Silk Road Day 13: More Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, and the final day of the tour

Day 13: Saturday, January 9th, 2016

We woke up in our Kyrgyzstan hotel and packed up to get on the bus by 8am. Our stomachs were full of breakfast, the bags were packed into the bus, and Matt was missing. He accidentally slept in and was so out of it when Ben called his room to ask him to come downstairs that he responded “what for?”

We first stopped at the World War II monument before heading to the Frunze-House Museum for a brief visit. We then saw yet another Lenin statue, this one located behind the National Museum. We walked around the building and caught the tail end of the changing of the guards, but we would catch the full experience after heading to the museum.

The National Museum was built in Soviet times and presents propaganda as facts. There are huge murals on the ceilings of each of the three floors which present world history subjectively. The best one is a skeleton American cowboy straddling a giant missile. Lenin is presented in glory, and there are Russian figures presented peacefully in stark contrast to evil Nazis and Americans. There is even a human evolution family tree that shows that Blacks aren’t descended from the civilized cavemen that Russians and whites were. All the placards and signs were written in Russian, so I asked Eilidh if there were parts of the museum that negate what’s presented, or at least show “hey this is what we USED to think… but we know better now!” and she said there wasn’t. Ben explained there used to be a section in the corner that was sort of a history of the museum itself, but it was under construction so we couldn’t see it. The only thing in the museum that seemed trustworthy was a giant display of a traditional yurt and the housewares inside of it. The gift shop had lots of felted items because apparently that is a thing here.

We left the museum at ten, just in time to see the changing of the guards. There are two glass cases about the size of phone booths that host one standing soldier each, on either side of the Kyrgyz flag in the Alan-Too square. Three soldiers march up, one stays at the foot of the steps, and two go up to the booths and they switch, all while marching with a high kick and a sharp, flattened hand.

Today is Siavash’s birthday, so Ernest provided him with a traditional soviet hat, which, to be honest, was actually really cool.

Off we went on our way, prepared to cross the Kazakhstan border. After two hours of driving, we arrived at the border. Now THIS is what a border crossing should be like. There were cars in bumper to bumper traffic, pedestrians walking in the middle of the road carrying bags of produce and other random foodstuffs. I even saw a couple of people carrying chairs. Apparently you can sell items in Kazakhstan at a premium, including seating (?). The sidewalk we were walking on was filled with potholes, and there was another sidewalk beside us that was perfectly level and fine, but a fence separated us from it. Ben asked why we chose the crappy sidewalk option, and I told him the flat one had random stray dogs wandering on it. I didn’t want a souvenir of rabies.

This time our guide Ernest came with us over the border. Like Kyrgyztan, this is another country that doesn’t require a visa for US citizens, so we didn’t have much paperwork to complete. All we needed to do was fill out a form with our name and destination city. Carrying over currency wasn’t an issue, either.

We got in “line” in the border crossing building and it was absolute chaos. People were clustered in the queue area, but there wasn’t any formation. People shoved from all directions and Eilidh just barked at them that we were all going to the same place. The windows had Kazakh, Russian and English on them with the following message written in all three languages: “good luck!” That message has quite the opposite effect when its written above a passport control window.

Once I got to the window, the man checked the piece of paper, stamped my passport, and I was done. Just outside of the border control was a cafĂ©, a gas station, loads of pedestrians, a man loading up his car with what looked like five hundred boxes of Krispy Kreme donuts (it wasn’t really donuts, sadly), and our new bus. Matt, Calvin and I were a little ahead of everyone and were told to wait by the benches, so we did. While waiting, Matt pulled out a celebratory bottle of cognac for some swigs.

Once everyone had crossed, we loaded up the bus and we were off. This bus had a microphone, so Ernest used it to describe our surroundings. He had a habit of holding it right on his lips, therefore sounding very muffled and impossible to understand. Helen kindly asked him to hold the mic back a bit, which he did for the first sentence, but then gradually reigned it back in to his muffled comfort zone, or rather his mumphered rumfort zhone. I'd also like to mention that this bus was only about twelve feet deep, so any sort of mic was completely unnecessary.

As we overlooked our snowy surroundings out the windows, we ate lunch on the bus, and they were on trays so it was just like an airplane but better. The food was delicious, albeit a strange combo: a plain grilled piece of salmon, slices of horse meat, slices of white American cheese, slices of goat cheese, a piece of buttery naan bread, a piece of Kazakh bread, and a whole tomato. I saw Tan make a sort of sandwich, but I just ate all the items individually, including the tomato which I ate like an apple. We were also offered juice boxes and more vodka, so it was pretty well-balanced diet.

We arrived in Almaty around 4pm, and it was very different from all the cities we’ve seen on this trip. I could see why Ben and Eilidh live here; it is foreign but also familiar enough to be comfortable. There is a Burger King and a KFC just down the street from Hugo Boss and Zara, with foreign shops sprinkled in between. Not that I would need those sorts of things to live in a foreign city, but it is nice when you have some familiarity of home.

After checking into our hotel, Ernest gives us a gift from CBT, or Community Based Tourism, which he works for. It’s a small Lenin pin for each of us. I wasn’t expecting a gift, so it was a pleasant surprise. He then leaves us to go back to Kyrgyzstan and we get a new local guide who I am pretty sure is named Borat.

