My cheeks hurt from smiling for four days. My throat’s hoarse from laughing and shouting, and my poor, poor liver.
Six Dubai hipsters had the privilege of spending our Eid Al Adha in Almaty, Kazakhstan with our good friend Olga, a real-life Kazakh who we now regard as a Gangster Princess. All we knew about her nation had been defined by a British, Jewish impersonator with a Turkish catchphrase – “Yashimash”.
In the following days, Craig David crashed a wedding, we got rhythmically spanked with oak branches by a semi-naked Korean, a tearful spy passed out on our couch, we sang Irish shanties around a soviet satellite-monitoring station and some innocent children were farted on. And among this and a few things that are unpublishable in the former Soviet Union and the Middle East, we fell in love with a country that surprised us a thousand times. This is a long one. Sit with me.
Almaty sits just beside the border of Kyrgyrzstan (spell that without looking). With 1.4 million residents, it’s surrounded by colossal mountain ranges and home to major winter sporting events thanks to all the gradient and icyness. That’s the factual bit. Now let’s engage.
Friday September 9th.
Upon arrival in our first ‘Stan, with a Wikipedia summary on the plane and no expectations whatsoever, before we could absorb the cyrillic signage and our first slivers of soviet concrete, we were packed into what looked like a bullet-proof van with black windows, which became the Gangsta-Party-Bus, captained by our enthusiastic but patiently bemused Driver/DJ, Azim. I’m scoping out potential Kazakh husbands and Azim is candidate number one.
Kazakhstan is 70% Muslim, 30% Christian/Miscellaneous. Its people are 60% descendants of nomadic Mongolian tribes, who revere Ghengis Khan as a unifying warrior-emperor (and not the Khal-Drogo-Barbarian Western countries have historically painted him as). 30% are ethnic Russians and mixture of other Eastern European cultures.
On the whole, it seems a bit divided between these two groups, which makes our multi-ethnic party an oddity, with apparently the only combo of both an Indian and Black man in town. This is where I give myself the covert mission of whispering to strangers that our friend Edem is British Songwriter Craig David. (Edem still doesn’t know how many Kazakhs I said this to).
Driving through the outskirts of the apple city (Almaty is apparently the spiritual home of apples – they started here- every apple ever), our wide-open tourist eyes try to decipher every difference in this culture from the worlds we understand, from intricate tiles and ornate fences to super-size policeman’s caps and take-no-prisoners driving.
Kazakh homes are cared for, and thoughtful design is everywhere. It’s in the layout of parks, the buttressed facades of 80s residences, influences everywhere of nomadic Mongolian craft, and a completely unique fusion of Communist-Imperial-Brutalist-Mughal-Modernist-European-Asian aesthetic. I’m confused and inspired at once. But inspired design is not there functionally in the traffic system yet, where getting between two spots within a 15 minute walk can take 20 minutes in the car around a gargantuan one-way circuit (which mystifies me in a city with a grid format).
The bullet-proof Gangsta-bus takes us to a group of theatrically-majestic spiked glass towers in the centre of town, built in the style of a mountain range. Smarter people at this point would remember the name of where they’re staying.
After our first few rounds of vodka and a sample of horse meat (we ordered a Pork platter), evening sets in. We get back in the Gangsta-bus and head across town to a dark, questionable alleyway, with a solitary young Russian-looking woman standing under a lamplight. Before panic sets in, we’re told this is Olga’s best friend, and we’re happier to be ushered in to the adjacent brick-walled courtyard. We pile out and crowd around an incredible feast of thirty plates of incredible hot and cold food under the moonlight. Joining the loud and grateful diners, this platter is provided by Alexei, the owner of a Banya, who generously passes around a Kazakh ‘Shisha’, with a smile that radiates with perfect consistency for our entire trip.
I didn’t know at this point that Kazakh herbologists are extremely adept at their trade. Maybe it was the altitude of such a high city, but my internal altitude soared and I was not prepared for what came next. A Banya is a Sauna-and-Plunge-pool affair, but you’re encouraged to wear woolly hats in the steamy heat (“to stop your hair going frizzy”) and then lie on your front while you’re tapped, smacked then tapped with oak leaves for 10 minutes. This shamanistic soft-percussion releases bad energy, eliminates stress and detoxes. But I got very stressed when my turn was up, and continued drinking vodka to calm my nerves.
