Travel Musings From Kazakhstan. Why do we like to travel? Yes, of course, it is the momentous experiences that are burned in your psyche. Sunrise at the Taj Mahal. Watching a lion tear into a gazelle in the Serengeti near dusk. Gazing at the mysterious Moai on Easter Island as the waves of the Pacific Ocean lap up against the shore.
But sometimes it’s the little things. The smile from the shopkeeper who adds in another banana in your bag. The taxi driver who brings you to your hotel for free from the bus stop with a wink. Some of these ordinary moments make the biggest impact.
I originally planned to visit Almaty in the fall of 2016, but had to cancel at the last minute. For that visit, I had contacted Denis, an American living in Almaty, who organized walking tours. When re-planning my visit in 2018, I returned to his website to book some tours, but was disappointed to see that his company was not offering tours until the start of April (I was there in March).
I had also decided to stay in an Airbnb in Almaty and found a great apartment at a great price. I arrived to the Airbnb and was met by the host, Katrina. I discovered Katrina was managing the Airbnb for her friend who was out of town until April. And he owned a walking tour company. And his name was Denis.
So very small world, the one person I had communicated with in Kazakhstan nearly two years ago, just happened to be the person whose apartment I was sleeping in.
In four days I ate here six times. The Donner Kebab place was a good ten minute walk from my Airbnb and it offered good food at a cheap price. No brainer. I got the same meal each time. By the fourth time, the girls at the register recognized me with a smile and also had my order memorized. “Chicken kebab, bes mayonnaise, bes ketchup”.
I have developed hobby of getting haircuts abroad. Typically, I save money, since a haircut in the US sets me back about $25 at the barber. And usually I can get a trim for a fraction of the cost overseas. I also like seeing the cultural differences and it is a great way to interact with the locals. You can read about some of my experiences here.
Next to my apartment in Almaty was a high end barbershop. I strolled in and was surprised at the trendy setting. A young girl with a giant mop of dark hair with blue streaks and a face mask placed me in the chair. Seventy minutes later I exited the shop after two hair washings, a trim, and a straight razor to the back of my neck. It set me back $15 plus the tip.
“Pozhaluysta,” I muttered as I made my way to a locked door in the airport to retrieve my bag. A young Asian man in a NY Yankees responded to me in near accentless English that until the staff unlocked the door we would have to wait. I was bit surprised with his excellent English since I was in Kyzylorda in southern, central Kazakhstan, not a hotbed when it comes to the tourist circuit.
I then peppered him with several questions, and learned his family had come to the airport to pick up his younger brother who is working for KPMG as an auditor in Almaty. He had rejoined his family, to celebrate new year’s knows as Nauryrz. My new friend worked in the oil industry for a Russian company and had spent some time studying in England.
Moments later I was rejoined with my checked luggage and riding in the back of my new friend’s SUV with his brother, little sister, and his Dad as they offered to bring me to my hotel. His Dad in Russian provided an impromptu tour of his city, while at other times I answered the random question from one of the two brothers.
We arrived at my hotel, and parted ways after several photos.
Fist bump. Smile. Slapping each other’s back. This was my new buddy, the Russian, named Alexander. He didn’t know any English and my Russian topped out after 50 words. I had met him by accident. He was running a tour to Baikonur and in error I joined his bus at the Kyzylorda airport. After some confusion, I realized I was with the wrong tour group.
Yet over the next four days, we kept on running into each other all over Baikonur and the Cosmodrome. I would hear his booming laugh and we would repeat our tradition. Fist bump. Smile. Slapping each other’s back.
My grandparents came from the old country after WWI to the US after escaping the Armenian genocide. The Armenians who survived dispersed throughout the world. And during my travels, I have randomly met Armenians from a small town in Bulgaria, to the canals of Venice, and the northern most town in the world in Svalbard.
The reason for my visit to Kazakhstan was to see a Russian space launch in Baikonur. Baikonur Cosmodrome is where the first satellite was launched and the first man was blasted into space. It used to be totally closed off to foreigners, but now they welcome tourists. Baikonur was a town built to service the Cosmodrome.
Next to my hotel was a small market. When entering the market I noted the store’s name in Russian, but I gave a double take at the second name. It was written in the Armenian alphabet. I propelled myself into the store inquiring where the Armenians were. One of the clerks explained the Armenian owners were not at the store at that time.
On my third visit, I met Zoya and Carlin, two Armenians who had left Armenia over 20 years ago to start a new life in Baikonur. They started a business and raised a family there.
After exchanging some pleasantries and smiles, I was invited to their home for an Armenian feast the following day.
The magic of travel. The simple things. Getting a haircut. Sharing a meal. Meeting new friends.
Travel Musings From Kazakhstan