Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Almaty, Kazakhstan

Hello from a different world. It's a 30 hour train ride from Urumqi to here but it might as well be a 30 hour flight so different are the 2 places. I will elaborate on this later in the post.

My departure from China was reasonably uneventful. I settled in and got chatting to my cabinmates all of whom spoke perfect English which was an interesting change. As the train left as midnight is was bedsies soon after departure. We arrived at the border on the Chinese side at 7ish in the morning and then the fun began.

In a sense the border was a little of China condensed. There was some creepy authoritarianism in the form of of a bunch of soldiers standing at attention in front of each door whose mission seemed to be stopping folk from getting off. There was some out of place pinkness too as the loudspeakers blared cute songs including one about how some guy was going to look after his little sister.

Finally, as this was China, there was a rigidly enforced stupid decision. In this case, they stopped the train, locked all the toilets then woke everyone up. To boot no-one was aloud off the train for a couple of hours. Nothing feels more like China than being uncomfortable and ranting to some poor soldier. When not trying to look martial he was apologetic when I spoke in Chinese and bemused when I spoke English. To the boy's credit, after a long while listening to me and 2 Russian chaps looking at him and droning on endlessly in the usual howfuckingstupidcanyougetgivemestrengthwascommonsensebannedbyMao rant he relented and let us off for a quick dash to the bog. After that crack in the dam other passengers started to badger their green guardian and eventually people got to get off the train.

On the Kazakh side, things were a bit different. Customs were quick and cursory then we were all offloaded in a small village station to wait for the wheels of the train to be changed (Sovblock trains have a different gauge apparently to hinder invasions). During the checks I got to meet a Kazakh border guard. He popped in and started to ask questions. I was a tad nervous at first and thought the questions were part of his job and then I realised this was just curiosity and smalltalk.

The reason I was nervous is that Central Asian border pigs have got a rep. They are legendary for being corrupt, devious, thieving bastards. This reputation meant that each time the customs chappie was being friendly it made me edgy. He took me and an Australian guy to a cafe for lunch and the further we got from the station the more alarm bells were rgoing off in my head. As it turned out that he took us to a cheap and cheerful homecooking spot and gave us some useful advice on Almaty. To cap it off he gave us each a box of choccies. Even after that a part of me was wondering what the scam was and when it would hit. Some people just can't deliver what is expected.

After that it was a long train ride through lots of grassy buggerall. I have seen expanses of buggerall before but never so much uninterrupted buggerall. We stopped a couple of time in tiny villages and I mean tiny. In Kazakhstan a village is a village unlike in China where a 100 000 souls town will be reffered to as such. These places could be called one-pony towns except that I saw more horses than humans milling about. At these stops a bunch of baboushkas (or whatever they are called in Kazakh) sell fruit, veg, smoked fish, sausage and, of course, vodka.

Between these halts I busied myself at learning the Cyrillic alphabet by walking through the train with a phrasebook trying to read anything from the toilet door to the instructions on the water heater. I amused a lot of folk by standing in front of some random plaque and slowly enounciating the word before grinning like an idiot when someone nodded at me to indicate I had got it right. The consequence of this is that I am experiencing a complete reversal of my linguistical skills in China. Here I became literate in 2 days but can't understand a bloody word I am saying.

The shock of having a multilingual border guard being nice and not trying to shake me down pales in comparison of how I felt when I got to Almaty. As referred in the first paragraph, this place is worlds apart from China. It feels and looks European. It's diverse, leafy, quiet, clean and cosmopolitan. And. like Europe, it's pricey as fuck.

Everthing seems empty and quiet even though it's only in comparison with China. Seeing only a hundred or so folk on the street makes it feel deserted for me. Not hearing a zillion car horns, horrible mobile ring tones and constant shouting translates as eerily quiet for me. Directions given are always accurate and often given to me in English which means I have wasted my time trying to judge if the giver of said directions is talking bollocks to save face. The map feels wrong as the main avenues are 4 lane job and not stupidily wide and long stretches designed to make an armoured regiment pass through quickly or to glorify the great social cohesion of something or another.

I finally realised why this place feels so strange when I was nearly dancing with joy at the cheese section of a supermarket. I have been Sinofied. I have spent so much time getting accustomed to the weirdness of China that I feel strange when it is absent. May the gods have mercy upon me.

Anyways Almaty is pleasantish in a sense and the gentle upslope to the mountains give me much needed exercise as I traipse around its leafy roads and fun parks. There is a nice wooden cathedral and a few museums and shedloads of good food. At a price. That being said I face a problem as most interesting things in this country seem like are fecking miles away from Almaty.

The cost and distance here is a problem and as a result I am going to consign Kazakhstan to trophy tourism. I got here, got drunk here, got the visa to the next country and got a stamp in my passport. From now on I can say that I have been to the land of the most famous Kazkhstani on earth: Borat.

It's hard not to mention him though it's wise not to here. A childish part of me wants this place to be more like the fictional Kazakhstan of Cohen's creation. If I was standing between the village rapist and the chief gypsy catcher at the festival of the running of the Jew I could at least feel smug and civilised. As it is I feel more disinterested than I should, more Chinese than I like and poor. So very poor.

No politicky stuff this time as I haven't bothered to enquire much. I get the Head Honcho here is a dictator of sorts but not as crazy or nasty as other Central Asian Presidents. The place is not obviously bent but I would be suprised if it wasn't due to the amount of natural resources here.

Fuck it, off to Kyrgystan.

Next stop, Bishkek

Take care,



Blogger Beisha said...

Hello Mr. Arabin, Iam very pleased to read you and to notice your worldwide promenade...
My english is still awful. I have been improving it since few months. Not a lot to say about my life in Paris but please, let me know how to email you ?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007 11:50:00 AM  

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