Saturday, 20 September 2014

Sept. 7: Almaty

When I arrived in Almaty (AKA Alma-Ata) for the second time I marched straight out of the station to avoid attracting unwanted attention. As soon as I exited the building the enormous snow-capped mountains that loom over the city came into view. As I walked from the station to the hostel my impression of the city was much more positive than it had been on my first visit: partly because I now had the chaos of Shymkent and Turkistan as points of comparison, and partly because it was now a Sunday afternoon, Almaty's tree-lined boulevards and plentiful cafés now seemed tranquil and appealing. Almaty's population is very diverse due to Soviet-era migration and deportation (51% Kazakhs, 33% Russians, 6% Uyghurs, 2% Koreans, 2% Tatars, 1% Ukrainians, 1% Azeris, 1% Germans, 1% Uzbeks, 1% Dungans), and since independence its cosmopolitanism has only been enhanced due to the formation of a significant ex-pat community and as a result the city enjoys an affluent, almost European atmosphere.

After checking into my hostel and then spending a couple of hours walking around the city, seeing it with new eyes, I got on a bus that took me south out of town, past glamorous hotels and luxury resorts, up into the mountains as far as Medeu, at 1700m. At Medeu there isn't much other than a huge ice skating rink, but from there I climbed another couple of hundred metres to a spot with amazing views of the mountains to the south and the the city to the north. This is however a popular spot for tourists and locals alike and my enjoyment of the mountain scenery was somewhat diminished by being surrounded by people.

Although I'd heard that Almaty was a good place to try Uyghur and Dungan cuisine (both are ethnic groups whose homelands lie in China, and their food has strong Chinese influences), I actually found it really hard to find any affordable restaurants at all. Kazakh restaurants appeared to be completely absent. The streets were full of pricey Italian, Japanese and French restaurants. The only affordable options that abounded were mediocre döner kebabs, though I did eventually find a decent Uzbek restaurant serving delicious shashlyk (barbecued meat on skewers) of various varieties, including goat's heart (a lot better than it sounds).

Friday, 19 September 2014

Sept. 3-6: Almaty-Shymkent-Turkistan

On the 16-hour train journey from Almaty to Shymkent I had a similar experience to the night before, with a kindly Kazakh woman taking me under her wing and sharing her food and tea with me as I chatted with her and her 20-year-old son. When I mentioned that I hadn't tried horsemeat since I'd been in Kazakhstan (it's a staple here) she immediately whipped a horse sausage out of her bag and cut me a chunk - delicious! Until nightfall the landscape we passed through was steppe indistinguishable from what I'd passed through all the way from Semey to Almaty, but the next morning I woke up to see the snow-capped peaks of the Tian Shan mountains that line the border with Kyrgyzstan to the south, and these views accompanied me the rest of the way to Shymkent.

Shymkent (AKA Chimkent) is Kazakhstan's third largest city, with a population of 640,000. It was founded as a Silk Road caravanserai in the twelfth century and although there are no architectural remnants of this history, the city does retain much of the archetypal Central Asian bustle. It certainly felt much more Asian than Semey or Almaty: the incredibly dusty, potholed streets were jammed with beaten Ladas whose drivers honked their horns at the slightest provocation; men in traditional hats and women in headscarves were commonplace; and the highlight of the city, the labyrinthine Upper Bazaar, had heaps of exotic atmosphere, with sheep heads and cow tongues sold alongside kymyz (fermented horse milk) and shubat (fermented camel milk), tools and toys, ornate rugs and pirate DVDs. Relief from and contrast with the hectic city streets were provided by several pleasantly spacious and shady parks, where old men huddled around chessboards and card games. The population, though very diverse as in all of Kazakhstan's large cities, is indeed much more Asian than in Almaty or Semey: 65% Kazakhs, 15% Russians, 14% Uzbeks, 2% Azeris, 2% Tatars, 1% Koreans and 1% Ukrainians. Although everyone seemed to know Russian, I didn't hear it in the streets very often (unlike in Semey and Almaty, where even Kazakhs often speak Russian as a first language) and signs were often only written in Kazakh.

