Feel the power!!!
I'm sure it never occurred to me that I might wake up one day in Almaty and turn 36. I've had some memorable birthdays abroad so I was ready for another potentially great day. While I was having breakfast, I got a phone call from Erlan, one of my former students who now lives in Almaty with his family. We connected through his sister Mimi on Facebook and when he called I hardly recognized his deep voice. He was actually in Shymkent, but he told me he'd call another former student, Hamid, and he could meet up with me and take me around the city. Hamid called a few minutes later and we planned to touch base in the afternoon about a meeting place.
I couldn't believe I was reconnected to people who used to live in Buston and here I was in Kazakhstan. Already it was looking to be a promising day!
Pernille and I met up in the late morning and I told her we might have a ride to the mountains in the afternoon. We walked around again, ending back at the bazaar. People were selling all sorts of odds and ends, like teapot lids, Soviet memorabilia and second-hand dolls, all spread out on cloth on the sidewalk. We selected a nameless cafe across from a large department store and had lunch while we waited for Hamid's call. Just before meeting up with him, we dashed inside the department store, which was a crowded mishmash of fake designer clothes, perfume, pirated CDs and DVDs, cosmetics and all sorts of other products.
Hamid and I near Medeu
At 2:30 Hamid met us in front of the store, and at least I recognized him after 9 years. We walked back to his car and from the bazaar we drove up to Medeu, a resort in the mountains not far outside Almaty and famous for its ice rink. Almaty was selected to host the 2011 Asian Winter Games and as such is preparing for a fine showing, and the ice rink was closed, but as we ascended the mountains the trees were thicker and the snowcover heavier.
After Medeu, we approached a long dam-like structure that was actually built to protect Medeu from avalanches. On top of it was a view of the pretty valley up into the mountains, and we stopped for some snapshots. We decided to continue on up the mountains to the ski resort of Chimbulak. Here it began to snow, and was obviously much colder when we got out at the entrance to the ski lifts.
On top of Chimbulak
Hamid asked if we wanted to go up, and we agreed. I had only been on a ski lift once in my life, and it had been about 15 years ago. Hamid generously paid for tickets for us for the ski lift and heavy coat rental, and we waited in line to hop on one of the chairs. Hamid and Pernille rode together and I took a separate chair. The lift probably took less than 10 minutes to the top, but it seemed quite far, especially when it suddenly stopped moving! The views were magnificent, and the gently flying snow added to the wintry ambience. Once we reached the top, it was even more breathtaking. Way in the far distance below I could see a tiny needle-like structure that I knew to be the communications tower on Kok Tobe, which of course had towered over Almaty. Behind us the mountains and another ski lift continued even further up the mountains.
View down to the ski resort below
Our fingers were numb, but we were all happy to have had the chance to experience the mountains so close to the city. Looking down again towards the communications tower, the blanket of clouds over Almaty looked more like an vast ocean. Skiers adjusted their boots and skis and jetted down the hill. When we finally had enough of the fantastic views and cold, we caught the lift chairs back down, turned in our jackets and went back to the car.
It wasn't snowing back in the city, but was chilly. We drove to Hamid's house, in a western part of town. There I saw his mother, Gulia and little brother Alisher, whose toothy smile is still adorable. We had dinner and chatted, and I showed some of the photos from Ogiljon's wedding since they used to be neighbors when they lived in Buston.
Going back down the ski lift
Hamid told me they moved to Almaty six years ago. Just around the block he pointed out Erlan's family's house, where I would be going the next day. We had planned to go out to a bar, but after passing by a bowling alley Hamid asked if we wanted to go bowling. At that point I told him I never thought I'd go on a ski lift and bowling on the same day, and it would be particularly memorable because it was my birthday. He then said, "oh we will drink a lot then!"
We entered the bowling alley, which also had a section for kids' games, and sorted out getting shoes. It was interesting to figure it out since we were dealing with three different size types (Kazakh, European & American) and mens and womens, but our approximations worked out well and my shoes were quite comfortable.
The Birthday Bowling Brigade
Once we had our lane, Hamid ordered beers and some snacks, including tasty strings of smoked cheese. Each of us won one game, and we decided to call it even after that. Hamid's thumb had blistered and his game deteriorated, but he won the first game. We'd had several beers so Hamid called a friend of his to drive us all back to our respective homes. I couldn't have asked for a better birthday in a place so far away from home, friends and family, but Hamid and Pernille really made my day a birthday I won't forget.