Ain’t No Mountain High…

Lakefront at Kapshagai

This is my last week in Kazakhstan, and I still have so much to share, and even more that I haven’t yet explored. To celebrate the end of my US tax dollar-supported adventure, I intend to post several times this week so that at least my American followers can feel like they got their money’s worth.

Last Saturday I made it out to Kapshagai (alternately Kapchagay), a city on a reservoir along the Ili river. I’ve been hearing about Kapshagai since I was first in Kazakhstan last May, but it wasn’t until this weekend that I finally took the hour-and-a-half, USD 7/person taxi ride. Kapshagai is a popular summer weekend destination for Almaty residents and has been since the reservoir was created in the 1960s by the construction of a dam. “Resorts” and beaches (man-made?) along the banks offer a version of an island vacation in this landlocked desert country. However, the effect is ruined by the old industrial complexes: Kapshagai is also, and has long been, an industry town. The giant tombs of deceased and decaying Soviet manufacturing plants dot the landscape just beyond the beaches.

I suspect the combination of resort and industry is not accidental. Although I don’t know Kapshagai’s history in sufficient detail to make this assertion confidently, I imagine that Soviet rationale dictated that no one was more deserving of water-front relaxation than factory workers, and thus the two worlds should be forced to cohabit this small oases in the steppe. Of course, the plants also likely used the river and discharged effluent into the same.

Kapshagai’s unfamiliar mix is made stranger still by its new mission: becoming “Kazakhstan’s Las Vegas.” Several elaborate but sad casinos with names like “Aladdin” and (bewilderingly) “The Astoria” have popped up along the man road into town. The Strip it is not.

I steered clear of the casinos, but enjoyed a resort called “Freedom.” I’ve long known that Russians on vacation are deserving of sociological and anthropological study, especially as regards what is considered appropriate beachwear, and Kazakhs are little different. Lots of butts and boobs, and lots of really pale Russians baking themselves crimson.

As an antidote to my Kapshagai adventure, Sunday I went with two friends into the mountains south of Almaty. We climbed to a glacier lake at about 3500m in altitude, above the tree-line. The mountain pastures are overflowing with beautiful wildflowers, and the mountain peaks are still draped in their perpetual snows. Although we weren’t entirely alone, it was a much less crowded day. Funnily enough, though, the trek did not provide respite from Russian men in undersized swimwear. It is not uncommon to see a man in hiking boots carrying backpack and hiking pools wearing nothing but a speedo. Sorry I don’t have any photos. I was too shy.

My friend Kitty during our hike to a glacier lake. Time from Almaty: 0.5 hours in a bus, 3 hours walking.

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