Kazakhstan! That’s K-A-Z-A-K-H-S-T-A-N. New country! Maybe #107. Maybe.
What do I know about Kazakhstan? I know it’s the largest country I had yet to visit, #9 in the world. (Algeria, you’re next.) I know never to utter the word “Borat.” I know that the sports world went berserk about the beauty of this Kazakh volleyball player. I know very little, is what I am trying to say. I don’t know much more after spending five days in the former capital, Almaty, one little urban corner of this massive land.
It’s tempting to say that Almaty is a more evolved, prosperous and progressive version of Bishkek, but I feel uneasy asserting that. We all hope Bishkek will someday see the light and replace its smoggy marshrutkas (vans) with buses, but the two towns feel different. Almaty is more Russian, yet I see more Kazakh language on signs here than I do Kyrgyz in Bishkek. Why is that? Is there a stronger sense of trying to maintain Kazakh identity? I had plenty of questions, but I managed to meet up with only one Kazakh. I wish I had made more of an effort to see who on Couchsurfing wanted to meet. (Much-maligned Couchsurfing is still the best way to meet locals quickly, I reckon, outside of bars.)
When I heard an authoritative American voice in the Green Market, I raced over to accost him and ask if I really had to register with the police. His name is Dennis Keen and he runs walking tours in Almaty. I thought I was doing him a favor when I said I would mention him on my blog, but upon further research he seems to be synonymous with the city. His quirky website is obsessively detailed—my kind of guy.
I read that Almaty was once ranked the 30th most expensive city in the world for expats by Cigar Aficionado magazine or I don’t know who does these ratings, but they mean almost absolutely nothing to travelers. These lists make me crazy. They are for people who refuse to make an attempt to live like locals. It’s for people who can’t live without tacos no matter where they are in the world—whoops! bad example, as that would be me. It’s for people who have an irrational craving for weekly sushi—another bad example—look, the point is that it is for rich expats, not us common folk. Yes, I just insulted us.
Many countries now get a 15-day tourist visa, which is ridiculous for such a huge country, but I’ll take it over not being allowed to come. If you fly in you have to register with police—always a sure sign that a country is highly ambivalent about tourists. More info is at caravanistan.com. It used to be the resource, but the info might be dated by now.
I stayed in an Airbnb place for $11 a night, and then moved to the cheapest hotel in town, the Turkestan, right behind the Green Market for 4500 tenge, about $13 including breakfast.
The Airbnb place was great, but out of center. I caused a kerfuffle when I reset the router in the house, not realizing that the password had to be reset on the adminstrator’s computer, which I couldn’t explain in Russian to my hosts. (Yes, I grew up in Silicon Valley and worked for tech companies and everything.) Customer service had to be called to the house to “fix” this, which cost 2000 tenge, or about $6. I don’t know if the $6 house call is more remarkable or the fact that he arrived in an hour.
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