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Almaty

Back in Almaty – early July 2014


So I am back. I’ve actually been here for a week already, but the week was dedicated to my project here (90%) and watching the World Cup (football a.k.a. soccer. – 10%). You do the math what that means in terms of work hours. That said, I still enjoy Almaty – I have the pleasure of working with a great team here – and here is another reason why: my view out of the hotel room on Saturday afternoon.

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A lazy Sunday in Almaty


After our Saturday excursion to the Charyn Canyon with 8 hours on a bus, followed by the glorious Bayern victory in the German Cup Final we felt rather lazy on Sunday morning. Off for brunch to the Coffee Room, which we’ve experienced during our last stay here already and which seemed worth another visit. Which was indeed the case: it’s a nice relaxed atmosphere there, a very nice terrace to sit outside, good service and coffees and brunch type food. Following that we walked down to the cable car which goes up Kok Tobe, the hill that overlooks Almaty. Excellent choice, as it turned out!

We took the cable car up (single ride: 800T, return 2000T – don’t ask me why that is), which was an experience on its own: being used to fairly modern cable cars that go up the Alps stepping into a rather small cabin, which swung up and down with every person entering, was almost a small adventure. The ride up took a few minutes and provided some great views over Almaty.

The cable car up Kok Tobe - a hangout place above Almaty for families and everybody, really.
The cable car up Kok Tobe – a hangout place above Almaty for families and everybody, really.

Kok Tobe itself turned out to be a very relaxed hangout catering for everybody. A few very nice attractions for kids, a loungy restaurant with some life music and tasty food, a few sad cages containing mostly birds (that was a bit sad, actually) and a good crowd wanting to have a good time make for a nice, pleasant atmosphere. Since the weather was really nice it was a great place to be.

Jurassic Park meets Kok Tobe.
Jurassic Park meets Kok Tobe.

There’s also a summer tobogan ride (some refer to it as roller coaster) on top of the hill: it’s good fun to do the downhill ride in the little carts – try it! Further, there is a Beatles monument on the hill, which seems to be a very attractive place to have your photo taken. All in all, a nice, relaxed Sunday.

 

The German Cup Final – Almaty


If you are into football (even if I am at risk to repeat myself: the real football, not the game that has been designed to bridge the gaps between ads on television) you will understand that the day your team is playing in your country’s cup final is not the day you want to be away 6000 km. Alas, here I am in Almaty, Kazakhstan, and my home team, Bayern Munich, is playing our arch rival, Borussia Dortmund. As it turns out, a lot of locals are into football and support clubs like Barcelona, Arsenal and … Bayern! So, there I was, in the Assorti Arena Bar in Almaty, watching the German club final with a whole crowd dressed in Bayern kit!

Avid Bayern fans in Almaty. The picture doesn't even remotely picture the enthusiasm, and for that matter, the number of fans who support Bayern Munich.
Avid Bayern fans in Almaty. The picture doesn’t even remotely picture the enthusiasm, and for that matter, the number of fans who support Bayern Munich.

The game ended 2:0 for Bayern in extra time – I have seen better football games, but none with more enthusiastic supporters in front of the TV. Almaty, keep supporting Bayern!

Kazakhstan – Not just Almaty!


Finally! Not just time for an excursion outside Almaty, but also the weather for it. You might remember, my first weekend in Almaty, as exciting as it might have been, suffered a little bit under a weather condition that one might call “raining cats and dogs”. Which basically meant, that our chance to explore anything outside Almaty was restricted to a very brief trip up the mountain to Shymbulak. But, here we go:

Approximately 210 km East from Almaty is the Charyn Canyon located in the Charyn National Park. There is a variety of tour operators offering day trips from Almaty - so it is easily accessible and not overly adventurous.
Approximately 210 km East from Almaty is the Charyn Canyon located in the Charyn National Park. There is a variety of tour operators offering day trips from Almaty – so it is easily accessible and not overly adventurous.

After the best part of four hours we arrived from Almaty at Charyn. We hadn’t booked a tour, but some local friends called on of the tour operators for us to check whether seats were available. We showed up at the bus stop at the Central Stadium in Almaty (East side), found the bus and, again with the help of a local friend on his mobile phone, bought the ticket here and there for 4000 KZT. It would be helpful to have a vocabulary of 300 words in Russian. Unlike on other Asian countries (if you ever bought a bus ticket for an express ride in India you know what I’m talking about) it was a direct ride from Almaty – one stop to fuel up and another to visit the restroom:

Refreshment stand at along the road to Charyn Canyon.
Refreshment stand along the road to Charyn Canyon.

