Almaty, My First Steps on the Silk Road

At last, after years of planning and following one failed, or aborted, attempt, I finally arrived in Almaty and hit the Silk Road. Woohoo.

It feels very different to Astana and has that delightful air of chaos I know from being in Asia in the past. It invites you to totally let go of old entrenched habits and to embrace the new. It also invites you to change your attitudes about things that work differently to what you’re used to. If they work at all, that is. Woe betide your peace of mind, if you don’t. Definitely worth your while to have a platinum subscription with the Asian Attitude Adjustment Agency. My training kicked in almost immediately, thanks be to Zeus and his buddies. It helps, i think, that I have a huge appetite for experiences and my brain seems to interpret newness and change as exciting.

I left Astana on Monday morning at 10pm to get the sleeper train to Almaty. I mentioned in my last blog that I left things a bit late as I like to plan my journey at the spur of the moment and only plan the major things such as visas, flights etc. As I wasn’t sure how long I would be in Astana, I subsequently wasn’t sure when I’d leave. Smart, innit? So, I had to get the last seat left leaving Astana. I was lucky to get it as otherwise I’d be royally buggered.

To say that my above-mentioned attitude adjustment was severely tested is an understatement, to say the least. But it didn’t pop or burst or implode or explode or whatever attitude tested beyond the edge of destruction does. It survived, manfully and soulfully.

The journey was quite challenging. I usually travel 2nd class, called Kupé in ex-Soviet railway system. I’ve rabbited on about these earlier in another blog. I prefer a lower bunk but an upper one will do at a pinch. Despite my advanced years, I can still hop up to an upper bunk in a spritely fashion, just like a little gazelle. Well, maybe not like a gazelle, no, not like a gazelle at all, maybe more like a rotorious hippomopotamus as James Joyce might say. But make it up I do without any damage to bones, joints, ligaments or, most importantly, dignity.

This time I was stuck with a third class compartment. They have pairs of three high bunks in sets all along the compartment perpendicular to the direction of the train and another single line of three high bunks in line with the train. There is no privacy and the bedspace is limited. Kazakhstan Railways have abolished the top tier, it’s now used for luggage. I had a middle bunk. That would be ok except for the fact that the height was 45cm. Just enough room to wriggle in and out and move around but no space at all to sit up. Most sensible folk book weeks or even months in advance and choose where they want to sleep. You have to choose a carriage and bunk when booking and this is printed out on your ticket. Top bunks are cheaper than lower bunks.

So, these I was, perched on a narrow bucking shelf for 24 hrs with nowhere to sit. I couldn’t even read my book. I slept for over half the time catching up on sleep lost to jetlag. I found a storage box in a section outside the main compartment and in the area between carriages. I spent several hours there reading my book and was grand. I worked hard at maintaining equanimity so didn’t get stressed or annoyed.

And then the train arrived at Almaty and it was all over. I was grand. I’ll do my best to make sure I don’t repeat the experience again, through. Third class is ok but only on a bottom berth.

I didn’t do much on my first day because I was so tired. The train arrived at 10:15 a.m. and as its an internal service there is no security or immigration check. I was in the main hall a few minutes after the train arrived. First thing I did was find little cafe and have a cup of coffee and some breakfast. I hadn’t eaten at all the previous day. This was because of bad planning but also because I like to have a mini-fast once a week or so. Then there’s the whole logistics of eliminating waste products. You don’t wanna even go there on Kazakh trains.

I checked into my hotel almost immediately. They were very helpful and allowed me in before official check-in time. I had a shower, changed my socks and underwear and unpacked. This is very easy due to my using packing cubes, as mentioned earlier.

Talking briefly about underwear, I think I might be adopting some Mormon tendencies. I’m looking for magic garments. As I travel light, I have a wear one and a spare one policy with most clothes so need clothes that will stand the rigour of travel, be good at the underwear stuff, be olfactory neutralising and, importantly, wash and dry in a few hours. Ordinary Marks and Sparks or Dunnes Stores boxers will not do this so I got a 2 pairs from USA. They cost a few bob but worth it. They work a treat. I can get a weeks sweaty wear out of a pair and they’re still fresh as a daily. A pretty traumatised daisy, mind you, but a daisy of a sort nevertheless.

Then I started looking for a magic shirt that would have similar qualities to the above but would also make me look about 7kg lighter. I found one in a shop in Dublin at an almost give-away price as the summer season was coming to an end. It has SPF50 protection, two big front pockets, foldable neck shield, long sleeves, anti mosquito bite and a whole load of other qualities. It’s made by Columbia. I’ve been wearing it since Wednesday last, 10 days now, and even slept sweatily in it twice. It’s still fresh as the proverbial daisy. It’s dark blue so doesn’t show the dirt. A result!

However, I’m going to wash it tonight as I’ve started noticing, just out of the corner of my eye, that it’s beginning to develop independent motion. I don’t want it to become sentient. Then I’d be in a pickle.

