Sunday, December 2, 2007

Almaty in December

Almaty looks like a completely different city from the sprawling urban mass I first encountered in late August. The entire city is gearing up for New Year’s--a major holiday in the post-Soviet world. All across the city, businesses are busily decorating. There are large “New Year’s trees” in front of all of the major city buildings, and stages are being erected in front of Old Square. Not only is New Year’s rapidly approaching, but 16 December marks Independence Day in Kazakhstan. Yes, there was another day of independence in October--but that marked the declaration of sovereignty by the Kazakh SSR. 16 December is the day that the government declared its independence from Moscow.

On Sunday, I walked from my house to the botanical gardens (a distance of about 4.5 miles). When I arrived at the entrance, city workers were setting up a New Year’s tree--complete with Santa Claus. Actually, poor Santa was being hoisted by a crane and was dangling in mid-air while the workers tried to figure out what to do with him. For a few minutes, I thought that they were going to go for a tea and cigarette break--leaving the unfortunate Kris Kringle aloft until they returned. Fortunately, they decided to finish the job first.

All of the stores are selling New Year’s ornaments--which look strangely similar to Christmas ornaments. But then, they are all made in China. Garland is everywhere--you can’t escape it. After all, this IS a country in which there is no word for “tacky”. (My friends and I have asked. It doesn’t exist. ). Sovyetskoe Champagnskoe (Soviet champagne) is on sale in just about every store--marked down from $3 to $2 a bottle. Based on personal experience, it should come with some Advil as well--it is incredibly sweet and just 1 or 2 glasses is enough to guarantee a headache the next day. Which has not stopped my friends and I from indulging on special occasions.

In many ways, Almaty is very reminiscent of home during the holiday season. Except without the sounds of Mariah Carey (Scary?) screeching Christmas carols being piped throughout all of the stores. I DID hear some Christmas music this week, though. While walking through the pedestrian shopping district, a young man was playing “I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In” on the flute. It was a great feeling to hear familiar seasonal music--until I realized that he only knew a very small part of the song and kept repeating it. Then, at the other end of the shopping area, another young man was playing his guitar and singing. Again, I stopped to listen. But since he only knew one line of the song (“knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door”. Repeat. Repeat again. Repeat again somewhat soulfully. Repeat and screech this time)--well, I didn’t stay long. There was quite an audience, though. I guess it makes a difference if you understand the language the song is in.

I have also been enjoying walking past Old Square each day--seeing how the decorations have progressed (or haven’t progressed--decorating is a rather lengthy process that involves much smoking and drinking of tea). Thursday, my observations were rewarded with the sight of the first protest I have encountered here in Kazakhstan. About 20 students were gathered in the center of the square, while someone spoke through a megaphone. I’m not sure what they were protesting, since the speaker was Kazakh and had a difficult accent to understand. After the events of the past week, I didn’t want to get too close or ask questions, either. One encounter with the police was enough! I’ve already been accused of being a criminal and a prostitute--I don’t need to add dissenter to the list!

Today it snowed--not enough to really stick to the ground, but enough to coat the trees and make everything appear a little more festive. I spent the afternoon making soup, reading “A Christmas Carol”, and drinking tea. It was a nice and relaxing way to enjoy the season. The next several weeks will be busy--I will hopefully be leaving for China next Saturday, and am trying to work in a trip to Semey (in northeastern Kazakhstan) before the end of the month. But today was for relaxation--it was great to have time to spend at home doing nothing more taxing than deciding between Turkish chai, black current tea, or Earl Grey. Since I couldn’t decide, I made all three (at different times, of course). And had a cream horn. And a piece of German chocolate with hazelnuts. I’ll walk it off tomorrow.


It occurs to me that--while I have often described the situation in Almaty--I have failed to mention a favorite area just outside of the city. Medeu is about 20 minutes away from the center of the city (as long as you don’t encounter a probka-or traffic jam), and it can be hard to believe that you are so close to such a major metropolitan area. The area is actually a large park--although some people do live there--and is nestled right at the base of the Tien Shan mountains. I love taking the bus there midweek, and enjoying the fresh clean air. When possible, I also enjoy some hiking--but always being careful to stay away from the less populated areas. There is a ski resort (Chimbulak) further up the hill from Medeu, but the buses don’t run that far. However, there are cabs from Medeu--and I’m hoping to get to Chimbulak fairly soon. But I don’t want to go by myself, so will wait for my friends to accompany me.

