RB#9&10: Civilisation: Riga and Jurmala

I’m going to slip into full British/Irish mode now and talk about the weather for a bit. The weather in Latvia often follows predictable patterns in Summer. To start, there’s a really nice period from the second or third week of May lasting until the first week of June. This has people raving about how they heard it on some blog/forum/programme that the coming summer will be the warmest ever. I never take such long term forecasts seriously, as June normally brings people down to earth with a bang. The first few weeks of June are usually rubbish, with rain and grey skies dominating until after the midsummer festival on 23-24 June. The weather usually goes through a good period until the third week of August, with sunshine and only a few days of rain. Late August until the first week of September gets yukky, before giving way to the “atvasara” the Indian summer, which can last a week or two before the full horrors of the true end of summer dawn.

This year, it was almost like June and August were reversed in the usual scheme of things. June was unusually good and August has been unusually horrible, with the first 3 weeks seeing constant rain, grey skies and temperatures in the 17-20 degrees range. As a result, my trips took a bit of a hiatus after the walk through Riga on Sunday 24 July, as thereafter, trudging through mushy beaches and forests didn’t appeal.

We’d picked up on the other side of the Daugava, at Daugavgriva.I’ve blogged before about this area, in the Russian, forgotten zone of Riga and how it has some kind of weird appeal to me. As well, as a fort, river views and Stalinist bars and commie tower blocks, Daugavgriva also boasts a beach, though its one that is far less popular than its rivals at Jurmala and Vecaki. The route to the beach goes through some typical Daugavgriva backstreets, with bins overflowing with vodka bottles.

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However, Daugie does retain its hidden charms and one of them is its beach, accessed through a nature park.

It’s quite weird to see this nature, with the backdrop of Soviet-era tower blocks

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nestling behind the trees. They’ve even constructed a well-paved walkway to access the beach, a significant improvement on some of the overgrown bumpy forest paths I;ve tracked along.

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Civilisation has its advantages!

Despite being a Riga native, Elina told me that this was the first time she’s ever been to Daugie beach and I suspect that that’s common with a lot of Rigans. The beach itself is a bit of a mixed affair. Daugavgriva’s location between two major rivers and consequent currents means that its strictly demarcated into swimming and “non-swimming” areas.

The latter are sparsely populated

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with only a few sunbathers against a backdrop of cargo ships entering and leaving the Daugava.

The swimming bits are packed, especially with locals who can access this easier than Vecaki and Jurmala.

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Locals in this part of the world usually means Russians, similar to Jurmala, but in contrast to Vecaki, which is a more Latvian affair.

Further along, the crowds thin out and give way to yet another nudist beach. Unlike the ones I’ve come across on my previous walks, this one is at least clearly delineated, with sign showing a bikini, so there wasn’t the usual slight shock of an old fat guy suddenly emerging from the bushes with his sausage dangling down.

I did sample its charms, but swimming with no swimming trunks on felt a bit odd, so I was happy enough to dry off and get clothed again.

It was so warm that I’d been padding along just in shorts

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At the end, the beaches give way to the Lielupe (Big river) which, again is uncrossable except by swimming. With so many yachts around,

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it’s undoubtedly dangerous and illegal to do that. We were now in the Bulli area which I’ve blogged about before and its riverview marked the end of this outing.

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For the tenth outing, we picked up where we’d left off across the river.

Jurmala is Riga’s sister town. The unimaginative name translates as “seaside” and the town itself is a playground for tourists, millionaires and playboys, mostly from Russia and neighbouring Russophone countries. To be honest I’ve never really got the place. If I had 2 million to spend on property in a seaside town, Jurmala would be one of the last places I’d choose. You can get the same property for nearly half the price in Spain , where you can use the beach for 6 months of the year. In Jurmala it’s 6-7 weeks. You’d also have access to better seafood and a wider range of nature than the forest, forest, forest which Latvia offers. Just why would you choose Jurmala? I even broached the subject to some former students and they shrugged and said that they could speak Russian there, but that seems a fairly poor reason to me, especially since they all aready spoke 3 or 4 languages. You can easily learn another language in those circumstances and it’s not like there are not Russians in southern European beach towns who you can practice with. Nostalgia is often another reason: they spent their childhood there, but I spent some childhood holidays in Blackpool and am thankful that I now have more choice. It just seems that some people buy property there as a status symbol rather than because it has its own merits. Oh well.

