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Perhaps the only tourist in Kazakhstan’s biggest city


Kazakhstan is one of the largest countries you will ever read about. It covers more than a million square miles, spans two continents and is the biggest landlocked nation on the planet. It dwarfs all ten-letter rivals and not even a four-letter country can get remotely close. I could go on, so I think I will. Try adding together the areas of UK, France and Germany, Holland and Belgium, Spain and Portugal, Italy and Greece and Poland and Austria and Switzerland. I did, as you might have guessed, and found that not only would all twelve fit comfortably inside Kazakhstan but, to my great satisfaction, there would still be enough room to chuck in Albania.

The five hour drive to Almaty from the remote Kyrgyzstan border post took us across a spectacular moonscape and through a series of rural communities, best remembered for their roadside stalls with rich and colourful displays of fresh fruit and vegetables. It was just getting dark as we hit the outskirts of the city but even through the fading light I could see that this was going to be a very different experience from either of the previous Stans. This place had the feeling of money, the sense that in Monopoly terms I’d thrown a couple of double sixes and fast forwarded from the Old Kent Road to something more in line with Piccadilly or Leicester Square.

It was the end of the road with my friendly twosome from Bishkek, they had done me proud, and as we said our farewells on the streets of what seemed such a magnificent city centre I felt a nagging stab of guilt, even a sense of sadness for them: having travelled all day they had to drive for another five hours through the darkness, back to the very much poorer cousin that was their native Kyrgyzstan. I hoped that they didn’t feel the same.

The map from the guidebook steered me up and across the grid of streets towards the famous landmark of the Hotel Kazakhstan. In a city where accommodation is reputedly more expensive than London this one was indicated as good value for money and seemed a logical place to choose as a base. The 26 storey tower was impossible to miss, not just because of its sheer size but the enormity of the digits that glowed on the side of the building. 2030. I checked it off against my watch, satisfied myself that it was indeed exactly half past eight, and stepped into the lobby with credit card in hand.

* * * * *

Mr Nursultan Nazarbaev is the only president the country has ever had. Whether this is due entirely to his popularity – in 2005 he was voted in for a further seven years – or the fact that mysterious things happen to those who challenge him is open to question, but on the face of it Kazakhstan has done rather well under his stewardship (repressive though it may be). I lay there on my overpriced bed and enjoyed reading about the recent history, particularly grateful for the luxury of not needing to use a torch.

This is a country with vast resources and huge ambition and the unshakeable President has set out a series of clear objectives for the next two decades. The book made interesting reading, some of which I’ll tell you about later, and went on to explain that because the year 2030 has been set as the goal, this date appears as a reminder in public places throughout the country. Sure enough, as I found out the next morning, it is always half past eight on the walls of the Hotel Kazakhstan.

The humongous hotel building resembled an airport terminal and the mega breakfast buffet pulled in an army of business suits alongside my “Tshirts and trainers” comrades. The food was plentiful but grim and I’m sorry to report that my attempt at light social intercourse with the restaurant staff triggered little more than the disdainful glare one might expect of a pit bull. For a brief moment I’d almost forgotten that in this part of the world smiling is the exclusive domain of the mentally retarded but at least today the grumpiness amused me, nothing could dampen my excitement. The sun was shining and a new city there for the taking.

The pavements of Almaty were impeccably clean, the parks well tended, the lawns and flowers sprinkled and nurtured. The people looked smart, the cars looked smart, the buses looked smart. In all directions there were trees and more trees and just to the south, towering above the city, the rugged mountains bearing the last (or was it the first?) snows of the year. The geography reminded me of Teheran, another city with affluent suburbs climbing up the hillside and a cable car to shuttle tourists up to the higher peaks. It all felt, well… civilised, pleasant, a thoroughly decent place to live.

Almaty is tucked away in the far south-eastern corner and is easily the largest city in the gargantuan oval of Kazakhstan. So it came as a surprise to many when the President announced that with effect from 1997 it would no longer serve as the country’s capital. Following Brazil’s example of the 1960s (in itself, a dangerous tactic) a small town thousands of miles from anywhere was nominated to fly the flag and an obscene amount of money was poured in to create a sort of politician’s Disneyland. Astana, way up in the northern Steppe, wouldn’t know what had hit it.

The hard work done for the day, I walked through Paniflov Park and found a seat (green, nicely painted, no graffiti) in the sunshine to admire the immense Russian Orthodox cathedral at close quarters. Now functioning again as a place of worship this stunning piece of architecture, predominantly peach in colour and made entirely of wood, had been used as a museum and concert hall throughout the years of Soviet-enforced atheism. The colours were breathtaking: a multi-domed roof with a pattern of green and red diamond shapes, gold minarets pointing up to the bluest of skies and all surrounded by a blanket of dahlias and marigolds in full bloom to add the finishing touch. An idyllic picture: oh yes, give me a park bench instead of a night club any day of the week.