After two nights in Shymkent I took the three-hour bus west to Turkistan (AKA Turkestan and Turkiston), a settlement that was founded in the fourth century and flourished as a stop along the Silk Road. Unlike Shymkent, Turkistan is rich in architectural remnants of its former glory. Most notably it's home to the enormous and beautiful, UNESCO-protected Yasaui Mausoleum, where twelfth-century Sufi and poet Khoja Akhmat Yasaui is buried. The mausoleum is a popular site of pilgrimage for Muslims from across the Turkic-speaking world, and although it's laid out very much like a musuem, inside the line between tourist and pilgrim was blurred as people took photos and then prayed. Although Shymkent has officially been within the borders of Kazakhstan since Stalin divided Central Asia up in 1924, it's historically been a meeting point of Kazakhs and Uzbeks and today its population of 160,000 is 64% Kazakh, 33% Uzbek and only 1% Russian - as such it's the only place in Kazakhstan where I felt conspicuous being white.

After spending a few hours exploring the mausoleum and other nearby historic monuments I hurried back to the station to get the 19-hour night train back to Almaty. Although my reception by the other passengers was as warm on this train as on the previous two, this time the conductor tried to hassle me, snatching my passport and leading me to his little cabin, where he gave me a grilling similar to what I'd got from the policemen in Almaty. Eventually he got bored of insinuating that the photo in my passport wasn't me and he let me go, but I did see another passenger - a woman with a Tajikistan passport - slip him a bribe.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Sept. 2-3: Semey-Almaty

I'd expected the 21-hour train journey from Semey to Almaty to be a trial of tedium during which I'd get to the end of my book and run my iPod's battery down to zero. Within a few minutes of boarding it had become clear that this wasn't to be the case at all: in no time all my neighbours had all realized that I was a foreigner - a pure-blooded Englishman no less - and I became the centre of attention. The fact that many people seemed unable to distinguish Britain from America (and to a lesser extent mainland Europe) in their minds was forgotten in the face of genuine friendliness, curiosity and generosity. My new friends showered me not just with nuggets of wisdom about Kazakhstan and questions about "my" country (the queen, the Channel Tunnel, football, Big Ben, the Thames, the Eiffel Tower, San Francisco, the Three Musketeers...) but also with food and tea. The hours until nightfall flew by in a blur of coversation, card games, hot tea, cold meat and Kazakh snacks, all as we rolled through the endless steppe.

The next morning we arrived in Almaty, where I was to stay only until evening, principally in order to sort out the bureaucratic headache of "registration" (foreign citizens who enter Kazakhstan by land border are required to register their presence with the "migration police" within five days of arrival). Having said my goodbyes to my fellow passengers I headed from the platform into the station, passing two smiley-faced policemen who conversationally asked me if I were a tourist. Thinking nothing of it, without breaking my stride, I returned their smiles and told them I was. Some 10-15 minutes later, when I'd deposited my rucksack at the baggage storage and was searching in vain for an information desk, one of the policemen reappeared, saluted me and introduced himself by name and rank. His smile was gone but his manner was polite and cordial. He asked where I was going and I explained my intention to register with the migration police and then continue to Shymkent that night. He was pleased and impressed by both my command of Russian and my diligence at doing everything by the book, and I thought that our conversation was about to end when he demanded to see my documents. My libertarian spirit was momentarily outraged by his acting so polite before doing something as dehumanizing and plainly rude as demanding to see my documents, but I reminded myself that in much of the world this is perfectly ordinary and I got out my passport. As he examined my papers he asked if I had any forbidden items, and thinking that he was joking, I laughed as I said no. Then, despite presumably having seen that everything was in order, he told me to follow him to his office so that he could search me. By now my outrage at the infringement of my civil liberties was being mixed with concern that he was going to try to extract a bribe from me somehow, but, knowing that I had nothing to hide, I politely complied. In the office there was another policeman, a fat little man who hovered behind me as I sat opposite the first, who had seated himself behind a bare desk. Their manner never wavering from polite and respectful - even friendly - they asked me about where I was from, what my plans were, why I had a beard and how I knew Russian, all while carefully inspecting my documents. Suddenly the fat one started asking me - still perfectly politely - why I hadn't registered. Unsure whether he was a genuine half-wit or if this was a half-hearted attempt to confuse or intimidate me, I patiently explained to him that I'd entered the country three days ago and thus still had two days left to register. After he'd slowly counted out the days on his fingers - suggesting that he was indeed a simpleton - he seemed satisfied that this was true. Then they searched my plastic bag, which contained nothing but snacks, made me empty my pockets and then patted me down not once but twice. They asked if I had any drugs, searched my wallet and even flicked through my guidebook before finally letting me go. Whether there's an official policy of harassing foreigners, whether these guys were hoping to extract a bribe or whether they were just bored and power-tripping, this whole incident convinced me that the Kazakhstani police are best avoided.

