Back in a land of nothing

Almaty is an interesting town, he says with the unrestrained air of one who feels that he can form a view based on just 3 hours in a city. Okay, so maybe it is a bit early to be expressing an opinion.

I like the combination hotel/apartments downtown. At street level all is renovated. Big windows, marble columns, trees, places to park your SUV, guys in suits. Then you have either lights, colour and music (for restaurants, bars and casinos) or stylish emptiness (for modish clothes shops – a misnomer, I suspect, since no shopping appears to actually go on).

Above street level, there are still the same old scungy soviet era apartments that grace(?) all Central Asian cities. Dirty brickwork, falling-down balconies piled with miscellaneous junk. dirty windows, unsightly airconditioners. All that stuff.

But, of course, my life is lived at street level. I am not an Almaty insider with a key, and a door code and view of the street through my dirty windows or from my crowded balcony.

Actually I feel suddenly rather dirty. Since I have not really changed or washed my t-shirt or pants for several weeks, this is not surprising. What is surprising is how the rough and ready atmosphere of Kyrgyzstan (where I clearly was not the most filthy) hid my state of misdress from my eyes.

I have snuck into this expensive-ish restaurant on the sly, hoping to get some decent food. But it has made me realise that by comparison with the clean, smartly-attired, club-going denizens of Almaty, I am decidedly grubby.

Perhaps I will change my clothes tomorrow. I might even do some washing. Oh happy day. If only I was not staying in a scungy dive that struggles even with running water, let alone the wonders of a shower or a place to launder my clothes. No matter. High on tomorrow’s list of things to do is to find alternative accommodations.

Thank god, though, for credit cards and western salaries. This salad is almost making me cry. A simple dish of eggplant, tomatoes, peppers and breadcrumbs, but about a million miles distant from what I have been eating these past few months.

From my vantage point at this end of the restaurant, I can watch the comings and goings of the other diners. They are, in a way, my entertainment – although there is also a tv screen playing classic western pop hits (sans sound) in case I get bored of them.

I am not sure whether I am pleased or dismayed to report that Kazaks seem to enjoy the same kind of night out as Russians – go to a restaurant, order a lot of food, smoke, drink to excess, and then dance badly. Aside from the smoking, of course, we are all guilty of these sins from time to time. Fortunately we are light on the dancing at this joint. Sans sound, remember?

I do find it creepy, turning my eyes to my left and the table of what looks like staff members, when a guy will slip his free arm around a girl kinda surreptitiously, as if afraid of rejection. And then the girl will sit there (in my mind simpering), and look self-satisfied. And the whole thing proceeds silently, with assumptions and confusion and a lack of communication. For god’s sake people, this is not some 50s’ movie. You are not Danny and Sandy. This is your life. Take a stand. Make a point. Express a view.
Creepy. Makes my skin crawl. Even if she does not care, or even likes to be so possessed, she should be more active about it. Submission? Never.
I wonder, of course, whether I am really in Kazakhstan. This is not just my normal ‘I can not believe that this place really exists’. The stamp on my expensive yellow visa says so. And there is clearly no denying that I am physically in Kazakhstan (unless I happened to be one of those unfortunates who believes that nothing is real and we are just imagining what we call real life, and I do not, happen to be, that is).

But there is conflicting evidence. First, a key reason for being here is because I need to get a Russian visa and I did not want to backtrack to Bishkek. And second, Kazakhstan is so big that I will have to travel like the wind (or maybe just a little bit slower) in order to reach Moscow (to meet Natalie) on the 29th as planned. The ninth biggest country in the world. I am 3000kms away. Seven days I have. Just under 450kms a day. Too many to walk or hitch. So I am not here mostly to see Kazakhstan, and I have no time to do so anyway.

It was interesting to drive across the border (more accurately: be driven) and see the return of emptiness. Deserts, hills, steppe. Basically featureless terrain. Maybe a slight roll in the hill. There are mountains in Kazakhstan’s south and its east. The rest, and there is a lot of it, is basically flat. Its biggest lake is a gigantic puddle, if truth be told.
Blah blah blah. Which means, “I have no sensible way to finish off that thought and segue into the next.”

I understand that Harry Potter the fifth will be released tomorrow. An auspicious day indeed. The shortest, or longest, depending on which side of the equator you read it on.

I like the way the stories are developing. Longer and darker each time around (we are promised death this time – I suspect dissembling). All we need now is some sexual tension between Hermione and either or both of the other two heroes. I pick Ron to be jilted. I mean Harry can’t be third wheel.

But I digress.

JK Rowling can perhaps count herself lucky that there were no ripoffs in the intervening period. I read Don Quixote the other day (alright, the other month). There are two parts. After the first was published and while Cervantes was at work on the second, someone else released what purported to be Part 2. Apparently it caused quite a sensation, and when Cervantes released the real Part 2, he took the opportunity many times in the text to lampoon the author of the unofficial second episode.

No such luck for Harry Potter, although I hear that there is some legal action pending for pre-publication of too much of the plot. Seems to me to help rather than hinder sales I would have thought. But I guess that is why they will take evidence from economists at trial.

I wonder when the Kazak translation will come out. Well after my visa expires, I suspect.

I have discovered (or should I say noticed) a certain passive/agressiveness in my character when it comes to service. Mostly I see it in restaurants and cafes, but that is probably because I spend so much time in them. Perhaps I am genuinely appeased by the apology for crappy service/wrong bill/mistaken change. Or perhaps I am afraid to make more of a scene than I already have. Makes me wonder about the strength of my concern about it in the first place though. I shall monitor and report further.

Michael Jackson is on the television. Silent. But singing Thriller all the same. His arms are too long. His body too thin. But there is no denying his talent. Or was.

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