I’m in Almaty airport and its 5:00 am. I’m sitting next to the SCAT Airlines desk, still the best-named airline anywhere in the world. There are quite a lot of flights leaving in the next few hours and the airport is full of hustle and bustle. I went to get my money changed. I have yet to find anywhere in Ireland that will change the notes I brought back from Macedonia, so I wasn’t going to take the same risk with my Kazakh Tenge. There are three currency exchange counters in Almaty airport. Behind each counter, a staff member is snoozing peacefully.
I woke up one of the cashiers and she told me she had run out of euros, so I had to go and wake a second one who changed most of my notes but didn’t have enough euros to change them all. They’re both asleep again. I wish I was.
I haven’t been to bed yet. My lift to the airport was leaving at 4:00 am and I just about got my packing done in time.
My last two weeks here have been like my first two – working hard, not doing enough touristy stuff and enjoying the hospitality of the Kazakh people.
1. “Kazakh” can also be spelled “Qazaq”.
2. The stereotypical image of nomadic Kazakhs in traditional dress roaming across the mountains, herding sheep and horses, hunting with eagles and sleeping in Yurts is kind of true, and urban Kazakhs are proud of the rural traditions.
3. The radio station playing in the car I came to work in plays a patriotic anthem at 9:30 every morning and the tune has wormed its way into my consciousness forever.
4. The school I’ve been working in is all dark marble and dark leather and sleek glass doors and walls. It feels like working in a bank. My work shoes squeak a lot on marble and I haven’t been able to sneak up on a single person in the past month because of my squeak.
5. The present I got from my lovely trainees at the end of the course was in a gift bag which none of them had looked at very carefully. The bag read “For ramantic evening together”.
6. Kazakhs eat a bread that is basically deep-fried dough. The name of it sounds to me like “ball sac”. You’ll be pleased to hear that it is pleasantly salty and chewy.
7. One of the first things I noticed on the sides of the streets in Almaty was the prostitutes. On almost every street at every time of day or night. They stand on the side of the street waiting for a car to pull over. When it does, they lean in the window and negotiate. Then the car either lets them in or drives away. I was staggered by how many of these women there were and how open it all was. Then I saw men doing it too. Very progressive. It eventually dawned on me that I was misinterpreting this situation when I saw an elderly woman and a man in a business suit with a brief case touting for business. What was in fact happening was the Kazakh version of taxis. You stand on the side of the street and a car will pull over and negotiate a price. It’s paid hitchhiking and it’s the most common form of transport in Almaty.
8. There are two national languages in Kazakhstan: Kazakh and Russian. They’re both written in Cyrillic so I can’t tell which is which and they haven’t put one of them in italics like Irish.
9. Car registration plates and website urls are in the Roman alphabet, but you can have hashtags in Cyrillic.
10. The most popular meat here is horse. I think I accidentally had a horse meat pizza. All restaurants here seem to serve “horse meat salad”. I struggle to imagine someone who likes both eating horses and eating lettuce, but they love it here.
11. In a lesson we had on the course the teacher used a picture of a British female police officer. This provoked discussion. Most of the students had never seen a female police officer before and decided she was probably a postal worker. There are no women in the police force in Almaty, but there is one in Astana. My trainees googled to show me a picture of her in her uniform.
12. I have had conversations on Growlr, the chubby Grindr, with two different Kazakh men. The gay scene in Almaty seems to be very quiet. The first of these men was a forty-three-year-old with a big bristly moustache. He was looking for a “sugar daddy”. I’m willing to be many things, but sugar daddy to a 43-year-old is not one of them. The other guy who contacted me was very chatty. He decided he wanted to meet so I could “teach him some Irish”, which was fine, except I couldn’t make out if he wanted me to teach him some Irish or “teach him some Irish”. After some unsubtle digging I discovered that he really did want to learn Irish, but he wanted to do it naked. That’s the second time this summer that the Irish language and my sex life have crossed paths. I should go to the Gaeltacht more often. We chatted on and off for 2 weeks, but never managed to meet. Then he said that he still wanted to meet me, “in spite of how I look”. I cut him off immediately.
13. The majority religion in Kazakhstan is Islam. At least in theory. The USSR did an amazing job of oppressing the religion out of the people. My second weekend in Alamty was Eid, the end of Ramadan, the Muslim Christmas, the biggest feast, or at least one of the biggest, on the Islamic calendar. I went out looking for celebrations. None. One million Muslims in the city and nothing. Amazing. The only way you’ll notice this is a “Muslim” country is that one of the many, many handcrafts they have here is a handmade necklace with a snippet of the Koran in a diamond-shaped locket. The current president of Kazakhstan, a relatively benign dictator, who was in charge of the Kazakh SSR before the USSR came apart, has banned proselytising so it’s hard to really find out how religious people are, but it really does feel extraordinarily secular.
14. Borat is genuinely despised by Kazakhs. I’m not a huge Borat fan, but I briefly tried to explain that it’s not as bad as they think because he’s really satirising Americans, not Kazakhs. They didn’t see my point and I conceded.
15. Kazakhstan has been too brief, but I have exciting plans to get back to in Ireland. And I have a feeling I’ll return to Central Asia sometime.