It was a year ago this week that I returned to Latvia from a year in Central Asia. How I ended up in Central Asia was another random series of events. In 2002, during my big backpacker trip, I’d met two guys who had been there. One of them told me that he had been on a tram in Almaty, keeping a low profile when two cops got on, pinged him as a foreigner straight away and started trying to shake him down for a bribe. This all turned out to be prophetic. The second guy had travelled from Vietnam to Latvia via Kazakhstan (KZ) and had told me that in the three weeks he’d been in KZ, he’d only spoken English twice in that time. My curiousity bone was tickled and, being someone who likes “off the beaten track” type of places, I stuck it on my must-do list.
Fast forward a decade later. I’d just returned to Latvia from a year in Valencia and realised that, even though I’d got into teaching because I wanted to see different places, I’d spent the whole nine years of it in just two cities. I sent off speculative CVs to Istanbul and Almaty, interviewed at the latter and, after a week of should I/shouldn’t I, I was on the way to KZ.
It turned out to be a baptism of fire. I got there at 5am, jetlagged and feeling like a zombie after 18 hours of travel, including a 10 hour stopover in Kiev. After a sleep, I obviously wanted to head out and see the city and get some shopping. On the way back home, the police stopped me while entering a metro station, hustled me into a side room, searched my bag and decided that the single unopened bottle of beer that I had inside my backpack was a serious criminal offence. I quickly sussed that they were out for a bribe.
I’d actually rehearsed in my mind what I would do in this situation: refuse to pay, demand to speak to my embassy etc, but nothing really prepares you for being stuck in a room underground, with no mobile connection, with two guys with guns and sticks, shouting at you in a language you don’t speak too well. They’d also caught me at a bad time. I’d only been there 10 hours and was still jetlagged and disoriented from being in a new city and I’d just changed money and therefore was carrying round 300 dollars of cash and my video camera. He wanted 75 euro, we started to haggle and in the end I paid my way out by giving them 20 euro. He give me a cheery handshake and sent me on my way, giving me my beer back and fatherly advice on what local alcohol was the best. The tourist office couldn’t have done it better! I almost give him a tip for the service…
To their credit, the company I was working for didn’t take that lying down. They sent me to the central police station to make a complaint. The end result was that the two cops were dragged in front of me, shouted at like unruly teenagers and had to give me 25 euros. I bought a beer with the 5 euro profit 🙂
I’d love to say that that was a one-off but there were other hairy incidents. A few weeks later, my flatmate was pickpocketed and had her purse and passport stolen. When we went out for a drink to commiserate, two guys started threatening us and ordered us out of the bar as we were speaking English. One workmate had his i-phone stolen in a taxi and another was mugged and beaten up by a gang of teenagers on a Sunday morning. Almaty was never dull.
To add to the fun, I returned to my flat in March and found that we’d been burgled. They stole 300 euros and a laptop from my flatmate and got my video camera and 60 euro of my cash. It could have been worse, I’d had considerably more money hidden in the flat and, due to iffy internet connection in the flat, I’d bought a dongle and therefore had my laptop out with me and as a result, didn’t lose it. I guess you live and learn, I keep all my cash in the bank now and a burglar now would probably get, at most, 20 euro in assorted coins from my flat.
Maybe we were just unlucky, but from speaking to students, petty crime and burglary is a big issue in Almaty. So on that score, Riga will always feel safer to me. So, with the negative out of the way, how does Almaty and Kazakhstan measure up to the “Jewel of the Baltics” in other senses? Well, as an overall point all I’ll say about a certain Holywood film is that it’s about as representative of KZ as Darby O’Gill and the little people represents modern Irish culture, though, in the end, all publicity is good publicity.
If you ask Latvians what they like about their country or miss about it if they move abroad, they’ll usually say “nature!” I find this a bit exaggerated. Latvia isn’t the only country with nature and while the nature in Latvia is nice enough, to me, it’s not exactly world beating. In many ways I find it a bit of a one trick pony. Forest, forest and forest. The country is as flat as a pancake and, reflecting this, the word for hill and mountain is the same in Latvian: kalns.
Not so KZ, which has virtually every type of nature you can think of: mountains, forests, waterfalls, canyons, steppes, plains, valleys. You name it, you’re likely to find it in KZ. Almaty itself has some really amazing scenic backdrops:
My walk to one class took my through the city’s Botanic gardens, a blaze of colour in the last week of October:
Near Almaty, there’s also Charyn Canyon
Riga and Latvia have some decent scenery, as I’ve posted before on this blog, but Almaty wins this one. Riga does have one thing over Almaty in that respect, though. The 800 year-old Old Town, with its winding, cobbled streets, just oozes history. There isn’t an Old Town in Almaty and the centre is a confused mix of parallel streets which just have a bit more in the way of shops and entertainment.
