...in which I complete my first handshake money exchange, drink beer with a politician who could double for Psy, and see stars invisible to the naked eye...
It isn't every year, that your birthday falls on a Saturday, so when it does it's important to seize the moment and do something amazing. For weeks leading up to the big weekend I had been hatching various forms of a plan all centering around an overnight at the Tien Shan Astronomical Observatory high up in the mountains above Big Almaty Lake.
As my birthday morning dawned, though, I still didn't have anything settled. Calls to the observatory number listed in the Lonely Planet Guidebook had been unfruitful, and as two friends and I began the drive to the Big Almaty Lake with no reservations at the observatory and no clue as to the protocol for spending the night, and no native speaker of Russian in our midst, I was prepared to have to find a place to camp.
The road up the Big Almaty River gorge narrows to something just over one lane wide as it winds up the steep, pine covered gorge walls. From time to time, it widens to allow for cars to pull off and admire the impressive views. As we approached the top of the gorge, we found the way blocked by a red gate with peeling paint and a police car. As we pulled up to the location, the police officer showed no sign of moving toward us and I noticed that a half dozen other cars were parked in the narrow strip of gravel beside the road outside the gate. I got out of the car and approached the police officer.
"I'm sorry, I don't speak Russian very well," I began. I often begin negotiations in Russian with that expression because it usually improves my chances of understanding what is said to me as people choose simpler language than they might otherwise use.
"We are going to the Astronomical Observatory, can we enter?"
"Is it possible to drive to the observatory?" I asked
"Yes it is possible" the officer responded.
"Is the road good?" I asked, thinking perhaps our car wouldn't make it.
"Yes, it is very good" the officer responded.
"So can we enter?"
Once again the officer strung several sentences together that entirely escaped me.
"I'm sorry," I said somewhat sheepishly "I don't understand."
The officer looked at me for a second and then sighed in exasperation,
"Alright, 2000tg and you can go,"
"Just a sec," I said. I returned to the car to report and get money.
As I returned to the officer with the gratuity, another man was approaching him. The officer and I shook hands as he opened the gate to let us through.
The road climbed to the top of the dam before turning to the west and climbing to the plateau that is home to the collection of buildings that make up the observatory, we parked and then began looking around the buildings for any signs of life. Inside a long, pink stone building with an atrium peeling paint and lecture seats lining the walls we found Nelly working in the Kitchen. Nelly is an old woman with short grey hair dressed in camouflage pants, combat boots a sweater and a black beanie.
"I'm sorry, I don't speak Russian very well," I began once more, "do you know where I can ask about sleeping here tonight?"
"We have space, but no food. How many people?" she asked curtly.
"Three people," I reply.
"Three thousand five hundred for each person and one thousand for the tour."
"Three thousand five hundred..." I began to repeat when she interrupted.
"Three thousand five hundred for you, three thousand five hundred for her, three thousand five hundred for him, but there is nothing to eat" Nelly said with a large gesture at each of us as she explains.
"Very good." I reply. "Who do we pay?"
"You can pay me. Do you want some tea? You can go hiking and when you return, Tea, and then you can pay me."
"very good" I replied.
"So," she said opening one of the rooms, "you can sleep two in here and one in here, or two in here and one in here or two in here and one in here, or if you want, two in this room and one in that one." She had opened the doors to each room as she spoke, showing us our options. When my friends and I quickly chose two rooms to suite our fancy, Nelly said "just lock the door and take the key and they will be yours.
After settling in at the observatory, my friends and I decided to hike up to Kosmostansia, an ionosphere laboratory that sits 3346 m above sea level at the top of a ridge that connects Big Almaty Peak with the Turist peak. While there is a paved road, we opted to take the trail, which ended in us climbing up a very steep grassy slope. The view from Kosmostansia was phenominal and as we sat atop the chilly ridge breathing the fresh air and looking at the paths that lead to the summits of the two peaks the world was still and peaceful.
On our way out of the Kosmostansia facility, we encountered a black SUV with four gentlemen who had just brought out a two liter bottle of beer.
"Where are you from?" one of the men asked in Russian as we passed. We stopped,
"From America," we answered.
"AMERICA!!!!" The four men yelled in unison.
"Do you want some beer?" One of the men asked, I looked to my friends
"Sure," they answered, "thank you."
We made general introductions as one of the men poured.
"look, look," said one of the others as he pointed at one of his friends, "Gangnam style!"
Sure enough, with sunglasses on, the man was a dead ringer for Psy. We all laughed.
"They all promised me there would be snow up here," The man said reprovingly, they promised me that I would be able to hold snow today, but no snow. Just cold."
"What kind of beer is this?" I asked Mario, the man who'd been pouring the beer.
"It's just one of our local beers?" he replied.
"Not Chemkentskaya? I've heard that is the best." I said and an approving roar went up from the group.
"These two are from Shymkent," Mario explained as he took a smoked fish, broke it in half and began handing everyone a small piece. "For us Shymkent is like Texas..." Everyone laughed.
We stood on the darkening road drinking beer, eating smoked fish and talking for about 20 minutes when Psy explained that he had to get to the airport and asked if we wanted a ride down the mountain. The next thing I knew, Lina was on my lap in the front seat, and Jack was squeezed into the back with Psy and two members of his entourage as Mario drove us down the narrow, winding mountain road to the observatory.
As we entered the observatory I found Nelly and asked if we could use the kitchen to kook some food.
"Yes of course" she answered. "Tea?" she asked.
"Yes please" we all chimed. Tea sounded really great after our climb.
We talked and sipped tea as our dinner of lentil and vegetable soup simmered in Nelly's Kitchen. Just as we finished Nelly told us we should go look at the stars now. She hurried us out the door but not before sending us back to our rooms several times to get warmer layers for the night air. By the time we reached the little aluminum domed structure that houses the telescope the tourists get to use, a tour was already in progress.
"Come back in two hours," the telescope operator told us.
"Two hours!" we said with a fair amount of disbelief.
"Maybe one hour" he replied.
"OK" we said and the took a walk around the dirt roads that connect the many wooden and cement buildings of the facility admiring the night sky, isolated from the light pollution of Almaty by the towering peaks on all sides. After about forty minutes we returned to the telescope and found it ready for the next group. again and again, the guide casually positioned the telescope to point a an empty bit of blackness in the star-streaked night sky and then invited us one by one to look through the eye piece at a star cluster containing more than 300,000 stars, a double star, a dying star, and other wonders of the universe that are invisible to us for the vast majority of our lives.
That night I dreamed of stars and as we woke, breakfasted, packed, and took a farewell walk around the lake, I basked in the afterglow of the best birthday I could have ever wished for.
I'm off to Tajikistan, I'll have more stories and pictures from my fall hikes soon.