That evening, after spending some time at Medeu, I found myself stranded in a cafe—eating some cheeseburgers and sipping Georgia wine with Zhamilya, Alex, Jim, and Sean. Suddenly Alex asked, “Hanny, is it just you—or Indonesians are all very happy people?” I have heard this kind of comment quite often since my very first day in Almaty. People were asking why I was always smiling and laughing. I didn’t realize it, really. And I didn’t realize that people actually notice. I’d like to take that as a compliment, and I’d like to say that I think, Indonesians are a bunch of naturally happy and friendly people. Aren’t we? :)
And what about the Kazakhs? Though they might not be the forever-smiling kind of people (I think it’s more about how people with different cultures express themselves in different ways), I found their hospitality and sincere friendship heartwarming. Some students who volunteered at TFCA 2012 didn’t hesitate to strike a conversation and ask questions. They’re so enthusiastic and curious. They want to connect. I found this attitude very amusing.
One of them is Bota Ilyas (her name means “camel eyes”). She volunteered as my translator for TFCA 2012 event, and we connected so well that we spent the rest of my Almaty days together.
Bota taught me Russian: ya svobodna, ya kachu parnya (I’m free, I want a boyfriend). And I taught her (and her friend Madina) Indonesian. Cowok cakep means handsome guy, I told them. The girls giggled. They said they wanted to say this phrase aloud when they spotted some handsome guys. “They wouldn’t know what it means!” the girls giggled again. Of course, when three girls spent some time together, sooner or later, they would be talking about relationship: love and guys. Bota is also very pretty—as I laid my eyes on her for the first time, I knew that she would look great in front of the camera. On my last day in Almaty, we spent half a day to do a photo session together. It was fun!
Ulan Scheff and her sister Zika Gabdusheva took me to the Museum of Arts for the French painting exhibition and accompanied me to walk around Almaty one day. Later on, I found out that they live 1 hour away from Almaty and needed to catch a bus before 9 pm. They actually came to Almaty just to go to the museum and spend that day with me. I couldn’t be more touched.
Timur (Tima) Azizov was volunteering for TFCA 2012 as well (girls, he’s still in high school, he plays piano and basketball, and he doesn’t drink). On my last day in Almaty, Bota, Ulan, Tima, and myself went to Omega Sector—the game center for teens in Almaty, and tried our luck playing Guitar Hero. None of us had played Guitar Hero before, and… well, we felt bad for everyone in the game center who were forced to hear us play :D But anyway, we could finish one song that day, and it was quite an achievement!
I felt young in Almaty, thanks to spending my time with a bunch of high school and university students! *love*
Apart from my new Kazakh friends, I met some awesome speakers of TFCA 2012 as well. They are a great bunch. I missed them much when they left Almaty. Two of them left something behind for me: a book and a strip of paracetamol.
Jim Williams who is now back in Islamabad, Pakistan, gave me his Lonely Planet Central Asia book. “Why? Don’t you need this?” I asked. “No worries. I can get one again,” he said, handed out the book. Maybe it was a sign for me to pack up my bag and do my Central Asia tour next year?
Sean Knox is my saviour in Almaty—the one who brought me some paracetamol from the pharmacy when I was down with high fever.
“I got loads of mentions in Twitter from Indonesian teens,” Sean laughed. He showed me his Twitter stream; with his Twitter handle @smk. “SMK in Indonesia is like… what? A kind of school? Indonesian teenagers keep checking in or posting stuff saying that they’re in SMK this and SMK that, mentioning me!”
Sean got me for the first time when he told me about how he had sold everything that he once had; and decided to backpack all over the world. It takes a lot of courage to do that, I believe. To leave everything behind and pack all your life in a cabin bag. Which may not be a bad option. After all, we only live once. And I am pondering over the idea at the moment.
“How did it happen?” I asked. “Have you planned this for a long time, or was it just an impulse?”
