I ended up in Kazakhstan essentially by accident.
Over the past few years I’ve found myself getting a lot of travel ideas from books, and as a result ended up everywhere from megalithic temples in Malta (thanks to “Empires of the Sea” by Roger Crowley) to primeval forests on the border of Poland and Belarus (“The World Without Us” by Alan Weisman). At one point last year I was working my way through a handful of books and podcasts on the subject of Genghis Khan, the rise and subsequent decline and fragmentation of the Mongol Empire, and the history and culture of the Central Asian steppe tribes in general. And somewhere along the way though – fuck it, why not check out Mongolia?
I booked my flights via Skyscanner and, due to whatever combination of price and time-of-year seemed most appealing at the time, ended up with a route from Frankfurt to Ulaanbataar that entailed a stopover in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. So that was Mongolia sorted and on the horizon, and all that was left was to plan which river I should follow while hiking in order to ensure I didn’t end up lost and zig-zagging across the steppes when I was there. It would have made for a decidedly inauspicious start if I had to knock on the door of a nearby ger and embarassedly ask for directions by the end of my first day.
Ultimately though, the airline had other ideas. Right as a promising river had begun to emerge (the Terelj Gol, incidentally), they sent me an email telling me that, for still-undetermined reasons, they were discontinuining the Astana -> Ulaanbataar route. So my flight would get me from Frankfurt to Astana as originally planned, but from there I’d need to do some additional city-hopping if I wanted to continue on to Ulaanbataar. The potential new stopovers – Moscow or Seoul – would have necessitated significantly more travel time, and in the case of Moscow an additional visa. Flying 4538km away from my destination is something I was never particularly inclined towards, and at the end of the day I did have a return flight from Frankfurt to Astana ready to go. So I decided to keep things simple. Kazakhstan it was.
I’ve been living in Germany for several years now, and as such keep track of local news that might otherwise have flown under my radar. One such story from last year was that the German passport had risen in the ranks to become the single most powerful in the world, a rank previously held by Sweden. Germany gets a handy boost in this regard by inheriting the good diplomatic relations that existed between East Germany and other then-communist nations such as, most relevant in this case, Mongolia and Kazakhstan. This inheritance means that the average person walking the streets of Heidelberg could quite easily head over for a weekend fishing trip on the Caspian Sea, but me and my Irish passport had to jump through a few more hoops.
Adding to the sense of having missed out in the diplomatic lottery was when a quick google showed that Kazakhstan had recently relaxed their visa requirements for a host of European nations, but that Ireland had somehow slipped through the cracks. Which was legitimately surprising as, given our history of neutrality and generally good relations with everyone (except those fuckers in New Ireland), the Irish passport is almost universally well received. So in this case I’d guess that our exclusion from the list was most likely not down to any ongoing territorial dispute over who owns that path of trees in the Altai mountains, but rather due to the fact that they simply forgot about us. And that would actually not be surprising, as I’ve realised that once you start moving away from Europe and the Anglosphere people often have no idea of who we are or where we come from – a phenomenon I first noted bemusedly when introducing myself in Japan and being greeted in return with a raised eyebrow and a tentatively confused “… Iceland?”. The backup guess was usually Holland.
Long story short, what this meant was that I had to make a trip up to the Kazakh embassy in Berlin to get my visa. Post-Soviet bureaucracy being what it is, the embassy website wasn’t massively clear about what documents I had to bring and my emails on the subject went unaswered, so I just showed up with a bulging folder filled with everything I thought could conceivably be demanded – flight ticket, hotel bookings, proof of health insurance, rough itinerary detailing the cities I’d be visiting on which dates, basically everything short of my purple belt certificate. Initially the rather stone-faced lady manning the visa booth appeared somewhat confused as to why I was there, and once that was clarified took great pains to furrow her brow and tut that I hadn’t brought the correct paperwork. But with each subsequent document I slid under the screen that brow seemed to un-furrow itself bit by bit, and I do believe she might have even nodded her head in stoic approval by the time I handed over the proof of health insurance with KASACHSTAN underlined in bright blue highlighter. In thick Russian-accented German that crackled through the intercom, she said my visa would be ready in a week. When in doubt, blitz ’em with paperwork.
The Jewel of the Steppes (Est. 1997)
My first stop on the ground in Kazakhstan was Astana – literally “capital”, a role it’s only held since 1997. When I was in the city itself, despite visiting every museum it had to offer, I couldn’t find a single reference to why this switching of capitals had taken place. It was only when I got home and had time to google on a decent-sized screen that I came across a proper explanation – it was a strategic play to move Kazakh power further north into the sparsely populated regions close to the Russian border. This part of the country had historically been devoid of any kind of large urban centres – being as it is harsh, waterless steppe where the temperature can rise to 35°C in the summer and plummet to -35°C in winter – but in the 1990s was nonetheless being eyed with interest by a Russia that was always eager to reclaim any territory that had been lost with the fall of the USSR. In response to this, then-president Nursultan Nazarbayev (also still-president Nursultan Nazarbayev – dedicated chap that he is, he hasn’t given up the job yet) elected to move the capital north and establish a proper Kazakh presence in what was perceived to be vulnerable territory.