So, all in all an easy trip. The bus wasn’t new, but fairly comfortable, the air-conditioning worked, the roads, once outside Almaty, were a bit pot-holed but not too bad and the general behaviour on the road was acceptable. Our journey went along with a range of mountains in the South on tarmac roads, just the last maybe 10 km were on gravel roads. The canyon didn’t show until we arrived – there it was, like a gigantic hole in the ground. We had a nice and experienced guide who led us down a little bit off the beaten track. The canyon itself is quite impressive. I haven’t been to Grand Canyon and would expect that to be even more impressive (bigger, deeper, faster, stronger – in other words: American), but I have hiked in the Colca Canyon in Peru (which I was led to believe is the second biggest canyon in the world) – Charyn canyon rocks! You walk among impressive rock formations, you see some huge rocks seemingly ready to be tipped down by the next gust of wind – it is an exciting display of natures forces. Some say that the big creator has done a particular good job in creating this part of the world – seeing that Moshe, Ali and Peter would have a hard to even agree on who the big creator I’d say thanks to the River Charyn and nobody else!

Impressibe rock formations in the so called Valley of Castles, a relatively narrow part of the canyon. The whole canyon is approximately 150 km long (almost 100 miles for the non-metric folk), but the Valley of Castles is the most impressive part. So I have been told. And impressive it is.
Impressibe rock formations in the so called Valley of Castles, a relatively narrow part of the canyon. The whole canyon is approximately 150 km long (almost 100 miles for the non-metric folk), but the Valley of Castles is the most impressive part. So I have been told. And impressive it is.
All the way down Charyn Canyon you'll see the river which carved the structure out of its surroundings. A very pleasant and relaxed place - you'll find plenty of people there who enjoy the tranquillity of this place. Except there's not much tranquillity left with all the enjoyment. Still, it is pleasant and relaxed.
All the way down Charyn Canyon you’ll see the river which carved the structure out of its surroundings. A very pleasant and relaxed place – you’ll find plenty of people there who enjoy the tranquillity of this place. Except there’s not much tranquillity left with all the enjoyment. Still, it is pleasant and relaxed.

This has been a very enjoyable day, crowned by the spotting of a bird of prey (something in me wants to believe that it has been a golden eagle, but something else says: you have no clue of birds, so stop pretending.) circling over the canyon. The way back was uneventful, but 8 hours in a bus in one day is a lot of time.

An eagle circling over Charyn Canyon. Well, I think it is an eagle. Looked impressive enough to me. Anybody who can identify the bird - please comment!
An eagle circling over Charyn Canyon. Well, I think it is an eagle. Looked impressive enough to me. Anybody who can identify the bird – please comment!

Usbekian Restaurant in Almaty


Today we went to a very nice Usbek restaurant in Almaty: Kishlak

Very interesting are their traditional tables, which look like a small table stacked on top of a bed.
You take off your shoes and enjoy your meal sitting crossed legged (if you can enjoy a meal in that position).

I really enjoyed the food!
Although vegetarians are clearly not the typical target group I got a very tasty lentil soup and a vegetable kebab – whereas the others tried some deliciously looking meat.

All was lovely spicy and fresh.

So, bye for now – and – ” I’ll come back”

Almaty – Trip II


There we go again: Munich – Frankfurt – Almaty in approx. 10 hours with one stop. Not too bad a journey, even when you consider the distinctively cattle transport like economy class of Lufthansa. Very nice flight attendants, this time: super attentive, helpful, friendly – makes flying that bit nicer!

The Holiday Inn in Almaty on a nice sunny morning in May.
The Holiday Inn in Almaty on a nice sunny morning in May.

Almaty in May 2014 feels very pleasant: temperature in the morning close to 20º Celsius, rising to a pleasant 25º during the day.Beautiful weather, pollution not too bad – even though that might be a subjective feeling driven by the excitement of just having arrived. Well, off to the office to a good day of work, but more to come in the next days. Hopefully a chance to explore the surrounding and meet the “real” Kazakhstan with yurts and kumis and eagle hunters and tasty Aport apples.

