Friday, July 6, 2012

ALMATY, Apple of My Eye.

Almaty is the largest city in Kazakhstan with over 1.3 million people, nearly 10% of the population.  The name means City of Apples, and it is where apples first came from.  Although a nice city, I am afraid it is no Garden of Eden.  It was the capital of Kazakhstan until the president decided to build a new capital, Astana, the subject of an earlier blog.

Sandra had to go to Almaty for a Friday business meeting, so I tagged along, making every effort to earn the title of "trailing spouse".

I don't think I have had the opportunity to introduce you to Air Astana, Kazakhstan's national carrier.   Air Astana is a good airline, with new planes, well trained staff, reasonable food (by airline standards, not human consumption standards!) and traditional service values (they still give out sweets on take off and landing, and offer economy passengers little travel kits-socks and toothbrushes).  Unfortunately, this all comes at a price, and at a price that is so astonishingly high that only a semi monopolistic airline could survive with it.  Actually fares are not too bad within Kazakhstan, but today's return economy fare to Amsterdam (3400km) was $1,966 booking over a month in advance, a connecting flight to San Francisco (8943km) cost $1,315.  So Air Astana costs $0.58 per Km and American costs $0.15 per Km.  So I suggest you do what I do and take an extra sweet on take-off!

But the other thing about Air Astana that confuses is the schedule.  There are flights from Atyrau  to and from Amsterdam every day of the week except Saturdays.  This flight is about 95% business people who typically end the week on Friday and want to fly home the next morning, but there is no flight!

But back to the point, in order to get to Almaty for a Friday morning meeting we had to fly out of Atyrau either on Wednesday night at 9/50, or Thursday afternoon and go through Almaty.  The Wednesday flight would get you to the hotel at 3am Thursday morning, and the Thursday flight cost an afternoon but would mean that one could check in around 11pm.

The Friday meeting ended at 3pm, but there was no return flight until 8pm on Saturday.  The one week night with no Almaty Atyrau flight is Friday, when businessmen probably want to go home....or perhaps they want an excuse for another night in Almaty!

We took the Wednesday 9.50pm flight and arrived at our hotel before 3am.  It was the luxurious Rixos.  I am sure they had read my blog about the Astana Rixos, because they had given our room to somebody else, which we eventually ascertained when we managed to persuade them that we had not already checked in, I don't know what they were thinking, as if we would suddenly say "Oh yes, sorry, quite forgot, we did check in 3 hours ago, completely slipped our minds"!  Anyway they got revenge by checking us into a broom cupboard, a corner room so small they couldn't fit a chair in it, and if the bathroom door was open one couldn't access the toilet. It also had two single beds not the queen/king we had booked.  But at 3am one doesn't feel like trying to change hotels, and they assured us that we would get the correct room in the morning.

The plan was to sleep in a little, have breakfast and Sandra would work and I would keep out of her way, get the room changed, plan the weekend etc.  We hadn't bargained for the inability to connect to the internet.  None of the NCPOC staff in the hotel could get onto their network, and gmail did not connect either.  Not the best working environment, so a few annoyed people.  The hotel said they would sort it out, but never did.  I managed to connect our ipads to the internet through a different route.

Meanwhile they told us that they had no rooms but that we could have one the next day.  That is when I played the "potato chip" card.  When we had lifted up the clean bath towel in the bathroom we found a bag of half eaten potato chips (or something) between the towels.  So I handed it back to them and asked why they were there, and it was not a feature of five star hotels to which I was familiar.  This was enough to raise our case to the manager, and we did get a room and a plate of fruit by way of an apology.  Thank you Rixos.

I actually did not get out much on the Thursday, what with all the excitement!  Venturing out in the evening with Sandra we wandered over to the Cathedral, which is on Trip Advisors list of top things to see in Almaty, TWICE.  It would appear that it is entered under two different names, so we managed to kill two birds with one stone!
From the Cathedral we went in search of the Green Market, which we knew was Down from the Cathedral.  Almaty is a city built in the foothills of the Tien Shan mountains, and is itself on a gradual slope going up from north to south.  So the convention used when giving direction is to that of Up and Down, not South and North.  This works quite well unless you need to go east or west!
As we hunted the Green Market (Zelyony Bazaar) which I warned Sandra was not green as in the colour, but green as in vegetables, we came across the large green coloured building!

Which of course is not just a vegetable market but an "everything" market, hundreds of little storesmany of them almost identical in what they stocked, indicating commodity buying where price is the differentiator, hence the need to bargain as no prices are posted.

The buildings in Almaty are typical of a city that has been developed over many years, although the money has only really started to arrive more recently.  In Almaty there is the old and the new, Astana is predominantly new and showy, Atyrau is old and rather dull. 

These two older buildings were, I believe, from around 1900.

 And this was clearly from more recent times.

