A Shvitz in the Steppe: Almaty, Kazakhstan’s Arasan Baths

In a past life (circa 2009), David managed the local Russian bath here in Seattle.  It was there that he met our friend Helmut, who happened to be traveling with us in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan this past September.  So it made perfect sense that we spend an afternoon in Almaty’s Arasan Baths, famous for being the largest and most opulent of all public baths in Central Asia.

The combination of David’s history with the banya and my living experiences in bath-intensive places like Japan and Korea make us avid bath and hot springs travelers.  We seek them out nearly every place we go, from traditional Turkish hammams in Istanbul, to traditional Northern European spas in the Baltics.  Public baths are a great place to get to know a culture, as they are frequently social hubs, where people gather to not only soak away the aches of the day, but also to gossip about the neighborhood’s goings on. Read more

Renewing our Vows at a Post-Soviet Wedding Palace: Almaty and Bishkek

Unlike our time in Southeast Asia this past May, where we were pleasantly surprised by several examples of our favorite architectural styles in Phnom Penh, I knew leading up to our Central Asia trip that Almaty and Bishkek would be tremendous places for modernist/brutalist architecture spotting and photography. Thanks to several books I’ve collected over the years and some mildly creepy Instagram stalking, I already knew the places I wanted to see in both cities. I’ve always been particularly captivated by Soviet Wedding Palaces, and prior to this trip we’d seen some great examples, most notably being those in Tbilisi, Georgia and Vilnius, Lithuania. And while not much has been written (in English, anyway) on Almaty’s Wedding Palace, Bishkek’s Wedding Palace has been well documented all over the internet – particularly well by this post by Cooper Thomas, a former Bishkek expat.

Almaty Palace of Weddings
Almaty Palace of Weddings
Bishkek Palace of Weddings
Bishkek Palace of Weddings

Wedding Palaces served a very interesting role in Soviet society – a role which continues today in many post-Soviet nations: to gather information, making sure every couple is properly registered. It seems like the actual ceremony plays second fiddle to the act of registering itself. Despite this, it appears that weddings in the post-Soviet world have adapted to incorporate the more conspicuous displays of wealth commonplace in American weddings. The weddings held in these Wedding Palaces aren’t traditional to the region – contracts between families and festivities that usually linger for weeks – but instead more closely mimic their Western counterparts. Official documents are signed, then couples are whisked off in a fancy car, often back to everyday life. Read more

Almaty, Kazakhstan, Dressed in Resplendent Concrete

The first stop on our whirlwind tour of Central Asia was Kazakhstan’s former capital, Almaty.  It remains the largest city in the country, as well as its cultural epicenter.  My knowledge of the city was somewhat lacking (aside, that is, from my standard furious pre-trip googling and wiki-ing), and the city threw me through a loop.  Not because of culture shock – actually, it was quite the opposite.  Almaty was strange to me because of how cosmopolitan, ostentatious, and developed it was, thanks in large part to the Central Asian (primarily Kazakh) oil boom.stans-2016-13_29877361666_o stans-2016-127_29877426286_o Read more

Where are the Tourists in Central Asia?

It’s been a few weeks since our return from Central Asia, and I think I’ve had ample time to process our amazing experience there. One of the things we noticed throughout our time there was the near complete lack of tourists. With the exception of the odd Dutch or Israeli traveler, we met very few other travelers on the road. With all Central Asia has to offer, from crumbling modernist concrete to majestic scenery to extremely inexpensive transportation and cost of living, we were constantly wondering, “Why are we the only ones here?”

So I went about gathering opinions about why Central Asia (granted, we were only in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan) seems to fly under the radar when it comes to travel destinations. To be fair, this is not a statistical study, as my sample size was about five, including my parents and others who might have some trouble identifying the stans on a map. Hey, I never claimed to be a mathematician.img_1958 img_2092 img_2222 Read more

Big Concrete and Bigger Nature: Central Asia 2016

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been captivated by Central Asia.  My father runs an antique rug store in the Seattle area, and since I was a wee child I’ve been surrounded by Central Asian textiles, from Uzbek suzanis to Kyrgyz shyrdaks.  For one reason or another, I’ve yet to make it to the region from whence these textiles came, but that is about to change.  David and I are heading on our second trip of the year – to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.  And I couldn’t be more excited about it.

Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/depenbusch/
Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/depenbusch/
Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mibuchat/
Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mibuchat/

I long thought that Central Asia wouldn’t happen for me until I was older – its remoteness proved to be a hindrance, with only expensive and lengthy flights serving the region from my relative backwater of Seattle.  However, with Momondo flight alerts set, I stumbled upon round trip tickets to Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan, for under $1,000 and with only one stop (in Frankfurt, of course), for precisely the times David and I would be able to travel.  I jumped, and bought the tickets, and decided to figure the rest out as the cards fell. Read more