I left Riga the third week of September. It was already Autumn. +12, grey and rainy. Almaty, in contrast, was baking hot: 30 degrees and sunny and still nearly 20 at night. For most of October as well it was t-shirt weather, with daytime temperatures around 20 degrees, though nighttimes got colder as the month went on and it was nearly zero at night by the time Halloween rolled round. I well remember going shopping on 30th October wearing a short-sleeved shirt, something that would be unthinkable in Riga.
When winter hit, it was colder and snowier than in Riga. One big negative is that the city council did absolutely nothing to clean the footpaths.
Riga is exceptionally well-organised in that respect. When it snows, they pay people minimum wage to go out with shovels, ice picks and sand and shovel everything to the side of the road. Then, in the evenings, lorries go round and collect the mountains of snow. They also periodically close off streets and send people on to the roofs to shovel the snow and the ice down, as otherwise it’s a major safety issue. Winter in KZ wasn’t that pleasant, walking to work was like being on a permanent skating rink and as the city is on a slope, you had to develop new ways of walking.
Winter though, ended as suddenly as it had arrived. In mid-March, in the space of one week, it went from around zero up to 20 degrees. The other three seasons were much warmer than in LV, it was 37 yesterday in KZ, according to the forecast. There’s a lot more sunshine throughout the year.
One related difference is daylight saving time. KZ doesn’t change its clocks in March or October, so there’s not a huge variation in when it gets dark. In mid-December it’s still bright at nearly 6pm, but in summer fully dark by just after 9pm. Riga has a much bigger variation. Dark before 4pm in December, bright until well after 11pm in summer.
Riga also has one huge advantage over Almaty…
Jurmala. Literally “seaside.” Riga’s sister town is an odd mix of run down wooden houses and multi-millionaire houses. I don’t really understand the place. If I’d millions to spend on property I’d buy somewhere on the coast in Spain, where the weather is consistently warm. I wouldn’t buy in Jurmala, where the beaches are only really possible to swim in for 6 or 7 weeks of the year and where the town is a ghost town for the 8 or 9 months out of season. But beaches it has and, in July and August, it’s a great wee spot.
outdoor swimming pools in Almaty don’t really cut it as much.
If you cross Russia with Turkey and mix in a bit of Korea and Asia, there you have Almaty: a huge mix of different cultures, races and religions. Russian is still the main language, though Kazakh is gaining ground and the government is pushing it, but there’s still not the hostility to Russian that you see in the Baltics.
Islam is nominally followed by 70% of the population but most of them take it about as seriously as Europeans take Christianity. Religious festivals will be observed and most Kazakhs I spoke to refused to eat pork but that’s about it. I’ve never seen so many bookmakers and gambling places anywhere as I have in KZ and when I arrived there, the company representative who came to pick me up greeted me with a cheery “assalamu alaikum” (a typical Islamic greeting) before giving me a run down on the best local vodkas. He looked like a man who had long experience too.
In a reversal of the trends in most of the world, younger Kazakhs are more into religion than their elders, so it’s more likely to hear the older ones advising on the best local booze.
During the Soviet era and, in particular, Stalinist times, KZ was a dumping ground for people that the USSR didn’t trust. 1% of people there have German ancestry, descended from the Volga Germans mostly, there are lots of Tatars and Uighurs and about 25% of the population are Slavs, mostly Russians, but some Ukrainians as well. 2% of the city are ethnic Koreans.
The other teachers at my company in KZ resembled the United Nations. Ireland, UK, Australia, USA, Canada, South Africa, Colombia, Brazil, Spain, Poland, CzechRep, Slovakia, Bosnia, Romania, Italy…. the list was endless and made for an interesting mix. That doesn’t happen here in LV, the people are either Latvian, Russian or Ukrainian and the teachers local or from UK/Ireland.
Add in the fact that Kazakhs are a lot more open and laidback (sorry Latvia) and Almaty wins that one.
Given the common history of the USSR, there are some common things between LV and KZ, but a load of differences. Latvia is more European. For example, having relationships and kids with people without marrying them is fine. In KZ, everyone seems to get married by age 20, have a kid by age 21 and get divorced by the age of 24. A typical conversation with students went like this:
Student: Are you married?
S: But you’re 36. Do you have physical problem?
S: Ok. What’s your boyfriend’s name?
Me: Errr, I’ve never had one and never wanted to have one. I had a girlfriend for nearly 8 years before coming to KZ.
S: And you didn’t get married?!
Me: I asked. She refused. That’s part of the reason I’m in KZ.
S: But how can you have children if you are not married?!
Speaking of relationships, I mentioned the racial mix above. Even though all communities seem to rub together quite happily in KZ, it’s very rare to see mixed race couples. In my last few months there, I was dating a Kazakh girl.
