Giorgi – On the way to Issyk Lake, Summer 2012
It was not my practice while living in Almaty to use the firm’s drivers and their cars for my non-business activities. They were entitled to their home life and privacy in the evenings and on weekends and, equally, I thought I was entitled to mine.
So, when my future wife and I were going to lunch in Almaty on an autumn Saturday in 1999, we positioned ourselves to hail a roaming “gypsy taxi”. We were standing on Dostyk Avenue, headed upwards, and soon a car stopped for us.
Actually it was a van of the people-mover variety. We climbed in and gave the directions. I then noticed that the van was a 4-wheel drive Mitsubishi. Not only that, it had great seating capacity. Six or seven passengers could easily sit in the rear and, if needed, another passenger could sit up front with the driver.
Ski season was soon approaching and I was most curious if this driver would or could go to Chimbulak (now Shymbulak). Oh, yes indeed, he replied. In fact, he seemed quite enthusiastic about a weekend trip to the ski area. I assumed (too easily) that the enthusiasm was simply about the possibility of paid bookings for weekend trips.
Little did I know then, in 1999, that this was the start of a happy relationship that has continued to the present.
When the ski season opened, we made arrangements for Giorgi to collect us – “us” being fellow skiers who were happy to make up a party for a day in the mountains, next my future wife, and, finally, me. From my apartment it was a straight run up Dostyk Avenue to Medeo and then Chimbulak.
It was easy to make friends with Giorgi. He clearly was a very interesting man with a fascinating background. It seemed as if he had been everywhere in Kazakhstan – from the Caspian Sea to Khan Tengri Mountain, from the very south to the border with Russia. He had taken geologists to the far side of the hinterland where they did their prospecting. Foreign wild game hunters had been taken to prime shooting areas.
Giorgi started his driving career behind the wheel of milk trucks for the Ak-Bulak Dairy – which later became known as FoodMaster – in the town of Talgar at the foot of Mt. Talgar. (More backround on the dairy can be found here in a 2001 USAID paper.) Giorgi eventually lost his job. As I recall, this happened in 1999 when Foodmaster incurred losses and had to undergo a reorganization. He took his driving talents to the streets of Almaty as a “gypsy taxi” driver.
I think it was only the second or perhaps the third time we went to Chimbulak with Giorgi that he told us that he had once been a member of Kazakhstan’s ski team and the Soviet Olympic team. Maybe this announement was his method of paving the way for him to bring along his own ski kit the next time we went skiing. As he did. Clever man, he knew the lift operators or quickly made their acquaintance, and then spent the day skiing for free, being paid by us to wait around for our return trip to Almaty.
What a skier he is. He skis effortlessly – or so it seems. With a little wiggle and a lot of fearlessness, he bombs straight down the mountain. He does this from top to bottom in under three minutes.
Now that he knew that he can bring his gear and ski all day, Giorgi moved on to Part B of what might have been his plan. Would anyone like some ski lessons?
Chorus saying “yes.”
The entrepreneurial guy then moves on to Part C of his plan which is to sell skis and maybe boots to the novice skiers. At one point he told us that he had 13 pairs of used skis, all for sale. So he effectively made it easy for cash-strapped novices to enter an otherwise expensive sport.
As spring approached, we asked Giorgi about things we could do on out-of-town trips. We knew about Almaty Big Lake and Butakovka Falls but were less informed about the other places of scenic or cultural interest in the vicinity of Almaty.
Giorgi was the total answer for us. He told us about and, over period of a few years, took us to the places listed below.
In conversations with Giorgi throughout the years, we learned more about his background and experience. We knew, for example, that he held an annual “ecology permit”, the sort of document that allows the driver, his car and passengers to enter national parks and other areas of ecological interest without paying the usual toll charge.
We also learned that Giorgi was a member of a volunteer first responder group, which seems to be a government-sponsored or encouraged association of drivers with mobile phones and 4-wheel drive vehicles who have an interest in acting as auxiliary helpers in the event of a natural or other catastrophe. Knowing how Giorgi seemed fearless about driving in rough, almost impassable terrain, he seems well suited to this commendable group.
Needless to say, I whole heartedly recommend Giorgi for excursions in the Almaty area and, for that matter, for more remote outings. Giorgi does not claim to speak English but he nevertheless somehow communicates with non-Russian speakers. Contact me if you would like to be in touch with Giorgi.
Places we went to with Giorgi as our driver and tour guide – with a few photos:
- Icy waterfalls near the town of Issyk
- Big Buddha and companion carvings on rocks on the River Ili
- Singing Dunes
- Burial mounds and an excavation near Issyk
- Issyk Lake (dam)
- Trout farm on the road to Ili-Alatau National Park
- Charyn Canyon – Eroded stone columns, on the way to the river
- Budakovka Falls
- Ili-Alatau National Park (several times) – Bald mountains in the upper end of the park
- Almaty Big Lake (three or four times in different seasons)
- Ak-Bulak Ski Resort, including ice skating rink
- Chimbulak Ski Resort – walking on the path along the side road
- Kapchagai Reservoir – Looking back from the beach, Giorgi in his car
- Monument to the Golden Warrior near the town of Issyk
- Fish vendors near Ili River