Almaty ... 24/05 - 29/05
We leave Bangkok on Sunday night after two very relaxing weeks with Yannick and Stephanie. We had enough time to do some maintenance on the bikes, update the website, send another package home... and watch countless DVDs!
We land after an eight-hour flight and a few turbulences, at 2am. When we arrive, we go directly to the customs with our invitation letter: 'No, first you have to go to the consular section' (well hidden and we have just been waiting behind ten people!). The visas take a lot of time and Ben is quite stressed: 'The luggage is on its own, I hope no one will steal it'. Sylvie fails to see how some half-fitted bikes and plastic bags wrapped in brown tape could attract anybody! But when we get out, neither the bikes nor the bags are here. 'I told you!' screams Ben! Actually, someone just put them at the back so everything turns out fine.
We then set off to fit the bikes back. Some Kazakhs look at us with curiosity and a question we had almost forgotten pops out at least ten times: 'How much?'. When we tell them it's a prototype, they leave, shaking their heads. The bikes are ready just on time for us to welcome Albane (Sylvie's sister) and Benoit. They are starting their own cycling journey and will cycle Khirghistan with us. It's their turn to unpack and fit their bikes. A Frenchman comes to us, intrigued by our flag. He works for the French embassy and leaves us his card, we never know... We then cycle to the city centre. It is lucky there isn't too much traffic because the Kazakhs really drive like mad. We look for a cheap hotel (Almaty is on a European standard for the prices). The first dorm we find has increased its prices after some cyclists left past the check-out time without paying... good start! We then meet a teacher who speaks English fluently and advises us to try at the university next door. While Ben and Benoit run around like headless chickens trying to find a place, an Englishman comes up to the girls: 'You look very cold, my colleague suggests you come and have tea in his office!'. We end up in the office of Albert, the dean of the university! While he greets us with tea, coffee and chocolates and gives us valuable advice about Almaty, his secretary calls a few hotels and finds us an affordable dorm. Albert kindly agrees to keep our bikes, the room they offer us at the hotel doesn't seem safe enough.
The next morning, we wake up after a 12-hour night sleep, none of us has slept much last night. We then set off, looking for a restaurant. We had forgotten how difficult it is to find food in Central Asia, Thailand was so easy with food stalls at every corner! The cuisine reminds us of Uzbekistan: meat stuffed dumplings, noodles soup, plov (fried meat, vegetables and rice)... exactly what cyclists need! Almaty is quite modern and very busy even though most buildings have the soviet look: big blocks of grey concrete. Some buildings are a bit better, painted in yellow like the Opera. In the afternoon, we go to the South of the city. We meet David from Stantours in front of MegaCentre, a very big and modern commercial centre. He gives us our visas for Khirghistan and then we take a tour of the mall. Free wireless at Gloria Jean's Coffee is a good reason to stop for a cappuccino. Then the boys do some shopping in a very big supermarket while the girls chat on a bench. We are not allowed to take backpacks inside even though maxi handbags are allowed! We can't take pictures either... we could understand if it was a dam or a bridge, but a supermarket?! In the evening, we have dinner at the Three Oranges. It is still allowed to smoke in public places here so we have dinner outside. A waiter very gallantly wraps a blanket around Sylvie and Albane!
The next day, we still haven't visited the city... well, it won't be for today! We start by the French embassy where a deaf dialogue starts:
- We would like to register
- Ok, you have to go to the OVIR, a few streets from here
- No, I mean, register here, at the embassy
- Oh, you don't have to, really, it's not mandatory.
- Yes, but still, we would prefer to
- No, but it's ok, really, you don't have to
- Yes, BUT WE WANT TO!
At the end, we explain our trip and they agree to take our names, phheeww...
Actually, Almaty is not the capital of Kazakhstan since 2000 when the government decided to move it to Astana. Officially, they said it was more logical to have the capital in the centre of the country (really? What about Paris and London?). Actually, some people say it's because some of the family of the president is in the construction business so building a new city fitted them... So the French embassy is now a consulate and the building looks quite desolate.
We then spend an hour looking for a cash machine that gives dollars and another hour trying to find the post office, the right envelope etc. We then go to the Opera, cool, there is Carmen and Swan lake tomorrow, we stay an extra day then!
Unfortunately the opera is very disappointing, Ben has seen the Swan Lake in Moscow and there is no comparison whatsoever. After the opera we meet with Albert in a bar for a last drink. It is also his last days here in Almaty, he has been here for 5 years and flies back to Canada the week after. He is quite busy saying goodbye to his friends but has managed to give us sometime. We hope to see him when we get to Ottawa next year.