Tales From The Apple Daddy, Part I: Thanksgiving in Almaty
Almaty Travel Blog› entry 51 of 83 › view all entries
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.