Spoilt for choice with shopping malls mushrooming all around them, Almaty's shopaholics now have an option that harks back to earlier times, when shopping was a more refined experience, with the opening of a GUM department store in Kazakhstan’s commercial capital.
GUM (pronounced goom) is short for Glavnyi Universalnyi Magazin, or main department store. The original in Moscow is an iconic landmark for Russian shoppers. Almaty's four-story shopping and dining complex is modeled on the ornate original in Moscow, which was built in the nineteenth century and survived through the Soviet era as the State Department Store.
Almaty's GUM has no connections with the Moscow original, but is trading on the famous brand. The Kazakhstani version is calling itself GUM Talipoff, with GUM here standing for Guldala Univermag, a partner company whose name translates as "flower of the steppe." The general director of the Almaty store is prominent Kazakh businessman Yerlan Talipov.
This new development is bucking the trend of ever-bigger mega malls that – like they have in Moscow – have proliferated around Almaty in recent years.
Almaty's GUM does not have such a prime location as the one in Moscow, which faces the Kremlin and stretches along one side of Red Square, but the development is expected to catalyze regeneration in a formerly rundown area of Almaty close to the Green Bazaar and the city's main mosque.
The complex opened its doors to the public in April but is very much a work in progress with construction workers still putting the final touches to its elegant brick façade.
Kazakhstan's Education Ministry has enlisted the secret police to monitor students studying abroad on a government-sponsored scholarship program. The KNB, successor to the Soviet-era KGB, will ensure the students return home to serve the motherland.
“The ministry, jointly with the National Security Committee [KNB] has fully adopted the 'student abroad' program. The return of our graduates to the homeland will now be strictly tracked,” Education Minister Bakytzhan Zhumagulov told a cabinet meeting in Astana on April 16, News-Kazakhstan reports.
In exchange for the scholarship, which covers all tuition fees and living expenses for the duration of a student's course, alumni of the Bolashak (“Future”) program are expected to return to Kazakhstan to work in any sector for five years after completing their studies.
The minister did not present any figures for non-returnees, so it is unclear how much work is cut out for Big Brother. A 2008 diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks quotes government statistics claiming that only 29 out of some 4,500 students sent abroad on the program by that time had failed to return.
Since its implementation in 1993, Bolashak has sent around 10,000 students from Kazakhstan to educational institutions across the globe. Initially the focus was on undergraduate students, but following the opening of the Nazarbayev University in Astana in 2010, the program has turned its attention to Ph.D. students.
World Cup fever is gripping Uzbekistan, where tempers flared this week as some 1,500 football aficionados queued for tickets for an upcoming group game match at Tashkent’s Bunyodkor Stadium. The BBC's Uzbek Service reported that police used force to disperse the disorderly crowd.
The excitement is understandable: A first for Central Asian football, Uzbekistan's national team stands on the verge of qualifying for the game’s top contest, to be held in Brazil next year.
The Uzbekistan Football Federation website reported the supporters flooded Bunyodkor's ticket offices on March 18, expecting tickets to go on sale at 2 p.m. When ticket windows failed to open, disgruntled fans started revolting. The police moved in with batons and made several arrests, according to the kun.uz website.
The 12news.uz website claimed 6,000 tickets were sold later in the day, but a fan commenting on the story claimed that only 200-500 tickets had been sold after 18.30 and that enthusiasts were unhappy with the process.
Fans will now have to wait until after the Navruz holiday to get their hands on the precious tickets, which will go on sale again March 22. The tickets, which cost between 15,000 and 30,000 sum ($7.50 to $15.00 at the official exchange rate), are limited to two per person.
Wedding Plov comes with slices of kazy (horse sausage) at the Plov Center in Tashkent.
Each day around lunchtime, Tashkent’s plov cognoscenti start gathering in the shadow of the city's landmark TV tower. Theirs is an open secret: the best plov money can buy.
Follow the groups of men, or your nose, to the appropriately named Plov Center for a fix of Uzbekistan's beloved rice-based dish.
