I have been wanting to visit Central Asia for a while now and finally all the visas are applied, and drivers and guides booked for an adventure in the Stans of the Silk Road. First stop is Kazakhstan and its former capital Almaty which has become the main hub and access point for most Central Asia visits. Their airline, Air Astana, seemed the most reliable and its aircrafts the newest amongst the Five Stans with many direct flights to Asia and Europe. Before researching about my trip and arriving here, I had very little knowledge of Kazakhstan other than the stories from a former university classmate who married an oil executive and had to be stationed there for a few years and from Sacha Baron Cohen’s character Borat. My preconception from these two information sources was that it was a rather stark, poor, and backward country. I remembered hearing stories from my university classmate about how she hated living in Kazakhstan where she claimed had no fresh vegetables to purchase especially in the winter. She would complain that all the vegetables she could get were pickled. And anything from abroad even toilet paper was a luxury and had to be stockpiled when the stores received the infrequent shipments. I even recalled her saying that it was such a hardship posting that if it lasted anything more than 2-3 years, she would have left her husband and returned to the US. Then there is Borat from the Ali G Show. I didn’t believe Kazakhstan to be as backward as portrayed by Sacha Baron Cohen but I did imagine it to be similar to some of the other former communist countries like Kosovo, Serbia, or Albania. I was actually surprised that it looks very modern and developed and reminded me a bit of Middle Eastern cities like Dubai.
Kazakhstan was very poor when it was a part of the USSR and with the collapse of the USSR, it gained independence in 1991. Previously, the USSR had complete control over Kazakhstan’s rich oil reserve and with independence the large oil companies like Exxon and Chevron entered supported by the US government subsidies. Politics are often mixed with big business and in this case there’s the Russian containment strategy where the US wanted to become allies with the former USSR states so as to prevent the forming of a new USSR in the future. The strategy involved making these former USSR countries rich so that the government and more importantly the people won’t want to return to communism or Russia. Not only was Kazakhstan poor at that time but in the 1930s it underwent a genocide known as the Goloshchekin Genocide or Kazakh Famine where 1.5 million Kazakhs died. It was a man-made famine architected by Stalin that reduced the Kazakhs from being 60% of the population to being only 38%. Only after the USSR dissolved did the Kazakhs slowly become a majority again in their own land with the Volga Germans and Russians leaving this former Soviet republic. Anyways, enough with the history.
Preconceptions all out the window, I set out to explore the city of Almaty. Almaty served as the capital of Kazakh ASSR (1929-1936), of Kazakh SSR (1936-1991), and of independent Kazakhstan (1991-1997) until the capital was moved to Astana, now known as Nur-Sultan. Even though Almaty is no longer the capital, it still remains the commercial and cultural heartbeat of Kazakhstan. It is in fact quite a sophisticated city with leafy parks, expensive apartments, luxury shops and cars, and high end restaurants and bars. I was told that there is a large disparity in wealth where while the nouveau rich enjoyed the high life in the city, the rest of the country still lived in poor rural areas, frequenting crowded bazaars and riding in marshrutkas or routed shared taxi vans. I based myself at the modern and luxurious Ritz Carlton Almaty.
In the center of Almaty is the district known as the Golden Quarter where you can find the charming Panfilov Park which surrounds the candy-colored Zenkov Cathedral or Ascension Cathedral. This 56-meter tall yellow wooden Russian Orthodox church was built in 1907 without a single nail and is one of the tallest wooden structure in the world. The interior of the church was created by artisans in Moscow and Kiev and the icons painted by local artist Nikolay Gavrilovich Khludov. The church served until 1927 when church services were banned by the Soviets and it became a concert hall, a museum, a radio transmission center, etc. until 1995 when it became an Orthodox church once again. The church was designed to be earthquake-proof and survived the earthquake of 1911 which destroyed many of the surrounding buildings.
Panfilov Park is named for the Panfilov Heroes who were 28 soldiers of the Panfilov division who gave their lives in the defense of Moscow against the Nazis in 1941. There is a black stone memorial inside the park where there are a group of soldiers with a single one with his arms spread in the front wielding a bunch of grenades. The story goes that these 28 soldiers made a heroic sacrifice delaying the Nazis so that soldiers in Moscow had time to get into position. This story became widespread across the Soviet Union and became the symbol of heroism and patriotism. However, not widely publicized, there was supposedly a special investigation that later uncovered that the story was completely fabricated. But by then it has been so entrenched in the nation that most people and the government choose to stick with it.
About 5 minutes walk from Panfilov Park is the Green Bazaar or Zelenyy Bazaar. This is a large Soviet-style bazaar with everything on sale especially local Kazakh foods. There are all kinds of Almaty treats like pickled apples, dried fruits and even dried lizards, shubat which is fermented camel’s milk, and kymyz which is fermented mare’s milk, etc. Some of these local foods are an acquired taste and I was skeptical to try most of them. There are also restaurants here serving the signature Kazakh meal of plov which is rice made with vegetable and beef or lamb and dumplings. I loved the architecture of this bazaar and how it felt so clean and had no smells whatsoever even in the raw meats section.
We also made a quick stop at the central mosque of Almaty, Republic Square, and the Medeu Skating Rink. On our final afternoon in town, we took the Kok Tobe cable car up to the recreation area on top of the mountain for some drinks and views of Almaty.
After a relaxing couple of days in the city of Almaty, I am ready to explore the rest of the country. Next post will be on my visit to the environs of Almaty including the beautiful Big Almaty Lake and the Sunkar falconry. Stay tuned!
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