“I attended a travelers’ gathering one day,” Sean answered. “I met people who have backpacked all around the world for months, even years. And then it hit me: if they could do this, I could do this, too. And so, I left.” Now Sean is traveling across South East Asia. Last seen in Koh Tao, Thailand.
From my previous traveling journeys, I realized that the places I cherish the most are places with names and faces; places where stories and dreams are being shared with someone you have just met for the very first time; places where you arrive as a stranger and depart as a dear friend | @beradadisini
OK, are you ready for a blog-tour around Almaty, Kazakhstan today? Let’s go!
1) Republic Square. I think every city has this kind of place. You know—a spot where you can do something and have your wish granted. Or in some cities, if you drink the water from a certain well, for instance, you’ll get a chance to visit the city again. In Almaty, there’s a monument with this ‘bronze book of wish fulfillment‘ with the imprinted palm of President Nazarbayev on it. What you need to do is to place your palm there, make a wish, and… well, InshaAllah, it will come true :)
2) Panfilov Park & Zenkov Cathedral. If you know me well enough, you know that I won’t miss a chance to visit public parks. Almaty is blessed for having lots of public parks that are well taken care of, with flowers, trees and benches. Panfilov Park is well-known as the “wedding park” for the locals, because a lot of couples do their pre-wedding photo shoot here. The jewel of Panfilov Park is the ever-colourful Zenkov Cathedral.
3) KokTobe. I am a fan of cable cars, so a ride to the mountain of KokTobe was just amazing. I went there during sunset; and being able to see the last ray of sun disappearing in the sky with that wonderful orange-pinkish light made me really content.
There were loads of thing you could find in this recreational area: from people selling souvenirs to different kind of games; cafes and restaurants to roller-coaster ride. Yes, roller-coastering your way down the mountain. How cool was that!
4) Green Bazaar. Local market is always an interesting place to visit; because you can see the locals doing their daily activities, shopping for fruits, vegetables, meats, and many more. Of course, you can also find fresh horse meat here. The best thing I found in the Green Market? A kind of smoked cheese that looks like a bunch of enokitake (enoki mushroom); that can be munched while we’re sipping beer or wine. But the highlight of the day was to see Jim shopping for spices, assisted by our new Kazakh friend, Bota—who continuously asked the seller (on behalf of Jim) on which spices should be used for which dishes.
5) Medeu. This is the mountainous area where the olympic-sized ice-skating stadium was located. I went to Medeu at around ten one night with Jim and Sean, accompanied by our new Kazakh friend, Zhamilya, and her boyfriend Alex. It took us 20-30 minutes to reach Medeu by taxi. Though there were several cafes or restaurants in Medeu, we met several groups of people who actually brought their own ‘picnic’ baskets; a bottle of wine (or vodka), plastic glasses, as well as some chips and… hookah! (Alex had also brought a bottle of drinks and some plastic cups with him. Cheers to Almaty! *clink*). Apart from having a midnight picnic while enjoying the breathtaking view, you could also stroll around Medeu on the back of a horse (they have tall and huge horses here!). Medeu is really cold, so you better wrap yourself in overcoat and boots!
6) Arbat. Arbat is the most artsy stretch in Almaty, where you can find people playing instruments, dancing, or sketching. You can have yourself being sketched there as well! If you’re crazy about accessories and cute stuff, people are selling everything from lucky charms, earrings, necklaces and bracelets to cute matryoshka fridge magnet. There are several hip cafes, restaurants and boutiques here. The street is lively with youths and young couples.
7) Almaty’s Museum of Art. Consider it my lucky week in Almaty. During my stay, Almaty’s Museum of Art hosted “Treasures of France” exhibition—where they displayed French art and culture from Renaissance to this day. For the first time, about 400 works from 40 largest museums of France, such as the Louvre Museum, d’Orsai Museum, Versailles Palace, National Museum of Modern Art – Pompidou Centre, and the French National Library, are exhibited in Kazakhstan. I went to the museum with two new Kazakh friends, Ulan and his sister, Zika. The entrance ticket is KZT 500.
