Monday, June 15, 2009


(I wonder if this is what it's like for Bruce Willis...)

A couple days into my long weekend here, I'm having trouble summarizing this place. It was hard to figure even before I got here, and it's only slightly easier after seeing it in the flesh. We have a place on our union website where crewmembers can put in their two cents' worth about places, both flying concerns and layover cautions / points of interest. And no other place to which we fly has garnered the number and extremity of comments as Almaty.

Hotel room view.

A former Soviet Socialist Republic, Kazakhstan declared its independence in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union. While no longer a Communist state, it is a "democracy" like Dick Cheney dreams about, having granted its president, Nursultan Nazarbayev (former head of the Kazakhstan Communist Party) a lifetime tenure in office and full veto power over the work of the legislature (and in any case it sounds like they only really work on legislation he proposes). Wikipedia says Kazakhstan is the world's ninth largest country (by area), and the largest landlocked country. The country is home to over 16 and a half million people; Almaty about 1.4 million.

("There's no place like... well, there aren't many places like... OK, yeah, it's a dump.")

Like Warsaw, Almaty retains a strong primer coat of Soviet style, with most of its architecture and the transportation system all looking like they were lifted right from 1970 Moscow. But apparently its economy has made some forward strides, and Monday morning finds a city buzzing with activity.

(...even if this picture doesn't show it.)

Crew comments about Almaty have been sharply divided between those who have run into trouble (or, more accurately, those who know somebody who knows somebody who has run into trouble) and those who feel the bad press is quite unwarranted. At its darkest, Almaty is said to be virtually run by the Russian mob, and we are urged to use great caution in dealing with people. There are several harrowing stories, among them a fellow who, after a night at a bar, went back to the hotel with a local woman and, after a bit of playtime, was accused of rape and thrown in the local jail. The resources of the entire crew were needed to bail the guy out, and the money was divvied out right in front of them between the accuser and police and judge. (Now, as a "pilot story," I'm inclined to discount about 90% of this; and I always have to stop the teller mid-story when they get to the "...and so he agreed to take her back to his hotel room..." part: TIME OUT! Don't you DARE continue from this point and tell me how this guy got a raw deal! I begin to think wives should be allowed to attach a GPS ankle bracelet with audio / video capability to these Fox Noise scumbags.) And on the other hand, there are many reports of guys' favorite restaurants and how to get around and scenic walking routes.

Almaty lawn care.

Anyway, I didn't know quite what to expect. We got here just after noon local time on Sunday, and I went out walking around. There were a lot of young men just sitting around, singly and in small groups, loitering in the afternoon shade, keeping an eye on the goings on. But none of them seemed particularly menacing, and everybody left me alone. Monday I took a much more extensive walk, and found much the same aspect. The sidewalks were full of people walking or sitting, and everyone seemed to take note of me but no one payed me any attention beyond that. There is an instant of initial eye contact, but then everyone just minds their own business. In contrast to Cologne and Warsaw and even Shanghai, there is almost no English spoken here, but people are patient and happy to let one point and gesture one's way to a purchase.

(Notice that everybody but the one dude is looking at me in this picture. And I took about 2 seconds of setup. The Soviet Union may not actually be dead.)

A millennium ago I took a couple years of Russian at the University of Minnesota. Kazakh is the "state language" of Kazakhstan, and Russian the "official language" (whatever that means), and most signs are in Russian. Now, my 2 years of mediocre studies almost 30 years ago would have enabled me at the time to ask where the bathroom was. That's about it. (And I would have had to pray that their answer came in the form of a finger pointed at a nearby door; that would have been the limit of my understanding. Even the four-year students were not really considered to be conversational, as the language is so difficult.) Today, if I take long enough, I can sound out the Cyrillic words, which yields one about a 30% payoff, and my dusty memory yields me a few more words. But where Russian deviates into Kazakh is unclear to me, and it just makes for a larger body of incomprehension.

