“Hey guys, guess what?”
“We’re going to Kazakhstan!”
This refrain has played out quite a few times over the past week and a half, and it’s amazing to finally be in Almaty, the former capital city of what definitely isn’t the world’s number one exporter of potassium*, even if the pollution leaves a bit to be desired. But first, I need to give a brief summary of the past week in Ramsau, Austria.
As the cliché goes, a picture tells a thousand words, so I’ll let the photos do the talking. In brief, some good snowfalls finally arrived, leading to some days of skiing in blizzards and other days of perfect conditions. The only downside was that we were preparing for championship races, which means training volumes have to be a little less. They were the kind of conditions in which you want to ski forever!
Lastly, Allison and I joined 42 500 crazy Europeans to watch the Night Race, a World Cup slalom race on the slopes of the Planai, just above Schladming. Alexander Khoroshilov blitzed the field, but for us the main interest was the atmosphere surrounding the event, which can best be compared to horse racing in Australia, where everyone wears a silly costume, gets stupidly drunk (not us of course), stumbles around for a while, and has little idea who the eventual winner is. We left half way through to get to bed, but it was already getting pretty hectic as the steps they’d cut into the snow for us to stand on had become glazed and slippery, so even the sober ones like us were sliding all over the place.
The World Junior and U23 Championships are being held this year in Almaty, a city of 1.3 million on the slopes of the Tien Shan mountains, which themselves reach 7000m high in Kazakhstan, and the nearest 4000m peak is less than 25km away from the centre of town. Unfortunately we haven’t seen much of these mountains, because Almaty lies in a valley and has a massive air pollution problem, which means there is a thick layer of smog in town in the morning, which rises up to the race trails on the edge of the city during the day. It will be interesting to see what racing is like in those conditions, and already I’m noticing stinging eyes and a dirty feeling at the back of my throat.
There is actually quite a long story behind this, but to cut it short we only just checked our bags at the airport in time, had to get brought to the front of the immigration queue by an airline employee, but were then left there to the mercy of the other passengers who’d been waiting in line, and didn’t let us filter in. Some of these passengers were actually in a rush too, but others seemed delighted that we were going to miss our flight. Thanks guys!
After a stop in Istanbul and an extremely noisy flight to Almaty (thanks to the parents letting their kids hang jackets off our seats, kicking the seats, playing music out loud on a phone, etc.) we arrived at 4:15am. I have a British passport, so didn’t require a visa, and breezed through the security clearances. The rest of the team spent an hour going to various rooms and talking to different people, and finally made it out of immigration, much to my relief. During the wait I reclined on a stationary baggage carousel (although I would have loved to try a ride; nobody wanted to kick me off it) and all 200 passengers stood behind the actual baggage carousel, which was moving, and waited. And waited. A single bag went around and around, once every 75 seconds, giving us false hope of actually getting our bags. 1 hour after getting off the plane, an elderly woman in a furry Russian hat approaches a group of customs officials who are standing around waiting, and unleashes a tirade at them, which may have contained swear words, or it may simply be the polite way of solving problems here. The officials calmly pointed her to the ‘lost and found’ desk, where she went over and resumed shouting. This didn’t seem to achieve anything either, but it didn’t prevent about five other women also starting to shout things out. I was deliriously tired by this stage due to lack of sleep, so sat there by myself and smiled. Travel can be so informative sometimes! I also practiced reading the signs in the airport, not because I understood the words, but because I’d spent a little while learning the Cyrillic alphabet on the plane, so I could at least pronounce them and maybe work out what it was if the word was shared with English. My first translated word was кроссовер, which reads as ‘crossover’ and I think means ‘all-wheel drive’, as it was a car ad.
Our bags arrived almost 90 minutes after arrival, we cleared customs, and met our attaché who guided us to a bus, while other volunteers carried our bags for us. We jumped in the bus, and went to the hotel. Well, not the hotel, but another athlete hotel where we knew we weren’t staying, but where they kept asking for our passports and seemed to indicate that we were staying there. 30 minutes later we were back in the bus, where I had a fit of fatigue-induced laughter over something that almost certainly wasn’t funny. On the way we marvelled about how the traffic managed to function despite the lack of room people gave each other (it doesn’t, road deaths in Almaty are 10 times that of similar-sized Auckland); mistook a chemist for a nightclub, thanks to the way it was lit up; and wondered whether the fog outside was fog or smog. We got to Hotel Otrar, for which every review on TripAdvisor uses the term ‘soviet-style’, had a fabulous breakfast, then collapsed into bed at 8am and slept for four hours.
Kat, Finn, Allison and I took official transport up to the race trails, located on the southern edge of the city. We noticed that the cities gas is transported by above-ground yellow pipes, that there are many luxury goods shops, and that the edge of the city is home to many large mansions with sometimes grotesquely high walls, up to 8 metres we thought.
Many of these houses are only half-built, their owners possibly having fallen victim to the oil price slump. The trails themselves were located on two rather small hills directly above the city, one of which had a large electricity substation, which really lent some Bonnie Doon-style ‘serenity’ to the scene. The trails aren’t particularly interesting as they basically just looped back on themselves, cutting across the hillside at different levels. In addition, the bare earth walls on the side have dropped rocks onto the trail, so there is plenty of gravel to contend with. We did a short ski, watching the cloud of smog slowly rise up from the plain below to envelop the ski area.
I picked up a newspaper from the hotel called the Astana Times, which is free, contains no ads, has a print run of 6000, and is filled with praise for the government. I’m not saying the government is necessarily a bad one and Kazakhstan is doing better than anywhere else in Central Asia, but this propaganda was kind of obvious. Apart from this, the best article in it was about new traffic laws just introduced:
Parking will also become an issue as the new rules clearly state that parking is banned “on the roads and streets of settlements, except in designated areas designated by appropriate traffic signs and signposts”. Previously it was possible to park wherever it was not forbidden, but now it is forbidden wherever it is not allowed.
My first race is on Tuesday at about 5pm Australian time, so it’s time to finish off my preparation and hopefully ski a good race!
*the main use of potassium is in Potash, a fertiliser. Canada produces more than a third of the world’s supply, and the USA uses 20% of it, so I’m going to make an informed guess and say Canada has the honour of being the number 1 exporter of potassium. Kazakhstan didn’t make the top 12 producers.