July 25, 2017

Back to Kazakhstan day 1: horse meat in two capitals

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When I embarked on my trip to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in Central Asia back in 2008, I was able to spend only 4 days in Kazakhstan.  As a result there were a couple of destinations that I had to pass up - including the new capital Astana.  I had managed to hit both of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites listed at the time - my priority on that trip - so I left the country with a small dose of regret about not reaching the sites in the western end of the vast country.

Two months ago my caviar supplier connected me with his friend in Moscow, offering a unique opportunity to travel to Baikonur and watch the Russians launch a Soyuz spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome.  The mission would carry 3 astronauts to the International Space Station.  This was one of the places I didn't get to visit 9 years ago, and it turns out to be an itch I really had to scratch.  Despite being turned down by every single friend I asked to join me - pretty much all because of scheduling conflicts - I decided to bite the bullet and make the trek on my own.  I would be joined by other visitors for the tour.

Initially I had found a very cheap ticket to Astana, routing myself through Beijing and flying Air China the whole way.  The Beijing - Astana route is new for Air China, which may explain the low cost of the airfare.  A few days ago, I began to get worried about potential delays at Beijing Capital International Airport.  Aside from the usual air traffic control, summer is the season for thunderstorms, and I was hearing horror stories about massive delays.  The 5½-hour layover I had scheduled began to look insufficient.  After struggling with the decision for a few days, I decided to cancel my original flights and booked myself on Air Astana - flying direct to Kazakhstan and bypassing Beijing (or any other city in China) altogether.  The ticket was much more expensive - more than double the cost of my original ticket - but I could not afford to miss my connecting flight in Beijing for any reason.

My 6-hour flight from Hong Kong to Almaty was uneventful.  Hong Kong was sunny with blue skies, and there were no weather or air traffic delays coming out of Almaty.  I was unfortunately seated right over the wing, so I wasn't able to take any decent pictures.  Nine years on, the inflight entertainment system on Air Astana was pretty good - high-res touch screens showing a good mix of international as well as local/Russian programs.  I listened to two albums by Dilnaz Akhmadieva - who is apparently still a figure on the Kazakh pop scene after all these years. I also watched The Diamond Sword - a movie about the first Kazakh khans who were descended from Genghis Khan.  There was also the option of watching re-runs of House M.D. dubbed in Russian, but I chose to stick with the original English dialog...

After landing at Almaty Airport and going through immigration, I moved to the departure level upstairs for my 3-hour layover.  This is a modest-sized airport and there weren't many shops and restaurants, so I wasn't able to buy new shoes to replace the ones falling apart around my feet.  I guess I would have to wait till Astana...

I'm not sure whether Сат Сапар was the cafe where we had our last meal in Kazakhstan back in 2008, but it was certainly the same location in the terminal building.  I wasn't really hungry, but once I decided to sit down, there was no reason not to order my favorite Kazakh dish and relive those memories...

Besbarmak (бешбармак) - I've been dreaming about having this ever since I decided to come back to Kazakhstan.  While the version here would never be considered one of the best, it was more about scratching that itch.  And it was still delicious.  Slices of horse meat and horse sausage were accompanied by a bed of flat noodles not unlike papardelle.  The noodles were soaked in butter, which delivered this awesome richness that was so familiar and comforting.  Then you've got the pan-fried onions which hadn't quite gotten caramelized, but nevertheless delivered some sweetness and crunch.  I loved the chunks of fat in the sausage, and there was even a little bit of fat in the sliced meat - which were extra tasty once the slices had been heated in a pan.

The staff of the cafe were really nice to me, and obviously surprised that I enjoyed my besbarmak so much.  They offered me a бауырсақ - a deep-fried dough apparently commonly taken as a side dish. Actually, tasted rather Chinese and familiar...

As I was in Almaty, it was only appropriate that I washed my food down with a glass of fresh squeezed apple juice.  Yum.

 The service here was definitely very friendly, even though the staff didn't speak much English.  They even asked me to sign one of those old-fashioned guest logs.

My next flight took us from the lush, green fields and rolling hills around Almaty to the green fields surrounding Astana - with vast expanse of emptiness in between.  Thankfully it was short, and this time I got a better view.

By virtue of being the country's capital airport - and thanks to Expo 2017 currently in Astana - the terminal at Astana Airport looks much more modern compared to Almaty International Airport.  There were two conveyer belts on the domestic arrival side... and of course our luggage was delivered on the wrong belt...

Taxi fare within Astana seems pretty reasonable, but the trip to/from the airport is kinda negotiated at a greatly-inflated rate of around KZT 3,000 (roughly USD 10).  As the airport isn't too far from the left bank of the city, I found myself at Hilton Garden Inn Astana shortly after landing.  A few minutes later, I was out the door on a mission to buy myself a pair of new sneakers.

The Khan Shatyr (Хан Шатыр) entertainment was a short walk away from my hotel.  It was designed by Foster + Partners and meant to resemble a Kazakh tent.  I did a brisk walk through Lovers Park (Ғашықтар саябағы) in the drizzle to get to the mall, and the first shop inside the entrance was Adidas.  Mission accomplished.

After a quick shower, it was past 9 p.m. and the sky finally went dark.  So I did a quick stroll near the hotel and snapped a few pics of the Astana Opera.

It was 10pm and I figured that I would have my 5th meal of the meal, so I walked a few blocks to Alasha (Алаша) - a restaurant shaped like a fort from Central Asia and serving regional cuisine.  There was a lounge singer in the "indoors area" whose tunes I couldn't appreciate, so I asked to be seated in the outdoor courtyard.

I'm determined to have my fill of besbarmak (бешбармак) on this trip, so of course I ordered a plate of it for dinner.  This is similar to the one I had in Almaty during my last trip, as the papardelle-like flat noodles were soaked in mutton broth.  The problem with this particular plate, though, was that the slices of boiled horse meat were a little on the dry side... as they lacked any fat.  Not a great texture.

I loooved the fatty karta (Қарта) - horse meat sausage.

I was damn full but determined to try some dessert.  Wasn't interested in trying baklava, so I asked for some chak-chak (чак-чак).  Little did I know this was basically the Manchurian sachima (薩其馬)... just with some raisins and walnuts.

Dinner tonight was washed down with a bottle of Kazakhstan Cola.

I was completely stuffed, and walked around a little before heading back to the hotel.  I made a detour to the 24-hour McDonald's just a block from the hotel, as I have a habit of checking out the chain for unique offerings around the world - I have seen spring rolls in Oman, and of course there was the Chicken Maharaja Mac in India.  Unfortunately they didn't have anything interesting or local on the menu, so I guess I won't be patronizing them while in Kazakhstan...

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