June 18, 2008

Silk Road III Day 10: Arrival in Almaty

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Early morning departure to Shimkent airport for our flight to Almaty on Air Astana. As expected, we arrive at the airport waaaay too early, and with check-in pretty much a snap, we found ourselves to plenty of time to kill. I sat at the "Beer Port" and ordered up a cup of Lavazza coffee - USD 4, pretty fancy for a dinky airport - and a couple of piroshkis.

Upon arrival at Almaty airport - where we finally got off the plane using an air bridge - we were picked up by the guide and driver. Our guide Baghdad (yes that is his name) is a 60 something gentleman. Not quite what we expected, but according to him there aren't many young people who like the tourism business.

As it was too early to check into our hotel, we started with a bit of sightseeing. As we drove through the streets of Almaty, it was easy to see that people in this town were very well-off. Instead of the Russian Ladas and Daewoos we saw in Uzbekistan, the streets were overrun with Mercedes, BMWs, Lexus, Toyotas...although curiously, most people don't seem to keep their cars clean regardless of how fancy they are.

We started with the Museum of Kazakh Musical Instruments, an interesting wooden building housing - what else - lots of musical instruments. We quickly enter Panfilov Park, named after the 28 heroes led by General Panfilov who defended a village outside Moscow with grenades during WWII. The park is dominated by a large memorial and - you guessed it - an eternal flame. I snap some pictures, and move towards the Zenkov Cathedral. This is a very pretty Russian Orthodox cathedral, built entirely of wood and held together with wooden nails. There are many beautiful icons inside, and not surprisingly, very very bling. Baghdad, who is Muslim, does not join us inside.

Finally it is time to check into the Hotel Eurasia, located in a very plain building and looks more like a hotel-in-a-shopping center than vice versa. The lobby was filled with Indian merchants, and we were totally disappointed when we entered our rooms. The room decor was bland, but everything was cheap Chinese furniture, including the entire bathroom (there was only a shower stall, no tub). Nothing about this hotel room can justify its price tag of over USD 200 a night.

We are hungry, so we head to Sherbet, a fancy restaurant just around the corner from the hotel. This turns out to be a great choice. We sat in a booth and started to order up some delicious local dishes. Yes, we ordered up the usual selection of salads (including a delicious dish of fried cauliflower and mushrooms), and of course there was the obligatory beer. But we're in Almaty, so of course one should order up freshly blended apple juice. They were pretty delicious green apples, but at USD 8 a glass it's pretty much 5-star hotel pricing!

For main course we had three very traditional Kazakh plates. First there was kuurdak - a stew of beef, liver and other offal, potato and onions. This was actually pretty good. Then there was the national dish of besmarmak, which was by far my favorite. Chunks of mutton, beef, horsemeat, karta (horsemeat sausage) and onions on top of flat squares of pasta that resemble papardelle, all served with meat broth. It would be a dish that I relish for the next few days. Finally, we have the Kazakh version of plov, again served with karta and mutton. It was all pretty delicious, and this definitely is a place that is worth going back to.

To get the full view of Almaty, we rode the Kok-Tobe cable car up to the top of the hill. In addition to the nice view of the city as well as all the hillside villas, there is also a park with a small zoo. We take a stroll around, and ride the minibus back down the hill instead of paying another USD 7 for the cable car. Almaty rests against the mountains, and the city is built on sloped terrain where the southern side of town can be as much as 300m higher in altitude than the north.

After resting a bit at the hotel, we take a stroll around the hotel in search of a Russian restaurant. When the tip from our hotel front desk didn't work, we walk past the Presidential Palace, the Respublika Alanghy and find ourselves at the InterContinental Hotel. After determining that they didn't have a local or Russian restaurant within the hotel, we received kind assistance from the concierge and got ourselves a map as well as the name of a Russian fine dining establishment.

The restaurant was a few blocks away, but as it was nice and cool, I didn't mind walking before dinner. We finally did manage to find Borodino on Shevchenko Street, one of the streets with street cars. The decor looked nice from the outside so we had no hesitation in going in. We were seated in the bar section, since the restaurant section did not look open this evening.

I must say I did a rather poor job of ordering. In addition to a bit of salad and a platter of mixed meats, the only good dish I ordered was a bowl of mutton and pork ravioli. The herring, beet and cucumber salad was not to everyone's liking. And the two orders of rack of lamb were both done normal Western-style, with rosemary and all. Pretty lame. I knew I should have ordered the chicken Kiev and the beef Stroganoff...

The worst thing is that for a Russian restaurant, they didn't even have any Russian beer! We ended up with Belgian beer instead, and ordered a bottle of red wine from Georgia. Not knowing anything about Georgian wine - and unable to read and understand the wine list anyway - I ended up with a bottle of 2005 Marani red that was semi-sweet. Not exactly to our liking, and we struggled to finish the bottle only because it cost USD 80.

We leave the restaurant and try to get taxi back to the hotel. While we waited, I took a look at the cars parked in front of restaurant. Nothing but S-Class Mercedes, Lexus and Mercedes SUVs. Across the street, I see a stylish sports car but don't recognize the shape. It's certainly not a Porsche, Ferrari or Maserati. What could it be? Then I recognized the racing decal on the side of the car and read the lettering: Ford GT. I am impressed. For a car with such a small production, someone must have paid pretty big bucks to get one imported into the middle of nowhere...

We quickly discover that anyone with a car in Almaty could be a taxi driver. We flag one down and negotiate a fare back to the hotel. Very tired...

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