Monday, December 6, 2010

Day 6 in Almaty - Shopping & Central Asian Crafts

Friday, 3 December

Our train left at 8:56 pm that night. I felt sick that morning so we didn't leave the apartment until noon. But we managed to pack quite a bit in (and get so frantic that we might miss our train!)

First, we walked the few blocks northward to Zhibek Joly Street, where the TsUM shopping center is. Lonely Planet had acted like TsUM is a shopping experience you don't want to miss. It was nothing spectacular. Huge, and a lot of the "stores" open rather than in separate rooms, but clean and a tad on the expensive side. Yes, it had a lot of souvenirs, but they were expensive.

We were hungry, and we saw a "Kind Burger." So we went in. This fast-food joint had your usual fast-food fare, plus pizza (for Sophia) and for 1000 Tenge ($6.70) a "business lunch"--an all-you-can-eat buffet that included hot tea, soup, some hot meat-and-vegetables meals, and dessert. Far better than McDonald's!

It was snowing, and we had a nice walk home, with the snow softly falling around us and on the wide, tree-lined streets.

Once home, we debated the merits of going out again--the Kazakh National Museum was having a Central Asian Arts & Crafts Festival, beginning at 4 pm tonight. But it was a good half-hour away, or more, depending on traffic and whether or not we could get a cab.

A little before 5 pm, we decided we should do it. We went out in the snow on Friday during rush hour and tried to find a cab--hard enough, and the guy charged us 1000 Tenge, well over the 300 Tenge that a local would demand. (My Kazakh friend wasn't with us to bargain.)

It was worth it. The main hallway and stairwells of the museum were full of vendors selling their brightly colored wares, all hand-made items from some place in Central Asia (countries ending in -stan.) So much to choose from!

I made the mistake of wandering and looking at everything before buying--the event closed at 6 pm that day, which I hadn't known! Suddenly, it was a mad dash to buy something before it was all closed!

I bought finger-less gloves for myself, from a lady from Kyrgystan; Sophia bought a small sheep (doll); and I bought gifts for friends. Our American friend bought a nativity set made out of wool felt (common material for toys, etc, here) and a colorful jacket; my co-worker bought a purse.

Now it was 6 pm; one hour until we needed to get a cab, to return to the apartment & check out & then get to the train station. We were a long half-block away from the big Ramstore. Ramstore is a supermarket here that is nice and clean and large and sometimes sells Western goods. This Ramstore was reputed to be huge and with even more Western goods.

So we went.

We raced through the large store--nothing special, since I already know where to find peanut butter in Astana and I don't use salad dressing--but I did buy some food for the train ride home and dinner for Sophia.

Then we went out, into the slightly-below-freezing and snowing weather, in the middle of rush hour of a huge city, and we tried to get a cab.

There were dozens of people trying to get taxis. And nobody stopping.

(In Kazakhstan, any car can be a taxi. Just hold out your hand near a road, soon enough a car will stop and then you can negotiate the price.)

One guy stopped for me, but said no, he would not take us. Maybe it was too far--there definitely was a ton of traffic between us and our destination! Maybe several kilometers, not bad during regular hours.

So we walked to the corner to try our luck again. No luck. We walked and we walked and we walked. No one would stop. We couldn't even find a bus stop!

Finally I called my friend R, who had gone to visit a friend in the city. Lo and behold, she was in a taxi at that very moment and the driver agreed to go out of his way to pick us up!!! Luckily, I knew exactly where we were (fake Eiffel Tower near Pizza Hut, on Furmanov Street), and luckily R is Kazakh and was able to negotiate a cheap price. 1000 Tenge for picking her up, driving to get us, driving us all to the apartment, waiting while we got our stuff, and then driving us to the airport! All during horrible traffic and a snowstorm!

We made it to the train station with perhaps 20 minutes to spare--and a ton of luggage to drag through the snow. I broke a wheel on a brand-new suitcase last year, in the slushy snow of Germany, so I wasn't about to wheel mine. So I carried my heavy suitcase.

Luckily, a guy who worked there offered to put all our luggage on a cart and bring it to the train (and show us where it was!) for 500 Tenge. He was amazingly fast, moving our luggage to the cart, and then wheeling it through the snow. We had to cross train tracks, too, and he had to get each piece of luggage across the tracks and then get the cart. We weren't the only ones running towards the train last-minute.

Finally, we got on the train, with perhaps 5 minutes to spare. Sophia's new snowpants were covered in ice.

Good-bye, Almaty!

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