I think I’m the only Connor in Kazakhstan. I keep pinching myself. I can’t quite believe I’m in Actual Kazakhstan. Why would anyone go to Kazakhstan?
But I’m delighted I’m here. I arrived at 5:10 am on the morning before I was due to start work and after forever waiting in the immigration queue, I was met by a happy young man in a jaunty straw hat and shorts. He probably plays the ukulele or something similar. If he doesn’t, he should stop wearing a jaunty straw hat as that would just be false advertising.
He gave me a lovely welcome and drove me to my flat in his right-hand drive car. I don’t know why he had a right-hand drive car, but it meant that everything was on the wrong side. He wouldn’t let me lift a finger, so when we were leaving the car park and using the ticket machine and when we were paying a road toll, he insisted on jumping out of the car and running around to my side, instead of simply letting me lean out of my window and do it for him.
He brought me to my apartment, which is immense, and left me to sleep off the journey.
My apartment has five beds, various pieces of Soviet technology that I don’t recognise and a fridge that hums louder than a bee farm.
I have the flat all to myself, but it had been occupied by two teachers from the school until two weeks before I arrived and it had been cleaned. The bathroom was bleached and the floors were disinfected. However, the two teachers had left lots of food behind them; four cupboards, a fridge and a freezer full of two-week-old food. In fact, on inspection, a lot of it was older than two weeks. I made a little space on one shelf of the fridge for me.
Of course, a few cupboards full of congealing and rotting food shouldn’t be a problem. Except I couldn’t find where to put my rubbish. I couldn’t find a rubbish chute in the wall. Or a bin outside the building. Or a rubbish room in the basement. I asked various colleagues. Some said there was bound to be a room in the building. Others said it would probably be outside. I asked the man who had rented the apartment for me. He didn’t know.
I asked a neighbour who didn’t understand. On my seventh day in the building, I saw a man with a plastic bag of rubbish leaving my block. I followed him, excited. I was going to be able to dump the rotting food! He walked around the building. Twice. He kept stopping and looking around. He went to the next building and walked around that. All the time he was walking around, I followed him from a discreet distance, like Columbo. In the end, he gave up and retreated back to the building, carrying his rubbish back to his apartment.
Oh no! I was never going to get rid of the rubbish. It was surely only a matter of time before the rats and cockroaches came to stay. I had left it too long to dispose of my rubbish in small amounts in the tiny bins on the streets of Almaty. The rubbish was building up and it’s over 30 degrees every day here. My colleagues advised me to throw the rubbish out of the window after dark when no one was looking.
Yesterday was my 13th day in Kazakhstan. As well as a fridge full of other people’s mouldy food, I now had eleven bags of rubbish (there’s no recycling in Kazakhstan). I was considering a bonfire. My flat may be huge but it smelled of sour milk and rotting banana peel. (And a little of death.)
And then, a glimmer of hope. A little old lady with a bag of used tea bags and dirty tissues. I assumed my Columbo persona again and started following her. Hurray! She led me to the bins.
The reason I couldn’t find the bins for my building is quite simple. They are located in an underground corrugated iron shed. In a building site. Behind a playground. Which is behind the building behind my one.
I spent yesterday gleefully throwing rubbish away, making the trek back and forth from my flat to the distant bin bunker with an audience of Kazakh teenagers watching as I threw away the detritus of the last two weeks, as well as most of the rotten food I’d inherited with my apartment. It was a beautiful time.
Another problem I discovered in my flat was a difficulty with flushing. My toilet’s flushes were very feeble. I googled it. Oops. I shouldn’t have been throwing toilet paper down the toilet. Kazakhstan is one of the many, many countries in the world with plumbing that can’t cope with used toilet roll.
The good news is, I haven’t flooded the building. However, given the bin situation, I wasn’t willing to start sharing my living space with used bog roll. I continued to flush it.
Every morning I wake up in fear. Fear that the whole building will have flooded and a gang of old ladies from the building will stand around and tut while we all wade through sewage, as a local handyman fishes out two weeks’ worth of my used toilet roll, inspects it and says, “This is from the foreign man. It is not Kazakh poo.”
That hasn’t happened. Yet.
And speaking of hygiene: this is the first place I’ve lived where I’ve given into my spoon instincts.
I’ve always had issues with spoons. You put them right in your mouth. And then you lick food off them. Why would I use the spoons that came with the flat? Ew! After all, the relationship I have with my spoons is an intimate one, as intimate as the relationship between a man and his anal bleaching technician. So I bought a bag of plastic spoons with which to eat my yoghurts. Sometimes I wonder whether I’m going to turn into Michael Jackson and end up living in a sterile tent with an oxygen tank of my own. I fear germs.
Anyway, here I am in Kazakhstan, and I’ve mainly written about rubbish and dirty toilet paper and spoon-o-phobia. I really am the worst travel writer ever born.
Almaty is very different from anywhere I’ve been before. And yet it’s not. It’s like a mix between the Slavic world and the East Asian world. The best symbol of this for me is just down the road from me – a huge martial arts studio (East Asian) that also rents out stretch limos (totally Russian).
There are plenty of people around. There are lots of elderly Asian men who hang around outside my building, squatting over their bowls of rice and then playing on the outdoor ping pong courts till the late hours of the evening. But the city isn’t a noisy one. Yes, there are street vendors, selling corn on the cob and pet rabbits and hamsters and there are young women hiring out selfie sticks, but overall the streets and the selling is much, much calmer than pretty much any city I’ve ever been in. And I love it.
Part of what contributes to the quietness is the space. Every building in Almaty seems to be separated from the one next to it by at least two rows of trees. And there really don’t seem to be very many businesses. On one of my first days here, I was walking down a street with a colleague who said, “This is one of the main streets in Almaty.” Literally, all I could see were blocks of flats and trees. The whole city is like one massive suburb. Eventually I did find streets with big public buildings and shopping malls and restaurants, but it’s a city twice the size of Dublin and it mainly feels like Lucan. Much more suburb than urb.
That’s ok though, because what’s most impressive about Almaty is the mountains. From wherever you are in Almaty, you can see amazing, Alps-sized mountains. They’re stunning. The whole city is built on a slope. You don’t go “left” or “right” here. In Almaty, you go “up” or “down”.
Luckily, or possibly unluckily, I don’t have to cope with the slopes all that much. I get driven everywhere. My flat is an hour from work, so I have a driver – an elderly man with a big car, who seems to really love electronic dance music. Unfortunately, the only words of English he knows are the same as the only three words of Russian I know. He’s the person I spend the most time with here, but the only things we ever say to each other are “Hello”, “Goodbye” and “Thank you.”
Luckily, Kazakhs are the perfect amount of friendly. They are incredibly warm and open without being in your face. I think they might be one of my favourite nationalities ever.
I’m very happy to be here and still hoping to have a few adventures. Hopefully in my next post, something will actually happen. Something more exciting than finding a bin. (But to be honest, finding a bin was pretty awesome.)