By Christine Krzyszton
Arriving in the middle of the night at the fog-shrouded airport nearly half a world from home, the whole idea of traveling to Kazakhstan for the weekend seemed quite ridiculous. Oh, let’s face it: It was ridiculous. First an eight-hour flight to Frankfurt then another six-hour flight to Almaty, Kazakhstan — who in his or her right mind would do this intentionally?! Where the heck is Kazakhstan anyway?
But here we were, 12 time zones from origin and wondering what we were in for. This state of mind continued as my friend and I avoided getting separated and made our way through a sea of predominantly male, black-attired folks in the arrival area. Fortunately our hotel had sent a shuttle and the driver was there holding a sign when we cleared immigration and customs, reassurance that at least we didn’t have to navigate transport at this late hour in a very foreign place and bed was only a shuttle bus ride away.
Our base for the next 24 hours (2 a.m. to 2 a.m.) was the Intercontinental Almaty Hotel, which we secured with rewards points, avoiding the $400-plus room rate for this five-star hotel. Almaty, drawing oil industry personnel, can be a very expensive city so this was our first cost-cutting measure. Our inability to sleep once we arrived at the hotel led us to the lounge where a glass of wine was around $15 and $10 for a beer. This was the cheap end of the scale as it was $10 for a dish of ice cream. Venture outside the hotel and prices are lower, of course.
The first morning we woke to the foggy landscape but we could see the snowcapped mountains in the distance beyond the tall, shiny skyscrapers. One giant smokestack released a tall stream into the cold Almaty air. It was the only evidence of movement in the stillness of the frosty morning.
After a warm breakfast we headed out on foot to explore the city. We took a great deal of comfort in our English map, but our confidence dwindled when we found that the street signs were only in the local language. It didn’t take long to get lost
and it was quite a while before we secured any useable directions in English. We saw the towering skyscrapers up close then returned to the hotel to regroup and to secure a taxi to our originally intended destination: the Green Bazaar. We weren’t sure what we would find there, but it sounded interesting enough and it was near an ornate cathedral I didn’t want to miss. The 20-minute cab ride was the equivalent of $7, a fair price to get across town.
The Green Bazaar was a gem of a local market where Kazakhstanis can find anything they need on a daily basis — kind of a flea market meets farmers market. If you need fresh sheep’s head, they’ve got it. A thick slice of horse steak? No
problem. Cheese curds? Coming right up. Want something pickled, just name it, it’s there. Pickled rooster combs on your shopping list? There’s a variety here so don’t settle for mundane; the ones with the hot peppers looked very tempting. If
you had cabbage on your shopping list, this was your lucky day as they were the size of basketballs or bigger. And there were cheese balls, cheese cubes, cheese crumbles, cheese curds, fresh cream, and every fruit that could be dried (especially apricots!), and free samples. There were dozens of varieties of caviar, salmon, sausages, and smoked meats and fish.
They organized the meat area by the types of animal: You have your horse section, your sheep section, your cow section, your pig section, and the I-don’t-know-what-kind-of-meat-that-is section.
Next door there were hundreds of vendors selling everything from socks to kitchen
clocks. I must admit I had thought that this part of the world still suffered from food rations, long lines, and shortages of daily supplies. I am relieved to know there are such grand resources. There were no McDonalds, Starbucks, or Kentucky Fried Chicken, but we did see one Pizza Hut. So it appeared that living in Kazakhstan would require a diet of sheep’s head and pizza. My observation could be wrong.
Across from the Green Bazaar is Panfilov Park with its stunning war memorials and the magnificent Zenkov Cathedral, the largest wooden cathedral in the world and totally fairy-tale looking. It was Saturday and the locals were out walking with their families and participating in
activities that many families in the world do on a sunny Saturday afternoon: feeding pigeons, buying balloons, crying because mom won’t buy you snacks, and people watching — the world’s favorite spectator sport.
A long walk back to the hotel provided us with additional opportunities to view the local architecture, get a real sense of the city, and take it all in.
While traveling to Kazakhstan in a weekend may seem extreme to most people, I’m glad we went and that we had the opportunity to do it cheaply. That’s what seeing the world in a weekend is about!