Kazakhstan Pt. 3: Almaty, where kids watch pole dancers, and joining the family

falcon

 

“Is she doing ballet while pole dancing?” I asked Djanay perplexed, not quite able to catch on. “It seems like it,” she said with a straight face and the sort of contemplative look you might see on someone while looking at abstract art.

The handful of young kids in front of me were watching the show with 100% attention, which slightly worried me when one of the “professional” dancers fairly graphically, though always covered, started rubbing her vajayjay. The twenty-something guys in the audience were just about drooling. I couldn’t believe I had forgotten my camera. I was too confused with the juxtaposition of a five year old kid giggling and a bikini-clad girl writhing on a pole to be stimulated to an appreciable degree, and when I asked Djanay what “professional” meant, she said, “I’m not sure, a professional pole dancer I think.”

 

 

This was my introduction to Almaty after arriving from Astana. We were at Djanay’s aunt’s performance art studio, and they took advantage of the Saturday night to showcase some of the dance techniques the students had been learning recently. Apparently pole dancing in Kazakhstan was considered kid-friendly, and the small audience of family and friends was eating it up.

American pop music and reggaeton was blasting during the handful of dance routines and “fashion show” (which consisted of several girls rotating through their wardrobe and strutting around on the dance floor) that lasted about an hour and a half. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t incredibly entertaining, if for nothing else than to see the Phantom of the Opera faux-pole danced to.

How I came to meet Djanay and her family was a bit convoluted. I initially got into contact with Djanay and her family when a friend of mine from the university told his dad I was visiting Kazakhstan. His dad, who was a professor of finance, incidentally had a colleague Kazakhstan and contacted her. She then put me into contact with her sister, Djanay, and her parents. I wasn’t planning to stay with them since I had arranged a Couchsurfing host, but when my host had last-minute trouble I gave them a call and they picked me up from the train station without a second thought. Her mom, Aigarim, was one of the most hospitable people I had ever met in my life. During my whole stay in Almaty, she wouldn’t allow me to take a bus and drove me everywhere I wanted to go.

Anyways, back to the pole dancing. After the show, the studio emptied a little of the families and a few more of Djanay’s cousin’s friends started showing up. They had a classy wine and fruit affair going on and her friends took the opportunity to practice their English with me since I knew essentially no Kazakh or Russian. They had assorted jobs or were in school, and, after enough drinks, made it known that they really didn’t like Borat. One girl, Aizhan, told me how annoying it was when she was doing a work/travel program in the US and people constantly said, “Say ‘Hi’ to Borat for me!”

The small sliver of Almaty I had seen up until that point was certainly not Borat-caliber; most of the cars were luxury brands, and even the young kids were driving cars that adults in the US dream of. A few days after the pole dancing show, I met with Djanay’s cousin and her friend to go into the nearby mountains. I thought we were going to take a bus, but instead I was whisked up the mountains in a brand new BMW (it wasn’t their parent’s car, at least they claimed). As I mentioned previously, oil money and government corruption means a lot of spare cash floating around and people are eager to show it off. I also got the impression that the country was struggling to identify itself in the post-Soviet era, and they certainly wanted to incorporate financial wellbeing into that identity. When I asked some of them what they guessed would happen after the oil gets used up, they said they hoped they would have enough money by then and were enjoying it while it lasted. In any case, they had just found new reserves.

The rest of the night was zipping around in various luxury cars to different bars or clubs, moving on after deciding each was somehow inadequate, and the last place being a slightly shady dive bar/club called “Falcon” that was attached to a gas station. Someone in the group was romantically involved with the owner, so we got a small feast free of charge at around 4am and returned around sunrise.

At 8am I awoke to Aigarim worriedly protesting that we had to go outside the city since a small earthquake had struck in Almaty and she was worried about aftershocks. Of course, I didn’t understand that at first since it was all in Russian, so I thought she was just particularly energetic in the morning. After I squeaked out “Good morning” in Russian I fell back asleep until Djanay came back in and told me what had happened.

We left and got some shashlik (incredibly tasty grilled meat) outside the city, and came back later in the afternoon at which point I slept basically until the next day. The rest of my time in Almaty was fairly uneventful, but comfortable thanks to the amazing hospitality of Aigarim. I had had trouble with my visa registration, and that took several trips to the Migration Office to sort out and about a week to take care of. Thankfully, there was no fine or bribe required with the help of Aigarim.

I felt I more or less compensated her, though, when I saw her car was overheating and found that she never checked the radiator fluid and it was completely empty. I had her pull over to a gas station and buy some antifreeze and water to top off the radiator. She was worried when the system was burping the extra air and there was hot antifreeze coming out of the radiator, but she saw I was calm and just waited it out. We couldn’t really communicate due to the language barrier, so I just said “alright” in Russian more than a few times, and when the engine temp remained normal driving around she became fond of calling me “superman” with a strong Russian accent.

I was planning to make it to Kyrgyzstan before leaving Kazakhstan to (The Republic of) Georgia, but because of all of the visa trouble and holidays I wouldn’t have been able to manage to get back and forth to Kyrgyzstan in time. Other highlights of Almaty, besides Djanay’s family, were Charyn Canyon (billed as the “Grand Canyon of Kazakhstan”) and visiting Arasan Baths, apparently the nicest bathhouse in Central Asia. They had Russian, Turkish, and Finnish saunas, as well as pretty cheap massages. I indulged in a spine massage, not knowing what to expect. I was obliged to lay down completely naked on a white marble slab, and experienced consecutive soothing rubbing and painful bodily contortions in quick succession. It did feel quite good when it was done, though. The rest of the time consisted in figuring out traveling logistics over the next few weeks, strolling a bit through Almaty’s tree-covered streets and parks, and taking care of business from home. Next stop: (The Republic of) Georgia.

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Comments  

 
0 #1 Susan Cole 2011-05-27 13:32
Hi Tyler,
I am really enjoying reading about your travels!! I have been to all these countries - "Republics" back in my day. Did a great tour through that area buying carpets. I highly redcommend getting out to the open markets. I can see that, though they will deny it, there is still a very strong Russian presence. Enjoy Georgia. Are you going to Tblisi? Beautiful. The Georgian people and culture are VERY loud and animated! I am soooo happy for you that you are having this experience. Stay safe.
 

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