Almaty, Kazakhstan has a Burger King

When Taylor and I applied to Peace Corps, our number one goal was to visit a part of the world we’d likely otherwise never get a chance to see and Kyrgyzstan absolutely fits that bill.  Stuck right in the middle of the ‘stans, an unlikely vacation destination for most Americans, we’re determined to visit as many of them as we can.  The most convenient to visit is Kazakhstan – not only is it only an hour from Bishkek but Peace Corps supplies us with visas making it an easy trip.

I knew little of Kazakhstan before arriving.  Aside from being the setting for ‘Borat’, I knew it had a space program and those two pieces of info didn’t seem to go together.  After arriving here I heard tales from the previous volunteers of the wonders of Almaty.  Modern, clean, it even had a Burger King, everyone who had been said we needed to visit.  Our site-mate Jake picked a weekend and 6 of us made the trip to Bishkek to get ready for an early morning departure to Almaty.

Our first food stop was for Vietnamese food
Our first food stop was for Vietnamese food

In the morning we met at the bus station and found an Almaty-bound taxi driver who lured us in with promises of non-stop Shakira music videos during the ride (he delivered.)  It doesn’t take long to make it to the border and we were prepared for the hectic experience we read about while researching on wikitravel.com.  What we found was a smooth, friendly border crossing and we had no problems crossing.  In less than 30 minutes we were in Kazakhstan and soon enough our driver came and we took off.  It turned out we found the slowest taxi driver in Kazakhstan but eventually we made it to the city.  Almaty was not Bishkek.  Modern buildings, clean streets, trams and even a subway.  Our first task was to make it to the other edge of town and meet up with the owner of an apartment we found to rent for a couple nights.  After dropping off our bags we walked out to find some food.  Avoiding the temptation to find a traditional Kazakh café (it’s more or less identical to Kyrgyz food) we found a Vietnamese restaurant which was great.  It was hardly authentic Vietnamese but these were flavors I haven’t had for 7 months, it was perfect.  In the evening we went to a Chinese restaurant (it was a mistake) and then the grocery store where we became overwhelmed by the 100s of beers to choose from (the store by our house has about 4.)

 

The beer selection in Almaty is slightly better than Kyrgyzstan
The beer selection in Almaty is slightly better than Kyrgyzstan

The next day we wanted to walk around and see the city.  First, we took the subway to the other side of town.  The subway is the newest in the world and it felt strange to be in something so modern and clean.  Walking through the city it felt strange.  Kind of like Vancouver, BC but still Central Asian.  After a bit we realized besides the cleanliness, the absence of marshrutkas pulling over everywhere and clogging up roads made the city so much calmer and more pleasant.  We stopped for a lunch at Burger King (so good) and then back to the apartment to get warmer clothes to head out of the city. Continue reading “Almaty, Kazakhstan has a Burger King”

Halloween, Soviet Propaganda and the Finest Bar in Bishkek

Youngest brother enjoying the ride (not subject to PC helmet rules like us)
Youngest brother enjoying the ride (not subject to PC helmet rules like us)

When Tay and I envisioned our Peace Corps lives, the image was clear.  Living in a small village, hot weather, perhaps on an island but more likely Africa.  We would have little connection to our family back home and long distances to other volunteers would keep us isolated.  As any reader of the blog knows, that’s not exactly our daily life here.  As the cold weather sets in, we’re reminded yet again just how different this Peace Corps journey is turning out to be than we expected.  We usually share stories on here of our more interesting adventures but it’s time for another update post.  With that, some random stories of our daily lives…

What am I doing here?  (Part 3)

Eric's photo students trying to get a good angle
Eric’s photo students trying to get a good angle

None of us really know what we’ll be doing when we get to our posts.  It took a couple months to get into the rhythm of work here.  Being a site volunteer I had to figure out how to balance several different work sites along with the usual adjustments PCVs make.  As my colleagues and  I get to know each other and our skill sets, I’ve begun to take on projects (a project here is code for a grant but I’m using it in the sense as most people back home would understand it.)  The first is a photo club at my primary site, Danko.  I had high hopes for the photo club but it’s really an experiment to see what works here.  Students came with their own cameras which were generally so awful I had to abandon my carefully laid lessons and improvise.  Basically I do a short lesson on a composition technique and then we walk around trying to practice it.  It’s been ok but we are now writing a grant to get a handful of cameras and funds for field trips so I can start a proper photography class in the spring.  Taylor and I are also helping two of my counterparts get traction on a project they’ve worked on for the last two years around helping disabled children.  It has the potential to be a really interesting project, it will be fun to see where that goes in the next couple months.