We posed for a group photo, holding up a plate with one delicious-looking brown unidentifiable fish, (purely because it looked fancy). The fish’s head fell on the floor mid photo, and we howled with laughter, while our Kazakh hosts were very confused. (“they have never eaten fish?”) Right before it was my turn to get smacked for ten minutes, I dug into the fish and ate what I thought was couscous. I had inadvertently disembowelled the fish with my finger and eaten its unborn foetuses. Cue a royal freak out.
We steamed. We plunged. We smoked. We drank. We dressed, and we went clubbing. ‘Pink Pong,’ also owned by Alexei, is one of my new favourite places.
A small, assuredly cool but subtle affair, it’s a sleek little bar with wooden walls, pink light, and quietly friendly artists, designers, copywriters, account directors and individuals who were interested and interesting.
Occupying a residential area, it is the unfortunate doorman’s job to regularly shush the clientele. The shushing and his earnest face don’t instill fear, and soon we’re all shushing back as soon as he comes near, then theatrically shushing each other. He probably doesn’t find this as hilarious as we do.
Inside, drinks are cheap and the music is exceptional. Erika, an impossibly cool and impossibly beautiful half-Kazakh-half-Mexican DJ nonchalantly plays body-rouser after body-rouser, and we reach for Shazam every time. I haven’t had a night in years where I’ve been so thrilled by such a danceable playlist of tracks I’d never heard. She, Rustem, Arys and Aidaar kept us on our feet, while we danced the vodka out of our systems.
At 4am, slightly confused, a bit worse for wear, my two roomies and I are bundled into a cab with Rustem, who at this stage, we don’t know that well. None of us can remember the name of the iconic tower we’re staying at (featured in most Almaty postcards), so we go on an early-morning ‘road trip’ across a city none of us know, in languages we don’t speak. Driving the wrong way up a one-way street, we’re pulled over by a cop. Our driver is expected to bribe him to be allowed to pass GO, but the policeman insists instead that after we’re dropped off, the driver goes and gets him some snacks, cigarettes and a magazine. Apparently this is normal, but Rustem is as confused as us. The driver agrees and we continue the wrong way up the one-way-street to Whatsitsname.
Saturday September 10th.
We rise, and walk across town to the base of the Cable Car up to Kok Tobe. Cable Cars turn me into a Six year old on Christmas Morning (but so far, so have most experiences in Kazakhstan). Kok Tobe is a mountain with a ferris wheel on top, a petting zoo with ostriches, stags and giant rabbits, a bronze statue of the Beatles, a Toboggan run and a rooftop cafe with hearty local food where Almaty’s answer to Michael Bublé serenades us, then breaks out a Violin and makes my heart implode. Maddy Heaven. If there was a cinema here playing only 80s comedies, life would be complete and I’d find a way to relocate here and never come down. I could take care of the giant rabbits.
Photos tell us Gerard Depardieu, Steven Seagal and Prince Michael of Kent had the Kok Tobe experience too. And the Kazakh herbs are helping us appreciate the nuances of every second.
Sitting in the Toboggan with my head between my best friend’s legs, I loudly lose my mind and voice plunging down metal rails towards earth across the side of the mountain. Then another Cable Car ride. Everything is amazing. Too. Much. Awesome.
After Kok Tobe, we take a stroll through the park, towards Zenkov Cathedral. Built in 1907, and apparently the 2nd tallest wooden building in the world, the outside looks like a perfect Birthday Cake, while inside, the Russian Orthodox version of Eid Al Adha, the feast of Abraham, has me spellbound. Women wear headscarves, and sing better than any orchestral choir I’ve seen, in front of guilt-gold panels of incredible paintings. I’m in awe of their faith, and the piety of their talent; perfect voices in harmony, tnot aimed at a camera phone, but at an altar. Just like the voices in a Baptist church in Brooklyn, the sounds inside Zenkov Cathedral will stay with me forever.
We walk from here to Panfilov Park, where a pantheon of colossal sculptures commemorate 28 soldiers who died fighting the Nazis outside Moscow, and who are about to be commemorated in a film. The huge figures are composed, powerful and emotional. This is not a place for Selfies, but to feel intimidated by pride, bravery and action.
On our way out, a wedding party lines up to have pictures with Craig David and his friends.
