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Thoroughly washed in a Kazakh bath-house

The five hour drive to Almaty from the remote Kyrgyzstan border post took us across a spectacular moonscape and through a series of rural communities, best remembered for their roadside stalls with rich and colourful displays of fresh fruit and vegetables. It was just getting dark as we hit the outskirts of the city but even through the fading light I could see that this was going to be a very different experience from either of the previous Stans. This place had the feeling of money, the sense that in Monopoly terms I’d thrown a couple of double sixes and fast forwarded from the Old Kent Road to something more in line with Piccadilly or Leicester Square.

The map from the guidebook steered me up and across the grid of streets towards the famous landmark of the Hotel Kazakhstan. In a city where accommodation is reputedly more expensive than London this one was indicated as good value for money and seemed a logical place to choose as a base. The 26 storey tower was impossible to miss, not just because of its sheer size but the enormity of the digits that glowed on the side of the building. 2030. I checked it off against my watch, satisfied myself that it was indeed exactly half past eight, and stepped into the lobby with credit card in hand.

The next day I walked through Paniflov Park and found a seat (green, nicely painted, no graffiti) in the sunshine to admire the immense Russian Orthodox cathedral at close quarters. Now functioning again as a place of worship this stunning piece of architecture, predominantly peach in colour and made entirely of wood, had been used as a museum and concert hall throughout the years of Soviet-enforced atheism. The colours were breathtaking: a multi-domed roof with a pattern of green and red diamond shapes, gold minarets pointing up to the bluest of skies and all surrounded by a blanket of dahlias and marigolds in full bloom to add the finishing touch.

The next building I was to visit could not have been more different. The Arasan Baths is also a domed edifice but it’s a depressingly grey, ugly mass of concrete with tiny slits that serve as windows. My initial thought was that the place had been abandoned, it somehow seemed too gruesome to be operational as any kind of public facility, let alone a venue dedicated to health and relaxation. Yet there had to be something going on because a small group of vendors had gathered at the entrance to offer bunches of birch twigs bound together like tennis rackets. I was keeping to a safe distance, watching and wondering, when a very large Kazakh couple stepped into view, bought two bunches, then headed up the steps and through a swinging door. I didn’t want to do it, but I’d brought my towel specially and I knew there was no turning back.

The inside, let’s call it an entrance hall, was marginally grimmer than the prison-like exterior. Though I didn’t know what I was paying for, I handed over the notes requested in sign language by the charm-free lady at the desk and walked through a door to which she had vaguely pointed. It led to a changing room, or rather a sort of warehouse with concrete floors, bashed up lockers and lots of naked men.

I tried to blend quickly and as soon as my pants were down there was a man in white T-shirt and trousers standing behind me. He was pointing, offering something and indicating a price and after several minutes of nervous confusion it became evident that he was a masseur running through his menu of treatments. In for a penny, in for a pound, I agreed to upper body only, but flashed him two fives with my hands to indicate I needed ten minutes to wander.

The adjacent room was tiled in a shiny brown colour that brought back memories of toilets in railway stations when I was a kid. Who can forget that overpowering smell of urine, the 1d slot machine for the right to sit down, the crude poems on the walls and those strange diagrams with phone numbers of girls who promised all manner of entertainment? (Not a bad pennys worth, in hindsight.) This place didn’t smell of wee but as I walked by the concave shower cubicles I couldn’t help thinking it was a venue more suited to torture and execution than any form of leisure pursuit.

A wooden door, thick and heavy, opened into an incredibly hot room, a wooden box with dark brown walls, dark brown benches and an array of human bodies of all shapes and sizes. Men sat in rows in complete silence, birch twigs in hand, all completely naked except for those that had dressed for the occasion in …white felt hats! What on earth was going on? I chose a space to ensure full view of the headgear, placed my towel on the searing hot seat and after only a matter of seconds the remarkable show began.

It was one of the be-hatted, a huge man with a sagging belly and an extraordinarily small penis who stood up and unashamedly started thrashing himself with his miniature broomstick. He was sweating profusely and clearly having the time of his life as he exhaled loudly with each blow of the branches upon his back and buttocks. Others stood up and joined in, some trading swipes with their friends, as I just sat there, a quiet selfconscious Brit contemplating what a strange world we live in. Outside in the corridor my man was waiting, as those with the promise of dollars can always be relied upon to do. He gestured to a slab in the corner and indicated that I should lie face down such that my genitals occupy the same spot as the twenty thousand scrotums that went before.

Then he set about throwing buckets of warm water over me as though washing his car, a not unpleasant experience and a sharp contrast to the activities that were soon to follow. I think the most memorable manoeuvre was the digging of his elbows into my back, the third cycle of which provoked the release of a grotesque, tortured scream that could only have come from me. Whether he always did three, or just carried on till his clients could take no more, is something I will always wonder. It didn’t get any better when he climbed up and went for a walk along my spine and, though I didn’t exactly take it like a man, the teeth clenching and controlled breathing replaced what could easily have degenerated into a total mental breakdown. The instruction to sit up and face the lunatic led me to believe that things might get better but the simultaneous jabbing of his fingers deep into my ears soon put paid to that one. It seemed the objective was to try to get his fingertips to meet at a halfway point inside my skull and when that didn’t work he simply took my ears in his hands and screwed them up tightly like bits of scrap paper destined for the waste bin. Then six more buckets to slosh me down before he muttered the only word of English he knew. “Finish”.

He probably thought, bless him, that my big smile was a measure of how much I’d enjoyed his company. It had certainly been an experience – and one that won’t be forgotten – but my back hurt like hell and as I hobbled towards the circular swimming pool, bracing myself for some icy misery, I couldn’t help thinking that the little chap might have caused some permanent damage. Why hadn’t I just gone to the museum like normal tourists do?

* * * *

Extract taken from Ten Letter Countries.
9781780880754, £10.00, published 10th April 2012

The Ten-Letter Countries is an insight into the history, geography and politics of twelve fascinating countries through the eyes of The Alphabet Traveller. Each country David visited had 10 letters to its name. It follows on from his earlier adventure, The Four Letter Countries

Both books can be ordered from or

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