Today is our last day in Kazakhstan and our itinerary is full. First off, I’m going to spend the morning trying to find myself on Google Street View. Spiritually, I mean. Not literally. After that: sightseeing. We’d already seen one of the tourist destinations so today, we’re going to see the other one.
You know when you watch videos of someone on a carefully constructed North Korean tour and the guide shows them to an office where “regular” North Koreans are at work? And it turns out that what they’re showing them is 11 people banging on keyboards whilst staring at a static 1997 Google Logo. Kazakhstan is a cross between that, and the bit in The Truman Show where the wall of the elevator falls down and Jim Carrey sees the crew eating lunch.
Kazakhstan, or, they’re in the process of changing their name to so they differ from the other Stans: “Kazakh Yeli”, which means “Land of the Kazakhs”, is the ninth largest country in the world but has a smaller population than New York City. Given that people are outnumbered by wolves and so many billions of barrels of oil and gas have been discovered in the country, every Kazakh person is of course, a millionaire, right?
Well – and you won’t believe this – it turns out that they are not millionaires and the government spent the money – and you won’t believe this either – selfishly and lavishly.
Rampant corruption means that the President can do things like chuck $3 million Kanye West’s way to perform at his grandson’s wedding. Musicians have a rich, illustrious history of making a lot of money by performing for a lot of dictators but none have ever made as much as Kanye did for a singular “turning-a-blind-eye” performance.
Here’s a picture of Kanye at the Kazakh wedding playing to a crowd of two people who are both looking in the opposite direction.
Anyway, we’re on our way to The Presidential Palace. It was built in 2004 and its official name is “Akorda”. Which is also the same name as a mildly successful insurance company based in Peterborough. Akorda is based on The White House but is six times larger and has a blue dome that makes it look like it should be in Epcot.
Here’s a fun fact: The White House was based on the Charleston County Courthouse, which was based on the Irish Parliament Building, which was based on Glenister House, which was based on a Posh Wetherspoons in Reading.
We ventured out to the Palace. We got about forty feet from it when a soldier raised two machine guns in the air and crossed them. It was The Asian X: a traveller’s natural nemesis.
He looked like the humanization of the left side of the Mozambican flag. Which a lot of people think is the more aggressive looking side.
I’d experienced the “Asian X” before. A few years ago, I was visiting my friend Jack “Marmalade” Henry in Hiroshima when we made a plan to spend the day playing drunk arcade basketball. Unfortunately, they don’t allow lagers in the arcade but we decided to bring them in any way. We were just hoping that Japanese tendency to not want to talk to Westerners would save us from getting told off. It didn’t. Five minutes in, two women came up and made X’s with their index fingers. It’s a nice way of getting into trouble, really. No one’s being a dick but you’ve been made to know that it’s time to leave.
Since then, I haven’t experienced the “X” again. Not until the day we decided to visit the Kazakhstan Presidential Palace.
We made our way back to the hotel. Afternoon bled into the evening and we decided to ask reception where there was to eat around here.
It’s a strange situation, asking someone who works in a hotel that doubles as a restaurant if they know of any other restaurants around. It’s a situation I find myself in maybe twice a week at the moment and they always answer the same way:
“Of course. There is the hotel restaurant directly to your right”.
Then you make up some excuse about how you can’t eat there because you ate there last night or maybe you just give them the truth and let them know don’t feel like paying $36 for weird spicy mash tonight.
“Is there anyway else around here you would recommend?”
We decided to see what Google Maps had to say about it. It told us that there was a restaurant just a six-minute walk away, but also indicated that it gets very busy at this hour and it’s best if you make a reservation so THAT is what we did.
Anyway, we headed off for our 8pm reservation at about 7.50, but as everything cost eight times as much as we were expecting, we needed to stop off at a cashpoint. We quickly found one that was in the vestibule of a closed bank. As far as vestibules go, it was pretty good. It just about big enough for two people to stand in and the heating was hovering around a GENEROUS 26 degrees (Celsius).
We got our cash and I leant against the knobless door. It wouldn’t budge so I waved my arms about. Partly because it might’ve been one of those motion-detected doors. Partly because my shoulder gets stiff in the cold. Nothing worked, the door had locked itself.
We were completely surrounded by glass so could see that no one was around but tried banging on the windows, anyway. There was nothing to press or stand on that usually opens these kinds of doors. There was only one button, it was big, red, and about eight feet off the ground. Where I’m from, if something is eight feet high and red, it usually means it shouldn’t be pushed unless something is really wrong. Being stuck in a warm vestibule didn’t seem urgent enough to warrant pressing something that might call the police. But then, maybe that button just opens the door. It was a pickle.
