Sunday, December 06, 2009


“Almaty: where capitalist excess, a Soviet past, and natural beauty get together over a barrel of fermented mare’s milk.”


If I were the Kazakh tourism ministry, this would be the message I’d want to portray. There’s something for everyone in those nineteen words. Rich tourists can have that exotic vacation they’ve always dreamed about, Soviet “charm” hunters can marvel at the city planning, while nature lovers can spend days traversing the Tian’shen mountains. If only it was that simple…I may just have to apply to said ministry.

My love affair with Almaty’s natural beauty started the second I stepped out of the plane. Before me, at surprisingly close proximity, was the beautiful Tian’shen mountain range. It was a sunny early evening, so the light reflected perfectly off the snow-capped peaks. No question all planes are required to open their doors in the direction of the mountains.

Now the fun stuff. Kazakhstan is, on the surface, a post-Soviet success story. Its state budget is funded predominantly by oil and gas, shiny new cities (including the new capital, Astana) have sprung up out of nowhere, the country is set to chair the OSCE in 2010 despite horrendous human rights and democracy records, and it is now urging citizens to buy private planes and fly everywhere so as to make the roads safer.

Almaty, roughly translated as the city of apples, was the capital of Kazakhstan during the Soviet era. In the 90s, it was decided by President for Life, Nursultan Nazarbayev, that a new city with his architectural flare be created and made the new capital (a city you have to see to believe). In spite of this, Almaty still remains the country’s commercial and cultural capital. If it’s happening in Kazakhstan, chances are Almaty is where it’s going down.

The Soviet city planning becomes apparent after about five minutes of driving. Roads are wide, the grid system is in full effect, mammoth apartment blocks line the boulevards, and one giant former Intourist hotel (now named the Hotel Kazakhstan) towers over the city. I could go on about the derelict factories, cookie cutter bus stations, and statues, but I think you get the picture.

Once you get into the city centre (not that a traditional one actually exists), you start seeing buildings that don’t really fit in. Let’s call it “Nazarbayev’s Architectural Hand”…the not-so-invisible hand as seen in economics. The flashing signs, the odd looking tower on top of a hill that can be reached only by gondola, the national museum-cum-mosque. It never really ends.

What makes the city remarkable from an excessiveness standpoint is its remoteness. I mean this city is in the middle of nowhere, it’s closer to Beijing than Moscow, and yet it has fairly decent cultural representation in the form of restaurants. This means high transportation costs, which means every single brand name imaginable, which means outrageous prices for everything. I’ve never seen such an expensive city in the sense that there was no cheap alternative. Perfect for the rich tourist.

Next up on my review of post-Soviet cities, Bishkek: the little industrial town that could.