Part 1: Almaty, Kazakhstan (October 4 -9 & October 14-18 of 2017; July 4-8 of 2019 )
I have visited Almaty twice by plan and once by necessity. My first visit to Almaty was for a few days rest after six weeks of continuous travel thru Sweden, Latvia, Russia, Mongolia, and China and to begin an eight-country tour of Central Asia and the Caucuses along the famed Silk Road. On my first visit, I spent the first 4 days exploring the city on my own and the final day on the first day of my planned group tour. And quite frankly, if ancient history and culture is your interest you probably ought to skip this city.
The only pre-Soviet building I came across in all of Almaty was the Zenkov Cathedral built-in 1904.
The Cathedral is still a functioning Russian Orthodox Church. Unfortunately, the building was undergoing a major facelift during my visit and the scaffolding and plastic coverings seriously detracted from the wooden Cathedral’s obvious charm and beauty. But the interior and frescos were still worth the visit.
The Zenkov is situated on the edge of the very pretty Panfiov Park and just across from the city’s spectacular Green Market. The park has lots of large old shade trees and the stroll amongst them is very peaceful and relaxing. There is a large Soviet-era bronze statue of Communist propaganda featuring a wall of bigger than life angry World War II Soviet soldiers charging out of the statue’s base prepared to bayonet women and children. It seems out of place in such a quiet and peaceful park.
Almaty’s Green Market was the highlight of my planned and scheduled Almaty stop in 2017. Vendors from all over Central Asia bring fruits, vegetables, meats, nuts, spices cheeses, honey, clothes and household goods to sell. The produce, meats, and dairy is all fresh from the farm and the prices are very fair. The place is alive with aggressive sales pitches and eager but haggling customers.
Kazakh Museum of Folk Musical Instruments
There is a small museum on the edge of Panfiov Park near the entrance of the Market worth a visit for an hour or so. The Kazakh Museum of Folk Musical Instruments was the highlight of my second and unscheduled visit to Almaty. The museum has amassed an interesting collection of Central Asian Musical Instruments. The collection runs the gamut from strange to exotic with a few rare traditional instruments.
Arasan Baths in Almaty
One very cool thing I did all three times I visited Almaty planned or unplanned is spend one afternoon during each trip visiting the Arasan Baths. These baths are the largest in all Central Asia for sure and maybe all of Asia. Built during the Soviet Era this enormous marble structure takes up an entire city block. The baths have everything a man or woman might need or want for an afternoon of relaxing, sweating, soaking, flogging yourself with birch branches, being scrubbed, massaged and polished before enjoying a nice glass of wine or beer.
There are separate facilities for men and women and the only place the sexes intersect is in the coffee shop/bar after their sessions. As you walk in the imposing marble building you can stop and buy a traditional felt sauna hat and birch limbs complete with dried leaves for flogging your back, chest, buttocks, and legs while in the sauna. Once inside a cashier will rent you towels, locker, rubber clogs, and charge your wrist band with all the services you wish to indulge in. From there you enter the large locker room and change to begin your treatments.
The Arasan has Turkish Steam Baths, Russian Banyas, and Swedish Saunas to choose from. I, of course, chose all three just to be able to evaluate the differences. Without question, the Russian Banya is the hottest temperature-wise and this seems to be where all the self-floggers hang out. One interesting and shocking custom they have – is that after you can not possibly stand one more minute in the bath/sauna/banya there are a bunch of large wooden buckets suspended from the ceiling outside the hot rooms with ropes hanging down from the handles.
As you come out of the lobster pot you grab the rope and give it a yank. You are then immediately dunked with 5 or 10 gallons of ice-cold water which sucks the air from your lungs, the strength from your legs and heat form your skin all within a nanosecond. And then you are ready to go back for more boiling in the lobster pot. There are also several pools available for swimming or just soaking but I passed on those options, and grabbed a quick shower and presented myself to the massage room for a body scrub and deep tissue massage.
The massage facilities and personal are unlike any I have come across before or since. First of all, all massages are conducted in one large long tile room. Every surface in the room is tile including what passes for massage tables. The massage tables are simply large slabs of concrete covered in 4-inch tiles and you lie naked directly on the hard tiles for both scrubs and massages. There are 8 or 10 slabs all in a row with no dividers for privacy – everything is out in the open in one large communal room.
The second thing that is different is the people providing the massages. They are young men that look to range between 18 and 30 wearing only very small tight swimming trunks from the 1950s or 60s. All the boys just hang around toward the front of the tile room until their number is called and they go to work on some old fat guy like me. I confess the first time felt a little awkward but in time I got used to it and the guys really do give a great deep tissue massage.
