What Borat Didn’t Say: Postcards from Kazakhstan
Penises of all shapes and sizes surprise me, if only for a second or two, as I step into the male segregated section of the Arasan Wellness & Spa in Almaty, Kazakhstan. It is really a public bathhouse, but I suppose marketing graduates need to be gainfully employed, hence the more Google-friendly name.
I have never had a problem with nudity, but this is disconcerting because, as a straight man, I simply haven’t been trained to confront so many penises swinging wildly in front of me. They belong to the very young and the quite decrepit, the fit and obese, all strolling casually the way God presumably intended us all to, before Eve bit into that apple.
Everything until this point is very 21st century. I have been given an electronic wristband that tracks every product and service I choose, with payments collected at the end. After spending some time in the Finnish sauna, I move to the hotter and more humid Russian one, followed by the steamy Turkish one, before a Moroccan bath with heated floors.
Some of the nude men around me carry branches of birch leaves, with which they slap themselves in the sauna; others purchase them inside the spa and pay attendants to hit them in hard-to-reach places. I stick to sweating, splash myself with icy water from wooden buckets hanging overhead, and head to the massage room.
Waiting for me before a marble slab is a large Russian man surrounded by tubs of warm water. I lay down and am doused with warm water while he pounds my body in exchange for a small amount of money. I can’t say I don’t like it.
Here’s the most important thing I learn: That rumour about Asian men having the smallest penises? It’s not true.
The weirdest thing about sitting at a bar called Mad Murphy’s in Central Almaty is the sound of an argument in what sounds like Malayalam. The source is a group of Malayali men, all of whom, I eventually find out, are married to local Kazakh women and have been living in the country for decades.
“Russian women love Indian men,” they tell me. I can’t figure out why, considering every such couple appears in my mind to resemble various versions of Beauty and the Beast. And yet, it’s true. I meet more Indian men, and a few Pakistanis, accompanied by the gorgeous women they happen to be married to. Now registered citizens, they run stores and restaurants, speak Russian fluently, and have absolutely no intention of returning to India. I can’t blame them.
This is supposedly a business trip, but my friends and I decide to do something other than visit Dostyk Plaza, the mall every resident of Almaty appears to spend time in on weekends. We ask friends who have lived here for decades to suggest something out of the ordinary, and they ask us to head to the hills.
“Google Translator,” says the Russian caretaker of a place up in the mountains, advising us on how we can converse, considering few people in the country speak English. We have booked the place for a weekend with the intention of doing what locals do when the temperature drops — retreat to a cosy wooden hut with an outdoor sauna (a banya) and a barbecue pit (shashlik). The place comes with a karaoke system and disco balls that turn the living room into a tiny nightclub high above the city.
“What about the police?” I ask. “No police,” he replies. “Drink vodka. Bring women. Party.” So that is what we do.
The bouncer at the nightclub called Esperanza refuses to let us in. The guys monitoring its Face Control system have deemed us unfit, possibly because most nightclubs find it strange when five single men turn up on a Saturday night. We are directed to a smaller nightclub in the basement of the same complex instead.
It’s dark, full of stunning women gyrating to what I assume is Kazakh hip hop, and there is even an MC who raps verses in between songs that drive the women wild. In short, it is fantastic.
To the right is a smaller room marked Private, for those who prefer the company of naked women. I can’t figure out why a strip club would operate within the premises of a nightclub, but most other guests in the place take it for granted.
Five shots of vodka later, a few of my friends take to the dance floor with abandon, thrusting their eager pelvises alongside the slimmer ones owned by the women around them. Three of them go back to their hotel with a companion. I stay back and drink more vodka because the music seems more interesting. I now regret that decision.
You can’t miss Panfilov Park even if you try. It’s where young people stroll on weekends, newly married couples pose for their first photographs together, and mothers encourage overexcited children to run around in the hope that they will tire themselves out.
At the centre of the park stands a giant monument of soldiers bursting from a map of the USSR. They are the Panfilov Heroes — 28 soldiers of an infantry unit who died fighting Nazis outside Moscow in 1941.
I love the park best because of Zenkov Cathedral, a multi-coloured structure built entirely of wood, including the nails. Built in 1904, it is one of the few surviving buildings from the Tsarist era. Photography is not permitted inside, which is a pity because the interiors make me gasp with delight. The iconography of the Russian Orthodox Church almost makes me want to convert to that religion.
I gauge how evolved a place is by looking at how it treats its lesser fortunate. On that front, Almaty scores highly. The kerbs are marked clearly, with ramps for the disabled at every corner, pedestrian-friendly crossings and polite drivers.
Interestingly, every private car owner can double up as a cab driver at will, picking up travellers for a small fee. I didn’t have to wait more than 45 seconds with my arm outstretched before a vehicle screeched to a stop.
Maybe Almaty won’t find itself on a map of party destinations or honeymoon spots anytime soon, but it ought to. It’s pretty, spotless, low on crime, full of the most beautiful people I have ever seen, and crowded with stores that sell the best and cheapest vodka money can buy. I’ll be back.
— First published in GQ