Posts Tagged ‘Mercedes’

I just got back from a weekend trip to Yerevan, Armenia. I’ve wanted to go to Armenia since my sophomore year of college. In spring 2009, I took a course in the politics of the ex-USSR. We studied the collapse of the Soviet Union and how it impacted each of the 15 republics, as well as many of the Eastern Bloc nations. A major component of the course was to spend a semester studying one of those nations. We had to write a research paper on them as well as make drafts of a Wikipedia page of sorts for the country. The professor told us that it would behoove us to choose a country that had a close history or political relationship with another country. The other country would be our partner, and we were supposed to help each other out. My good friend Lauren and I met to strategize and pick nations that we thought would work well together and wouldn’t be immediately chosen by others. Being a huge fan of the band System of a Down, I wanted to go with Armenia. For those of you unfamiliar with System of a Down, they’re a metal band from Los Angeles. Each of the members is of Armenian heritage. They played a great concert at Yerevan’s Freedom Square in 2015 for the centennial anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.

Lauren chose Azerbaijan, and our semester of research took off without a hitch. After spending months researching Armenia, I became fascinated by it. I even strongly considered applying for a Fulbright ETA to Armenia instead of Russia. Although Russia won out in that decision process, I had not given up on eventually going to Armenia. Thankfully, one of my fellow ASEEES grantees has been doing research in a few republics other than Russia. Erin was wonderful and let me visit her and crash at her place.

On Friday morning, I headed off to the airport. On the way out of the dorm, the strictest dezhurnaya, Olga, saw me leaving and asked why I was leaving so soon. She had evidently noticed that I had not been around for a few weeks and was confused as to why I was again heading out of the dorm at an early hour with a full backpack. I explained that I was going to Yerevan for the weekend to visit a friend researching there, and that I had to do the super quick turnaround due to Russian migration laws. When you travel within Russia, or return from abroad, you have to register your place of living. I traveled to Ulyanovsk when I did to make sure that I could see two of my best friends and to ensure that I wouldn’t have problems with migration concerning the trip to Armenia. I had booked the tickets to Armenia moderately far in advance with regards to Erin’s schedule. Immediately after returning from Kazakhstan, I handed in my papers at the university to register at the dorms. According to Russian migration laws, a foreigner has to register their visa within 7 business days in a new city. Then, when I traveled to Ulyanovsk, I registered at my friend Ira’s apartment. It takes me a week to get my registration from the university, as opposed to immediately if registering with a private citizen through a post-office or police station, so I knew I wouldn’t have time to reregister after Ulyanovsk before heading to Armenia. That’s why I decided to come back from Ulyanovsk on a Wednesday and fly out on a Friday, I wouldn’t have to bother with reregistering.

The flight left Sheremetyevo a little late, but we were scheduled to land early. The flight was mostly fine. It wasn’t quite the steal of $15 roundtrip to Kazakhstan, but the miles reward flight only cost me $50 roundtrip. We got the standard “breakfast” meal of a fish sandwich, yogurt, and chocolate bar with a drink. Around the time that they were serving me, we started to hit some light turbulence, so they stopped the hot drink service. After the meal service was cleaned up, we hit some moderate turbulence. You know it’s never a good sign when they tell the crew to take their seats. We were jostled fairly roughly for about five or ten minutes. After that, though, it was fairly smooth into Yerevan. My plane even had WiFi for streaming of entertainment on personal devises. There’s a reason why Aeroflot has recently become the top rated European airline.

Entertainment on your device on some B737s.

The skies were clear, so I had a great view of the mountains, countryside, and city the whole way into the airport, which was pretty awesome.

Passing through customs was also a breeze. Although a few flights had landed around the same time, we moved through the line quickly and efficiently as there were about 15 customs officers working to process all of the passengers.

After making it through the airport, I met Erin and we grabbed a taxi back to her place. We managed to take the same taxi that had dropped her off at the airport. She had told the driver that she was picking me up, and he had given her his number and told her to call in case he was still around. To my glee, our taxi was a 1997 Mercedes W210. Erin spoke with the driver in Armenian, but he also spoke Russian, so I questioned him about his car a little. He seemed pleased that I was so interested in it. While on the topic of cars, Armenia was a vehicular paradise for me. Many of the cars are old Mercedes, mostly C and E classes from 1995-2003.

1997 W210. A luxury ride into Yerevan.

There are also a smattering of Baby Benzes, the W201, and a few of my beloved W124s, though those were rarer and are generally post-1990 face lift models. There were also a fair number of newer E Classes of the W211 and W212 models, a smattering of W140 S Classes, and a surprising number of Geländewagens. For the German car nut, Armenia is probably a place to travel to hunt what are becoming collector’s items in the USA and Europe. I saw a few 190Es plus some rarer tuned Mercedes. There were a handful done by Brabus or Carlsson. However, I’m not sure how legitimate all of these are. My taxi back to the airport on Monday was clearly modified. For example, the driver had affixed a gear knob that said V12, and the steering wheel was from a 2002 or so W210, and not 1998, which he said the model was. I’m also second guessing the authenticity of some of the W124s. A former neighbor from Ulyanovsk lives in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. He told me that it’s common to apply the newer body kits to the first generation W124s. He did that himself to his W124.

A common view of lots of Mercedes.

Mercedes were by far the German car of choice in Armenia, but there were also some great BMWs, including a drool worthy M3, and some Audis. Opels were also quite common on the streets. German cars made up either 1/3 or ½ of the cars on the road. The remaining models were split between Soviet cars, like Lada Zhigulis and Nivas, or my beloved UAZ and odds and ends of other companies from Europe, America, and Asia. I asked my driver back to the airport on Monday about all of the Mercedes in Yerevan. I wondered if there was a company that bought them wholesale and brought them in, but he said it was all private buyers who went to Germany and drove them back.

The green 190E on the left is a collector’s item now.

