Those of you kind enough to follow along last year might recall I characterized Almaty as the Bruges of Central Asia, and with those precise expectations I fly in on my new favorite airline, Air Astana (a new plane, adorably upbeat staff, endless goody bag, that chicken curry they all serve but with a real knife and fork, all the wine or beer they think I want, and a seatmate who turns out to be an actual Kazakh film star [despite being way back in row 43] all for $100). But no! It is not to be. Almaty has got its party on!
My genuine Kazakh film-star seatmate Serik Sharip (220,000 followers on Instagram) back from Moscow promoting his most recent film (if you like me find it hard to see the resemblance, rest assured I got independent verification from the doting flight attendants).
Negligently I have failed to take into account that Kazakhstan is one of that random grab-bag of countries (Afghanistan, Albania, Azebaijan, Georgia, Iran, Iraq and Kosovo) celebrating Nowruz. The upshot is that everyone is here – in from the steppes and down from the hills. The nomads have brought their yurts and swords, rural crones are hawking fermented bulgur from grimy plastic buckets and everyone is out for a decorously great time. Every five yards a surround-sound stage is over-amplifying patriotic songs with the biggest not two blocks from my apartment. Not to worry though, this is still Almaty, so the festivities will be over by 10; a good night’s sleep is still on the cards.
As usual the stylin’ Tajiks win
But the nomads come a close second. Normal size folk for scale
This Kyrgiz (you can tell from the hat) has brought his hand made saddle for sale . He’s asking 1 million Tenge ($2000). No takers he tells me sadly (the average Kyrgi monthly salary is $1000).
City slickers eternally grateful they don’t still have to live in a yurt
I get shanghai’d into the frame
Surround sound Almaty style. Despite their natty green suits, the band (in miniature on the left) is singing patriotic songs.
But Nowruz this year is making a political statement. As one of his last acts, the former president (he just resigned on Thursday after 30 years) has changed the alphabet from Cyrillic to Latin. The problem being that while Russian sounds like cats sliding around under furniture, Kazakh sounds more like a hamster and a gerbil having it out on a training wheel. All that excess energy requires a whole extra 16 letters neither the Cyrillic nor the Latin alphabet can envision (42 in total). Diacritical marks are all very well, but some words will demand more than 10, making it all very taxing.
No-one is feeling Happy Nowruz in the Latin alphabet, and that’s only one diacritical.
Kazakh written in Cyrillic has extra letters (like the weird F). But transliteration of the four letters (bl is one letter) from Kazakh to Latin requires two diacriticals. GT tells me it will look something like Sigw with a cedilla on the S and a circumflex on the g.
These delightful young linguistics students collared me for an interview on English accents, then I grilled them on Kazakhstan politics. They allowed that ‘Its time’ for Nazerbaev to step down (Ms. on the left) but as to his daughter taking over Ms. in the white shirt was firm :
‘We’re a democracy but we can’t talk about everything’.
Actually Kazakhstan is in an increasingly tough situation. To his credit, Nazarbaev built a successful independent and regionally influential economy while by and large avoiding the ridiculous vanity projects and crushing oppression that characterizes some of the neighbors (Turkmenistan we’re looking at you). His successor will need a strong left arm (to keep Russia away from the mineral deposits) and a strong right arm (to keep China at bay). Note that the back is quite firmly to the US and Europe; most young people believe that Russia is a good role model, they don’t like the Chinese*. Kazakhstan has styled itself as the buckle in the Belt and Road initiative but is facing increasing internal pressure to go to bat for the ethnic Kazakhs who are being harassed together with the Uighurs, and the new leader will have to manage these expectations. More about that, probably, next week.
The father of the nation, subway style. It doesn’t look much like him either.
On a dank and drippy Sunday I take myself to the museum to find out what stories Kazakhstan tells about itself. Excitingly, I find a drone picture of the ruined city in the middle of the Steppes I visited last year.
From this angle the huge pile of archeological debris that is Sauran is tantalizingly evident (the road we broke down on is in the distance).
These XII century pottery fragments look just like those I scooped from the surface.
If Moscow smells evocatively of coal, this old Russian area still smells disconcertingly of gas. Remarkably, in the interim, Marina, the usually taciturn ‘concierge’ for my old soviet apartment seems to have acquired near perfect English. ‘Third time!’ she trills, thrilled to see me. I settle into the planned activities of laundry, salads and yes, the banya.
Ah the banya! The Russian baths in Almaty are renowned throughout Central Asia and I’ve been dreaming of them since last year. After an inadvertent 9 mile walk back from the botanical gardens, it’s time.
I should have checked with Google maps before committing to walk back down from the base of the mountains.
The Russian baths are famous throughout Central Asia.
At least on a revisit I’ll be able to cope with the order of operations with my glasses off, always a challenge. I collect the necessary bundle of birch branches, sheet (peshtemaI), and towel.
All kinds of branches for beating on sale. That’s my bunch, right there.
No rookie mistakes! this time the towel stays with the clothes in the locker while the peshtemal, along for the ride, becomes uselessly sodden. First off an ostentatious scrub in the communal shower. Soap must be lathered thickly and how very clean one has become independently verified via the side eye. Skipping this step elicits the cold shoulder, but this year I pass muster. The initial visit to the first circle of hell (AKA the steam room) will only last about 5 seconds, but acclimatization will eventually occur, whereupon the jedi (who strangely is fully clothed and in a balaclava) will appear to thwack handily with the birch branches, front to back, top to toe. The branches have become pliant and aromatic from soaking, but in combination with the intense heat it is rather traumatic, all the more because the jedi terminates the experience unexpectedly with a swift couple of basins of cold water. A nap must then be taken to hasten recovery, followed by a revitalizing swim in the cold, dim hamam pool, lit only through a single hole in the roof. The steam room/nap/pool combo can be repeated as infinitum, but the Finnish sauna is for wimps and must be shunned. The whole three hour experience including the jedi, an equally fierce massage plus a nice cold beer with the very clean ladies costs $12 (absolutely no photos please).
Nowruz has also thwarted my travel plans somewhat. Those ethnic Kazakhs returning to China have bought up all the train tickets, and since the train only leaves once a week, I need a plan B. Fortunately Air Astana once more comes through in the clutch, and I am off tonight to Urumqi. Hopefully my VPN will allow me to circumvent pesky internet blocking, but that’s as yet untested, so sayonara! Hope to reconnect soon!
* Nazarbayev Generation. Kazakhstan’s Youth, National Identity Transformations and their Political Consequences. voicesoncentralasia.org