Friday, June 18, 2010

On the Steppes of Asia

Everybody laughs at my Diet Coke fetish. On the ground in Shanghai, the captain on this flight (who does not drink much soda) filled out his catering form for Korea. "Here, I'll help you out, " he announced, and put "20" in the opening next to the Diet Coke box. Normally we check the box and get two or four of whatever. We laughed. Sure enough, in Korea comes a huge ziploc bag with 20 Coke Lights. I didn't feel so bad, since the cans are only 250ml each (this is how the Koreans stay so skinny, I reason; they drink skinny sodas. It's an update on Lamarck). Somebody had left some high-grade coffee in the airplane and the stuff to make it on the fly (filters and a filter drip cup, all labeled in bags), so I paid penance by making coffee for the other two guys. Everybody was happy.

( And like good boys we drank them all--though I took the last of them to the hotel.)

After a good night's rest in Almaty I spent a couple hours this morning wandering around the city. I haven't been here in nearly a year, so I walked in a semi-familiar direction. There's no subway here and only a few surface rail lines--streetcars, which grumble along tracks in the center of the roadway--so most of the population drives private cars or rides a pretty extensive bus network. Everything--housing and transportation and business and landscaping--looks tired and beat up. Even the people look well-used. Last time I was here I noted some new-ish looking electric buses, but this morning everything looked abused by life. About a third of the buses are electric (technically these are trolleybuses), which solves some problems but raises others. The electric buses are quiet and any associated pollution stays out of town at the power plant, and at least some of them appear to be air conditioned. But I saw a car broken down in a bus lane this morning, positioned just so that the bus could not get around it and keep its trolley poles on the wires above (I wonder if some of them have a bit of battery reserve for this contingency; I've seen guys out back re-seating the trolley poles before). He was backing up slowly on the crowded street, evidently knowing where he could detour around a block and pick up his route again. With a diesel bus this would of course pose no difficulty whatever.

(Sewer work. The city has open storm sewers, and this work is not to enclose them, but to put in newer open storm sewers.)

(Love the heavy iron fences.)

(A 1/5 scale Eiffel Tower, with interesting adjacent rooftop cafe.)

(An abandoned lot. Buried in the foliage is an overgrown children's playground.)

(Heavy iron fencing around side of abandoned playground lot.)

(A lovely sidewalk cafe. Note nice bridges over storm sewer.)

(Couldn't figure what this building was. Lots of kids waiting to go in, but parts of the building looked abandoned, other parts inhabited. It looks like fancy architecture shabbily built.)

The traffic here is almost uncontrolled. The street conditions are such that there are few distinct lanes, and vehicles go where there is space for them (even if just barely). The right of way belongs to whoever gets there first. Traffic lights are obeyed, but traffic is often stalled; intersections fill up so that one occasionally sees interwoven, impenetrable knots of stalled cars from all directions. There is lots of horn-honking. Once this happens, the traffic lights are ignored until the intersection clears.

It's not a bad place to walk in the summer, but sidewalks are quite variable, and utility and road construction are continuous. I walked past a hole in the sidewalk today that was 6' X 6' across and about 8' deep--plenty big enough to swallow up a pedestrian or bicycle or scooter if you weren't paying attention. The hole had no markings or warnings of any kind, and there were probably 25 plastic bottles at the bottom, so it had been there for a while. If this happened in the US the lawsuit would keep a bunch of people in lobster dinners for life.

(A bus stop retail stop; a florist shop and convenience store.)

(Soviet-era-looking multiplex cinema. The Cyrillic writing on the side says "Kino-Teatr," cinema theater.)

(One of the bigger pedestrian under-passes, like those in Warsaw.)

(Narrow shops in the tunnels.)

(The tiny booth ahead is selling some kind of food. Little white paper bags are placed outside on an adjacent table.)

(A florist shop in the tunnel. Kazakhs appear to love their flowers.)

(The surface-level irrigation system. Could be hell to mow around. The ONE American presence I saw here: all the city groundskeepers use Craftsman mowers.)

I went past a large park area (marveling again at the on-the-surface irrigation pipes) with numerous plantings and a huge fountain, and eventually found myself up a hill by a huge official-looking building. Almaty was the capital of Kazakhstan until the fall of the Soviet Union, and this building looked very much like a Soviet-era government building. In the parking lot out front I got a couple pictures of the cityscape below, and I ran across an ancient looking Jeep-type thing. I noticed that it had a medallion on the front saying "Japan Automobile Federation." I snapped a couple pictures of this. An old man was sitting behind the jeep on the curb opposite. He did not see me photographing his car, but a fella two cars down was watching me like I had robbed a lady's purse. I sauntered on. About five minutes later there's a tug on my sleeve. It's the old man. He has followed me and caught up with me. I give him a friendly wave and continue on. He prattles on to me and gently tugs my sleeve again. I turn around. He talks and gestures behind him and I see him mimic a camera and say the word "machina" (Russian for "car"). "Yeah," I say, "machina." He gestures behind him with his thumb and says something. What to do? I'm not going to show him my iPhone, and I'm not going back to discuss photographing a civilian car which is parked in plain view in the parking lot in front of a public building. I shrug my shoulders. "What of it?" After a pause, he waves his hand in disgust and turns away. We go our separate ways. I can't help thinking this is a remnant of 55 years of Soviet influence. Everybody watches everyone else and expects the worst. I've never felt threatened or unwelcome as I walk around the city, but I have noticed that many of my pictures here show people in the frame watching me closely. In no other place I have visited has this been the case. I suspect the old man with the Jeep wondered what I was doing photographing his car and license plate, not thinking that the car itself could be of legitimate interest to me. I must have had a nefarious reason for taking the photos. Of course there may be another explanation. Maybe the car is owned by an official (but again, what of it?). The rest of my walk back to the hotel I half expected the man to track me down again, this time with some official in tow. I even thought of seeking him out and throwing the photos away in his presence, but that just begins to seem silly.

(The truck that almost got me locked in prison. Well, not quite.)

I'm due back here in three weeks or so. Maybe we'll have made up by then.


Jon said...

The city does seem poor. What is the main industry? I'm guessing its farming or some kind of factory work. How big is Almaty anyway? You said before that the people are friendly, the city just looks poor.

wunelle said...

Not sure what the main industry is. The Wikipedia page says the city is 1.4 million or so. It doesn't feel that big, though we haven't seen so much of it.

The people have a Russian character. No one is friendly per se (except the hotel people, who are paid and trained to be Western-friendly), but they are not difficult or hateful. There's something in the Russian character that keeps people from being joyful except sporadically. They tend to think of cheerful Americans as being silly. In Almaty, it's maybe not quite as bad as that, but everybody minds their own business while keeping an eye on everyone else. That seems to be the rule.

shrimplate said...

Thanks again for a wonderful little travelogue.

wunelle said...

I'm thrilled that anyone but me reads these!

Stack151 said...

Bil, the "jeep" is called a WAZ. I actually had one as a FOB runner when I was in Iraq on my second tour. Bottom line - extremely crude!