After dropping off my stuff at Erin’s apartment, we set off to explore downtown Yerevan and grab some lunch. Our first order of business was to walk down to the main street and hop in a marshrutka, which took us further into the center. In Armenia, the marshrutki are predominantly old GAZelle models. Unlike in Russia, you pay when exiting the marshrutka. Also, unlike in Russia, you can stand in the old model of marshrutka.

In the center, we headed to a hipster microbrewery. There is a vibrant Armenian community in Los Angeles, and it seems that some of LA has moved back to Yerevan. The microbrewery had excellent beers, one of which was an apricot wheat lager. Armenia is known for its fruits, one of which is apricot. The menu had sassy descriptions of trendy foods such as Tex-Mex and poutine. While I am generally missing Mexican food in Russia, I couldn’t help but order the poutine to troll my Canadian friends. It was delicious and I regret nothing.

“Any resemblance with the name of a well-known politician is out of pure coincidence.”

Erin and I also ended up splitting a tasting flight of the local brews, all of which were great. In addition to the superb apricot beer, there was also a wonderful and tart cherry one.

Delicious.

From lunch, we wandered around one of the main squares of Yerevan, Opera, and then we popped into one of Yerevan’s many cafés to have a pick me up of coffee. Yerevan has a very European feel. It reminds me a lot of France, actually. There is a huge coffee and café culture. Everyone enjoys sitting out on the street, sipping coffee, and watching the crowds go by. Yerevan is also moderately accessible for a foreign traveler, especially one with knowledge of Russian. Most people over 30 are bilingual in Armenian and Russian. People under 30 seem to be bilingual in Armenian and English, or are trilingual with Russian.

Cafe life.

Architecturally, Yerevan is also a mixture of Soviet and European. Although many of the older buildings are in the standardized Soviet five or nine-story blocks, they have their own character. There is a lot of volcanic stone in Armenia, the most common of which is in a pinkish hue. Most of the buildings are constructed of this local stone, so they don’t have the same depressing quality as the grey blocks of the rest of the USSR. Located on the periphery of the Soviet Union, it seems that Armenia was also granted some leniencies to allow its local culture to flourish. Again, which the buildings are in somewhat standardized configurations, they often had uniform and ornate balconies as well as embellishments such as carvings and columns. While this architectural style is often vaguely brutal in the terms of Stalin’s neoclassical style, in Armenia it makes everything look like a Mediterranean paradise.

Armenian architecture.

From coffee, Erin and I relaxed a bit before changing, grabbing a taxi, and heading off to another one of Yerevan’s venerated traditions, a jazz club. We went to the most famous venue in Yerevan, Malkhas Jazz Club. There’s live jazz starting at 9:00PM nightly. We went and had a nice table with a decent view of the musicians on the ground floor. The band was great, and the food and drinks only added to the experience. I was able to get a perfectly cooked, rare filet mignon for about $10. The White Russian I had with it made it an evening of surprisingly affordable decadence. The cover charge, food, drink, water, and gratuity was less than $25.00 for me. That’s another nice and handy thing in Armenia. In most restaurants and cafés, a 10% gratuity is automatically applied to the bill.

Steak, cocktails, and live jazz. Pure paradise.

On Saturday morning, Erin and I ventured out of Yerevan to two nearby and major sites. Her landlord gave us the number of a taxi driver, who took us out and back for about $25.00. He picked us up from the apartment, which is actually right next to his usual corner taxi stand, and drove us about an hour out of the city along the winding roads of the countryside to Garni and Geghard.

The countryside in Armenia is simply stunning. Yerevan itself is built at the base of and then up a mountain. We drove up the mountain and then found ourselves riding along road paradise. I would love to rent a car and drive around the back roads for a week or two. Unlike in Georgia, the drivers seemed fairly calm and more or less respected the lines on the road and kept to reasonable speeds. Along the road, we passed stands selling local food delicacies, small villages, dacha settlements, and a very interesting farm fresh butcher. There was a shepherd with a pen of sheep. You could pick out the sheep and the guy would kill, skin, and cut it for you on the roadside. Farm fresh eating indeed. Sadly, I didn’t manage to catch a picture of that.

The magical Armenian countryside.

The first place we went was the Temple of Garni. It was probably built in the First Century AD to a sun god. It was repurposed into a royal residence after Armenia’s conversion to Christianity. According to Wikipedia, it was ruined in an earthquake in the 17th century, and was later rediscovered during archeological digs. The Soviets reconstructed in the 1960s and 1970s, and it’s the only Greco-Roman colonnade building in the former Soviet Union. The temple itself was pretty impressive, but the views from it of the mountains, valleys, and rivers were stunning.

Garni.

While walking back to the taxi, we popped by the stands of local food vendors and acquired a few provisions for our travels. We bought a fruit leather called T’tu Lavash or Lavashak. Basically, fruit is cooked down with water and then spread out to bake, traditionally in the sun. Think of it as an all-natural fruit roll up. I believe we got a pomegranate one. We also got a second one that was apricot that had walnuts rolled up with it. Finally, we got a traditional bread that’s frequently sold at Garni and Geghard called Gata. It’s a sweet bread, and the local variant is filled with something called koritz. It has the consistency and almost the taste of marzipan, but it’s just flour, sugar, and butter.

Gata.

Armed with snacks, we got back into our taxi and rode to Geghard, which is a monastery complex that’s partially carved out of a mountain.

The complex was founded in the 4th Century and the main chapel was built in 1215. Perhaps few know the religious history of Armenia. The Armenian Apostolic Church was founded in the 1st Century AD, and Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity as the state religion in 301 AD. In comparison, the Roman Empire Christianized under Constantine the Great during his reign from 306-337 AD and it only became the state religion by the end of the 4th Century. Kievan Rus’, a predecessor of the Russian Empire Christianized in 988.

We wandered around the various caves and chapels in the complex before having a picnic in the shade on the back side of the territory. The monastery was pretty austere.

Many of the monks lived in little cells that were hewn out of the mountain. Being fairly isolated from society, the monks took to harvesting honey for nourishment. This tradition continues to this day, and there are a ton of bee hives around the territory of the monastery.

Geghard.

After our picnic, we rode back into the city and rested for a  bit before walking into the center of Yerevan. We walked around one of the other main sites, the Cascade, before grabbing dinner at a Caucasian restaurant called Kavkaz that had a mixture of Armenia, Persian, and Georgian foods. We split a delightful khachipuri; a dolma platter (pronounced tolma in Armenian) which included stuffed cabbage, peppers, eggplant, and tomatoes; and a meat, potato, and spice dish called ker u sus that translates along the lines of “shut up and eat.” Everything was delicious and I was too busy stuffing my face to remember to take a photo of the meal. We also had a cool yogurt drink called Tan. It’s basically just watered down yogurt, and it’s super refreshing and cooling, especially in the hot weather. Coming from Moscow, it was indeed hot in Armenia. When I left Moscow, it was around freezing, and it was in the 70s during the day each day in Armenia. It was a treat to walk around in short sleeves and to sit outside for most of our meals.

After dinner, we headed to a rock club called the Stop Club to catch a band playing covers of 70s hard rock. They were pretty good. They played the Rolling Stones, Deep Purple, and the Doors among others. The mostly stuck to bluesy hard rock.

You can still smoke indoors in Armenia. The singer always had a cigarette in his hand.

On Sunday morning, we had a later start and walked into the downtown for brunch outside at a wine restaurant before making our way up the Cascade.

The Cascade.

With the inside of the Cascade is the Cafesjian Center for the Arts. The museum is broken up into five levels that go up and into the mountain. On each level, it’s possible to walk out onto the Cascade and get different views of the city. It’s also a convenient way of heading up the mountain. The last few flights have to be done on foot.

Downtown Yerevan from the Cascade.

At the peak, there is the Monument to 50 Years of Soviet Armenia, as well as a planned but still unfinished space for the expansion of the monuments and museum space of the Cascade.

50 Years of Soviet Armenia.

From the top of the Cascade, it’s a quick walk over to Victory Park, which has a variety of war monuments ranging from those who died during WWII to the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan. The highlight of Victory Park is the Mother Armenia statue, which originally was a statue of Stalin that was only taken down in 1967.

Mother Armenia.

One cool part of this Victory Park is that no one seems to care if you climb on the military hardware on display around the base of the Mother Armenia statue. One piece of hardware is a T-34 tank, which was the main Soviet tank of WWII. It was the first tank to use sloped armor, and is sometimes known as the tank that won WWII. I, naturally, never pass up the opportunity to climb one if it is offered. It’s dissertation research at this point.

На Берлин! To Berlin!

We then took a marshrutka back down into the city so that we could take a ride on the Yerevan Metro. The marshrutka was already full, so we had to stand for the ride down the hill, which was a little unpleasant. The driver was speeding, and I made the mistake of looking at his instrument cluster. What I found was a series of broken gauges. The rev counter was stuck at 5,500 RPM, the speedometer didn’t function, and the needles were missing from the fuel and oil gauges. Thankfully, we arrived without harm, and hopped into the metro. It was opened in 1981, and looks like most Soviet metros. It is built with the simpler caterpillar design of halls, but they are moderately ornamented with national themes.

The cars themselves are the standard 1970s design that continues to run in Moscow and Tbilisi, but like in Tbilisi, the cars have been renovated recently with investment from the European Union.

While not as frequent as the Moscow Metro, trains run every 5 minutes.

From the Metro, we walked back to Erin’s place with a quick pit stop at a vendor by her street. I had noticed a man selling homemade wine and spirits out of the back of his Lada. He was selling them in recycled water and soda bottles.

Buying wine from the back of a Lada. What could go wrong?

I asked what he had to offer. He had a variety of flavors of wine including raspberry and cherry. He offered a sample of the raspberry wine, which I bought a bottle of for about $3.00.

The delicious raspberry wine.

Erin and I then relaxed and had some wine in her apartment before walking into the center for dinner at an Indian restaurant. Stuffed to the gills with butter chicken, lentils, and nan,we walked to the second main square of Yerevan, Freedom Square, via a quick stop at Opera Square again. We saw the start of a rally on the eve of Genocide Remembrance Day. We didn’t quite catch the start, but people had gathered for a candlelight vigil before marching off somewhere else in the city.

Gathering at Opera, the standard point for mass meetings in Yerevan.

Freedom Square was nicely lit up at night, and they have a fountain, light, and music show in the evenings called the Singing Fountains, which we watched for a while. The song choices were quite eclectic. When we approached the square, we heard Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” before also hearing Wing’s “Live and Let Die,” “The Circle of Life” from the Lion King, and Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff.” From Freedom Square, we hopped back on the Metro and went home for an earlier evening.

On Monday morning, we woke up early so that we could attend the traditional ceremony for Genocide Remembrance Day. April 24th is a holiday in Armenia for that cause. From 1915 to 1923, the Ottoman Empire launched a genocide against its Armenian population. The arrest deportation of Armenian intellectuals, which started on April 24, 1915, is seen as the starting date of the Genocide. Every year, Armenians gather at the Armenian Genocide Memorial at Tsitsernakaberd to walk up the hill to the monument and lay flowers inside the memorial. One of Erin’s Armenian friends said that we should get there around 8:00 to avoid waiting for a very long time. We got up and walked to the taxi stand at the end of Erin’s street and found a nice man with a W140 S Class to drive us as far as the bridge that leads up to the memorial complex. Some of the roads were closed to regular traffic to accommodate the large crowds heading to the memorial. Incidentally, this was the first time that I got to ride in a W140, so I was pretty excited. I was not excited, however, when the driver used most of the power of the V8 engine to rocket us down the hill while his break wear indicator light was on. My only consolation was that these cars are absolute tanks, and unlike in Georgia or Central Asia, the seatbelts in the backseat were still installed and functioning.

Heading into the Genocide Memorial.

We walked across the bridge and found a flower vendor near the base of the complex. We climbed up the hill with the crowds and eventually wound up in a fairly large crowd at the top of the hill to wait our turn to enter the memorial and lay our flowers around the eternal flame. The ceremony was understandably a very big deal, and a variety of news outlets were televising the procession.

The flowers at roughly 8:20AM.

The event was also incredibly well organized. The crowd was funneled up the complex to the monument along one main path. From the top, the crowd was then taken down to the other side along a different path. At the base of the path, there were free busses, which were there to take people either back to the other side of the memorial or to one of the metro stops, which we rode on back to Erin’s neighborhood. We then walked back into town for a brunch at a café where I had something that more or less approximated a ham, egg, and cheese sandwich on a bagel. We then strolled back to her apartment with a stop via a nice bakery for some cookies.

After a quick drink of a little more of the raspberry wine, we headed outside for my taxi back to the airport. We had arranged with the guy who drove us to the Genocide Memorial for a taxi to take me to the airport. The guy was supposed to be at the apartment at 12:15, but when he wasn’t there around 12:30 we deiced to call a taxi through Armenia’s version of Uber, GG Taxi. At the same time that the GG Taxi arrived, the other driver showed up. He was slightly annoyed that we had called a GG Taxi, but it was his loss for showing up about 20 minutes late for a ride to the airport. I was also not so secretly happy to get to ride back to the airport in a 1998 W210.

A slightly modified 1998 W210.

I had already checked in for my flight, so I just had to wait in line for a short bit to get a boarding pass. Immigration control once again went very quickly with the 20 or so kiosks that were set up to process travelers. The terminal itself is fairly new and quite small. There are about six gates, a few kiosks for food and drink, and newsstand, and great lounge chairs with views of the runway, Mount Ararat, and free WiFi.

Probably one of the nicest airport terminals I’ve ever been in.

Although our plane boarded a few minutes late, we pushed back from the gate 2 minutes ahead of schedule. The flight was calm after some light turbulence around takeoff, and we landed in Moscow 20 minutes ahead of schedule. I made it through immigration reasonably quickly and without issues and was back in my dorm well ahead of my 9:00PM laundry slot. And so concludes a the trip to my 6th ex-Soviet Republic.

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I just got back from a “spring” break trip to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Last Tuesday morning I woke up early to take a taxi to Sheremetyevo to fly to Almaty, Kazakhstan. Almaty, formerly known at Alma-Ata, was the Soviet capital of Kazakhstan. In the late 1990s, the capital of Kazakhstan moved to Astana, which means “capital” in Kazakh. My trip to Kazakhstan was possible due to the hospitality of my friend Jonathon, who is there for dissertation research. I invited myself to crash on his couch, and he was thankfully not opposed to the idea.

The flight to Almaty was trouble free. I once again flew on Aeroflot. I’ve earned enough miles that my flight to Kazakhstan was essentially free. I only paid $15 for the roundtrip tickets, $5 of which was mandatory insurance. Flying to Kazakhstan was cool, because I got to depart from a different terminal of Sheremetyevo than usual. The flights to New York, both on Aeroflot and Delta, operate out of Terminal D, which is also the main Aeroflot terminal. I’ve only been there. My flights to Tbilisi, Georgia and Murmansk also departed from Terminal D, which I think is the newest of the terminals. The flight to Kazakhstan left form Terminal F, which was built for the 1980 Olympics. It’s been renovated since then, but it does show its age such as with the old style board that announces all of the flights. The terminal is also a little more confusing to navigate. For example, the check-in counters are technically behind a customs declaration zone, which is different than in Terminal D. I went and found the correct area to check-in and drop off my bag. When the woman affixed the baggage tag to my bag, I was pretty sure my bag would not arrive. Instead of putting it around the handle, she just aggressively slapped it across my entire bag.

After grabbing a snack, an announcement was made that my flight had been switched from Terminal F to Terminal E, which wasn’t a huge issue. Both are connected, the only indication of them being different terminals is that the gates for Terminal E are a level above those in Terminal F. Terminal F has a few small places to get food, but the terminal is really just one long string of duty free shops. Terminal E, which is also crammed with duty free, has a few more places to find different levels of food ranging from fancier sit-down stuff to Burger King.

The flight began to boarding on time. While waiting in line to get on the plane, the man behind me saw that I had an American passport and started to speak with me in English. He was originally Ukrainian, but has been living in Canada for about a decade and has Canadian citizenship as well. Like me, he was headed to Kazakhstan to see friends. Boarding was relatively calm, and we pushed back from the gate 3 minutes ahead of schedule. As it was a longer flight of just about four hours, we got a better meal choice. There were three options for breakfast: rice porridge, blini, or an omelet. I went with the rice porridge, or risovaya kasha, which is my favorite of the Russian breakfast porridges.

Aeroflot breakfast.

Looking out of the window was pretty interesting during the flight. Kazakhstan has a lot of steppe and desert land. It was surreal to see snow fields just transition into desert. And there’s also a lot of emptiness, which I noticed even more on my return flight, because unlike the way over, I didn’t spend the majority of the flight asleep. Kazakhstan is the 9th largest country in the world by land mass, but it only has about 18 million people in it, which is the population of Moscow. Seeing it from the air, it was quiet evident that made sense that the largest Gulag complex was in Karaganda, Kazakhstan. The harshness of the Gulag environment was also evident from the flights. It’s been steadily in the low to mid 40s Fahrenheit in Moscow for a few weeks now, but it was around freezing and snowing on and off in my time in Almaty, which is much more temperate than Astana.

Snow to desert.

In Almaty, we landed smoothly. Annoying, Aeroflot did not hand out the migration cards on the plane. I had to find a table for them just before passport control. I stood in line for what seemed like an eternity without the line moving, so I moved over to the other line, which was constantly moving. As I neared the front of that line, we ran into a snag because one of the two windows that our line went towards was occupied with a Hungarian woman. I don’t know what was wrong with her passport, but multiple guards came over and questioned her and I heard her saying something like “no, I don’t have any sisters, I only have a brother” and “why does it matter that I’m wearing earrings now but not in the passport photo?” When I finally got to the window, my border crossing officer was incredibly friendly. I came up to the window and said “hello” in both English and Russian. The woman immediately began to speak to me in perfect English, asking if it was my first time in Kazakhstan, and telling me to enjoy my stay. I then grabbed my bag and got into a taxi to my friend’s apartment.

From the airport I took a taxi to Jonathon’s apartment, which is a fifth-floor walk-up. He lives about 15 minutes from a metro stop that’s two stops away from the center of the city. The Almaty Metro is pretty interesting. In planning construction since the 1980s, it was finally opened in 2011. It only has one line and a handful of stations, but it’s fairly convenient for getting to a few of the places around the center. The metro is sparkling and the halls and train cars have TVs in them, which seemingly only show a series of commercials. The trains and cars themselves are made by Hyundai of Korea. They have a completely open interior design, where you can walk between all of the cars. Unlike the Moscow Metro, it’s relatively un-crowded. Perhaps this might have to do with the fact that it doesn’t go very far, or perhaps it’s because you have to wait 10 minute between trains. While inside the trains, all of the announcements are made in Kazakh, Russian, and English. Kazakhstan is officially a bi-lingual nation of Kazakh and Russian, and there is a generational divide between who knows which languages. Younger Kazakhs are now more likely to speak Kazakh amongst themselves, whereas those who are older still predominantly speak Russian. However, Kazakhstan is now attempting to move into being a tri-lingual country; thus, the metro announcements and signage in major places are in Kazakh, Russian, and English.

The Almaty Metro is clean, bright, and new.

On Tuesday night, Jonathan and I wandered around some of the main sights of the downtown before and after grabbing some dinner. One of the places where we killed some time was at Panfilov Park. The park was built to commemorate the 28 Panfilov Guardsmen, who legendarily all died while attempting to halt a Nazi tank advance on Moscow. I saw a new Russian war movie about them in December, which was a stereotypical war film. A post-war investigation found out that not all of the men had died, but this information was suppressed in the Soviet Union and was only recently declassified. Nonetheless, the myth of the Panfilovities is still popular and widespread in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, the origin locations of the men who made up the unit. In addition to a major sculpture to the men, there are also monuments to those who died in the Russian Civil War, WWII in general, and boxes with dirt from the Hero Cities of the Second World War. Nearby there is also a monument to Soviet soldiers who perished in Afghanistan, a war that is not as frequently commemorated or talked about in Russia.

The monument to Panfilov’s 28 Guardsmen by day.

On Wednesday morning, I got up and headed to Shymbulak, a ski mountain just on the outskirts of Almaty, while Jonathon was a good student and headed off to the archives. He dropped me off at the bus stop and told me roughly where to get off, “at the gondola.” I figured it was the correct bus as I saw a bunch of people getting on with ski equipment, and I just followed them when it was time to get off.

Yup, on the right bus for sure.

The bus ride from the center of Almaty to the mountains takes about 30 minutes. Almaty itself is built at the base of the mountains. The bus stops at a major recreational park called Medeu, which is a massive skating rink. Around the same complex it a gondola, where you buy tickets to ride to the ski mountain base area as well as the lift passes for the mountain. The ride from the Medeu station to the base of Shymbulak takes about 15 minutes. I paid 7,000 tenge, or about $21.00 for a four hour lift pass. The four hour pass itself costs 5,500 tenge, or $16.00, for a weekday. I had to also pay about $4.00 and change for the electronic card for the ski passes. This isn’t uncommon, even in the states. For example, we go skiing as a family at Stowe, Vermont every December before Christmas. Stowe has a plastic card that we had to buy once about five or six years ago by now. We just go online to buy our tickets through our accounts, and the cards work at the mountain. Shymbulak doesn’t seem to have the online payment option yet, though, as everyone was waiting in line to reload their cards.

Shymbulak base after the gondola from Medeu.

Shymbulak, also known as Chimbulak in Russian (there are lots of names that are slightly different in Kazakh and Russian, partially due to Russian spelling rules) is a resort that lies along the Talgar Pass in the Tian Shan Mountains. I spent a lot of time in my youth watching the Warren Miller ski videos, and still do to a certain point. The movies from the late 1980s were probably his best, but I had seen a cool clip from one of his movies from the early/mid-1990s in which his crew went to Chimbulak. The clip is fascinating to watch in terms of seeing how much Almaty and Chimbulak/Shymbulak have developed.

Unlike Gudauri in Georgia, Shymbulak has a true base area that includes a lodge with the ski rental in it. The rental was quick and easy, and they also had lockers to stow gear, which were missing at Gudauri. The locker itself was 1,000 tenge, or about $3.00 for the day, and to rent a board, boots, and helmet for the day cost me about $20.00. In total, I spent less for a good four hours of skiing (I didn’t have more time, but a full day pass would only have cost $3.00 more) and equipment than it would have cost for the lift ticket alone at most other local American ski areas, and half the price at least of major ski areas like Stowe or Killington.

The mountain is serviced by two major lifts as well as two smaller lifts. The major lifts are a strange combination lift that I’ve never seen before. The lift operates both detachable gondolas and quads on the same loading and unloading areas.

Design that I haven’t seen before.