Jurmala starts at the often ignored Ragakapa (Horn Dune) which has a type of forest park not unlike those I’ve walked through on the wilder parts of the coast.

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The beaches around here are empty, as it’s hard to reach on public transport and all of the beaches suffer from the same problem as the other side of the coast: they’re too shallow and require a lot of walking to reach a  decent depth.

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Further along, though, at Bulduri, things pick up and the beaches here are crammed and at least 80% of the people are speaking Russian. The people count peaks around the main beach at Mayori

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which has the backdrop of the Baltic beach hotel, one of the more imaginative bits of architecture here, jutting out in a cruise ship shape. The main street at Mayori, Jomas Iela, is the main hangout, filled with cafes, bars and restaurants. There are worse ways to spend a weekend here, though I prefer the Dzintari park, the stop before Mayori station when coming from Riga. Here is a viewing tower which offers a view above the trees on to the beaches. When my brother visited in late June, I just had to drag him there

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Past Mayori people start to thin and for many people, this is the dark side of the moon as far as Jurmala is concerned. I think I’d been in Latvia over 8 years when I first ventured there and I found that I hadn’t really missed anything. As in Riga, most of Jurmala’s action is concentrated in a central area. Around Dubulti and further out, it’s mostly sleepy (and boring) residential districts punctuated with the odd small guesthouse.

We finished up at Asari station, safe in the knowledge that we were now over halfway to our goal.

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Kolka here I come!

 

 

 

 

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Latvia versus Panama

It´s the age old question of anyone thinking of moving abroad. Latvia or Panama? They both have only a few million people, so which one? There are lots of online guides for Panama, mostly directed at American retirees curious as to how to spend their million dollar pension to make their final years dribbling through their false teeth as comfortable as possible. Indeed, the vast majority of guides are aimed at Americans; bigging up the fact that Panama uses the US $ and has a similar time zone. I always found the last a bit unusual, Eritrea has the same time zone as Latvia, but I doubt I´m relocating there any time soon. All the guides are a bit useless for Europeans. So, lacking such a guide I decided to go ahead and write one. You´re welcome.

How does it compare to Latvia? It’s more a struggle to find similarities. But here’s the run down.

I TOOK HER TO A SUPERMARKET… HAD TO START IT SOMEWHERE

Supermarkets, what a great microcosm of popular culture. Panama´s ones have some good features that Riga´s lack. For example, there´s none of this stuff of cashiers refusing to take money from you or put it in your hand. All Riga supermarkets have this silly tray where you have to place your money. Waste of time! In Panama you hand money directly to people and they do the same. They also have express checkouts “ten items or fewer” which are a rarity in Riga, because waiting in line to pay for a litre of milk is so much better. Uh huh.

Still, Panama’s supermercados do have a lot of people doing totally unnecessary jobs. There is a woman near the entrance who sits like a cloakroom attendant and takes your bag and issues a token when you go in. Another person weighs and bags the fruit. At the checkout, there’s another guy who bags things for you, often double bagging a small number of things! Unlike most of Europe, where bags cost 10 cents, there’s no charge here. Boo on environmental grounds.

Another annoyance in Panama terms is the pricing policy. Europe operates a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) pricing system. The price displayed is what you pay. Not here, where they do it North America style. An item displayed as costing $1 will cost you $1.07 when you pay for it. To add to the fun, it’s different for booze. I found a bottle of craft beer I like for $2. When it came time to pay, it cost me $2.20. The beer tax of 10% wasn’t included. Arrrgh!

FOOD AND PRICES

Before I came here, I was licking my lips at the food prospects. Warm climate and large coastline. Surely that means lots of cheap fresh fruit, vegetables and seafood, right? No. The prices here make MC2 in Riga look cheap. When Dutch people here complain that the prices are higher than in Amsterdam, you have to wonder what’s up. Last week I went to an Indian restaurant and for a lamb vindaloo, basmati rice and a beer, paid $31. In Riga I’d pay under $20.

