Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Julia does Almaty

It's 4 a.m here Central Asian time or whatever slot this is 11 time zones away from Washington, DC; a perfect time for the jetlagged to be up and moving. Of much help is Phyllis Tickle's new book "The Night Offices;" all liturgical prayers for the sleep-deprived.
Getting Here was dreary but non-eventful. The flight from DC to Frankfurt ws 6 hours; arrived about 1:30 a.m. my time - what a purgatory of an airport! There's nary a drinking fountain available and any food must be paid for in euros of which of course I had none - plus the change machines to convert one's dollar bills into that currency were down. So I wandered about looking for a free Internet spot - unfortunately there are no Paneras at this airport - then found a lounge chair to rest in between A&B terminals but didn't dare sleep because all my belongings were parked next to me. Finally caught the Lufthansa flight east - there were all of 20 passengers on board for the 5 hours to Astana, then another hour to Almaty, the main city for Barat's favorite country, Kazakhstan. All the luggage deplaned with me and the two Kazakhs who met me: Dmitry and Lili were as pleasant as one could be at 2 a.m. They took me to the Hyatt with its highway robbery rates of $330 a night.
Slept a few hours, then reviewed what little Russian vocabulary I have as I sauntered downstairs for the Hyatt's not-so-budget breakfast at $23 for the buffet. Didn't know I'd be getting New York prices here. However, I bumped into several Americans or English-speaking folks in the dining room; a Columbia University prof who works for USAID in Tajikistan; a friendly Kazakh student who invited me to look her up when I get back to town a few weeks from now and an American pilot who flies for Air Astana.
Snow was falling but it was time to brave the outdoors and go get myself a SIM card for my mobile phone. To get there meant tromping through the slushy grounds of a circus next door to the Hyatt where I saw these cool Bactrian camels one only sees in movies about Mongolia. Finally found the cell phone place but could not figure out how to ask the clerk things like: How many minutes does this buy me? Or: How do I dial this number in-country? I was tearing out my hair while other Kazakhs were standing at the booth giving me weird glances when I heard a couple walk by speaking in English. I dashed after them and got them to translate. That accomplished, I set out to explore Beautiful Glorious Almaty, as Borat would say.
Turns out these folks don't seem to believe in street plows (I did finally spot one) and the sidewalks were ankle deep in snow, which meant one slid around everywhere. Plus I had on a black-and-white-checked ski jacket that in American climes would look pretty understated but not here. EVERYONE has on very dark, fur-lined outfits so my ski jacket glowed in the dark by comparison. The hotel help had told which buses to catch to go to Panifilov Park, a major landmark with a gorgeous Orthodox cathedral so I managed to make known to the driver that's where I wanted to go. (Remember I know about 20 words of Russian at this point. It's my 7th foreign language). He drove 1-2 miles, then stopped at a terminus and ordered everyone out. But the creep had not pointed out the park to me; as it turned out, we were at Gorky Park some 4 blocks away. Furious, I leapt out and headed west down Gogol Street toward Panifilov.
Trying to do anything in Russian was so difficult. I cannot wrap my mind around that language and say things like "I do not understand" without looking at my crib notes. And it's impossible to look at any notes when you have people on the bus yelling instructions to you in Russian as you're zipping down the snowy streets. Finally located the park which, like all of Almaty, is under a thick umbrella of trees. This city must be great in the spring and fall. Even as cold as it was here, I was not uncomfortable but it was getting dark so I headed for the shopping promenades. One, "Silky Way City," was junky, so I continued down Zhibek Zholy which suddenly turned into a pedestrian mall with garish, huge Christmas trees with flashing lights. Finally wandered into ZHUM - sort of like Moscow's GUM store but much smaller but with great handicrafts I'll pick up when back in town. By this time it was dark and I was in no mood to try those nasty buses because I had no idea where they'd dump me this time. I just stood in a snow bank looking forlorn when I noticed 2 young Kazakh women trying to flag down a taxi. Turns out they spoke English and were willing to help me get a ride back to the circus (one of the few words I could pronounce) for 300 tenge (the going rate here for taxis - about $2). Getting a taxi here is an exercise in trust; there aren't official yellow cars per se but it's just regular citizens who drive about and offer you rides if you can agree on a price. What happens if they realize you're a clueless foreigner and take you somewhere out of the way and leave you there unless you pony up big bills did cross my mind as we skidded through town. Fortunately this driver was honest.
Dinner was a $20 chicken sandwich courtesy of the Hyatt. Note to self: Get cheaper digs next time at a place much closer in to town.

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