Getting a taxi in Almaty is a funny, if simple process. You just stick your hand out and in no more than about 30 seconds a car will stop. It's unclear whether the drivers do this as a profession or just because they have a spare few minutes. Meanwhile, the cars themselves are a minimum of ten years old and the majority bear one or more cracks in their windscreens. The price is always fair and rarely needs to be haggled, even if the drivers sometimes need very clear instructions about where they are going. Maps and Russian speakers are therefore essential. One of the few things that Almaty shares with the hated desert city is the bad driving itself: as with Dubai, the drivers prize road position and one-upmanship way ahead of trivial things like courtesy and road markings. The changing of lights, though, is carefully adhered to, perhaps because the large number of inner-city trolley buses and trams are not to be bargained with.
Our first stop is the Hotel Kazakhstan; a large Soviet building that looks as though it has been designed to fend off attacks from winger beasts. Looking at it looming in the grey sky, we are relieved to be staying in the Kazzhol.
K, though, is not happy. The sky hangs heavy with the same shapeless blanket of cloud that covers Scotland for about 80% of the year, and while this is a pleasant change from the merciless blue of Dubai, it's no good for photography. Even the Simpsons-esque statutes don't look up to much.
If the Hotel Kazakhstan's aesthetic isn't helpful, though, its staff are, and after some advice about where to go, they also help me get in touch with the tourist board. Amazingly, they are able to organise two tours at this short notice: one around the city, the other in the surrounding countryside.
We walk and talk for the next five hours and while I am simply happy to see autumnal colours and leaves, the experience is something altogether more intense for K. Cyrillic writing and bleak Soviet buildings may remind her of her childhood, but the fact that Kazkahs generally look Chinese yet speak Russian is an oddity that takes her several days to adjust to – it'd be like me travelling to Tokyo and discovering that everyone used Glasgow patter.
After our long walk around the city, we decide to go out for dinner at a local Kazakh restaurant. I get K to order me besparmak and kumis. The former is horse meat served with onions and pepper on a bed of sheet pasta, the latter is fermented horse milk which arrives in a soup bowl. She orders tea and honey – she seems to subside on little more than fruit, nuts, natural sugars, coffee and occasionally sweets. Having woken up one morning to discover she simply didn't have an appetite for it, she no longer eats meat, but like me is too curious not to have at least a nibble of horse. If anything, it tastes half way between lamb and braising steak; fattier than expected, but certainly not unpleasant. The meal is typically Kazakh with an emphasis on high carbohydrate and fat intake, presumably harking back to their nomadic days spent roaming the steppe. The kumis tastes something like yoghurt mixed with sea water, slightly alcoholic, almost gritty... I fleeting worry that they may have milked the stallion by mistake. I put down the cup and settle the bill.