Saturday 6 September 2014
It’s kind of amazing how an initial experience in a country, even if it’s unrelated to that country, affects your opinion of it going forward. Just how I should have probably loved Indonesia, my initial experiences there left me with a bitter taste that lasted all the while I was there, so I suspect it is with Kazakhstan. This is why I have changed my plans, and have decided to stay in Almaty for three nights rather than two, but to go back to Bishkek on Monday, thence to Osh and get into Uzbekistan, as originally planned, via the Fergana Valley.
This also has the advantage of not needing to ‘register’ with the local police, which I’d have to do if I stayed five days or longer (the plan to go via Shymkent into Tashkent would have me leaving in day six). It does mean I won’t see some of the nicer parts of Southern Kazakhstan, but does mean I don’t have a 12 hour bus/train journey to see them, and in any case I’m seeing the same sort of towns in Uzbekistan.
I’ve also booked a flight from Bishkek to Osh for Tuesday morning; it was a nice price and means I get to see something of Osh before heading into Uzbekistan.
I also surreptitiously moved most of my stuff to the other hostel. I’ve left my big backpack there but there’s not much in it – one of the things that I desperately need to do is some clothes washing; this is definitely TMI but I’m having to not wear underwear today as it’s all dirty and on a hot day like today, dirty undies are something I really don’t need to be wearing …
Last night’s hostel does have washing facilities but they seem to be constantly in use and the drying racks are all over the place, getting in the way. Today’s hostel, the one I should have been in last night, doesn’t have this problem; it has one washing machine that was empty, and drying takes place on the line outside. Simple.
Actually, the two hostels couldn’t be more different. Although both are actually quite tricky to find, being down side alleys and not very well signposted, they are almost at opposite ends of the hostel world. Last night’s hostel is a dedicated building, it’s painted in bright colours, has large, airy-feeling rooms, a large kitchen, is staffed by young multi-lingual people, and is full of life. Tonight’s hostel is smaller, is basically one apartment in a small block, older-feeling, darker (in the subdued sense of darker walls and less natural light), and seems to be mainly staffed by an older, mono-lingual couple who I assume own the place. That being said, the backpacker crowd themselves there are no less varied than the backpacker crowd at the first hostel, just quieter. And less likely to wander around the dorm in just their shorts.
One similarity though is that they’re both a bit disorganised; I don’t think tonight’s hostel knew I should have come last night, or even who I am or that I’d booked at all. Oddly, this is not the first time this has happened. The fact that there’s never been a problem suggests I tend to book hostels that no-one else does.
Before checking into the new hostel, I went for a walk up Kok-Tobe, a large hill just on the SE outskirts of Almaty centre, and not terribly far from the old hostel. In principle you can get good views from the top, but when I got up there, the main area at the front of the hilltop – where the cable car arrives – was taped off as if it were all closed. This is also where the man lookout point is.
The top of Kok-Tobe has quite a few thing on it, mostly geared towards children. It’s actually almost a mini-fairground, with dodgems, a climbing wall, a ‘7D cinema’ (popular amongst much of the Soviet region, they’re basically those live-motion cinema ride things), a small zoo, and a couple of restaurants/cafes. I don’t know if I was just early, but when I arrived most of it was closed, only just setting up and opening around midday. This kind of confused me as it was a Saturday, and even the cable cars are scheduled to start around 11am. They claim to close stuff in bad weather, but it was calm, warm, and hazy, so not exactly dangerous.
The other quirky thing on Kok-Tobe (apart from the childrens’ murals that line the side of the road up) is a statue of all four members of 1960s boy band The Beatles, commissioned and installed in 2007 at the behest of the many fans in Almaty. It’s curious to think ‘why here’ as opposed to anywhere else in the word. It’s placed just off one of the paths, and as soon as you walk into the area or sit down on one the benches, the loudspeakers play random Beatles tracks.
Ate at another ‘canteen’/’cafeteria type place today, near the new hostel, much bigger and more ‘open’/’airy’ than last night’s. I even pushed the boat out and had cake. I did notice that even these canteens are relatively more expensive than Bishkek – another minus point for Kazakhstan. I’m sure it’s just because I’m in the largest city and what used to be the capital, and I’m sure if I ventured out to places like Turkestan or Karaganda that it would feel much different, but I can only speak as I find, even if still affected by initial grump.