Explorer Mikael Strandberg

Kazakh Diary: Almaty

“If I have to compare? It was much better during the Soviet times. The gaps between rich and the rest of us was small and everyone had a job and a purpose. Today the gaps between the rich and the rest is huge.”

It started as quick as Eva and myself got into the reserved taxi at Alma Aty airport. The interesting and at times overwhelming conversations with Kazakhs. A major reason I find life in the West quite boring and unbearable at times is the lack of emotionally moving conversations with strangers. People in the West spend most of their time moaning about silly things and have few extra ordinary stories about their lives. Life has been to easy, too comfortable and generally very uneventful. At least if you compare to pretty much anyone over 45 in Kazakhstan. I find people in this the 9th biggest country on earth with the most interesting and warm on earth. And drivers are always chatty and opinionated. And being experts on the behavior of human beings, they know what to talk about. My driver was Korean and he was very happy when he understood I had been to Siberia. So had he.

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“The last two years before perestroika I did my work in Verkhoyansk. We kind of brought reindeer meet from there back to Moscow or to Alma Aty. Sure it was cold, but it was a dry cold without a wind. It is worse here in Kazakhstan, the cold.”

Verkhoyansk claims together with Oymyakon to be the coldest inhabited places on earth with temperatures down to almost 70 degrees below zero Celsius.

And suddenly one day, the helicopter who used to pick us up didn´t turn up. We sat and waited without knowing what was wrong for days, nobody answered our calls on the radio. Until suddenly one day, somebody picked up the phone on the other end and we found out something called perestroika had happen´t. Eventually we got picked up, ended up in Moscow, got our money for two years worth of wages and we all split up. I returned to Alma Aty, but people came from everywhere in the old Soviet union. The money I was given, in rubles, was worth very little in Moscow, but meant a lot in Alma Aty. So I bought flats and a car. Since then I have been a driver.” 

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I am fascinated with the time around perestroika. I understand the shock it must have been for people when perestroika struck. Imagine having believe in a society for almost 70 years, suddenly, in a few days, it is just gone and it is up to every single person to figure things out themselves without any help or idea. The Koreans did well in general. Moved here by Stalin they told themselves that the only way to survive here in the future, would be to see to that they all went on to higher studies. Many of the more outgoing and achieving Kazakhs I have met, are Korean.

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We arrived 2 a clock in the morning at our hotel, Rahat Palace, a 5 star hotel built by Thai workers 30 years earlier, the first one in Kazakhstan and it was like a paradise for Eva and myself after having spent the previous night in a dirty single men type of a hotel in Karakalinsk full of exhaust fumes. We both looked forward to the breakfast after my simple and boring cooking for the last month or two! This visit was sponsored by the exceptional head of Tourism Department of Almaty City, Zhanar Galiphuldayevna Alchimbayeva, and Turan-Asia had been very, very helpful in getting me involved.
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After breakfast we met the rest of the invited people. Half of them from Italy and Germany and the others came from Ukraine and England-Uzbekistan. All of them involved in tourism within Central Asia and media. They seemed initially surprised that one of the group was a 4 year old girl named Eva! I am quite used to that and I also know most of them worry that she will cry, make a fuss or be to slow when walking or visiting places. And I also know that they at the end will be mighty surprised and impressed by this little travel veteran! She is the easiest and most patient little girl on earth who loves travelling and eating! Our guide spoke excellent English and seemed very good.
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We first went to the oldest park in the city, Panfilov Park, and I am as many of you know a big fan of Soviet Era sculptures. The park is named in honor of the heroes of the Second World War (Or The Great Patriotic War as it is called in the former Soviet union areas) who halted the advance of the Nazis outside Moscow. The sculptures are impressive and the park in itself was beautiful in autumn colors. I would realize during my week that many of the Kazakh heroes originate from the Soviet era. The park is also a classic for any fan of old Soviet films and the characters on view are many and very interesting. I really liked the park atmosphere and we finished our visit at the fairy tale Holy Ascension Cathedral.
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This wooden and fully operating orthodox church is well worth a visit to get a short view into the life of the Orthodox-Russian community. I saw no native Kazakhs inside at all. Just a couple on the outside hoping for charity together with some babushkas and deduskhas at the end of their lives. There were many sellers of trinkets and ice cream in the park. A very pleasant park where I easily could spend a day just watching people. The heat of the day was also impressive!

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It is easy to see that Almaty used to be the capital of the country up until 1997 and that it is still the commercial and cultural center. It is a bustling and interesting city with an international feel. The old part with buildings built by POW and the new glass structures makes every meter interesting. One of my favorites of the new part, since I am no fan of these quite ugly glass buildings monsters, was the new underground, the Metro. It is similar to the Moscow one, but free of hardly any people, it has only 7 stations, but is really, really beautiful, fascinating and has to be seen. A real highlight for me!
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We ended this beautiful first day high up with an overview of the city, at Kok Tobe, the Green Hill. Let me first point out that Alma Aty is settled in between high alpine peaks and mountains, a beautiful setting, but this also means the pollution and exhaust fumes add another thick layer over the city together with rain clouds. Kok Tobe at 1100 meters altitude sports the highest tower in the city at 372 meters. The view over the Tien Shan Mountains is spectacular and the area is made up of one of these fascinating old Soviet style fun parks including restaurants. We visited a yurta like restaurant and had a very tasty meal of local dishes like besbarmak with its tasty horse meat!

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A great first day!

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