The Galapagos Islands were on top of Anna’s and my list when it came to planning this trip. We’ve stayed for two weeks with a five day cruise at the beginning and some free travelling at the end. The cruise was an interesting experience – we had the feeling that we were bringing down the average age on the boat by approximately 20 years (talk about stereotypes). That said, it was a marvellous experience with excellent, knowledgeable guides, some great snorkelling with sea lions, turtles, rays and sharks and a lot of excursions at places which we otherwise wouldn’t have reached. The whole archipelago is a national park with limited access for visitors, who are only allowed to visit designated locations and only in company of an official Galapagos tour guide (they call them naturalists there). Watch the little clip to get an impression of what we could experience.
Obviously, the individually perceived highlights varied: Molly loved the baby turtles, Max fell in love with surfing and Anna and I were awed by being able to see (strange) wildlife so close across the board. Despite a few hundred years of contact with human beings the local animals have managed to maintain their fearless approach to life – on one hand due to the fact that hardly any animal has natural predators in the area, on the other hand it seems that the numerous visitors, which have been streaming in over the past 10 years (estimated about 200,000/year), have managed to behave themselves. That leaves hope.
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:
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.
Unfortunately the bad weather up in the mountains drove us back into town. That said, the exposure to fresh air (down in Almaty the air is quite polluted and one can feel the smog quite drastically), cold rain and, uh, fresh air had made us rather hungry. While it was not quite evening it still felt a good idea to go back to the lovely Georgian Restaurant Daredjani we had visited before. And a success it was again. Khachapuri, spinach with walnuts, veal shashlik (extremely tasty marinated veal) and chingale.
The picture above shows a glass with a green lemonade: the coriander lemonade was a distinct highlight. Probably not to everybody’s liking, but very tasty and definitely lemonade with, well, coriander flavour. A wonderful meal in a really nice restaurant. The meal was accompanied by a glass of Chateau Mukhrani Shavkapito, a Georgian red white out of an endemic grape – a perfect match. Hmmmm.
After all that food it was time to explore the city. The Daredjani restaurant is right adjacent to the Panfilov Park, a pleasant park which houses one of Almaty’s most interesting sites, the Cathedral of the Holy Ascension. Apart from the fact that it is an interesting building with a very ornamental inside the level of devotion shown by predominantly older ladies (who put on a headscarf when they entered the church), but also some younger people (who lit candles for reasons that had nothing to do with luminal darkness) was mind boggling. Probably not if you are a devoted Christian yourself, but if you tend to look at religion and its impact on society with some scepticism then it is a rather strange experience. Talking about strange experiences: not to far away from the church is a War Memorial, which seems to be a meeting place for weddings on weekends. Let’s start with the weddings:
Now, let’s look at the main part of the memorial a little bit closer – just to make it clear: I personally think that war is one of the most horrible ideas that mankind produced. I also understand, that the soldiers fighting in these wars don’t necessarily find the idea of fighting in a war appealing at all. And I thank Henri Dunant for kickstarting the Geneva Convention to reduce suffering for injured soldiers and the civil population (I don’t thank the US of A for violating the very spirit of that convention with their wonderful prison at Guantanamo). Nevertheless, what has to be said, has to be said.
Folks, wars are terrible. And any display that gets people to understand just how bad they are is good. But depicting a helmet-clad version of the Incredible Hulk with Soviet Union shaped wings with faces growing out of them misses the point. Obviously, I got it all wrong and this memorial is supposed to remind people of the heroes of war and invite them to think about the next battle. “Russia is huge but there is nowhere to retreat since Moscow is behind us.” as inscription is a bit of a giveaway. Now, I don’t think that the population of modern day Kazakhstan needs this kind of message any more.