Central Asian Odyssey: Kicking off in Kazakhstan

Central Asian Odyssey: Kicking off in Kazakhstan

It was a late Autumn evening in Brooklyn in 2007, and I was packing for a work trip to Madagascar.  While carefully placing my cameras and lenses into their protective cases, I looked down the hallway and noticed my four-year-old son, Sage, packing up his little duffel bag as if he were going with me. I spent too much time away from home and felt terrible telling him he could not come along.

“I’m sorry, son. This trip is for work, and you can’t come this time,” I gently told him. “But I will be back as soon as I can.”

“Oh, I do not want to go with you, Dad,” he replied, matter-of-factly.  “I have my own plans.”

“You do?” I asked. “And where are you going?”

“I’m going to Kazakhstan,” he told me confidently.

That was the first time I had ever seriously thought about Kazakhstan, and ever since that day, I had dreamt of going. My son’s small allowance depended on him being able to tell me about a different country each week. I didn’t know why or how Kazakhstan became so prominent in his mind. After visiting the country, however, I can see he was right on the mark.

How Bout ‘Dem Apples?

The mountains south of Almaty have been officially recognized as the origin of all apples.

I arrived in Almaty, Kazakhstan at midnight on a dark October night in 2022. After an unbearably long Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt, my mind was awash with cloak-and-dagger stories of Soviet life behind the iron curtain. Russia is still very influential in Kazakhstan, and everyone speaks Russian as a required second language. Just nine months earlier, Russia sent paratroopers into Almaty, the commercial capital, to suppress a countrywide uprising in one of Moscow’s closest former Soviet allies (protests, I might add, said to be organized by Russia itself…). A month later, Russia invaded and got mired down in another former republic, Ukraine – which is now backed financially, politically, and militarily by my government, the United States. I was unsure how widespread this support for Russia was in Central Asia, or how well my American passport would be received. The tension and uncertainty created a knot in my stomach – and I loved it.

“Welcome to Kazakhstan!” said the immigration official after stamping my passport, hardly looking at it. “I hope you enjoy your stay in our friendly country.” That welcoming statement, combined with the discovery a few days later that a local bar at a nearby ski resort served only Miller beer, alleviated any concerns I had about my passport.

I had wanted to visit Almaty since learning that the region is the genetic origin of all domesticated apples on Earth today. I don’t think my name has anything to do with it, but I have always been interested in and had an appetite for anything with apples.

The Tian Shan mountains straddle the horizon just south of the city, and scientists believe the apple seeds from there were first transported out of the region by birds and bears long before humans ever cultivated them. By the time we began to grow and trade apples, the malus sieversii – a wild apple native to the mountains of Central Asia in southern Kazakhstan – had already taken root in Syria. The Romans discovered the fruit there and dispersed it throughout their empire, whence traders and colonists carried it to every corner of the globe. When modern genome sequencing projects affirmatively linked all domestic apples to malus sieversii, Almaty and its surrounding lands were officially recognized as the origin of all apples.

I immediately noticed that all signs were written in the Cyrillic alphabet, which looks similar enough to the Latin alphabet to cause bewilderment. With Chinese, Arabic, Thai, or Ethiopian, the writing is so different that it communicates the exotic, very different nature of the lingo. The thing with Cyrillic is that you think you should understand what is written, but you really haven’t got a clue unless you’ve studied it.

After clearing customs and getting my luggage from the conveyor belt, I ventured outside into the cool night air and into the company of several drivers offering their services to take me into town. “Just like at JFK, avoid the hustlers asking if you need a taxi,” said my good friend Magnus Magnusson, who recently moved to Almaty from Paris. “If you hire a car, pay no more than 3,000 tenges” (around $8).

“That’ll be 10,000 tenges,” said my driver, who had agreed at the airport to take me for 3,000. I gave him 5,000 and told him that if he didn’t like it, he could “take me to the nearest police station.” He then agreed that 5,000 was more than enough. I later learned about Yandex, an app like Uber that you download to your smartphone. It automatically charges a credit card, or you can set it to cash and pay a preset price for your ride.

