Tales From The Apple Daddy, Part I: Thanksgiving in Almaty

Almaty Travel Blog

 › entry 51 of 83 › view all entries
Walking across the border to Kazakhstan

The pleasant but monotonous ride from Bishkek to Almaty was interrupted only by the frenetic border crossing, where impatient throngs of people crowded the two lines through customs. It really didn't take that long, though, and since the bus was waiting to go through a custsoms inspection itself, I don't know why everyone was rushing. I arrived at the enormous Sayram bus station west of town. There were fleets of buses, marshrutkas and other transportation going to nearly every destination in Central Asia. I even saw a bus marked "Nukus, Turtkul, Beruni," near Buston in Uzbekistan. I couldn't imagine sitting on a bus for as long as it would take, but was amazed to see they had an option.

Landscape from Bishkek to Almaty

Almaty used to be called Alma-Ata, which means something like "father of apples," and the apple theme is evident around town. I was supposed to stay with Andrei, but he had a change of plans and I arrived a bit earlier so he suggested I stay with his friend Tahir. He was taking exams but texted me to meet up with him at 6pm near the intersection of Seyfullin and Tole Bi downtown. I took care of the new country necessities: currency exchange, ATM withdrawal, SIM card for my phone, and a little bit of lunch. I hopped on a bus bound for Seyfullin street, pack in tow, and in 25 minutes I was standing on a corner in downtown Almaty. Later I met up with Tahir and his colleagues from the university, Rusland, Rustam and Timur. We crammed into a taxi that took us quite far to the north end of town, where we walked another 15 minutes into a maze of streets and shacks.

Saint Nicholas Cathedral
Tahir's friends also lived in the neighborhood, and we said goodbye to each of them as they made their way to their respective homes. Tahir rented a room in the house of an old Russian woman who was a cross between a classic babushka and a cat hoarder. The first sign of trouble came when the front gate was locked, so Tahir swung over the fence by gripping a pole, and unlocked it for me. The next hurdle was the main door to the house, which was also bolted from inside. Mangy dogs barked and growled from shadows while Tahir pounded on the door.

We finally entered and encountered the homely babushka. I looked around and realized that all the stories I heard about the gleaming, modern city of Almaty didn't mean much at this point. I was back in the village! Tahir explained what would be necessary should I wish to bathe, showed me the pit toilet out back next to a shed in the garden, and explained that no lights should be left on if we're not in the room.

Independence column, Respublika Alanghy
As I got to know Tahir, I really liked him and realized he was a poor college student trying to find a cheap place to stay in one of the most expensive cities in the world. And to her credit, the babushka probably needed the money. Still, I was rather shocked when he explained in line at the supermarket that I would need to pay the old lady for the room. It turned out not to be very much, but I think my mindset was fixed on nicer conditions that it was a bit disturbing to hear, especially having told myself "well, at least it's free" after first seeing the place.

I was feeling pretty depressed too, not really enjoying myself sitting in the dirty kitchen while Tahir and his friends spoke Russian the entire evening. Tahir did cook "Belarussian potatoes" and we snacked on sausage, slaw and flavored mayonnaise and bread that was a decent meal.

In front of the state museum
I went to bed on a wire mesh bed that sagged and reminded me all too clear of the bed I had when I was in Peace Corps (the bed I later abandoned in favor of the floor). I was feeling awkward, not wanting to hurt Tahir's feelings but not wanting to spend Thanksgiving wondering if I was an extra in Borat. The next day I vowed to try to find something else, at least for the following day if anything.

I spent Thanksgiving wandering around looking at a couple hotel options, although Almaty was certainly devoid of the $10-a-night places I'd found in most of the rest of Central Asia. I was also a tourist for part of the day, stopping at Saint Nicholas Cathedral, Respublika Alanghy (Independence Square), the Central State Museum and the Kok Tobe cable car.

The Kök-Töbe cable car ride
For lunch, I found a cheap little deli with all sorts of Eastern European and Central Asian dishes, which became my mainstay for many other meals in the city. The museum was a huge, blue-domed structure with a half-cut apple statue in front decorated with colored fabric flowers. It contained three floors of very detailed history of Kazakhstan from prehistory through to recent events. Most of the signs were in Kazakh and Russian, but as always I enjoyed the maps, artifacts and illustrations as well as some replicas of monuments.

The cable car was the highlight of the day. It was candy apple red (on purpose I assume) and went from the base near Dostyq street up over the city and to the top of Kok Tobe, or "Blue Hill." The hill itself was a miniature park, with amusement rides, restaurants and a small zoo among other things.

Another apple, on top of Kök Töbe
Unfortunately the views were obliterated by an extremely high amount of haze that left only a few distant buildings visible. The large communications tower was at the far end of the hill's park grounds, and clearly visible. I walked around for awhile, enjoying the cool air and at least some views to the hills on the other side of this hill. I saw a bus that implied rides to the bottom, and paid 200 tenge (about $1.50) for a ride, but it only went halfway down and stopped in a bus lot in the middle of somewhere I didn't know. It took about 30 minutes to walk back to Dostyq street, but about another four blocks further from where I had started. On a median strip over a large highway, I met three Mormon missionaries who invited me to a movie night and offered to find a place for me to stay, since I'd complained about having some bad luck.
The tall communications tower on Kök Töbe
They were quite nice, even though I did get a 2-minute sermon about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and I appreciated their help.

I was in a foul mood on Thanksgiving, but after leaving the Mormons, finding a restaurant to have a decent meal (an entire pizza) and finally Internet, I decided the next day I was just going to splurge and get a hotel room I'd seen for 4000 tenge. Most people would laugh that it's only about $33 a day, but that had been buying three nights before and it makes a big difference in an expensive city and long-term travel. However, I really hadn't spent much money on lodging and it was not only Thanksgiving but my 36th birthday on Saturday. I stayed later than the buses run, so I had to take a taxi back to Tahir's for one last night. He was asleep but his roommate, Maks, let me in after some phone calls to Andrei. I ended the day trying to think of the many things I had to be thankful for, including the dirty room in the babushka's house, because on this trip I'd seen a lot worse and I realized that I'm still having some of the best travel experiences I've ever had. That's definitely worth giving thanks for.

Join TravBuddy to leave comments, meet new friends and share travel tips!
Walking across the border to Kazak…
Walking across the border to Kaza…
Landscape from Bishkek to Almaty
Landscape from Bishkek to Almaty
Saint Nicholas Cathedral
Saint Nicholas Cathedral
Independence column, Respublika Al…
Independence column, Respublika A…
In front of the state museum
In front of the state museum
The Kök-Töbe cable car ride
The Kök-Töbe cable car ride
Another apple, on top of Kök Töbe
Another apple, on top of Kök Töbe
The tall communications tower on K…
The tall communications tower on …
Almaty
photo by: Alfiya