Day 1; Almaty, Kazakhstan: 07/06/2014
That we would be visiting a new city in a new country, I had not planned it. I had been thinking for some time to visit Uzbekistan (if I was to visit any of the CIS countries, other than Russia) for its sheer historical significance for India. Samarkand and Bukhara had been important cities on the silk route, and Mughals had originated from here. But we had not thought of Almaty in Kazakhstan, and that too this year. But it was all made possible by Shammi and Sonia, and their good friend, Rakesh Gaur, who has been living and working in Almaty for more than 8 years. To come to think of it, Almaty is only 3 hrs away from Delhi, and if you take the distance as crow flies, it is 1600 km! Return air fare @ Rs 25K is less than what you pay for your flight to Bengaluru or Chennai. The only hitch in it not being a tourist destination is that it does not welcome tourists. Obtaining tourist visa is arduous, and it is possible only through an agent, or if someone living in Kazakhstan arranges one for you. Anyway, we have arrived here, and have immediately fallen in love with this city; but then it is not unusual, for me, it is ‘love at first sight’ for any place outside Delhi. For accommodation, we have a luxury with a fantastic view from our 19th floor apartment. For weather, you couldn’t ask for more; from 46 C of Delhi’s scorching temperature to a heavenly 24 C in Almaty. And dinner at an Uzbek restaurant with traditional dresses, vodka, and Uzbek bread and live performance with pretty artists, and a music which is so close to our folk music. One could not have asked for a better beginning of a holiday week.
Day 2; Almaty, Kazakhstan: 08/07/2014
The day started really very early; I was missing my pillow and uneven mattress back home. But then, 4.30 am, the sun was already on its job. But I did not mind, the view from the drawing room window was fantastic with 5 layers of hills right before the eyes; slopes with houses, tree line, then pasture land, and finally mountains with snow. What could you ask for more, with top layer of snow changing its colour from golden to silver with the rising sun?
We have brought so much food from Delhi as if we were going to some famine-struck country. So had ‘dalia’ and masala tea for breakfast, and to top that ‘panjiri wale laddu’!
Rakesh came punctually at 10, and had organized the day meticulously for us to take us to various tourist attractions. The day began with a visit to a school, ‘Miras’; the name perhaps is derived from the ‘Midas touch’. It has 400 students, but has facilities and area size as if it is meant for 40 thousand. Sandeep is the physical and sports trainer their. Today being Sunday, the school wore a deserted look, but seeing the young kids practicing for their Salsa competition made our day. It was so infectious, I felt like jumping into the ring. I bet they would have welcomed me. We drove 20 km outside the city to reach the foothills for doing an easy trek, but then it started raining making walking on boulders difficult. But that did not deter us having our share of vodka; it was quite a sight walking on slippery trek and trying to prevent spilling our vodka, and saving ourselves from falling down. We took shelter in a circular tent and had an early lunch of idli-sambar-chutney, and chholey made by Qasim and Shabana. Can you imagine what it was like having it sitting inside a tent with rain outside, and mojito (mind you, not virgin) to add to the atmosphere? The rain, sun, and clouds kept playing hide and seek, but that did not deter us from visiting Tao resort, and a few other places. With 10 Indians in a group having two Sikhs was an amusing sight for the locals, many of who wanted to be photographed with us.
We returned to our apartment happy and satisfied in time to watch the final of French Open.
Day 3; Almaty, Kazakhstan: 09/06/2014
We had to give our passport to the local immigration department for registering ourselves. All foreign visitors have to register themselves within 5 days of their arrival into the country. It was similar to Pakistan, where foreigners (at least Indians) must report to the local police station within 2 days of their arrival; however, in our two visits to Pakistan, the consular in New Delhi Pakistan High Commission was kind enough to grant us exemption from this ordeal. It took quite a while to complete this formality at Almaty, taking almost half a day. Rakesh had kindly deputed his staff member, Nishant, to organize this registration. If our visit to Almaty has been so pleasurable and totally hassle-free, it is all because of the meticulous arrangement put in by Rakesh. And Chitra and I are fortunate in having Shammi and Sonia, who have included us in their visit to this beautiful place. So we had planned to visit only local shops and the malls. The malls were like any other you see in any west European city or now in Delhi. These have all the known brand names, so nothing different.