So Astana is new in every sense of the word, not just in its role as capital but also the very streets and skyscrapers that make it up – all built hurriedly and from scratch in order to get an international city up and running as soon as possible. And you definitely notice this as you walk around. The boulevards and towering hotels, the ostentatious structures like the Khan Shatyr ( a 140,000 m2 shopping mall located under a giant covering intended to resemble a nomad’s tent) scattered across the skyline are all less than 20 years old, and the city lacks the layers of history that would ordinarily be present in one that’s grown naturally over the course of centuries. Cannot fault the museums though – all excellent, even though they might in fact all be run by the same tiny woman who follows you around from a distance as you check out the exhibits.
Hiberno-Kazakh Pictionary on the Orient Express
After a few days in Astana I hopped on a train heading south across the steppes to the old capital, Almaty. Getting the ticket for this happened to be my first real exercise in a combination of miming and Tarzan-Russian, as I held up a printout of the timetable I’d found online and then responded with a succession of increasingly hopeful ДAs and Спасибоs as we worked our way through the process. Five surprisingly smooth minutes later and I had my ticket in hand. That clerk could never work at an embassy – far too efficient.
Trains seem to be the most realistic, and by far the most popular, way to cover the huge distances between the major cities here – something that remains basically unchanged from when Imperial Russia first started pushing out into the vast open space of Central Asia and found that railways were the ideal way to connect their newly established outposts and settlements. And with Russian trains came Russian train culture – the whole package of card games, drinking toasts, and sharing of food between passengers from the most farflung regions and all walks of life. Since you could be travelling together for days at a time a sense of camaraderie developed, and it was apparently always considered important to bring the finest homemade food with you to share with your fellow travellers. If anyone is interested in this aspect of Russian train culture I recommend checking out “Midnight in Siberia” by David Greene in which he describes it all in much more vivid detail than me.
My travelling companion on the 21-hour train down to Almaty was (and I am entirely sure I’m mangling the latinized spelling of his name here) Aselbek, a guy from Aral who was on his way from there via Astana to visit his family. I don’t even want to think about how long the total time of that journey is, incidentally, but I’d imagine a healthy dose of zen is required to put up with it on a regular basis.
Every few hours these long-distance trains stop for a 20-min break – at stations that seem to vary from sizeable cities to barely populated outposts that clearly just sprang up because there’s a source of water nearby – and during those 20 mins it’s clearly the goal of every passenger to pile off the train and scatter across the tracks to haggle with whatever entrepreneurially minded vendors that have shown up to sell food. Dried fish, meat, tandyr nan, manti, whole shebang. Beer, if I understood correctly, is banned from trains, presumably to try and keep the instances of drunken passengers and/or spirited disagreements to a minimum, but the vendors just hide a few bottles under the cans of coke and the odd brazen reprobate will sneak one on board anyways.
After the first of those breaks, I got back to find that Aselbek had laid out a solid platter of chicken legs, manti, and tea, which he insisted I help him finish. He’d even managed to smuggle on two bottles of beer at great personal risk of suffering a strident upbraiding from the 5-ft-even carriage attendant who took no shit from anyone. The contribution of some figs and coffee hopefully saved me from being designated as a complete moocher. We managed to cover a fair few topics in the ensuing hours as well, as indicated by the Beautiful Mind-esque labyrinth of numbers scrawled on the chocolate wrapper – the best way, we found, to discuss, among other things, the distance between Berlin and Heidelberg, the respective strengths of vodka and poitin, and the type of animals we have in Ireland.
All in all, a surprising depth of conversation given that I still have very little Russian that doesn’t involve ordering coffee or threatening Rocky Balboa.
At the Mountains of Madness
The next step was to head up into the Ile-Alatau mountains above Almaty for a night or two using an old stitched-together Soviet map as a guide. As affectedly hipsterish as deliberately using such a dated map sounds, in many cases the Soviet surveys of Central Asia are still the most reliable maps that exist of the region. The Soviets mapped everything in their day – the more strategically important the territory, the more detailed the map. And luckily for me Almaty had obviously been considered quite important in that regard (possibly due to its proximity to China?). I printed off hard copies of several maps I found online here, but there’s also an app you can now use to do the same thing electronically, and I’d recommend both of those resources to anyone who’s looking to do some trekking or any kind of outdoor expedition in Central Asia or any other part of the world where commercially produced tourist maps are still a thing of the future.
With a reliable map in hand, the only remaining problem was that the whole area around Almaty – the mountains in particular as they stretch off to the south towards Kyrgyzstan – is near a border. Up until recently this wouldn’t have been an issue, but the newly relaxed visa policy had also lead to some freshly concocted problems. Soon after the policy was enacted, some government official panicked at the thought of all those undocumented foreigners running around the country, and so the government came up with a compromise solution: people would continue to be let in visa-free, BUT in the interests of not provoking any diplomatic incidents they couldn’t go anywhere within 25km of a border.