Worse (and this deserves a blog post of its own) a lot of the food on offer is dross. American or American-style fast food outlets predominate.

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“Would sir like processed chicken or processed meat with his grease?”

 

In Riga, when a new restaurant opens, over half the time, it seems to be a sushi one or Italian restaurant. (Yawn!) Sushi in general seems to be a bit of an obsession in Riga. Even Chinese restaurants seem to feel obliged to stick it on their menus, while Double Coffee and Cili Pizza have sushi menus. Who goes to a coffee shop or pizzeria to eat sushi?! Here, thankfully, there isn’t the same obsession, but it would be nice to have some cheaper, healthy options.

HAPPINESS, MORE OR LESS.

After many years in Riga, I’m still getting used to the fact that smiling and saying hello aren’t illegal. It’s a shocker. Not only do Latvians not smile, they actually pat themselves on the back for “keeping it real”, making excuses like “only idiots smile” or that it’s “fake.” I don’t buy this idea of “happy inside Balts” who don’t need to smile and neither does anyone else. In a global survey of “happiness”, Latvia ranked a dismal 88th out of 145. The winner, for the second year in a row, was…. Panama. Things like landscape and social bonds were cited as reasons. The locals are definitely a more cheerful bunch than the sour faces I see around Riga central market.

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Welcome to Latvia.

People hold doors open for you, say thank you if you do the same, ask permission to pass.

THE NATURE OF THE GAME

Ask a Latvian what’s great about their country and one of the two answers you’ll get is… “nature.” I never got that. Latvian nature is very limited. No mountains and thus a lack of associated features like beautiful waterfalls or valleys. Panama has them all and much more. Islands, tropical jungles, volcanoes… you´ll find them all here. Even in European terms, Latvia is in the bottom half of the table, versus Panama it´s like Mike Tyson in his prime boxing my 11-year-old nephew. No contest.

From Riga you’ve 2 nature options: forest or beach. Latvia’s main beaches are in Jurmala, a playground for the rich from Russia. I’ve never understood Jurmala’s popularity. Houses there go for 2 million euro, that in a place where it’s only warm enough to swim for 6 to 7 weeks of the year. You could get a decent house for that in Spain where it’s warm enough to swim 6 or 7 months of the year. Another thing about Jurmala’s beach is that it’s very shallow. You have to wade for what seems like a kilometre before it’s deep enough to swim. Panama has much better and more picturesque beaches and weekend getaway options. For example, the islands of San Blas are just a stereotypical tropical paradise.

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Not missing Jurmala!

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beach at Jurmala, not quite as good

 

LET IT (NOT) SNOW, LET IT (NOT) SNOW, LET IT (NOT) SNOW….

Weather is a bit of an obvious one and a bit of a less obvious one. Again, I´ve been taken aback more than once when I ask Latvians to tell me positives of their country and the second of two they mention is the weather and the “four seasons.” WHAT? Weather is one of the biggest negatives for me about Latvia.

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January in Riga

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January in Panama

I hate snow. Hate, hate, hate! The lack of mountains means it´s not even possible to do most winter sports. What´s the use?

“It´s nicer than grey” Latvians say. To that, I can only say: I´ve never slipped and broken my finger in grey, I´ve never had grey fall off a roof and hit me on the head, never been splashed by wet grey by motorists, never nearly have a kid take my eye out with a misthrown greyball. Sure, you can´t make a greyman, but my snowman-making days are long behind me and I can walk in grey much easier. The sun and heat in Panama are much nicer than both.

Panama doesn’t do winter. There are only 2 seasons here, a wet season from mid-May till the end of the year and a dry season the rest of the year. During the wet season it rains like crazy for a 40-minute spell every day and is overcast. Weirdly, Riga gets more hours of sunshine than Panama. Still, I’ll take the heat here versus the snow any day.

FROM SAFETY TO WHERE…?

