Lets get this out of the way, yes we are going to the “Borat” country. Sadly, but that is how most Westerners perceive Kazakhstan. Even before visiting the country, i’ve always consider the movie more of a parody than an actual documentary. I personally believe it poked just as much fun, if not more, at US rather than Kazakhstan. You have to be really naive at the world to think its actually true.
Nevertheless, on our first day in Kazakhstan we slept in a little village and in the morning the whole village came by to look at our car and check out these tourists….AND we met this guy…can you guess his name? No…Borat is actually quite an uncommon name, the more common version is Bolat. But for the sake of storytelling we will sweep this minute pronunciation difference under the rug.
The drive from Novosibirsk was both good and bad. The road conditions, like most major roads in Russia are quite good now. The only thing that was bothering us were the mosquitoes. One of the nights we camped and the whole night we were attacked by invading mosquitoes. We checked all the zippers and all possible holes three times over, every time finding a little crack where just a single persistent mosquito could squeeze through.
The roof-top-tent is not as sealed as the camping versions. To stop the onslaught we plugged all the little wholes with pieces of toilet paper. It felt like Leningrad of WW2, under the constant siege of the enemy, we barely slept a wink.
But that was Russia, that was all in the past. In the steppes of Kazakhstan, the mosquitoes are now a distant memory, until you look in the mirror and see a half swollen face.
We already like Kazakhstan, maybe it just as simple as the absence of the flying monsters…but the welcoming people don’t hurt either.
At first just a couple of men showed up to chat with us. We politely showed the car and tried to get our breakfast ready. After the left another and then another group of people came, as the news of our arrival spread through the village.
In the presence of the villagers, we thought it would be the most appropriate time to hold our traditional sticker ceremony. With dramatic music and everyone standing at attention, Hyein put on the Kazakhstan sticker on. Looking at the flag, i have to say that it is one of the prettiest flags on our car. The colors are good, the sun and the bird are very well stylized…a 5 out of 5 on the flag Kazakhstan!
We wanted to leave a little present for the kind folks that we met, we didn’t have anything so this little girl ran back home and brought her own photo so we could sign it.
Here is a little tip for all you travelers out there, tried to get some presents that you can leave with the people you meet. We should have printed out some of our better photos that you could give out with out a problem. Its not too late for us yet, we will do that somewhere…sometime.
I asked the girls to hold up their hands next to the Kazakhstan and the little one couldn’t reach, so she just held up her hands very cutely. I love to meet and hang out with the locals, but on my own terms…especially not when getting ready in the morning. It took us almost 3 hours, instead of the usual 1.5 hours to fold the tent and make some coffee with eggs. But we are not in the rush, the weather is good and there are NO MOSQUITOES. Btw, if you are traveling yourself the mosquitoes dont have passports and are stopped by the Russia-Kazakhstan border. So unless Putin starts giving them out to literally just about anyone, you can safely escape the flying monsters in the peaceful Kazakh lands.
Here we skip a little bit to the next day, but i will fill you in with words…no pictures guys, i’m sorry state secrets…
After leaving the little village behind, we drove all day towards Almaty, couldn’t make it one day and stopped in a bigger village. We found a little motel, parked and walked over to a table to ask the guys sitting their if we can park here for the night. They said yes, but only if we sit down and have a drink with them. Sure…we can do that. Turns out that sitting at the table were the mayor of the town, the hotel owner, the governor, the senator and a business owner in this area. Holly smokes….we just walked into some movie. Long story short, we had a good night, talked about our travels and the next morning were invited to visit Alibek’s house in the next town over.
We drove a few hours in the morning and met Alibek at the entrance of Taldykorgan (the city). Ever since that eye swelling at the Mongolian border, Hyein’s left eye has been a bit red, but in the last couple of days it got much worse. Deciding not to risk it we asked Alibek for the local hospital with an ophthalmologist. He pointed us in the right direction, but could not let us go without first giving us a feast of our lives.
I’m sure he told his wife in the morning that we are coming, because she managed to cook up enough food for a small army. Btw, Alibek and his wife have 7 kids, 4 daughters and 3 sons. Thats already a small army, so having a couple of guests over can even go unnoticed. Anyway, the dish you see in the photo above is called beshparmak, its boiled horse meat, boiled horse sausage (no…not the actual progeny making device, just a sausage made with horse meat) all laid over large square wheat fresh pasta.
