Part IV

I write this next blog post with a heavy heart after learning the news of a fatal plane crash at the Almaty, Kazakhstan Airport. The cause of the crash, which killed all 21 aboard is still under investigation, but it is suspected that extreme weather played a role.

After the train ride from hell, a phantom hotel reservation and Dr. Kazakh’s (not his real name but for the sake of writing it sounds good) employment of ancient instruments, it finally seemed as if I was bound to have some good days ahead of me.

The Hawk and I!
And, sure enough the next few days in Kazakhstan were pretty drama free. Ilaria and I had fun visiting the local Tien-Shien Mountains which border China and eventually run right into the mother of all mountain ranges, The Himalayas. I also had a photo op with the national bird of Kazakhstan, the hawk (see picture on right). And, since it was Easter I attended Sunday services at my friend’s church (I’m not very religious, but Ilaria insisted on me coming to her church for Easter). The services were rather preachy with lots of singing. However, in the end it was all worth it since the church had a big ass Easter brunch complete with delicious Tatar/Central Asian Plov, one of my favorite dishes and lots of Russian/Kazakh desserts!

The middle of nowhere in KZ
The next morning I was off to the nation’s capital, Astana, a city that only a decade and a half ago was no more than a small town in the middle of nowhere! Now it’s the capital of Kazakhstan but still in the middle of nowhere! In the mid-90s shortly after the nation of Kazakhstan gained independence from the Soviet Union, the nation’s president, Nazerbayev, ordered the capital to be moved from the nation’s largest city, Almaty to Astana, then known as Akmola.

The goal of the move was to construct a brand new capital from scratch that would serve as a showcase for a modern Kazakhstan. And, what a showcase it is! After years of construction, failed projects and broken promises, Astana finally has come into its own as a modern world-class city. These days the city is dotted with towering futuristic looking skyscrapers, luxury apartments and a tent containing an entire mini city the size of ten football fields.

Probably the highlight of my visit to Astana was visiting the observation tower, Bayterek.  Bayterek Tower is to Astana as the Kremlin is to Moscow, the symbol of a city, if not an entire nation (the tower is on the back of the nation’s currency). The tower's shape is modeled after a poplar tree holding a golden egg, both of which are central symbols in Turkic mythology. 

Once at the top, the view was absolutely stunning! Just up a small flight of stairs "at the top of the egg" was a bust of Kazakhstan President Nazarbayev’s hand (see left). My hand unfortunately did not quite match, likely disqualifying me from ever being President of Kazakhstan.......oh well! 

One of the many colors of Bayterek Tower.
As the evening drew to a close in the nation’s capital, an array of different colored spotlights began to project onto the tower (see picture right) making for a magical scene. After completing a full day out in Astana and feeling the full wrath of the capital’s famous freezing white wind, I was ready to head back to my hotel and pack my bags for the flight back down to Alamaty.

The next day I returned to the ex-capital where I would spend one more night before departing to the Ukraine’s Crimea. My last night in Kazakhstan was great. I met with my friend for dinner, had a nice stroll through the downtown part and to top it all off the weather that evening was absolutely outstanding, clear skies and balmy temperatures! A perfect ending to a trip that started off on the rough side. Life was good!! However, as I walked back to my hotel room I looked up at the night sky and could see storm clouds approaching, a perfect metaphor for the coming day's events!! Stay tuned for the dramatic conclusion of my trip to Kazakhstan!

Part III

I had always wanted to visit the city of Almaty, (formerly known in Soviet times as Alma Ata, meaning the Father of Apples in Kazakh) so this was finally a chance to fulfill that dream. The 24-hour train ride and all of its hell was now behind me and I could focus on enjoying the trip that I’d planned for months. I got off the train and was met by my friend Ilaria. She was kind enough to get the pastor from her church, Sasha, to deliver me to the hotel. Sasha asked me how my train ride was; I told him it was pretty bad. He laughed and said, “Kazakhstan railways always uses the absolute worst equipment for the Tashkent-Almaty route.” Oh well, whatever, lesson learned.

We arrive at the hotel just for another surprise to pop up; the hotel had no record of my reservation and they were completely sold out. After arguing in Russian for a good ten minutes and a nice bribe, they somehow miraculously found my reservation and a room. Yet another minor crisis had been resolved!

