Posted by: cousindampier | 14 July 2014

The Almaty Superlatives

One of my favourite intersections in Almaty.

One of my favourite intersections in Almaty.

One month ago, I stepped off a plane and back into America. The 30 days since then have been marked by a rush of change, difficulty of transition, and some stark realizations about life post-Almaty and pre-London.

So, without further ado, lets ignore all of that and launch into the Almaty Superlatives:

The Award for Single Best Teaching Moment: The Super Bowl provided its own set of great moments. What it probably means is that the Seahawks will never win again until I am back in Kazakhstan, because that is how luck works. However, the week preceding the game provided for the best moment I had teaching. Super Bowl commercials transcend cultures, as was evidenced by a class full of Kazakhstani students creating and acting out their own commercials.

This was not one of the commercials they acted out.

The Award for Single Worst Teaching Moment: Any one of the days I walked out of the classroom thinking, “I am the worst teacher ever,” because I bombed any connection with students that day. There were a lot of these.

The Award Stupidest Story I Can Tell (which Does Not involve Istanbul): Almaty is a big city – about a million and a half people over about 125 square miles. I really only saw a small part of it, living in the Abay-Lenina corridor. One night, however, I was walking back along Abay street at around 1 or 2 in the morning. And then I kept walking.

And kept walking.

And kept walking.

Nearly 70 minutes later, I began to recognize where I was, and I finally just gave in a caught a cab from there, which took another 20 minutes.

The rumour said that late at night, people would stand out in front of their apartments and shake their keys. For the right price, a passerby could rent the apartment for a period of time, and sometimes the person who inhabited the apartment as well. While I have no idea if the rumour is totally true, there were a lot of people shaking their keys and a lot of cars stopping to talk.

The walk itself wasn’t necessarily stupid; it was the walk at 2 am through a part of the city I didn’t know, not being able to ask for help if needed.

(Later, Angie and I would see a pimp showing off her prostitutes in Bishkek, but that was only two blocks from our hostel. Good times.)

The Totsami Award for Favourite Club: Totsami. It was closed halfway through the year, and I am still in mourning. Chutkotka, Sinii, and Don’t Worry Pappa were cool, but Totsami always ended with tears of laughter the next day.  I think I appreciated it because it was relatively small, the band was great, the DJ’s were usually great, and it is where I first started giving myself challenges for clubs.

Hold on, I’m going to go pour one out.

This photo credit goes to Totsami bar, but THEY WERE CLOSED SO WHO CARES.

This photo credit goes to Totsami bar, but then the cops came and closed it, so who cares.

The Award for Story Which Continues to Give Me Chills: Jon Jay and I were in Bishkek. Our last day there, we walked from our place on Chui to Sierra Coffee, and then to Osh Bazaar. It was a pretty miserable day – the rain was coming down in spurts and the gray clouds hovered overhead had nowhere else to go.

We were there looking for this type of jam which locals mix in tea, and a kalpak. We made the mistake of underestimating the size of Osh Bazaar, which was legitimately the largest bazaar I’ve ever been in. It was pretty easy to get lost, and pretty easy for two tall white guys in ski gear to stand out.

And so we turned the wrong corner into a group of Kyrgyz police, which seemed to delight them to no end. They hauled us into this small shack and shook us down, emptying our pockets and checking our ID. Jon’s hemp wallet from Nepal was of a special curiosity, because hemp = weed, and he had to prove it wasn’t.

We somehow make it away unscathed, and the cops even send us in the right direction to buy a kalpak; and as we approach the store – quite literally within 5 meters – we get stopped again by a plainclothsed cop, hauled into another KGB room where one of the officers is having a ‘birthday’ and the whole process starts again.

The narrative was too perfect. We’d escaped, and then we were caught again, and now we were going to be stuck paying a bribe. All the cash I had was on me; it was a nightmare scenario which continues to give me shivers.

The Wizard of Oz Award (Toto, I’ve a Feeling We’re Not in Kansas Anymore): That time Adil and I caught a cab to pick up Zarina from swimming, and then the bus to go to Abai Square for a festival and then walked down to a restaurant on Dostyk. This was the first day I remember being awake, and stands out because Adil and Zarina were very cute together, and because there was no way I was finding my own way home.

Adil being cute.  Or scolding me.  I forget which.

Adil being cute. Or scolding me. I forget which.

The Moment I Made It Award: To the time I gave a guy directions, in Russian. I gave him the wrong directions, but I was only a block off.

Most teaching-worthy West Wing Quote:

President Bartlet: There! You see how benevolent I can be when everybody just does what I tell them to do?

Most Descriptive Song of the Past Year: As much as I want to cite Usher’s latest single, “Team” by Lorde held its own through the course of the year:

We live in cities you’ll never seen on screen
Not very pretty, but we sure know how to run things

Almaty is a city few people know of.  It has its rough edges, but I figured it out just enough to make it home.

(Ah, to hell with it.  It’s more fun to choose Usher anyway).