We started asking each other a lot of rhetorical questions: Do you know the Kazakh emergency number? Do you think we’ll be in a lot of trouble if we smash the glass? Do you think they’ll make us pay for it? If we get a pizza delivered here, will the pizza man help us get out? How long can two people who are not claustrophobic stay in a confined space before we can reasonably cause a scene?
Five minutes in, and we’d exhausted all options. Neither of our phones worked in Kazakhstan and the two passwords I’d tried for the bank’s wifi (password1 and bank1) hadn’t worked. We tried kicking the door and then shouting at it but neither resulted in much.
There was surely a way out but we didn’t know what it was. The big red button seemed like the only option. We’d decided that if we pressed it, it would a) Open the door. b) Call the police, who will be angry or c) Contact a bank employee who will give us instructions on how to get out but definitely in Kazakh.
We pressed it. Nothing happened for about five seconds but then a red light came on in the bank. It was then that a man outside started walking towards the door. It was way too soon for him to be there due to the red button. He was just a bloke who wanted to use the ATM. A bloke who looked remarkably like a mean version of Ross and Monica’s Dad in Friends. Which is a difficult thing to look like because Jack Gellar is a happiness machine. Even in American History X, he never looked truly unhappy.
Mr. Gellar strolled up, opened the door, and we dived out. He was truly one of the last living liberators. We thought we’d hang around for a sec so we could splash him back and return the favour for saving our lives. Fifteen seconds later, he finished up at the cashpoint and the door just bloody swung open for him. He gave us a weird look for staring and walked off.
We headed off and got to the restaurant – a little later than we thought we would. You know when it’s really bloody cold in London so you have to wear five layers, but then you get underground and immediately need to take all of them off as soon as you get on the tube? That’s what entering any building is like in Kazakhstan, but with more urgency.
As soon as we started de-layering, a lady approached us and asked if we’d like to put our things in the cloakroom. We said no thanks. She asked again and we said no thanks again. She then got wound up and repeatedly told us that it was the rules and we had to do it and P.S it’s $5 an item. She started raising her voice which is definitely a bold sales tactic. I told her that we’ll just put our coats on the back of our chairs and she said that anyone who does that has to leave the restaurant.
At this point, we’d been in Kazakhstan for three days and knew that anytime you step inside any building, some hard swindling was coming your way. We’ve come to expect that when we get to a restaurant, we will be handed a menu with no prices. And we’ve come to expect that at the end of the meal, someone will ramp up the price because of “A Special Government Wednesday Tax”. But it’s unusual that the swindling starts before we’ve sat down.
We shook off the angry cloakroom attendant and entered the restaurant to find it completely empty. We were greeted by maybe the sourest maître d’ in the history of restaurants. Impressively, he’d managed to match his appearance with his sour expression. He had gelled his hair so thoroughly that clumps of it had slid down his head and gathered on the top of his neck to congeal with the sweat. Also, he had one of those rough long nails on his little finger which some men decide they desperately need for miscellaneous cocaine/ear cleaning reasons. Anyway, he hated us. I’ve witnessed (numerous) erotic jokes at eulogies get a better reaction than our entrance to this restaurant got.
“You are Daniel Lee?”
“We charge $20 for people who are late to reservation”
“Sorry, that’s not me. I misunderstood what you said. We didn’t make a reservation”
“You need a reservation to dine here”
“There’s no one here”
“You have to make a reservation”
“Ok…can I make one now? For right now?”
He looked around a paused before ultimately deciding that we could make a reservation for right now. He agreed so begrudgingly and so scathingly that he may as well have told me right to my face that he was already planning on dipping his rough long fingernail into my spicy mash. He sat us down, told us that tonight’s special was horse and it was $2, handed us a menu completely in Kazakh, then headed off.
I turned to Laura: “You know what, I think I’ll have horse. That sounds alright. I’ve eaten horse so many times but never purposefully, it’s time I take control”. Anyway, it tasted like someone really messed up a good beef steak. It was still good because you can’t really completely ruin a good beef steak, but it wasn’t ideal.
About an hour later, the bill arrived, it was all in Kazakh except the unexpectantly large numbers peppering the side.
“Excuse me, you said the special was $2. But on the bill, it says it costs $28”
“The small one is $2. We gave you the large one”
“But I didn’t specify what size I wanted”
He decided to show us the complete embodiment of this thing: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
It was time to leave Kazakhstan. Time to leave the swindling and the ill-will. Time to go somewhere where the people are warm. Where the people welcome outsiders with open arms: Russia.