Almaty, Again (and travel tips for Bishkek-Almaty)

I visited Almaty for about a week in 2013. It was my first stop (after about half a dozen stops our driver made en route…) after leaving China, my first stay in a city where I felt absolutely lost in language. I had podcast-studied Russian for a month, and could fumble my way through enough Uyghur to attempt conversation in Kazakh (the two are close, but not as close as Uyghur-Uzbek or Kazakh-Kyrgyz). But I was lost.
Almaty was still a beautiful city, as were the expansive landscapes of Kazakhstan.

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This week, quite unexpectedly, we had to go back for a one-day visa run (because, apparently, according to ever-changing rules, the university can’t give us residence/work permits and one-year working visas from our entry visas, and so everyone suddenly needs to take a visa from abroad).

[A side note on Kyrgyz Visa Laws: like many other laws in the country, the legislation often produces good laws; the problem comes in their execution. First, there’s lack of structure (weak state) for implementation. Second, many of the civil servants don’t actually know the laws (lack of consistent and uniform access to information). Third, salaries are low and there’s pervasive corruption. And fourth, there’s little incentive to implement the laws to the letter, and no executive working system of compliance checking (though I guess that’s bundled into 1 & 3 as well. So basically every time you get a visa the procedure will be different, and you will pay a different amount. Also, if you are staying in Kyrgyzstan for more than 3 months and are not a student, expect to pay a lot¬†for visas, because each time it gets muddled – like the university being unable to process visas and permits for the entire foreign staff until February – you have to pay for another visa.]

We woke up before five, when Bishkek is frozen as black ice bones, and took a taxi to the border at Korday (about 25 minutes from city center). We had called a taxi driver E knew; he drove us to the border, went through with us to ensure there were no problems, and helped us find a driver on the other side. If you aren’t short on time, and are leaving at a reasonable hour, there is a Marshrutka that leaves from around Tsum (I believe the #285 and #333) and costs 20 som. Taxi fare will depend on where you depart from within Bishkek.
To cross the border first you check out at the Kyrgyz post. You shouldn’t have to pay any money (unless you’ve overstayed your visa), but the border guards sometimes ask for bribes, usually depending on the color of your passport. One navy blue passport meant no problems for our entire trio.
From the Kyrgyz checkpoint you walk across a bridge over a rushing river, damp drafts whipping us so hard my teeth were chattering by the time we entered the Kazakh checkpoint. Again, no problems, and at 6 am the 24-hour border checkpoints were pretty quiet, excuse the occasional Dordoi Bazaar trader barging through with their bags of goods. (Note for Americans and most Europeans: as of October, 2014 you can enter Kazakhstan visa-free for up to fourteen days!)

By the time we bundled our way through the checkpoints, our driver had found a car to take us to Almaty and back, plus drive us around within Almaty.mIn summer the price is $100; he asked for $120 because he uses more gas to heat the car in winter. A bit steep, but we were on a schedule. If you have more time, a seat in a shared taxi costs about $10 each way, but you might have to wait over an hour for it to leave.
As soon as we left Korday we drove straight north over Kazakh steppe. In the pre-dawn darkness wind swept across the steppe and blew snow over the road in swirls so thick we could barely see twenty feet outside. When we stopped at a gas station around eight the thermometer outside read -20. Bishkek now seems balmy.
We napped in the car and woke up on the outskirts of Almaty, where our driver spent three quarters of an hour gingerly navigating through grid-to-grid traffic. Waking up in Almaty traffic after two weeks in Bishkek – is like switching a country bus in China for the sleek Shenzhen metro. Suddenly all the roads are clean and wide (there are actually people out cleaning the streets), drivers let other cars in, no one honks their horn, people flash their lights to warn of cops ahead – in short, people in cars are (on the whole) polite and civil! Unlike in Bishkek, where there’s a constant striving to take power and demand respect (in a country where most can claim none), drivers of the many, many luxury SUVs crowding Almaty’s streets weren’t assholes – a miracle!
Perhaps it’s because Almaty is more settled into its modern middle-classless. While the nominal GDP in Kazakhstan is a mere $13,509, (that’s 6-13 times more than Kyrgyzstan’s, depending on sources), Almaty is definitely inching towards middle-class, both in spending (the number of shopping malls and high-end stores) and expectations (clean streets, more civil public manners).

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Almaty is expensive, too. According to The Guardian, Almaty is one of the top 50 most expensive cities for expats. After we dropped off our visa applications, we had a mere 4 hours to kill (and it was -20 outside) so we headed to the cafe-lined pedestrian zone that stretches along Zhibek Zholy west from the green bazaar/one block south of Gogola. We ducked into the first place we saw, Kangnam Cafe, which was a mistake. I love Korean food; sweet-tooth Korean imitation Western food, not so much. E ordered a panini. It was sweet.

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Lattes were around $4.50, which I’m pretty sure is approaching New York prices, and my Udon noodle soup very obviously came from a package. Considering that I previously experienced Kazakh food to be wonderful (when compared to Kyrgyz) this was highly disappointing. The one thing I order in Kazakhstan, and it’s from a freeze-dried package.

Before meeting our driver and picking up visas we wandered over to the green bazaar. If you’ve been to other bazaars in Central Asia, it’s not exciting, just amazingly organized and clean. If you haven’t yet, it’s a quaint start. Don’t expect other bazaars to look like they popped out of Conde Nast Traveler.

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Our last stop was across Gogol in Park of the 28 Guardsmen, which has a beautifully preserved Russian Orthodox Church.

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And then we hopped in the car, picked up our visas without issue, and we’re back in Bishkek by nightfall.

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