Baden-Baden or Bruges? For a sedate weekend in Central Asia, try Almaty

Like Yangon, Almaty has had the rug pulled from under its feet: the seat of political power has been diverted to an unpopular mausoleum of unfortunate modernist architecture several hundred miles away, leaving only the physical relics behind. But unlike Yangon, which responded by descending into feral chaos, Almaty doesn’t seem to mind one bit. It has exhaled slowly, repurposed its Soviet-era bureaucratic behemoths, helpfully pedestrianized its resplendently wide boulevards (recall Stalin’s paranoia about the insurgencies plotted down narrow lanes) and settled into a sedate middle age.

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Plenty of Soviet era behemoths, all gently decaying

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Moday: Only one car parked outside the mayor’s office (formerly seat of national government).

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Monday evening rush hour: not many takers for the Metro

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The Kazakh State Circus features in many books on ‘important’ Soviet Architecture.

On this balmy weekend where the prevailing color is nonetheless still monochrome, serene ‘passeggiatas con gelato’ are in progress, and in the piazzas the serious children are playing sedately. It is no place for disaffected youth, so there aren’t any. The millenials are pleasant and unfailingly helpful. Their English is excellent and they are planning to go to Europe for further studies (no-one is interested in the USA).

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Sedate passeggiatas down the pedestrianized boulevards.

Three of my goals for this weekend in Almaty (long showers, laundry, eat vegetables) are handily achieved thanks to my nifty little Soviet era apartment, courtesy of Airbnb. Fantastically located in the middle of downtown it is decrepit enough the developers should be circling; but since every road has 3 names – its Soviet name, its current name, and what people actually call it – it has probably simply slipped through the cracks. So its pensioner tenants, who are within a 5 minute walk of anywhere worth being, are left in peace.

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Dinner in my Soviet era kitchen: Rosti with salad and mushrooms. Note the bread, but she was right, I didn’t need an egg.

I amble around, shop for Tashkent tomatoes at the farmer’s market, take in the ballet and a museum or two, eat a gelato and am restored.

Pig and cow feature prominently in the farmer’s market, but horse isn’t similarly advertised.

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Just so you don’t think its chicken.

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Another ambitious opera theatre.

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Everyone was still awake in Act 2, so unlikely to be Sleeping Beauty (as advertised).

And just as well because task 4 is picking up my visa from the Iranian Embassy. Since I have in my hand a document from the Iranian government indicating that at my convenience I will be persona grata for a period not exceeding 20 days, this should be a formality. I have set aside the whole of Monday in case it is not.

A tragicomedy in two acts: Act 1.

Cast: Me; A security guard; Two gents; A secretary; Dr. Jekyll; Mr. Hyde; A Bank Cashier; 8 Uber drivers.
Scene 1: It is early on a dank morning in a ramshackle subdivision about 40 minutes from the center of Almaty, identified from Google maps as the location of the Iranian embassy. The curtain rises on a vast compound that covers a whole block. The walls are at least twelve feet high. Somewhat surprisingly, only one door is not padlocked. The buzzer is not wired up. After much banging the door opens.

Me: I’ve come to pick up my visa

Security guard: Unintelligible

Me: (proffers Google translate which says ‘I’ve come to pick up my visa’).

SG: Unintelligible, mimics not having glasses.

Me: Is this the Iranian embassy?

SG: Shakes head.

Me: Where is it then?

SG: Unintelligible.

Me: Well can you call someone to help me because I’m not understanding you at all.

SG: Points to the basement of what appears to be a deserted building in the middle of the compound.

Scene 2: The only room occupied is on the 2nd floor – two gents with jihadi beards and their Central Asian secretary.

Me: Is this the Iranian embassy?

Gents: No, it moved 10 years ago. We’re (they exchange glances) a Chinese oil company.

Secretary: Looks surprised. (The secretary retrieves a sheet of typed directions to the actual Iranian embassy).

Secretary: Would you like an Uber?

(Aside:  Every second car in Almaty is a taxi and Almaty Uber is the cheapest in the world. Over the next few hours I will take 8 Uber rides for a total outlay of $14).

Uber driver #1: Iranian embassy?

Scene 3: 30 minutes later. It is still dank but this subdivision is marginally less ramshackle, as is the compound. This gate is wide open and astonishingly there are no metal detectors (even the malls in Almaty have metal detectors). At the end of the empty, appallingly decorated room is a wall of bullet proof glass. The gun slit to peer through is inconveniently located at upper chest height.

Me: (through gun slit) Hello, I’ve come to pick up my visa.

Dr. Jekyll:  Passport.

Me: (proffers passport and Iranian Government letter).

Dr. J. : No

Me: What no? I have the letter.

Dr. J: Yes, and we have the visa (pulls down a ledger, and there I am inscribed within ).

Me: So what’s the problem?

Dr. J: No application form. We need online application form.

Me: What do you mean? I don’t have that form, you have it. Did you approve the visa?

Dr. J: No, Tehran.

Me: So Tehran has it.

Dr. J: Your tour organizer made mistake.

Me: What mistake? Tehran approved it.

Dr. J: Go back and fill in again online.

Me: You want me to go home and fill in the online application form again?

Dr. J: Yes.

Me: And then come back?

Dr. J: Yes. Then you pay 360 Euros and we give you visa today.

(I contemplate bursting into tears, but a strategic retreat seems wiser, given we are at a yes)

Uber driver #2: The name (of my apartment) is not Nazerbaev 112, it is Furmanov 112.

2 hour interlude. Via email my internet dude tour organizer offers his best suggestion: ‘do anything they ask’.  But I am unable to complete the online visa application. Finally the Iranian government confesses its website is down for maintenance. I screenshot the message and, preparing for battle, gird my laptop in a plastic grocery bag.

Uber driver #3: Iranian embassy?

Scene 4: 40 minutes later, the same room. A few unhappy Kazakhs are lounging on the ugly, plastic-covered sofas. On the other side of the gun slit sits Mr. Hyde.

Me: I just need to tell you I couldn’t fill…

Mr. Hyde: Yes, yes, obviously anyone should realize if you already submitted a successful application you can’t submit another one.

Me: (Bites lip). OK. So what then?

Mr. H:  Go to the State bank of Pakistan and pay 180 euros. Visa is ready after 5 business days.

Uber driver #4: State Bank of Pakistan?

Scene 5: 30 minutes later in a strip mall, the State Bank of Pakistan.

Pakistani Bank cashier: 180 Euros is 71,475 Tenge.

Me: Can I pay with a card?

PBC: No

Me: Do you have a Bankomat (ATM)?

PBC: No.

Uber driver #5: Bankomat?

15 minutes later

Uber driver #6: State Bank of Pakistan?

20 minutes later

Uber driver #7: Iranian Embassy?

Scene 6: 30 minutes later. The same room. The Kazakhs have left. Through the gun slit Dr. J. is back. He looks sullen, even after lunch.

Me: Here’s the receipt. For 180 Euros.

Dr. J: Yes

Me: (opens laptop and indicates calendar) I’m coming back on April 12th. I will pick up my visa then.

Dr. J: Yes

Me: Will you write me something to say that will be OK?

Dr. J: No.

Uber Driver #8: The name is not Nazerbaev 112, its Furmanov 112.

It has taken over 8 hours.

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The Iranian embassy, Almaty

I have 2 gin and tonics with dinner at the Korean restaurant round the corner.

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Gin and tonic number 1

Act 2 will be performed on April 12th.

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