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In Search of Hotel Kazakhstan

The Hotel Kazakhstan I was told used to be the tallest building in Central Asia. It looks like it was built in the 1950’s. When you turn on the TV station in the room there is old footage of the hotel in its heyday playing in a loop. The narration is in Russian but it is still something to see: the crown-like roof towering 26 floors into the clouds, cheerful men in hats driving old style cars up and down the hills, and in the distance the white peaks of the Steppe stretching across Almaty’s edge.

I am in the mood for a movie. The front desk receptionist calls the one English theatre and confirms that Hitchcock is playing at midnight. She writes the address on a sticky note, and on the back I write how to say 400 and 500 in my own phonetic version of Cyrillic, the maximum she says I should pay for a taxi.

Ten minutes later I disembark from the cab and find my way to the ticket counter. The woman behind the counter says she speaks English, and she does. I thank her for the ticket and my change and proceed to the entrance, but then notice the receipt and my change in hand and calculate the conversion at about 18 dollars. She has sold me two tickets, not one, and to a different movie that ended hours ago.

After enjoying Hitchcock I locate three cars parked nearby the theatre, the drivers are huddled outside in conversation and smoking. One of them approaches and asks “Taxi?” to whom I show 600 Tenge to take me back. Several minutes along the road we stretch towards each other in our hardened loosely bucked seat belts and he asks me something. This time I speak more affirmatively, “Hotel Kazakhstan, Kazakhstan Hotel?” He says something back but the only thing I understand is “Astana,” and I utter the only Russian sentence I know, that I don’t speak Russian, and he smiles. It is the first time I have really looked at him, his characteristically puffy Kazakh cheeks pockmarked and unshaven, eyes glazed with either exhaustion or liquor, he turns back too quickly to tell.

And then he makes a right onto a highway, which I know if not right. He should have stayed straight and then gone left. As we drive under the signs on the entranceway I see the three arrows demarcating the destinations of the lanes but I don’t know what they read. I turn my head back to the city and get nervous and then correct myself because I think it would take hours or even days to drive to Astana.

He soon gets off the highway, which appears to be winding back towards the city, and at the first stoplight he rolls down his window to the only other vehicle waiting there. The driver quickly directs us to go this way and then over there, and when the light turns green the other car jerks into gear and putters off. We go down and across hills and up but there are few streetlights and the windshield is too dusty too see.

At the intersection of two hills a woman hails us to stop, but he doesn’t let her in because she offers him too little money, so he drives away with a slight cackle. Minutes more pass before we stop a man walking into a bar. The driver gets out and calls to him from the curb. They gesticulate to one another in the darkness and I am somehow reassured we are close.

It was all a small thing, I know, but when finally back in my hotel room I don’t turn on the TV. I feel I need to write instead.


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