second is the big, brash Mercedes, whooshing its air-conditioned passengers across the steppe and onto…erm… more steppe.
Yes, I’ve finally made it across the border and into Kazakhstan and feel just about ready to start pronouncing half-baked knee-jerk reactions to the place. Obviously getting here was far from straightforward – where would we be without life’s little adventures? – but when the bus broke down for the third time still hours from Almaty, the jollity of the situation was starting to wear thin.
Now, according to various widgets I have found online, Almaty is approximately one-third of the way back to London from Beijing. One third. Already. This is somewhat strange, since it feels as if I’ve only just begun.
But now comes the interesting part. Until now, there have been few issues communicating, except for a few Uighur or Kazakh farmers I’ve stumbled across over the past week. Even for those people whose Chinese hasn’t been great (and it’s a MASSIVE ego boost when you realise your Chinese is better than that of a real bona fide Chinese) you’re still able to fall back on it as a linguistic crutch when Lonely Planet Central Asia Phrasebook is all getting a bit much.
From later this morning when I cross to border at Khorgas, my Chinese will be useless. People, I will have lost my superpowers.
Then, it’ll be a story of hopping between two phrasebooks – Central Asian and Russian. Currently, my Russian inventory is fairly limited, but it should cover most topics of conversation:
* Spaciba (cultural niceties)
* Sputnik (science & technology)
* Smirnoff (entertainment)
* Maria Sharapova (sports)
* Perestroika (politics)
* Dostoyevski (literature)
* Reven (Rhubarb – objectives)
I might have a quick flick through before arriving in Almaty in case I’ve missed anything useful.
On a roll, boys and girls. Not only did I secure my Kyrgyz visa last night after waiting 90 minutes at the ridiculous embassy #1 (before a farewell Sichuan spicy frog meal with the lovely Lily and husband Xiao Cui) but I tipped up at the Kazakhstan consulate today to get things moving.
Obviously, I called before. It was a Thursday. Their website claims they are open Mon, Wed, Thurs and Fri. it also claims they are open Mon, Wed and Fri, and NOT Thursday. Intrigued, I pick up the batphone.
(Dragostea Din Tei runs through my head)
“Ni hao…” I continue in Chinese, explaining my predicament.
There is an uncomfortable silence on the line. She doesn’t speak Chinese. I sure as hell don’t speak Russian. Or Kazakh, since you asked.
“Liu..wu…san..er..liu..yao..qi..qi“. I am given another number to dial. I get the distinct impression I have mined the entirety of the poor girl’s Chinese ability.