Avotu and Maskatchka in Riga get a bad rap, but they´re like Beverly Hills compared to some of Panama´s neighbourhoods. El Chorillo, bordering the Old Town is one of the worst

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wanna buy a condo here?

but there are other rivals like Currundu, San Miguelito etc where Americans and Europeans have a reasonable risk of getting mugged or worse.

NO SEX PANAMA PLEASE, WE´RE BRITISH AND IRISH

Riga gets its fair share of British and Irish tourists. Unfortunately, a lot of them have been yobs fresh off Ryanair flights, expecting to pay 15 cents a beer and the local women to drool and fall at their feet due to their Brummie or Geordie accents. Those days are gone (if they ever existed) and these guys leave, hungover and disappointed. I’ve met 3 British and Irish people in the 5 weeks here. Lots of Americans and Canadians, quite a few Germans, Dutch, Swedes and Norwegians, but the Brits and Irish just don’t seem to have discovered the place yet.

LA CUCARACHA

Lots of Latvians know this song, but few people know that it means cockroach (tarakāns.) Panama isn’t a place for people with bug phobias, as in addition to monster cockroaches, there are lots of mosquitoes and, worst of all, sand flies, who fly in packs which bite you 20 times. In Latvia, as in most other former Soviet states, cockroaches have virtually disappeared. At least I’ve never seen one in 10 years there and not complaining about that!

SMOKING

I´ve lost count of the number of times I´ve been standing at the bus stop beside my house in Riga and some idiot who´s been standing right beside the bin has nonetheless chucked their  ciggie end on the ground. That doesn´t happen here. Not only do people have more brains respect, Panamanians, like most Latinos, don´t smoke. The benefits of this extend to the beaches. Lying on the beaches near Riga often feels like lying in the middle of an ashtray, as I´m constantly brushing discarded ciggies aside, something I don´t have to do here. Seriously, I can eat on Riga beaches and take my junk home, is it so hard for braindead muppets who smoke to do the same?

TAXIS

I’ve developed a new love for Latvian taxi drivers after living here. They’re so unobtrusive. Here every single taxi honks at you, regardless of the fact that 5 of his mates have just driven past doing exactly the same. Yes, I’m a foreigner. No, that doesn’t affect my legs, which work perfectly fine. I don’t take taxis in Riga, even when it’s -10, so why would I start in Panama, where it’s warm enough to walk round in t-shirt and shorts? Such a joy to do that in February.

FOOTBALL AND SPORT

Similar to snow, ice hockey sucks. The most boring and pointless sport I can think of, with too many stoppages and pauses. Panama is a football country but hmmmm. Judging by the number of football shirts around, 55% of people here are fans of Barcelona and 40% are fans of Real Madrid. The blinkered glory-hunter approach to it all is really grating and I’m starting to wonder if maybe no interest in football really is worse.

LANGUAGE

In the cities, you’ll find people who speak English, but I dunno how good it is, as I just speak Spanish all the time. Better still, the people, even if they speak English, will speak Spanish with you. In Latvia, despite the fact that the people complain about people living there not speaking Latvian, lots of people won’t speak it with you when you try.

LET THERE BE LIGHT

In the winter months, Riga can get a bit depressing as it’s dark by 4pm. But there’s a nice flip side of that. In the summer, it’s bright until 11pm.

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Riga at 10:22pm in June.

 

There’s over 11 hours difference in the amount of light between the two. Panama’s light is like Panama’s temperatures, not much variation. In December, it gets dark at 6:30pm, in mid June, at 7pm, a whole hour of difference. I guess there would be advantages to that in terms of sleep patterns, but Riga in the summer months almost makes the winter worth it.

I started this post thinking it would be a slam dunk for Panama, but it’s more balanced. Overall, in terms of summer daylight, taxis, food prices and quality (surprisingly) , lack of bugs, public safety and taxi drivers, Riga wins. In terms of winter daylight, friendlier people, ease of speaking the local language, lack of idiot smokers, football, weather and nature, Panama wins. Paradise is in the eye of the beholder.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Latvia versus Kazakhstan

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.

SCENERY/NATURE

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:

This was the view from my kitchen in Almaty.

This was the view from my kitchen in Almaty.

My walk to one class took my through the city’s Botanic gardens, a blaze of colour in the last week of October:

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Near Almaty, there’s also Charyn Canyon

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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.