That evening we head to Kino, another exceptionally cool club with BBoying Kazakhs, a delicious funky-disco soundtrack, and a proprietor and smiling DJ, Rustam, who also happens to run Jazzystan – an outdoor, annual hilltop Jazz festival at my favourite place, Kok Tobe, that features Jazz, electronica and funk acts from across all of the Stans, and a few global ones too. I will be there.
The day’s not finished. We head to an abandoned Munitions factory that is one of the coolest hipster-tastic spaces we’ve ever seen. A former production line for human destruction, it’s now an impossibly cool temporary art-space full of sculptures, hyper-cool lighting, terrifying toilets and music that makes us feel like we’ve taken drugs even if we haven’t. Getting home is still difficult. Nobody has yet tried to remember the name of the massive spiky landmark we live in.
Sunday September 11th.
Our groggy heads bundle back into the GangstaBus and up the mountain to the former olympic site, Medea. Cue today’s ear worm, SL2’s “On a Ragga Tip” for the intro lyrics: “Dea, Medea, BeWanladidi..UmbaDea… “
We queue for another cable car, only now it’s raining, and the cable car is not going anywhere. The queue becomes a stationary crowd of angry faces shuffling forward when there is no forward. To try and reclaim some space, a member of the group uses their own personal emissions. Two Kazakh children are in the line of fire. This is a low point in our behaviour on the trip, but achieves the desired outcome.
The queue’s not moving, but Gangsta Princess Olga conveniently meets some friends nearby, who lead us to another friend’s nearby log-cabin in the mountains – An Actual Log Cabin, made of actual logs, with an open fire, and a professional multi-restaurant-owning Serbian chef barbecuing slivers of the most perfect meat we’ve ever tasted. The friend in charge of the log cabin is Aidar, another brilliant DJ, who also runs his own massive annual Almaty music event, Cosmic Picnic. I’ll be there. And near to the cabin itself, despite the rain, a busy, family-friendly mountain-music-festival was taking place. We dance and grin to a Kazakh Klezmer-Punk-Ska band with wonder in our souls. A lot of cameras wanted to film Craig David’s attendance. Everything is still amazing. Too. Much. Awesome.
That evening we head to the home of another DJ, Red-bull-award-winning composer Arys Arenov, and a small gathering in what we believe is his own apartment, but may possibly be owned by his parents. Buttressed Arches shape the Windows as if Rennie Macintosh was inspired by Starwars. One of us asks: “When was this built?” Arys replies “86”. Our response: “1886?” “No, 1986”. This little misunderstanding is indicative of how the architecture throughout the whole city is like nothing we know. We had no references, no context, and we loved it.
We ask Arys to give the six of us a tour of the apartment. We pile into the dining room, expectant and excitable. “This is the …dining room”, is followed by an expectant pause, confused looks, then an awkward shuffle out of the dining room and into the genuine Kazakh hallway. Perhaps not every single element of this trip is supposed to be a mind-blowing adventure.
In Arys’s kitchen we play the escalator game. An Indian, a Ghanaian, a Kiwi, an Australian, an Iranian, a Brit and six Kazakhs applaud one another over impressions of passing up and down a hypothetical escalator behind a table.
With every country or nationality I’ve ever encountered, humour unites and forges friendships like nothing else. It establishing understanding, boundaries, trust, and for me, loyalty. One real, deep-down-dirty belly laugh and you’ve got me for life.
Hometime. Nobody knows the name of spiky tower. Jane thinks it might be called “Noodly Towel”. Arys’s bottomless blue eyes may be another factor in me looking forward to a return trip.
Monday September 12th.
We thought we were already blown away by Kazakhstan, but the Almaty gods had more in store. Just as the rain led us to a perfect log-cabin, the following day clouds are trying to disguise a new treat. They blanket the city like a comfortable gloom as we head up to the mountains. We stop for a picnic in a traditional wooden hut. More delicious food, and Pork Shashlik, which our Indian gang-member has been raving about since the plane. He’s right. It’s dangerously delicious.
Back on the bus and we make our way towards Almaty Big Lake, nestled in the peaks that line the jagged border with Kyrgyrzstan. We drive up and up, then above the clouds, and our jaws drop. On left and right are valleys that look like the saturation has been turned up on Photoshop and the CGI team have gone all-out.
Prehistoric don’t-fuck-with-me mountains straddle the heavens while having what looks like an engrossing conversation with one another at the same time. They make me miss my humble Lake District, but their beauty is completely their own. I feel like I’m on acid just looking at them.
