The first mention of the word ‘Kazakhstan’ usually initiates a ‘isn’t there a war going on there?’ or ‘haven’t people been kidnapped there recently?’ response. No, it is 1998 and Kazakhstan is a long way from Kosovo. And the capitol Almaty, where I was heading for a business trip, is actually only 150 miles from China. Those who had ever visited Almaty, when I asked whether I should spend a weekend there, responded ‘no four days should be enough’.
With this valuable information, I set off early on an October Monday morning to the airport and once in the taxi, nightmare struck — I had forgotten my winter coat. I told the taxi driver who asked where I was going: "Kazakhstan. OK, a coat is probably essential". Stunning. We decided to continue to the airport and risk being able to buy one either in Heathrow or Amsterdam. Of course, when I arrived at Heathrow, the only clothes shops were Harrods and Liberty’s and even if I could have allowed myself to ‘be seen’ in a barber jacket, I certainly couldn’t afford their prices. Sod’s law, of course, as the flight is delayed and actually there would have been time to return home and still make the flight.
On my arrival in Amsterdam, the next task was to find my way through ‘midst renovation’ Schiphol airport to find Iwan, my Utrecht colleague, who I had spoken to practically every day for a year and whom I had never met. We went for a quick coffee and I explained my coat dilemma to him – he agreed that a coat was necessary (it had been snowing when he left there a week earlier) so we embarked on a hunt. Plenty of befitting fluffy numbers but nothing that really took my fancy and just as we were setting off to departures, I spotted a shop in the far corner of the airport with appropriate designer names splattered all over it. The shop was bursting with nice, expensive coats and having ascertained that I could return it within 14 days, I chose one. It wasn’t until I was on the way out, that it suddenly dawned on me that I was going to be in the airport at some ungodly hour on Saturday morning and that the shop probably wouldn’t be open.
The flight to Almaty was half full (and half of the passengers seemed to be under the age of two). Nevertheless I settled down to a journey of reading various project-related documents, interspersed with drinks, a meal, and in-flight ‘entertainment’. I discovered that despite the leg-room, sitting next to an emergency exit is not a wise idea on a long-haul flight, partly because of the noise factor, but mostly because of the freezing cold draft that managed to penetrate two KLM blankets.
We touched down in Almaty roughly on time and were then directed to a sparkling, new bus to take us to the terminal. After 5 minutes of waiting, the bus finally moved onwards 50 yards where it then let us off. After spending a couple of years in Slovakia, I knew was back in the East. Next, the visa: "No, I haven’t got a photo", and I am shuffled into the office where an antiquated camera appears from nowhere. That’ll be $35 for the visa and $7 for the photo, making a total of $42 and no they haven’t got any change and no I can’t pay in the local currency, Tenge. Then silence and I ask the remaining visa hopefuls if anyone has change for $5. Miraculously one of them has and I am handed back the passport, the whole process having taken nearly an hour. A quick check at passport control and then I am off down the stairs to the luggage hall where my suitcase has been abandoned, a shadow of it’s former self, half open on the stationary conveyor belt. The inspectors inform me that I must check it to see if anything is missing, which amazingly there appears not to be. However, the Brit in front of me in the visa queue, who came to install air conditioning units, is not so lucky and is filling out a report on his tool kit which has not arrived.
Next, all hand-luggage and luggage has to go through an X-ray machine, then my passport is checked once more and then it’s out the door and I am swamped by taxi drivers. Relief when someone behind steps forward with my name on a piece of cardboard.
The journey into Almaty is along the only road in the city with a bend (apparently this catches many drivers off guard) - after the earthquake in 1920, the whole of Almaty was rebuilt on a ‘rational’ grid structure. We arrive at the hotel, which looks like a parliament building or an embassy, but has never been either. It was the Communist Party Members hotel. Having woken the concierge up, I am checked in and taken to the fourth floor through a corridor that reminds me of ‘The Shining’. Once inside the room, it is quite spacious and clean, but a strange mixture of styles – very Soviet and yet, the furniture was made in Indiana? I slept for a few hours, woke up to a sunny, warm day feeling absolutely terrible and was met by the driver and taken to the office.
On my second afternoon, I was given a driver and told to familiarise myself with Almaty. Hence followed the tour of Almaty’s ‘Harrods’ (a five storey department store), the park, Almaty’s one remaining historical building - a blue Catholic Church - and a very patriotic (and some might say hideous) Soviet war statue. I even visited the local zoo (not my favourite place at the best of times) and witnessed some fairly appalling living conditions. The next couple of days were spent working and eating out in various local restaurants – mutton being the speciality of the local restaurants and horsemeat a luxury (I didn’t indulge). I had dinner with two of the local staff in the office and a Dutch consultant and found out a little more about the culture. Kazakhstan is actually a Muslim country although you wouldn’t know from appearances. Once you probe into the attitudes of the people, however, it becomes more apparent. For example, Kazak women are expected to live at home with their parents until they are married, when they move into their husbands’ apartment (if he has one) and look after his parents.
On my final day, I joined another Almaty tour with those in search of Kazakhstan rugs. In our short journeys around the city we witnessed three crashes, visited the National Museum of Culture, and bought caviar from the Green Market, overflowing with beggars. That evening, I went for a quick drink with Karlygash, the Office Manager, and her cousin who works for Philip Morris. I actually regretted not having planned to stay the weekend, as I would have liked to get out into the mountains that Karlygash had offered to take me. There followed dinner at a Chinese restaurant and a disco at the International Business Club – a haven for ex-pats and young Kazak girls looking for ‘sponsorship’. There I met an apparently unusual sight, a tourist to Kazakhstan and, more importantly, a female westerner (I was the first British woman that most of the local staff had ever met).
After the disco, I left for my hotel to collect my things and then off to the very crowded airport. I managed to smile sweetly enough at the customs man to let me through without paying hefty, meaningless fines, and joined the Business Class check-in line in a vain attempt to get upgraded. I finally emerged into a very cold, dark departure lounge where I sat and sobered up for the next couple of hours. By the time we boarded the plane, we were already an hour late and then there was an extra delay whilst they defrosted the wings and the fuel tank.
I found myself sitting next to a Chinese-American humanitarian medical aid worker from Detroit, who had decided to suggest to his wife and kids to move over to Kazakhstan. I found out that he hadn’t been to the cinema for over ten years and when I acted surprised and asked about Titanic (well you have to don’t you), he replied ‘Titanic? Ooh no that was rated ‘R’ I think. I wouldn’t take the kids to see something like that.’ Soon afterwards he found out that I was British (not Dutch) and proceeded to launch into an enthusiastic inquiry about the Royal Family: ‘What about Diana? What about Charles? What about William?’ I decided sleep was the best option and it wasn’t too long before I was witnessing a beautiful sunrise over London and views of the Thames winding its way into the sea (my new coat still in the luggage rack) –for once I felt quite patriotic.
© Charlotte Davies, October 1998