The snow itself was neither hard nor soft the day I went. The trails were very clearly marked, unlike at Gudauri, and showed evidence of being groomed. The run lengths were about the same as at Gudauri, though Shymbulak is technically a few hundred meters higher. Also like at Gudauri, there were also some more difficult “trails” that were basically large swathes of off piste areas. I ventured briefly into some of these areas to test the snow, which was a little more powdery. Skiing without a partner, I didn’t really want to venture off much into the better snow or steeper stuff for a few reasons. In addition to being alone, the medical facilities in Kazakhstan aren’t exactly up to Western standards, and I didn’t want to chance any injuries. There were also a few signs with avalanche warnings, which I was a little afraid of. My good Marker ski jacket at home as a Recco avalanche reflector beacon in it, but for space reasons I have traveled to Russia without it. I would never venture much into avalanche zones in general, but I’m certainly not going to do it without avalanche recovery gear.

The views were pretty unreal.

Skiing mid-week was great. The trails were pretty empty. The people were all super friendly at Shymbulak. At one point, I was in the gondola to the top of the Talgar Pass with three Kazakh girls about my age, who were speaking Russian amongst themselves. As we were getting to the top, one asked me in Russian if I ski frequently, and I said that it was my first trip to Kazakhstan and Shymbulak, but that I ski every now and then in America, which I true. Christmas and Spring breaks in our household usually entailed going skiing in Vermont. Skiing in Kazakhstan felt like a real spring break for me in that sense. The girls were happy I was there, and one started to talk to me in perfect English. I got them to take my photo at the top, and wished them a good day of skiing.

Proof that I was indeed at Shymbulak. Also, ski in Asia: check. This winter season I’ve skied in three continents.

I took a number of good runs around the top half of the mountain and took a quick break for a lunch of a hotdog and tea at an outdoor snack area near the mid-station where I could eat and have my rental gear with me. During my lunch break, I noticed an interesting local wearing camo pants and smoking. He had modern ski boots, but he had late 1970s/early 1980s Fisher skis and a set of the same vintage Marker ski bindings. Having sold a lot of retro ski bindings on ebay, especially Markers, I know he has a set of $60 antique bindings. I sold just the toe pieces of similar bindings to someone in Japan for about $20.00 a few years ago, and have made good money off of some earlier Marker safety release bindings.

I don’t understand why people still use this retro gear, but it’s cool to see.

At one point, I noticed that the ski patrol had a St. Bernard dog, which was hanging around a snowmobile.

Ski patrol to the rescue.

The dog was super friendly, and I went up and gave it a good pet for a while, which was nice.

Making friends.

Shymbulak is clearly partially sponsored by the Head ski equipment company. All of my rental gear was made by Head, and I’m assuming the same would be the same for the ski equipment. At the bottom, I noticed that they had made a ski chair of sorts.

 

Thankfully, the ski chair I made myself is a better design, and truly made out of the skis, unlike taking the lazy route of just arranging some skis behind a regular chair.

Sadly, all good things must come to an end. I had to return my things and head back to the Medeu base to take the bus back to the center, where I had agreed to meet Jonathon after he finished up at the archives. We were both about right on time at the meeting point, and we headed off to see the Zelyoni Bazaar, or the Green Bazaar, which was quite a sight. The main attraction of the Bazaar is the food market. There were a range of meats, but the exotic one for me was seeing horse meat. In Kazakhstan, horse meat is neither a standard meat nor a delicacy. It is not omnipresent nor is it as cheap as beef, but the price is only a little more and it’s not uncommon to find dishes with horsemeat at restaurants around the city.

The bazaar in all its glory with the horsemeat closest to the camera.

From the bazaar, we got dinner at a Kazakh stolovaya (cafeteria) chain called Kaganat. The food was delicious, filling, and extremely cheap. After dinner we walked around a bit more before heading home via the grocery store. I decided to get two products that are reasonably common in Kazakhstan, camel milk and a somewhat fermented mare’s milk known as kumis. The camel milk was basically just a bitter, almost plain yogurt flavored milk, which tasted pretty good in a cup of coffee. Kumis, however, was not my thing. It was extremely bitter, harsh, and tough to palate, but at least I can say I’ve tried it.

Camel milk on left, kumis on right.

On Thursday morning, we got up at went to the Central State Museum of Kazakhstan, a museum about the local culture and history. Sadly, most of the best exhibits from the museum were moved to a newer museum in the modern capital of Astana. After the museum, we headed to a beer hall style café that had horse meat on the menu. I got a horse steak so that I could try the meat. It was incredibly tender, and had a slightly different and vaguely gamey taste from that of beef. I regret nothing; sorry to you horse lovers out there. I enjoy trying new, exotic animals. There is a specialty butcher shop in Pittsburgh that carries exotic meats, and my goal is to eat through their entire list of offerings before graduation.

Horse steak.

On Thursday evening, Jonathon and I flew to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. We decided to fly despite the fact that there are relatively easy to find buses and taxis to go across the border. We wanted to skip them because we didn’t know what conditions the roads would be in with the potential for winter weather. We also avoided them because at times you can pay your driver to take you all the way, but he can leave you at the border. This is such a prevalent practice that there are plenty of taxis and buses station at the border to carry on stranded passengers. Passport control at the border can also be problematic.

Going to Bishkek was my fifth ex-Soviet republic, which means that I’m one third of the way through my goal of visiting all fifteen of them. Bishkek is a 30 minute flight from Almaty. We flew on Air Astana, basically the equivalent of Air Kazakhstan. Surprisingly, the airline was pretty nice. You could check a bag for free even on this short flight, and they offered two rounds of drinks as well as some candies before take-off. We were even lucky and got the exit row for the flight. Getting onto the plane was a little nerve-wracking for me though, as the passport control guard very closely inspected every single page of my passport. He then asked if I had a visa for Kyrgyzstan, which I said I was pretty sure that I didn’t need. He double checked with his superior before sending me on my way.

Air Astana.