I think this is the second or third time trying horse meat…but definitely the best prepared version. The meat itself was tender and succulent, the sausage, fatty and good…and pasta, well anything covered with meat juices will go down pretty easy. I give beshparmak a definite 5 out of 5.
We couldn’t talk much during the meal, because we were too busy stuffing our faces with beshparmak and amazing fresh veggies. I’ll mention this, Kazakhstan has the best fresh veggies since Mexico. We are talking about simple tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, onions, cilantro, dill… If you pick them right, they will be the best veggies you have ever had.
Back to our hosts. Only while leisurely drinking tea we could answer all the questions and chat about Kazakhstan’s tradition and history. It goes both ways, people want to know about our crazy travels and we just as much want to learn and soak up everything about the culture of the place. I have to thank Soviet Union for this, but Russian goes a long way in this part of the world.
As a good-bye present we were presented with a traditional Kazakh men’s hat, called kalpak. We also have this word in Russian, it means a a pointy hat.
Thats not even the whole family, the oldest daughter (far right) is in last year of high school and the two youngest members of the family, the twin boys, are still under a year old. The other daughter and other son were in kindergarten when we visited.
I guess, once you raise the first couple of kids, they would actually help you out with raising the rest of the kids. Just make sure your house is big enough and you have enough food for everyone. But my dear friend Matt, whenever he hears about the problems of feeding so many children, says just one phrase: “Rice is cheap”…and he is not even asian.
Thank you to Alibek and his family for the amazing dinner and afternoon. We drove to the hospital, but for some reason they wouldn’t see new patients that late in the day and told us to come back tomorrow. We looked at the map and said thank you but we will go to Almaty.
Found a sweet camping spot in basically the center of the city, right on a bank of a little river. We asked some lady if we can park here for the night, she said of course…no one will bother you. In the morning after a quick breakfast, we looked up the best hospital and drove there straight away.
Paid $15 for an urgent care visit to the best ophthamologist in town. You know that we go to the doctor for 2 reasons: first, to get the diagnosis and the medicine and second, probably the most important, to make you feel that everything is going to be okay. Well, this doctor was cool as a cucumber, i’m sure if we walked in there with our ear in our hand, she would have not batted an eye and saw that shit back up. That was a very complicated simile, plainly speaking she made us feel calm. She thoroughly examined Hyein’s eyes and determined that it is episcleritis. Gave us some powders for internal use and some drops for the eye, told us to come back tomorrow.
Sweet, that was fast, efficient and cheap…but most importantly not super dangerous for Hyein’s health.
Yay, we are in Almaty…the cultural capital of Kazakhstan, since the weather was perfect our hostel owner recommended to go up to the mountains that surround the city from the South.
If you ever visit the city you will see that it is walled off on the South with huge, even in the summer snow capped mountains.
Can you believe that this is basically in the city? We drove out a little bit, but the houses only stopped when we entered the national park. And still here and there you would see homes. This photo was taken 20 minutes out of the city…crazy right? There are springs, rivers, streams, amazing valleys…beautiful nature.
If you go further into the park, you can drive towards the Big Almaty Lake. As we climbed higher and higher up into the mountains we got annoyed at each other for saying “wow, look at this” and “holly smokes” too many times. And to see something so beautiful so close to the city, big props go out to Almaty for conservation of this region.
Same road as in the photo above, just looking down the mountain now.
One of the main destination and favorite spots with the locals is the Big Almaty Lake. You can’t really come up to the lake itself, but there are plenty of spots for parking and hanging out while barbecuing and enjoying the view.
Surrounded by the mountains, this lake reminds me of Torres del Paine…but instead of hiking up for 5 hours…we just drove up here on a beautiful road. And in beauty this place could rank up there with Torres del Paine and anything Switzerland can throw at it. Maybe i just haven’t seen Switzerland and will be proven wrong when we get there…we shall see.
If you happen to have your passport with you, then Big Almaty Lake is only the half-way point. The road continues all the way to the top of the mountains, but its so close to the Kyrgyzstan border that you have to have documents with you. Luckily, we omni mea mecum porto (Latin for “we carry everything we own”) so we could pass the checkpoint and drive up to the “kosmostancia” (space research station). This is a joint Russia-Kazakhstan scientific venture…i’m not sure what they study but lets take a guess and say its some sort of cosmic radiation, because i did not see any telescopes up here.
