Well Worth It July 18, 2017

Well Worth It
By: Jonathan Poser

Last Thursday, after greeting guests from GE at the USA Pavilion, I and six of my fellow Student Ambassadors set out on a trip to Almaty, Kazakhstan. The promise of eagle shows, hiking, and panoramic views of the country’s former capital were particularly welcome after a couple of long weeks working in Astana. Once on the train, I ended up sharing a state room with a lovely family from Almaty visiting Astana for Expo 2017. Shortly after we were underway, my colleagues and I headed to the dining car. The hike down the narrow hallways of the moving train from the 22nd wagon the 5th was Kubrickianly long and involved sidling past sometimes unyielding Kazakhs and bumping into people’s doors as the train bobbed from side to side. After some parlor games and drinks, we retired early and prepared for the long day ahead. Despite the heat of sleeping on the top bunk and the being tossed around in a sometimes-intense rocking motion, I got a couple of hours in.

We arrived in Almaty on Friday and were greeted by the trip’s organizer, Queenie, and our local driver.  The city was green, humid, and only just starting to dry out after a recent rainfall. Seeing the mountains rising high behind the skyline was particularly striking after spending the last month surrounded by the flatness of Kazakhstan’s steppe. We arrived at a 12-story building with the lights off and no sign of anyone coming or going. Once inside the gilded and aging lobby, we were instructed by a security guard to use the elevator to our hostel on the 11th floor. The elevator made it to the second floor before it broke down. After moaning to one another and pressing every button with no success, Hayley found a way to open the door and we made our way into a dark anteroom filled with construction materials. The second floor seemed to be in disuse. We used another elevator to return to the first floor, where the same guard told us we couldn’t use the stairs because the doors to access them were locked and he didn’t have the key. More elevator rides and locked doors came soon after.

Eventually, the right key was found and we were led onto the roof of the building. The view was stunning. Cloud-veiled mountains filled the entire vista to the south and there was an almost complete panorama of the city around us. Almaty is beautiful. The hostel was quiet and full of mostly Russian-speaking travelers just waking up. We met up with Nelly, who had arrived the day before, ate, chatted, and prepared for our first outing.

Once again, we climbed into the van that we would later come to know very well, and headed to the First President’s Park. We arrived as a light rain started falling and made our way up the red stone steps to the giant columns framing the entrance. The park itself sprawls across a 180-acre territory sloping up towards the city’s green foothills. It hosts an impressive fountain at the entrance, beyond which lies a network of tree-lined trails and boulevards decorated with flowerbeds that made the light breeze smell sweet. After a short walk, we reached a gazebo that marks the highest point in the park. We arrived as a groups of energetic school children were also exploring the area. We said hello, posed for some pictures, exchanged some high fives, and answered questions about where we came from and if we had tried besbarmac. The kids seemed pretty excited and curious.

We then headed to a Kazakh restaurant somewhere in the city. We were all seated around a table on a raised platform covered with rugs and pillows. We sipped on homemade kvas and lemonade and dined on lagman noodles that were some of the best I’ve tried. Everyone seemed content and a little sleepy as we embarked upon what would become a pretty interesting drive into the mountains.

Our destination was referred to as BAO, short for Bol’shoe Almatinskoye Ozero, which is a large mountaintop reservoir. During lunch, we were casually warned that should any of us feel the need to run towards the water’s edge, we would be promptly and unceremoniously shot by the soldiers guarding the city’s water supply. The drive was estimated to take about 45 minutes. We split up into two groups, one in a car and the other in the van. Britt and we student ambassadors rode in the van. During the ascent, the van began to slow to a pace of only a few miles per hour and cars impatiently passed us as we crawled along. At a certain point, the driver pulled over, popped the hood of the van, got out, and dug around behind the seats for a few moments. We watched as he took three large water bottles with him to a nearby stream, filled them up, and poured them into the radiator’s reservoir. It seemed like a benign-enough problem that was quickly solved. Back on the road, we though.

Five minutes later, we pulled over again and he requested that each of us surrender whatever containers we could so they can be filled with water, poured into the radiator’s reservoir, refilled, and stored in the car. We took this opportunity to wander around a bit on the side of the road and check out the river that was rumbling alongside. Gabe dunked is head in the water to cool down, Hayley sat and silently watched the flowing rapids, and Sasha snapped a few pictures with Britt. It was peaceful and totally delightful.

Thus began, however, our ritual of pulling over every few minutes, wandering around next to the van, and watching our driver dump gallons of water onto the overheating engine. Each time we stopped, we got to take in the increasingly beautiful landscape. Eventually, we arrived at a roadblock and joined half a dozen standing vehicles as we waited for permission to proceed along a narrow stretch of mountain pass that was mostly blocked due to a rockslide. The widened section of road served as a small parking lot and lookout towards our destination. A guardrail separated this lot from the canyon below which housed a massive pipeline carrying water from the reservoir to the city far below, and the rail was covered with graffiti in different languages from those who had passed this way before. As we waited, we wondered aloud if the van would be able to make it up the steep road that lay ahead of us.

After about thirty minutes of waiting, there was a flurry of activity as the gates began to open. Everyone piled into the van and a new driver, who hadn’t announced his presence until that moment, hopped in the driver seat and set off up the road. We went with it. The ascent was slow and the engine moaned as the smell of burning radiator fluid wafted into the van. Stopping maybe four times to let the engine cool, we finally made our way to a widened spot near the top of one peak with a trailhead leading down to the water’s edge and a commanding view of the valley. Right as we pulled into a parking spot, something burst in the engine compartment and steam started spewing out from under the hood and into the van. The panicked struggle to escape was pretty funny.

The destination was well-worth the longer-than-expected drive up. On the opposite side of the cloudy blue lake, a stream flowed from the snowy mountaintops through a ravine to feed the body of water. As we hiked up to a high point, we passed a family occupying one of the most spectacular camping spots I’ve seen. They were cooking over an open fire and greeted us as we passed. After a short time taking in the scenery and wandering around the rim above the lake, we gathered and watched as both of our drivers (our original driver had somehow made his way to us) worked on the van and listened to the advice of interested passersby about the repairs. Eventually, we were back in action. The descent was uneventful and the car seemed to do fine on the way back down.

Not far from the BAO, we stopped at a resort compound nestled alongside the main road leading to the city. The resort boasted a swimming pool, a restaurant, hunting dogs, and birds of prey. We wandered around looking at the collection of falcons, owls, eagles, and a vulture that called this compound home. We were initially supposed to see a falconry demonstration, but due to the transportation issues, we had missed it. The eagles had already eaten. Regardless, it was impressive to see these enormous, powerful creatures up close, but also rather sad to see them chained down and given just a few square feet of space in which to live when they weren’t hunting. The setting was idyllic with green canyon walls ascending steeply behind the outbuildings at the back of the property.

The drive back to our hostel was largely uneventful, and once there we wearily got changed and headed out to a bar to enjoy some drinks and live music from a local band playing Russian and Kazakh hits. A totally delightful end to a good day.

This post reflects the opinion of the author and not the USA Pavilion and its sponsors