Outside the Ramstore we ran into Jay … a dead-on Bill Clinton lookalike, (with a matching gregarious personality) and his sons Justin and Ian, and Timur, who had been adopted from Petropavlovsk, (our stop next week). We fell in love with little “Tima” and how he would bat his eyelashes and say, “You’re so cute! You’re a princessa!” Also there was Barry and his 10 year old son Serik, also from Petropavlovsk. Completing our group was Sasha … a Kyrgyz man who used to be a driver for WPA in Almaty. He and his wife had won the immigration lottery and had emigrated to the US. They live in Pennsylvania and Sasha works for Jay.
We packed ourselves into our little limo (small van) and were off to Esik. It’s about an hour’s drive (mostly through the outskirts of Almaty and its traffic .. oy!) but the scenery is just beautiful. Huge snow capped mountains loomed in the distance, with miles and miles of flat grassy plains at their feet. We pulled up to the Baby House, where we found … a mess! The location where the playground was to be built was not ready. The BH director had decided to build the area up a few feet, and was in the process of having a retaining wall built around it. Since it was all being done by hand, and it was possibly a couple of months away from being finished, we were in a pretty awkward position. It was decided that we would put the playground together (and the swing set) and they would move it later.
Our first task was to separate the two playgrounds. One was being loaded onto a truck for Petropavlovsk (okay, Petro from now on .. too hard to type!) We had to be really careful not to send a stray piece to Petro – a 4 hour plane trip to the far north -- so we took our time laying everything out. We wasted no time getting started putting things together. More sweating .. and add sunburn this time. We knocked off about 5:00 or so. Debi and I met Aida for dinner at Mad Murphy’s Pub. This was another place David and I had been to back in 2001, where lots of expatriates and foreigners like to go.
Next morning … early to rise. Off to Esik again. Debi and I helped build the swingset with Jay and his sons. I was a little put out when Jay started calling us “girls” but his personality really grew on us after a while. We pretty much finished everything that day. Since we weren’t setting anything in concrete, we didn’t have to dig holes or anything like that. On the way back to Almaty we stopped at a fruit stand and bought some cherries. Unfortunately they looked a lot prettier than they tasted. That night we had dinner at the City restaurant, near Tsum (a large department store). We did some quick souvenir shopping at Tsum but it was hot hot hot inside. I never thought anything could interfere with my will to shop, but the heat certainly did. And did I say crowded? It was unbearable.
Next day was the “opening ceremony” and tour of the BH. We put on surgical masks and doctors’ coats to prevent spreading any germs. We were taken to the infants’ room, where five impossibly tiny newborns lay wrapped like little burritos in bassinets against the wall. They looked like they weren’t done cooking yet! They were all sleeping … not a peep from any of them. We went to the older childrens’ room next, where they were napping, but I saw a few heads pop up from their cribs to see who these strangers were.
Outside was a beautiful picnic laid out on several oriental carpets under a tree. There was a light breeze, so it was very pleasant … we had vodka, wine, plov (rice pilaf with meat), and the BH staff made lots of toasts. After eating, we sat around sharing photo albums, and I think a couple of us dozed off.
Back in Almaty, after a quick shower, we drove up to Medeo, the ice skating rink in the foothills of the Tien Shan Mountains. There is a ski resort higher up, called Chimbulak, but we found that the road was closed. Some of our group deposited themselves at a Yurt restaurant with a cold beer, and the rest of us set out to climb the 1000 step staircase to the top of the Medeo Dam … purportedly a dam to prevent avalanches from inundating Almaty, definitely not to dam up water, as there isn’t any behind the dam. But it makes a good lookout with a panoramic view of Almaty’s environs and the steppe to the north. I said that we “set out” to climb the steps … well, that was a half lie, as some of *who shall remain nameless* only made it up 500 steps. Well, if you count the 500 going back down, we did go on 1000 steps. Micah, who was, as I said, 15 and in excellent shape, SPRINTED up the steps. We followed, grumbling at him for showing off. Our legs vibrating and aching, we made it back to the yurt restaurant where we had a delicious dinner of monte (little meat dumplings) bishparmak (horse stew … I know, I know, sorry but it’s a national delicacy. We didn’t want to be rude) and bauersake (fried bread). It was a feast.