I had never been so happy to have a sore throat, especially such a bad one. My throat hurt so much that it actually woke me up. Surely this was a reasonable excuse to get out of the talk I was supposed to give in a couple days. I sent a text to the organizers saying that I wasn’t feeling well and would probably skip the trip to Kazakhstan if I didn’t feel better the next day, when I was supposed to leave.
Four months earlier I had felt differently about the trip. My friend Ben Yu got a random email inviting him to speak at a conference called GoViral in Kazakhstan. The people organizing it offered to show him around the country if he could make it out there. When he asked if I wanted to see if they would have me come too, the idea sounded wild enough that I said “of course”.
As the date approached, though, I was regretting the decision. There were a lot of other trips I would have preferred to do, and now I was stuck going to Kazakhstan for no real reason. I also didn’t know exactly where Kazakhstan was before I agreed, but when I went to buy tickets I realized it wasn’t near anything and was going to be a long flight in and out.
My throat got better and absent a very legitimate excuse, I felt that it would be rude not to show up. So I hustled to the Tokyo airport for my long journey to Kazakhstan.
I arrived late in Almaty and was greeted by one of the girls who organized the trip, Alina, my friend Ben, and a guy named Langston. They drove us to a small house in a wooded area of the city where Ben, Langston, and I would be staying. Alina told us to get some sleep and that we’d be leaving early the next morning. After a full day on a plane, that was no problem.
The next morning Alina and Langston’s friend Aigulya showed up along with her brother, her mother, and two tour guides named Andre and Alex. In the preceding months I had been sent an itinerary and been asked a zillion questions about what I wanted to do there, but to be honest I sort of ignored the itinerary and just kept saying that I was okay with anything they planned. So I didn’t really know where we were going.
We set off on a long drive and got to know each other in the car. I was instantly struck with how genuinely warm and friendly everyone was. Everyone treated us like something between friends and family from the moment we arrived in the country. The only other time I’ve felt this way traveling was when I went to Haiti.
An hour or two into the trip it felt like I was traveling with “my people”, rather than one friend and a bunch of strangers.
I’ll breeze through the trip a little bit for the sake of brevity, but the short version is that Kazakhstan is an incredibly beautiful country. I had some idea that it was going to be desert and maybe mud, but it reminded me most of Iceland. There are huge mountains, unending expanses of grassy steppe, huge canyons, beautiful lakes, and forests. I’ve seen a lot of beautiful places and it was right up there.
There’s also basically no one there. It’s the ninth largest country in the world and has a population of only 18 million. It also doesn’t seem to be much of a tourist destination. Couple that with our trip being during the week, and we ended up having some incredible natural wonders to ourselves. We would typically see 0-10 people at places that rivaled the national parks of the US or China in beauty. It was a really great way to experience nature.
The highlight for me was Kaindy lake, which is a forest that flooded but still stands in beautiful blue water. We only saw five or so other people there during the several hours we were there.
On a different lake we rented a really crappy rowboat that had to be bailed out before we could paddle it. We were assured the water was from the rain, but it hadn’t rained recently and the other boats didn’t have water in them. The guy renting it to us boasted about how if it was an American boat it would have sunk by now, but Soviet boats last forever.
During the trip the circumstances around the invitation became clearer to me. Aigulya and Alina are two best friends who found a video my friend Ben was in. They knew the organizer of this conference and figured that they could use an invite to lure Ben to Kazakhstan so that they could meet him. They and Aigulya’s family had also wanted to see some of the lakes and canyons we visited, so they decided to make it a family trip with friends and two random guys from America. Aigulya and Langston already knew each other from school in the US.
At some point during the trip karaoke was mentioned. Would we have any interest in singing karaoke in Almaty? I assured them that I never turn down a karaoke invitation, but they seemed skeptical. Alina plugged her phone into the van’s stereo and somehow every song she played was one of my regular karaoke songs. They confirmed no fewer than five times on the drive home that we would actually go sing karaoke. “Really?” “Are you sure you will really come to karaoke?”