The plane was a pretty new Embraer 190 jet. The Russian man next to me was named Vyacheslav, and was very friendly. We chatted for the entire flight. He was from St. Petersburg and frequently travels to Bishkek for business. He was just very confused as to why a Russian speaking American was flying from Almaty to Bishkek, and what we were going to see there. I explained my desire to see as much of the ex-USSR as possible. He then at times insisted on taking photos and videos for me through the window, and told me not to pay more than 500 som for the taxi. He insisted on taking a photo of the takeoff for me, despite me not asking for it. Annoyingly, he filmed in portrait and not landscape, but the view of the sunset takeoff was pretty cool.

Jonathon, however, was not as lucky with his seat partner. The guy next to him spent the majority of the flight with his head buried in his hands. Either he really hated flying, or he was going through some major personal crisis.

The guy was like this the whole flight.

In Bishkek, we easily passed through passport control. We were then swarmed with taxi drivers after passing through the door to the arrivals hall. We got one guy to agree to 500 som, and we followed him off. He had us follow him a little ways off because he explained that you had to pay to park in the main parking area, so he parks off to the side somewhere. He also went proudly on and on about his diesel Ford car, which got great fuel economy, unlike the gas cars that most drivers use. His selection of 1980s pop music was also a delight.

In about 30 or so minutes, we made the ride to the center of Bishkek, where we were crashing in the apartment of another Fulbrighter, Dave. Dave teaches American history and culture at a university in Bishkek in English. He has a great two bedroom apartment, which also had a nice living room. I snagged the couch in the living room, which I quickly discovered was a sleeper sofa. Apparently, another Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in a small city about 90 minutes away frequently stays with Dave, but never bothered to check if the couch turns into a bed. Dave was pleasantly surprised that I checked and made the discovery, and Will was shocked when I told him at dinner the next night.

We dropped our stuff off with Dave before heading to a restaurant that was open a little later. It had a fusion of offerings ranging from Kyrgyz, which is really just a spin on common Uzbek dishes such as lagman (noodles and meat) and plov (rice pilaf with meat) and Georgian khachipuri as well as shashlyk, grilled meat. Entertainment at the restaurant was a man who was singing karaoke and playing the drums. Eventually, he turned into a DJ and the children dancing on the dance floor were replaced with a number of Kyrgyz couples, who danced for quite a while.

A true statement. I really liked Bishkek.

In the morning, Jonathon and I got up and had breakfast at the ex-pat coffee shop, which had a fully western menu. I was able to get a breakfast burrito, and it was delightful. We then slowly meandered around the main roads via a bookstore to the TsUM, Central Universal Store, which is basically a Soviet shopping mall. The TsUM had both a Nathan’s Famous in it (there was another one a few blocks away) as well as a store that specialized in Soviet antiques. Jonathon got some stuff for himself, and we headed off to see the Frunze Museum. We had to walk a little out of our way in the morning, because the Kyrgyz equivalent of the White House was along the way. Someone important must have been coming or going, because the roads immediately along it were closed to both pedestrian and vehicular traffic and there were police officers ever few feet.

The Frunze museum was a standard Soviet leader birth house museum. Like those for Stalin or Lenin, the house is there, but unlike those others, you can enter Frunze’s house. There are also exhibits about his early life, education, and revolutionary activities. We had a fun moment early on in the museum when we noticed that there was a group of Kyrgyz third graders on a tour. We thought we had managed to get a free tour, but unfortunately for us, the tour was in Kyrgyz and we couldn’t understand.

School kids on the museum tour.

The museum has clearly seen better days. Some exhibits were falling apart. At one end of the museum, there was a rope cordoning off some of Frunze’s office effects and his couch. I asked the woman working there if it was possible to go past the rope and to look at the item descriptions, and she allowed us to do so. Then, on the bottom floor, outside of Frunze’s house was a small exhibit on Kyrgyz men who had served in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Jonathon and I were very curious about it, and we very slowly walked around this area and carefully read everything there. This caught the attention of someone working there, who came up and asked if we had any questions. We explained that we were Soviet historians, and then had a lengthy conversation with her before entering Frunze’s house. She also engaged with us again after I bought some postcards and Jonathon bought some books at the museum entrance/gift shop.

Frunze’s dining room.

From the Frunze museum, we backtracked a few blocks to find the major WWII museum in Bishkek, which was opened in 1985. The main part of the memorial is in the shape of a yurt, which was pretty cool. Unfortunately, it was hazy both days that we were in Bishkek, and we couldn’t see the mountains in the backdrop of the city, which you normally can.

Bishkek’s main WWII monument.

From the WWII museum, we headed to the Bishkek Panfilov Park, which is more of an amusement park that has one statue to Ivan Panfilov, who eventually became the military commander of Kyrgyzstan, and was the commander of the 28 guardsmen who heroically died defending Moscow. Panfilov himself died shortly after their stand from a splinter from a German mortar attack. At Panfilov Park, we got a late lunch/snack at a café. What we got was some sort of “burger” which was really shaved shawarma meat on a bun with cheese, “ketchup,” mayo, coleslaw, and French fries. Basically, I got a Primanti Bros. sandwich in Bishkek. Primanti needs to protect their sandwich copyright.

Kyrgyz Primanti Bros.

After our meal, we went back to Dave’s apartment for a quick break before joining Dave at the American Center of Bishkek for the English conversation group he leads with Amanda, the Fulbright ETA. Jonathon and I joined in on their discussion for the day, which was about fashion. There was one older man of about 50 or 60 who kept saying funny things. He complimented my jeans and later said that he likes women who wear miniskirts, because he likes to look at their hips. The first table I spoke with was mostly dominated by a strange and highly opinionated guy of Slavic decent with a mullet. He basically shooed me away from the table. “You can rotate you know, so you should rotate. That table doesn’t have anyone, go there.” I figured it was easier to leave than deal with him being hostile, so I did. The other table was much more excited to have a new American to interrogate. The wanted me to introduce myself and asked me questions about myself and why I was in Bishkek, etc. One guy asked how old I was, and asked if I was married when I said I was 27. He then started to ask questions like why wasn’t I married, did I want to be married, and what kind of guy do I like? I asked if he was making some sort of proposal.

