After a rather long flight (about 30 hours of travel time), I finally made it to Almaty in the very early hours of Thursday morning. The airport was a fascinating experience--fortunately, I was met by someone from the embassy who was able to cut through all of the bureaucratic red tape very quickly (it involved going to the head of a long line, as diplomatic credentials--his, not mine--have priority). Others were not so fortunate, and I hear the wait was about 3 hours for some. By the time luggage was coming off of the plane, there were not enough people to collect theirs and so it was just falling off of the conveyor belt and causing the belt to stop moving. Then there was the traffic...but that is another story entirely!!! Let's just say that in comparison, Massachusetts drivers drive like grandmothers and grandfathers.
On the way into the city, I saw my first melon stand (for those of you unfamiliar with Central Asia, the region is famous for its melons. There's even an atlas of melons, I hear--right, Shannon??). Fruit stands are everywhere, and the produce is abundant and extremely inexpensive. Tomatoes, cucumbers, blackberries, apricots, eggplant, and many that I can't even name. Thus far, I've spent about $5 on food--with the exception of going out to eat one night. That was a comparatively expensive $12 for a wonderful invention called the lula kabob (ground, spiced chicken grilled over an open flame and then served wrapped in a flatbread--just add tomatoes, dill, and a spicy tomato sauce and it's heavenly).
I've figured out the buses, with the help of a fellow Fulbrighter--Sarah. She's been incredibly helpful--letting me stay at her house until I get an apartment, showing me around, and translating quite a bit. My Russian is okay, but I'm still not quite confident in my skills. But..I did get to use some French when speaking with a prospective landlord. She doesn't speak English and my Russian is not good enough yet, but we found a common language.
As to the city--well, it's beautiful in a way that I can't quite describe. It's clearly an oil city, and there is a great deal of money within the city. There are more Audis, BMWs, and Lexus's than I can count. Small loans have resulted in everyone having a (very nice) car. The gas stations are all named after oil companies (small surprise), and there are signs for Kuwait Corporation and others all over the place. Government buildings are tall, elaborate, and quite beautiful.
I've done some exploring thus far, and will post pictures when possible. I slept through Constitution Day (the day I arrived), but have some pictures from later events. And, of course, one of a poster of a favorite movie--Bourne's Ultimatum. No, that' s not a typo. It's how it translates into Russian.
Now it's time to head off to the city center to look at another apartment. And then, it's off to the Turkish baths, and a visit to one of the huge and famous department stores in town (hmm...maybe there will be some Georgian wine there). Tonight, Sarah and I might head up to the television tower (always an attraction in a former Soviet city).