In Uzbekistan plov rules supreme – the country practically runs on this hearty staple, which is based on rice simmered for hours in a broth of seared meat chunks, carrots, onions, garbanzos, garlic, dried fruit and spices. The Plov Center does not disappoint. In an outdoor kitchen, five cauldrons bubble away over wood fires, permeating the air with the scent of cooked meat, rice and spices.
Forget about fancy surroundings or over-attentive service: At the Plov Center the food is the draw. The Center's cavernous hall, which can hold about 500 people, is no-frills. Clusters of men, interspersed with a few families, peck at shared platters of plov with forks, though fingers – the traditional utensil – are acceptable.
The Plov Center specializes in variations of Wedding Plov, a rich blend, which, as the name suggests, is usually served on special occasions. You can have Wedding Plov with the meat of your choice – lamb or beef. Slices of kazy, smoked horsemeat sausage, are optional, though no true celebration is complete without a serving of Central Asia’s favorite ungulate.
The platter of plov is accompanied by small roundels of nan bread and a choice of two salads – diced tomatoes and onions or pickled vegetables. Pots of green tea help with digestion.
With prices ranging between 4,500 sums and 8,900 sums ($2.25 - $4.50 at the official exchange rate) for a generous serving, at the Plov Center your belt may need loosening but your finances will not take much of a hit.
Chief Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili faces the press at the Iran P5+1 Iran talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan on February 27.
Kazakhstan seems to be the winner after the first round of renewed talks concerning Iran's nuclear ambitions.
There were fresh signs of life in the deadlocked process on February 27 as Iran and the P5+1 group – the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the United States, China, Russia, Britain and France) plus Germany – agreed to meet again in Almaty, Kazakhstan's commercial hub.
Talks on technical issues will be held in Istanbul March 17-18 and the P5+1 will reconvene in Almaty on April 5 and 6, delegates announced at a closing press conference.
Negotiations broke down last June over seemingly irreconcilable differences: Iran demanded an immediate end to sanctions, without preconditions. Before any sanctions relief, the P5+1 wanted an immediate end to medium-level enrichment and the closure of the Fordow underground enrichment facility.
At the Almaty talks, delegates were tight-lipped about details of new proposals the P5+1 put on the table. Chief Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, avoided specifics at his closing press conference. He said that the P5+1 had moved closer to Iran's position on some issues but reiterated that there was still a long way to go before reaching any consensus.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who chairs the P5+1, refused to go into detail on any new proposals relating to sanction-easing, saying only that “We are looking now for the Iranians to have the opportunity to study” the new proposals before April.
While not giving much away about proceedings, the negotiators were effusive in their praise for their Kazakh hosts. Ashton thanked Kazakhstan for creating a comfortable environment for the talks. An official Iranian statement praised Kazakhstan for its “warm hospitality.”
Kazakhstan is experiencing a betting boom. Bookmaker's offices are mushrooming across the country, allowing just about anyone to gamble on international sports matches. And, as if to tempt every last ludomaniac, thousands of electronic kiosks – in shopping arcades, pedestrian underpasses, and gas stations – are standing by to take your bets.
The situation looked dire for Kazakhstan's gamblers six years ago when authorities forced casinos to relocate to two purpose-built betting zones – Shchuchinsk in the north and Kapshagay in the south. The move was designed to help regulate and tax this somewhat shady business and confront gambling addiction.
While the exclusive casinos are keeping the high-rollers happy, in recent months a number of nationwide bookmaker chains have sprung up to cater to small-time punters who wish to gamble on international soccer and hockey matches and the like. While casinos require visitors to purchase between $300-500 in chips, in these state-licensed bookmakers, which are often attached to bars and restaurants, the minimum stake is 500 tenge ($3.30). At parlors like Bet City, Fair Play and Profit, it's never been easier to place a bet.
Today there are hundreds of such licensed bookmakers operating in Kazakhstan. Olimp, the biggest network, has 267 branches, with 86 in Almaty and 61 in the capital, Astana.
