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There are many places in the world that I never expected to visit, and there aren’t many ‘stans’ on my bucket list. But earlier this month I found myself in Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan. But why? Curling, of course. It was the venue for the Pacific-Asia Curling Championships (PACC 2021).

The PACC has been on the go for 30 years as the regional competition for everywhere that isn’t in America or Europe, and this was to be Saudi Arabia’s debut at international for a men's team. After our training camp in Prague in September we had a team of 4 Saudis and I was going to travel as their coach. However, one of the guys had to drop out due to medical issues, and so I needed to play as well. This was easier said than done. Firstly, I had represented England in the past, so could I represent a different country? Yes, the World Curling Federation rules allowed for that as long as there was a clear 2 years between appearances. But what about our national body, the Saudi Winter Sports Federation? The Saudi team mates explained the situation to the SWSF and they in turn went to the national Olympic Committee for a decision. As the PACC was not a competition with a pathway to the Winter Olympics, and I held Saudi residency, permission was granted.


KSA Men's team plus coach

Next challenge was getting to Kazakhstan itself. Due to Covid19 the country was closed to visitors, and anyone travelling there required a special permission. The local organising committee (LOC) had arranged sports event visas for the participants, and we had to send team personal information to the LOC, and this was then processed at the relevant KZ ministry, and when approved, we had to go to the KZ embassy in Riyadh to formally apply and collect the visas. The embassy was open 4 days a week from 10.00 am to 12.00, so this entailed an escape from work. I drove to the Diplomatic Quarter in Riyadh, and presented myself at the embassy security gatehouse. Once the nature of my visit was confirmed, I was allowed inside and shown to an ante-room. After a few minutes a gentleman appeared and identified himself as the Consul. He asked why I was travelling to KZ, and was intrigued to hear about curling in KSA, and was equally surprised to hear that KZ was also a curling country. We had a nice chat over a cup of tea, and he issued my visa on the spot. And as it was a visa issued at the invitation of his country, it was also free of charge! How civilised, and a great first impression of his country.

And some time later, off we went to Almaty. The flight was a 2-legger, via Dubai. We had a 10-hour stopover at DXB, so how to pass the time there? Long story short, I bumped into three Scots in the airport arrivals corridors and learned that they were en route to watch the cricket T20 world cup match between Scotland and New Zealand, and they had a spare ticket. So off I went with them to watch the game. Unsurprisingly NZ won, but not by a big margin and it was an entertaining match. So different from the previous (and only) cricket international I had seen, Scotland v Australia on the North Inch in Perth as a youngster in 1972. Not quite the WACA, but still memorable with names like Lillee, Thompson and Chappel being there. My dad was a keen amateur cricketer and I learned much of that sport from him over those two sunny days. And so onto KZ, flying overnight and leaving the sunny climes of the UAE and emerging 4 hours later into -17C in Almaty. We got quite a grilling at passport control, clearly the staff there were also unaware that KZ was a curling country too; however we were eventually let in.

At this stage I must mention the volunteers. Most major curling events rely on a number of local sports enthusiasts who give up their time to help the competition go smoothly both on and off the ice. Our first encounter with the KZ volunteer team was a schoolkid holding up a sign that read ‘KSA Curling’ at the airport arrivals at 04.30 in the morning. He led us to a waiting minibus which we shared with a posse of Russian curling umpires – and an adult driver. More volunteers greeted us at the hotel and helped us check in. In fact, all week there were happy and helpful young volunteers assisting with all sorts of tasks, nothing was too much trouble for them. Their English was of varying qualities, and there was always a team leader who spoke excellent English nearby. My grateful thanks to them all.


Some of the fantastic volunteers

Due to Covid restrictions everyone had to stay at the official hotel, no staying on the cheap at an AirBnB. This was actually quite nice as it allowed communal socialising in the central area (the hotel was one of those built in a circular shape with interior walkways and exterior balconies).


Interior of the Rahat Palace hotel, complete with its yurt-shaped bar.

I’ll maybe gloss over the details of the curling competition inasmuch as we played 6 matches (against Korea, Qatar, Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei, Kazakhstan and Japan) and lost them all. However, as it was pointed out to us by the WCF President, that happens to most teams’ first time at international competition. Sadly we should have also played against Nigeria, but they withdrew from the competition extremely late in the day, and we had had very high hopes of being able to beat them. C’est la vie. Some matches were live streamed and our game against Taipei was chosen, and if interested you can find it on YouTube complete with sporadic commentary in Kazakh. You have to fast forward this to 24 minutes before the curling starts. Despite the results, Suleiman, Zain, Munir and I enjoyed every minute and it was a privilege to play against top quality teams such as Korea and Japan. Our stand-in coach Karrie was called on a few times to give us sane advice on how to get out of tight spots. We arranged a video meeting between the WCF President Kate Caithness and SWSF's Ahmad Tabbaa in Riyadh and this was a very helpful relationship building meeting. The WCF posted a positive news article on their website too, and this can be found at 

