I was pretty sure before even starting this trip that gaining any weight wouldn’t be an issue. It’s an active itinerary with a fair bit of walking and hiking, sure, but that can easily be offset by rich lavish meals on a daily basis. So that’s not the reason. The issue really is that Central Asia is not a region you typically seek out for the amazing food. I figured that over the course of a few weeks, I’d probably miss a meal or two. Fortunately, my expectations were low enough from the outset that it didn’t take much to be pleasantly surprised.
We flew into Almaty from Dubai via “Air Astana”, a Kazakh airline. I found some reviews online that were comically horrible… nonfunctioning bathroom faucets covered in tape, pictures of meals with barely identifiable courses and rotten spots on parts of the food. Before the three hour flight, we picked up an assortment of delicious takeaway from the Dubai airport. For future reference, buying your own food ahead of time seems to be the way to ensure you’ll actually be served good stuff on the flight. On this inexpensive flight, they gave out nice meal descriptions on card-stock and provided some legitimately decent meals served with metal cutlery and finished with a nice box of Kazakh chocolates. Another nice and unexpected perk on this flight was how empty it was. I had an entire row to myself and was able to stretch out with piles of pillows and nap for most of the flight. We were off to a pretty good start, arriving in the early evening and settling down in our hotel directly.
Our guide mentioned having a neighbor that brews his own Kumys from milk from his own horses. Well, on day two she showed up first thing with a “gift” for us of a liter bottle of fresh kumys that she got from her neighbor. We were all going to sit down and have a few glasses each before venturing off for the day, and she wasn’t taking no for an answer. I managed a minor reprieve by getting her to only fill my glass halfway or so each time, but everyone else had to power through two full glasses of the stuff before we headed out on a several hour drive up steep, bumpy mountain switchbacks to our destination for the day. I’ve gotta say, this stuff had to be the most, um, challenging food or beverage I have ever encountered. I would gladly take on a full carton of natto before having another glass of it. It’s like a sour, rotten, unsweetened and unflavored kefir. Greg gets major credit on this one, as he kept it together through at least double what I drank. Heading up the mountain afterwards, getting a bit of a cold sweat from motion sickness, the overwhelming thought for me was how horrific this stuff would be on the way back up. Thankfully I held it together for the whole ride. Clearly this beverage is an acquired taste, as our guide Janar happily finished off the rest of the bottle during the drive through the mountains.
We closed out the second day with a live show with birds of prey that was pretty incredible. We also visited what is kind of like a hilltop carnival. The place is called Kok Tobe and is home to the largest TV tower in Central Asia. It sounded lame by the description but was actually an interesting place for a bit of shopping and people watching. Next stop is an early morning ride for an overland crossing to Kyrgyzstan and on to the city of Bishkek.