Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Before-Bed Snack

Almaty feels like the comparative middle of nowhere. After Eastern China, with some of the highest population densities on the planet, we cross Asia to the West, covering hours (at 500 mph) of empty, arid plains and desolate mountains to arrive at Almaty, former capital of Kazakhstan, a city of 1.5 million people nestled at the foot of the Tien Shan mountains. The region is home to small communities of dirt streets and ramshackle construction dotted about scrubby farmland.

The airport is two closely-parallel 14,000 foot runways--that's space-shuttle long--only one of which is smooth enough to use at speed. There are some parking ramps with a passenger terminal on one end, all of it seeming to exist by a happenstance evolution rather than any deliberate plan. We park on a nondescript patch of pavement next to a field littered with old Soviet civilian aircraft in varying states of disassembly and decay. Our airplane is met by a couple mechanics and a "handler" / van driver and government agents. Everything is punctual and professional in a way that seems slightly incongruous to the locale; these are doubtless good jobs here. We are parked between a couple of 747s, chat with the mechanics and the oncoming crew, collect our stuff and we're off. We go through security, getting our passports stamped and scanned, and then take a 40 minute van ride through stop-and-go traffic to the hotel.

The city is a mixture of old and new--mostly old--but everything looks hard-used by the harsh climate and, I suspect, the shoddy Soviet construction methods. Many lots are vacant and strewn with trash and construction debris, and the roads vary widely in their condition. But everybody is out on the streets on a lovely night, buses and trolleys are full and the sidewalks are crowded. We pass a stadium filled with brightly costumed groups of youths and their adult handlers. Groups of kids in competing livery are calmly waiting their turn to put on some kind of dance or spectacle. The traffic is at a standstill here. Everyone in the stadium, several thousand people, sits quietly awaiting the next event. Next door to the stadium, a man with a huge banner hanging from a building sits alone on a milk crate in an abandoned lot behind the seating risers.

After check-in at the hotel, I go out to the attached outdoor restaurant. It's next to a guard shack where security people look with mirrors under the cars coming into the compound. The sounds from a kind of permanent carnival a block or two away can barely be heard. It's an unexpectedly lovely setting. The restaurant has a small enclosed bar (so drinks can flow in inclement weather) surrounded by a free-standing wood-fired oven and a bunch of tables with heavy umbrellas on them. Three big TVs and a huge projection screen have been set up and the World Cup matches are being quietly broadcast. Tables occasionally erupt with cheers as I much an excellent supper of chicken Caesar salad and Coke Light (it ought to be excellent for $45). It's probably 80° out and the staff come and light candles as the sun sets. A magical night. I extend my dinner thru another soda and watch people watching the game.

Almaty seems, to an American, like the cultural crossroads for a someone else's world. Part Asian, part Russian, part Mongol. I find it difficult to summarize the place, as all the elements are too foreign to me. I know that China is a huge and culturally vast place, and yet visiting a place like Shanghai seems, at first glance, largely like an exposure to a singular, coherent substance. Almaty just doesn't feel like that. It feels like a melting pot of several peoples and cultures, none of which hit a very familiar chord with me.

We arrived here late today due to mechanical issues in Korea. So my time to look around tomorrow will be limited. Then back to Warsaw and Cologne, and home.

1 comment:

shrimplate said...

Wonderful travelogue. Thank you.