We spent almost 5 hours there, just looking at loads of paintings and sculptures from one room to the next. I adored the Laloue paintings and the photoworks of Henri Cartier-Bresson; they were magnetic, I kept finding myself being drawn over and over again into their works. There were also some “booths” where we could listen to some French music via headphones. Zika and me danced along to the songs from our headphones—mindless of how other visitors were staring at us doing this “silent disco”. Too bad we weren’t allowed to take pictures of the exhibition.
Almaty is a big city. How does one travel around in Almaty? Well, by bus. Or by metro (subway). Or by taxi. I didn’t get to experience the bus, but I adore the metro (subway). On the other hand, Almaty’s taxi story is amusing. Any cars in Almaty could function as a taxi. So, what you should do is to hail this ‘unofficial cab’ by lifting your hand in front of you as high as your waist. Don’t raise your hand too high if you’d like to do it like a local.
The next thing you should do is to bargain with the driver on where you’d like to go and how much you’d have to pay. Usually, if you’d like to travel anywhere inside the city, the cost is about 300-500 Kazakhstani Tenge (KZT). KZT 1000 worth around USD 7. Language barrier made it more difficult for me to take the taxi. First, I needed to communicate my destination. Second, I needed to bargain for the price. Third, my local Kazakh friends told me that I might be given a higher price because the driver would know that I was a tourist.
Thus, I retreated to the comfortable metro. Metro stations were located within walking distance from my hotel. The nearest one to Hotel Kazakhstan is Abai station. Almaty’s metro-stations are themed. They look like museums. Abai station, for instance, took the theme of the famous poet, Abai Kunanbaev.
He was a poet, writer, public figure, founder of the modern Kazakh written literature, culture reformer in spirit of rapprochement with Russian and European culture on the basis of the educated liberal Islam.
Baikonur metro station looks like a space shuttle. Baikonur Cosmodrome is the launch complex where Sputnik 1, Earth’s first artificial satellite, was launched. The rocket that lifted Yuri Gagarin, the first human in orbit, was also launched from Baikonur.
For one ride with the metro, you need to pay KZT 80 only. Very cheap! Finding out which station you should get off at or which side you should take (left or right—heading to this station or back at that station) might be a bit confusing. However, if you could read some of those Russian alphabets (I managed to grasp it in a few days), you’d find it easier and more convenient to ride on the metro.
To reach the “hip area” where most bars/restaurants/clubs are located (like Barfly at Hotel Kazakhstan), or should you want to ride a cable car to KokTobe mountain, the stop is at Abai station. If you’d like to visit Almaty circus, the amusement park, the museum of art, get off at Grand Theatre (Dramteatr im Auezova). Hop off at Zhybek-Zholy if you’d like to visit Arbat—the artsy street of Almaty with its stretch of upscale restaurants/bars and branded shops or if you’re interested in visiting the famous Green Bazaar.
So, what did I do in Almaty in my remaining 5 days?
I visited Zenkov Cathedral in Panfilov Park, rode the cable car to KokTobe, experienced Almaty’s traditional market at Green Bazaar, took a cab to Medeu (where the olympic-sized ice-skating stadium was located), strolled around Arbat, spent 5 hours to savour the amazing French painting & sculpture exhibition at Almaty’s Museum of Art, and fell sick.
I knew nothing about Kazakhstan, let alone Almaty. I knew that it’s a country located in Central Asia, I knew about President Nazarbayev, and I had heard about the movie Borat (though I haven’t watched the movie—never felt intrigued to do so); but that was all about it. Thus, I was so excited when I got invited to speak at Tech Forum Central Asia (TFCA) 2012 in Almaty, Kazakhstan last June.