When you first get off of the bus in Medeu, you encounter a massive Soviet-era building. It is actually an ice skating rink--and where Soviet athletes practiced, once upon a time. There are the requisite bas-relief sculptures of speed skaters above the entrance to the rink. The ice itself is rather different from skating rinks in the US, or those that I have encountered in Europe. After walking up a steep flight of stairs, you enter the rink itself--which is built right into the side of the mountain. There is no separation between the ice and the spectator area. It is just a large open area of ice with some snow along the edges. No zambonis, no guard rail, nothing. People fly by on their skates, while in random areas others practice their figure skating.

I went to Medeu on Wednesday--not to skate or hike, but just to breathe the clean mountain air for a while. When I entered the stadium, I could not help but laugh. I was walking up the steps to the rink--and was directly underneath those bas relief sculptures of speed skaters--when a new song began blaring through the stereo system. Yes, it was “Winds of Change”--that late 80s/early 90s anthem to the fall of the Berlin Wall and end of communism. I had to stop and just enjoy the moment.

Once I entered the stadium, I found a seat near the edge of the ice and just enjoyed watching the skaters and the music that was playing. How often do you get to hear Paula Abdul on the radio anymore? Particularly when it is her classic (?) song “Rush Rush” (Please don’t ask why I know the song. Some things just should better left unsaid). Halfway through the song, the radio announcer cut into the music to announce that the artist (?) was the famous choreographer for the Los Angeles Lakers cheerleaders. It was one of those delightfully surreal moments when all you can do is laugh. And make sure to write it down in your journal, so you don’t forget it later.

There was quite a mix of people skating that afternoon--families with small children, would-be hockey players, the obligatory drunk man staggering around on skates, and adolescents trying to impress members of the opposite sex by demonstrating their prowess on the ice. One in particular caught my attention--a young man doing everything he could to impress another. He would skate around the object of his affections, trying out dance moves and generally trying to be as suave as possible. To no avail. She was clearly not interested or impressed. To make the situation even funnier, the young man was a doppelganger for a neighbor from the same building as my sister and me when we were at UMASS. It took me a minute to realize why he looked so familiar--but it suddenly struck me that he was the image of Kevin Messina. Had Kevin been even slightly coordinated. (You can stop laughing now, Catherine!).

When I left the rink, I walked around surrounding area for a while. While doing so, I came across the bus for the Kazakh national speed skating team (complete with logos from the last Olympics in Turino). Unfortunately, there was no one on or around the bus--that would have been pretty cool. At least I was able to take some pictures--which I will hopefully be able to post sometime in the near future. Or at least in the next few months.

Thoughts on this past week

The passage below is part of blog by Jon Katz, who writes about life on “Bedlam Farm” in upstate New York. He was writing about the different types of loss, and how we react to it when it happens. These words seem particularly appropriate this week, and have helped to deal with the feelings of loss caused by the violation of my home and the realization of personal vulnerability. Each day is a little easier than the last, though. And each day, I realize how incredibly fortunate I am to have such an amazing support network of friends and family. That knowledge is the ‘something better’ that Katz writes about.

“I think loss is best handled slowly, in bits and pieces, with deep breaths, by taking one walk, talking to one close friend, walking dogs, reading bits and pieces of a good book, or poem. Journaling helps, in that loss is recorded, dealt with noted, as it should be. Acknowledging the loss to yourself and to others is, I think, also good. I think it is somewhat appropriate to be embarrassed by loss, otherwise, we would be drowning in it, and stories and laments about it. Loss is an inevitable part of life, even if it surprises us, overwhelms us, and hurts. Like pain it's a mystery, since a benevolent God wouldn't allow us to suffer it. And, I suppose, it is a private thing, since even if we are fortunate to know people willing to share our loss, or help us with it, it is also something that only we can feel, that sense of pain, of having a piece cut out of us, of having lost something we may never find again. Sometimes people deny loss, thinking of it as temporary, or are reflexively reassured by people telling them things will be fine, what was lost will inevitably be recovered, regained, replaced. I'm not sure. Sometimes what is lost is gone for good, in one way or another. I do believe that loss is a gift, like most things you feel, that opens us up and leads us to different places. And I tell friends who have suffered a loss, this: toughness doesn't come from denying loss, but from the ability to think and see beyond it, to imagine a hole filled in with something else, a time and space where will inevitably fade and soften and be replaced by something else, if we are lucky, something better.”