There are five things in this world that I am absolutely certain of. I know that it’s bloody grim when parents call each other “Mum” and “Dad” to their faces. I know that in Polish Scrabble, “Z” is only worth one point. I know that the least common question in sign language is “Where are you?”. I know that I love using the word “swindle” whenever I get a chance. And I know that Kazakhstan is the most foreign place I’ve ever been.
We’ve just arrived in the capital city of Kazakhstan: Astana, which means “capital city” in Kazakh. It’s the ninth largest country in the world and the biggest landlocked one. 2,000 British people a year visit Kazakhstan and that number is about to take a big drop because as of December 31st, it’s almost impossible to get a tourist visa because who bloody knows. They’re worried that a sudden influx of tourists are about to descend on them, maybe?
We walked out of the airport into the coldest weather I’ve ever experienced in my life. It was 2 o’clock in the afternoon and it was -21 degrees. Minus 21 and volatile. Thick snow poured down and shards of ice and sleet were being launched at us from both sides. I’m going to come out and say it; I’ve received punches in the mouth that were more well-intentioned than the weather in Kazakhstan. I’ve never known weather to be such an assault on every single one of my senses. It was so heavy that if you took out an umbrella, the snow would collect on it so quickly that you can barely hold the thing up (the umbrella). It was blindingly white and as loud as a Grandad’s sneeze. There was freezing wind that did it’s part by picking up a mix of snow and tiny rock from the ground and then stab you in the face with it. It was the kind of cold which made you avoid breathing because every breath would hurt you, deep down in your stomach, like that pain you get at the start of a relationship because you’ve been holding in too many farts.
We got in a taxi. It was easy enough. Taxi is one of those words which is the same in every language, along with mama, papa, and coffee. Every language besides Chinese, that is. But who knows what anything means in Chinese, really? Everything I attempted to say in Beijing just resulted in someone vigorously directing me to the same gay bar, no matter where I was in the city. All Chinese people think I’m gay, is what I’m getting at.
Anyway, before we got in the taxi we asked the guy how much it would be to get to the Best Western. He told us $10 and we got in. The first thing I noticed was, why did so many people buy white cars in this place where it snows all the time? Secondly, the cars go staggeringly quickly considering how hard it’s snowing and how much of it is coating the roads. Also, it’s weird that wherever you go, anywhere in the world, the adverts are always of blonde, blue-eyed people: nothing like what most of the world looks like. The models can vary with local adverts but when it’s for perfume or skin care, like most adverts seem to be for, you could be in Morocco, Brazil, Malaysia, or Kazakhstan and you’re guaranteed to see a lot of giant smouldering Charlize Theron’s.
Anyway, we soon arrived at the Best Western. As we pulled to a stop, I handed the Taxi Driver the pre-arranged $10. He just stared at it, then stared back at me, disbelief steaming out of every corner of his face. I held the $10 out for about five seconds until I decided to just gently but firmly place it down on the empty seat next to him. As I reached over to open the door, he pressed down on the central locking button. He had something to say:
“No, no, it’s $10”
“You know what, I can see what’s happened here. You think I’m Guy Pearce in Memento. You think I’ve got short term memory loss and you can change the price because I won’t remember. You’re mistaken, though. I remember. Also, he’s Australian, and I’m British. You, my friend, are perpetuating something called the “Other-Race Effect” and that is a major psychological shortcoming”
“Taxi is $20”
“Wait! You don’t think I’m Guy Pearce at all! You’re trying to swindle us!”
We were at a real crossroads. Conversationally, I mean. Navigationally, we were still parked outside the hotel. He then decided to bring out the big guns: “We go to police now. We drive to police”.
“You know what, I would love to go to the police station”
He drove for six seconds before we decided that, even though he was probably bluffing, just giving him the extra $10 might be easier than sitting in a Kazakh police station for eight hours with a load of OFFICERS OF THE LAW who are probably more likely to side with him.
Light extortion is never the ideal initial interaction in a new country but unfortunately, it’s seeming like we should expect it in this part of Central Asia.
The President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, is of those Presidents who started introducing questionable laws and rules as soon he came into power. First off, he immediately decided that no one else is ever allowed to be President besides him. I’m not sure how he broached that with parliament but even he must’ve been a little surprised when they were like: “You know what, Nursultan, yeah alright”. A couple years later, $8.5 billion dollars of Kazakh oil revenue was discovered in a Swiss Bank account under his name. An investigation was opened and in response to this, the President immediately passed a law that legalised money laundering for him and his family. He then passed another one that granted him permanent criminal immunity. Kazakh newspapers who reported on this were firebombed and/or delivered burning decapitated dogs. Weirdly, we haven’t heard of much controversy since.
