New Years in Kazakhstan

17 01 2011

Several of us decided that we wanted to take advantage of the holidays from school and work and give ourselves a little change of scenery.  Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city and former capital, is only a few hours away by bus, so we decided to give it a go there.

 

It took a solid week and a half — and four trips to the Kazakh embassy —  to get my visa sorted, but fortunately I left myself plenty of time to spare, and, when December 30 rolled aroun, we hopped in a taxi to cross the border.  We were able to secure a minivan for the three of us for 2000 som (about $18 a piece).  This was a little more expensive than what we were told should be the going rate, but it was totally worth it to have an entire vehicle to ourselves.  The ride to the border took about an hour, and, with about an hour of border formalities, the total trip to Almaty took about four and a half hours.

 

We had organized an apartment in Almaty for three nights to crash in and to use as a base to explore the city.  We got in to Almaty in the mid-afternoon and headed out to find a market to cook dinner.  We picked up some pelmeni, cooked ’em up and waited for the rest of our group — who had to work in Bishkek on Thursday —  to arrive.  They ended up not getting in until late, so Thursday ended up being a quiet night in…which was actually quite nice.

Cold and snowy, but fairly pretty

I got up Friday morning and took off to explore Almaty.  The city has a much more European feel than Bishkek.  And it’s clearly a lot wealthier as well.  However, what it had in amenities, it kind of lacked in personality.  I appreciated the variety of stores, restaurants, markets and shops, but the city basically felt like it could be just about any other big city in the world.

 

The highlight of my wandering was definitely Panfilova Park and the colorful Zenkov Cathedral, which dates to the 19th century, and was built entirely of wood — down to the wooden nails.    AFter my strol through the city, I met up for lunch with Candice, a fellow Fulbrighter who’s researching in Almaty.  She invited us to her place for New Years Eve, and we spend the rest of the day wandering the city a bit more and visiting one of the massive supermarkets that sell Western goods, something that Bishkek is lacking.  I picked up some tortillas, some Texas Pete, and a few other things that I can’t find in Bishkek.

Zenkov Cathedral

Now if that isn't picturesque...

That evening, we headed over to Candice’s 12th story apartment.  We cooked up some pasta, horse sausage (that’s right, I said horse), chicken and other sundry goodies and spent the evening in good company anticipating the beginning of 2011.  The best part of the night came at midnight, when the entire city shot fireworks off of balconies, rooftops, plazas and any other open space.  The sky lit up  with fireworks all around, which went on for a solid hour.  Being on the twelfth floor, in the middle of the city, put us smack in the middle of the display — which was absolutely breathtaking.

Horse Sausage! Nom nom nom

We eventually grabbed a taxi back to our apartment and crashed for the night.  Saturday and Sunday were quiet as well, as we nursed our respective party wounds and hunkered in against the cold.  Almaty was averaging around 0 degrees F, which was significantly colder than Bishkek had been recently.  Needless to say, none of us wanted to spend a ton of time outside in the cold.

 

We headed back Sunday afternoon after lunch and made it back to Bishkek in the early evening, thus capping off a lovely holiday weekend.

Decorations for the upcoming Asian Winter Games, which Almaty is hosting.

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