I've noted that Kazakhs are more reserved and stoical than the other recently-visited places on this trip. People do smile and laugh, but most are taciturn and interactions with people, even hotel and restaurant service people, are terse and all-business. I remember reading an article a few months back which noted that Russians (who are perhaps of much the same cast as the Kazakhs) looked upon habitually-smiling Americans as foolish and silly. One has a bit of that sense here too, though I have not been aware of anyone's scorn toward my sunny disposition.

As always, I'm taken by transportation matters. I've seen a couple above-ground trolley car lines, the rail cars themselves looking quite old and dirty and tattered. The tracks look just maintained enough to keep the trains running, and the thumps and squeals from the humpy rails, like an oxcart on cobbles, announce the coming train from a block or two away. Drivers here are quite crazy and aggressive, and they give way to pedestrians only very reluctantly. So the train letting people off in the middle of the road seems pretty hazardous.

On all the other streets, a veritable armada of buses ferry people around. They are everywhere, and typically full of riders, especially at rush hour when it's standing-room only, the standees jammed in like sardines, making it challenging to get the doors closed. The buses themselves cover quite a spectrum, from old and small and almost agricultural to more modern (though few of these). About 2/3 or 3/4 of the bus fleet are diesels, and the others are electric, taking their power from an overhead catenary. The few new-ish buses I saw were electric, though most of the electrics looked as battered and tired as the diesels.

"Didja ever have the feelin' you was bein' watched?..."

All the diesel buses are manual transmission, as they were in Shanghai, which would seem odd to me except that virtually every other automotive vehicle in these places is manual shift as well. Even the oldest buses I drove back in the day in MSP were automatics. (We appear to be the only country who collectively have forgotten how to drive a stick.) The diesels, through age or cost considerations, are old-school diesels: rattly and belching black smoke (trucks and delivery vehicles too). In the middle of the morning rush hour the air was notably grimy from the commute. None of the buses are air conditioned, and most have curtains to draw against the sunshine to try and control the temperature, but I couldn't help thinking that a packed-to-capacity smokey old rattle-trap of a bus taking commuters home after a hot day in the office would be a rather farm-like experience.

Especially with the wide variety of hygiene standards in force here. As I walk around the city, any woman in front of me always smells fresh and lovely , but the guys are a mixed experience. Maybe 10% are perfumed in some way; most of them, about 50% have no odor at all, and the other 40% vary from slightly animal to pointedly rank. I remember my Russian teacher from college saying that Russian society was not nearly so obsessed with cleanliness as Americans were, and I wonder how much that idea applies down here.

Odd things. On my first walk, I saw several occasions of individual women flagging down a car and then talking through the open window to the driver; and then she got in and they drove away. By the third or fourth one I knew something was up. In one case there was a policeman right there. Is prostitution legal, I wondered? Is this really how it's done, in the middle of the day from a curb at a busy bus station? Later I saw a couple guys doing the same thing. Is Almaty smaller than I thought and everybody knows everybody else? Back at my room, I read my notes more carefully (and looked on the Wikipedia site for Almaty) and learned that this is one form of their local taxi service: you stand at the curb and hold your hand out, and generally within a minute or two someone--in their private car--will stop. You negotiate a destination and price (generally two or three dollars' worth) and off you go. Fascinating. The street you stand on and the direction of the traffic you flag is enough to ensure a high likelihood that a driver will be able to satisfy your travel needs. Apparently a number of our pilots have used it and nobody's yet awakened with their face in a bucket of ice water and their corneas missing. Most of the cars I saw doing this were old and ratty, but it's really an excellent way to cover some costs (and help reduce societal usage of fuel). If you did this on every drive you'd at least operate your car for free, and might even make some headway towards a payment.

My timing was bad. Here two middle-aged women are using the citizens' taxi service.

