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Not really at home in the Kazakh ex-capital

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Almaty used to be the capital of Kazakhstan but in 1997 President Nazarbaev moved the capital north to Astana (‘Astana’ actually means capital in Kazakh). Almaty was earthquake prone and a little too close to China for comfort while Astana was more centrally located and had better transport links to Russia. Despite an enormous amount of investment in infrastructure and architecture, few government employees were overjoyed at the prospect of having to relocate to what was seen as a provincial, out of the way city with brutally cold winters. To all intents and purposes, Almaty has remained as the real capital of Kazakhstan and as the place where the real money is to be made. Unfortunately, most of all that new money seems to be far from equally distributed. While luxury cars and designer clothes are everywhere to be seen, over a third of the country is estimated to be living below the poverty line. Even the expensive designer clothes shops appeared to be unevenly distributed along the pot holed boulevards – while in Europe or America, the high end boutiques would be grouped together in an up market shopping area, in Almaty they appeared to be randomly dotted throughout the city. Despite being laid out in an orderly grid, Almaty’s development seemed disconcertingly awkward and uneven. It seemed more like a poor city with money than a rich city with poverty. The phrase ‘all fur coat and no knickers’ came to mind.

Having woken at dawn, with only a few hours sleep, I was keen to find somewhere decent to stay as soon as possible. My Central Asia Lonely Planet had recommended somewhere to stay that was just around the corner from the University but it was nowhere to be found. Further along was a ‘budget’ hotel where all the rooms were well over a hundred dollars a night. This wasn’t looking good. Most of the other hotels were ridiculously expensive. The only other two ‘budget’ options were on the other side of the city. I went back to the University to pick up my backpack and hand back the keys. They didn’t seem surprised that I was leaving so early – I mustn’t have been the first foreigner to get out as soon as possible. One of the remaining budget options was supposed to be just across from the train station so I thought that that might be an easy one to track down. I managed to find a bus stop where the buses appeared to heading in the right direction and somehow managed to confirm with a driver that his bus was heading towards the station. As I sat on the bus, with my backpack between my legs, I attempted to trace out the route along my map. As Almaty is all just a big grid this wasn’t too hard. The only other budget hotel was just across from the Zelyony Bazaar, so when I realized that we were going right past it I decided to get off there. This part of Almaty seemed more like the Central Asia that I had expected to find. There was rubbish and people everywhere with stalls of all sorts lining the broken, muddy pavements surrounding the enclosed bazaar. I edged past a tray of fly ridden goat’s heads and into The Turkistan Hotel.

Pic: sugarmelon/flickr

The slightly run down, soviet-style Turkistan Hotel charged three times more than a similar kind of budget hotel would have charged in China but it still seemed by far the best value option. Accommodation prices in Almaty seemed to be on a par with the more expensive parts of Western Europe but without the same consistency of standards. For what I’d paid for a night at the 9th Dormitory University Hostel I could have stayed at a well run, clean hostel in virtually any country in the developed world. For now, I was just glad to be out of the cold and in a nice, warm room with a functional bathroom. I ordered some coffee from my floor lady – all the old soviet style hotels seem to have ‘floor ladies’ who look after the cleaning and drinks for their designated floor – and had it with the banana that Uridin’s wife had given me as a leaving present. I turned on the TV and flicked through to Kazakh MTV. There seemed to be about a 50/50 mix between the usual Western pop videos that you get everywhere and the home produced videos of various Kazakh artists. During my brief time in Kazakhstan I would see these videos and hear these songs almost everywhere I went. While the Western music videos were almost always different every time, there seemed to be only about five or six Kazakh music videos in circulation. I suspected that as in France or Canada, there was some kind of law that obliged radio and TV stations to ensure that at least 50 percent of their playlist was made up of Kazakh performers. Left to the free market I doubt if any of these acts would have received much recognition at all. Such legislation may have been introduced to encourage the growth of a uniquely Kazakh voice in popular culture but the problem seemed to be that for the main part they were simply attempting to ape what was mainly American youth culture. The stars of one music video in particularly heavy rotation were a twelve year old girl and boy pretending to be a street wise urban soul diva and a hard-arsed gangster rapper. As soon as she had finished with wailing out her broken heart and thrusting her booty, he would manfully swagger on in his shell suit and start cussing the bitches. They looked a bit silly. Why weren’t they in school? Another popular act seemed to have taken 1960s Liverpool as a cultural reference point. They all sported Beatle’s style bowl haircuts and lounged around stroking acoustic guitars in a vague approximation of 1960s psychedelia. They weren’t too bad but I really couldn’t see them doing much business outside of Kazakhstan. Maybe the next generation of Kazakh musicians, who would have grown up surrounded by Western pop culture, will manage to come up with something that is international and contemporary, and yet uniquely Kazakh?