I made my little brother pose with my sunglasses during our ride, he wasn't loving them
I made my little brother pose with my sunglasses during our ride, he wasn’t loving them

We’ve been getting around Balykchy, our bikes help a lot with this.  I took a trip up towards the mountains however a little incident with the army up there has put a halt to exploration outside of Balykchy until that’s sorted out.  I went on some rides with my brothers and they showed me some spots around Balykchy including this really cool abandoned amusement park (expect more photos from this place soon.)

An abandoned ride
An abandoned ride

We had our first big American holiday in Balykchy last month, Halloween!  Some of the volunteers got together and had parties, American style, but we had to stay around Balykchy due to commitments the next day.  So we made candy apples with our host brothers and had a good night.

Taylor’s GLOW girls and Health Club students also celebrated Halloween, here are some photos she took:

Anara's son dancing and singing for us
Anara’s son dancing and singing for us

Work, meetings with Peace Corps and fun adventures have also taken to the capitol of Bishkek quite a few times.  Bishkek is growing on me, as I learn where the good restaurants are I enjoy my time there more and more.  Getting around is still terrible but as long as you avoid rush hour it can be enjoyable.  One trip to Bishkek was for our language learning group to reunite with our fantastic Kyrgyz teacher, Anara.  Anara was pregnant during our classes and recently gave birth to her third child.  She invited us to the baby’s Beshek Toi which is a celebration for the family to see the baby 40 days after its birth.  It was fun to see a local tradition like this and awesome to see our favorite Kyrgyz teacher again plus meet her family and friends!

Our LCF's baby and stepmother during the Beshek Toi
Our LCF’s baby and stepmother during the Beshek Toi

Work took me to Bishkek on another weekend and I met up with a travel blogging couple (yomadic.com) who by chance happened to be coming to Kyrgyzstan.  We had a blast exploring the fantastically (and intentionally) ironic Putin Pub.  This newly-opened pub has drawn the ire of the Russian Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan who has publicly stated his intent to shut it down.  I had to visit while it was still opened and ended up loving it.  Cheap beer, awesome staff and a good crowd.  I’ll be back (until it’s shut down.)

Everything is for sale at Dordoy
Everything is for sale at Dordoy

The next day we went to Dordoy Bazaar, one of the largest markets in the world.  I was expecting it to be packed and hard to navigate but it really wasn’t bad (I had visions of a worse Osh Bazaar but that wasn’t the case.)  It’s unique, all the stall are stacked shipping containers, the store below and storage above.  People in the bazaar were shocking friendly and not pushy like in most bazaars.  We walked around a bit chatting with vendors, ate lunch and headed back to the city.  On the way back we stopped by the State History Museum.  This museum is supposed to be portray the history of Kyrgyzstan and its ties with the former USSR fairly and accurately but without being able to speak Russian or Kyrgyz well you can’t learn too much.  The real treasure to me are the ceiling murals which cover every inch of ceiling on both floors.  Rumored to be painted over in the future, I wanted to see these examples of Soviet propaganda before they disappeared.  From depictions of a ‘last supper’ consisting of past conquered nations, to images of the Soviets rescuing Jews from Nazis. And my personal favorite, a skeleton-mask covered Ronald Reagan riding a nuclear warhead while children hold signs saying ‘No More Hiroshima!’

Just Reagan riding a nuke.  Normal.
Just Reagan riding a nuke. Normal.

More to come soon, we have more stories to tell including our trip to Kazakhstan and proof that winter is indeed coming…