Hamid has been our driver and guide. He is graduate, and about to finish his Masters; he is doing this job because he doesn’t want to be seen as being dependent on his father, who owns a service garage. He is of Kurd ethnicity, and informs us that Kurds are not as religious as much traditionalists. Hence, being the only son of his parents, he must live with them always. The parents will arrange his marriage, and the education of his future wife is not important, as she is not going to work outside home. He told us his views about the local politics, Russians, and Stalin. He is educated and knowledgeable person, but says that here in Kazakhstan it is not important what you know, but whom do you know. I wanted to tell him his belief is not different from what we have in India.
Day 4; Almaty, Kazakhstan: 10/06/2014
The day was planned for a visit to the Grand Canyon of Kazakhstan, i.e., Charyn Canyon, which is about 200 km away from Almaty, located in Charyn National Park. As is the case with any canyon, there is a river here too at the bottom of the canyon called Charyn. In size it may be a micro version of the Grand Canyon in Arizona State of the US, but is no less in grandeur and splendor. Like any other canyon, it must have been formed by the combined effect of water (river Charyn), wind, the Sun, and the earthquake. It is said to be a comparatively younger canyon at about 10-12 million years old.
The drive from Almaty to the canyon takes more than 3 hours. Though the road was not bad, but there were many villages en route, where the speed limit was 50 km till you have crossed it, so that delays you. Our driver was strictly following speed limit, even if there were no traffic police was in sight. But we were not complaining; it was so different than what we have back in Delhi, where people irrespective of their education, occupation or class, take pride in breaking traffic rules. So we got a peek, though only from a moving vehicle, of the villages, where the houses appeared to be maintained well, there was no garbage dumped on the roadside, and no cattle lazing around on the road. There were very few people visible; but then, Kazakhstan is a big country (9th in the world by area), with a population of approx. 17 million only, with only 6 people per sq km.
Much before reaching the canyon, the desert like area begins. The trek to the bottom starts with a steep descent of about 10 min, but afterwards it is a plain walk for 3 km before we reached the river. Though the Sun was shining clear and bright over our head, the breeze at the bottom was cool. And the walk was very interesting; the water and the wind had worked as master craftsmen to sculpt the rocks in amazing shapes resembling people of all ages interacting with each other (did some remind me of Khajuraho!); some rocks looked like an amphitheatre, or even medieval castles. The sight of the river was very thrilling, and dipping our feet was so refreshing. There were only a handful of tourists, and again the site did not have any garbage littered around. The tourist sites in India are always chaotically crowded with dumps of garbage and stray dogs.
We had aloo-parantha for lunch, made and packed by the Kazakh cook of Rakesh. On our way back we stopped in a village for buying delicious and fresh fruits plucked, may be, the same day: cherry, apricot, peach, apples etc. But then, Kazakhstan is a big producer of fruits and vegetables.
Day 5; Almaty, Kazakhstan: 11/06/2014
We started the day with a visit to the Green Bazaar. This is a market famous for its fresh fruits and vegetables, and other provisions like imported dry fruits from Iran and other neighbouring countries. And as is usual for any market in any country, there were many shops selling Chinese wares. Of course, we were not satisfied with browsing and window shopping, but shopped for varied items. This was followed by having lunch at Govinda’s, a pure veg restaurant run by the ISCON society. What did we have? Of course, ‘aloo-parantha’ made in pure desi ghee (cow’s), perfectly round, and fried golden brown, made by Kazakh cook. Local girls perfectly attired in sarees served us. ISCON does not have permission to start a temple in the city, but outside the city, they have an ashram. This was followed by a visit to Shymbulak Ski Resort, which is increasing its popularity every year. It has already hosted international events, and may bid for winter Olympics soon. There is well placed rope way which takes you to a height of more than ten thousand ft. I am sure it must be a lot cheaper to ski here than any European resort. However, currently most of the tourists here are from Russia and other CIS countries. These are all natural slopes, and very picturesque.
Day 6; Almaty, Kazakhstan: 12/06/2014
This is our last day for going around Almaty; tomorrow (13 June), we go back to Delhi after a fantastic week of sheer romance with this place. No visit to Almaty is complete without going to the Charyn Canyon (that we already did), and the Ile-Alatau National Park, and the Turgen Gorge within it. It is again 2 hrs drive east of Almaty, more than half of the route is the same that we did for the Canyon. In between, there is a diversion from where the Chinese border is just 2 hours away. Almaty is the largest and the most developed city of Kazakhstan, and till 1996, it was the capital; but in view of the close proximity of Chinese border, the capital shifted to Astana, which has been developed as a planned city. No one wants to give Chinese any chance or opportunity to become ambitious. We stopped en route to buy honey from a local fruit seller. It has become a joke in my family that I am easily lured into buying honey, as I actually have bought from as far place as Nagaland, or villages on high altitude of Garhwal, and now Kazakhstan.
