Before boarding flight KC922 from Frankfurt to Almaty on that day of late October, I was asked more than once:
“Why Kazakhstan? Why do you want to go there? Is it even safe?”
Granted. Kazakhstan is not exactly the typical destination for a European who just managed to get a one-week long time-out from work. People from this part of the world often like to spend autumn somewhere in the south of France, Italy or Spain for example. Easily accessible destinations with good infrastructure, great food, warm weather and the benefit of less crowded venues due to the end of the high-season.
“Why don’t you go somewhere nice instead of this Post-Soviet state? My friend and I went to Greece last year in October and it was fantastic.”
I get it.
But as someone who has had the privilege of growing up in Europe and still very much enjoys some of the things this corner of the globe has to offer, I wonder what happens to me as a person if I fall into a pattern of routine destinations.
Experiences shape us. They shape who we are as individuals. This also applies to travel experiences and although every one of us has a very unique way of reacting to external events (again, because of previous experiences), what happens to us if we all go to the same places? How likely is it that we cultivate our uniqueness if we all spend time in the same spots, year after year, over and over again?
Of course, there is a social component to this repetitive behavior. We yearn for a sense of belonging. Of belonging to a country, region, city, village or community. Traditions play a role. Nostalgia and those precious childhood memories can also anchor a certain place into mind and heart; revisiting these places every year is comforting.
But at some point, I also believe in breaking the mold and giving in to that primal desire to discover something entirely different. To follow curiosity and see where it leads to. To see other people, hear the sounds of other languages, walk other lands. To get lost in a new environment and witness how the experience changes and transforms us. It’s not surprising that writers of various periods often considered the act of travelling to be a source of inspiration. Positive disorientation provides new impressions. Fresh inputs. Novelty. And as we learn to cope with new situations, we unlock something within us. A new perspective.
In the case of Kazakhstan, positive disorientation is certainly to be found in the beauty of the landscapes. From the vast and greenish steppes to the shades of yellow and red in the Charyn Canyon, all the way up to the turquoise blue of Lake Almaty in the Tian Shan mountain range. But it can also be found in the warmth and hospitality of the country’s people or the gait of a foreign woman who balances her elegance through the streets.
One week in Kazakhstan. Where the roads are less traveled and where sometimes, there is not even a road.
I am half awake, half asleep while my guide Sergey, an Almaty born-and raised Kazakhstani who barely speaks English and only knows a few words of German, steers the Nissan Patrol up the serpentine road that leads to BAL – the Big Almaty Lake – at around 2500m in the Tian Shan mountain range.
It’s been less than 48 hours since I’ve hit ground on Kazakh soil. I am still jet-lagged. The excursion to Charyn Canyon one day before as well as a first tour to Shymbulak – the ski resort above Almaty – and the obligatory Almaty nightlife experience left little time to catch some sleep.
The car radio spills out some Russian folk songs. I understand a few words, but clearly not enough to put a grin on my face like the one Sergey is wearing. He points at the radio and joyfully says: “Russian music!” while taking his right hand off the gear stick and making a thumbs-up. “Yeah, I like it too”, is what I reply.
Before making a halt at the lake, Sergey wants to show me the view from the very top. We continue to climb the road, one turn at a time. The 4×4 flagship of the Japanese car maker slowly progresses through the mountains. Speaking of Japan, after the end of WWII, it was Japanese prisoners of war who built the hydro-power plant in the mountains. Some 70 years later, the plant still provides a substantial amount of Almaty’s electricity. The altimeter is now showing 3070m. Military checkpoint.
“Passport” says Sergey. I hand him the little booklet with the Emblem of the French Republic on the cover as he steps out of the car. The Kazakh soldier on duty is alone. No one else seems to be around. I will later find out that there is more than one checkpoint and that military patrols continuously go up and down the slopes of these mountains. We are very close to the border with Kyrgyzstan and despite the rather tight security measures, smugglers from Afghanistan on their way to Russia still try to enter Kazakhstan through the mountains.
Sergey turns around and asks me if I have a cigarette for the gatekeeper. I reply with a short “Prosti (Sorry)” before adding in English “I don’t smoke“. I feel bad for the young soldier. He’s alone in here and I’ve just denied him the pleasure of a smoke. I’ve probably destroyed his understanding of French men: constantly Gauloise-smoking and wine-drinking romantics who spend their entire days philosophizing about life and love. This guardsman probably thinks he was unfortunate enough to meet the only French guy on the face of the earth who doesn’t fall into that category.
We get back in the car while the security gate is pushed aside. A couple of turns later, after passing the astronomical observatory and the kosmostantcia (cosmostation) – two relics dating back to Soviet times but still in use despite the increasing light pollution caused by the rapid development of Almaty – Sergey stops the Nissan and turns off the engine. The road ends here.
“Not bad, eh?”
I reply with a nod. The view is stunning. We step out of the car and I signal to Sergey that I will hike down to the lake instead of taking the wheels again. I point at a parking area near the water and show him my watch. “In two hours down there.” Sergey gives me another thumbs-up.