As I stand there at the front desk filling out the paper work I got this bad feeling, as if something was not right. I’d traveled all over Russia and the ex-Soviet republics where hotels always gave you a piece of paper for immigration purposes to prove to authorities you were legally registered with your respective hotel/accommodation while staying in a certain city. I assumed they either used some type of electronic way of registering or the regulations were different in Kazakhstan. I should’ve kept in mind that old saying about assume, “don’t assume or you will make an Ass out of You and Me!” If I just would’ve remembered that simple saying, I would’ve avoided a hell of a lot of grief that would come my way in a mere four days!

Almaty at night from Green Hill.
Finally after all the dramas it was time to get down to business, seeing the city! Ilaria had arranged for us to take the Kök-Töbe Cable Car up to the top of Green Hill where the views of the city were supposed to be stunning. We arrived at the ticket kiosk and were informed the cable car was closed indefinitely for maintenance. Substituting for the cable car was a van that would take us up a gravel road to the top. Wow, just what I wanted, pack into a small van for a ride that resembled an out of control thrill ride from some type of weird roadside Florida theme park. It was so bad my friend (who was quite mild mannered and not someone to make a fuss) yelled at the guy to please slow down. The request fell on deaf ears as the guy only accelerated as we were thrown around the van like crash test dummies.

At last after a bumpy, stomach-churning ride we arrived at the top in one piece. The summit area was nothing too special; we could see the city lights and Ilaria pointed out to me where she lived amongst the ocean of bright lights below us. We hung out for a good two hours walking around, having dinner and enjoying each other’s company. The ride down the mountain was just as hair raising!

Above Alma Aty sitting with bronze statues of The Beatles.
Once I got home I was exhausted! I put in my wax earplugs and went straight to bed, hoping to recoup a lot of the energy I had expended on my 48 hours from hell. When I woke up I tried to take out my earplugs. The first one came out easily, the other one not so much, it had got stuck and would not budge. I tried everything to dislodge the wayward earplug but NOTHING worked!! After countless fruitless attempts, I gave up and decided I needed to see a doctor. I was a bit worried about trying out Kazakh national health care, but at this point I felt I had nothing to lose.
I wasn’t sure where to go but remembered there was a clinic right next door to the hotel that said “Care 24”. I figured that since it had the words “Care 24”, it must mean it was open 24 hours a day.

I walked up to the clinic entrance and it was dark, not a sign of life! So much for 24 hours, the 24 meant it was “Care Clinic #24”! Oooops, my bad! Since it was a Sunday they were closed all day and would not reopen till Monday, meaning I had to go around town half deaf with a wax earplug stuck in my right ear.

The next day I walked into the clinic, nervous as hell (because I was worried about what Soviet/Kazakh healthcare involved) but determined to get some sort of resolution. Due to my anxiety my Russian language skills were awful and I could barely string together a sentence or two. Luckily, they understood enough to know I had to see a doctor. After pre-paying about $25 for my exam, I was escorted into an examination room that looked state of the art for about 1972.

As I sat there waiting for the doctor to enter, my mind started to wander recalling all the Soviet health care horror stories I’d read and heard about. One story that really stuck out in my mind was how in the 1980s it was common medical practice to use re-useable needles, which led to a large increase in the rate of AIDs and Hepatitis B.

At last the doctor entered the semi-dark and dated room asking me to explain what had happened in Russian. Oh God, how stupid did I feel, I barely could speak Russian which I had studied and devoted over 20 years of my life to! Furthermore, I could barely hear making an already bad situation worse. He was able to understand enough of my broken Russian to know what was happening. He then brought out what looked like a giant water gun full of green liquid. In reality it was just a huge syringe, nonetheless it only added to my extreme anxiety! I was sure that after the procedure I would end up deaf for the rest of my life.

As he prepared to shoot the liquid from the water gun into my ear, no I mean syringe, he asked his assistant for help. She was not much assistance since she was napping with her head down on the examining room desk. Five, six, seven shots to my ear later he started to try to dislodge parts of the earplug. No luck! He recommended I visit a hospital nearby. He asked me if I knew where the hospital was. I said no. He replied, you do know where Lenin Street is, right? I said I had no idea where Lenin Street was. He could not believe I had no clue where Lenin Street was, so he drew me a map (see doctor's hand drawn map on side). The map was of little help, so I decided I’d just have to live with the ear problem, plus I did not want to try Kazakh health care again.  

Kazakhstan National Flag
Ok, so the last few days had been stressful, surely things could not get worse? Well, think again! Check back later for my next blog post about my run in with Kazakh immigration authorities and how by the grace of God I was not arrested and put in a Kazakh prison! Until, then I’ll leave you guessing! Thanks again for reading.