Saturday, September 22, 2007

Almaty--some history and geography

The weather has finally begun to change here in Almaty. Nights are noticeably cooler, and there is an undercurrent of fall in the air during the day. Today was another sunny, clear day—and with the cooler temperatures, a beautiful day for walking around the city. By late afternoon, though, a cold front began to move through the area and now it is cloudy and raining. After so many days of sunny skies, it is something of a relief to see the rain.

It occurs to me that I haven’t described the city adequately in earlier postings. Almaty itself is not an old city—it was established as a Russian fort in 1854 (Fort Vernoe) during the “Great Game” between the British and Russian empires (everything relates to geopolitics, it seems!). The most famous—and important—architect of the city was AP Zhenkov. He oversaw the construction of what is now called Zhenkov Cathedral in the center of the city, as well as the building that used to house the US Embassy (before the embassy moved to Astana and a new consular office opened across town). During Soviet times, the city was known as Alma-Ata, which means the Father of Apples. Yes, there are apple trees in and around the city. After the country became independent in 1991, the city was once again renamed and became Almaty. It is the largest city in Central Asia, with about 1.2 million people living within the city boundaries. If you consider the number of people who live just beyond the border (in Almaty Oblast—which would be considered to be like one of our 50 states in the US), the number would be still higher.

When the city was constructed, it was built according to a grid. Streets run either north/south or east/west. In theory, it should be rather easy to navigate around the city. The reality—well, it’s a little different. Street signs are few and far between—and are usually only posted on the sides of buildings rather than near intersections. There is the added problem of what the streets are now called versus the names that people actually use. Many of the Soviet names were changed after independence, but remain in effect today. The general rule of thumb is that if the new name is more difficult or longer to pronounce/remember, then the old name remains in effect. Thus, Dostyk is still called Lenina and Bogenbay Batyr is still Kirova, but Kommunistichesky is now Ablai Khan.

After nearly a month here, I am able to navigate around the city fairly well. There is always the option of taking a bus to wherever you want to go, but since I’m rarely in a hurry these days (quite a nice change for once!), I usually walk to wherever I want to go. Most days that means a round-trip of between 5 and 10 miles, depending on my plans. It’s also my justification for stopping by the bakery ½ mile from home to see if they have any cream puffs (most days they don’t-but you never know!). If they DO have cream puffs, I feel no guilt whatsoever in buying 1 (or 2—to have one the next day) to take home and enjoy with a cup of tea.

While I’m walking around the city, I’m approached on average 4-6 times by people asking for directions. Yes, people who live here can’t find their way around the city. It’s something that I find puzzling, since there are some pretty obvious landmarks. Mountains are always to the south, and you can tell east/west by looking at the direction of the shadows. Downtown is the northeastern area of the city, and all of the new construction is in the southeast. Even with my notoriously bad sense of direction (don’t ask me which way is south or east in Lawrence—I’ll get lost even after 4 years!), it’s pretty easy. But…I also get to practice my Russian and speak with people in the street (I’ve progressed past the “I’m sorry, but I don’t know” stage and can actually give fairly adequate directions).

Speaking of the streets—they are mostly tree-lined, with parks that appear almost out of nowhere. Yes, it is green here in the city! Small canals run between the roads and the sidewalks, to drain away the water that runs down from the mountains. In some areas—particularly on streets that run east/west, these are dry and seem to collect more trash than anything. On streets that run north/south, these canals are usually full of quickly-moving water.

Water seems to be everywhere in the city—fountains abound in just about all of the parks that I’ve seen, and there are large reflecting pools/fountains in front of many official buildings and theaters. It is really very beautiful to see. Another sign often seen around the city are the camels. No, not REAL camels. They are small statues in front of buildings, in parks, and other public areas. Each is painted in a manner reflecting some aspect of Kazakhstan—art, culture, religion, history.

Right now, there’s another sight that you can see just about everywhere in the city. It’s that new blockbuster movie, Mongol, and is about the defeat of Chengis Khan by nomadic Kazakhs in this area. It is fascinating to see all of the signs (the movie opened today) for the movie. If I remember correctly, I mentioned the filming of the movie in my thesis, too! So, if I can find a Russian language version playing, I will probably go see it (the movie appears to be in Kazakh in most cinemas). Hmmm…I can already see a potential section in the dissertation (actually, every day I come home with notes and ideas for the dissertation—at this rate, the research will be done before the language training ends and the Fulbright grant begins).

That’s all for now—this has been a rather lengthy post, and I’m running out of steam. Time for a cream puff and a mug of hibiscus tea. After all, I walked about 12 miles today and definitely earned the treat!