Thursday, January 19, 2006

Midnight Melons


No this is not the name of one of my late night haunts in Almaty. No it's just an observation that even in the early hours as you speed in a taxi from wherever you will always see some guy with an enormous stack of watermelons sitting on the corner. Kazakhstan does seem to be that kind of place. Almaty has 70 casinos (many more than Las Vegas), of which I saw at least half as taxi drivers (I use the term loosely as everyone is a potential taxi driver) consistently wanted to drop me off at them. Some other observations, no place seems to close at night, there are more fountains than people (probably), there seems to be a property boom on and all the girls are dressed up for a night out (even at 10 in the morning). Most importantly the beer goes down really well after a day climbing the hills to see an enormous ice rink or the longest pipe in the world or equally well after a homemade meal at my friend Anna's house. Other discoveries have included the fact that foreigners who don't speak Russian get offered free fruit at the markets, kebabs in tortillas are fantastic and the only number I can remember is three hundred (therefore all my purchases must be made for 300 tenge, around £1.50).

Oh and, of course, virtually no-one speaks English. This made today's trip from Almaty to Bishkek a little too entertaining for my tastes. I attempted to arrange a share taxi although the driver couldn't believe that I didn't want to hire the whole thing. After an hour or so he finally managed to get some other punters and all seemed set fair. However a taxi driver who likes to video his passengers whilst driving at 100km per hour on unsealed roads is not to be trusted. Things started to go wrong when he ignored the advice of a road worker and decided to travel down a "road in progress". All too soon it was a road no longer in progress and a little overland diversion was required. I can't think this did the car much good as we eventually broke down somewhere quite near the middle of nowhere on the baking Kazakh steppe. In 40 degree heat with no water, but quite alot of dust, we wondered what to do. Several cars were flagged down but no one was carrying a spare radiator so instead I was suddenly bundled into another car sharing with 4 other gentlemen who didn't seem quite as surprised as me. They got me to the border but I was delayed as the border guard seemed to find my visa quite unusual. In the meantime my car had left as the guys in it needed to catch a train or do some management consulting or something. It seemed another taxi would be the obvious choice except for the fact that all transport from the border is prebooked. I wouldn't have known most of these things if it wasn't for Alina, my sometime taxi companion who did a little translating. She worked at American sponsored "democracy camps" out in the Krygyz mountains (I didn't find this strange at the time) but more importantly for me managed to get us on a fully booked bus to Bishkek. The big losers in all this were the two passengers who'd prebooked the bus but were then not allowed out of Kazakhstan. I considered their unfortunate situation for a while, but not until I was safely sitting in their seats.

Tonight I have booked a yurt stay somewhere in the mountains with the help of some Belgian translators and some fermented mare's milk. I'm sure it will be great.

Hope all is well wherever you all are. Must go find a menu that I can actually read.

This was originally written on 21 July 2005. It is from my summer trip to Central Asia, China and Tibet.

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