We stopped at an outdoor restaurant for some thing to eat on the way back to the hotel.  Our timing was quite good as it poured with rain as we ate our Shaslik; beef, lamb and horse skewers of grilled meat, some grilled vegetables and enough raw onion for 25 hamburgers.  We ate it all except the onion!  One of the essential pieces of furniture in a Kazakh restaurant, even more important than the cloak-room (to leave winter coats and hats) is the television, or more likely televisions.  They are usually flat screens mounted on the walls playing either a music channel (half naked people, usually female, dancing) or a fashion channel (sometimes scantily clad females prancing), the sound is usually turned off and different music is playing in the background, making the music videos even more inappropriate.  In this outdoor restaurants the TVs were mounted on tripods, so they could be easily taken indoors for the night.  
The next day Sandra was in her conference so I explored the city.  The first place I went was up the cable car to the top of the mountain where there is a very tall TV mast.  It was an hazy day so the view was not perfect but still good.  It was interesting to look down from the cable car and see all the homes huddled together.  These were large homes.  They often house three generations of a family together.  In between these homes were other buildings, some of which looked hardly fit for habitation in a cold climate.
From the top there were views north (Down) back over the city of Almaty.
And views south (Up) into the hills, and of the TV mast itself.
There was a small petting zoo and carnival games as well as some pleasant gardens and paths with a restaurants and cafes; it was a family type of place but with the 5 minute cable car ride costing about $7.00 it could be rather expensive for an average Kazakh family. 
I completed the day by investigating the The Central State Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan which was a little disappointing as very, very few signs were in English (why should they be?) so I couldn't really understand the detailed and very busy contents of numerous display cases. I can say there was quite a bit about the tribal movements and the development and formation of the region and the Republic, quite a lot about textiles, pottery and agricultural tools, something about the military and the Second World War, and plenty to laud recent Kazakh history.  You probably get the picture, I decided that it wasn't likely to be a must-see place for Sandra.

One thing that Sandra might have been interested in was the shops.  I made sure to note where the temptation lay so that I would be able to navigate a safely distant route through the city.
Not all the stores were doing so well...

The Rixos Atrium
Saturday was our joint sightseeing day.  But before anything else we had to change hotels for our final night.  As we were now no longer "on business" we were free to select an hotel of our own choice for the last night.  I had found an hotel called the Worldhotel Sultanat Almaty, which has been recently renovated, and was not far from the Rixos.  To be honest I was a bit aprehensive when we arrived, it had very limited signage and had a very modest entrance.  Inside reception was very modern, very clean and very efficient.  Our room was like a breath of fresh air after the grandiose pomposity of the Rixos.
The room was a cross between Legoland, Ikea and Computerstore.  Not only did the free WiFi actually work, but there were connectors to link our pcs to the tv, and play sound through room speakers.  There was even a printer.  So, I do admit that we were surprised to find the toilet and shower behind white cupboard doors, but we could afford to use the minibar without taking out a second mortgage.  So this is now my hotel of choice in Almaty.

After the move we headed on back up the cable car, and met up with Sandra's colleague Jan, at the top.  Where we took more pictures.  
Notice that the view north over the city shows just how flat the land is stretching across the steppe.  There is also a picture in this collage of the ski jumps for the Asian Winter Games that were held last year in Almaty.  The previous day I could not identify the large structure in the distant haze, but Jan clarified things as did the enlargement in Photoshop.

We ate at a restaurant overlooking the southern hills and the TV Tower.  The Tower is actually very tall, in the world's top 15 highest towers, 371.5m and built out of steel in 1982 (when it ranked higher on that list!).  It was over lunch that Jan said something that made us rethink our plans.  A number of people had looked a little quizzical when we said we were going back to Atyrau on the Sunday afternoon flight.  That was because there isn't one and I had erroneously booked a flight at 3.20am from Almaty to Atyrau, we didn't need to make plans for Sunday, in fact we didn't need to change hotels!  It just goes to show how conditioned I am to the flight curfews that most western cities have. I never considered a 3.20AM flight.  Mea Culpa...again.
That afternoon we wandered around Almaty.  We did go and check out "The A. Kasteyev State Museum of Arts" which was quite interesting, but had as its main feature a visiting exhibition of French paintings and etchings.

There is quite a lot of water in Almaty.  The snow capped mountains may give a clue to where it comes from.  There is Big Lake, which serves as a reservoir for the city, up in the mountains.  we wanted to go and see it but the logistics didn't work out.  This is a quote from the email the taxi service sent us...

"There above the Alpine Rose hotel  (3 000 m before the lake) foresters of the National Park set up a barrier and block the road at 9 AM (they appear there 10-15 min earlier especially on weekend days so It is better to be there 20 minutes earlier.If we can't start before 9 AM will be necessary to pay bribes about 2000 KZT at the barrier and sometimes they do not accept any bribes....
It is possible to do the tour by parking the car at the Alpine Rose and to do the rest of things on feet (3000 m one way it is not so big distance) but it is better when the car is with the group."

We decided to give it a miss, which is just as well as it turned out we didn't have any Sunday to sightsee.

The water from the mountains flows through the city in open drains, they are not smelly or disgusting, though we did get to see a nice big fat rat walking along one.  The many fountains around town were more pleasant.

Under the Soviet central planning policy, when a city reached a population of 1 million people they built a subway or Metro system.  Almaty achieved this distinction in the late 1980s and construction began in 1988.  However after the USSR collapsed there was no funding to complete the project and it languished for many years until in 2003 when the government approved a new initiative to complete it.  It opened at the end of 2011 and is now the newest Metro system in the world, and very nice indeed.  The 8.5km section that is currently open cost about $1.1billion but it is just the start of a bigger system.  We took a brief ride, and found that the few other passengers were almost all local sightseers, posing and taking pictures.  On weekdays it carries well over 30,000 passengers a day but on a Saturday afternoon it is a tourist attraction.
Subway Scenes: a really nice, efficient facility.
We returned to our hotel ready for a drink, food and an early night as our car to the airport was arriving at 1.15am.  
 Drinks in the hotel lobby bar were followed by an OK meal in a deserted restaurant...not a sole, even a waiter!

We did get a couple of hours sleep before heading out to the airport and were actually quite pleased to be home on Sunday morning with a day for Sandra to adjust before going back to work.  In Atyrau we don't have all those distractions to tire us out!

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