You can hike around the station and the surrounding mountains, once you pass the checkpoint there is no real oversight and you are free to roam the lands. We walked around for a while, oogling at the mountain views that opened up in front of our eyes and then went back to the road.
Same Big Almaty Lake, but shot from a higher point on the road, past the checkpoint. There is a stunning combination of blue skies, white puffy clouds, brown and green mountains, tall trees and blueish-green lake. The eye is overwhelmed with the colors and cannot stop for a single second, its moves around trying to scan and capture every jagged edge and pleasant curve of this mountain scene.
The drive down, didn’t leave us disappointed. On the way back you get to enjoy a completely different view as you slowly climb down the valley.
Next morning we went back to the doctor for a checkup, Hyein was getting better and our mood was cheery. Today we decided to explore Medeu, a skating rink that was built up in the mountains above Almaty. Once again, no more than 20 minutes from the city and you end up high in the beautiful green mountains.
If you have a car you can drive yourself up to the skating rink, Medeu. We looked around for a bit and then took a bus to the next point – Shymbulak. During winter it is a ski resort with a couple of lifts and during the other times it turns into a mountain bike resort. Today the weather was not cooperating and clouds were covering everything just above the ski lodge, so we said screw this and went back down to the city. If you had time for only Alatau (the first day) or Medeu, i would suggest Alatau, prettier views and you can get everywhere yourself.
I’m not sure about you guys but we like to check out the local markets to see how people live, what they eat…
The Almaty Market was immaculate, the floors clean, everything organized by categories, everything fresh and most importantly no sour or weird smells that turn you off. Hyein wondered off with a camera and a couple of young guys instantly started posing for her, asking to be in the photo….little did they know that they will now be internet famous 🙂
This is also the first time that i have actually seen horse meat for sale. I’m sure if you were given two similar looking pieces of beef and horse meat…you would have a hard time telling them apart.
From what we learned, horse meat is much leaner with most of the fat being stored around the ribs. That makes sense, i imagine horses are much more active than cows. Even looking at a horse “fatty” doesn’t come to mind…cows are different story.
And you are already familiar with these guys from Mongolia.
Ah, this is a bit more important than just a bunch of salads on display at the market. This is Korean food, made by actual Koreans that have never lived in Korea. In the end of 19th and beginning of 20th century a lot of Koreans moved from the Korean peninsula and modern day North Korea to lands in the Khabarovsk and Vladivostok area. They lived there happily developing the lands until Soviet Union came along and decided to relocate the industrious Koreans to places in the Union that needed a lot of developing – i.e. the Stans.
So, this is the Korean food from North Korea that has been first adapted to the Vladivostok food availability, then transplanted to Central Asia, where it took another turn in a different direction. When Koreans say that this is NOT korean food they are right and wrong, this is the food of the people that are ethnically korean and had to adapt to the local produce availability. We can talk about it all we want, but the bottom line is that the food itself is absolutely delicious…just like the modern-day South Korean food.
I wish i had more time and internet time to read up on the crazy relocations that Soviet Union did with whole cultures. According to some stories we heard, in Kazakhstan alone because of Soviet Union there are 130 ethnically different groups of people living today. If you got the time and interest read up on it…and tell me later!
And Kazakhstan is our first Muslim country. Driving through the country on the way to Almaty you could see the beautiful cemeteries and many small mosques. But in Almaty the mosques are even more grandiose with gold domes shining bright above the apartment rooftops.
We wondered around Almaty aimlessly until the end of the day, looking at various monuments, governments buildings, statues…the touristy fluff. Thats not the beauty of this city.
In Almaty there is not a specific place that you need to go, i was happy just walking down the streets under the shade of large trees, the houses are clean, the streets are immaculate, the city feels alive but not busy, relaxed but not too much. The traffic is busy but everyone seems to obey the traffic laws, without much honking. We tried to compare it to Singapore…where Singapore feels almost clinically sterile and polished, Almaty is like your grand-mothers home…its has the delicious smells of your grandmother’s cooking, the furniture is old but sturdy and will be there long after you are gone, the house is clean, warm and fresh. Oh and of course there is that brand new LED tv…for watching your granny’s favorite soap operas.
When you are here you feel welcome, you feel like you can eat well, sleep in and get away with things that you can’t at your parents home. Yes, Almaty is your favorite granny’s home.