During August I spent two weeks in Almaty, gathering for “training” with my 52 other Kaz-23 Peace Corps Volunteers. While we didn’t necessarily get to do much sight-seeing around town, we did get to experience a bit of the 2-million-strong city, as well as Pizza Hut:
It was 5:15 in the morning. There were four of us in the cab as we rolled out of Almaty’s train station after a 30-hour ride from the Siberian north. Our baggage turned the shock-less stationwagon into a Chicano rider, catching tumbleweed plastic beneath our low-hang muffler, and as we rumbled to a red light I took stock of the surroundings.
Dawn, still thirty minutes from sunrise, draped a gray silkscreen over the trees, the gates, the sidewalks. The Tien Shan squatted navy blue against the lightening sky. (After months in the unending, undying flat of the north, such size made one of us ask whether they were either bulkheads or tricks of light, because surely no land could ever rise to such height.) To our left sat a coffeeshop – as evidenced by the COFFEESHOP emblazoned above the still-closed doors – and to our right ran the low knoll of a park, poplars and spruces jutting up at measured spaces. Through the trees you could make out the hint of the former presidential enclave, a blockish, unenviable structure, its rectangular colonnade making the façade look more prison than palace. Tram wires slung above. Downtown Almaty spread behind us, a menagerie of post-independence condos, all glass and carbon-fiber, and the Soviets’ granite gaudiness, culminating in the crown-top Hotel Kazakhstan. A half-mile away, the 1,000-foot Kok Tobe radio tower connected its dozen red lights, an awkward, aluminum relic of communist technology.
The air was still cool, a hint of humidity foreshadowing the day’s heat. The shuffle of cars provided the only noise, but from a distance, as our four-lane road sat strangely, idly, empty. With the walk signs completing their countdown, the red light shifted back to yellow, then to green – because that’s how they do it here – and as the stationwagon lurched forward, it all hit me at once.
This was Almaty. This was a city.
This was civilization.
When we first ventured into Almaty some six months ago, the city came across all dust and dinge, broiling in sweaty bodies and carbon emissions. Buses listed past, belching their exhaust at every corner. Winter’s freeze left trees still stripped. Refuse boiled in the spring sun, and faux-efficient Soviet architecture stood spartan among the crowded lanes.
Beer was expensive. Kebabs were limp. Street art was as crass and produced as Rick Perry. The place muddled kitsch and stench, producing a charmless farrago of junk and grime and body odor in a way I’d never seen. The city, purportedly a sprawl of park, was anything but a natural beauty.
And so I left it, four months back. My last memories of Almaty entailed hauling 130 pounds of baggage through a train-car-turned-banya, heaving my shit while pouring pounds of sweat in an AC-less cabin. The parting image – smog overhead, vendors scowling, Americans melting into themselves – didn’t exactly portend an excited return to the cultural and commercial capital of Kazakhstan.
But then, such parting image also didn’t entail a summer at site.* It didn’t predict a summer without buses and beer gardens; it wasn’t predicated on a lack of manicured lawns or multi-story buildings. And while the occasional trip to Petropavlovsk – a city deserving of a few blog posts, in due time – allowed the chance to see street signs and lanes без potholes, that city is more established suburb than international destination.
*A summer which, I should add, saw me welcomed far quicker than I should have otherwise been. I may not say it enough, but the people of Presnovka deserve more praise than I can possibly give them. More on them sometime, in hardback.
Shit – “international destination.” Four months gone from Almaty, and I’m already putting it on par with Bangkok and Boston, already claiming that it’s worthy of a spot on your global dartboard. Four months back, I would have kicked myself for saying it – I didn’t even think Houston warranted international attention; how could I possibly feel that way about Almaty?
And yet, there it is. I’m not saying that you need to whip over to Expedia to begin a bargain-basement search. Rather, I’m simply saying that when – and I do hope it’s a ‘when’ – you make it to Central Asia, you’ll take the time to pass through Almaty. To see this melding of Kazakhstani and capitalistic worlds, this best offering of culture and acculturation. To see this city as I’ve now seen it. Because while my views are obviously skewed, addled by the muddied roads and wind-slanted houses I now call home, I like to think those views aren’t entirely foreign, or at least not yet. As evidence, some experiences:
While in Almaty, I ate better, and for an extended period of time – to the detriment of my bank account, of course – than I have in over a year.* The meals ranged from expat fish’n’chips, complete with accompanied lager and darts; to heavy-cream gnocchi, set outdoors alongside a remarkably phallic fountain; to a stir fry of lamb and peppers, the first time that I can ever remember actually enjoying a heap of mutton. We didn’t eat out for every meal – this is still Peace Corps – but when we did, the selections sufficed beyond satiation.
*As with any subjective measure, the quality of the experience is severely slanted by the relative lifestyle. In this case, I was comparing the food I ate to what I’d grown accustomed to over the summer. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy the food at my site – I actually ended up missing Babs’ cooking quite a bit as the two weeks wound on – but, rather, the variety of the offerings in Almaty outpaced the borsch-and-perogi diet that I normally ate.