Big Almaty Lake is a light blue colour, due to Zinc, Rustem tells us. Today, the mountains around it are peppered with discoball shafts of sunlight. To add a cherry on the top of this perfect-perfecty-perfectness, a newlywed couple are nearby being photographed on a rock. With her dress billowing in silhouette, they held a smoke flare and my heart implodes again.
Craig David and I try to bring things back to our humble-mortal level with multi-man poses in one Panorama.
Rustem asks if we fancy heading to the nearby Space Observatory, a former communist monitoring station still in military use. There’s a unanimous YES. Arys and Rustem make quiet calls ahead with serious faces. We pile back in the Gangsta bus and up to the Tien Shan Astronomical Observatory. Our passports and security cards are handed over to a man at a check point. Kazakh herbs can be stronger at this altitude, so I don’t quite understand the gravity of the situation, and maybe my white privilege has made me a bit complacent these days, because I don’t think I stopped singing, erraticallg dancing or laughing all the way up the mountain, at the checkpoint, or around the station itself.
The Aussie poet of our group, Meredith described Tien Shan as a “vintage Astronomical wonderland” and it’s exactly that; a mystical setting for strange, purposeful buildings and old-school sci-fi equipment, in an ethereal landscape. Remnants of a mistrustful but diligent soviet republic, watching the skies, from as close to them as possible. We want to absorb it all.
I wish I’d had a slightly clearer head at this point, instead of trying to sing The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” with my arm around the unimpressed but tolerant slightly-terrifying Russian lady following us as our security escort. I think I’m being a bit obnoxious-Brit.
It’s hard to peel ourselves away from the colours and shapes and the calm mountain quietness I’ve so rudely and repeatedly interrupted, but we make our way back down from the mountains and into the city with sufficient levels of drama.
Azim, our DJ/Driver blasts Euro, Kazakh and Russian pop at us. It’s as formulaic as global pop, so we’re able to sing along loudly without having heard any of the tracks before. The whites of Craig David’s eyes widen as we hurtle down the mountain pass screaming neon ballads, with a sheer drop of death on either side of the road, and our laughing driver turning back to look at us instead of that road, while we stay gleefully thankful to be alive.
With the hills, then the burbs, then the city trundling past, my eyes try to take in every last piece I can; the blend of brutalism and humanism in the buildings, small or big. Rigid lines of confident optimism with sudden arcs of sweeping energy of decades not that far gone by. They show me that the Soviet psyche was not the one-dimensional characters of robotic villains in films. These visionary structures could not be made by regimented, repressed, unimaginative souls. They hold belief and ambition. Their lines, angles and defiant shapes were full of a brave new optimism for a bold, space-age, world-conquiering future. That future might have taken an erratic path, but it’s still forming, and the richness of modern Kazakh identity is fascinating.
From what we saw, Kazakhs are quietly observant, and loudly friendly. They’re discerning and aware, and in design, music and fashion, the individuals we met knew their shit. It felt like they’d taken the best of what the world creates, but stayed true to their own. I love that. There was no need to please, minimal homogeneity. Just a desire to share, a pride that didn’t have to be declared, because it was authentic and assured.
Kazakhstan is no fairytale, and Olga’s friends do not represent the entire populace. Ruled by the same president since 91, communism may no longer be the official regime, but democracy as half the planet knows it is not here yet, and equal distribution of substantial wealth appears to be far off. In a country with limited press freedom, and a regime in charge that has been known to brutally and mercilessly intimidate dissent, this is a stunning wonderland where everyone appears to work very, very hard. Even the supposed Slackers would be unequivocally back at the office at 8am after an all-nighter with us. But we didn’t see poverty – we saw people working hard. We didn’t see drunks staggering across any streets (well, except us), or hear the same kind of street-shouting/slurring the Brits tend to do at home and abroad (although I hear it’s a different story after dark).
Despite recent troubles with Islamist Militants, we felt safe, perhaps because we had Craig David with us, perhaps because we stuck out like sore thumbs, but safe thumbs.
I think it’s evident I fell pretty hard for the place. I can’t wait to go back, and am booking in Cosmic Picnic and Jazzystan. You’re welcome to join me.
The stars of this adventure were:
Olga Verchenko …(Superstar actually)
Lady who can’t be named
And of course, Ruslem, Erika, Arys, Alexei, Aidar, Azim, Ruslan, and a host of brilliant folks with incredible generosity.
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