Hotels in Kazakhstan in 1995 by
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Right nest door to Kosmonaut House

On January 19, 1995, I set off on a trip to Kazakhstan to help find ways in which American computer technology could help improve the safety and/or efficiency of the coal mining industry in that country, which had recently become an independent state, no longer under the domination of the Soviet Union.  I left Columbus on a Thursday evening, and traveled to Cincinnati and Frankfurt  before arriving in Almaty,  Kazakhstan early on Saturday morning.  (The total travel time was about 24 hours, but took place over parts of three days because of the different time zones.)  I’ll write about the two weeks I spent there and the adventures I had at a different time, but this note is about the hotels I experienced there.

I was picked up at the airport by Sasha, the driver for Alan Irving, an employee of the Agency for International Development and my guide for the two weeks I was in the country.  Sasha took me to the Hotel Kazakhstan in the center of Almaty.  I learned that the the hotel was the only large building left standing after a disastrous earthquake some years earlier.  It is a tall building, maybe twelve stories or more, and appeared to be very modern in its architecture.  The first thing I noticed was that there was a team of women who spent their entire day mopping the floor in the lobby – as soon as they had finished mopping, they would start over again, all day long.  I made my way up to my room where I met the dzherniya, the floor lady, who was responsible for everything that happened on the floor.

My room had a small bed that was made up with sheets and blankets wrapped up in a way to provide a very warm and snug place to sleep.  There was a small bathroom with a shower,  a sink, and a toilet through which water ran constantly, which made it tough to sleep.  I lay down for a few hours to try to adjust to the jet lag, but was awakened after a few hours, when the telephone rang.  It was a prostitute offering her services – apparently the prostitutes have arrangements with the floor ladies and call around to the rooms until they find a willing client.  (I was told that if a hotel guest repeatedly declines the services of a female prostitute, he will then start getting calls from male prostitutes, but that did not happen in my case.)

The next morning, Sunday, Sasha drove Alan and me to the airport and we caught a flight to Ekibastuz, a city of around 140,000 people in an area near a gigantic surface mining operation, which I consider to be the eighth wonder of the world.  (Ekibastuz also happens to be the city where Alexander Solzhenitsen was sent during the Soviet era.)  Alan and I were picked up at the airport and driven to the Gastinitsya Byelochka, the “Little Squirrel Hotel”, where me met Rick, the chair of the mining engineering department at the University of Kentucky, and Jim Dinger, a geologist from the same university.  They had already been in Ekibastuz for a week, working on ways to mitigate the pollution caused by dust from the massive mining operation which surrounded the city.

When we checked into the hotel, I was asked to hand over my passport!  I was concerned about that, but Alan assured me that I would get it back, that the police wanted to know every person who came into town.  Dinners at the hotel consisted of whatever the staff could find in what went for grocery stores there.  Rick and Jim had already made it clear that they were not going to have another meal of beets, so we were spared that, but we had a lot of thickened sour cream, which the Russians there considered quite a delicacy, eggs when they could find them, meat which was almost certain to have been horsemeat, and some vegetables, along with truly horrible coffee or somewhat better tea (chai).

We visited coal mines in the area on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday then flew back to Almaty on Thursday and checked back in to the Hotel Kazakhstan.  By that time, I was very happy to find a nice big glass of thickened sour cream for my breakfast on Friday morning.  Rick and Jim flew back to the US on Saturday.

On Sunday, Alan and I flew to Karaganda, a major city of about 640,000 people  around which were some twenty-six deep mines, twenty-five of which were on strike.  (The miners were on strike because they hadn’t been paid in months, because the coal mines had hot been paid by the power companies in months, because the miners had not paid their power bills in months, because…)  In Karaganda, we checked into the Gastinitsya Chaika, the Seagull Hotel.  At the front desk, they told us that our rooms would be the equivalent of $280 per night, each, but Alan talked them down to just $28 per night, which was more than enough, considering that that there was no hot water in the hotel!  (This was in the middle of winter in an area close to Siberia, where the temperature typically dips down to -40 degrees!)

One interesting thing about the Seagull hotel is that it was right next to Kosmonaut House, where the cosmonauts were taken to recuperate after spending time in space.  There is a plaque on the wall of Kosmonaut House with the names of some of the people who had stayed there, including Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to travel to space.

While we were in Karaganda, we went underground at the only coal mine that was working,  I was accustomed to going underground at coal mines in the US, but on this trip I found myself down approximately 2600 feet, half a mile, the deepest I had ever been.  During the time we were in the mine, we didn’t see a single lump of coal actually moved out of the face, because the equipment was broken down, typical of mines in that area.

On Thursday, we again flew back to Almaty.  As I tried to check back into the Hotel Kazakhstan, other people kept crowding in front of me, until I loudly yelled out “Nyet!  I was here first!”  They looked at me with shocked expressions, but made way for me to get up to the front desk and check in.

On Sunday mornings in Almaty, all of the people working for the AID would gather for brunch at the Hotel Dostyk, which had been the Communist Party hotel during the Soviet era.  This was the highlight of the week, with every kind of meat, eggs, pastries, and other foods imaginable, and with REAL COFFEE, rich, dark, hot coffee, and as much of it as you could drink.  The $25 price of the brunch was worth it just for the coffee.

