Friday, 13 July 2012

Cathedral of the Ascension, Almaty
On Monday 13th June, St Anthony of Padua’s feast day but also, since the 12th was a Sunday, Russia Day[1], after accepting free coffee and chocolate at a place on the way, i made for the Russian consulate in Almaty, hopeful of getting clarification on the transit visa situation. Except, i didn’t learn that it was Russia Day until i arrived at the consulate, to find it closed. I did however get into a conversation with an ethnic Russian fellow, probably in his late forties, wishing to apply for full Russian citizenship. He said he knew of a good sort of hostel place where i could stay, and though i wasn’t convinced about the price i went along with him for a bus-ride. This gave an opportunity to visit a park with an impressive soviet-era war memorial, and an exceptionally beautiful Orthodox cathedral, dedicated to the Ascension of Our Lord; yellow and white, with turquoise and red touches, and made entirely of wood, without any nails. Inside i said a prayer to St Rita of Cascia, on behalf of my new acquaintance, but also for the Kazakh diocesan official i’d met the day before, that they might both be given the grace to give up smoking, as i was. I was then formerly invited by this guy, vaguely Orthodox but wary of entering the cathedral, to come and stay at his house, another bus ride away. Over a tasty fried potato lunch which he rustled up, i learned that some of his ideas were at the more extreme end of the Russian predilection for conspiracy theories, and a drawback to his premises was an infestation of fleas, but my room was self-contained, it was free, and it was the base i needed.
   Having crashed out for longer than i intended on a mattress which was at least free of the agile aphids, i didn’t manage to get to the cathedral in time for Mass that evening, though i was grateful to be able to pray there in the company of a relic of St Anthony of Padua. The evening then entailed considerably more melodrama than i would have preferred. I was on the right bus to get home, but saw that we were passing the train station, where i would be able to use a public phone to call my folks – something i hadn’t done for a while. So i tried to get off the bus, but the conductress mistakenly thought i hadn’t paid my fare – and i no longer had the correct change to pay it again. She prevented me from getting out until the next stop, when my fare was paid a second time by a fellow passenger (i then paid them most of it back). Eventually i came to the station and was able to get through and leave a message. So far so good. But returning to a bus stop, the last of my buses had gone. This was serious because i didn’t know the address of the new place; i only knew where to get out of the right bus. So it was just as well to have some Russian and be able to explain to a taxi driver that i needed to travel along the #4 bus route. With considerable difficulty, i did make it home eventually, and slept reasonably well, with plenty of insect repellent on hand (and face and neck etc).

Le Tour d'Eiffel, Almaty
   On the next day, Tuesday 14th June, i queued up at the Russian consulate, only to be told what i more or less knew already – i couldn’t apply for a transit visa until i’d been issued with a Mongolian visa. Going back to that country’s embassy on the off-chance of making any progress, it was confirmed that the consul would be away at the conference in Astana until the next day, but the embassy was closed on Wednesdays in any case, so there’d be no joy until Thursday at the earliest. It did however seem to be a small victory when i was given a visa application form by the lady who came out to see me. Then in the afternoon i made for an internet place where a fellow in his twenties could be overheard speaking with an unmistakably Bristolian accent! It turned out he was doing a round-the-world cycle ride for charity with a friend, taking in Santiago de Compostela, Kazakhstan and Mexico on route; so at the very least we had to exchange email addresses. Then i made sure to reach the cathedral in good time for the rosary and evening Mass, celebrated by the retired Bishop Henry Howaniec, an octogenarian Russian-speaking American from Chicago, marking the 55th anniversary of his ordination. I poked my head round the sacristy door afterwards to congratulate him. Wednesday was more or less a ‘free’ day. After buying what i hoped would be industrial strength flea-killer, i had in mind to take a popular cable car ride up to a place called Kok Tobe, meaning ‘Green Hill’, to the south east. In a curious incident prior to this though, just after reading a pro-life article in a Russian language Catholic magazine, in a cafe i was making postcards from some pictures of Pope Benedict XVI, when a middle-aged gentleman came up behind me and asked if he could take one. In return he left his card – he was a Chinese gynaecologist.
   There are cafes, souvenir stalls and great views of Almaty and the mountains, as well as a small zoo and a nice monument of a ‘Big Apple’ at Kok Tobe. After writing a couple of postcards i came back down in the cable car, then spent much of the afternoon trying to find a place where i could buy the dollars i would need to pay for a Mongolian visa. In late afternoon i came back to the ‘ranch’ to inflict flea-napalm on my quarters. This didn’t leave enough time to get across town to Mass at the cathedral, so instead i said a prayer to Our Lady outside a nearby Orthodox church, before confronting the Mongolian visa application form in an outdoor cafe. In the "Applicant's statement" section i wrote:

'For nearly five months i have been travelling as a pilgrim from England, walking across the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Poland, then using transport, as well as walking, across the Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan. With God's help i hope to reach the Pacific Ocean, and somehow cross to Mexico, to the famous Basilica (Church) of Our Lady of Guadalupe. In Germany it was wonderful to meet a Mongolian lady called Ajusch; she sang beautifully and played a two-stringed instrument ('dombra'?)[2]. Then in the Ukraine i visited a place called Zarvanitsa, where the story is told of a monk who had fled from Kiev at the approach of the Mongols in the 13th century - an Icon of the Virgin Mary appeared to him in a dream. In Russia it was fascinating to pass through Kalmykia and visit the Buddhist temple in Elista. Part of my degree was Mediaeval History and i am very interested in Genghis Khan and his descendants. I also think snow leopards are magnificent.'

[1] Celebrated on June 12 every year since 1992, to mark the signing of the Declaration of State Sovereignty of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic on June 12, 1990; a defining moment in the final stages of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the re-emergence of Russia as an independent state.
[2] This in fact is a Kazakh instrument. The Mongolian equivalent is a Tobshuur.

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