Once your massage is complete then it is back to the showers, street clothes, cashier, and bar for a nice cold beverage. A great way to spend an afternoon before changing for the local pub for dinner and a night out. And, in fact, this brings me to the best reason to visit Almaty. The nightlife! Even though this is a predominantly Muslim nation these people are secular and know how to party. And Almaty has some great English style pubs that serve great food, offer a variety of good cold beers on draft, and live music on the weekends. Whether you choose the Guinness’, Shakespeare’s, Mad Murphy’s or any of the other many fine pubs in Almaty you will have a good time.
Pubs in Almaty
My introduction to the Pub scene was on my first night in town in 2017. I was finishing dinner on the restaurant side as the band started up on the bar side. Deciding what the hell, I don’t have to be up early to catch a flight or train I entered a packed pub with a decent band and a crowded dance floor. I managed to find a spot at the bar and ordered a local beer and began watching the crowd cut loose on a Saturday night. After a while, I hear a deep woman’s voice say “Why you so boring” I turned around to see a somewhat small-framed younger woman with the deep voice and asked, “You talking to me?” She repeated, “Yes, why you so boring” Incredulous, I asked, “Why would you think I am boring?”
Which she answered by crossing her arms while making an exaggerated and comical frown with her face. “You just sit here all night like this – you say nothing to nobody.” And in my defense, I replied, “What the hell am I supposed to do I don’t speak Kazaki and no one here speaks English.” That’s when she reminded me we were speaking in English. And the big Russian guy sitting next to me at the bar nudged me and said in a booming voice “I f__king speak English.” Then the three-cute young local girls sitting on my other side started giggling and said in unison“ we speak English!” Then a guy from somewhere behind us with an Aussie accent said, “Hey mate I Speak English” and finally someone else pipes in “hell I am English.”
Bottom line – I had been sitting in a pub for two hours drinking beer, enjoying just watching the crowd and enjoying the show without saying a word to anyone afraid to start a conversation that would end in pantomime only to find out everyone in this city speaks some English. The rest of the night was a blur because suddenly I had become part of the pub family and everyone wanted to buy me a beer or vodka.
Needless to say, I checked out other pubs during the remainder of my first stay in Almaty and when I ran into trouble between the Tajik and Uzbeki border (I will explain this cluster f__k in my next blog) and had to seek refuge back in Almaty for a week – back to the pubs I came. I won’t bore you with all the details but will share one funny and bizarre experience. When I flew back into Almaty from Tajikistan with only the clothes on my back and a day pack (all my clothes and most of my money was trapped in a hotel room in Tashkent, Uzbekistan) – the first thing I did was go shopping for some fresh clothes (had been in the same clothes for 3 days), the second place I went was the Guinness Pub. And after way too many beers my friend Gulmira (You so boring) took me to a disco at 3 am where I could easily have been every person there’s grandfather!
As you might expect after too many beers at some point nature calls. As I stood at a trough like urinal and began to lighten my load my eyes focused on the mirror in front of me and realized I wasn’t seeing my face in the mirror. I blinked a couple of times, shook my head and tried to figure out what the hell I was seeing. Slowly my mind cleared and I realized I was watching women in the lounge part of the ladies’ room fixing themselves up looking into the backside of the mirror I was looking at them thru. The large mirror above the sinks in the ladies’ lounge was two way. Men using the urinal to relieve themselves either had to watch women applying their lipstick, combing their hair, adjusting their bras ect… or close their eyes and risk missing the urinal and pissing down their pant leg. A serious dilemma. That’s when I decided it was time to go back to my hotel and act my age. Lol
Why I don't recommend Medeu Ice Rink & Kok-Tobe Hill?
One last point about Almaty before I tell you about Kyrgyzstan – the local tourist board will encourage you to visit the Medeu Ice Rink and the top of Kok-Tobe Hill. Do not waste your time on either place. The Medeu Ice Rink is billed as the highest ice skating rink in the world and maybe during the few months of winter it is – but the rest of the year it is drained and basically just a big concrete pit. Definitely not worth the long drive out of the city to see what Jethro Bodeine (Beverly Hillbillies for you young folks) would call an empty cement pond.
The Kok-Tobe Hill is billed as a major tourist spot but again is a major disappointment and 1960s style Florida cheesy tourist trap. There is a cable car that can take you to the top for a panoramic view of the city but it only works some of the time. I had to take a bus to the top. The view is nice but not worth the ride and the only other things up there are souvenir shops, broken down kids’ carnival-type rides, photo booths, overpriced café’s and an oddly out of place bronze statue of the Beatles.