On the second Sunday that I was there, I happened to look across the table at Jim Gershin, a guy who hosted a get-together for English-speaking people every Thursday at his apartment, where we could unwind after a week in the field working solely through translators and hear English spoken for the entire evening.  (It was my desire to get over to Jim’s apartment that Thursday after the time in Karaganda that made me yell out to get to the front desk at the hotel.)  Anyway, I noticed a ring on Jim’s finger and asked him to pass it over to me.  It was his class ring from the Harvard class of 1970, just a year before I graduated.  It turned out that he had been on the Harvard crew, knew my classmate Tom Tiffany, who had been the cox on the crew, and had been at the historic game in 1968 when Harvard beat Yale 29-29.

On the Saturday after the Karaganda trip, I flew back to the US.  Going that direction, I left on Saturday morning, and was back in Columbus Saturday evening – a time zone thing again.

Profile photo of Jeff Gerken Jeff Gerken

Characterizations: funny, well written


  1. Suzy says:

    Jeff, this is a fascinating story about some very different hotel experiences. I think everyone is so wrapped up in photo booths that this new story on old prompt has gotten overlooked. I will try to get the word out.

  2. Fascinating trip and story Jeff!

    My husband also had had business travels to Soviet countries – before and after the USSR breakup – and has told some strange hotel stories – but never mentioned (at least not to me) such enterprising prostitutes!

    I was interested to hear your Solzhenitsen and cosmonauts comments. And glad you found a Harvard crewer!

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    Fascinating tale, Jeff. I’m so glad that Suzy did get the word out so we could check it out. A rare look into barely, post-Communist accommodations. To our Western eyes, you went through the “ringer”, but kept doing your job. The food and lack of hot water must have been a real trial. Also, always being under suspicion (giving up your passport under those conditions must have been alarming). The inefficiency (ladies mopping the floor all day, the “floor lady”, the constant calls from a prostitute), bespeaks a corrupt society, not to mention the mine workers and mines that hadn’t been paid in weeks.

    You’ve also given us really interesting factoids about who lived where and when. I really appreciated that part of your story as well. And how great that you ran into a fellow Harvard almnus who attended that famous game (I saw and enjoyed the movie). What were the odds, being so far from home?

  4. Laurie Levy says:

    So interesting to learn about your hotel experiences in a very different part of the world.

  5. Khati Hendry says:

    You got a glimpse behind what was a curtain–wonder how hard that curtain will fall again, given current political trends. Thanks for the clear picture you painted. Your story about running into the Harvard alum reminded me of a time I was racing to get on a tour boat in Homer Alaska, and just as I finally made it on board was greeted by my freshman roommate, whom I hadn’t seen for many years! Small world. My sister visited Kazakhstan (Peace Corps related)around the same time you were there, and reported a general lack of functioning services similar to what you describe. We visited in 2018 (relative working in US embassy) and found Almaty surprisingly bright and bustling. Didn’t stay at a hotel there, but did take a side trip to Uzbekistan where they took passports, tracked us etc, but were trying to be more tourist-friendly. Amazing old architecture. Mid-Asia is an ancient and challenging part of the world.

  6. Marian says:

    Coolest hotel story ever. Really enjoyed it.

    • Jeff Gerken says:

      I don’t know that it ranks as “the coolest story ever”, but my two weeks in Kazakhstan in the middle of the winter in 1995 was definitely one of the most interesting experiences I have had. So far, I just told you of my hotel experiences. In some other context, I will will talk about the mines that I saw, the conversations that I had with Kazakh/Russian engineers, the business meetings built around food, vodka, and “toasts”, the meetings with government officials high in the energy ministry, and my observations about people trying to establish a market economy in a country that had never had anything like a market economy.

  7. John Shutkin says:

    A fascinating travelogue about hotels — and coal mining, for that matter — in Kazakhstan for that matter. And a reminder, particularly apt these days, about just how “Third World” much of the SSR was, and probably still is, cosmonauts and nuclear weapons notwithstanding. I’m glad you could be so open minded about your experiences, but I bet it felt good to get back home.

    Interesting about the prostitutes. Reminds me, in a vague way, about the most important travel tip given to my wife and me a few years ago when we went to Portugal. They have an odd restaurant custom there of coming up to your table with many different and unrequested appetizers — many quite yummy looking– but, if you take any, there is an additional charge to your meal for each one and they will keep bringing them around. So, unless you want to sample a wide array of delicacies and pay a hefty price for them, it is important to initially (and politely) say “no thank you” and they will stop bringing them around. And, no, they do not then offer up male prostitutes.

  8. Dave Ventre says:

    Kazakhstan sounds like it was a fascinating and unnerving place to visit. I’d LOVE to tour a coal mine, although I’d prefer it be a state-of-the-art (i.e., relatively safe) one.

    The desire for GOOD coffee was completely relatable!

    • Jeff Gerken says:

      You’d better hurry, before too long there won’t be any working coal mines in the U.S. And you would have to know someone to visit an underground mine, because of safety concerns.

      There used to be a demonstration mine near Beckley, WV. Don’t know if that is still there.

      If you do visit a mine, I would suggest that it be a union mine. Union workers have a contractual right to withdraw if they feel they are being placed in an unsafe situation. Most accidents/deaths today are in non-union mines.

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