Cycling Plus #23:
Biking around Almaty, Kazakhstan
The bins in our hostel brim with empty vodka bottles. A regiment of stocky, cheery Russian women patrol the corridors. I can't understand a word of what they say, but their dyed, permed hair speaks of a time-warped fashion. Here in Almaty, Lenin has gone, the streets renamed since independence, and Capitalism is rife.
Soon we encounter Vladimir, an enthusing Ruskie attached to his Cannondale, full suspension and gleaming. He acquaints us with the city's biking fraternity and along with Vadim, an out of work pro triathlete, we ride to the mountain resort of Medeu. Like the colossal ice-rink we see there, built in 1972 and the training ground for many champion Soviet skaters, Vadim belongs to a Soviet age that could afford such sporting luxuries. 'Sport is Health!' announces the communist slogan of a peeling billboard....A wedding party dances to tecno beneath it, waving vodka bottles with abandon.
For all this change, Almaty remains a Russian city and every ride we make uncovers clues to a former life. Towering, intricate mosaics adorn well-worn buildings, depicting floating cosmonauts and other Soviet triumphs. An epic 'banya', the Russian-style bathing house, is steeped in marble, pierced by skylights and tinted with stained glass. Nearby, in Panfalov Park beside an eternal flame, a startling statue nails the eye. Fifteen soldiers leap forward, forming a map of the former USSR; each chiselled face represents a republic, protected and embraced by one mighty Russian.
The city centre now glitters with the jewel of Capitalism: the mall. Its tree lined streets bustle with luxury cars and open air cafes. Yet beneath this affluent veneer, the profusion of people selling their last belongings tells a different story. Odd shoes, old watches, tired faces. The fall of communism has reduced many older folk to poverty and an excellent education system has left an overqualified workforce; we meet a doctor running a market stand and a pilot driving a taxi. Others are struggling to fulfill their dreams, however eccentric they may seem. A peculiar looking man accosts me on his bicycle. 'I am Victor. Victor the inventor!' he announces in a thick Russian accent and a warm smile, as I marvel at his amazing bicycle designed to carry a whole family.
With my mountain biking friends, I ride to Bolshoe Almatinskoe, a turquoise lake nestling in a steep valley, carpeted with flowers, below a glacial pass to neighbouring Kyrgyzstan. In these frugal times, locals are picking wild mushrooms, their Ladas abandoned on the rocky trail below. And perched on the hillside, a space observatory looms against the sky skyline, most of which lies in rusty ruins. I gaze at surreal statues, and disused telescopes that point fruitlessly beyond the clouds. Another eerie insight into a bygone era, more decaying relics of a collapsed empire.
At over three thousand metres, a massive descent to the city awaits, over two kilometres below us in altitude. Our stay in Kazakhstan has been brief, but it's been an adventure to ride with Almaty's eclectic bikers. Tomorrow, we're bound for Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.