But to be honest the real charm of Almaty will not be found in historical sites, museums, or organized cultural tours. To find the city’s real charm meet the people where they live, work and play – the Green Market, Parks, the Aarsan Spa, and any of the many Pubs scattered throughout the town. In any of these places, you will run into a strange but friendly assortment of native Kazakis, Russians that never went back to mother Russia after the fall, expat Brits and Aussies all just out for a good time, good beer and good music. If the old TV show “Cheers” were to take place in a city instead of a bar – it would take place in Almaty!
Part 2: Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (October 9-10, 2017)
Bishkek is the capital of Kyrgyzstan and was the second Stan on my 5 Stan/Caucus tour. Kyrgyzstan is a mountainous landlocked country settled by nomadic tribes from Siberia in the 13th century. Before their arrival, the land was controlled by the Karakhanids. This sparsely populated country has been the center of Asian conquest, trade and empires. Traders from China, Europe, Persia, India, and Russia all passed thru the ancient cities, traded in the Silk Road Open Air Markets and stayed in the ancient stone caravanserai of Osh and Balasagun.
Eventually, by 1867 the land now called Kyrgyzstan became part of Tsarist Russia and was lumped in with the other central Asian Stans to form Turkestan. After the formation of the Soviet Union Kyrgyzstan became the Krighiz Soviet Socialist Republic. In 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet State the Republic of Kyrgyzstan became an independent country.
During my brief visit in 2017, I began my tour at the Burana Tower/museum/gravestones. Burana Tower is all that is left of the great 9th Century Silk Road city of Balasagun. From the top of the tower, you can see for miles across the plains to the Tian Shan Mountains, a few remnants of the old city defensive walls, a small hill of 33 feet believed to hide a temple or palace complex, and some very curious gravestones with interesting markings. The tower is actually all that is left of an ancient minaret that originally stood 132 feet tall. After an earthquake in the 15th century only 83 feet were left standing. The tower is decorated with geometric designs in the brickwork and its pattern has been copied throughout Central Asia.
You can climb up a very small claustrophobic spiral staircase for a great view of the area from the top of the tower. The small museum associated with the tower contains a collection of relics and artifacts found around the complex. Looking down from the top of the tower the most interesting site is a field of gravestones called bal-bals.
These bal-bals were originally used by the local nomads of the 6th century to represent enemies killed in battle. But over time became memorials to their own departed love ones. Some are simply pictographs on rounded rocks, others are carved slabs with faces and hands. I have attached photos of the tower, the view from the top of the tower across grasslands where once stood temples, palaces, caravanserai, workshops, and homes in what was once one of the greatest cities of its time, and the graveyard of bal-bals.
Bishkek’s Open Air Market
Next up after our visit to the Tower was Bishkek’s Open Air Market. And Bishkek’s Market was just as busy and wide-ranging in products as the markets from Irkutsk to Kashgar to Baku. Spices, fresh fruits, dried fruits, nuts, vegetables, cheese, diary, meats, clothes, hardware or whatever you can imagine you can find in one of these markets.
As we drifted from one end of the market to the next our guide challenged the group to taste a glass of Kumis (fermented mares milk). The rest of the group was less than impressed and the few that tried it turned a little green. But after drinking way too much Airag (what the Mongolians call their fermented mares milk) at a Mountainside Buddhist festival in Mongolia – I had developed a taste (or at least tolerance) for the tart and foamy alcoholic beverage.
Traditional Kyrgyz dinner
And finally, we sat down to a traditional Kyrgyz dinner in a large yurt. In my never-ending effort to try every culture’s food and drink, I ordered an appetizer tray of grilled donkey and a horse meat T-Bone Steak. And no neither tasted like chicken! The donkey was sort of sweet but tasty and the horse T-Bone Steak was much leaner and stronger than a cow steak but pretty good.
In fact, the only thing I ate throughout 5 months of travel thru Eastern Europe and Asia in 2017 that I absolutely did not care for was Camel Toe. Now that was downright nasty!
Camel Toe is the part of the Camel’ hoof inside the hard shell and pad. It has a consistency of jello if you mixed it with sand and it is served cold with a huge side of whipped cream. I have been told since that the camel’s hump is very tasty and I look forward to trying that. But I will never eat camel toe again. And on that disgusting tidbit of culinary advice, I will conclude this blog and photos are attached from both countries.