Friday, December 15, 2006

Kazakhstan in daylight

I regularly fly in and out of Almaty, but since the flights always leave and arrive at the crack of dawn, until yesterday, I’d never seen Kazakhstan in daylight.

The scenery between the border and Almaty was pretty similar to what I could see in the lifting blackness – snow dusted golden steppes and plains, snowy peaks in the distance, scattered small towns.

It was dark by the time we got to Almaty, but cars filled the streets in an endless traffic jam and people walked and waited for buses home from work. We drove around for a long time looking for our destination. In that time, I noticed a lot of upscale cafes and restaurants, especially Asian, and very impressive New Year’s decorations and lighting. Trees glimmered with fine lights, blue and gold bulbs resembled sheets of illumination cascading from buildings and storefronts.

“You can really feel New Year’s here, can’t you,” my colleague Aizhana remarked.

“You can tell this is a big city, not a little town like Bishkek,” Maria said.

From Almaty we transferred into SUVs and headed up a mountain to the Chum Bulak resort. The roads were remarkably smooth and the driver seemed to enjoy swerving back and forth along the curves. Then we started to head uphill. At times, it seemed almost vertical. But the road remained smooth and well-maintained. Ahead of us stretched a yellow ribbon of the lighted path leading up the mountain. A sign indicated we had 3400 meters to climb, then others indicated the progress we’d made.

At the bottom of the mountain is a famous skating rink, called Medeo. Chum Bulak is supposed to be the best place in Kazakhstan for skiing. I brought my skis here to try it out, but it seems unlikely that there will be enough snow. From our lodge at the end of the road, a five hour path leads to a glacier. It would be possible to hike from here to Lake Issyk-Kul, over the mountains that separate the two countries.

I compare this place with the Kyrgyz resort, Kashka-Suu, where we held a seminar two winters ago. There, it was cold and basic. There was no skiing available at that time, no skating, and we weren’t allowed to go up the chairlift for a view. People shivered and several returned sick.

Here, I lucked out and ended up with my own room with a private bath, reliable electricity and hot water. The room is so warm that I have to open the window. Yes, I woke up last night to find a bat in my room. But besides that, it’s really nice and comfortable. And the food is fantastic – chicken breast with melted cheese and mushrooms, stir-fried vegetables, dried fruit platters, fish baked in tinfoil. I feel like a country hick marveling at life in the big city – except we are up in the mountains!

We’ve had little contact with the people, other than the drivers and resort service staff, but they seem quieter and more reserved than the Kyrgyz – few smiles, little small talk.

It’s been a busy month, between Osh, Kazakhstan, and soon, America. But I’m glad to have the chance to at glimpse at our large and rapidly developing neighboring country.

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