I've seen several places with lawn-watering systems in the form of big, permanent irrigation pipes laid above ground (and painted green) with multiple offshoots which spray water around the space. But then nothing gets mowed, not least because the pipes are in the way (chicken or egg: do they not mow because of the pipes? Or are the pipes this way OK because nobody was going to mow anyway?). But I've seen little mowed grass anywhere, even at the nicer hotels. In fact, I've been surprised a few times to see people going in and out of buildings I was sure were abandoned, mostly because the yards look like abandoned US buildings' yards would look. (There are a lot of abandoned buildings here, and maybe the general lawn care ethos is intended to camouflage the abandoned buildings to keep property values up...) (For that matter, there are a lot of vacant spaces even in the occupied buildings.)

The sidewalks are made of a mixture of materials--concrete, pavers, crushed gravel, tar macadam, dirt--all of which are crumbling and none of which look less than 30 years old. And the sidewalks are bounded typically with bare dirt or perhaps weeds. There is no manicuring of these spaces at all. And yet the trash is almost always picked up, and I saw quite a few people tidying up their walkways with old witch brooms or rakes. The air is dirty and there is grime and dust everywhere, but people do not seem to litter, and there's not a lot of graffiti. This constant sweeping and picking up makes me think the decrepitude of the buildings and infrastructure is partly due to the harsh climate. It's not a dirty place, exactly, and it's not poor in the sense of some of the tropical nations where there is no infrastructure at all. It reminds me a little of some of the industrial places in the US after the industry has pulled up stakes.

Dirt sidewalk with open storm sewer.

Nice tar sidewalk, still with open storm sewer. Lots of heavy iron fences around the city.

The convenience stores are quite different from what I'm used to. My beloved Diet Coke is available (in the slightly vile Coke Light variant), but only at a few select places. The convenience stores concentrate on magazines and newspapers and cigarettes and a few other things, but not particularly on snacks or soda (and, perhaps subsequently, people are mostly thin, if not especially athletic). And no attempt whatsoever is made to beautify any of these places. I thought at first that these little cubicles were actually storage sheds for street maintenance tools or the like, as they are often filthy and inconspicuous.

The Kazakh Seven-Eleven.

The big intersections have street under-passes, which often have little shops in them. But most of the stores are unused, and some of the tunnels are unlighted and seem quite spooky. Even where there are functioning stores in the tunnels they are often little more than a room with a bare light bulb and makeshift shelves. I saw one woman preparing some kind of food--there were several people waiting for their orders--in a small, bare room with two huge ovens and a card table and chair. That was it. No sign, no wall decorations. It looked like a KGB interrogation chamber. I saw another, a clothes cleaning service, I think, that had a board-and-sawhorses counter in one room, and in the adjacent room clearly the proprietor's sleeping chamber (bed, chair, side table). I can't imagine feeling secure there sleeping behind a window at 2:am in a tunnel off a busy street. Maybe it's only for naps, but even then. (I went by a day later and the same windows were blacked out.)

There are no street signs anywhere. I got a map from the hotel, and it struck one immediately that having the map is useless if the streets on the map cannot be identified on foot or in the car. One can use the huge mountain range to the South to orient, but finding things takes a bit of trial and error (or experience). It's not unpleasant to hunt and peck, and the city is pedestrian-friendly enough. But you'd need to take some time and learn your way around if you wanted to get somewhere efficiently. Maybe a transportation map would be in order. (And that reminds me: no bicycles whatsoever.) And as for the street names, the map is instructive of the city's recent past: the street names are listed on an index with the old names alongside. These include: Kommunistichesky Ave, Pravdy Ave., Kosmonavtov St. (the Russian Baikonur Spaceport is in Kazakhstan), Lenin St., Gorky St., Sovetskaya St., Karl Marx St., etc.