First Impressions

Almaty, formerly the capital of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, is today a modern, lively, resilient, and beautiful (yet heavily polluted) metropolis. Although the capital moved to Astana in 1997, Almaty remains the country’s cultural and commercial capital with vibrant nightclubs, jazz festivals, sophisticated restaurants, and even a Swiss-style alpine ski resort in its suburbs.

Although Almaty is spectacularly framed on one side by enormous mountains and on the other by the vast Mongolian steppe, the main downside is that most of the time, you can not see the surrounding scenery due to  air pollution. Billowing grey clouds blanket much of the city and fill your lungs when walking outside. When it rains, the toxic fog dissipates, revealing the majestic surroundings. The country is losing much more than just pretty views. In 2022, the World Bank estimated that Kazakhstan would experience more than 10,000 premature deaths annually due to air pollution, with an economic cost of more than $10.5 billion per year.

A Trip to the Mountains

A short distance from the thriving and upscale metropolis of Almaty is Shymbulak, the site of the largest ski resort in Central Asia. In the summer, there are numerous mountain trails to explore.

Leaving the city and driving a short distance south, the air begins to clear almost immediately. One of the nicest surprises close to Almaty is Shymbulak, the largest ski resort in Central Asia. With more than 20 kilometers of trails, the lifts go up to 3,200 meters (10,500 feet), where you can ski down to 2,200 meters (7,200 feet). I was there a bit too early in the season to ski. Still, the lifts run all year round and offer the opportunity to hike around some of the most beautiful ridges and vistas of the Northern Tian Shan mountains, which straddle the border between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. There also are a few mountain lodges, pubs, and restaurants with Swiss-style menus. I felt right at home.

About 2 kilometers below the ski lodge in Shymbulak is a little guesthouse called Namaste Shalle 2000M, a wonderful, cozy, funky, and cool abode with a great vibe. It is owned and managed by Den, an ethnic Russian from Kazakhstan. He once dreamed of exploring the world, but he and his wife started this mountain lodge so the world would come to them. I HIGHLY recommend this place to anyone visiting Almaty. Make sure you factor in a bit of time for the electric taxi, the only motorized transport allowed into the park.

I also took a day from Almaty to explore nearby Lake Issyk, an incredibly picturesque alpine lake surrounded by thick forests and flower fields. Issyk lake (meaning “door” in English) is located at 1,760 meters above sea level in the Issyk gorge of Trans-Ili Alatau, about 70 kilometers east of Almaty. It should not be confused with the much larger Issyk-Kul Lake in Kyrgyzstan. A lovely place to visit on a day trip from Almaty, but beware: it gets crowded on the weekend when there is a traffic jam on the road up. People park on both sides of the road, allowing for only one traffic direction. You can imagine what happens as cars coming up the mountain run into cars coming back down.

The Russian Exodus

Right about the time I arrived in Kazakhstan, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a mandatory mobilization of citizens to join the war effort in Ukraine. In response, hundreds of thousands of draft dodgers headed for the closest borders or the easiest one to cross. In the subsequent few weeks, I met more Russians across Central Asia than I had encountered hitherto in my entire life. The first such meeting was in the cable car heading up to Shymbulak.

Meet Den, the owner of the Namaste Shalle guesthouse in the mountains south of Almaty. It is a wonderful, cozy, funky, and cool abode with a great vibe. Great hiking trails and a great place to escape the city’s pollution. To get there, call ahead and reserve an electric taxi.

Two men and a woman in their early 20s traveled from St. Petersburg, where they worked in the tech industry and had savings in bitcoin. As soon as Putin made his announcement, the three bought plane tickets to Almaty for a vacation, purchasing “roundtrip so the authorities would not get suspicious.”

They were eager to share their stories and wanted to know how they could travel to the United States.  They were against the war in Ukraine and angry at Putin for turning their country into an international pariah. I was beginning to really like them when one of them asked what I thought about Kazakhs. Before I could answer, he said: “aren’t they just really stupid?”

The Kazakhs he was talking about had just allowed him and more than 300,000 of his compatriots to come into their country, seeking safe haven.  The blatant racism was so jarring that I remained silent until the gondola reached the top and exited without a word.