I hurried out of the station, hopped into the first taxi I could find and headed straight to the "migration police" headquarters. Registration was surprisingly painless and completely free of charge - I simply filled out a small form and handed over my passport and migration card, then an hour later was given them back with a new stamp confirming my registration. Nonetheless a morning of police harassment and bureaucracy dampened my spirits and spoiled my impression of Almaty. The streets, though pleasant and leafy, were all gridlocked with expensive-looking four-by-fours and after failing to find any appealing restaurants I ended up eating one of the worst döner kebabs I'd ever tasted. Although the Zenkov Cathedral (a 19th century Russian Orthodox cathedral made entirely of wood - apparently the second tallest wooden building in the world), the enormous WW2 memorial and the Central Mosque were all very impressive, the Green Bazaar lacked charm and I didn't feel as though the city had much general atmosphere.

After spending all afternoon tramping around in the blistering sun and then failing to find a bus heading to the train station, I got my second taxi of the day. Once at the station I was glad to see some of the Kazakhs I'd befriended on the train the night before. Waiting with them I felt somehow less conspicuous and safer from the police. With a sigh of relief I eventually boarded my westbound train without attraction any further attention from the authorities.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Aug. 31 - Sept. 2: Barnaul-Semey

Confirming my suspicion that there are no mountains at all in Altai Krai, the bus journey south from Barnaul to the Kazakhstani border was through a vast expanse of flat farmland. The only real change in the view was that the further we went, the drier the land looked. The border crossing between Russia and Kazakhstan was, to be honest, exactly like what you'd probably imagine a Kazakhstani border post to be like: a couple of low buildings isolated in the middle of arid, uninhabited grasslands, with piles of rubble and debris lying about and just a handful of uniformed officials from each country. With me both the Russian and the Kazakhstani officials were surprisingly friendly and patient, though I did have to explain myself to the Kazakhstani three times before I was certain that I'd be let into the country without a visa (as of July 2014 British citizens can enter Kazakhstan for up to 14 days without a visa). However, one woman ahead of me in the queue, who had a Ukrainian passport, was denied exit from Russia. I didn't hear the whole conversation, so it's quite possible that there was a good reason - that her Ukrainian citizenship was purely incidental - but I can't help but jump to the conclusion that it was because of the current situation in Ukraine.

Once in Kazakhstan we continued south along a potholed road (noticably worse than in Russia) through the beginnings of the steppe, passing occasional horseback herders with goats and cattle, ruined Soviet collective farms and quaint little villages of wooden houses, just like those in Russia. Eventually, some seven or so hours after departing from Barnaul, the bus arrived in Semey (AKA Semipalatinsk), my first stop in Kazakhstan. Semey, a city of 300,000, is notable for three reasons: Dostoevsky lived here in exile, Kazakh national poet Abay Qunanbayuli was from here, and the Soviet authorities did obscene amounts of nuclear testing right nearby. The city, like most of northern Kazakhstan, is multiethnic, with a large Russian population (63% Kazakhs, 30% Russians, 4% Tatars, 1% Germans, 1% Ukrainians). Kazakhs look broadly similar to Chinese people (perhaps a little more European), speak a Turkic language and are nominally Muslim, though have never been very religious.

