Accidental Adventures – Kazakhstan, 2008

Protests and intervention by Russian paratroops propelled Kazakhstan’s largest city into headlines here recently. My own memories of the place are rather more prosaic. On the outskirts of Almaty, for the second time in my life, I ended up climbing part-way up a mountain by mistake.

In the Fall of 2008, the Kazakh Institute for World Economics and Politics was hosting a meeting of “Caspian Dialogue” among delegates from the five littoral states – Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan – to “address urgent issues facing the region”. Led by the Processes of International Negotiation program, which was then associated with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), this was our third “CASPILOG” meeting, building on an initial workshop in Istanbul and a second in Baku. My job was to advise on matters related to the maritime legal regime.

Almaty sits at the foot of the Trans-Ili Alatau (Almaty Mountains); the northern part of the great Tian Shan range separating Kazakhstan from Kyrgyzstan, and China’s Xinjiang province beyond. After our two days of business were done there, a British colleague suggested that we should try to find a nice pub that he’d once visited in the foothills. We caught what he thought was the right bus, which delivered us to a little village with no pub, but it did have an inviting unpaved road leading upward. Clouds were  shrouding the heights and the temperature was pleasant for walking, but a long trudge revealed no sign of anything resembling a pub – indeed, there was no sign of any permanent structure at all. Perhaps the unpaved road degenerating into a gravel track should have been a hint but, as poet Alexander Pope observed, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast”. Especially, he might have added, in the breasts of a couple of thirsty beer-lovers on the hunt for an interesting pub. By the time we passed a sign announcing that we were approaching Weather Station “Millennium” (which we never did see), visibility was down to a few tens of metres.

After plodding above the snowline in ever thickening cloud we finally had to admit defeat. By the time we’d made the wearying descent, the last bus for the day had left, so we were only too pleased to accept an offer from a couple of friendly young lads to drive us back downtown. We may not have found my friend’s hillside pub, but beer in the Dostyk Hotel bar tasted all the better for the adventure. Looking back on pictures from that day, we were wearing broad, happy grins in every one.

Almost exactly forty years earlier I’d had a similar experience when stopping overnight in the Rocky Mountain town of Banff while hitchhiking across Canada. Over a hearty breakfast the next morning I’d decided that the first gondola ride in Canada. built up nearby Sulphur Mountain by a Swiss-born entrepreneur ten years earlier, would be a great way to see the town from above before heading on for the coast.

The road to the base station was a winding affair back then, and since zigzagging back and forth soon became tiresome, it seemed like a smart idea to take a shortcut straight up the middle. Unfortunately, after leaving on a zig I never did encounter another zag. After some time walking up a pleasantly wooded hillside I realized that I’d overshot the base station, which was now far below and at the bottom of a steep slope. It was sunny, and retracing steps would have wasted time, so the best option seemed to be to keep on going. I can’t remember how long it took but have learned, for what it’s worth, that it was a 700 metre (2,300 foot) climb. At the top, a kindly gondola attendant assured me that the one-way ride down would be free. Small wonder that in a photo taken by a bemused, friendly tourist, I was wearing a broad, happy grin.

Personally, I’m content to have spent my entire adult life (so far) free of the digital crutch of GPS or the electronic umbilical cords which clever billionaires market as “smart” phones. How unutterably boring to look back after  more than five decades and  remember nothing more interesting of Banff than queuing up with all the other tourists for an eight-minute gondola ride. Or remembering Kazakhstan for “googling” some particular pub and spending an afternoon in a bar that could have been anywhere on the globe.

Predictability, certainty and security all have their place of course, but so do spontaneity and serendipity. When it comes to security, I’m with the first female Admiral in the US Navy who said “A ship in port is safe; but that is not what ships are built for.”

(Header image of Almaty skyline courtesy of Astana Times, 2015)