Last year, Korean Thanksgiving fell on a very fortuitous Wednesday. Where normally we would only get a 4-day weekend, the government blessed us with the whole week off. Nine days to explore.
I wanted to do something special. I looked at the map. Where can I go? Where haven’t I been? I remembered a good friend that lived there and it dawned on me. Central Asia. Kazakhstan. Fuck it.
My knowledge of the country consisted of two factoids: I knew it was a part of the USSR and that the Mongols used to make interesting architectural decisions when it came to their pyramid making there. Other than that–bupkis.
This was a solo trip as well, so you’re really stepping through the looking glass with adventures like these. It’s a delightfully odd sensation. You get the excitement of exploring something new, but you also have the fear and nervousness of everything that can go wrong. My instinctive desire to discover usually overpowers my natural state of constant anxiety.
Take off and land.
I arrived in Astana. It’s a very fake place, sadly. It was built from scratch to create a new capital after the fall of the Soviets. It’s surprisingly modern, but it lacks character and warmth. It’s an IKEA table, well-constructed with sharp, straight lines–but it’s missing the worn grooves, scars and character of an antique. I know which I prefer.
This is Astana. Yawn. There are lots of office parks like this. Places that look flashy but are mostly empty. The city has about a million people, but even the locals complained to me about its shallowness. It’s not a Chinese ghost town, but there is certainly more vacancy than demand.
Under advice from my friend who used to teach here, I only stayed in Astana for about 36 hours. It was fun. But again, very bland.
I did quite enjoy this Art Deco building. Reminds me of the Chicago Tribune building.
This is the Hazrat Sultan Mosque. It’s the biggest in Kazakhstan and the second largest in Central Asia. Architecture is a very interesting cultural thing–in my experience, the further away from yours they are is inversely related to how interesting you find them. My friends and I joke that if you see one temple, you’ve seen them all. Mosques are a bit more distinct. They still don’t approach my adoration of cathedrals, which I can pick apart detail by detail.
I rather liked this one, though. Most that I’ve seen have been old and weathered. The pristine white was an interesting change for me.
Ok, ladies and germs! This is where the real adventure begins. Look at the cute little face on the train! The star is his nose!
It was a 13-hour overnight journey down south to Almaty, the cultural capital of Kazakhstan. I soon discovered that this train was Soviet. As. Fuck. This was quite the adventure. It’s the embodiment of why I live the way that I do.
I sincerely apologize for the lack of a better shot–the train was rather jumpy. These are the central steppes. I kept imagining Mongol hordes tearing along the side of the train, just like I used to imagine Sonic jumping over obstacles to collect rings when I was a kid looking out the window on family trips. Kansas flat with a hint of foreboding.
Now, I must discuss the state of the train itself. I got a first class ticket, because I’m not an idiot. This entailed staying in a private room with double bunk beds. My roomies were pretty cool. Spoke enough English to casually chat and enough sense to leave each other alone for long stretches.
The rest of the passengers were parallel with the train, with three bunks above each other on both sides of the aisle. It was probably at 150% capacity, all cramped together and quite unnerving to this introvert. I would’ve had a panic attack if I had to stay here. It had undertones of a prison car.
Crossing between train cars was frighteningly surreal. You open the door and you are open to the air. There are weak chain guardrails that give you little reassurance. The boardwalk is shifting violently with every jolt and jar of the train. It’s blisteringly loud. Then you open the door to the next car.
There you are greeted with a furnace. It is totally open. You trip and you fall into it. I would advise against that. There is a coal pail on the floor to refuel. I feel obligated to remind my dear readers that this is located in a particularly jangly section of the train. You are climbing up a mountain–three points of contact at all times.
This is the bathroom. All hail the productive qualities of Soviet engineering! I think it’s very indicative of what the train was actually like. Let’s just say that I had some disturbing urinary experiences here.
Now I get to talk about this crazy fuck.
It’s pretty late. I go past all of those furnaces to get to the food and drink car. I bought some vodka and sat down with something to read. This guy starts talking to me. Uselessly. He doesn’t speak English and I can’t speak Kazakh or Russian. So we are Charlie Chaplin-ing our way through a conversation that I have absolutely no desire to have.
He ended up being an asshole and gesticulated my drink to the floor. I’m fed up, but I didn’t want this maniac following me to my bunk. I went into steerage to throw him off the scent. He tails me, incredibly drunk. Between the train cars, that crazy earthquake-land of rattle and danger, he grabs me. He’s physically threatening me–he wants my tablet. We struggle against each other. I am pinning his arms and trying to get leverage over him so he can’t take what is mine. This aggression escalated as I told him in no uncertain terms to go fuck himself.
I break loose and get to the next car. He follows. I start making a scene but he was mostly doing it for me. Passengers called for security. Men in green uniforms with red stars on their caps came in and broke it up. They told me to go back to my room.
I wanted to have another drink and calm down. So I went back to the beverage car, where the lovely clerk told me that that guy was trouble and that I got lucky. Then the guards came back in and berated me for not going back to my bunk as I was told. Being yelled at by men wearing Soviet uniforms is darkly chilling. An uneasy and bouncy sleep followed.
I arrived in Almaty. It’s a gorgeous city. This time, instead of focusing on the town itself or on my quirky little streets, I’m going to give you mountain folk what you crave the most.
This is Zailiyskiy Alatau. The pines were perfectly blanketed with snow. The sky was a blue that I don’t have a word for. It was a serene backdrop for the clouds, floating through peaks at 13,000 feet. This is more like basecamp. Now we need to go to the top. The cable car was out of service so I had to get a cab.
I had a gorgeous and hilarious descent from the mountain. “GOOT!” the cabbie endlessly shouted at anything he thought was positive. Which was absolutely everything. It’s still a catchphrase that I use. It’s delightful having an inside joke with a friend, but it can be lovely to have one just for yourself. You seem more like a crazy person that way.
Back in town, it was time to see some Soviet monuments.
“Russia is large but there’s nowhere to retreat. Moscow is behind us!”
These are from the ‘Park of the 28 Panfilov Guardsmen.’ Monuments celebrating soldiers from an Almaty infantry unit who died defending Moscow against Nazi attackers.
I am enthralled by Soviet art. It’s has a bold, cartoonish quality to it that perfectly matches my palette. The over-the-top themes of protective violence, the aggressive lines, wrought in iron–strike me the way Monet does others. It takes all kinds. As I look around my apartment, almost half of my decor is based on Soviet propaganda. Don’t hate the player, hate the game.
And that’s where I leave you for now. Stay tuned for Part 2! It will take you further into Almaty and my adventures there.