Sunday, September 28, 2003

Kazakhstan - Riding the Iron Bazaar

I trust all is well in your sections of the world. I felt the need to tell you all what the last 3 weeks have been about, by bursting into song.

"You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave"

That was Almaty, the big smoke of Central Asia: some kind of vortex that had me attached with a rubber band. Every time I tried to get out of the city it snapped me back in. I gave up trying to leave after...cue music....

"Tragedy! When the feelings strong and you can't go on"

All the trains were booked and I had to wait five more days and thus had no time to stop on the way to Russia. This clanged very loudly with my fear of missing out on something. Then again, there isn't much in Kazakhstan that I haven't already seen in the region. The desolation of the Aral Sea disaster, and poverty from ruined Soviet plans. Something different would have been going to where the Soviets deemed the country "uninhabited" and used it for nuclear tests. Hum, I might not have missed much.

But, back to Almaty. I arrived feeling like a country bumpkin lost in the concrete jungle. I marvelled at the western food and incredible displays of wealth paraded by some. From Gucci to BMW Z3, it was all there. Moreover, it demonstrated the huge gulf between the rich and still very poor. Stories of government and police corruption were astonishing. I hung out with expats and made a local friend.

The women were the most consistent wonder though. They can wear whatever they like, as long as it is skin tight, high heeled and caked in makeup. This was evident in the other Russified stans, but reached a crescendo here. I, the Amazon grot, did not fit in with them.

I toyed with the idea of trying to.

Step 1: Handbag. Easy, the Central Asian briefcase is a blue plastic bag with, inexplicably "A & G Amgen, Made in Italy" on it. I have one, 30 cents. No worries.

Step 2: High Heels. From 12 year olds to grannies, everyone is in them. But, I decided that even the drag queens would not have the ankle hobbling spikes in my size.

Step 3: Tight pants. I would get an ankle in where their thighs go. The skirts wouldn't cover my bum. Not an option really.

Step 4: Tight tops. This I could easily do, it wouldn't matter if it didn't fit.

So, that would give me a plastic bag and a booby top. Hum, I don't think you can match up to the locals in teva sandals. Gave up. But, I did think ahead. I bought the heaviest, warmest, most funky sheepskin coat with enough fluff to look the part in Moscow.

The climax of my dagginess was trying to attend the Opera. They very nearly didn't let us in we were so messy. My companion Charles, being Canadian and thus a perpetual apology, and I felt our embarrassment was almost tangible. We skulked to our seats and refused to move until everyone left. It was good though, a Kazakh opera in Kazakh language, a gripping love tradegy.

One very cool thing we did around Almaty was...cue music......

"Flash, arrr arrrrrrr, he's one of us"

A mad, defunct astronomical observatory is in the beautiful mountains outside Almaty. It looked like a ruined set from a 80's Flash Gordon: death rays and what looked like space junk lying around, odd scientists ghosting between buildings, cows grazing.

We were disappointed not to use the one telescope that worked to see Mars, it was too cloudy. I walked out in the morning to light snow that added an eerie feel to the place. I loved it.

Me on some fun junk

"There's a slow, slow train comin' up around the bend"

So, I saw Kazakhstan from a train. For three days and three nights, this moving bazaar provided views of utterly endless steppe. The clear sky banged into the horizon in a precise line. Two-humped camels grazed as we passed. The numerous stops at tiny villages caused atom bombs of activity as people on the train sold goods to the villagers. I went first class, mostly because no other tickets were left, but it was very comfy and still cheap.

Looking down the train platform at the instant market the train brought to the village

"We'll meet again, don't know where, don't know when"

So, I left Central Asia. The best thing about my trip in the region was it was almost an entire surprise. I had almost no pre-conceptions of what would be there and what it would be like. I wonder if I will get that feeling again; travelling an entire region that was a blank blob that has now been so richly coloured in.

But, onto Russia! It feels logical being here, like getting to the horse's mouth. I entered Russia in the most obscure way I could think of. I am in Astrakhan in the Volga Region. Overnight I stepped from Asia to Europe. The buildings are lovely, but run down. The desolate steppe has been replaced by the lush Volga River. I have perversely made it hard on myself by having no guide book here. A very thin armour of bad Russian is all I have. But it causes me to talk to people, ask their help, and I have met some lovely ones so far. Except for the old dragons behind hotel counters, they can go to hell with the taxi drivers.

There are tourists here, all Russian. I haven't talked to anyone at length in English for six days. Besides Charles, there hasn't been any others travellers for 3 weeks. It is a challenge, but this is what I wanted. It is rewarding.

Enough crap from me, I hope all is well, tell me all, as you can might guess, I need a little more

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