Saturday, October 29, 2011

Almaty - A Foggy Day

Monday, 24 October 2011

We were going to go into the mountains today, and tour the city on Tuesday. Instead, we opted to do the city today, and we were lucky we did, because today the weather was icky. It was foggy and rainy - and damp means cold also. Tuesday's weather was back to beautiful.

A friend of my friend's father had arranged for his personal driver to take us to Medeu (where I've gone ice-skating before.) Since my last visit, a huge cable car line has been put up, taking people up the mountain from Medeu to Chimbulak, offering magnificent views. Medeu and Chimbulak are two places that are near Almaty, a 30 minute drive from the center, up a mountain that contains pricey housing developments along the way.

On my first visit to Almaty, we spent an entire day going to Medeu and then Chimbulak; both places were closed due to bad weather. Apparently Almaty is known for not-so-great-weather.

Today we left at 10:30, and noticed the immense fog as we drove higher. We drove up past Medeu and were soon stranded in fog. We could see the road, but not much else. Definitely not the majestic mountains that were all around us.

The cable car that we'd intended to ride was closed. I don't know if this was because it was Monday (sometimes Monday is a day when things are closed) or due to the weather. Whatever the reason, we had to go back down.

But luckily we'd left early, and had time to do something else. We asked the driver to take us to Kok-Tobe, which is a hill near Almaty center, with a cable car going from downtown Almaty to the top of the hill. (I'd been here last year.)

The driver dropped us off somewhere I didn't recognize, and said we could take a bus and he'd wait for us for one hour. We spent quite some time figuring out what to do. I was confident I could manage exploring Kok-Tobe and then the city, provided the cable car was working that day and could take us into the city. The driver seemed to want to wait for us--and then do what? He had to go back to his job (being a personal driver for someone in the embassy, I think) so he couldn't chauffeur us around all day. And did we really want to do Kok-Tobe in just one hour? If we had to come back to him, would we then miss doing the cable car?

After phone calls to people who spoke both English and Russian, and could talk to the driver and the lady selling bus tickets, we decided to tell the driver we could handle ourselves from then on. He seemed angry, I guess he just wanted to do his job and take care of us, not leave us in the cold. But we wanted to explore, not be under a time constraint.

So we took the bus -- 200 Tenge for a short drive up the hill -- and then were there, still in the fog, in the light drizzle, and definitely cold.

We wandered on the hill, saw the pathetic zoo with the miserable-looking animals who were dying for the crackers I had to feed them. We took pictures of the fog and could just barely make out the city buildings down below, surrounded by fog. Again, we could not see the mountains, although we knew they were everywhere all around us!

We drank mulled wine and then paid for the cable ride down -- 800 Tenge. Despite the fog, it was worth it; it's a nice view, going down the hill, over the houses and into the city.

In the city, it was definitely warmer--not warm, but we finally weren't cold.

We crossed the street through one of the underground pathways. I like Almaty's streets better than Astana's--Astana is full of highways, and you cross them at a light or a pedestrian crosswalk -- cars stop for you, because it's the law, and they really do, even if you're crossing a super-busy highway, but it's still a bit scary. Almaty has large streets, but they're tree-lined avenues, and busy intersections have underground pathways crowded with shops. Much more pleasant for crossing!

We stopped in several shops and bought some cheap jewelry.

Then we continued down Abay Street several blocks until we found Pizza Hut! Yes, I've now been to this Pizza Hut (on the corner of Abay and Furmanov Streets) three times now. I'm not the hugest fan of Pizza Hut, but I also have never been impressed with the pizzas I find in Astana. Pizza Hut pizza is so much better!

After eating, I asked the hostess what bus to take to get to Panfilov Park. I knew we could walk the distance -- a pleasant 2-kilometer walk, along Lonely Planet's recommended walking tour -- but it was getting late and we were tired.

Bus 25 took us from Pizza Hut to the entrance of Panfilov Park. We wandered through the park and saw the impressive WWII monument and the eternal flame.

Then we went and saw the impressive Zenkov Cathedral, a bright yellow Russian Orthodox church, made entirely of wood. (See this post for photos of the church and the WWI monument.)

We went inside and it was dark, since the light usually comes from the windows and it was already 6 pm, dark outside due to twilight and the cloud coverage.

My Indian friend was amazed at how dark it was, apparently Hindis make an immense effort to always keep their temples extremely well-lit.

It wasn't that dark, and we could still see the elaborate interior--paintings after paintings, icons after icons, a huge chandelier in the middle, gold everywhere.

We then played air hockey for 100 Tenge at an outdoor place near the cathedral, and then we wandered a block to Jibek Joli Street (Kazakh for "Silk Way"). We didn't have time this trip to go to the bazaar, which disappointed me, and I hoped to do some shopping. We went in a super-crowded shopping center (crowded with stores, with little room for people). Downstairs we found some good deals on clothes, but mostly prices that compare with Astana prices. I bought Sophia some cute Ugg boots, not that she needed them, but another pair of winter shoes is always worthwhile.

Then we took a taxi home. I was quite amazed when the first cab who stopped for us agreed to take us back for 300 Tenge ($2). Last time, the drivers were all too eager to charge 1000 Tenge for foreigners.

Once home, we were exhausted. Time to get ready for one more day in Almaty!

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