Our horses are lean and healthy,” Orinbasar Kuatov said when I told him that the first bite I took in his town, earlier in the day, was kazy, a sausage made by stuffing a deboned horse rib into a garlic-smeared horse intestine. “What fat they have is just around the belly.”
It was my first night in Almaty, the economic citadel of Kazakhstan, a pluralistic former Soviet republic in Central Asia. I had arrived at the close of the inaugural celebration of First President’s Day, honoring Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has ruled the nation in a tight-fisted and seemingly enlightened manner since the U.S.S.R. collapsed in 1991. My new friend Orin and I were three shots of raspy vodka into a nine-course dinner at a Russian restaurant. Ornamental samovars lined the timber rafters above. Detritus covered the table. A stray mushroom here. A crust of brown bread there.
I spooned up a consommé of sable and leaned in. I had contacted Orin, a native of Kazakh descent who works here as an investment banker, through a friend-of-a-friend chain with more links than a pair of gulag leg manacles.
“It’s not a meat of last resort,” he said with a patience I witnessed in many Kazakhs, adept at explaining themselves to witless outlanders with Borat scenes looping through their heads. “We don’t eat work horses. We’re connoisseurs. My father can take a bite and tell you the age, gender, and body part of the animal.”
Before I departed my home in Oxford, Mississippi, on a three-flight jet-lag endurance program set in motion by the cheerful sadists who edit this magazine, I knew that the barren steppes of Kazakhstan were once the site of the Soviet nuclear program. And I knew the nation was big, with the ninth-largest land mass in the world—big enough that, during the dark years, Stalin exiled politicians like Trotsky and writers like Solzhenitsyn here.
But that was then. Kazakhstan is now a nation on the make, stoked by oil pumped from the Caspian Sea. And Almaty, nestled at the base of the Tian Shan mountains near the border with China, is a metropolis of 1.5 million people. A city of generous parks, it is bisected by broad boulevards lined with concrete slabs that were built to house Communist Party bureaucrats, the monotony broken, on occasion, by teal-and-saffron Turkish architectural confections. Above the city rises a piercing marble minaret that always catches a glint from the sun, even on smog-choked days.
Conspicuous consumption seems to be the avocation of the moment. Some Soviet-era stereotypes remain, but the region has moved on from breadlines and Ladas, the latter outnumbered on the streets by Porsche Cayennes. As I walked through the city the morning after my dinner with Orin, the sun cut through the wintry gloom. Women draped in sable stilettoed through the snow with gymnastic aplomb. Men in Zegna suits stood in line at bank machines, shooting their cuffs, playing hide-and-preen with Rolex Oysters.
When I claimed a white-on-white banquette for lunch in Olivier, a restaurant with Left Bank Parisian aspirations, I ordered a snifter of local brandy and got a floor show from a cuddling couple, who nibbled Châteaubriand of horse meat and duck confit with sea buckthorn sauce while drinking second-growth Bordeaux and nodding to techno-thump.
For the first two days, I pigeon-toed down black-ice sidewalks, through bunkers of white snow plowed into place after the worst storm in 20 years had hit the previous weekend, trying, all the while, to communicate with passersby in phrasebook Kazakh or Russian.
My time on the streets did not always go well. I failed to suss out the functions of businesses that looked like doner kebab cafés but turned out to be florists, jewelry stores, and, once, a gynecology clinic. On my second night, at a restaurant that staged tribal dances and folkloric feasts for tourists, I looked pleadingly into the eyes of a waitress and uttered words that I thought would summon a cup of black coffee. What I got instead was a bowl of fermented camel’s milk and a smile of consolation that said, “You’re a long way from home, aren’t you?”
By the next morning, I gave in to the zen of Cyrillic isolation. If I couldn’t read street signs or placards, I resolved to admire fonts. Russians, it turns out, are good at curlicues. Kazakhs do inventive things with accents. And indecipherable street signs, viewed in the right light, make for calligraphic art.
Going mute was liberating. Instead of stuttering through a local language, I walked the streets and stalked the markets, perfecting my point-and-smile technique. That got me a tile of sticky pistachio candy that had the pungency and heft of a hashish brick. It also got me a skewer of lamb shashlyk, cooked on a stilt-mounted metal flue that looked like a charcoal-fueled pistol. More important, the strategy got me better footing. Not far from a market hutch where I pointed and smiled my way to a brace of top-knotted dumplings, I paid a man the equivalent of three dollars to glue sandpaper to the bottoms of my shoes to improve my traction on the ubiquitous black ice.
Some of my blunders paid dividends. When I lost my way to the Russian banya (sauna), I stumbled into a Thai massage clinic where a matronly woman with an evident talent for mixed martial arts planted her knees on either side of my coccyx and rode me like a hobbyhorse until every muscle in my body unspooled.
I later tried to locate the Museum of Repression and failed to convince a fur-hatted man stationed at a razor wire–encircled guard station to admit me to his compound, which I presumed to be the national archives.
So I retired to a French tea salon and ate three iridescent lemon macaroons.
I made my best mistakes when hungry, including the mistake that would define my trip. On day three, at Orin’s suggestion, I went in search of freshly stuffed kazy at the Green Bazaar, the thronged city market. I trudged through the aisles, past Dungan men (of Hui Chinese origin) selling chukka boots with pink synthetic fur erupting from the tops, Korean women brooding over buckets of pickled and peppered cabbages, and Uighur women peddling vats of honey, including an alabaster-hued variety said to alleviate insomnia.
Three wrong turns, taken in search of the top-floor gymnasium of butchery where dozens of women stand and stuff horse meat all day, delivered me to the basement. Across from a man selling ingots of compressed cantaloupe that, viewed in cross section, looked like petrified wood, I took a seat in Oral, a canteen with light-blue walls, two overhead fluorescent lights, 10 tables, and a working-class noonday clientele. In stilted English, I talked with a pair of diners, one of whom had a sister back in Michigan, and learned that taxi drivers are the café’s primary customers.
I asked the waitress for horse. Or at least I think I asked for horse. Instead, the young woman, sporting a smart blue smock and a cocked blue cap, brought me lagman, a pan- Asian dish of hand-pulled noodles (known as la mian in China), threaded with celery, onions, and minced long beans, blushed with tomatoes, pocked with shreds of lamb, and topped with a fried egg.
With little prompting, I ate my way to the bottom of the bowl, alternately forking and slurping ragged tubes of boiled wheat dough toward me, spraying my shirtfront with greasy broth. All the while I pantomimed conversation with a cabbie of Uighur ancestry (the Turkic-speaking population of northwestern China). As best as I could make out, he had emigrated 12 years back.
In that moment, and in that meal, I found a tack worthy of repetition. So I walked back in the door at about the same time the next day. And the next. Each time, the proprietor, who turned out to be Uighur, too, and whose name turned out to be Turban Kali, nodded in recognition. And each time, the waitress smiled shyly and turned toward the kitchen.
Instead of bringing me the plastic laminate menu with its roster of indecipherable dishes, written in Kazakh and Chinese characters, she brought me lagman. Each day, with each round came a cup of chai and the dawning realization that, while I had failed to break the language barrier and never had the opportunity to discern the difference between horse haunch and horse loin, I had managed to become a regular in a restaurant 12 time zones from home, which, come to think of it, counts as its own kind of connoisseurship.