Of course, having had a half-year without any of the American staples we carry so fondly, the culinary highlights of our time in Almaty came at whichever State-borne establishments we could find. While there’s still a vacuum waiting to be filled with strawberry milkshakes and grease-drip burgers, the offerings didn’t disappoint. From a lone table in the city’s MEGA Mall, an empty stomach can find KFC, El Taco, and, in a gift from that Great Cook in the Sky, Hardee’s.*
*Carl’s Jr., as we know it on the West Coast. A double-cheeseburger by any other name ….
Having not had a decent burger since arriving – and noting the banner that read “Top American-Brand Burgers in Kazakhstan!”* – we left a trail of saliva to the $8-a-pop plates. It was, of course, just as dispiriting to see these Kazakh kids machining our meals, to send them scampering in grease-splotch shirts … but, my god, when that first bite reached our lips, when the ketchup ran down our chins and the fries filled up the remaining space, there was no place I’d rather be. Such succulence, such season, such taste – such good – was directly proportioned in quality and quantity. The more you stuffed your face, the better the burger got. It was gluttonous and hedonistic. It was garish and heavenly. It filled me up like nothing I’d ever known.
*Surprisingly, Kazakhstan doesn’t carry a McDonalds, as meat-processing regulations prevent the Golden Arches from corrupting this post-communism holdout. This means no McBeshbarmak, or at least not in the foreseeable future.
The only meal that rivaled the burgers came from another proud-to-laud American export: Pizza Hut. Due to its proximity to our hotel – which, as we learned over the two weeks, also serves as a quasi-brothel – Pizza Hut stood as a favorite destination of Peace Corps Volunteers, with sorties headed out every night. On the day that myself and one other volunteer were too, ah, bed-ridden to participate in any of the activities, we decided to brave the bright afternoon to see if a personal pan could help us feel a bit better.
Short answer: yes. Long answer: this was the nicest Pizza Hut I’ve ever seen in my life. From the silverware to the carpeting, from the stirred mojitos to the wine table, from the pneumatic salad bar to the soporific shots of nature cycling through the televisions, this restaurant was unlike any Pizza Hut America’s ever known. Despite the familiar offerings – just that first bite, and I was instantly back to freshman year of college – this place was as foreign to us as it was the Kazakhstanis. This Pizza Hut, this American slice fixed in Almaty, was gourmet.
The rest of our time, that spent not gorging ourselves on whatever cheese-and-grease brew we could find, was spent either building a fort or gallivanting through the facsimile of a cosmopolitan, Western city. There were the giant, stark billboards hawking Louis Vuitton and Patek Philippe; there were Audis and BMWs rolling past with suits and stilettos inside; there were restaurants with full-sail ships and three-quarter chapels serving as decorations. There was the nightclub with a 2,000-tenge ($14) cover* – all for some House and fog machines – and there were the bouncers forcing one of us out of 2,000 more after a beer bottle tipped and toppled to the ground.**
*Da Freak, which is actually mentioned in Lonely Planet’s guide to Kazakhstan.
**Bribery seems to be a staple only in the larger cities. In addition to paying off this kickback – which my friend haggled down from the original 5,000-tenge demand – another, Justin, was forced to shell out 6,000 tenge ($42) when he realized, just an hour after boarding the train to Almaty, that his ticket read the incorrect date. While you’d think that additional 6,000 would at least land him a bed during the two-night ride, the compartment conductor provided him with only a chair and the knowledge that he wouldn’t be kicked off. Fortunately, Justin, having served as infantry in Afghanistan, was accustomed to rougher evenings – but still.
And, of course, there was MEGA, a temple to profligacy, a mall to end all malls. Chocolate fountains. ATMs dishing American dollars. Full-blown posters of Katy Perry.* The place, mired in the miracles of all things shiny and expensive, was a breath of Americana, an anchor of nostalgia for all those things idealistic Peace Corps Volunteers shouldn’t miss. It was disgusting. It was divine. It was, as one of us said, fucking awesome.
*There was also a Gap, in which, to the enjoyment of every single volunteer I’ve yet met, I finally bought a pair of jeans. While they were probably the most expensive pair of pants I’ve ever purchased – and while I still don’t understand how everyone else (correctly) assumed jeans would fly in Kazakhstan – I now have the option of wearing something other than the three pairs of brown corduroys I brought.
While we did actually spend a fair bit of those two weeks working – language lessons, teacher trainings, putting condoms on markers as part of an AIDS/PEPFAR seminar – the trip served as less of a training regimen and more of a troop reunion. It was a perfect layover in, and conclusion to, a summer spent acclimating to the isolation and realities of Kazakhstani life, a reprieve from the Russian and livestock that now dominate our lives. We swapped stories and shared music; we danced long and drank heavily. We compared where we were, and helped those along who’d had a rougher go of things. We were reinvigorated, and together. And we got to do it all in Almaty: International Destination.