The first thing I did right after I got off the overnight train from Astana to Almaty was to rush back to the hostel. It was 5am or 7am (?). I told the tourist I’d go out by myself for the whole day today. After we arrived at the hostel, he went straight to sleep and I took a quick shower and got ready to the school. It was going to be a long journey as the school was pretty far away from my hostel and it wasn’t close to the subway at all. Plus the fact that I didn’t have a good sense of direction… 😅
I know it sounds weird that I was excited about visiting a school. 😄 I actually told some startup company founders years later about how I liked visiting schools when I traveled. Some couldn’t comprehend it while some said, ‘I understand why you want to do something in the education industry.’ It wasn’t my first time to visit a school when I travelled. I have done it in Malaysia and Nepal as well.
What I didn’t expect was the school that I was going to visit was an international school. Not only that, when I arrived and when the librarian came to greet me at the premise of the school (I didn’t even know where the entrance was and I didn’t even know I was inside the school. I saw a tennis court, a football field and a sports ground. The school was enormous!), she said, ‘don’t take pictures of the students. You may take photos of the school facilities etc. but you can’t take pics of the pupils because some of them are children of public figures, like politicians, celebrities, social elites, etc.’ Wow!
She took me up to the classroom and I saw two teachers and a group of students in there. As I walked in, I started to speak Mandarin apologising for being late. The librarian and the teachers were happy to see that. But the students… they looked at me, blank. The teachers then said, ‘they are all beginners so you have to speak very slowly and use simple vocabulary.’ Oh! I apologised. Then I started speaking very slowly to the point where I started to wonder if I pronounced the words correctly. Some of the students understood and responded but most of them still couldn’t. They were not shy at all. The librarian started to encourage them to speak Mandarin. The students were still a bit reluctant. In the end, I asked the teachers what I could say (as in the topics and themes) and they gave me some guidance. So I switched the topic. They practised Mandarin with me for a while and then the librarian went back to the library.
Not long after the librarian left, we switched back to English. It felt like I was watching Glee when I talked to them. I asked them questions like what they wanted to do after they graduated from uni. Most of them said they wanted to do business. I looked at the teachers wondering why. The teachers told me most of their parents ran businesses. One of them said, ‘my parents have a hotel in Dubai.’ Another said, ‘my parents own restaurants’. Others’ were related to oil businesses. They asked me what I thought about Almaty. I said I liked it more than Astana (that was true) and I explained Almaty had more character than Astana. They looked so proud. I told them I didn’t expect to see so many expensive cars on the roads though. One of them said, ‘they are ours.’ I couldn’t help laughing. I mean, they were not arrogant at all. They told me the truth. And they were all junior high school students so their responses were all genuine. I asked them about their own culture like the traditional Kazakh food. All of them said, ‘No! You have to eat it with your hands! That’s so dirty.’ It was so interesting to learn about their perspectives towards their own culture. They said they had never had such close encounter with a Chinese. The teachers explained they sometimes had Chinese visitors at the assembly but they stood so far away. Having me sitting right in front of them in their classroom was something new to them and that gave them the sense of urgency to work harder on the language. 😄 I was glad I was doing something good for the students.
When the school bell rang, the teachers invited me to have lunch with them. I nodded!
I just want to say the buffet lunch was really good!!!! There were so many choices, varieties and the food was so delicious! ‘One will easily get fat’ I said. The teachers laughed, ‘look at us! We are not fat at all!’ It was true. They were quite slim. In fact, I hadn’t seen many fat people in Kazakhstan so far.
At the dining table, I was introduced to the faculty dean who asked me what I thought about the students. I told her honestly that I was surprised and amazed that they knew so much about the Chinese culture (we talked about that and Disneyland too by the way 😄). The dean looked so proud. She should. I was really impressed. Two other teachers approached me and asked me if I could join their class after lunch. Of course, I’d love to. This time, the students were slightly younger than the previous class. But again, they all spoke fluent English like the other class.