Sometimes I miss working as an English teacher in the former Soviet Union.

From the American Corner, we went to a local Korean style chicken restaurant called Chicken Star where a group of 15 or so of us who had connections to the Fulbright program in Kyrgyzstan gathered. Some were Kyrgyz people who had done Fulbrights in the USA or worked for Fulbright in Bishkek. There were some Fulbright researchers, ETAs, and State Department English Language Fellows around as well as one Boren Scholar. I had a good time talking with the people there, and had a great chat with one Kyrgyz guy especially. He was about 50. I’m not quite sure what his connection to Fulbright was, but we were chatting and he asked me if I was German. Apparently my heritage is also noticeable in other ex-Soviet Republics beyond Russia. I told him that I used to live in Ulyanovsk, and he got excited because his father lived and worked there at one point. We discussed the virtues of the UAZ 469 jeep, which he claimed was pure Russian engineering, and he claimed that the Mercedes Geländewagen is a derivative of the 469, which I don’t quite agree with. We also talked about the Mercedes in Bishkek. Many of them are W124s (1986-1995). Although most of them are post-1990 face-lifted W124s, there are still plenty of 1986-1989 ones running around the city. The W124s are also quite popular in Almaty, where they are quite prevalent; however, the ones in Almaty are mostly 1990-1995 models.

A snow covered W124 in Almaty.

In Bishkek, most of the minibuses, or marshrutki, are also Mercedes. There is a good mix of Sprinter vans and older Mercedes vans from the 1970s and 1980s, which I was happy to see.

Old Mercedes van marshrutka.

I also learned that the W123 has a special name in Kyrgyzstan, where it is called the Krokodil, or “crocodile.” Jonathon got a little frustrated with me taking photos of all of the Mercedes in Almaty and Bishkek, but he was overall a really good sport about my obsession.

A W124 taxi in Bishkek.

The next morning, Jonathon and I woke up to walk with Dave to the Osh Bazaar, the main Bazaar in Bishkek. It was a lot rougher looking than the bazaar in Almaty, and wasn’t a place that was good to take photos for a variety of reasons.

Entrance to the Osh Bazaar.

Kyrgyzstan on the whole is a lot less well off than Kazakhstan, which has a lot of oil and gas money. The city of Bishkek clearly received attention in the Soviet era. Walking around the city was actually like walking around a Soviet time capsule. There were a ton of Soviet buildings, which have not been changed, unlike in Almaty or Tbilisi, Georgia. However, in the post-Soviet collapse, not much has been improved or well maintained.

Soviet Bishkek.

Despite this, though, there were a good number of western stores and chains in Bishkek, as well as some delightfully funny local knockoffs, such as BFC, which seemed to be a Bishkek Fried Chicken.

Bishkek Fried Chicken?

From the Bazaar, we went back to TsUM to get a few more things at the souvenir stand. After that, we grabbed some lunch at a local stolovaya cafeteria before walking back to the apartment to pack and get a cab to the airport. Our cab driver to the airport was fairly chatty, and he made sure to point out the village next to the airport where a cargo 747 from Uzbekistan had crashed in the fall. That was just what I wanted to hear about before flying away from Bishkek.

Things got momentarily worse when we were in the airport. We checked in without problems, but ran into a snag at passport control, or at least Jonathon did. He was questioned for an extra long time about his past travels. Thankfully, he was eventually let through and we waited around for our flight. The plane from Almaty was late. Then, there was no announcement made, but our plane was beginning boarding at a completely different gate than posted on the sign. We only discovered this through an Australian couple who were traveling with their three young children on a visa run from Almaty. The mother was walking around with one of the kids to get him to calm down, and then came and told her husband that the gate had been switched and that the plane was going to board soon.

The flight back was fine and without issues. We got a taxi back to Jonathon’s and basically passed out. In the morning, we got up and lazed around before meeting another grad student, Sean, and his wife and daughter at a café in the center for a late lunch. From there, Jonathon and I rode the gondola at Kok Tobe, to the observation point above Almaty. Unfortunately, it was a snowy day, and the view was obscured by the clouds. The area at the top was interesting, though, because they had a zoo with some strange animals ranging from goats, rabbit, and deer to ostriches and emus. There was also a monument to the Beatles at the top for confusing reasons.

The bottom of the gondola from my first night in Almaty.

After Kok Tobe, we grabbed tea in a café before wandering around a bit and getting dinner at Kagant again. The snow picked up a bit, and we headed back to veg out for the night with Russia related youtube videos. In the morning, we got up and explored a local park before getting lunch. I used YandexTaxi to get a ride to the airport. The price was an unbelievable 1,500 tenge, when the good normal price is 3,000 tenge. My driver was a nice 4th year university student. He was excited to have an American in his car. He was telling me how had spent two years in the Kazakh military and earned the rank of Lieutenant. Military service is not required in Kazakhstan, but it’s fashionable and can help get a variety of other jobs related to the government such as working for the police. He multiple times asked if I was married or planning to marry. At one point, he asked if I would ever consider marrying someone who was Kazakh. I’m not sure if he was implying something or not as he also kept talking about how much he wants to travel to America. He also had never been to the airport before, I was his first drive there.

Checking in for my flight back was smooth, as was passport control. We had a very rough takeoff that was caused by the old runway itself. The runway was clearly worn and in bad shape. I didn’t notice the same amount of bumps in the smaller Embraer, but in the larger Aeroflot Boeing 737, the disrepair of the runway was a little more evident. Still, it’s a long way from the Soviet Union where a number of distant airports didn’t even have paved runways. Soviet jets were designed to takeoff on packed snow or gravel runways.

I flew back without any problems with passport control. The landing was smooth for the rain that we landed in, and it was a perfectly Russian experience of having everyone clap loudly because the pilot didn’t crash. Everyone also got up while we were still taxiing to remove their items from the bins.

Now I’m back in Moscow and itching for my next adventure.