Rencontres D'automne, The Feeling of Fall

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
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Flag of Kazakhstan  ,
Monday, November 19, 2007

Entering Kazakstan, my light blue visa was stamped on the 15th of November, as hordes of shoppers left China for their home, bringing boxes of inexpensive appliances and goods with them.  Just before the border, as I was carefully changing money on the Black Market into Kazak tenge, my last 100 yuan bill was carefully stolen from my pocket.  Despite the petty theft and all-night bus, before me stretched a new land: the steppes, mountains, and deserts of Central Asia, my home for the next couple of months.

As I could get by with English and broken Chinese throughout the Indian Subcontinent and China, crossing this border was a major change.  People did not speak or write English as a second language.  Welcome to the former USSR, the present CIS, where Russian is the lingua franca and Cyrillic is the alphabet.

I joined a friendly Kyrgyz bus heading to Bishkek, which played a 80s reunion concert DVD on the way, with Russian pop divas singing "American Boy" and everyone looking back at me, smiling.  On the way, we crossed vast brown and tawny grasslands and small tin roof towns with smoke rising from their wood stove chimneys. 

From the highway, a few of us then flagged a car heading for Almaty.  This is common practice in Central Asia--not really hitchhiking, more like: anyone can be a taxi driver if they want to be.  On the side of roads, some people have written signs, letting drivers know where they want to go.

The feeling of late autumn surrounded me as the cold rain began on the bare tree-lined night streets of Almaty as I walked looking for a welcoming place to stay and eat.  Near the Almaty 2 train station, I walked into a warm well-lit diner and was handed a menu, written in Cyrillic, with backwards "N"s and letters from algebra, geometry class, and USC fraternity houses.  Luckily a stewardess, about to leave for Europe, came to my table with a beautiful smile: "Do you need any help." 

"Yes."

After a hot borsht with a dollop of sour cream and tea, I found a bed in the train station Gastinitsa, where Galena and Gulia made me feel at home and I learned the Cyrillic alphabet with the Oxford Russian-English dictionary close at hand.

At first Almaty was extremely challenging, as I couldn't read the signs, few people spoke English, and the 2004 Central Asia Lonely Planet, a gift from a fellow traveler in Pakistan, was often wrong.  Looking for the Kyrgyz embassy to get a visa for the next "stan" took the entire Friday morning, as the guidebook mentioned it was in an "anonymous-looking white building in the back." (behind one of Rudi Guiliani's new legal offices)  The buildings were newly-painted though and not white.  Finally, I asked in a nearby university, and Tana, an English professor, came to help.  It wasn't there.  Originally it was in a wooden building a few blocks away.  Now it had moved from there too, across town.  When I arrived, it was closed on Fridays, despite what the guidebook said. 

Things change quickly in Central Asia, especially with new petro dollars pouring to Kazakstan...too quickly.

Prices in Almaty were sky high, more expensive than almost anywhere on the planet.  At the same time, about a third of the vehicles were expensive German makes and models and the stores sold high-heeled calf-length black leather boots from Europe, designer jackets lined with fur, and Mont Blanc watches, which many women walking the streets wore, lending a fashionable air to the town

Others not so lucky to take part in the petro dollar festival were struggling with high food prices, inflation, and more, though in general Almaty seemed well-to-do with its parks and boulevards and cafes.

One thing the 2004 Lonely Planet guide included was a listing for Karlygash Makatova, who I called looking for a potential homestay.  Instead she recommended I stay at the Gastinitsa, as it was a good deal, and invited me to a French Embassy-sponsored Rencontres D'automne festival, performed by the Almaty Symphony Orchestra. 

The performance included Tyz Kouou, whose eponymous score musically portrayed the horseback game of man chasing woman.  In the end, if the man catches the woman, he can kiss her; otherwise she can beat him.  The music was frenetic and conjured images of horseback riding across the grassy Kazak steppes in summertime, though the music ended before the beating or the kiss, it seemed.  Ravel's Bolero was also a feature, described by the French emcee as "death of music" because of its repetitiveness (isn't repetitiveness an aspect of music?).

Either way, Bolero is still in my head, one month later, a good song for horseback riding in the icy Celestial Mountains.

With her daughter, Karly and I also went ice skating on Sunday, up in the forested mountains above the city.  The rink was full of people showing their style.  While in line for skates, I talked with some of the youth, in broken English: "America...50 Cent...Bush sucks..."  I put on my hood and flipped the 50 Cent fan's up as well..."50 Cent." Not to get into politics back home, but people here bring up the American president quite often.

Skating was not easy, and I hadn't put on skates in years.  Luckily they had benches along the way, for emergency stops and rest breaks and chances to talk with other skaters and learn a couple more Russian words.

The cheese and chocolates and pastries in the supermarkets, the cafes, the frost-covered parks with orthodox churches and pigeons and decorated New Year trees (just like Christmas trees) and people raking leaves, the autumn tree-lined boulevards, the skating rink, the Soviet statues and memorials, and the orchestra--with these and walking the autumn streets, I felt deeply in Slavic territory, an enclave within the nomadic steppes of Central Asia, a reminder of Russian invasions and colonization and the Soviet Union, though still with its own Asian identity.

With Kyrgyz visa in hand, I said goodbye to Karly (thank you) and the Gastinitsa women, crossing more grassland steppes on a cold grey autumn day.
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