I later talked with a Kazakh colleague about the encounter, who seemed to have an enlightened understanding of the issue. “When you grow up in a community surrounded by people that think they are better than everyone else, then that conditioning shapes your worldview and gives you a superiority complex,” she said. She told me most Kazakhs harbor no ill will toward the Russians but want to see them for what they are. She also explained that there is a big difference between “our Russians” and “the Russians.”

Ethnic Russians make up about 15 percent of Kazakhstan’s population of 19.4 million, compared to 37 percent before the collapse of the Soviet Union. You can see ethnic Russians everywhere, especially in Kazakhstan and, to a lesser extent, Kyrgyzstan. Many perform unskilled labour, such as waiting tables or as janitors.  The Russian language is still widely spoken throughout the region, and most of my communication with locals was in Google Russian – that which comes through the use of the audio function on Google Translate.

The Kazakh Music Scene

One of the bands at the full-day Harvest music festival

Almaty must be right up there with New Orleans, New York, and London for its music scene – including jazz, electronic, punk, and rock ‘n’ roll. Immediately upon my arrival, Magnus took me to a massive street craft beer festival that had, aside from about a hundred different brews, a live stage with a long series of incredibly talented bands rockin’ on past midnight. From there, we ventured to Bla Bla Bar, a gargantuan nightclub with three floors of pulsating music. On one floor the bands were live. A week later, we went to the Kazakhstan Harvest Festival, which covered 50 hectares with two stages, food, and beer.  The French had a booth set up giving away free bottles of Kronenbourg 1664 – provided you could answer a few flirtatious questions in French asked by a gorgeous young Kazakh woman.

But though my time in Kazakhstan had come to an end, my journey across Central Asia was only just beginning. It was time for me to journey across the border into Kyrgyzstan to explore the Mongolian steppe on horseback. I couldn’t wait to begin.

Join Dreams Abroad for the second installment of Adam’s journey as he continues his odyssey into Kyrgyzstan.

20 thoughts on “Central Asian Odyssey: Kicking off in Kazakhstan

  1. No wonder It’s one of the few countries in the world that can still be considered an off-the-beaten-path destination. I love reading your adventures.

  2. The word Kazakhstan literally translates to ‘the Land of the Wanderers’. And there are many wonders here. It was nice reading your journey.

  3. What an amazing adventure, I feel for the Russians who were forced into war, and so glad you met some who had found a loop hole and way out

  4. I’ve never been to Kazakhstan omg it is gorgeous! I should definitely add it to my bucket list, so beautiful.

  5. Your Central Asian Odyssey post was a fascinating read! It’s wonderful to learn about your experiences and the unique aspects of Kazakhstan. The way you describe the culture, landscapes, and people truly ignites the wanderlust in me. Looking forward to reading more about your journey!

  6. This was quite the adventure! That mountain road sounds scary, I have been on one like that but not crowded thankfully!

  7. Good tips about the transportation. That’s always difficult for me, to try and figure out the best way to get for the airport to the next place

  8. Ive always loved visiting new places especially Asian countries. Kazakhstan left a big love from me and I will always come back here.

  9. Ooohhhh…I didn’t know this about Kazakhstan! It looks really beautiful and peaceful up there, in the hills. I’d love to visit the resort, when the time comes.

  10. I enjoyed reading your articles. Kazakhstan has many beautiful places to visit. I want a trip to the mountain as I love to go hiking.

  11. You know I really don’t know much about Kazakhstan so it’s really cool to see it from this perspective…what an interesting place to explore and discover.

  12. What an interesting place to explore – thank you for sharing so much about the culture too.

  13. Thank you briannemanz! I didn’t know that is the meaning of Kazakhstan – and it makes sense! I do love it there, and will return some day soon.

  14. Thank you for your comment, Samantha Donnelly. Indeed, all those Russian I met were relieved to get out and not to have to serve. That said, it would be great if more found a way to protest and turn the tide.

  15. How neat that this may be the origin of the apples! Sounds like a nice place to spend time. I don’t think I really knew too much about Kazakhstan before reading your post.

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