The next building I was to visit could not have been more different. The Arasan Baths is also a domed edifice but it’s a depressingly grey, ugly mass of concrete with tiny slits that serve as windows. My initial thought was that the place had been abandoned, it somehow seemed too gruesome to be operational as any kind of public facility, let alone a venue dedicated to health and relaxation. Yet there had to be something going on because a small group of vendors had gathered at the entrance to offer bunches of birch twigs bound together like tennis rackets. I was keeping to a safe distance, watching and wondering, when a very large Kazakh couple stepped into view, bought two bunches, then headed up the steps and through a swinging door. I didn’t want to do it, but I’d brought my towel specially and I knew there was no turning back.

The inside, let’s call it an entrance hall, was marginally grimmer than the prison-like exterior. Though I didn’t know what I was paying for, I handed over the notes requested in sign language by the charm-free lady at the desk and walked through a door to which she had vaguely pointed. It led to a changing room, or rather a sort of warehouse with concrete floors, bashed up lockers and lots of naked men.

I tried to blend quickly and as soon as my pants were down there was a man in white T-shirt and trousers standing behind me. He was pointing, offering something and indicating a price and after several minutes of nervous confusion it became evident that he was a masseur running through his menu of treatments. In for a penny, in for a pound, I agreed to upper body only, but flashed him two fives with my hands to indicate I needed ten minutes to wander.

The adjacent room was tiled in a shiny brown colour that brought back memories of toilets in railway stations when I was a kid. Who can forget that overpowering smell of urine, the 1d slot machine for the right to sit down, the crude poems on the walls and those strange diagrams with phone numbers of girls who promised all manner of entertainment? (Not a bad pennysworth, in hindsight.) This place didn’t smell of wee but as I walked by the concave shower cubicles I couldn’t help thinking it was a venue more suited to torture and execution than any form of leisure pursuit.

A wooden door, thick and heavy, opened into an incredibly hot room, a wooden box with dark brown walls, dark brown benches and an array of human bodies of all shapes and sizes. Men sat in rows in complete silence, birch twigs in hand, all completely naked except for those that had dressed for the occasion in …white felt hats! What on earth was going on? I chose a space to ensure full view of the headgear, placed my towel on the searing hot seat and after only a matter of seconds the remarkable show began.

It was one of the be-hatted, a huge man with a sagging belly and an extraordinarily small penis who stood up and unashamedly started thrashing himself with his miniature broomstick. He was sweating profusely and clearly having the time of his life as he exhaled loudly with each blow of the branches upon his back and buttocks. Others stood up and joined in, some trading swipes with their friends, as I just sat there, a quiet selfconscious Brit contemplating what a strange world we live in.

Outside in the corridor my man was waiting, as those with the promise of dollars can always be relied upon to do. He gestured to a slab in the corner and indicated that I should lie face down such that my genitals occupy the same spot as the twenty thousand scrotums that went before. Then he set about throwing buckets of warm water over me as though washing his car, a not unpleasant experience and a sharp contrast to the activities that were soon to follow.

I think the most memorable manoeuvre was the digging of his elbows into my back, the third cycle of which provoked the release of a grotesque, tortured scream that could only have come from me. Whether he always did three, or just carried on till his clients could take no more, is something I will always wonder. It didn’t get any better when he climbed up and went for a walk along my spine and, though I didn’t exactly take it like a man, the teeth clenching and controlled breathing replaced what could easily have degenerated into a total mental breakdown. The instruction to sit up and face the lunatic led me to believe that things might get better but the simultaneous jabbing of his fingers deep into my ears soon put paid to that one. It seemed the objective was to try to get his fingertips to meet at a halfway point inside my skull and when that didn’t work he simply took my ears in his hands and screwed them up tightly like bits of scrap paper destined for the waste bin. Then six more buckets to slosh me down before he muttered the only word of English he knew. “Finish”.

He probably thought, bless him, that my big smile was a measure of how much I’d enjoyed his company. It had certainly been an experience – and one that won’t be forgotten – but my back hurt like hell and as I hobbled towards the circular swimming pool, bracing myself for some icy misery, I couldn’t help thinking that the little chap might have caused some permanent damage. Why hadn’t I just gone to the museum like normal tourists do?

* * * * *

I did make it to the state museum and there were a handful of normal tourists. They were all European visitors and presumably as narked and perplexed as I was to find that the Kazakh authorities had declined to translate the labelled exhibits into any other language. Was it too much to ask, just half a day’s work that would serve one of their key attractions for the next fifty years? Customer service Soviet-style, the “why lend a hand when it’s so much easier to give someone the finger” approach, later to be trialled and perfected in the UK by British Telecom.

Extract taken from Ten Letter Countries.
9781780880754, £10.00, published 10th April 2012

The Ten-Letter Countries is an insight into the history, geography and politics of twelve fascinating countries through the eyes of The Alphabet Traveller. Each country David visited had 10 letters to its name. It follows on from his earlier adventure, The Four Letter Countries

Both books can be ordered from www.troubador.co.uk or www.alphabet-traveller.com

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