A glorious reunion in Kazakhstan, complete with wine, hikes, petroglyphs, and so much more!

The idea of a roommate reunion started rather innocently, over a bottomless alcohol brunch in New York with Alana last December, and I casually mentioned the possibility of her visiting, expecting her to dismiss this rather crazy idea. She did not. She seemed intrigued. And if she was game, I suspected we could also convince Marina and Kate to also join in on the adventures, since they had both mentioned an interest in coming at some point. And thus, within days of our parents leaving, the college roommate onslaught began to arrive. Marina arrived first, which was nice, since she had the longest to travel (from San Francisco), and it gave her a couple days to figure out her way. Since she speaks Russian, she adjusted rather quickly and was even game for lectures and other ordinary activities. She also happened to be in town for Almaty’s Night of Museums, so we even took the opportunity to visit a small museum in the apartment of Kazakhstan’s long-serving First Secretary (1964-86), Dinmukhamed Kunaev.

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Damn it feels good to be a First Secretary! Please note in the bottom left corner selections from Kunaev’s cigarette lighter collection. The one with an image of Saddam Hussein was a personal gift. Kunaev was apparently also a Michael Jackson fan.

We had a nice night on the town visiting both this museum and the Museum of Musical instruments not only with Marina, but with Tim Naftali, a historian who was in town for the week to give a couple lectures in connection with the opening of an exhibit celebrating the 70th anniversary of joint victory in World War II.


Maki and Tim at Raketa, Almaty’s most hipster bar.

The next afternoon, Saturday, Alana arrived after traveling from New York City, and then we were three. We took it easy that night, though: we caught up over tea and then enjoyed a homemade meal before calling it an early night. And at 5 am the next morning, we greeted Kate, who had traveled from Vienna. And there we were, four college roommates on the other side of the world. Kate’s schedule was pretty tight (she could only stay five days), but we were sure to make the most of it. Our first day was a grandiose tour that basically repeated our Almaty Oblast adventure with our parents (roadside samsa, Turgen waterfall, trout for lunch, Esik Lake), but adding one dramatic extra: a stop at Kazakhstan’s budding Arba Wine (be warned, their website does have pretty special background music). Joining us for the days adventure was our main Kazakhstan crew: Marysia, Michelle, and Erden, as well as a visiting friend-of-a-friend.

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We had heard of tours to the winery, which are not really yet an established thing, but as things seem to often go, Marysia had a contact on the inside through her high school roommate, and a quick inquiry a couple weeks before my roommates’ arrival quickly burgeoned into a private tour by the son of the owner, a recent college grad, complete with a tasting. The tasting even included not-yet finished wine, which gave us a lot more insight into the process. The wine, it turned out, was excellent (and mostly out of our price range). Though the winery has taken over the property of a defunct Soviet-era wine factory, Arba Wine has studied from the very best and has imported all their machinery, equipment, and even their bottles and labels from Europe. After we had tasted to our hearts content, we also headed out to the fields to see where the wine was made. Definitely picturesque!

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Feeling good after our wine tasting and seeing the ground, we then headed for the waterfall, repeating the same hike we had done with our parents.

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Does this setting look familiar? (See the last post!). The whole group, minus Erden, who took the picture.

Following the previous pattern, after our hike, we headed over to the trout farm, where we all enjoyed a filling lunch of trout and fresh salads. We didn’t catch our own fish this time, but otherwise, the same story.


Kate took this other perspective, so everyone can see that I appear in pictures sometimes, too!


Sufficiently full, we headed onwards to Lake Esik, the same one we saw with our parents.

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After quite the full day (and Kate basically operating on no sleep), we headed back to town, exhausted from our day’s adventure. The next morning, when I had Kazakh class and had to make appearances at the archive, the roommates headed out for a tour of the city and some downtime at a cafe. The next day, however, we had another adventure scheduled, a tour of the Tamgaly petroglyphs that I had never seen, a three hour drive out of Almaty. For this, we hired Sergey, our trusty driver who had taken us out with our parents. After a long, bumpy road, we found ourselves at the entrance. The general scenery was quite stunning.

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Clockwise from top left: a barbed wire fence guards the entrance to the petroglyphs; scenery from our next stop, discussed below; a small painted sign warns us of snakes in the petroglyph park; and the scenery again from the next stop.

As part of the conditions for visiting the petroglyphs, we had to be accompanied by one of the employees of the park. This was our minder, so you can guess that the park was under a very strict regime.