So what of Kazakhstan as a country and Almaty as a city? It's a landlocked country with significant borders with Russia and China to the north and east, the Ural mountains and the Caspian Sea to the west and some more "stans" to the south. The language is Kazakh, and 60% of the locals are Asian Kazakhs (with the start of ‘oriental’ facial features), and most of the others are of Russian stock, remnants of the Soviet era which finished 30 years ago. The written script is Russian Cyrillic, and English translations there commonly use the spelling ‘Qazaq’. 


The word Kazakh is the root of the ‘Cossack’, the Russian horsemen of lore. Notable achievements of the country are hardly recent, with claims to fame including domestication of the horse, and cultivation of the apple. Indeed, Almaty’s name apparently means “town of apples”.  The country is huge, 9th in size in global terms, but the population is very sparse with 19 million inhabitants found mostly in the largest city of Almaty and the ‘new’ capital of Nur-Sultan. There is a significant nomad population, and Kazakhs are regularly successful at the World Nomad Games which occurs every 2 years. Compared to the population density of the UK (280 people per square km) and Saudi Arabia (15), KZ’s density of 7 is remarkably sparse for a fertile country with trading in all directions across the Silk Road.  


Apples, apples ...


... and more apples. 350 KZT = GBP £0.60 or 3 SAR per kilo.

The hotel we stayed in was the Rahat Palace, and was located in the cultural district of Alamty. This was a nice airy quarter and I enjoyed a few pleasant walks out (the weather thawed out a bit as the week progressed). We were next door to the State Circus, but it seemed to be closed as a Covid precaution, as indeed were most other indoor culture opportunities. 


En route through Almaty, with the Alatau mountains visible

One noticeable thing was the air quality, which was visibly poor. Maybe it was seasonal, but traffic pollution seemed to linger in the cold air, and could have been trapped in the area as the city is flanked to the south by an impressive mountain range. These mountains host some impressive ski pistes (so I read), and there are a couple of scary-looking ski jumps at the southern edge of the city, which we passed occasionally as we were bussed to and from the ice rink. 


The spectacular ice rink venue with its hospitality yurt outside


Inside the yurt / Tardis

In fact, the city was a candidate for the 2022 Winter Olympic Games, which were awarded to Beijing. We were curling in one of the ice venues, and this was next door to the supposed athletes village, now a residential neighbourhood. Some of the street direction signs had references to the Olympic venues, which seemed a bit incongruous. Some Olympic infrastructure was incomplete, the single line metro finished prematurely at what would have been an intermediate stop on the journey towards the main stadium. The city’s tram network had been shut down about 5 years ago and most traces were obliterated, however I did come across the old depot which had a couple of rusting relics parked within.

One of the criteria I use for judging the state of a country is its money, and how well the banknotes are presented and maintained. I’m happy to report that KZ’s Tenge notes were clean, crisp and colourful, which gave a positive impression. The cost of living seemed to be very reasonable, and a meal out at a nice restaurant including wine (not that the Saudis touched that, of course) seemed to be about half the price of what we could pay in Europe. The food available was not as wide a choice as might be found elsewhere, with meat and potato or beetroot based dishes the staple. We saw a few ethnic restaurants on our journeys, but they were not as plentiful as what one might find elsewhere. As the south of KZ seemed to be a muslim predominant area, there was no pork available in the hotel (there might have been elsewhere, but I didn’t see any in the nearby supermarket either). One menu fare was horse, and this was found on most menus, including in the hotel. Having heard others say it was nice, I tried a horse fillet steak one evening, and found it to be delicious, and very similar to beef.

One of the Saudi team dragged me into a local property development office showroom and we looked at what a modern luxury apartment would cost us in a new development, and this seemed to be quite affordable, and I judged it to be about 1/5th of London prices. I compare it to London, because the development seemed to have an identity crisis that most Asians wouldn’t have spotted, that it was called Lancashire and yet had a picture of London’s Elizabeth Tower on the UK parliament building (commonly and erroneously known as Big Ben) as its symbol.

We finished up with a sleepless night (curling closing ceremony at the ice arena, then dinner party in the hotel then an overnight flight) we had another long wait at DXB before the final leg back to Riyadh. No cricket this time, just reading a book in the airport lounge. So a very interesting trip abroad and a huge learning experience for Saudi winter sports.

Kazakh childrens' dombra orchestra at the closing ceremony 
So, would I go back to KZ again as a tourist? Yes, and I'd like to explore different areas of the country too, see the Urals and the steppes further north. 

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