For those who like a little after-hours gambling, online betting is also gaining ground. Bets can even be made at ubiquitous QIWI payment terminals (usually used for topping-up mobile phones and paying utility bills). Across Kazakhstan there are 10,000 such reverse-ATM machines just waiting to inhale your cash.
With each sip, beer drinkers in Kazakhstan can now help their country’s endangered fauna. One of Kazakhstan’s major breweries is donating two tenge (about 1.3 US cents) to the protection of golden eagles with the purchase of each souvenir can of its Karagandinskoye Pivo.
Clearly, Kazakhs like their beer: Since July the campaign has raised more than 2.6 million tenge ($17,220) to support the activities of the Almaty-based Sunkar Raptor Sanctuary and the Institute of Zoology of Kazakhstan, the company says.
The distinctive, limited-edition cans are decorated with a colorful golden eagle, the endangered bird of prey that has iconic status in Kazakhstan. An eagle adorns the national flag and eagle hunting is an important Kazakh tradition. The golden eagle is also the symbol of the Karaganda-based brewery behind the promotion.
The campaign's proceeds are helping the Institute of Zoology identify existing eagle habitats and pinpoint why numbers are declining. A survey conducted in four mountainous regions in mid-2012 found over 650 golden eagle couples, and scientists estimate the total number of pairs in Kazakhstan to be around 1500.
However, golden eagles numbers in the wild have been falling in recent years as a result of illegal poaching and habitat destruction.
One of Central Asia's favorite sporting pastimes, kokpar, is set to go mainstream in Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan's Association for National Sports has floated plans to professionalize the rough-and-tumble sport and establish purpose-built stadiums across the country.
In a game of kokpar, a distant cousin of polo, two teams of mounted players struggle to take a headless goat carcass into the opposing team’s goal. Kokpar – which often translates as “goat-grabbing” – is better known as “buzkashi” in Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
Sadybek Tugel, the Association’s vice president, told KazTAG on January 15 that the aim is to move kokpar to a professional club system with 16 centers across the country. Tugel also envisages setting up a National Sports Center and training college in the capital, Astana, to promote indigenous sports such as kokpar. Affiliated schools will open in Almaty and in Kazakhstan's 14 regional centers.
Kokpar games have been known to last for hours. To make the sport more television-friendly, the Kazakhs might think about adopting the Afghan Olympic Committee's rules for championship buzkashi: They limit the game to two 45-minute halves, like in soccer.
Tradition or not, kokpar still courts controversy. As EurasiaNet.org reported last year, animal-rights activists are pushing to introduce plastic dummy goats to replace the bloody carcasses. Some, though, might find the game a tad pedestrian without the pre-match slaughter.
Walking into Tashkent's Affresco Restaurant recently, I could have been entering an upscale Italian establishment just about anywhere. The inviting dining area, equipped with comfortable leather chairs and polished wooden tables, is decorated with copies of famous frescoes. On the serving counter stands a vintage copper and brass espresso machine; bottles of Italian wine adorn the bar.
In the basement, however, a whole other world awaits very important clientele. The restaurant sent local artist Bobur Ismoilov on an inspiration-seeking trip to Italy. Upon his return, he let his imagination run wild, decorating a series of VIP rooms according to a hodgepodge of Italian themes and clichés.
The walls of one room, for example, are adorned with black and white photos of singers and actors from yesteryear – stars like Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn, and, of course, Frank Sinatra – wolfing down plates of spaghetti. Another room features a mural showing a traditional Sicilian street scene.
Things start to get strange, however, when you enter the “Mafia Room,” which is decked with mug shots of infamous Mafioso figures and posters from Hollywood gangster classics such The Godfather and Donnie Brasco.
But the pièce de résistance is the clammy VIP chamber that recreates Al Capone's Alcatraz cell. It’s the full prison experience: The room’s metal door is made of bars, from which dangle a pair of handcuffs. There’s also a red velvet couch.
Affresco's menu tends toward standard Italian fare, but cooked with more accomplishment than is usually achieved in Central Asia's Italian eateries. The prices are higher than average for Tashkent, but the food -- homemade pastas, hearty risottos and crisp pizzas -- is quality.