The teachers told me they learnt Mandarin from a Chinese who was very serious. She had never met any Chinese who was as carefree as I was and they said, ‘you are so different from our Chinese teachers.’ This, I could imagine. I had Chinese teachers too when I was young. Tell me about it. 😛
During lunch time, the dean asked me if I was interested in joining her and her friend for dinner at a Georgian restaurant. Georgian restaurant? I had tried their wines before and I loved it! Of course, I’d love to. I was so excited. 😀
I joined the dean and her friend after I strolled around the square and its neighbourhood. We had a very nice dinner. I fell in love with Khachatpuri immediately. It tasted so good. When the dean saw me enjoying the food so much, she laughed. This meal played a very important role in my life. I decided to travel to Georgia in 2017 because of it. 🙂
It was still quite early after dinner so she took us to a pub where we continued to have a chat and a drink. The pub was crowded. It looked like it was quite a popular one among the expats. The area where the pub was was quite chic too. And you know what, today was the best day I had in my entire trip. I really enjoyed my other days in the country but I think today was the best.
The life of expats was slightly different from the life of the locals (I visited a bar with some locals on my first day). Or maybe because today I wasn’t with the tourist who had a very different vibe and energy (always lethargic).
I started to feel a bit tipsy. When I visited the bathroom, I realised I got a message from the tourist asking me if I wanted to have dinner with him. I checked the time of the message. Oh, that was more than an hour ago! 😄 That was the time when I was having a delicious meal at the Georgian restaurant. It was supposed to be a day for myself and tomorrow, I’d leave the country and have to take the same flight with him 🙄. I was enjoying myself at the pub so I just made up an excuse and texted him back. He despised me and thought I was stupid anyway, why bother spending a few more hours with him? Before this trip, he knew I was travelling by myself and he said he wanted to tag along. I let him do so. I wasn’t a tour guide. To set the expectation, I even had a ‘meeting’ with him before the departure roughly outlining places I planned to go and so on. But once he arrived in the country, he gave me this kind of attitude. I didn’t (and don’t) want to see him or have anything to do with him.
I continued to stay in the pub with my new friends. We talked about our travel experiences and the funny things that had happened to us while we travelled. One thing that worried her was her friend who had now joined another group of people in the pub. She told me she had never seen him that depressed at all. He was also a teacher but in a town, not in a big city, in Kazakhstan. He probably felt lonely there. I couldn’t imagine it back then but I think I can relate to it now after I volunteered in the village in Cambodia. Her school was a very good one and it was right in the city. She could enjoy her work and the life of an expat. She got the best of both worlds. Whereas for her friend, it was an entirely different story.
It was getting late so the dean suggested I took a taxi. She helped me negotiate with the driver (you had to negotiate with the driver before you got in the taxi back then. Now, maybe they have Uber kind of thing) until she thought the price was reasonable. She then saw me off.
I went back and saw the tourist in the hostel. I was still a bit tipsy and I quickly dropped a few words about tomorrow – to Shymbulak and a photo exhibition that my new friend recommended. Of course, I didn’t mention anything about my new friends and what I did today. Why would I? I just mentioned the photo exhibition. He wasn’t keen. Anyway, I suggested we’d get up early tomorrow. He wasn’t happy about it. What’s the point of travelling if you start your day late like 10am or 11am or so?
According to my roommate in the hostel who was a local Kazakh, Shymbulak was a must-see place. He said, ‘if you go to Rome, you’ll visit the Vatican. Shymbulak is like the Vatican.’ So, there I went on my last day. (He overrated it, I must say). I was planning to go hiking up there. It was recommended on a blog (don’t remember which one). Little did I know that the hiking trail was still closed because of the snow.
But there was another surprise.
Red Bull organised an event there. 😀
Red Bull gives you wings. 😀
Let’s check out how the contestants ‘flew’ in the following two videos 🙂
That ended my trip in Kazakhstan, also my life as a long term backpacker.
5 – 6 April, 2013
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