And then there’s the socks. I got a  single pair of Arctic merino socks for when it gets seriously cold. I wore them in Siberia last year when it was sub-zero. They were great. But they’re not magic, just fabulous. The magic ones are liners I got for the thermal ones and they dry quickly, don’t smell, etc etc. I also wear them as main socks when the weather is average. They’re great with sandals when it’s hot. I know, I know, you’re not supposed to wear socks with sandals but I’m so old now the fashion police ignore me. They don’t even register me. Blessed invisibility. They are grey, though.

I have no magic trousers. I never quite got to the bottom of that. Mind you, I saw many a pair of trousers I’d like to magic off other people. But that’s another story and not for a family audience, like here.

But, back to the hotel. It was a very soviet era establishment where shabby chic definitely wasn’t an interior design choice. It was evolutionary, probably from a revolutionary time. Sorry, couldn’t resist that. I had what was called a suite but was really a huge room with an enormous bed and air conditioning. The electrical sockets were hanging off the walls and all had scorch marks on them. There was a smell of burning rubber and bakelite when I switched the kettle on. And so on and on. I found myself starting to grumble internally and stopped this in time. Chill, babe, I said to myself, just go with the flow. It’s all adventure, experience. And, you know, it worked. I laughed at myself for being a bit of a silly goose and started to enjoy the differences and idiosyncrasies of the place. It was cheap too, at 11€ a night, with breakfast. I eventually got a smile from the formidable looking woman provodnitsa at the front desk. She was Russian!

After my shower, I went out exploring but first went to get a Kazakhstan SIM card for my phone. They’re incredibly cheap here. The woman at the hotel pointed me to a tech market nearly and as I was waiting in the queue, it’s an ex-soviet country so queues are inevitable, I had a delightful giggling interaction from a lovely old babushka next to me. Her standard of English was similar to my Russian but we stíll communicated. She had the most stunning set of full top and bottom gold teeth, they looked amazing. I got SIM and 2GB internet for less than 2€. It’s 4G and fast, quicker than Dublin.

The Kazakh people are extremely friendly, in my experience and according to my research. There are two main types of people here, to my untrained eye, European Russians and Turkic people who are the original indigenous inhabitants of this part of the world. There are also Chinese and some other peoples I don’t recognise.

The traffic here is fierce. They travel at a great rate of knots and there are many crashes. I saw several during my time here but nobody seemed to be hurt. I was on a bus on my first day and the driver was driving crazily while texting and beeping his horn. Brrr.

The roads are in great condition, at least in the inner city but the suburbs are not so bad as well. There are traffic light controlled pedestrian crossings at every junction and the rules are respected. Although the traffic looked fearsome, I felt safe crossing the roads. It’s a bit hairier when there’s no pedestrian crossing. Instead, they paint crossing lines on the street but the cars don’t stop until you step in front of them. I was very nervous about found this at first as it looked almost suicidal but I soon got used to it. Now I just walk in front of cars and they stop. Drivers are pretty irritable and rev their engines and play chicken but stop eventually. They also shoot past as soon as you’ve passed frequently missing you by centimetres. Once I thought it was not personal, I thought it funny. It’s still a bit nerve-wracking, all the same, especially when I wonder is that eejit speeding right at me on his mobile phone now. But I survive!

There is some mammoth building work going on in the city centre at the moment with thousands of workers making the place pedestrian friendly and green. They’re doing a great job. For more info on this, see HERE.6

I didn’t do a lot of touristy stuff, mainly everyday local interactions and observations and walking about to get the feel of the city and its beating heart. As its my first week in Asia I thought I’d pace myself. I didn’t see any cathedrals or palaces but took a, out of buses around the city and noticed how things work and how people interact; about the differences and similarities between Kazakhstan and Ireland or should I say, between Almaty and Dublin.

That’s about it. There’s, loads more I could write as I’ve seen a lot of things and made, it’s of connections but just haven’t the time to write it all up. Also, I’m trying, with middling success, to focus on process and not just content.

Sorry I have no pics and there’s just this huge expanse of text. Although the Internet is on my phone I can’t use it as a hotspot to connect my tablet. I write the blog on the tablet and the hotel WiFi is glacially slow so I can it download any images.

Off tomorrow morning to Bishkek, in the mysterious mountain world of Kyrgyzstan and to the World Nomad Games in Cholpon Ata on the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul. This is the real ancient Central Asia.

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2 thoughts on “Almaty, My First Steps on the Silk Road

  1. Hello Brian! Just started to read your blog. Fantastic stuff! You’re a great writer😊 I got stuck in to your adventures and felt I was on the train with you when I realized time was speeding away and I have to go somewhere. I’ll finish the riveting read later when I get back. (Especially about the magic underwear😱). Stay safe, and keep the memories coming!😊👍 Peter K.

    1. Thanks Peter. Appreciate the feedback. I find that writing about things helps me remember them better. Sorry I’ve no pics but slow Internet is a bit of a hassle. I’ll put headings in the next one, due tomorrow, to help break up the great swathe of text. Hope all is well with your good self self, a day at a time natch. Hugs from afar….

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