Ben, Matt, Anne and I went to Ben’s apartment down the street to drop off his luggage and ensure that his apartment wasn’t broken into in the last week and a half. It wasn’t. Their apartment is filled with fun artifacts from their travels, such as a lovely fur hat and a copy of the book written by the Turkmenistan Turkmenbashy. After taking the elevator with an aggressively-closing door down from their apartment, we went to the local grocery store to grab some snacks and drinks. Ben showed us bottles of Kazakhstan cola, which looks just like a bottle of Coca Cola without being associated with Coca Cola at all. We made our purchases and headed back to the hotel just in time to continue our tour.

We hop on a different bus this time, now equipped with black lights for special mood lighting, I guess? We see a gorgeous yellow building that is an old Russian orthodox church (Zenkov Cathedral), elaborately decorated on the inside and outside. The wood structure was believed to be ugly, so they covered it with clay and painted it all over.

We also check out the World War II memorial that has an eternal flame, which is situated in a way that it appears to be protecting the church in the background.

We head to the currency exchange, where I get five dollars worth, since we’re only here for a day and everything is super cheap. Also I just want to collect some international currency from everywhere I go.

It starts to get dark, and we hop on our black light party bus to check out the local plazas, where there are beautiful displays of lights for Christmas and New Years.

We then drive to Kok Tobe, a nearby mountain and also the highest point in Almaty. Here there are a few types of attractions, one of which is a cable car. With our luck, however, the cable car is closed today. We still board the shuttle bus up the hill to get to the top, where there is a row of cages for their outdoor zoo. Despite the cold, the animals are still out and about. There are several kinds of birds and rabbits and animals I’ve never heard of. Also on this hill is tons of fluffy white snow, which was too perfect to we started a snowball fight. Coming from Chicago I’m used to wet, heavy snow, but this was almost too hard to pack into snowballs. I forced it though and loaded up on ammo. Anyone and everyone was a target, including Calvin who unfortunately found himself unarmed as he tried to get cash out of an ATM.

One of the ones I threw at Matt made him twirl around and wipe out on the ground due to the icy sidewalk, but he ended up being fine. Remi and Matt played some weird combo of soccer/baseball wherein Remi pitched giant soccerball-sized snowballs at Matt to kick and explode into the air. The rest of the group was nearby attempting to warm themselves with hot tea and coffee as the explosion snow rained down on them, so I am sure that was a little counter-intuitive.

There was a rock climbing nearby, which I used to practice my snowball pitching. I got strikes every time, but I was also my own umpire so we’ll just leave it at that. We passed through a few shops selling everything from hand-knit booties to fur stoles to Kazakhstan flags, but no one was interested enough to buy anything. Finally, we saw the bronze Beatles sculpture and snapped a few pics before heading back down the hill.

We ate dinner at a hip Kazakhstan restaurant, which Ben described as a “gastro-pub” version of traditional Kazakh food. The restaurant had beautiful murals of traditional Kazakh people, there were belly dancers performing every 30 minutes as entertainment, the front foyer had taxidermy wolves as decoration, the bathrooms were clean and had fluffy toilet paper, so overall it was just a great experience.

We had the usual salads and such, but we also finally got a green salad (LETTUCE!!!) that had some sort of marinated horse meat on top. It was like Teriyaki horse meat salad, if that makes sense, and it was ABSOLUTELY DELICIOUS. Kind of tasted like Mongolian beef.

There was a mysterious gelatinous food that the waiter called “sheep jelly” and it looked like cupcake-size portions of opaque white jello with meat in it. Something like when you refrigerate something fatty and the meat gets all jelly-like. Basically, unappetizing. Not a lot of people ate that.

The waiter spoke pretty good English, but also was swayed by anything that we said to try to finish his sentence, which resulted in some confusion. “This food is sheep b--” “Balls?” “Yes, Sheep balls.” No, dude, that’s definitely not sheep balls. We’re just immature tourists and you’re a guy who can’t think of the right word for what I think is sheep intestines. or gristle.

There was also the traditional Kazakhstan horse sausage and noodle dish, which arrived at the very end and was almost not touched at all since we loaded up on too much food from the previous gajillion courses and dishes.

Eilidh, Ben and Calvin each said a few words of thanks to the group for the whole trip, and I think we all were a little shocked by how quickly the two weeks passed by. It was a great trip with a great group of people.

About half of the group headed back to the hotel around 10pm, so we all said our final goodbyes as Matt and I would be the first to leave tomorrow.

Around midnight, the rest of us (Matt, Ben, Eilidh, Remi, Calvin, Velvet and her partner, and I) all hopped into a couple cabs after dinner was over so we could head to one of Ben and Eilidh’s favorite bars, Pinta. It felt and looked like an American restaurant, even down to the music, which was a compilation of early-2000s alt rock (Offspring, Weezer and Dashboard Confessional) and Christmas music. We heard 3 covers of “Last Christmas” in the course of 30 minutes. The menu had tons of items that you’d see in the US, like pizzas, hummus, pasta, burgers, chicken wings and brownie sundaes. They had a huge drink menu with a variety of beers, tropical daiquiris and 3-for-2 shots of vodka. We ordered the aforementioned shots of vodka, which were served in a glass bottle with stopper so you could pour them yourself.

We ordered a ton of stuff, including four liter-size beers (I couldn’t hold it in one hand if I tried), six shots of vodka, two pints of beer, a Fanta, and two giant brownies a la mode. The total for this spread? A mere $32 USD. And this was the most expensive city we’ve been in on the trip.

We returned to the hotel at around 2am, where Matt and I said our final farewells to Calvin, Ben, Velvet, Eilidh and Remi. We had to wake up only two hours from now to complete our journey home.