Thursday, July 3, 2008

Father of Apples

This is how Almaty translates. We haven't seen a single apple yet, but there are plenty of SUVs roaming the main streets of this city in packs, black and silver monsters zooming up and down, menacing pedestrians. It looks and smells much wealthier than all the other Central Asian cities, but no surprise as Kazakhstan has oodles of oil and a tadge of gas too. It also has had the same president since independence from the USSR. As a Kyrgyz man pointed out to us in Bishkek, this is no bad thing, because the first thing a new president does is to take care of himself, his family and friends and only when he's milked the pot does he get round to doing anything worthwhile for his country. There are still plenty of Russians in Almaty, and everything and everyone looks a bit smarter and cleaner than Bishkek or Tashkent. Our first evening, in search of a kebab, we pass plenty of designer clothes shops, perfume stores, jewellery shops. We are really just passing through here, on our way to Delhi, but we have a few days and we want to go walking in the nearby mountains just south of the city.
These mountains form the border with Kyrgyzstan, and they tower over the city. Our trekking is delayed by a case of simultaneous bowel trouble, probably brought on by our first night's kebab. It is rare for us both to feel peaky, but we have our mobile library with us and have no difficulty lying in bed and reading and going for a short meander around the town. Each evening the hot weather is punctuated by a thunderstorm which brings the momentary relief of cooler air. The mountains look dark and daunting at these times, but we are not to be deterred. We finally put on our walking boots, and after a few cross-town bus rides trying to find a connection, we eventually head up one of the valleys above the city. The start of the walk is not so impressive. It's a Monday and the dirt road and riverside is littered with rubbish bags and leftovers from weekend picnics and barbecues. Our route also takes us past two hydro-electric stations and a huge feeder pipe that all look crumbly and abandoned. We emerge at the dam at the head of a lake that looks a little shallow - like someone's pulled the plug out by mistake. The water is milky blue. We climb a more beautiful side valley and follow a stream that feeds the lake. We're tired and looking for a flat pitch for our tent, but have to ascend a further 500 metres before we finally find it. We've got great views though, and ice cold fresh water nearby. We nod off to sleep during a late thunderstorm that rumbles and roars amongst the surrounding peaks.
Our second day is one of our best walking days - over a pass of 3500 metres where there is a strange collection of buildings and huts (marked as Kosmos stancia - space station - on our map) and down into an empty steep-sided valley brimming with wild flowers. As we start to descend through woods we come across deer, sniffing around camping spots for food. The walk is long and tough on the legs but the narrow path is fantastic, clinging to the side of the valley, high above a frothing river, through fields of flowers and nettles almost head-high in places. We emerge by the river where the road meets it and hurry down to catch a bus back to the city.
In bed this evening neither of us can quite believe that we'll be in Delhi the following night. We go to sleep dreaming of curry.

No comments: