I remember reading about Almaty when we were sitting in our flat in Karlsruhe. The city was supposed to be very modern and western. Great, I thought, we will drive a few thousand kilometers through Central Asia to see a western city... Who needs cities like that anyway?!
Well it turned out I do! Desperately! For the last three months we have been served bad coffee in nearly every restaurant we have been to and ordering cappuccino would get us a glass of hot water and a bag of instant 3in1 coffee powder. After we left Russia the food quality was dropping rapidly too and we found it very hard to order anything, that would not be made of mutton meat. And here we are, in this unnecessarily western city, with Italian cafes and restaurants, serving lasagne, chicken meat and salads without mayonnaise! It felt like heaven!
Our moods got even better when we went to pick up our Uzbek visa. We printed all the papers we got from Stantours (the best visa agency ever!) and went to the consulate prepared for long hours of waiting. As usually, we met some great people in the queue, a French couple traveling through Asia with a dog in their Mercedes truck. I thought we will be able to enjoy a nice conversation for some time now, but they let us in after less then an hour. I was already surprised, but the biggest shock came when the consulate worker told us to wait a few minutes and prepare the money as he's going to print our visas on the spot! I thought I heard him wrong, but he returned 5 minutes later holding our visas in his hand. We were deeply impressed!
We were free to leave the city at once, since for the first time no visa-business was slowing us down, but we decided to stay and enjoy it a little bit more. It was a long while since we were in a city where we could actually do some real sightseeing, so we decided to see it all. Following a recommendation of our new French friends we decided to visit a concert too. It was a great performance of Kazakh music, played by an entire symphony orchestra on traditional instruments in regional clothing. We loved every minute of it!
However there was one thing dragging us out of Almaty, the Charyn canyon. I will be honest with you, before we actually choose the route for our journey we didn't really know much about most of the countries on it. I was trying to get the first impression using Google image search. And when I entered Kazakhstan that canyon was the first thing that popped up. In that moment I was sure I wanted to go there! And I wasn't disappointed! That place is simply splendid! We parked our car and spent a whole day walking between the rocks and relaxing by the river. The views were absolutely amazing! And once again we had the whole place to ourselves. Some people say it's nice, but it just ain't the Grand Canyon. Well I'm glad it isn't, as I doubt you could rent the Grand Canyon all to yourself for 3 Euro a day...
We were getting back to our cars as we saw some other tourist coming in an opposite direction. It was such an unusual view that we decided to stop for a chat. It was a local family with some friends, doing a small sightseeing trip. Before we even noticed we were invited to visit them in their house on our way back to Almaty. We felt a bit strange, as we hardly knew those people and didn't really want to cause them trouble, but we already promised to come, so there was no way back. We were planning to get back to Almaty on my birthday, to celebrate properly and decided to stop by our new acquaintances on the way.
Being Polish I was always more then sure I knew what hospitality is and how it should be practiced. But that was all before we came to this part of the world. The openness and kindness we are faced with here can not be compared with anything you may experience in Europe. When was the last time you stopped some unknown tourists on the street to give them fruits and sweets and welcome them in your city? Or when did you invite a total stranger to stay at your house for a week and join your family party? I can't remember doing anything like that in my life. And that's exactly how people treat us here. We wanted to make a small break by the road once when another car stopped next to us, three friends, one of them living in Germany now. We had a little chat, did some photos and were left with bread and fruits for the further journey. Just like that.
And now we were on our way to visit some total strangers, who invited us home only cause we had a little chat in the canyon. And I can tell you, Natascha and Sascha took our vision of hospitality to a very new level... What was planned as a quick visit, an hour or two maybe, ended up as a two days stay. And if it wasn't for our expiring visas we would have stayed much longer!
We were supposed to call them when we'd reach their city, so that they could come and show us the way. I was even a bit uncertain if they will remember us, as two days passed since our meeting, but the moment we called we knew, they not only remembered, but were really looking forward to our visit. They led us to their house with a lovely garden and shortly after we were sitting at the table filled with all kinds of delicious food. It felt like home. There was fish, meat, cheese, salads, fruits and sweets, one better than the other, so that you could get full just by looking at it. And new things kept appearing all the time. We told them about our journey, about my birthday and the plan to fix Gerrit's car in Almaty and before we noticed everything was planned. Sascha did a few phone calls to organize the spare parts Gerrit was looking for and promised to fix his car with him the next day, we were staying not only for a dinner, but for the whole night and would enjoy the traditional Russian banya, which will be prepared specially for us as soon as it get's dark and colder. The plan sounded perfect. I could not imagine a better way to spend my birthday this year. We ate a fantastic dinner with the whole family, drank some Kazakh cognac and relaxed in the banya until late in the night. It felt great!
We ate so much the day before that we didn't even think about breakfast. But Natascha did and surprised us with a full table again. I kept looking at the fridge wondering how on earth are they able to store all this food in there! Once again we were hardly able to move after the meal. We were already feeling bad for staying so long and eating so much, but they didn't want to hear a word of it and only repeated we are being silly and that our company was all they wanted in return. And we soon found out we will be staying one more night, as Gerrit's car needed some extra time. We left the next morning with full bellies, some extra food in the fridge and the feeling, that we have got more than we will ever be able to give back. We were grateful for the food and shelter, but mostly for giving us another good reason to believe in people and their selfless hospitality.