Almaty, Kazakhstan

We awake in a Kazakhstan farm field, sneezing uncontrollably.

“Pass me some more grade-D toilet paper,” I ask Andrew.

It’s an inauspicious start to our dip back into Kazakhstan. Nonetheless, my spirits pick up when we reach the booming metropolis of Almaty. Construction’s everywhere, and the buildings are glass-covered and God-awful.

“They’re totally ripping off McDonald’s,” Mims says, pointing to a sign advertising Westburger. Its symbol is the golden arches, flipped 180 degrees to create a W. There’s also a place called Coffee Shop Pinocchio, with a Starbucks-like logo. Both establishments are inside a gleaming mall. We’ve been sleeping in fields for so long that the lure of antiseptic consumerism and processed food is too strong to resist.

“It feels like I’ve come home,” Mims says.

The mall is a multilevel wonderland loaded with escalators and security guards. Several of the latter follow our ragtag posse as we walk to the food court to sample Westburger’s finest.

Counter girls are wearing hats and clothes emblazoned with the W. I order a desiccated-looking cheeseburger wrapped in cellophane by pointing at it.

“With fries?” the counter girl asks.

My meal’s served on a plastic tray. Upon unwrapping my burger, the differences between Westburger and McDonald’s become apparent. The burger in front of me is no paper-thin patty; it’s lamb, topped with pickled cucumbers, tomato, lettuce, and a creamy red smear.

“It’s just like everything else we’ve been eating, but placed in burger form,” Mims says. The fries are crispy and crazy salty, sprinkled with a red powder that tastes like paprika. The meal does share one similarity with McDonald’s: It leaves my stomach queasy and regretful.

I wash that away with a steaming Americano from Coffee Shop Pinocchio, whose green color scheme is reassuring. The blast of caffeine is pure and strong.

“So this is what it feels like to be awake,” Mims says, sipping blissfully like it’s vintage wine.

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