I was pretty sure before even starting this trip that gaining any weight wouldn’t be an issue. It’s an active itinerary with a fair bit of walking and hiking, sure, but that can easily be offset by rich lavish meals on a daily basis. So that’s not the reason. The issue really is that Central Asia is not a region you typically seek out for the amazing food. I figured that over the course of a few weeks, I’d probably miss a meal or two. Fortunately, my expectations were low enough from the outset that it didn’t take much to be pleasantly surprised.
We flew into Almaty from Dubai via “Air Astana”, a Kazakh airline. Martha found some reviews online that were comically horrible… nonfunctioning bathroom faucets covered in tape, pictures of meals with barely identifiable courses and rotten spots on parts of the food. Before the three hour flight, we picked up an assortment of delicious takeaway from the Dubai airport. For future reference, buying your own food ahead of time seems to be the way to ensure you’ll actually be served good stuff on the flight. On this inexpensive flight, they gave out nice meal descriptions on card-stock and provided some legitimately decent meals served with metal cutlery and finished with a nice box of Kazakh chocolates. Another nice and unexpected perk on this flight was how empty it was. Martha and I both had entire rows to ourselves and were able to stretch out with piles of pillows and nap for most of the flight. We were off to a pretty good start, arriving in the early evening and settling down in our hotel directly.
Our friend Greg arrived in the middle of the night on a redeye flight from Istanbul and we met up in the morning for the hotel breakfast. Our tour company provided us with a comically large Mercedes tour bus to chauffeur the three of us around town. On our first day, we toured Almaty and and took in some parks and a museum as well as a large market. The topic of a local beverage called Kumys came up at some point, and Greg amused himself by feigning interest in trying it. Kumys is a traditional alcoholic drink made from fermented mare’s milk. It’s one of those food items that, I think by necessity, comes with claims of a variety of health benefits. Natto (Japanese fermented soybeans) makes similar claims, and it seems like a way to justify punishingly revolting food items.
Our guide mentioned having a neighbor that brews his own Kumys from milk from his own horses. Well, on day two she showed up first thing with a “gift” for us of a liter bottle of fresh kumys that she got from her neighbor. We were all going to sit down and have a few glasses each before venturing off for the day, and she wasn’t taking no for an answer. I managed a minor reprieve by getting her to only fill my glass halfway or so each time, but Martha and Greg had to power through two full glasses of the stuff before we headed out on a several hour drive up steep, bumpy mountain switchbacks to our destination for the day. I’ve gotta say, this stuff had to be the most, um, challenging food or beverage I have ever encountered. I would gladly take on a full carton of natto before having another glass of it. It’s like a sour, rotten, unsweetened and unflavored kefir. Martha and Greg get major credit on this one, as they kept it together through at least double what I drank. Heading up the mountain afterwards, getting a bit of a cold sweat from motion sickness, the overwhelming thought for me was how horrific this stuff would be on the way back up. Thankfully I held it together for the whole ride. Clearly this beverage is an acquired taste, as our guide Janar happily finished off the rest of the bottle during the drive through the mountains.
Our mountain destination was Big Almaty Lake, which serves as the freshwater reservoir for the city of Almaty. Not much to say other than the place is just stunningly beautiful. You see the pictures. The water is really that color, and set against the mountains it is just gorgeous. Kazakhstan is a little weird about drones (basically just forget about flying in the cities), but it is permitted to fly in unpopulated areas like that. I got some great aerial shots there, the only opportunity for drone flights while in Kazakhstan.
We closed out the second day with a live show with birds of prey that was pretty incredible. We also visited what is kind of like a hilltop carnival. The place is called Kok Tobe and is home to the largest TV tower in Central Asia. It sounded lame by the description but was actually an interesting place for a bit of shopping and people watching. Next stop is an early morning ride for an overland crossing to Kyrgyzstan and on to the city of Bishkek.