Monday, May 26, 2008

Kazakhstan Adventure, Part 1: Another Big Apple

Erik was invited by the Open Society Institute to participate in fellowship interviews in Almaty, Kazakhstan for a week. Erik had never visited Kazakhstan, so it was an offer he could not refuse. Erik's flights were long, but relatively uneventful. He left Kansas City at 5 pm on Saturday, May 17, transferred in Memphis, and arrived in Amsterdam mid-morning on Sunday. With a 7+ hour layover, OSI provided Erik with a business lounge pass and he took full advantage of it. The KLM Crown Lounge was swanky, comfy, and stocked full of snacks and drinks. Leather lounge chairs, small dining tables, and desks for laptops provided a nicely varied opportunity to rest and relax in different ways. Several travelers took naps in the leather chairs, and recharged their electronics with the electrical outlets amply situated in most nooks and crannies of the room. Others snacked on the hot soup, rolls, salads, fruit, and sweets while they downed potables - potent and not - provided gratis by KLM. The only negative was the presence of smokers, but they were sequestered in an area that contained most of the foul tobacco odors.

Upon arrival in Almaty (whose name means "Apple place") on Monday morning, Erik passed through passport control and customs, and met the driver. The driver provided running commentary during the trip to the hotel, and gave Erik a brief history lesson of the city, beginning with its outpost days when it was called Verniy, through the Soviet period, and the post-Soviet growth and development. He also highlighted the effects of earthquakes which have devastated the city in the past - its location is classified as the most earthquake-prone. The city is green, with lovely trees lining the streets, and the older part of town is low-lying. Almaty is bordered to the south by the Tien Shan mountains, and to the north by the steppe.

Since Almaty is the financial capital, with governance duties moving to Astana in the north several years ago, new glass towers are being built to accommodate the growing Kazakh economy (benefiting from oil and natural gas). Politics is dominated by President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who image was featured in a few billboards along the route from the airport. Erik's favorite was the one featuring small children surrounding President Nazarbayev, happy about their opportunities in growing Kazakhstan. It was reminiscent of a similar billboard he saw in Baku, Azerbaijan a few years ago praising Heydar Aliyev.

Erik's hotel was reportedly the former Communist Party facility for visiting VIPs. It was indeed nice, modern, and in a surprisingly quiet location given the significant traffic flow on a major artery a block away. After a nap, he met the staff of the organization that invited him on the trip for lunch. The cafe was modern and hip, with red and black decor, couches and lounge chairs instead of formal tables, and a young attentive staff. The food was unremarkable, with a few Russian-style dishes (beet salad) accompanying generic meats and side dishes.

After lunch, Erik and two other interviewers gathered for an excursion to Great Almaty Lake. The lake serves as a reservoir for the city, collecting the runoff from mountain streams (you can see the pipeline in images below, featuring minor leakage problems). The route was short, but bumpy and a bit treacherous, However, it was also stunning. Each turn on the serpentine roadway revealed a new vista - clear streams flowing down green hillsides; gray rocky outcroppings and tall, lush conifers; and finally the white peaks of the Tien Shan range. The driver wove from side to side on the road - though calling the strip of pock-marked asphalt and stretches of gravel and rocks a road is generous - as well as up and down in the four-wheel drive German-made van. The photo on the right gives a flavor of the road and the sheer drop offs along at the edge (some drop offs were short, others were not). While this road was higher quality than the empty stream bed that we climbed in Slavsko, Ukraine, it was only slightly better and much longer. It took us over an hour to go one mile horizontally, since we had to wind around the roads curling up mountainsides and through valleys. The road claimed at least two victims while we were there. A young couple sat by a fire next to their car, which had tipped over into a small ravine with the front pointing toward the earth and the trunk visible and pointing to the sky. They made the best of a bad situation while waiting for the tow truck (which arrived as we left).

We passed several Kazakh families on picnics, and a few commercial yurts serving as cafes. Kazakhs seem more distant from the nomadic lifestyle than their Kyrgyz neighbors; the Kyrgyz countryside was dotted with many clusters of yurts with families living off the land. Erik did not notice as many yurts in Kazakhstan (though perhaps they are more common in other parts of the country). While the ride up was cloudy, bright sunbeams penetrated the cloud cover as the turquoise lake drew near. The air was fresh, the views remarkable, and the beauty of the Tien Shan range kept Erik awake (along with constant bumps in the van). You can see why in the pictures accompanying this post below! After a long stroll, everyone loaded up for the trip back to Almaty. After the return, Erik took a quick walk around the neighborhood, picking up a roll for dinner, and headed off to bed.

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