As if to drive home the fact that I was in proper Asia now, the international bus station's sign was in Kazakh, Russian and Chinese. A friendly Kazakh man who worked at the station called me a taxi and was keen to make conversation while we waited. Among other things, he told me that everyone in Kazakhstan speaks Russian except for ethnic Kazakh immigrants from China and Mongolia. However he did admit that his own seven-year-old couldn't speak Russian and that he thought it more important for her to learn English anyway. The taxi driver, a monolingual Russian-speaking Tatar, was equally friendly. Although he appeared to be a friend of the Kazakh at the bus station, he revealed his prejudices when warning me to be vigilant of Kazakhs trying to rob or con me. He lamented the fact that so many Russians had left Semey since the end of the USSR (the city had once had a Russian majority) and said that he wanted to move to Russia himself, to escape the nationalism that was on the rise here. But later, when walking the streets of Semey, I could see no signs of this nationalism: unlike in Tuva, where Russians and Tuvans seemed to form separate communities, here I saw plenty of multiracial groups of friends; unlike in the Baltic states, where the Russian language is pushed out of the public sphere, here almost all signs were bilingual.

Semey itself is a dusty but pleasant town, without much in the way of tourist sights but interesting to me as an introduction to Kazakhstan. After two nights there - more than twice as long as I needed to see everything in the town centre - I embarked on the 21-hour train journey south to Almaty.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Aug. 28-31: Novokuznetsk-Biysk-Altai Republic-Barnaul

Novokuznetsk, located in the heavily industrial Kemerovo Oblast, is notable for having formerly been called Stalinsk and for being Russia's third most polluted city. As such we spent all of an hour and a half there before hopping onto a bus to Biysk, in the Altai Krai. After six hours winding through hills and villages we arrived in Biysk and once again stayed just long enough to eat before getting a bus onwards. Two hours later we arrived in Gorno-Altaisk, the capital of the Altai Republic. Considering that the Altai region (which consists of Russia's Altai Krai and Altai Republic, as well as adjacent areas of Kazakhstan, China and Mongolia) is renowned for its mountains and that "Gorno-Altaisk" could be translated into English as "Mountainous Altai City", the landscape we passed through was pretty underwhelming: much of the way from Biysk to Gorno-Altaisk was completely flat and the hills that did appear as we neared the latter weren't much compared to what we'd already seen. In Gorno-Altaisk we got straight on the first bus to Souzga, the village 25km southwest of Gorno-Altaisk where we were staying.

The road down to Souzga saw the landscape becoming much more attractive, with steep hills rising on both sides. During our stay here we hitched further south down the road as far as Ust-Sema, and the scenery got progressively more impressive as we went, with the hills becoming real mountains. Manzherok, a village midway between Souzga and Ust-Sema, was especially appealing, with a startlingly beautiful stretch of river running past it, a ski lift that afforded us fantastic views, and not one but two inexplicably upside-down buildings.

In addition to its natural beauty, the Altai is of some cultural interest: the Altai Republic's population is 57% Russian, 35% Altai and 6% Kazakh (though the Altai Krai is much more heavily russified - Russians make up 94% of the population, and Altai a mere 0.1%). The Altai people are ethnically and linguistically close to Tuvans and Khakass, and like the Khakass, by religion they're a mix of Orthodox Christians and shamanists. The relatively developed tourist industry, built on skiing, hiking and other outdoor pursuits, capitalizes on the exotic Altai culture, portraying the Altai people as similar to Native Americans and selling lots of suitably ethnic souvenirs.

Unfortunately we could only scratch the surface of the Altai's treasures, as all of the most beautiful nature - as well as the bulk of the more traditional Altai and Kazakh communities - is located further south in the Altai Republic. Before we could make it that far we had to head back north to Barnaul, the 612,000-person capital of the Altai Krai. Coincidentally the city was celebrating the anniversary of its foundation the day that we arrived, so we spent our evening wandering through crowds of revellers and gawping at the unbelievably bad local bands playing on stages throughout the city.

The next morning Tamás took a bus to Novosibirsk in order to get a plane back to Moscow and then on to Budapest, while I got a bus bound southwards towards Kazakhstan.