The Angie Award for Best Party:  St. Patrick’s Day was the best party I went to in the city, if only because I won a bottle of whiskey in a pub quiz! Which was in Russian! (Jon and I may have had help).  The Weekender Festival was also fantastic for a number of different reasons and hilarious photos.

It had a cool label!

It had a cool label!

But the surprise birthday that Z and Adil gave me tops any list.

Look at that dashing birthday face! Look! Anybody?

Look at that dashing birthday face! Look! Anybody?

Favourite Street: Furmanova.  It was always a pleasant nighttime walk home, and I never felt too worried to bump into police.  One of the most relaxing 20 minutes I spent every day.

Most Sublime Moment:

Minar and Me

Most Sublime Moment not involving Minar:

Waking up in the first apartment I stayed in and looking out the window to this:

Good Morning!

Good Morning!

First ‘I’m Home’ Moment: I got fed Avocado sandwiches in Paris by Kate.   I hadn’t had an avocado in ten months.  It was on a French baguette.  I nearly went into a coma.

Best Chutkotka Moment: Chutkotka sits in a park, and there was one morning I woke up in the park.  Let’s not go further on this one.

Best Food: Lagman is a sometimes-spicy noodle dish. Originally, I think it was a soup, but my favourite was fried lagman – mixed with meat and vegetables, it was delicious.

The Best Jon Jay Moment: Removing all the stories which include Jameson, then it is sitting in Karakol at night knocking of central Asian flatbread and a bottle of cognac before skiing the next day.  Removing the stories which involve cognac, it was the can of beer he brought me from America after Christmas.  Removing the stories which involve beer, all the rest of the stories.

The Best Saranna Soroka Moment: Any one of the thousand times one of her stories included a ‘ohmygod guys.’  And second to that, the time she managed to request transport from KIMEP to the airport for our departure flight, and KIMEP sent a short bus for the two of us (appropriate!) and we chilled out and reflected for one last half hour to the airport.  It was one of those moments made only in movies, that mixture of reflection and sadness, pride that we’d made it through and shock that it was over, and an inability to comprehend that in a few short hours we wouldn’t see each other again.

And upon arrival at the airport, I got dinged $100 for my luggage and Saranna had to text her sister who called her mom who called Lufthansa to get the lady at the Almaty airport to let her luggage go through for free like it was supposed to.   Even in our last moments, Almaty wouldn’t let us leave without one more fight.

Gratuitous Shakira Video Interlude: 

Jon somehow finished his thesis with me sending him around 80 different theories behind this video.  If Jay-Z’s theory behind ‘Empire State of Mind’ was to outdo Sinatra and create a song New Yorkers will listen to forever, than this…I don’t even know.

Best restaurant: Daredzhani.  I don’t even know if the food is memorable, but Zarina introduced me to it when I visited in 2012, and it became the place Dina, Karina, and I would have dinner once per month, and those dinners kept me relatively sane.  Plus, khachapuri! It was the last restaurant I went to in Almaty, the night I left.

One Last Meal

One Last Meal

Most Appropriate Archer Line: As much as I want it to be Archer and Ray’s conversation about mortality, its not that.  It’s phrasing.

The Han Solo, “I got this” Award: 

“Hey, its me!”

Second here is playing tour guide in Paris after only a day or two there, but taking off for Bishkek with Angie is probably number one.  Granted, it did help that she speaks Russian.  But that’s just in the details.

Best Hike, Trek, or General View from the Top of a Mountain: Climbing Abay Peak in the winter and then during spring was pretty incredible, but the first hike I did was nearly all the way up Peak Furmanova.  It ended up just being Davinia and me sitting on a ridge and looking out over the steppe in the afternoon sun while we munched on snacks.

"remember that book i told you about the first sip is joy and the second is gladness, the third is serenity, the fourth is madness, the fifth is ecstasy.” - JK

“remember that book i told you about the first sip is joy and the second is gladness, the third is serenity, the fourth is madness, the fifth is ecstasy.” – JK

The view from the top of the ski resort in Karakol was pretty good as well:

Hey, its Kazakhstan way over those mountains!

Hey, its Kazakhstan way over those mountains!

Upon Further Reflection: I saw On the Road for the first time last December.  I’d read the book, but the movie was something different.  And maybe because I enjoyed the movie, or maybe because it reminds me of Kerouac, I listen to the soundtrack while I write at times.

And so what I think about Almaty is that I can’t think about Almaty yet.  I can talk about it through stories and moments and apparently superlatives.  But to think about it more broadly is impossible, and maybe for the best.  Maybe giving into my usual tendency to think about it critically and try to analyze what I got out of it and what it means is a hopeless task.  Maybe Almaty just is.  It happened.  And it is over now, and school will begin soon, and school is happening because I went to Almaty, and Almaty happened because Zarina thought enough of me to encourage me to apply and move there, and so on and so on.

I can’t shake that feeling that it is something important, but I can’t describe what that importance is.  As someone who enjoys writing, this bothers me to no end; and as someone who talks until he figures out what he is talking about, this probably annoys the hell out of people around me.  And I wish I could explain it.  I wish I could.

“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.” – Jack Kerouac, On the Road

And so I’ll end with this: “Russia won the Olympics.”


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