Saturday, July 5, 2008

Around Almaty

A few hundred km’s before Almaty the headset on my bike (the steering) started playing up and catching. This was a worry as it’s one thing I can’t fix. I found the biggest/best bike shop in Almaty, but the mechanics didn’t have many clues. Luckily I found out about Sasha, a bike mechanic who due to clashes with bosses had gone his own way and had a tiny workshop hidden behind an apartment block in a basement. He had the right bearings and got me sorted.

If anybody needs him:
Sasha (Aleksandr)
Head east along ul. Gogolya past Panfilov Park, towards Central Park
Just past Interfoods supermarket on the north side there’s an arch – behind arch on right.

In Sasha’s workshop there’s this good collegial atmosphere you get in this part of the world where everybody who comes in shakes hands, with strangers especially. People turn up with beers and snacks for everybody. It feels more like a friendly club than a workshop.

While waiting for visas I headed up to Taldy Kurgan, where the relatives of my friend Mika live in a small village. They are originally from Azerbaijan and were deported here in 1936. Some returned to Baku after 1991, some are in Russia, but most have stayed. Only Mika’s mum (a mathematician) made it as far as Australia – via Petersburg, Baku and Israel. Mika’s grandma had 11 children and here I stayed with one of his aunts, who lives with her family right next door to another aunt. It’s a very closely knit setup and people wander to and forth between homes. Out the back of each house is a big vegetable patch with spring onions, tomatoes, potatoes, red peppers, eggplant, dill, coriander, radishes and lettuce, fertilized with manure from the sarai (stable), which has cattle and chooks. Food on the table is mostly home produce: milk, yoghourt, cottage cheese, lavash, dolmi and salad. Delicious.

Back in Almaty headed off into the mountains towards the south for a 2 day walk. Walking through town with my pack an older Russian man greeted me enthusiastically. ‘Great, you’re heading for the mountains!’ Funnily enough bushwalkers/hikers are still almost a secret society, and you still have, again, this special collegial atmosphere when somebody on your wavelength sees you. The Russians say, ‘Rybak rybaka uznayot izdaleka.’ (A fisherman can tell a fisherman from a long way off).

As it turned out, there was nobody in the mountains beyond a rugged 4WD track up to Bolshoe Almatinskoe lake at about 2000m up. I wandered up and camped in a beautiful alpine valley, then up over a 3600m pass the next day next to the Kyrgyz border (south of the Almaty-Alatiri mountains) and back down, down, down towards the city to the north. All the way there was minimal evidence of humans and the path was often patchy. If this was Switzerland there would be hundreds of people up there even on weekdays.

Towards the bottom I came to a barricaded old sanatorium – ‘Alma-Arashan’ with signs ‘Closed for renovations until 2010’. This place was famous in Soviet times, served as a military hospital in WWII, and is famous for curative sulphur waters. The canyon was very steep with little room to move so I found a gap and snuck through, only to be ‘arrested’ by shocked security guards. They told me, ‘This is private property.’ I asked, ‘Whose?’ They said, ‘It doesn’t matter.’

Further down an understandably bitter local Uyghur taxi driver told me that a Nazarbaev relative or crony owned it now and was making it into a luxury resort. He was one of the few who expressed their anger and complete despair very openly. Sad. Most people avoid getting emotionally entangled – they know it’s just not worth it. Much better off staying deliberately disengaged.

I went to the Tajik consulate for the 3rd time (mid afternoon) to get my visa. The secretary said, ‘No, you can only pick documents up in the mornings.’ Annoying enough – but next morning I turned up at 10.15 am. Nobody there. The builders reckoned somebody should turn up by 12.00 at the latest. I settled in, then after an hour went for a little walk. I found a luxury estate with Uighur guards at the gates. They said, ‘You can’t go in.’ I put on my old socialist hat and said, ‘well where did they get their money from? Why don’t we break in and steal it all back?’ As an unexpected reward I was then allowed to wander around the estate at my leisure and was then offered tea and biscuits on my return. Ha ha. Back at the consulate people drifted in, waited for a bit, had a sleep, then drifted off. 2pm – still nobody. A young Czech hippy who wanted to travel through Afghanistan turned up. I wasn’t in the mood. At 4.30pm the secretary turned up, completely unapologetic. He gave me the visa but not the border zone (Pamir) permit I needed, saying I should get it from a travel agent.


By the time I got to Osh, 3 day’s ride from the Tajik border and 3-4 weeks after my first email contact with Tajik agencies about this bloody permit, having sent scans a few times, nothing had happened. I went to a local agency and they said I was the 5th this month and that they couldn’t arrange the permit for a KZ-issued visa. After hours of mucking around I was told I could pay $US 70 to send the passport to Bishkek and get the permit, which would take till Monday night (3 days). It also turned out that people getting their Tajik visas in Bishkek were getting the permit included for $US50.

If I have the energy when I get to Dushanbe I’ll go to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to (vainly)demand my money back. I know what they’ll say, ‘Take it up with the consulate in Almaty, it’s got nothing to do with us.’ They will most likely be shameless and even amused. It’s always your problem. The complete lack of accountability is all pervasive. There are few or no rules you have to follow, everything depends on contacts, and people in positions of power can make personal exceptions whenever they see fit. For a while, when I realized that as a Russian speaking foreigner I could make things work for me, I liked the arbitrary thing in some ways. Now, I just see it as evidence that there is no functional system – especially when I see that there is no way out (or around) for locals without connections. I must be becoming more German.

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