Kazakhstan - Almaty
My travel schedule has been a bit relentless lately. Its only a week since I returned from Malta and here I am boarding another plane on yet another business trip - this time to Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Excuse the quality of the above photo - it was taken on my Blackberry but shows the Kazakhstan international ski jump centre, and this is the exact view from the office window.
Kazakhstan is on the extreme the eastern edge of our European region and is as geographically remote as the Caymen Islands to our west. Our interpretation of Europe is more wacky than Eurovision! That said, these places have to be visited from time to time and it will come as no surprise that the Caymen's attract more volunteers for visits...
So, last Sunday it was off on KLM via Amsterdam, departure 11.00am from Birmingham and touchdown in Almaty at 2.00am local time (9.00pm GMT). This outbound leg is really grim as you need to get some sleep as soon as you get there to be ready to work the next day, but your body tells you its too early for sleep. Then its up and off to the office and it is 2.00pm before the trickle of e-mail's from London signifies the "real" time back home. All very confusing and knackering. Last time I was in Almaty I never clicked into local time and I existed on less than three hours sleep, per might bit mercifully I slept for over five hours after I landed and adapted really well this time round.
Life in Almaty is strange. In some ways its as alien a culture as I have experienced anywhere, including Africa - its mostly Russian speaking and the built legacy of the Soviet era is as strong as the lasting cultural impact. My first morning didn't go too well as the hotel taxi driver got his wires crossed and insisted on taking me bank to the Airport whereas all I wanted twas to get to the office in the financial district! In the end a mixture of my protestations, an e-mail to my colleagues and the hotel clocking that I hadn't yet paid my bill got things sorted out.
Spring has struck in Almaty, with the leaves of the scrubby trees bursting out and the temperature up in the low 20's. All a very pleasant change from the lingering frosts of the UK. We bustled about in our shirtsleeves and dined on an outdoor patio seeking shade where we could.
My local colleagues were as hospitable as ever and I was treated to a range of international cuisine including delights from Uzbekistan and Georgia. They seem to include a lot of meat and unlike the UK, the use of horse is positively encouraged.
With my three days on the ground over it was time to get back to my hotel, finally sampling the local specialty of the Gypsy Taxi. Almaty, like Moscow, has little in the way of a formal taxi service and instead the practice is to stand on the street side and hold out your wallet and eventually someone will stop, ask your desired destination and if its not too far out of the way a price will be agreed and off you go. No booking, no insurance, no assurance - sounds like a nightmare. The amazing thing is that it generally seems to work ok. My selection of taxi was so so. I hopped in the front and shared the drivers only word of English which was a very well expressed "Hello", dropped of another passenger and then hit the dual carriage ways. It was at the first corner I got worried - we approached at breakneck speed with the engine rattling, coolant odour pervading the cab and then he applied the brakes. Three sets of pads snatched at the discs, their rivets tearing into the metal with a terrible scream. I am not sure if we stopped using the fourth wheel which didn't scream. or maybe that one gave up the ghost long ago. Either way, I reached for my seat belt and prayed!
The Kazakh people are both a friendy and attractive bunch, their mixed race ancestry blending into a dark, willowy, asian, Mongolian fusion which is pleasing on the eye and good company to boot. But its the sheer remoteness of the of the place which gets me. To reach the new capital city of Astana is a 1000k drive and if you need to get out to another major city beyond Kazakhstan you will have to travel an eye watering 2,500k - its almost a landlocked island. No wonder its one of the most expensive cities in the world.
And so it was back on the anti social 4.30am flight (then delayed by an hour and a half) chasing the dawn all across Europe to land at 10.30am after over eight hours in the air - a never ending morning. Thankfully I had yesterday off in lieu of my Sunday travel, a day when my family assembled to celebrate my 52nd birthday with a meal at Jimmy Spices followed up with a viewing of The Blues Brothers eased along with some sampling of our home grown cider and Jacks rather good home brew.
Not a bad way to end a busy week.