Almaty – Day 10 – Traffic


Traffic, as it turns out, is fairly harmless in Almaty. Pollution aside, which is horrendous, the traffic flows fairly well through the rather spacious perpendicularly aligned streets. Since the earthquake towards the end of the 19th century, which pretty much wiped out the garrison town of Verniy, as it was known then, Almaty has been rebuild with relatively wide streets which cope with the traffic quite reasonably. I have read otherwise, so bear in mind that this observation merely reflects what I have experience in the two weeks I have been here.

Cars range from oldish to new and flashy – there’s quite a selection of Bentleys on the road (sold by a local dealer), you see a lot of Porsche Cayennes and BMW X5’s, I have already mentioned the ubiquitous Toyota Landcruiser Prado. Most of them are in good shape; the local attitude towards cars is closer to the French approach then to the German “my car is my castle” attitude.

The owner of this car will be getting a ticket, won't he?
The owner of this car will be getting a ticket, won’t he?

Driving behaviour in general is very civilised, even though I have no idea what the driver of this car thought when he parked it at the stairs.

Almaty – Day 9 – Idiosyncrasies


Having spent more than a week in Almaty now, albeit with a limited set of experiences due to having to spend my time with other things than exploring the town and, for that matter, Kazakhstan, it is time to share a few observations.

Online banks: I thought online banks  were virtual organisations only present in the internet. I remember when Egg started business in the UK – I was quite attracted by the idea of having a lean easy bank that does what I want it to do: take care of my money, give me access to it when I need it – and all of this without having to bother to go to a high street branch. It seems there is a bank around here, that does not fit my understanding of an online bank:

Online bank? Doesn't look like it.
Online bank? Doesn’t look like it. Seen in Almaty.

The photo isn’t very good, but I think you’ll see the interesting bit all the same. Puzzling…

F… the system: I am so glad, that virtually everywhere we can find people who feel that they have to publicly express their differentiated view on this world. Should you have read Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s book, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, about the Soviet labour camps – he is describing his experiences in a Kasakh Gulag close to the city of Karaganda – you might have been shocked by the stories of completely innocent people having to go through the unthinkably cruel life in the Gulag. Now, I am not saying that somebody who quintessentially damages somebody else’s property by spraying stupid statements, in this case without even the faintest trace of artful aesthetics, should spend years in the Gulag. But, whoever the brave sprayer was, he would have been much braver had he done his work during the Stalin period. Which, thankfully, has been over a long time.

F.. the system, the sprayer says.. F... the sprayer, I say.
F.. the system, the sprayer says.. F… the sprayer, I say. Seen on the way and close to Gorky Park.

Almaty – Day 8 – Reflection


Back to the treadmill it is. I don’t like Mondays. Which is actually not true; I don’t have a special like or dislike of any day of the week. And the treadmill is not so much a treadmill but rather enjoyable: how many people have got the chance to work on an exciting project at an interesting place like I have now? Alas, this is not about work, this is about, ehem, well, just rambling on in public, really, isn’t it?

Almaty's Gorky Park - probably not a great difference to any other Gorky park in this world.
Almaty’s Gorky Park – probably not a great difference to any other Gorky park in this world.

So, we had a good stroll in Gorky Park on Saturday and explored all the roundabouts and carousels and pools that are there. Unfortunately the weather was rather bad, so everything was closed (not that I knew whether it would have been in operation if the weather had been good), but it is a pleasant park with some quiet areas and  a large section which is clearly kids paradise.

What did Mom's do before the smartphone? God beware, they might have interacted with their offspring instead of sending text messages.
What did Mom’s do before the smartphone? God beware, they might have interacted with their offspring instead of sending text messages.

A few kids we saw, and we saw them in a familiar situation – probably known around the globes: kids play, mother focusses on her smartphone. While this might not be particularly interesting it just shows the normality of Almaty in Kasakhstan – just like anywhere else in other parts of the world that consider themselves civilised. I am still stunned about the fact that I hang out in this place and feels so normal. However, it is a bit of a melting pot with people from all over the ex-Soviet-Union and Asia with no (at least visible to me) difference between people. One is almost tempted to describe that as tolerant where it is just pleasantly normal. I like it.

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