WEATHER

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.

pretty, but good luck trying to walk

pretty, but good luck trying to walk anywhere

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.

 

let there be light

let there be light

 

Riga also has one huge advantage over Almaty…

BEACH

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.

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outdoor swimming pools in Almaty don’t really cut it as much.

PEOPLE

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.

a typical group of students in KZ.

a typical group of students in KZ…

...and Riga's equivalent.

…and Riga’s equivalent.

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.

CUSTOMS

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?

Me: No.

S: But you’re 36. Do you have physical problem?

Me: Nope.

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.

cultural differences are fun.

cultural differences are fun.

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:

Straws.... more girly apparently.

Drinking through a straw gets you drunk *less* quickly apparently.

I never worked that one out.

FOOD/SERVICE

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.

INFRASTRUCTURE

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.

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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.

central Astana

central Astana

From the top of the tower

From the top of the tower

OVERALL

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.

 

Sat 30 Aug: Agenskalns, Zasulauks and Imanta

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I’m not a visit all districts of the city virgin by any means. I’ve done the same in Valencia, where I have been to 81 of the 85 districts. Riga presents a few more challenges. The public transport is adequate, but the lack of a metro makes getting round harder. Unless the day is absolutely boiling (rarer than a welcoming smile and a “have a nice day!” in Rimi), there’s a local belief, derived from Slavic cultures , that breathing in other people’s bacteria in a closed space is better than having a little fresh air circulating. Any foreigner who dares to open a window on the bus should be prepared for the lynch mob that follows. Some of the districts are quite spread out, dotted with forests, woods and lakes and trekking round the larger ones in winter looking for a bar is probably not the best of ideas.

So on Saturday 31 August, it was time to start. Bringing my camera, maps, bus tickets and photographer/minder Eddie Mantle along we decided to head to the other side of the river. After thinking about just sticking a pin in the map, I decided to start with Āgenskalns. It was first alphabetically, I’ve been there before and it’s one of the better districts outside the centre. The way there involves crossing the Vanšu bridge with great views along the river including Riga’s “city beach.”

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This raised the question: who would want to swim in the Daugava? Sure it’s probably a great wee river for lovers of hypothermia, hepatitis and those too immobile or poor to pay the 2 euro to go to Jurmala, but I just don’t see why anyone would go there.

Now it was time to find a bar or cafe. After walking around for a while, we found this place, which, judging by the exterior and paintwork, has probably been there since Khrushchev denounced Stalin:

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As well as the shabby exterior, the name beerloga seemed like a wordplay on берлога, which translates into English as “lair” or “den.” Reasoning that the owner probably needed our spare change towards a Business Marketing course, we decided to brave it and venture in. Expecting taped up pool cues and blood soaked carpets from numerous all nighters, we were disappointed. Instead, it’s a fairly reasonable cellar bar

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complete with bear skins on the walls, pool table and Russian t.v. blaring out. A great bar for the hard of hearing. The rest of Agenskalns district is quite nice. There’s a lively market, theatre and a couple of half-decent restaurants.

Next it was on to new territory: Zasulauks. The highlight of this place is undoubtedly the Botanic garden. Apart from that, it’s a series of wide east European style avenues around a train station. It took us quite a while to find a place here. In the end it had to be a Georgian bar/restaurant combo.

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The menu was mostly the usual Caucasian fare, or rather the Latvianised version of it. There was no chakhokhbili or Khachapuri on the menu. Boo!

Lastly it was on to Imanta. Despite this being the third most populated district of Riga, finding a bar was nightmare. We wandered through numerous streets, which resembled a village more than a city suburb.

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In common with a lot of thise side of the river, most of the people we passed were speaking Russian. You could be forgiven for thinking that the official government line is that these people don’t exist, so bilingual street signs have all been either removed and replaced, or to save money, painted over. The odd time though, the paint fades away and you get these remnants of the past:

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Doubleplusgood! In the end after wearing our feet out, we found a bar with no name and a great interior, full of 50’s themed photos

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So the end of day one. Three districts down, fifty five to go!

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