July 20-31st: Almaty, Kazakhstan
We've arrived in Almaty, (meaning Father of Apples). Strange to walk the streets of this cosmopolitan Asian city so European in feel. Big, outlandish Soviet architecture is hemmed by gardens and summer cafes, and a network of leafy streets criss-crossed by tram lines. Lenin's gone, the streets renamed since independence and Capitalism is rife. Framed by snow capped mountains, the triangular Peak of Communism, yet to shed its former title, heads an imposing skyline.
Our room is tucked away in a youth hostel, home to a community of Pakistani medical students who methodically replenish the bins with empty vodka bottles, as well as other more salubrious evidence of a drift from Islam. It's staffed by a division of stocky, cheery Russian women, whose dyed and permed hairstyles reflect a time-warped fashion.
We meet our first Ruskie - Vladimir. Astride a full suspension Cannondale, the Rolls Royce of mountain bikes, he introduces us to Almaty's biking fraternity. The day is spent lazing over the Sunday supplements, courtesy of the British Embassy, and devouring brown bread, tomatoes and cheese, a taste sensation after our noodle diet.
Dinner with Vice-Consul Paul Edwards and his family. The feast of beef, potatoes and wine, rounded off with home-made cheese cake, is a wonderful welcome to Almaty. Enough talk of food! With her Asian lineage, Paul thinks Rosal looks Tartar... and with my cropped hair and beard, I could be mistaken for a Russian academic. I like that! We discuss the situation in Central Asia, and I delve into a vast CD collection, hungry for music. And after months of hand scrubbing (...or perhaps a lack of) our clothes are treated to a machine wash.
The sudden splurge in bread and cheese has thrown Rosal's tummy into confusion, so I set off with biker Vadim on a ride to the resort of Medeu. Vadim was once a professional triathlete and has raced all over the USSR - but with the breakup of the Union, he's now out of a job. 'Kazakstan many money!' he jokes when we see the glow of street lamps struggle in the daylight. Since the fall of communism, unemployment has risen sharply, and an excellent education system has left too many overqualified people for the work around. Even professionals are facing troubled times - Cannondale Vladimir is a pediatric doctor, but now wheels and deals in the street markets. Life seems easier for the Kazaks than the Russians, but everybody feels the strain of independence.
A 15km climb later and we've arrived in Medeu, some 1700m in altitude and noticeably cooler than the city. Medeu has its own time-warped feel about it. It's home to the world's largest ice skating rink, one of many Soviet dinosaurs the country can no longer afford. A vast, peeling billboard announces its communist slogan - Sport is Health! Fittingly, many of the older generation are out hiking up the mountains, spritely and muscled. A few final switchbacks sets the heart pounding once more. We find ourselves perched on the lip of an enormous wall, slicing the valley in two like a damn, built to withstand mudslides in this seisemically active area. To a wonderful view of the valley behind, we watch newly weds and their families dance around tecno pumping Mercedes, waving their vodka bottles with abandon.
After our long detour around Urumqi, we're finally a significant step closer to Kyrgyzstan. At the embassy, a visa is procured on the spot, for a reasonable $30 US. Everything is slotting into place: my cellphone, which mysteriously disappeared in Pakistan customs months ago, arrives without a hitch. Thanks are owed once again to 'Paris' at Security Despatch for his continued help in organising yet another red cross package to yet another city on this long ride home. The pace of city life comes easily; picnicking in the parks, sampling ice cream - a must for Russians come rain or shine - and scouring the glossy malls for bargains. At a fraction of Western prices, exports from China tempt us away from our material-free ways. Rosal succumbs to Tiva sandles and I track down a rucksack and a handful of cheap CDs - only a few months to go before I'll be appreciating them. BMWs and Mercedes jostle along the leafy streets, intercut by characterful Ladas in an array of colours - burnt orange, aubergine purple, canary yellow. We peruse a mall...a supermarket that brims with the food of our dreams - a selection of yoghurt, a platter of cheese, an aisle of cereals, an abundance of pre-prepared salads....
Beneath this affluent veneer, another story unfolds. The older folk that wander Almaty's streets, palms held out in desperation, are a darker reminder of life after communism. In the absence of an effective welfare system, those without family support can often be seen reduced to selling all their belongings. Their future looks bleak. But in the wake of this despair, others are struggling to fulfill their dreams, however eccentric they may seem. A peculiar looking man accosts me on his bike - 'I am Victor. Victor the inventor!' he announces in a thick Russian accent, with a warm smile. I marvel at his amazing bike designed to carry a whole family...
Despite undoing the Russian knot, Almaty has retained the stateliness of a Russian city, and we constantly uncover clues to its former life. Towering, intricate and multicoloured mosaics adorn buildings, portraying floating cosmonauts and other Soviet triumphs. Wall paintings depict healthy looking farm workers, clutching baskets of wholesome food in Zelyony Bazar. The art deco bathing house is steeped in marble and pierced with skylights, almost cathedral-like with its panes of stained glass. And in nearby Panfilov Park, an eternal flame flickers for those fallen in war, beside a startling statue that nails the eye - 15 soldiers leaping forward to form a map of the former USSR. Each chiselled face represents a republic, headed and embraced by the features of one mighty Russian.
Our visa is almost at an end. I hitch a ride with Vadim and his friends to Bolshoe Almatinskoe - Almaty 'Big Lake' - in a dilapidated Czech van. Up and up, the trail twists and turns into the mountains towards Kyrgyzstan - not the official border, but the glacial mountain pass which they will cross to Lake Issykul on the Kyrgyz side. I'm tempted to go on with them and hope that my passport is not checked. 'You keep quiet, and you're a Russian boy! No problem!' they assure me. It's a wonderful place. The valley is carpeted with hundreds of flowers, peering out from a bed of lush grass, fed by crystal clear streams. A few locals are busy picking wild mushrooms, their Ladas abandoned on the rocky trail below. But finally it's time for me to say goodbye to my new Russian friend, whose company I've so enjoyed this last week, and make my way back down the pass to Almaty.
There's just time to inspect another Soviet dinosaur, perched on the hillside - Tian Shan Space Observatory, half of which now lies in decaying rusty ruins. Creeping around a guard, I feel spy-like as I photograph these surreal statues. Domes, like sets from Star Wars, loom against the sky, and disused telescopes point fruitlessly beyond the clouds. It's another eerie insight of a bygone life, a morbid fascination in witnessing the dramatic relics of a collapsed empire.
Here at over 3,000m, a massive descent to the city awaits, over two kilometres in altitude below. It's been a brief stay in Kazakhstan. Tomorrow, we're Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, bound.