Bad weather delayed our arrival to Almaty until late at night. We awoke to fresh sunshine and a clean blanket of snow, though I still felt drained – really drained. I could barely keep my head off the desk as the receptionist tried to convince me that the Old Testament’s Garden of Eden must have been in Almaty.
“You know that scientists prove that apples originate in Almaty, yes?”
“And The Garden of Eden was created at beginning of time, yes?”
“There was apple in garden, yes?”
“And first apples in Almaty, yes?”
“Then Garden of Eden has to be in Almaty!”
I must have been tired because I found myself agreeing with the logic. But after a night spent bravely guarding my Michael from mountain witches, evading the abyss, fighting giants and outwitting toilet guarding griffins, how did I expect to be feeling?
I need more than apples to get me through this one, I thought. With tiredness and hunger gnawing at me, I decided I needed to get back to basics. So I asked myself, what is the oldest and, therefore, most tried-and-tested travel advice in history?
“When in Rome, do as the Romans do…”
I was pretty certain I knew what the local remedy for a man in my position would be. Horsemeat is to the Kazakhs what spinach is to Popeye. It is claimed to make you faster, stronger, more agile, wiser and will even increase your virility past 90 years old.
Although in the UK and US, many may baulk at the idea of eating horse, here the connection runs centuries deep. Kazakhstan was the place where horses were first tamed to ride and it is also said that “Kazakh” means “free rider”. In the 1200s, the all-conquering Genghis Khan and his mighty Mongol army galloped across the steppes with ferocious speed. The versatile beasts didn’t just provide transport, but also milk, blood and eventually meat to fuel the army.
So off we went on the hunt for some equine dining.
One of the many pleasing features of Almaty is that wherever you are in the city, you can see the snowy Zailiski Ala-Tau mountain range to the south, so you always know your sense of direction and only fools could manage to get lost here. After getting thoroughly lost, we stumbled upon the Soho Almaty Club.
“Maybe a beer will sharpen our sense of direction?” said Micheal rubbing his hands together.
Sitting at the bar, there was only one other person in there and I could tell he was burning to talk to us. Mukhtar, a jolly old chap with a roaring laugh, an endearing air of pomposity and an inability to speak in anything less than shouting. He also happened to be the owner of the place.
“Hungry?!” he boomed, and before I could reply, without breaking eye contact with me, he snapped his fingers in the air at the barman.
20 minutes later, a platter of cold meats arrived at the bar. There was a white, yoghurt dip in the centre of the platter with five different cuts of varying colours and consistencies around it.
For our first bite, we played it safe and took one of the more familiar-looking pieces of meat.
“Beshbarmak!” Mukhtar roared, slapping Michael on the back, clearly delighted by his choice. “It means ‘fingers’! ‘Five fingers’ because you eat with the hands!”
The beshbarmak tasted similar to how it looked, like beef, but a bit sweeter perhaps, with a touch of gaminess.
“Smoked horse!” our host announced, as I picked up another. “Very traditional in Kazakhstan”.
“Tasty,” Michael replied, still chewing the dark meat. It was juicier than it looked, with a savoury, strongly smoky flavour, a delicious combination with the yoghurt dip.
One by one, our options decreased until we were left the one choice we’d both been avoiding. It looked like the chef had pushed the meat from a sausage, then served the skin. I knew what it was before Mukhtar told me.
“Horse intestines!” he said, beaming.
Intestines, I thought, Couldn’t they at least have come up with a more appetising name? But then I ran some alternative options through my mind, Horse guts, horse innards, horse bowels… maybe intestines is the most appetising after all.
Mukhtar was still looking at me as if I were his firstborn about to make a first step. It was touching to see how much this man enjoyed sharing his culture, but this offering felt cold and rubbery, as if I’d just picked up a refrigerated condom. Though nowhere near-verbatim, the sentiments of one of Anthony Boudain’s famous quotes flashed through my mind:
“Eat without fear, tearing into the local stew, the humble taqueria’s mystery meat, the sincerely offered gift of a lightly grilled fish head? I know what I want. I want it all. I want to try everything once.”
I popped the flaccid slug into my mouth and I started to chew…. and chew, and chew…. and then chew some more.
My final verdict? Four out of the five cuts of horsemeat were delicious – wonderfully succulent, even better than beef. The last one, however, felt like I was chewing the leftover gristle on a steak, though without the flavour.
But did I feel faster, stronger, more agile, wiser and more virile? Well, yes… I felt like Gengis Khan – ready to conquer the world! But the most important thing for me, by far, was that for the first time in my life I could legitimately say I’d eaten, like, a horse.