Try telling anyone that you're going to Kazakhstan and the depressing majority will do one of the following:
a) Say something along the lines of "What? Where Borat's from?"
b) Do an excruciatingly bad impression of said character
c) Look a bit bamboozled, like a monkey with a remote control, before finally spitting the same two syllables from their idiotic mouths: "Bo-rat?"
Thus the two weeks preceding my trip to Almaty passed. Thankfully I've never seen the film and, truth be told, never found the character too entertaining. Being the sort of ungainly arsehole who stumbles from one embarrassing situation to another, I don't get much pleasure from watching others similarly humiliated. As with the worst sitcoms, daytime chat shows and radio phone-ins, I cannot sit and listen to awkward situations develop without wanting to eat my own ears. Before going to the ex-Soviet state I spent quite a long time variously looking at my shoes, grinding my teeth and occasionally whistling while people got the B word out of their system.
With a trip to Nepal having fallen through at the airport, I was understandably twitchy about this trip going ahead. Just when it looked as though everything would run smoothly, though, our plan hit a bump in the road. Having already downgraded hotel from the Hotel Kazakhstan (the tallest building in Almaty) to the far more discreet Kazzhol to save on budget, I was then told that the payment for the hotel hadn't gone through and that I'd need to take cash instead. This meant a dash to the office this morning to pick up a fistful of dollars to pay for our accommodation.
All this plural talk is because I've got a photographer with me. This was good because, as I prove with frightening regularity, a story is no good without pictures and also because few people can speak English in Kazakhstan. While it does have its own language, as a former Soviet state, virtually everyone is bi-lingual with Russian. The photography department, in order to send someone who could act as both snapper and translator, had the choice of sending me with K, a female Georgian, or D, a male Russian. They opted for the former.
Pre-trip, the only things that people had told me about her were that she was good at her job, feisty and that she possibly had a boyfriend. We meet at the gate (which partly out of nervousness, I delay getting to until the last moment) and within about 30 seconds it's clear we're going to get on alright. As it happens, she doesn't have a boyfriend at all, but rather a husband of five years who also lives and works in Dubai. We talk excitedly about the impending journey into the unknown, but when I mention that I've printed a list of bars and clubs in Almaty from the Hedonist's Guide website, she seems pretty underwhelmed: she doesn't drink.
K and I are seated next to each other, either side of the aisle. The window seat next to my right was occupied by an aging South African who, like most of his countrymen, flits almost accidentally between English and Afrikaans. He's returning to Kazakhstan from a three week break at home and while I manage to work out that's involved in copper and gold mining, much of what he says is quite hard to follow.
Drinks come and despite K's abstinence, I opt for red wine. This is my first mistake of the trip. As the table flips out faster than expected and smashes the plastic cup from my hand, I sigh as though it had all been inevitable. I pick up the cracked remnants and the remainder of the liquid spurts from an unnoticed crack, landing neatly on my crotch. It looks as though an alien has burst from my balls or, as my South African friend amusingly puts it, "It looks like you've been shagging a very sick lady."
"Man, if she let it get this far, I don't think she'd have been much of a lady."
The flight time is about four hours, most of which I spend trying to explain to the barely-comprehensible Afrikaaner why I'm nowhere near ready to write a book, only to be roundly chastised. "Listen bro, you have a lekker, job huh? You get started or by the time you rub the shit out of your eyes, you'll be my age."
We land and it's cold; wonderfully, wonderfully cold and there are trees and it smells like a real country. We are both so excited we don't even check if our taxi driver has ripped us off.
After checking in at the hotel we meet in the lobby and head out into the night air. Thankfully Almaty is designed almost completely in a grid-iron formation, so after two hours of walking the new streets in the dark, we still manage to find our way back without any problem.
I check my emails. The day before I left, I'd sent a slightly indignant email to the Almaty tourist board, complaining that I was soon to travel and yet they had not confirmed anything with me. To my surprise, there is a panicked reply. I'd told them I was arriving in November, please call immediately.
"Hah!" There's no way they've got that right. Having spent a month of to-ing and fro-ing with unanswered emails and confused phone calls I'd conjured an image of their tourist office being nothing more than a portakabin without a door, populated by a lonely, bewildered goat. For argument's sake, I flick through my sent mails ... And there it is: arriving November 30.
My cheeks turn red. Suddenly five days with nothing to do seems like a very long time indeed. A little distressed, I open the fridge and reach for a can of the local lager. Before I can get it though, I fall out my seat laughing - sitting next to the cans there is a packet of condoms. Johnnies on ice, price: £1.50.