Once the route leaves the main highway to turn to the Turgen Gorge, the landscape changes dramatically. From a flat land with houses interspersed on both sides, it became a mild hill drive with expansive green pastures on both sides where you see herds of cows and horses grazing. Horse is a valuable animal here, for its meat, and may be for export too for racing and other sports. It was here that the horse was domesticated during ancient times. The drive was exhilarating with freshest of breeze and all shades of green. It kept us reminding us about our drives in Uttarakhand, Himachal, or Kashmir. After paying a small entry fee, we entered the park area. The Ile-Alatau National Park is a vast area of virgin and pristine beauty, undisturbed by human involvement or encroachments. It is home to a large number of birds and animals, but to witness some of these, you need time, and may need to stay there over night. I am not sure if there are arrangements for night stay. Since we had reached there at about 2 pm, most of birds activities had come to a stop, and I could spot only magpie, common myna, swallow, crows, and vultures; could not shoot any…with the camera.
There were two waterfalls; one was 1 km away, and another (bigger and more beautiful), some 7 km away. We chose to trek to the nearer one, which was again on a hilly trek. The trek was beautiful with all colours of wild flowers and trees of many kinds. I could recognize only arecaria, pine, and birch (bhojpatra, on which our ancient texts have been written; you could spot them in plenty if you go to Garhwal and Kumaon hills at above 10k feet) too. Though the waterfall was only 1 km away, but this 1 km would just not end, inspite of all the beauty of the trek. So many times, I have repented on my treks in Garhwal and Kumaon of having asked the locals how far was the next campsite. And their 30 minutes or ‘just around the next corner’ never seemed to end. There were many groups of families, which were picnicking around the riverside. Kazakh people are very fond of picnicking and barbecuing, which they call as ‘shashlik’. There was a group of noisy and sprightly school kids who were walking alongside with us. Their laughter and chatting was adding life to the atmosphere. They were very keen to be photographed with us, and polish their English. They found Shammi’s turban very amusing, and he was in great demand for group photographs. Chitra would remind him again and again to charge a fee, but then Shammi is a great sport, and would easily oblige them. The waterfall became a popular photographic spot, with kids getting their ‘selfie’ in all poses and various groups. The water was cold, and like an elixir to drink, it was pure and had rich minerals from the hills.
Hamid, our guide and driver, kept us company and regaled us with many stories about his Kurd culture. He had earlier told us how his mother has arranged his marriage; he is getting married on 28 September. Another way is by ‘stealing wife’. If a boy likes a girl, and girl’s father refuses to oblige his family, then boy’s family openly threatens to abduct/steal the girl. And they actually do it, even if it results in blood shed. Sometimes, the girl’s father, if he is poor and can not afford marriage expenses’, suggests to the boy’s family to steal his own daughter. In that event, he is obliged not to spend any money on wedding affairs. Many of the marriage related customs that he described to us, bore close resemblance to our own ceremonies.
It was our last day of going around Almaty, and we have been very happy throughout. Rakesh and team took great pains in making our trip enjoyable and worthwhile. It would not have been possible without their shouldering it. I wanted to tip Hamid at the end of the day; he steadfastly refused; I even suggested he buys something for his fiancée, but then he countered saying I should do it myself in September. I would remember many things and people of Almaty, and Hamid would be one of them.
Kazakh Diary : Day 7 (Time to say disvidaniya): 13/06/2014
No visit to a CIS country is complete without talking about Raj Kapoor and Bollywood; that we realized in our earlier visit to Russia. Any taxi driver or tour guide, on realizing we were from India, would break into ‘mera juta hai japani’. Here, another rage has been Mithun Chakravorty. It was because of his 1980s blockbuster ‘Disco Dancer’. In Africa too, Mithun seemed to be popular; it was released in Ethiopia while we were there, and it broke all records of earlier Bollywood releases. Hamid had a collection of popular Hindi songs on his ipod, and some numbers were of karaoke singing; it was fun listening to ‘mein chali mein chali, pichhe pichhe jahan…’ sung by local singers. Bollywood movies DVDs are available dubbed or sub-titled in Russian. Hamid’s mother’s favourite has been ‘Gardner’; guess what…Baagwaan, starring Amitabh B. Many of the popular TV serials are also available.
They say in Kazakhstan, people never say good bye, they say it with disvidaniya, meaning ‘phir milenge. So, it is time to sing ‘jaane waale phir milenge, yaar disvidaniya’.
Almaty to Delhi, 13 June 2014