We arrived in Almaty early in the morning, more or less on schedule with our original plan. Tired, tipsy in places and a little delirious from the traumas of the day, we struggled to find the hostel at which we had planned to stay (and where the drive shaft was due to be delivered the following day). The map showed the address we had as being the location of “Almaty Backpackers Hostel” whilst our sources informed us that the hostel was actually called “The Park Inn Hostel”. Before this could even become a problem, however, we had severe difficulties finding the address in the first place. Asking a group of youths playing basketball lead us in the wrong direction for some time, whilst inviting a stranger we found on the street into the cabin of the tow truck resulted in our prompt arrival at a Holiday Inn.
Finding the right street, we sent Ollie down back alleys to see if the hostel was nestled somewhere inconspicuous. After being chased by wild, rabid dogs the size of (small) horses (dog-sized horses), Ollie found the place. He returned to the limo to discover it had a small, playful kitten inside of it.
(KITTEN PICTURE – Jack’s Phone?)
Because it would have been just too easy otherwise, the hostel had a 6ft, impassable rock and gravel moat surrounding it on all visible sides, preventing us from leaving our car in the Hostel’s fenced car park. The night-duty staff member, after Steve had badgered him on the topic for some time, was adamant that there was no road leading from the other direction by which it could be accessed. Additionally, the road opposite the hostel ran past the local police station. This meant, our Holiday Inn-loving local informed us, that we could not, under any circumstances, park on the street there. Unwilling to leave our gentle limo vulnerable to the night, we hid it as best we could down a back alley 5 minutes from the hostel. The solution was far from ideal but it appeared that we had very few options.
We threw down our bags in our room. All of us were exhausted, triumphant but above all, starving. We were so hungry we even considered cooking something for ourselves. Mercifully deciding against this, we launched ourselves frenetically into the early morning in search for something devoid of any nutritional value, something steaming hot and dripping with viscous orange fluid, with big chunks of meat and cheese. We left Jack engrossed in the rediscovered joys of moderately fast WiFi, promising to return within 20 minutes.
The part of Almaty we had stumbled into appeared to be a business district of some kind, utterly unsuited to pedestrian transit – it was miles of gracefully rising concrete concourses running up to 50 floor hotels and shopping complexes. We walked indefinitely in several directions and found nothing but bus stops and dormant white, monolithic buildings. And none of them contained processed, melted cheese that we could access.
We doubled back and eventually found an open air restaurant/bar with a BBQ. Unable to decipher the menu, Ollie took the initiative and dived head-first into a group of young Kazakh men nearby, pushing a menu in front of one of them and asking for recommendations. And so it begun. We had sat down with a group of friends, several of whom were brothers, and whose ages ranged between 15 and 28. We had just enough money to buy 4 Shaschlick Kebabs (we had one carefully packaged in specially designed heat retentive material for Jack). The Kazakhs bought us a round of beers to welcome us to the country.
(Jack’s luscious Kebab)
Several beers and another kebab later, the toasting began.
“To Steve Jobs!” said the business-savvy business-suited businessman of the group. He had his own business and gave us business cards so that we might take advantage of his business.
“To aubergines, TWICE as big!” said Steve, encouraging our new friends in the face of their unspoken but clearly implicit hopes and fears for the future fecundity of the nascent Kazakh aubergine sector over the next 36 years.
“To Steve Jobs!” we said again. And again.
The night quickly spiralled out of hand. After retelling the fable of how DHL had saved the limo in a way that probably did not make it across the language barrier, we began chanting “DHL! DHL! DHL!” and “Steve Jobs!
Stevie Stevie Jobs! Steve Jobs! Steve Brace! Steven Brace!” Ollie promised to play badminton the next day.
One of the men, Isthkander, punctuated the ‘dialogue’ with what sounded like very convincing Borat impressions.
For some reason, after several people had thrown up (including Steve and Isthkander), we climbed into a car. Not all of us fitted into a car, so Dom caught a taxi with two of the group. Before the car full of Kazakhs could leave, however, Dom decided to climb onto its boot. As is natural when drunkenly driving a fast car and finding a drunken companion on the boot, the driver accelerated. As is natural when the fast car you have grabbed onto accelerates in a seemingly determined way, Dom let go and bounced off the tarmac, mainly unscathed.
We all arrived several minutes later at a nightclub called “Fridays”. It was Thursday by this stage in the proceedings, which seemed to be close enough, as the club was busy. Dom, Steve and Ollie were sporting the classic Mongol Rally look; sandals, shorts, filthy t shirts and a dishevelled, “I fought a snake this morning” look about them. However, the regular clientele of this establishment in general diverged from our particular stylistic strain by washing regularly and wearing nice clothes. We pleaded with the door staff in vain. When they objected to our shorts and sandals, Dom obliged their request and removed these items from his person, to no avail. Ollie subjected them to his best puppy dog impression and ate someone’s wallet. This did nothing to assuage their (evidently baseless) concerns. Just after Dom had almost started a fight with a guy from Beijing (“he was looking at my sandals funny”), we left in search of more alcohol, stopping at several shops before we gave up on the evening.
Heading back, we were pulled over by the police. The police found four inebriated young men without seat belts crammed into seats fit for three. They found a (sober) underage driver who did not match the documentation provided, sitting next to the individual (drunk) who did match the documentation. A policeman climbed into the driver’s seat and twisted around in his seat to say something in Russian to the four bleary backseaters. Dom and Steve dosed, untroubled, throughout. Eventually, the owner of the car told us that “you should get out of the car.”
We did so, only for the car to be driven off by the police officer without any further explanation. This being our first night in Almaty, we were relatively unfamiliar with the city, which is Kazakhstan’s largest. After consulting a map, we discovered that we were 4km from the Hostel. The roads and bus shelters were silent. Isthkander, who had been the fourth person in the back with us, stumbled away down the street in a seemingly purposeful manner. We left him to it and went about getting home. Slowed by our alcoholic stupor and the excessive length of our day by this point, we took over an hour and a half to get back to the hostel.
Dom took a detour to the car to pick up water. This took around 30 minutes of walking in circles through the maze of identical alleyways that concealed the limousine. When he eventually found the car, he also found three of the Kazakhs they had been enjoying the company of earlier that day. They had their car and seemed in good spirits. One of them clutched our severed CB Radio aerial. It was now 6am. “We found thieves, they cut off your aerial. We chased them.” They grinned, heedlessly pleased with themselves in the midst of the longest day of all time. Dom, nodding mutely, weathered the conversation, promised Ollie’s attendance at the badminton game the next day. Then they asked “have you seen our friend, Isthkander?” Alarmed in a noncommittal sort of way, Dom assured them that if he had made it home, he was sure Isthkander was fine too, and slouched back to the room. And so it ended.