Monthly Archives: October 2013

Almaty

Kazakhstan is the most Russian of all the Stans. Of course geographically it is the closest to Russia, but the prevailing vibe here is European rather than Asian. Paradoxically the people here have the most Asiatic faces I have seen on this trip.
The former capitol and business hub, Almaty could be relocated to anywhere in Europe in the blink of an eye and one would still feel at home. This is a city of long tree lined boulevards sporting the best of haute couture boutiques. Cafes spill onto foot paths, impromptu art and craft stands are everywhere and buskers add further life and colour.
For a city of only 1 million inhabitants it has the western curse of peak hour traffic jams and it is not until you look down from the lookout at Kok tobe that you notice the dirty brown smog that blankets the city.
Almaty sits at the south eastern corner of the country right up against the borders with China and Kyrgyzstan. This was one of the factors mitigating against it remaining the capitol. Its location, though, has it nestled in the Tian Shan mountains to the south. In fact the mountains are visible from anywhere within the city. Even if you could not see them their presence is felt as all the north south streets slope significantly upwards the further south you go.
The mountains also mean that world class ski and skating resorts are on the city’s doorstep. For me as a tourist it is a 50cent bus to the resort at Shymbaluk. From there in the off season the ski lifts dont run but it is a stiff 3 hour climb from 2000 metres to 3000 metre Talgar pass to be among the mountains and glaciers again. Lucky that Pamir acclimatisation to 5000 metres hangs around for a few weeks!

 

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Kazakhstan’s grand canyon

This was Stalin’s favourite food says our chatty guide, Marat. He would eat his Latvian sprats on the best bread with Armenian brandy. Ot made me wonder what the millions he locked into gulags were eating at that time. As I am aitting here munching on Stalin’s sardines al fresco I also seriously doubt that he had a view to rival mine.

I am sitying on the edge of Charyn canyon some 210 kms down a very bumpy road east of Almaty in Kazakhstan, near the Chinese border. 12 million years ago a river carved this gorge through soft rock. Millenia of erosion has sculpted a fantastic wonderland reminiscent of the Grand Canyon. At only 90 miles in length it is very much a miniature of its American prototype.

After lunch we walk down into the canyon down a slippery scree slope braving the near gale force winds.

It is another 3 km through the magnificently sculptured and evocatively named Valley of the Castles before I reach the fast flowing blue green waters of the river for a photo and a wash. While there I exchange pleasantries with an extended Kazakh family seated havong a BBQ lunch. Before I know it I am tasting BBQ mushrooms and munching on melons thrust into my hands. Then, dear readers can you guess what is next? Yes its vodka time and here we are toasting each other’s countries and would you believe it, world peace!! Some chut chuts and 3 shots later I drag myself away from my new best friends to climb back out of the canyon for the drive home.

 

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Dubai of the steppes

It is only a brief 90 minute flight from the 30 degrees heat of Osh but walking outof the airport terminal it is only 5 degrees here and the wind is icy.Welcome to Astana, the capitol of Kazakhstan. It is less than a month since summer ended here. Moscow is a further 2000km north and it is just on freezing point there. Suddenly the lessons of history crystallize in my mind. Napoleon and Hitler defeated by the Russian cold, were not complete fools. Unless you experience how cold it gets here and how quickly you cannot hope to understand.

Almaty is the largest city and business hub of the oil and mineral resource rich Kazakhstan. It was also the capitol until the dictator president Nazarbaev named this place, a medium sized provincial city as the site of a new grand, and grandiose, capitol in 1994. Renamed Astana, which in Kazakh means capitol, it is a growing city of extravagant and futuristic architecture in the middle of flat and bleak steppes.

This is a fascinating experimental city and a photographic gold mine. There is just one problem that this place shares in common with all contrived new developments. It lacks soul. The streets are empty there are no vendors, cafes nor any signs of life. Sadly I am left feeling as cold inside as I am on the outside.
Enjoy these weird and wonderful pictures.

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