We got some odd looks and, feisty little woman she was, she had to tell them to mind their own business more than once. Then again, my haircut probably didn’t help…
Another weird thing was that drinks were served differently depending on your gender. If you were a man, no problemo, the beer came the usual way. If you were a woman, you always got your booze with a straw:
I never worked that one out.
As a mainly Islamic country, pork isn’t popular in KZ. Instead, lamb and horse meat are the dishes of choice. That suits me perfectly as I like lamb and it’s hard to get in LV. Beshbarmak, one of KZ’s national dishes, was basically sliced cold horsemeat on a pasta bed. It wasn’t for me, but a lot of the other Asian and central Asian cuisine really hit the spot. Kazy (horse sausage), horse steaks, Lagman and lamb shashliks were readily available. With a big Korean minority, there were lots of Korean supermarkets and cafes and I took full advantage, eating loads of kimchi and kimbap. Once, I even tried the dog while I was there: the dog soup wasn’t to my taste, but the actual dog meat itself was tasty enough. Strictly speaking, it’s illegal in Almaty, but as with a lot of rules there, it’s broken frequently. With the kimbap/kimchi diet, I lost over 5 kg in the space of 9 months. Forget jogging, Korean food is where it’s at.
Service I found to be friendlier than in LV. To my shock, waiters and waitresses actually smiled. The downside was that service was a bit slower. In part this was due to a lot of places being ridiculously overstaffed. For example, I remember going into my local on a Monday night in mid-December. It was snowy and -10 outside, not the type of night you’d expect an eatery on the fringes of the city centre to be packed out, yet they had 3 waitresses, a barman, a security guy and a cook for me and 4 other customers. How they make their money I dunno.
The majority of people in the service industry in KZ don’t speak any languages other than Russian and Kazakh. In Riga, it’s completely the opposite, almost to the point of being annoying if you want to practice Latvian and everyone keeps replying in English.
Also, a lot of food is overpriced compared to the quality. That includes the supermarkets. Imported food from Europe ends up more expensive.
A metro! Good news is that Almaty has one! Bad news is that it has only 7 stops and hardly anyone uses it. It took them 30 years to build the 7 stops, a pace which makes the Sagrada Familia look like a rush job. Reasons for not using it include the fact that it doesn’t go anywhere useful that other public transport doesn’t reach and that people are afraid of earthquakes and blackouts.
The metro stations are impressive, just a bit eerie, as they’re often empty outside rush hours.
Riga had a metro project in the late 80s, sadly it never happened. Local nationalists started scaremongering about the number of Slavs who would need to move to Latvia to build it (100,000 was one of the wilder figures I heard.) These days, with Riga having lost a quarter of its population since then, it’s highly unlikely to happen.
One thing I really missed after returning to Riga was the “gypsy cab” system that Almaty operates. Go to the side of the road, stick your hand out and any car will stop within a minute or two. Agree on destination and price and away you go. It’s wonderfully simple and I’d a lot of interesting chats with the drivers, some of whom even refused to take payment from me in the end.
I mentioned a couple of other things above: Almaty is in an earthquake zone and we once had a minor tremor when I was there, though it’s no big deal. It also has power cuts roughly every 5 or 6 weeks lasting 1-3 hours. Gimme Riga over that any day.
Latvia is in the top 5 countries in the world for internet speed. In KZ it was often sluggish and unreliable. Mobile costs in both places though, are much cheaper than Western Europe.
THE REST OF KZ
KZ is a massive place, spanning the distance from the west of Ireland to just past Moscow. We also visited Shymkent while there (a bit greener and more ethnic Kazakh than Almaty) and Astana. The latter can’t go without mention. It replaced Almaty as the country’s capital in 1997. It’s a bizarre place. “Cold” and “soulless” are the two adjectives I hear most often about it. They’re correct. Give a glorious leader billions of dollars in oil money and let him design a capital city from scratch and you have Astana, a city jam packed full of eccentric looking buildings among wide open spaces.
While Almaty gets bad press, it’s a bit unfair. There are a ton of pluses and negatives in both KZ and LV. For KZ, I’d have to list more open people, bigger range of cultures, better and bigger variety of nature, better scenery, decent range of food, including Korean food, metro and gypsy cabs and the fact that it actually has four distinct seasons. For Riga, more daylight in summer, faster service (even if it is still rubbish compared to western Europe,) the beach, faster internet, lower prices, an old town and, above all, public safety. Though I didn’t mention it above, the ability to reach a lot of major European cities for 100 euros on cheap airlines is also a plus.
In many ways I do miss KZ. It fulfilled all my “off the beaten track” criteria and was a big difference from what I was used to. The odd time, I even think about going back, but there are still 8 districts of Riga to visit. Maybe some day I’ll get to do The Real Almaty blog on the wonders of the nightlife scene in Shanyrak, Darkhan, Kalkaman and other hotspots. For now, Riga is stuck with me.