It might take a while.

Zenkov Cathedral, Almaty

Zenkov Cathedral, Almaty

Having showered, changed and eaten, and feeling a whole lot better, I ventured out into the cold Almaty drizzle. I edged my way up through the crowded Zelyony Bazaar towards Paniflov Park. If you’ve ever seen any tourist promotional photos for Almaty, then they probably had the Panfilov Park’s Zenkov Cathedral in them. Designed by AP Zenkov in 1904, it is one of the few remaining Tsarist-era buildings in Kazakhstan and is considered to be a rival to the more famous St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. It looks like a big, colourful doll’s house. As everything in it is made of wood – including the nails – it was one of the few buildings to survive the 1911 earthquake. Having been used as a museum and a concert hall in the Soviet era, it wasn’t returned to the Russian Orthodox Church until 1995. Despite its outwardly bright and cheery exterior, on the inside it is very much a gloom filled, smoky Orthodox sanctuary. While the brightly coloured wooden domes sprouted out towards whatever light could be grappled from the grey sky, all but a few shards of sunlight were barred from slicing through the incense trails within. Just after a typically grandiose sovietstyle war memorial with the obligatory eternal flame, is another Zenkov designed building, the Museum of Kazakh Musical Instruments. I actually preferred its elegant lines and unpainted wood finish to the more garish and better known Zenkov Cathedral. As I carried on up the gentle slope, back towards the University area, I couldn’t help feeling that something about Almaty seemed very familiar. There were far less Oriental looking people around than I had expected and far more that looked Eastern European or Russian. In the 1930s, 40s and 50s many Russians, Ukrainians and Germans had been forcefully migrated to the Kazakh steppes. Some had been prisoners sent out to the labour camps while others had arrived to extract Kazakhstan’s rich natural resources of coal, iron and oil.

In Kazakhstan I no longer stood out as an obvious foreigner. Several times a day people would come and ask me for directions in Russian and then be surprised when I answered apologetically in English. In fact, with my cheap shell suit trousers, baseball cap and bright white trainers I could easily pass for a Russian chav. I fitted right in. There was something else, however, about the way that the people dressed and acted, that seemed even more familiar than Eastern Europe. I couldn’t quite place what it was about the cheap black leather bomber jackets, side partings and dodgy facial hair on the men, and the shiny calf length boots and fake fur coats on the women, that seemed so recognisable; and then it hit me – it was like being back in England in the late 1970s or early 1980s. It was like an episode of ‘Life on Mars’. The only thing missing was black people with Afros. Teenage Kazakh would-be pop stars might have been inspired by the fashions and posturing of American hiphop artists but there didn’t seem to be many black people on the mean streets of Almaty. Surprisingly enough, almost every other ethnic group was; from red heads and blondes to the purely Oriental.

Pic: sugarmelon/flickr

Many others, like Uridin, were a complex mixture of ethnicities. Ethnic difference in Central Asia had often been exploited by those in power as a tool for either division or unification. Stalin had deliberately created seemingly arbitrary borders between areas of shared ethnicity or tribal allegiance, in order to keep groups of people divided, but following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, shared ethnicity and culture had been called upon in an attempt to unify the newly independent nations of Central Asia. In reality, there are considerable numbers of all the main Central Asian ethnic groups in all of these countries and Central Asia is largely ethnically heterogeneous. In many respects they’re as mongrel as they’re Mongol.

