One of the many perks of working in Kazakhstan is the remarkable number of public holidays offered to its citizens. We had another one, a new one, on December 1st, resulting in us having a long weekend. This was the opportunity we had been waiting for – the chance to go and play in the snow.
December 1st was made a national holiday this year. It is to celebrate President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s inaugural election in 1991, which was on this date. It falls on a Saturday this year, but this simply means that the next working day is a public holiday. We thus had the Monday off school.
Whether you agree with the idea of a national leader introducing national holidays or not is another question. We, however, were not going to let the opportunity to get away from the flat lands of Astana pass easily. Three of us thus sped to the airport on Friday night and just about made it in time for our flight to Kazakhstan’s other major city, Almaty. We arrived at the airport 30 minutes before departure. It is safe to assume that, if this scenario was replicated in the U.K., we would not have got on the plane. It can be nice to have a less rigid structure at times.
From up north, Almaty is viewed as the city in Kazakhstan with a bit more character, and also as being a little bit more dangerous. It would be difficult to top Astana, which is one of the safest cities I have lived in. This crossed our minds when, after having initial difficulties when haggling with local taxi drivers, a Kazakh man got our attention in English and said that his brother was coming to pick us up, and that we could join them. Free of charge. Any reservations we had were quickly erased when in conversation with him, and we decided to trust our instincts by trusting him. We were soon to realise that this was the best decision of our weekend.
The man, named Talgat, and his brother got us to the apartment we had rented, which was no mean feat as the snow began to fall more heavily. They were then kind enough to wait for the landlady to arrive, before saying to us that they were more than happy to help us at any time during our trip. They had already gone above and beyond, considering they refused any offers for remuneration, and it transpired the following day that their assistance would prove to be invaluable.
We had gone to Almaty with a mission objective of skiing in the Tian Shan mountain range to the south and east of the city, close to the border with Kyrgyzstan. The main resort is called Chimbulak, about 25km south of the old capital. We had been warned that, due to a relatively mild winter up to this point, it may not be open when we arrived. It was thus somewhat ironic that the resort wasn’t open when we arrived for the completely opposite reason.
I have already mentioned the heavy snowfall. When being driven home at about 5am after a night in a packed indie bar it was almost impossible to see out of the windscreen. This was due to the snow, rather than any volume of alcohol that had been consumed. What we woke up to on Saturday lunchtime was an astounding sight.
We have been told that it was the worst snow to hit Almaty since 1998. Trees were scattered over roads, having been weighed down irrecoverably by the white powder. Cars and even snow ploughs were stuck due to the sheer amount of snow that had settled. It was great fun for us to play in, though it made the city a much more precarious place. It also temporarily closed the airport, meaning that our friend Lucy, who was flying down on the Saturday, was delayed for a few hours and arrived with her bags stuck in the hold of her plane. She was lucky that, like us, she had also met a friendly English speaker.
We spent our Saturday evening eating sumptuous food in a French restaurant before heading to the 26th floor of Hotel Kazakhstan. It is supposed to offer some of the best views of the city, but unfortunately a thick white blanket of snow was all our eyes could gaze upon. The bar has a drink called the Barfly Fashion, one of the stronger drinks I have had this year, and also possesses some bizarre, scantily-clad dancers on podiums. Who did not fit into the vibe of this classy bar one single iota. We didn’t fit in too much either, so soon decided to make snow angels outside instead.
We did get our view of the city the following morning, when the snowstorm had relented sufficiently to pop in a cable car to the top of the Kok Tobe hill. The cloud covering Almaty had now reverted to its normal, nasty grey. The pollution you can see from up above is very worrying.
As with the old BBC show, today was due to be Ski Sunday. An avalanche warning had meant that Chimbulak was closed all weekend. After getting in touch with Talgat, he managed to find out that another smaller resort, called Tabagan, was open. A car was flagged down, and within an hour we were at the bottom of a gentle slope. Gentle, yet imposing to ski novices such as ourselves.
I have skied once before. Those who were there will remember the time in Austria when it took me an hour-and-a-half to get down a 10 minute course, and that there was brief talk of having to send a rescue team after me. This chastening experience made me the second most experienced skier of the four, meaning that a teacher was very necessary in order to make our experience an enjoyable one.
Our skiing was eventful. The highlight for the rest of our gang was when I lost my bearings and went down the hill bottom first. I then seemed to be squatting lower and lower, before eventually stopping. By crashing into a stationary snowboarder. With my bum. The girls all found it hilarious. Aside from that, my skiing seems to have improved, and it was very enjoyable at the end.
This was by no means the only activity Almaty had to offer us on the Sunday. We had made contact with Talgat, and it transpired that he and the man who had helped Lucy were best friends from university. We were driven up to the mountains to eat some of the finest shashlyk this country has to offer. Lots of it, too. It was a lovely evening, and showed us the positives of trusting well-meaning strangers who simply want to show off the best of their country.
This has been one of the most eventful, action-packed and most entertaining weekends I have had in the steppe. The attractions of Almaty have been lovely, especially when draped in a thick blanket of snow, but it has been the locals who have made this trip particularly special. Their hospitality and passion for their country and culture is inspiring, and makes me wish that the patriotism engendered by events in Britain this year will become more permanent. Maybe the British government need to introduce more public holidays!
Love you all