Until the Kazakh tourist board (which basically seems to be one sporadically functioning website from what I can see) pointed out that many of the most popular tourist destinations lie within 25km of various borders. So the government re-compromised their compromise and said right, people can go within 25km of a border after all BUT there are still some random areas in the border regions they’re not allowed go. Just because, motherfuckers. And if you happen to have found a modern map or website that indicates exactly where these still-off-limits areas are, then you are officially better at Kazakhstaning than me.
The actual climb itself was, despite the comparatively short distance on paper, one of the most absolutely physically draining things I’ve ever done. Over the course of the two days I started at the Medeu high-altitude skating rink (1691m) and made my way up to Alpingrad (3400m), and while I can possibly blame the altitude for knocking the wind out of me near the end, that doesn’t explain why I was so quickly and comprehensively bollocksed right from the beginning. A bit of residual jetlag maybe, or a combination of that and the heat, and then throw in the relatively quick increase in altitude and I have never been so quickly and cripplingly fatigued in my life. For anyone who was at either of the Globetrotters camps in Leuven, it reminded me of trying to catch your breath in between rolls down in the sauna bunker, when 5 mins goes by and you’re still trying to get air in your lungs and find yourself wondering if you aged a decade overnight without realising. A squirrel outpaced me on the way up.
There is some truly beautiful scenery up there though, my old nemeses the marmots kept a respectful distance throughout, and there wasn’t a single border guard brandishing an arrest warrant to be seen. Plus due to a rare level of foresight regarding sunscreen, I think this it was the first time last year I didn’t come back from the mountains looking like a communist Dr. Manhattan.
“You? Me? We wrestle?”
As well as getting a feel for the history and landscape of the country, one thing I most definitely wanted to do was get a few rolls in while I was there. Before I left I’d done some googling to try and find any BJJ academies along my travel path, but doing so had proved surprisingly difficult. Surprising because Kazakhstan and all the other Central Asian nations have a long and proud tradition of grappling stretching far back into the dawn of their recorded history. Genghis Khan famously considered wrestling to be one of the “three manly sports” in which every Mongol soldier should be proficient (the other two being archery and horseback riding), and the Mongolian style of wrestling, bökh, still draws legions of eager competitors from all over the country to the annual Nadaam festival every summer. Likewise, judo and the Olympic styles of wrestling have long enjoyed significant levels of participation all over the region, so I would have thought that there’d be quite a lot of interest in BJJ as a comparatively newer grappling style that’s been growing steadily in international popularity in recent years.
As it turned out, BJJ schools were quite hard to find online. Now admittedly this was probably not helped by my own rudimentary (at best) command of Russian, which made it hard to tell if that search result with the Alliance logo was in fact an active school, a chat group for impromptu training meetups, or just a local individual fan of the sport. I came across a handful of VK pages (VK being the Russosphere equivalent of Facebook) with promising profile photos, but almost none had anything that resembled training times or even a location. Just as I was weighing up the pros and cons of hopping on a bus across the city in hopes of finding an academy that might in fact now be a bakery, I spotted a listing for an Atos affiliate with – rarity of rarities in a forest of unfamiliar cyrillic – an actual class timetable. And it was only a 20-min walk from my hotel, so I didn’t have to go too far off the beaten track to determine if they were offering more börek than berimbolos these days.
On the walk over I rehearsed how I was going to introduce myself and hopefully get my point across (I believe I settled on something along the lines of “Me. Ireland. Travel. Jiu-jitsu?”) and considering how exactly I should mime “Want to roll?” without it seeming like I was making untoward advances. As it turned out there was entirely no need for any linguistic semaphore, as the woman working the front desk spoke more than enough English to welcome me enthusiastically inside. And the head coach, a brown belt by the name of Kanat, had actually studied for part of his PhD in Belfast. Which meant a.) he also had enough English to facilitate communication without the need for a single grunt of caveman-Slavic on my behalf, and b.) I had just met someone in Kazakhstan who’d been to an Irish city before me.
While BJJ might have had next to no presence online, on the ground it was a different story. The class was very well attended – 15-20 guys on a Tuesday evening, all enthusiastic and dedicated, with a dynamic and pressure-driven style that suggested most of them came from a wrestling background. The session followed the usual warmup – > technique (in this case takedown drills) -> rolling format, and by the end of the 1.5 hours I’d gotten rounds with most of them and been steamrolled by more than one shoulder of justice along the way. The gentleman in the light-blue shirt in the photo above was a former sambo coach, which gave him a level of old-man strength I never knew existed. Nice guys all, very pleased at having a vistor (when they heard I was Irish I got smiles and several approving “Конор Макгрегор”s), but once you slap hands they don’t accept anything. Training in Kazakhstan is what happens when you put a bunch of the descendants of Genghis Khan in a room together and penalize guard pulling.
My remaining days in the country were spent trying out some of the local food (fermented horse’s and camel’s milk were thus checked off a to-do list I never even knew I had) and finishing off the last of the museums, all while staying in a hotel I’m convinced was actually closed but the remaining staff just didn’t have the heart to tell me. For three days I was the only guest wandering its darkened halls, and I’m still not entirely certain that the elderly woman working in the breakfast cellar (no other word for it really) wasn’t a ghost. She did decent pancakes though.