While a large proportion of the population of Kazakhstan is made up of a complex mixture of ethnicities and cultures, I couldn’t help noticing that the majority of customers and staff at the excellent Coffedelia were very European in appearance. It was a little oasis of posh coffee, cakes and Wi-Fi that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in any major Western city. Not surprisingly, it also had the prices to match. I spent more on a cappuccino and a piece of cake that I would have spent on a nights’ accommodation in most of the Far East, but it was worth it. The excellent coffee and gleaming Western toilets seemed a whole world away from the Universities sordid 9th dormitory. In reality, it was only a few blocks away, just up the hill. Feeling refreshed, I carried on in that direction in search of the Kok-Tobe cable car. You would think that it would have been easy to find the cable car station by simply looking down the cables that rose towards Blue Hill (or sometimes ‘Green Hill’), a spur of the Tian Shan mountain range that looks down upon Almaty. Unfortunately, the line of the cables was obscured by other buildings on the edge of the now steepening hill, and I could only guess at the general location of the cable car station. When I found a building in the right area, with a grand and busy entrance way, I assumed that this must be it. I ended up walking through what seemed to be some kind of large government building and getting increasingly lost amongst the maze of corridors. Nobody seemed to question what I was doing there. At one point I stepped out into what I thought would be another long, anonymous Soviet corridor, only to find myself on a concert hall stage. Fortunately there was nobody in the hall apart from a couple of guys in overalls who took no notice of me. While feeling relieved at the absence of an audience, I couldn’t help feeling that it would been far funnier if I’d walked straight out on stage into a packed auditorium (on more than one occasion I have overheard references to ‘Mr. Bean’ while I’ve been attempting to find my way).

Pic: sugarmelon/flickr

After a far more circuitous route than I had anticipated and some elaborate miming of a cable car’s ascent that only seemed to increase the confusion, I eventually found the cable car station, only to be rather taken aback at the cost of the ticket. I reluctantly coughed up the required dosh and joined some cheerful Russian tourists in the stationary cabin. It actually seemed quite similar to many of the older style cable cars in New Zealand but was considerably more expensive. As we lurched slowly upwards towards the telecommunications tower at the top of Green Hill, you could look down on to the houses and back yards of the houses on the fringes of the city. Even from high above, they looked like shit holes. As the main part of the city faded out into the mountains, the ‘houses’ were reduced to improvised looking shacks, thrown together out of rusty sheets of corrugated iron and whatever junk these new immigrants to the big city could lay their hands on. To the average Kazakh farm labourer, Almaty must have seemed unimaginably expensive but even with something of a financial crisis in full swing it still looked like there would be plenty of work around for unskilled labourers in the booming construction industry. Or maybe there wasn’t? Either way, a big city with this much money around was always going to draw in the rural poor.

After lurching to a halt, we spilled out onto the peak and piled in to the process of capturing the view on to our memory cards. It may have been quite lively in the summer or at the weekends but on a damp, drizzly week day the park at the summit seemed a little forlorn. To the left were some children’s amusement rides that were mainly locked up and to the right was a small zoo that consisted of a few grubby looking goats, a couple of peacocks and same caged birds. Rather than venturing out to greet the few curious children, they opted to hide out in their shelters. I wandered up and down while munching on an overpriced burger. Not for the only time on this trip, I felt like I was visiting a minor holiday resort in an unfashionable part of England during the off season. There were a few Kazakh families and a handful of Russian tourists – probably actually here for ‘business’ – with their digital SLRs and time to kill, but as in most of China, I was still the only real foreign tourist. I would assume that there’s a few more about in the summer but as this was still officially spring I was surprised that I didn’t meet a single other Western tourist during my week in Kazakhstan. The fun park seemed oddly quiet and subdued apart from what appeared to be a tinny loop of ‘I am the Walrus’. I drifted over to the sound of the sixties, to find a set of bronze Beatles statues. As soon as the tannoy on a pole faded into silence, it would all start again; ‘I am the Walrus’ over and over again. These distorted speakers on sticks used to be used for blaring out party propaganda throughout China and the Soviet Union but now they were being used for repeated loops of trippy, 60s psychedelia. Whose idea was this? Why ‘I am the Walrus’? You could just about recognize which Beatle was supposed to be which but they all seemed oddly Oriental. They looked more like Mongols with bowl cuts than pasty faced white boys from Liverpool. A group of teenagers ran over to the statues to have their pictures taken with the Kazakh Beatles. One of the boys sat on the knee of what I think was supposed to be Paul McCartney and put his arm around him lovingly while he posed for group snapshots.

