How to Go to Almaty (and Avoid Arrest)

Almaty is the biggest city in Kazakhstan and was the capital up until 1997, when that title was bestowed on Astana. It’s an older city with lots character, cafes, parks, and mountains, and milder weather due to its location in the south. From Astana, you can take a 20-hour or 12-hour overnight train ride and easily spend a week exploring the city and surroundings. If you splurge on the 1.5 hour flight ($200-350 depending how far in advance you book), it makes for a good weekend trip.

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Uzbek pottery

I’ve been in Astana for about three months now and was feeling a bit antsy to get away but a trip to Almaty seemed a bit expensive, considering that I could only go for two days. But the steppe currently looks and feels like an apocalyptic arctic backdrop and so I went ahead and bought a ticket and booked a tour guide for Saturday to go into Alatau – Eliy National Park to see some greenery and land elevation.

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Our guide, Marat, picked Sophie and I up at 10am with a plan to hike up to Big Almaty Lake and hit Sunkar Falcon Farm on the way back. We rented an apartment and there were no coffee shops nearby so we asked to stop at a cafe on the way. He always drinks coffee at home and he also explained that cafes are constantly opening and shutting down and so this proved difficult. The first place didn’t have any coffee ready yet and the second place had coffee and to-go cups but no lids. Marat kindly waited to begin the drive until we had half-finished our cups since the hour-long way to the Park is very bumpy. It was the first of many times that he demonstrated his capacity for patience that day.

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Locals are allowed to drive right up to the Lake but foreigners must stop at a makeshift guarding point and hike up. I asked why but asking “why” in KZ is often the equivalent of asking a rhetorical question. I could tell the hike was a bit strenuous for Marat and I admired his tactic of stopping every so often to tell us some history or a story, while we all caught our breath. His favourite descriptor was “Stalin-style” and his stories ranged from telling us about the inspiration behind A Clockwork Orange, to why Kazakhs hate walking, to all of the people he knows who have been accidentally killed by guns (2). Somehow, this didn’t come off as dark, at the time.

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The lake was completely breathtaking, a perfect saturated blue. Formed from a glacier, it’s a protected source of drinking water. Visitors cannot walk along the edge of the lake, which accounts for its pristine condition. Foreigners and locals alike have to hike/drive above and walk down aways. Marat mentioned something about a big rock and stayed up top, letting Sophie and I on our own. I walked halfway down the muddy side and sat for a bit. Another tourist came up from the lakeside and seeing that she managed to make it up without slipping on the wet ground, I headed down. Sophie followed and we took some photos.

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Kind of worth it.

We were about to go back when a policeman with a huge gun approached us. He spoke no English but told us we had to follow him and said something about being arrested and made handcuff motions and talked about fines and generally looked very stern and unimpressed. I then realized Marat meant we weren’t supposed to go past the big rock by the lake because it’s an unmarked border. Uncertain of where we were heading, we were eventually passed off to a friendlier, gunless policeman. I motioned to make a phone call and explained the situation to Marat who said he’d come meet us by the lake.

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Marat and the friendly policeman

The friendly policeman also spoke absolutely no English but was very interested in speaking with Sophie and me. We chatted a bit but I mostly had to answer, “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand.” He then said, “you are very beautiful,” and I said, “thank you” and he laughed so hard that out of my limited Russian, I can clearly understand when someone is giving me a compliment. He also said Sophie was very beautiful and asked if we had husbands and then I began using a trick I picked up from a friend here – when Russian-speakers are getting too flirtatious, don’t let on that you know what they’re saying. So when he tried to to link arms and said we should fly to Canada together, I exclaimed, “I don’t know!” and traipsed quickly ahead.

Marat met us with the stern policeman and told us to keep smiling and all would be well. That was easy because I had been giggling the entire time. The other tourists took photos of us as we walked to headquarters, which was a small white shack similar to the kind you see in nature documentaries that feature photographers who stake out for years for the perfect snow leopard shot. It was a giant kitchen/garbage can. Marat talked our way out of arrests and fines and into simply writing statements. I was given a blank piece of paper and a pen. With no instructions, I began by writing the date in the top right corner. The policemen didn’t like that and so they turned the paper over and made me start again.

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Directly in front of me on the table, there was a container of dish detergent labelled, “BARF.” I clearly have poor common sense but even I knew it would be entirely inappropriate to laugh out loud. I have never bit my cheek so hard.

