Gonzo for Gondolas

By Colin McFadden
This post is part of a series called Kazakhstan 2019
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We’ve been in Almaty for two weeks now.  Just about everyone who’s asked us what we’ve been up to has expressed shock and dismay that we hadn’t yet been to the mountains.  Yesterday we righted that wrong.

Before we get to that though, there are a few other events to catch up on.  Thursday, I had another archives visit, this time to the Central State Archives.  The Central State Archives host audio, video, slides and documents pertaining to history of the country, before, during and after Soviet times.  I got a tour of all of the archives, and then was asked to give a talk to an assembled crowd of employees.  I wasn’t given much context about who these people were, or what they might be interested in, so I just sort of mumbled some things about my work.  The fellow responsible for their AV operations was unhappy with some of my answers, and gave a run at nerd-splaining technology to me.  I responded appropriately and he quieted down after that.  Later, some members of the archives explained that he wasn’t actually upset with me, he’s just kind of grumpy all the time.

On Friday, we were invited to a concert at the Kazakh Museum of Folk Musical Instruments, followed by a dinner with the faculty of the History Department.  The museum turned out to be something of a revelation – modern and beautiful, with a great yurt-inspired concert space.  Apparently they host concerts every week, using traditional Kazakh instruments. The performers were a mix of old and young, including some students. The music is so emotive – listening, you just know that it’s telling stories, and it evokes the desolation of the steppe, the movement of horses and the whole history of the Kazakh way of life.  Kat rated it her favorite thing we’ve done so far. Dinner was our first chance at a traditional Kazakh meal, complete with plenty of meat, breads, pilaf, and well, more meat.  It was all delicious, though it left us more than a bit uncomfortable.  We were joined by another guest professor, from France, who studies Kazakh history and helps advise PhD students. He’s been coming to Kazakhstan for twenty years to do research and work with students.

While Colin was at the archive, Kat enjoyed a day at the Botanic Gardens near our apartment. Although the plants haven’t quite woken up from winter yet, she kept a running tally of all the animals she saw. In fact, she spent most of the day with a lovely wild dog who showed her through the trails, flushed out a ring-necked pheasant and even caught her a little mouse as a gift.

Back to the mountains. Our outing took us to Medeo, the world’s highest skating rink, and on to Shymbulak, a ski resort.  Our hosts for the day were three amazing students from the History department at KazNU.  We drove up to Medeo and parked, and then hiked up the stairs to the rim of an earthen dam built to protect Almaty from floods.  Medeo was built in the Soviet times, and uses no artificial refrigeration.  It’s an impressive place, and hosts competitions and plenty of recreational skating, as well as concerns and other festivities.

The path above Medeo was steep (some 800 stairs), and our resident distractible geologist kept getting pulled off trail to inspect the geology.  Though we’d been warned to bring extra warm clothes, by the time we were at the top, we were in short sleeves and sweating.  On a clear day (though one imagines there are few of those at this point) you could see Almaty down through the valley.  Looking the other direction, it’s up to the steep, snow covered mountains that span the border between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.  We could just catch a glimpse of the Shymbulak ski resort, but to see it in person we’d need to take a cable car.

The whole area around Medeo and Shymbulak has seen extensive investment over the past few years.  That includes brand new beautifully smooth cable cars that whisk you up around 2000 feet in elevation over the course of 6 kilometers horizontal.  The Shymbulak resort has many housing options, restaurants, and has a general “international ski resort party” vibe.  From the base, two more cable cars take you to the very top, another 3000 feet up (to an elevation of around 10,500 feet).  At the summit, it was intensely sunny, 28 degrees and calm.  Just about the perfect weather for hanging out on top of a mountain.  Even better, there were some dogs to hang out with!

We spent a bunch of time at the top, taking pictures, marveling at the view, and watching brave skiers set off down the mountain.  Our hosts have some seriously professional Instagram game, so they took plenty of perfectly composed selfies.  We just looked goofy and ooo’d and aaah’d.

After descending back down the mountain, we went out for shashlik (kebabs) with our hosts.  It was another round of intense meat consumption, but super tasty and fun as well.  We chatted about movies, music, school, travel, and all sorts of other topics.  In most of these areas, our age differences make us more foreign than our geographic differences – Kat and I are just plain old.

Today, we had another cable car excursion, this time to Kok-Tobe, the hill and TV antenna overlooking the city.  It’s another beautifully modern cable car, which takes you to a small amusement park, zoo, and recreational area at the top of the hill.  Unfortunately it was too “hazy” (cough) to see the sunset, but it was delightful nonetheless. We followed it up with dinner at a just-opened and fantastic Chinese restaurant.

2 thoughts on “Gonzo for Gondolas

  • Susan March 17, 2019 at 5:54 pm Reply

    I love all these stories and photos. Those Kazakh squirrels are adorable. What a gorgeous day you had in the mountains—how great of those students to take you there. I also love how dogs seem to find you! Oh, and by the way, old is relative as you’re discovering.

  • Judy Shekmar March 18, 2019 at 1:53 pm Reply

    Ditto to Susan’s comments especially regarding “old” !!!
    We are so enjoying living through your experiences – the photos are so enriching and you both have a beautiful and descriptive writing skills. Keep up the narrative !!!

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