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Our minder spent most of our visit napping, waking up occasionally to see us to the next section.

Sergey, our driver, really enjoyed showing off the ‘glyphs, though admittedly, most of his interpretations were a little dubious.

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Sergey interprets some of the petroglyphs for Marina.

The scenery in general was stunning. After we had soaked up as many petroglyphs as we could handle (the site literally has thousands), we had a picnic lunch outside the park, and started heading towards home, taking a quick detour to Ungur Tas, a site, sometimes popularly called the “belly button of the earth” where

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Left: around the petroglyphs. TO the right, we gather around the monument, which local tradition claims to have healing powers.

We returned to Almaty with just enough time for everyone to freshen up ahead of our most exciting culinary experience of the trip: a dinner in a tram car!

tram car

Wednesday was a pretty low key day. I returned to Kazakh class and to the archives, and met up with everyone later on in the day. The most exciting thing on our schedule was a scheduled Skype chat with Yuliya, the final member of our roommate team (she lived with all four of us our sophomore year, and with Kate, Marina, and me during our first year). She joined us live from Toronto, where she is currently researching on a postdoc.

with yuliya

We also had Central Asian food for dinner, where we were joined by Marysia and our friend Zbig, who was in town for a visit.

Thursday, our final day all together, I took the afternoon off so that I could join everyone for our final adventure: a trip up to Medeu and Shymbulak. First step, up those 800 steps!


Victory at the top of the Medeu dam.

As soon as we got up to Shymbulak, Marina passed an opportunity she just couldn’t let pass: a chance to hold a falcon. For 1000 tenge (then, about $5). SO. WORTH. IT.

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After we had walked a little, we enjoyed coffee and conversation at an outdoor café on a mountain. And then we headed back down the mountain in the gondolas.

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And from there, it was Georgian for dinner, followed by wine at Arba Wine’s downtown shop, and then back home for a quick celebration because it was Alana’s birthday! Unbeknownst to the birthday girl, I had put together a strawberry cake to celebrate.

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Our time all together had passed all too quickly, but luckily, for most of us, the adventures continued. Kate left in the early hours of the morning to return to Vienna. Friday was a non-working day at the archive, so after my Kazakh lesson (and after Marina and Alana had had breakfast), we all piled into a car and the next thing we knew, we were in Bishkek! Since we hit the road a little late, we went straight to the historical museum, which we caught just before it closed. There were lots of shyrdaks (the felt rugs used inside yurts) for sale.

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It was my first time there since 2008, during my first trip to Kyrgyzstan. And let me say, it lived up to the memory. Diagrams on the origins of humans, divided into Mongoloids, Negroids, and Europeanoids. Endless murals on the ceiling. And lots of revolutionary statues. It was a nice peak into the Soviet worldview, as the museum has been little altered since the fall of the Soviet Union.

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We then dropped off our stuff at the apartment where we were staying for the next two nights and got a lovely dinner as dusk settled over the city.

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Eternal flame at Bishkek’s World War II memorial after dark.

The next morning, we had a relaxed breakfast at Sierra Coffee, Bishkek’s best coffee shop, and headed out for a hike in Ala-Archa, a national park just outside Bishkek, joined by a journalist friend who had just arrived in Bishkek to do some research. On the way to the park, we made an on-route stop at Ak-Beiit, a memorial site that memorializes those killed in Stalinist repressions.

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The Memorial Complex at Ak-Beiit, just outside Bishkek.

And from there, it was all hiking.

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Scenes from Ala-Archa National Park.

We returned to the city that evening, in time to have a well-deserved meal of Central Asian food, before finally calling it a night. The next morning, after rendezvousing with someone who had found Marysia’s lost phone, we returned to Kazakhstan.

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Goodbye Kyrgyzstan! Hello Kazakhstan!

We got back to Almaty in time to catch the end of a craft fair (souvenir purchase time!) and to get dinner, before Marina and Alana took off for Astana for a short one-day side-trip, sandwiched between overnight trains. Marina posted this proof of their adventures, of them at the Palace of Peace and Accord (the “Pyramid”).

marina and alana

They returned on Tuesday morning, with time to recover a little before they both headed home early on Wednesday. Success all around! Now we just have to scheme our next reunion…


3 thoughts on “Roommate Reunion

  1. so great you had a chance to meet up and enjoy Kazakhstan together. A tribute to the success of Harvard’s roommate selection process?

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