Organized by U.S. Mission to Kazakhstan, in partnership with Civil Alliance of Kazakhstan and KIMEP University, TFCA 2012 brought together youth leaders and activists from the -STAN countries (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyztan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan) to meet, discuss, and brainstorm with a group of technologists and fellow activists from all around the globe about the problems they are facing in their respected countries, and how technology can fit in the picture. | *)More about TFCA 2012 can be read here.
So, that was how—more or less, I got myself stranded in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
The very first thing I noticed when I landed in Almaty was the fact that people here didn’t speak Kazakh. Being me, of course I had spent 2 days learning “Useful Phrases in Kazakhs” online, but turned out that people in Almaty speaks Russian. It’s kind of challenging to roam around Almaty by yourself if you can’t speak the language. Thus, in the midst of preparing some slides for TFCA 2012, I started all over again; learning Russian in my (thank God it’s wi-fied) hotel room. I should, at least, know how to greet people, introduce myself, saying thank you, ordering basic food in restaurants, and asking for directions. When my eyes got tired, I tiptoed to my room’s window and stood in front of it, swallowing the beautiful view of Almaty’s snow-topped mountain.
The TV Tower (in the middle) is the symbol of Almaty city (oh, and Almaty means “the valley of apples”). Almaty is a modern city—in one and other way, it’s very Western. The girls are very fashionable. You can see them walking on the street wearing high-heels, dressed in colourful gowns or short pants; with sunglasses on, carrying fancy bag in one hand.
What I love the most from Almaty is the cleanliness and the comfortable sidewalk (which explains why the girls can walk around in stilettos). When my new Kazakh friends asked me what I love the most about Almaty, I cried out whole-heartedly: “The sidewalk!”—and they looked at me as if I were crazy.
If you don’t like the weather in Almaty, wait for a few more minutes. In mid June, I experienced sunny day, windy day, rainy day, stormy day, and another sunny day in the interval of 5 hours only. The locals said that in the winter, the temperature could drop to as freezing as -40° C (I’ll die!).
Whether you look Asian or Caucasian (or a combination of both), you’ll fit right in Almaty. With my Chinese look, I blended in very well with the locals. Waiters in restaurants handed me Russian menu, some people in the metro station asked me things related to the train’s direction—and looked at me in disbelief (or laughed) when I said: Isvinyih, yanyi gavaru pa Ruski (sorry, I do not speak Russian); pronouncing each word perfectly.
On my third day in Almaty, I found myself tasting this delicious horse-flesh teriyaki at Le Dome restaurant.
My encounter with food was how I learned about prices in Almaty. Almaty—I found out about it way too late—was actually one of the most expensive city in the world. The food here is more expensive than Europe (well, at least compared to Spain, Portugal and Greece). For a decent meal, you could spend US$20-35; and for a more lavish meal in a nice restaurant with dessert and fresh juice, you could spend around US$40-70. Not only food. Prices of fruits, vegetables, accessories and fashion items would make you frown as well. A lot of goods in Almaty were imported from other countries, like Uzbekistan. That’s why the prices are rocketing. So, what’s cheap in Almaty? Well, there are three things: chocolate, liquors and caviar.
Right next to the hotel was this fast-food chain called Noodles and the coffee shop, Gloria Jean’s. TFCA 2012’s speakers (well, including myself) retreated here from time to time to grab a quick lunch or pick up our morning coffee.
They also served Movenpick “Ice Dream” here (yes, they called it ice-dream). Around midnight, I found myself stranded here with Brittanie, attacking ice-cream and apple pies. The ice-cream and apple pies were just extremely good.
Once TFCA 2012 was finished; I gave myself 5 more days to explore Almaty. Everyone was surprised when they heard about this. They asked me what would I do with my remaining 5 days. I said, really… I don’t know. I didn’t have any fixed plans back then. I might go to the mountains or to the lake, or to the conservation area… or just hanging around town, taking pictures and reading books.
“But, why?” people asked. “But, why not?” I answered.
So, how did I actually spend my remaining 5 days in Almaty?