It turns out karaoke is something of a national pastime in Kazakhstan. There are karaoke places everywhere. The one we went to, Empire Karaoke, had a big stage with proper lights, a very high quality sound system, and a great song selection. They invited a bunch of their friends and we really dominated karaoke that night. Because Kazakhstan is primarily a Muslim country a lot of people don’t drink, so they serve herbal tea. Talk about a paradise for me— karaoke and herbal tea at a nightclub.
The next day we were invited to dinner at Aigulya’s uncle’s house. They asked if I would try horse meat and I said yes. I’m not actually a very adventurous eater, but in principle I feel like eating horse is about the same as eating cow, and I couldn’t think of another time I would have the opportunity to try a bit of horse.
Her uncle’s house was incredible. We got a full tour, including all of the fruit trees in the backyard that he was very passionate about. Apparently apples originated in Almaty, so they are very proud of their apples. My favorite thing about the house was that it had a built in bathhouse downstairs! Steam room, sauna, jacuzzi, and even one of those marble slab things they have in hammams.
A lot of Aigulya’s family was there. We met her aunt and uncle, lots of cousins, another brother, and her 90+ year old grandmother. They were all extremely friendly and treated us as if we were family.
I very timidly tried the horse meat and was surprised at how good it was. It tasted similar to beef, but a little smokier maybe. I ate tons of horse that and the following nights. I also tried fermented camel milk which wasn’t as bad as it sounds, but knowing that it was fermented camel milk somehow grossed me out.
The highlight of dinner was when Aigulya’s uncle mentioned that his 13 year old daughter painted. Ben, who is extremely enthusiastic about nearly everything, got excited and said that he would like to buy some of her paintings. He ended up buying two and the girl was so touched that she could barely speak and was crying. It was one of the sweetest moments I’ve ever seen.
He got the paintings the following day, and I was immediately jealous upon seeing them. I would have never guessed that she had painted them at such a young age.
The conference itself only took about half a day, but it was very fun as well. I was told I was going to be on a panel to talk about travel writing, but when they interviewed me they asked almost exclusively about the island. I love talking about the island, though, so that was a lot of fun. Just like the people we’d been traveling around with, everyone at the festival was also extremely warm and friendly. Afterwards I ate horse milk ice cream.
After my talk I got interviewed by GQ Kazakhstan, which was a life goal I didn’t realize I had before. I also met someone who writes for Cosmo Kazakhstan, so getting into that magazine is also a goal.
The next day we went paragliding. I think everyone else had done it before, but for me it was the first time. One of the cool things about Almaty is that it’s an urban area (albeit a very wooded one), but you can take cable cars up to snow-capped mountains from within the city. Paragliding was a lot more fun than I expected it to be. I like bungie jumping and skydiving, but paragliding feels very different. At the end the instructors told us we could come back and get certified in two weeks for $500. I know what I’ll be doing next summer.
By the end of the trip I felt like a real idiot for almost bailing on it. Ben and I travel together from time to time, and both of us agreed that it was one of the best trips we’d ever been on. Kazakhstan is an amazing country with tons to offer, and the people were really uniquely friendly. Everyone from our hosts to their family to their friends was so welcoming of us and made us feel like we were part of their families. I was only there for five days and I feel like I left with lifelong friends and an extended Kazakh family. I suspect I’ll return just about every year from now on, and will also use the opportunity to check out some of the other countries in the area. All of a sudden they all seem much more interesting.
If you’re looking for a new place to check out, check out Kazakhstan. I would say that it’s underrated, except that I don’t think anyone actually rates it because they have so little information on it. A HUGE thank you to Alina, Aigulya, Andre, Alex (why does everyone’s name begin with A?), and the rest of the amazing people I met in Kazakhstan. I can’t wait to come back.