So here I am, looking at those “Celestial Mountains” (from the Chinese 天山): a mountain range with peaks that go above 7000m. Behind the Tian Shan mountain range, further East, the Taklamakan desert. I wonder if I will ever see that place. Another day, another time; I have enough on my plate for now. The snow is blinding as I hike down towards the lake. I am surrounded by a white mirror as I progress towards the turquoise surface of BAL. The sun is shining. It’s a beautiful day. After negotiating my way through the rocks and reaching the water, I decide to lay down and soak in the rays for a while. It’s warm. I fall asleep.
The ring of my cell pulls me out of my slumber. Sergey is on the line. “Go?”
“Yes”, I reply. “Let’s go“. Back to Almaty.
Although the country’s former capital is my main base during this one week in Kazakhstan, I don’t have much time to spend in Almaty. English novelist Lisa St Aubin de Terán comes to my mind.
Traveling is like flirting with life. It’s like saying, “I would stay and love you, but I have to go; this is my station.”
I ask myself what living here for more than just a few days would be like. „Would I be able to adapt to this environment?“
I snap out of my pensive state before reaching a conclusion.
I am sitting in a taxi on my way to Panfilov Park. The driver speaks English. „Are you American?“.
„No. French. German. 50/50“, and I pop back: „What about you? Born and raised in Almaty?“
„Yes, but I lived in Odessa for many years. I miss the sea.“
The GPS on my phone indicates that we will need another 10 minutes before we arrive at Panfilov Park. It’s Tuesday and the morning rush hour isn’t over yet. I ask him:
„What did you do in Odessa?“
„I was fighter pilot“, he replies with his Russian accent.
I look at him. „You were a Fighter Pilot? On a MIG?“
„Da“, he replies, before adding „MIG-29“.
I don’t sense the slightest bit of pride in his voice. I am impressed. A taxi driver who used to be a pilot on a MIG and experienced MACH 2 speeds. Driving this cab must feel like slow-motion. We spend the next minutes brushing over some political topics and he pulls out a few childhood anecdotes from his life in Almaty during the days of the Soviet Union.
Two or three „spasibas“ later (I like the way „spasiba“ sounds, but I have to remind myself again not to use it too often), I enter Panfilov Park and find myself standing in front of an imposing War Memorial: Panfilov’s Twenty-Eight Guardsmen. The discussions I have had with Sergey and a few other Kazakhs have taught me that a lot of national pride stems from the country’s involvement – alongside Russian forces in the Red Army – during WW2. The memorial is in excellent condition. A torch has been lit, symbol of the eternal flame, and fresh red roses have been placed in front of the giant black monument.
After a short halt, I continue towards the Ascension Cathedral, a magnificent Russian Orthodox wooden building. Not a single nail was used to erect this jewel that was only minimally damaged in the 1911 Kebin earthquake.
I exit the cathedral after spending half an hour inside. I like that place. The way the light filters through the stained glass windows, the incense, the scent of oils and candles: they remind me of those dreaded Sunday mornings spent in the little church of St.Lambert des Bois as a teenager. I smile at it now.
Almaty is a soft introduction to Kazakhstan. It’s a very cosmopolitan city shaped by a melting-pot of cultures. Encounters with Kazakh, Russian, Ukrainian, Tatar, Uygur and Korean nationalities for example are frequent. Bumping into Europeans and Americans is nothing unusual.
Median age for the 17-million people strong population of Kazakhstan is below 30 and Almaty doesn’t seem to be much of an exception. I credit the vibrant energy of the former capital to it’s young inhabitants. Despite three devaluations in a year, there seems to be a sense of resilience and positivity. It’s inspiring.
The concept and practice of hospitality rank high in Kazakhstan and I experience this distinctive feature of the culture surprisingly often in Almaty. People are keen to leave a good impression and seem to make an extra effort when dealing with the non-Russian and non-Kazakh speaking foreigner that I am. From non-official taxi drivers who switch the car radio to some French music after having inquired about my nationality, to shop keepers, restaurant owners or hotel personnel, little gestures here and there attract my attention.
I lose myself in the alleys of the Green Bazaar, just a block away from Panfilov park. Clothes, vegetables, meat, fruits and various spices are displayed here. After having seen the countless malls packed with shops selling Italian, French or American brands, this market is my first real Central Asian experience.
I glance at my watch. It’s time to go pick up my bag at the appartment near Dostyk avenue and head to the airport. Taraz, the administrative center of the Jambyl region, is next. I will be back in Almaty in two days but already miss it. I barely scratched the surface of what this city has to offer.
Less than an hour later, after going through the check-in of SCAT airlines – a company with a bit of a sulfurous reputation – and passing security, I find myself looking at the airport apron and the very runway I arrived on some 72 hours ago.
It’s amazing how much life one can squeeze into 72 hours.
Thank you Almaty.