Day 46 (July 15) was my flight from Dushanbe to Almaty. Not much in the Dushanbe airport is labeled in any language; it took asking around to figure out that the check-in desks were in the (at the time unstaffed and empty) section that was roped off. When the time to fly got closer, everyone just went right around the barricades. The Tajik customs officials were rather suspicious of my water filter. After they got an interpreter so I could better explain its purpose, I was met with the question, “The water is not clear in Tajikistan?!”
I met an English-speaking couple in the airport who would be on my flight (he was American, she Russian, living in Kazakhstan) who, when we arrived, helped me find a bus rather than the over-priced and over-eager taxi drivers; we took the same bus until it inexplicably stopped with the driver going AWOL, at which point it was time to switch to the metro. I was grateful for the help.
The first thing I noticed about Almaty is that it is a modern, western city. Other people say it feels European, but with its sprawl and web of highways, to me it felt American. All illusions of “backpacking” were discarded as I checked into the Best Western hotel (shudder). This was a luxury that I decided I could afford briefly as I recovered a bit from Tajikistan. (As if I had been doing anything that required recovery…)
The next morning I set out walking towards the city center, going past something marked on Google Maps as a botanical garden. Curious, I entered the only entrance to the garden that I could find, and was swiftly intercepted by a man in camouflage uniform who (in Russian) asked me whether I was a foreigner, where I was from, and whether it was better there or here. He escorted me to the upper floor of a nearby building and dropped me off in an office room where several women were working on official-looking documents with stamps. Eventually they figured out that I just wanted to see the garden (or “museum” as it was being called, although I never found any museum) and charged me 350 tenge ($2).
There wasn’t much to the garden, but there were, as it seemed to me, hiking trails through some woods, so I started exploring. This backfired as I came within 100 yards of a shack in the woods and started being chased away by angry dogs. (I escaped.)
Next I wandered somewhat aimlessly around the city.
Almaty has many small parks scattered throughout, often with fountains:
Ascension Cathedral is located in a fairly unassuming park near a large war memorial:
The church’s doors were open, and although there might have been a few tourists, the majority of the other visitors were there to pray. I wondered if it was impolite to take pictures but did so anyway until I was told not to – only then to see a no-cameras sign. Whoops, sorry.
I walked around the nearby Green Bazaar (much more organized than in Dushanbe), bought a SIM card, sat down to decide what to do next… and was approached by a middle-aged Chinese man asking if I spoke English. It turned out that he had the day in Almaty between flights on his way home to China (to renew his visa) from Shymkent where he works in finance; he had never had an American friend, and correctly guessing my nationality, wanted to make one. We walked around for a while together, including through a park where just previously, he said, he had been stopped by the police and taken to the police station and asked to pay a fine (bribe) for jaywalking. He had told them (untruthfully) that he worked for the Chinese government, and was let go.
The next day (after moving to a hostel at 1/7 the price of my previous accommodation) I decided to ride the cable car to the top of a hill called Kok Tobe. I didn’t realize until I got there that the top of the hill was a tourist zone with a zoo and amusement park.
You could take a roller coaster type thing back down the hill, but it wasn’t for me.
Back at the bottom, I met a guy who wanted me to take his picture so that back in America, they would see a picture of a Kazakh. Made no sense. But anyway, America, meet Juba(?):
I’m no longer alone, as I now have two American friends at the hostel (one from Yale and one I met in Dushanbe), with a third, Kazakh, friend from Yale shortly to get home to the city.
And with that, a not very useful map of my wanderings. The artefacts are pretty extreme – a few straight lines are from being underground in the metro, but the extreme jumps to unlikely places/altitudes and back again are bothersome errors.
Sorry for the long rambling post!