By the time that I had traipsed back down to the Turkistan Hotel it was getting dark. As all of Almaty is laid out in a grid and basically slants downwards towards the train station, you would think that it would be easy to get oriented. Unfortunately, the lack of any real landmarks or buildings that stand out over the tree line, make it surprisingly difficult to get a handle on where you are. From across the road, all the tree lined parks look the same, so they’re no good as landmarks, and a lot of the buildings are grimly nondescript. As the signposts were also all in Cyrillic I found it difficult to match them up to the anglicized road names on my map (if I was going to spend any time in this part of the world again I would probably try and make the effort to learn the Cyrillic alphabet – it would almost certainly make getting about much easier). Having eventually found my way back via Panfilov Park and the back end of Zelyony Bazaar, I found myself eating the best donor kebabs that I have had anywhere in he world, in the green octagonal shaped café at the edge of the bazaar. Kebabs can vary in quality possibly more than other food in existence but I could have eaten these ones all day. As this café was clearly aimed more at the market stall holders than their designer label touting contemporaries, it was also great value. I would become something of a regular over the next few days. After finishing up with a mug of Kazakh 3 in 1 instant coffee and a Bounty chocolate bar, I scuttled on through the drizzle towards the Silk Way City shopping mall in search of an internet café.

Compared to the bazaar, the shopping mall seemed oddly quiet and sterile. A lot of the shop spaces were still unoccupied. A few soggy souls walked in one end and out the other, simply to stay out of the rain for a while. Upstairs there were a few teenagers hanging around, eating junk food from the few tables and chairs that were scattered along the central aisle. None of the shops seemed busy. Rapidly developing countries always seem to have malls like these; full of expensive, imported designer clothes but with few paying customers. In Thailand, people would meet in the malls for the food halls and air conditioning; in Kazakhstan they would come in to get out of the damp and drizzle. I mimed what I wanted to the guy running the mall’s internet café and he handed over a scrap of paper with a logon ID and the number of purchased minutes. There were loads of emails from my wife. She was worried that I hadn’t emailed her for nearly a week and wanted to know if the swelling on my throat was still there. She had even phoned up my parents in England to see if they had heard anything. I had to explain that the internet connection in Dunhuang had been down and that the Chinese authorities had effectively banned the internet in Urumchi. To have been without the internet in Urumchi when it was easily accessible almost anywhere else in the world seemed bizarrely archaic. Even in Myanmar, where you could supposedly be arrested for bringing in a modem, it was still easy enough to pick up your emails via a proxy server. I called up the Guardian web site – the same service that I would use for the news wherever I was in the world – and checked out the latest on the situation in Kyrgyzstan. It didn’t look good. The official death toll from the riots in Bishkek had now risen to at least 75 with over 300 reportedly injured. Dozens of shops had been looted and burned out cars apparently littered the pavements. The rioters had overrun the palace of President Bakiyev and stolen his lampshades. Another looter had had the bare faced cheek to make off the President’s drainpipes. Even the Presidential shrubs had been stolen from Bakiyev’s once grand front garden. I was reminded of Uridin’s assertion that they were ‘very cheapy’ people. Maybe they were just poor and pissed off? Price hikes on communal charges for water and electricity appear to have been the last straw in a country of five million that was already struggling with mass unemployment and widespread poverty. When Bakiyev had come to power five years earlier in the so-called Tulip Revolution, hopes had been high. When he had turned out to be just another in a long line of dodgy Central Asian dictators, the people had yet again revolted. While sympathising with the plight of the people I couldn’t help feeling that they had been a little bit selfish. While jumping up and down on tanks and breaking the President’s windows was all very well, some people had put a lot of time and effort into planning their holidays only to have their plans disrupted at the last minute. Not wanting to give up on my plans just yet, I emailed my chosen guest house in Bishkek to see if they thought if it would still be a good idea to come and visit them.

Extract from ‘Tearing up the Silk Road’ by Tom Coote. Buy it now from Garnet Publications, or from Amazon UK or Amazon US. Much more by this author at

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