Published: September 20th 2011September 19th 2011
Almaty is the city of apples: big ones, red ones, green ones, felt ones, bouncy ones ... bouncy ones ?? Well 3 large red inflatable apples were fascinating the local children.
Almaty is famous for its particularly large and tasty variety of apple and was celebrating this in one of its many leafy squares with music, exhibitions and stalls selling a wide variety of apple products. I had Sunday free to explore the city and I was delighted to find Almaty Apple Fest. The sun shone and the music played – from folk singing to an enthusiastic rap band. About fifty stalls were selling all varieties of apple which many a shopper held up to his/her nose to smell to assess the flavour. As I picked up a delicious looking red and green apple to do the same the stall holder took it from me and selected an even bigger and better looking specimen and handed it to me as a gift. ‘Rakhmet’ I said in thanks. After my earlier trepidation as to how I would find this ex-Soviet country and what the legacy of a repressive regime would leave, I was enjoying the friendliness of the Kazakhstani people.
Kazakhstan is the 9th largest country in the world with a population of 15 million people. Almaty is the old capital but is still the largest city in Kazakhstan with a population of 1.4 million people. It is also the main centre of culture, education, finance and science. Astana is the new showcase capital in the north. Kazakhstan is multi-ethnic and Almaty particularly so with Russians, Kazakhs (many of whom are returning to their homeland since independence), as well as an increasing number of people working here in the oil and mineral industries. That this was a country finding a new wealth was evident from the time I landed as, speeding along the new highway into the city, we passed many new car distributors selling 4x4s and other assorted prestige cars.
However, during my first day in Almaty I was far from certain if I would enjoy my stay here. Caroline joined me about midday when I had recovered from the 3am arrival and we walked into the centre trying not to get lost in the grid of roads all labelled in Russian and Kazakh. I can now just about decipher the Cyrillic characters to read our English maps
Almaty is famous for its apples
which use the Roman alphabet. Maybe the cartographers are trying to be helpful but it doesn’t help when reading the signage. In the afternoon the heavens opened and we got a taxi to our afternoon appointment. We waited for our young student translator in a kebab shop and when a drowned looking Baur arrived, we tried to find our way across roads turned into streaming rivers. The UNDP offices, shared with a kindergarten, were hidden in a tree-lined side street so by the time we arrived we were also drenched through.
The UNDP officer we were meeting was at first suspicious of two English women asking questions but soon mellowed and told us about their work. Here in Kazakhstan herding all but disappeared during the Soviet era so traditional rangeland practices as found in Mongolia are rare. Instead much of the steppes was converted to wheat farming or left to become degraded. Now the need for meat and the deterioration in the environment is prompting the government and others to re-evaluate livestock farming in Kazakhstan. But there is much to be done to learn how farmers can manage the land and their livelihoods more effectively.
After a long
meeting, in which I struggled not to catch up on my jet-lagged sleep, we headed back to the road to pick up a taxi. As in Mongolia, any car is a cab so we stood on the edge of the pavement and waved down a passing car. One eventually stopped and the driver agreed a price to take us back to our hotel. However the downpour of rain had flooded many roads and the grid iron pattern of roads had come to a halt so the 20 minute journey took over 2 hours. Our local research partner was there waiting to take us to dinner at a busy and vibrant Chinese restaurant, Zhar is tall young Khazakh and a history lecturer in Almaty. He was interesting to listen to as he discussed the rapid changes in Kazakhstan since the Soviet era and I was looking forward to finding out more in our research. But I imagine that life in this thriving vibrant city may be very different to that in rural areas.
Caroline left in the early hours a day later. As it was Sunday and official offices closed I had a happy day exploring thr city including the
Apple Fest. I spent 8 hours walking through leafy avenues and admiring the architecture. Much of the pre-Soviet city was destroyed in the earthquake of 1911. Consequently the city is mainly composed of soviet style concrete apartment blocks interspersed with modern high rise. This is softened by the abundance of greenery, it prides itself as a garden city, and dotted with statues of Soviet heroes and heroines. Also many of the Soviet blocks have been partly transformed into cafe bars or designer outlets. I stopped for a break at a couple of cafes where ordering is a hit or miss affair of pointing at picture of food in the hope of getting what I wanted.
Almaty and Kazakhstan have surprised me and I don’t think anywhere that I have travelled before has been so far from my prior expectations. Almaty at least seems cosmopolitan, young and vibrant with hope for the future. The repressions of the Soviet past are being left behind, at least in Almaty. It will be interesting to see how the countryside compares.
There are more photos below