Almost all places of any size have guards at the door. I don't see a lot of armament on these guards, but the security presence is marked. The small grocery store in the mall I went to today had several security people keeping an eye on things, in addition to the security in the mall itself. The driveway to our hotel has a guard and a gate at it, and he circles all incoming vehicles with mirror to look under the chassis. (I wonder at this: there is an entry driveway with a guard shack and a plastic gate arm and, on the other side, an unsupervised exit gate with the same arm. What person savvy enough to plant an explosive device under a car wouldn't think to just enter the exit side? Maybe the scrutiny is for devices planted unwittingly on an innocent person's car.) There are quite a few police booths around town, usually with a couple guys in uniform sitting outside on folding chairs, wearing huge flying-nun hats (like a pilot hat with several times the flare). On my divergent walks over the past three days I've seen these police booths all over the place. Again, one wonders what to make of this. Is this a holdover from the Big Brother Soviet era? Or does the new government operate exactly the same? Is it a reflection of ongoing security problems in the city? (This seems unlikely, if the stories about police corruption and collusion with the mob are to be believed.) In any case, the city seems quite safe; I saw no evidence of malarky at all.

The WWII Memorial at Panfilov Park.

I walked today over to Panfilov Park, where there is a huge memorial to soldiers who fought in all of the USSR's wars. The war memorial is huge and foreboding, and serves as the terminus to one end of the memorial plaza, which includes battle sites and an eternal flame. On the other end is a very Soviet-looking official building.

Elsewhere in the park--right next door to the memorial, actually--is an old cathedral, which is billed as the second tallest wooden structure in the world. I managed to step inside right at the beginning of a service. No organ, but a very competent small choir was singing รก capella some very dirge-like selections (along the lines of Rachmaninov's or Gretchaninov's Vespers, though not quite so inspired--but the acoustic and effect was the same). At first I thought it was a recording, they were so good.

The Cathedral in Panfilov Park.

I sat for a while and listened to the singers, and watched the be-shawled babushkas with sensible shoes and no ankles hobble around to the stations and bow & scrape to the various pictures. Most of the old women actually leaned over to kiss the picture frame, demonstrating firsthand how infectious disease has spread throughout human history.
(It's one thing to show up to a beautiful place and be calmed and soothed by the ritual and the music and the beauty. It just seems other-worldly to me to see people engaged in the ritual and treating it as something real, crossing oneself again and again and kneeling and kissing icons, etc. But that's another post.)

Sorry for the blurry picture. No flash (I probably wasn't supposed to take the picture at all).

So in the end this has been a pretty enjoyable layover: good hotel, decent food, not a bad place to walk around. Of course I'd prefer Shanghai or Cologne (and I'm told that Hong Kong and Sydney are fantabulous), but from my brief exposure I'd say the bad reputation is undeserved. We'll see how I feel after a winter weekend at -30°F.


shrimplate said...

Excellent travelogue. Thanks. I had never even heard of Almaty.

Dzesika said...

Wow and double wow. Thanks for such a thorough glimpse into such a random place! Also, I think you should start calling yourself 'Mr UPS Airlines' from now on.

wstachour said...

It really is an interesting place. But after three full days and no transportation I'm ready to blast outta dodge. A long weekend in some of our other gateways would hardly scratch the surface; I feel like I've seen about as much of Almaty as I need for the time being!

dbackdad said...

Fantastic recap. Do you take notes while you are traveling around or do you just have a really good memory?

wstachour said...

Ha! Neither (but thanks for the compliment).

The photos that I take will jog my memory back in my room, but you can take it for granted that I've managed to forget (or fail to even recognize) maybe the most important stuff. But as I walk around stuff comes to me. One of my pet peeves on this trip is that my iPhone, with its notepad function, remains back in the hotel room since 1) I have a better camera along, and 2) the phone doesn't work as a phone until I activate an international plan. So where I might put down a word or two on my notepad in the States for later use, here I'm handicapped to just my pictures.

I think if I lived, say, in Almaty I might be less able to write about what are, to me, the interesting details as they would cease to stand out. It's the contrast to what I (and most anybody who might read the post) am familiar with that opens the door.

Mike said...

That is a great recap of your trip. It's interesting to hear about different places like that and I'm glad you got to see it. Remember though to not drop you guard too much!