It takes a little while to get used to but the so unbelievably optimistic corruption has trickled all the way down. Our first stop after chucking our things down in the Best Western was at a large, chain supermarket. We picked up a couple of big bottles of water and took them over to the till:
“Look, we just walked here directly from the water shelf, we know these cost $1 each”
“Ok, scan them. There are barcodes on these. Scan them through the till and show me they cost $10”
“I think maybe we won’t buy water from you today”.
It was then that I realised that I’d made a huge mistake. There’s one thing you’re supposed to do as soon as you arrive in a new country and I completely forgot to do it. I typed “Can you drink the tap water in Kazakhstan?” into my phone and Google said “Probably” and we decided that was good enough for us.
I know that bartering is the common way of doing things in a lot of countries but I’ve never experienced a place where the big chain places just up the price whenever they see a foreign person. Also, if you habitually up the prices of things whenever you feel like it, don’t put a price tag on it in the first place. We can see that it costs $1. If there were no prices on anything, we may have spent $10 on two bottles of water out of pure naivety. When I’m in Thailand and I’m looking at a t-shirt at the market, the person who works at the stall will always run over and optimistically say “$25”. He and I both know $25 is not very realistic. He just has to start high because he knows we’ll barter until it gets to about $5 and I’ll think I’ve got a great deal and he knows he’s mugged me off because the t-shirt cost him 20 cents.
But in Kazakhstan, they don’t even bother trying to hide it. They see that you’re foreign, and immediately try to swindle you right to your bloody face. You know me, using the word swindle is probably my second or third favourite thing to do in the world. But this was getting absurd, I’d used it at least eight times within the first hour. We decided it would be nice to not use it for a while so we headed back to the hotel and asked reception what good free touristy things there are to do around here. You can’t be swindled when it’s free. That’s what I always say. I said that once.
“You should go to The Khan Shatyr, it’s the largest tent in the world and it’s close to here. On some days, it really looks amazing”
“Is today one of those days?”
We checked in with Google Maps and they mentioned that the big tent city was 1.7 miles away: A 34 minute walk. DOABLE.
We set off. The temperature had risen to an almost comfortable -19 degrees. And it was no longer snowing in four directions. Just a gentle two. And the wind was barely noticeable:
There’s a vague frosted Blade Runner look going on with the architecture of Astana. But it’s a rundown frosted Blade Runner. Every single building is, at the most, 20 years old. But not one of them has seen a minute of exterior cleaning or refurbishment since they were built. It looks like it’s from the imagination of someone who thought he knew everything about the future in 1987.
We finally reached the big tent city. The snowstorm had turned our 34 minute walk into an hour and a half one. Unbelievably, even Google Maps swindles you in Kazakhstan. Like a lot of the rest of Astana, The Khan Shatyr was built in a neofuturistic style so, much like everything else, it looks like a late 80s dystopian film. I didn’t take a picture of it because it turns out that iPhones stop working at -10 degrees. Minus 19 meant that the phone train had pulled into nap station.
Here’s a picture I took of it from far away when my phone was still up and AT IT. It’s that little thing in between that hole in the building:
Here’s someone else’s picture of it:
I’m not 100% what I was expecting when I decided I wanted to go to the biggest tent in the world. I don’t know what I thought would be in there. I thought maybe it would be like one of those fun novelty “Biggest Cow in Texas at the Next Exit” things you get on American Highways. Turns out the big tent was just a mall with all the exact same shops as in the U.K. But with no Dorothy Perkins.
There was also a theme park and a beach in there. As everyone knows, I’ve always wanted to go to a beach in a shopping centre but the day I wore six layers of shirts wasn’t the right time. Out of all the beaches in the world, this one is the furthest from an ocean: 1864 miles.
Otherwise, it was a standard tent city day. We met a Canadian man in KFC who told us that in Astana, some people think that charging $10 for something like water makes the place seem elite. I said to him that it still felt like swindling. A couple minutes later, someone told us we had to pay an extra $5 to sit inside KFC.
After that, I picked up a flag marked $2 in a shop and then took it to the till, where someone insisted that it cost $18. It was starting to feel like they may as well just straight up mug us. But you know what, we were still having a bloody good time. It was such an unusual place that the attempted swindling was starting to feel like a fun novelty.
Later that evening, we got back to the hotel and headed to the bar. Hotel bars can be dodgy pricewise at the best of time but this one didn’t even bother putting menus out. When we asked for one, they told us that they didn’t do them. Wow, these guys were really prepared to swindle.
“How much is the cheapest glass of red wine?”
“$35! That is outrageous! We spent 40 on the room!”
“Wine is 35”
It was just around then that we decided to book an extra night.
TO BE CONTINUED