After our statements were signed we were on our way. Except Marat had forgotten his walking poles at the top of the lake so he ran up the long distance ahead to get them. I tried to offer to go instead since I felt terrible but he insisted we go ahead. By this time, I really had to pee and generally have no problem going outdoors (bicycle travelling makes you comfortable) but I didn’t want to risk another brush with the law.

A long time passed and Marat eventually caught up with us, breathless. He made us lunch in a sunny spot and we rested for a while. Sausage, cheese, Mr. Noodles: it was as if I’d placed advanced requests for the meal. The manager of the falcon farm notified him that the daily show time was changed last minute from 3:00 to 5:00, so we had a lot of time to kill. We told him we were okay not seeing the show but he wouldn’t hear of it.

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The falcon farm was terrifying and sad and beautiful and I felt conflicted the entire time.

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The birds are trained to hunt and sold. But who buys them?

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Marat walked around a bit, told me all he knew about the animals and then waited in the car while the show took place. We drove back and just before dropping us off he accidentally backed into a children’s playground.

As someone who works in a customer service position, I often wonder how other people feel when providing a service. There was no speculation in this instance.

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Picture of a jerk

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Essential Russian Phrases

I’m four weeks into Russian lessons*. Major accomplishments include:

  • Being able to order an americano with milk, both to stay and to-go!
  • Passive-aggressively yelling “FINE!” at a taxi driver.
  • Last week, the corner store lady asked if I could understand Russian, I said yes and then she told me I looked nice that day.

My преподаватель is a lovely woman who teaches lessons to all the expats studying Russian here at the university. I’m sure there are other options out there but she’s so very good and already on campus so often, what would be the point in looking elsewhere? She’s also endeared herself to me forever because she once asked me if I was a ballerina.

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Language books continue to be racist.

We meet for an hour and a half once a week, one-on-one, which is ideal for me. She tells me my reading and writing is very good and she’s impressed by my memory but my conversational skills need a lot of work. When someone speaks Russian to me, I feel as if I’ve just been passed the ball in soccer and I get so panicky that I forget everything and kick/blurt as fast as I can in an aimless direction. I get especially nervous when people I know are around. My friend Kevin (who is fluent in like 7 languages) doesn’t think I know, but I KNOW, that he was laughing at the way I pronounced “coffee” in Russian yesterday. Or maybe my self-consciousness just makes me crazy. It’s probably both. If only more people had been around to hear my flawless зеленый чай order later that afternoon.

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There are many sites out there that will tell you basic Russian phrases but how often am I going to say “I’m looking for John?” So here is my comprehensive list of phrases/words that I actually use on a regular basis and I think, would be helpful for visitors here. I’ve also linked them to pronunciations on Forvo, rather than write garbled phonetic strings. And if you want to learn/brush up on the Russian alphabet, this is my favourite site.

General

Getting a Taxi

Once you’ve flagged down a cab, go up to the driver and say the name of your location. Then if they say да (yes), you ask сколько. Agree on a number, which will probably be between 500-1000 tenge and off you go.

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Thanks!

Restaurants

Можно means “may I” and is used to preface any ordering.

Putting this altogether, here’s how you could order two beers: Можно два пиво, пожалуйста. And then you will probably be asked a question, which I always assume is about the size and so I automatically respond with a size-related answer: Нул пять. If it turns out to be about something else, then a не понимаю is in order.

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The power was out over the weekend. That’s the building I live in.

Cafes

You have to ask for milk when you order since it’s not kept on the counter. Things like latte and cappuccino are all pronounced the same way, except the “i” in Americano is pronounced like an “ee,” and roll the “r” if you can.

Deciding Which Dumplings to Buy

Potato is best, in my books. Mushroom is worst (said by someone who likes mushrooms).

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One of the last morning runs I’ll go on for some time, probably.

Taxi Conversations 

Sometimes taxi rides are really long and often the drivers want to have a conversation or know more about you. Here are some common questions they ask and answers you can give (I got lazy about the pronunciation linking here. There aren’t links to the full phrases, anyhow):

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I went to the Canadian Embassy for Thanksgiving. Best sugar pie of my life.

*This post is not conducive to photos and so there are some random ones throughout.

Where to Eat

Doing anything here is a production. But going out for food is a PRODUCTION. For dinner, you have to block off an entire evening. For lunch, three hours of an afternoon. If you order takeout, you will be waiting for two hours. You can be the only table in an entire restaurant, and it will still take over an hour for the food to come. Items come at all different times. Service is always terrible.

That said, I go out for food at least three times a week because it’s the main form of entertainment here. Also, “going for a drink” in Astana is not something that really happens. You can go to a restaurant and just get a drink but it will take so long that you’ll need to order food at some point and then you might as well call it dinner.

