All photos taken with a Fujifilm X100 camera, Fuji's first iteration
of this fixed-lens camera,
small and very convenient for travel.
A fun thing about third-world countries is that it can be affordable to do 'mad' things. For instance, towards the end of my time in Kazakhstan (January 2012), I decided to hire a minibus and driver and invite a group of friends for a weekend at the famous hot springs resort some 300 kms from Almaty. In a way, it was the beginning of my goodbyes. Also, why not? Although everyone in the party that took shape had heard of the existence of this special place, not one of us had ever actually been there! So a weekend of discovery it was to be. (Looking at the map, I now see that it would not have taken much longer to nip across into China!)
The promise was a swim in naturally hot water in open air swimming pools in the middle of a -20ºC winter. Plus the drive was going to be part of the fun since none of us were going to have to take the wheel. And the road looked like this.
There being plenty of avid smokers on the journey (me included), cigarette breaks were frequent even if Katya doesn't look impressed:
Between smoke breaks we had fun in the bus. Left to right: the Loginovs, Irina and Yuri; stunning natural straw-blonde Vika Klyakina and daughter both with their milk-white Slavic complexions, my Katya. (Click to enlarge)
There were remarkable views as we drove. I took most of the photos below through the window of the minibus as we were travelling (the others during the smoke breaks), so there is sometimes a bit of reflection from the glass. To keep things sharp, I just ensured that the exposure speeds were over 1/600". One of them was actually at a 1/4000" as snow is very bright.
We also made supply/loo stops at the few inhabited places we passed through. Think of these places as the Kazakhstan equivalent of motorway services
At last we reached our hotel. Accommodation blocks to the left and behind, main building straight ahead. And of course the promised pool of naturally hot spa water. (It turned out that our hotel was a rather long way from the actual source of the water and the water was only a little over tepid, but hey! Mind you, the heat loss from the surface, given that it was -20ºC outside must have been terrific.
Still, we enjoyed it. Like this...
...and like this
We settled in to our rooms and sorted out the geography of our weekend home:
Top to bottom, left to right: Katya and Arthur; Irina Yaroslavtseva, their grandmother; Irina Loginova telling Arthur something interesting (and being a proper Army wife, also being best prepared for any eventuality and therefore being immediately able to produce some nice hot coffee seemingly out of nowhere); a shot I really like of Sasha Klyakin; his daughter Kristina clothed rather more seriously for going outside (Russian mums!); IrinaYaroslavtseva in braver mode; Katya
The food was second-rate 'stolovaya' (cafeteria) -style but hey, it was still fun and we had plenty to drink but of course the point was the get-togethers in the dining room. One does not go to Kazakhstan for the cuisine.
A great expression on Katya's face in the first picture
But I compensate for this by also getting one of my favourite portraits of Katya a few seconds later
The hot springs and the hotel seemed to exist in some sort of lost wasteland but it was still rather pretty in the snow when the dusty steppe is blanketed in white:
After a very pleasant weekend, our minibus collected us and took us back to Almaty. As we approached Almaty, we had to stop at our very favourite maker of тандырный нан (tandyrny nan – Kazakhstan's traditional bread ('nan' in Kazakh) made in a tandoori oven. Arthur and I could never get enough of this wonderful baker's bread.