Here are some of the restaurants that I like best so far and a map of more.

Turfan
Outdoor seating, cheap Central Asian food, big portions, and they don’t mind when you show up super grubby from a long bike ride. I like the plov (lamb with seasoned rice), lagman (lamb and noodles), and lahmacun (Turkish pizza).

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The number of drinks required after a steppe-ride on a hot day. 3+/person.

Osoba
Georgian comfort food. As in Euro-Georgian, not southern US Georgian. This is hands down my favourite restaurant here. And it’s one of the only places in town that serves decent-tasting and decently priced wine. Beware that everything is huge. The first time I came here we went home with three boxes of leftovers. Favourite items include: Greek salad, lobio (beans), manti (dumplings), ajapsandali (eggplant and tomato stew), and my favourite – khachapuri (cheesy bread).

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Guest appearance by Kevin! He is the first friend I made here and our hangouts mostly consist of eating and him telling me I’m not marriagable material.

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Manti the size of coin purses!

Also I guarantee you will enjoy the man sitting by the door singing softly into a microphone.

Kakao Dak
Korean fried chicken. Order fries and whatever this is (yes, I am following them on Instagram). There are photos on the menu!

Korean > Kentucky. If I lived in Highvill, I would eat this every other day.

Indiagate
Temporarily closed but good food when open. Apparently one of the staff usually plays a xylophone and sings “My Heart Will Go On” and I was so disappointed that it didn’t happen when I went.

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More beer with straws. Because I’m a lady.

Line Brew
Steak. Steaks! I’ve felt like garbage after each visit here but other people seem to love this restaurant, especially expats, which is why it made this list. It’s a little pricier here but you definitely get your money’s worth of food. I tried horse for the first time here (I ate smoked horse slices at a party but everyone said that didn’t count). Horse tastes pretty good but it’s so dense that I don’t think I could eat a whole steak.

Notes

  • You must have snacks with you at all times. This is how I get through life here.
  • Although wine is very cheap in stores, it’s very expensive in restaurants. Cocktails are expensive all-around and so I almost exclusively order beer when out.
  • When you need the waitress’ attention, call out, “dyeh-voosh-kah”, which means “lady.” I realize that’s just how it’s done here, but it feels so strange.
  • On average, I think I pay 3000-5000 tenge/$16-28 USD for dinner and a beer or two.
  • Shashlik (kebabs) really vary in size. Meat ranges from 1 in. cubes (Turfan) to the size of a fist (Osoba).
  • Though many restaurants seem to focus on a specific kind of cuisine, as you flip through the 50 page menu, you’ll see it ranges from Italian to Japanese. You could do a Bang-Bang in any one restaurant here.

IMG_3580Italian/Japanese

 

Tips for Ordering

  • When in doubt re: food, order plov.
  • When in doubt re: beer, order Efes. The waitress will probably ask you a question after you order, which will be about the size that you’d like. I am too embarrassed to ask my Russian teacher how to order different sizes of beer so I just say “ball-shoye” (big) like the ogre I am.

A Short List of Things I Like (and Two Things I Don’t Like)

Things I Like

  • There is no nutritional information on anything (I have gained ten pounds since moving here).
  • Pomegranate juice.
  • Sour cherry juice.

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 This one has apple too

  • When I say things like, “I shouldn’t eat so much sugar,” people here genuinely ask, “Why?”
  • People aren’t constantly looking at their phones. It wasn’t until all of us went on our smartphones at dinner one night that I noticed this. I’m not sure if it’s the culture or that most of the people expats text with are in a totally different time zone, but I really appreciate it.
  • Everyone is blunt and friendly. My favourite combination of traits! Though I long for the cold politeness of the Pacific Northwest when I’m feeling moody. Which is all the time.

Vancouver

 Hello, Vancouver!

  • You can actually learn Russian, if you want to. There are opportunities to use it every day since a lot of people don’t speak English.
  • If you don’t want to learn Russian, locals really try to meet you halfway to reach a mutual understanding.
  • The best sunrises and sunsets.
  • When beer is served to women in restaurants, it comes with a straw. It makes one of my girlfriends so upset but it makes me laugh every time.

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 Ladies’ Night

Two Things I Don’t Like

  • It is so flat here that I can always see the entire distance I will travel during my runs. Mentally crushing.

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 On and on and on and on.

  • Being chased by wild dogs while cycling. I didn’t think that would actually be an issue here but it happened last week and then all of a sudden I started encountering wild dogs everywhere. Future post: How to Find Pepper Spray.