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Blogs I Follow
- Under Western Skies
- Words We Women Write
- Adventures of an optimist
- Far East Travelogue
- A Life of Adventure
- and she went on and on...
- Lebanon, USA
- Jules Verne Times Two
- No Leg Room
- MICHAEL BIACH
- Incidental Naturalist
- Adventures in Wonderland
- Plying Through Life
- The Visual Chronicle
- Simoneteffect - Pure Black & White
- 15,299 hits
A few years ago I tried, together with some friends, to head downtown to see the fireworks. In a word, it was awful. Pissing with rain, the centre was a mess of angry people, mounted police who’d clearly lost their Christmas mood and, more importantly, not a single shop where to buy booze. Long story short we retreated in somebody’s house and watched them on the Beeb.
Fast forward to yesterday, I am now older, wiser and in possess – well, in rent – of a balcony which, if you stand exactly at one edge and ignore the uppermost branches of the tree, has a direct view of the London Eye, the Shard and even Canary Wharf, all neatly lined up. Here’s what we saw.
8PM and, in true Italian style, some are already throwing fireworks.
At midnight the Mayor hit the anti-aircraft guns, or at least so it seemed. Here’s what we saw as we stood sipping wine next to the clicking camera.
Looking at out planet from above is a profound experience. Michael Collins, Apollo 11’s resident philosopher, famously said that looking at Earth from a great distance was the strongest memory of his epic voyage, going on to add that Earth was “blue and white, not capitalist or Communist; blue and white, not rich or poor; blue and white, not envious or envied. Small, shiny, serene, blue and white, fragile“. My perspective, at some thousands of kilometres lower, is certainly humbler and a lot less complete – you can hardly see the planet’s curvature at 33,000 feet up – but were I to be asked, I’d certainly agree with this stalwart of human exploration.
The commoditization of my flying, and the fact that most of it happens overnight, has been the major factor for my shift from window to aisle seats. There are, however, a few occasions when nothing could drag me out my chair by the transparent Perspex: a morning flight over Central Asia is precisely one such event.
Watching the world from above is a way, for me, to get closer to parts of our planet that have always exerted an irresistible pull over my imagination but that, whatever reason – money, visas, time, money and visas and time – I haven’t been able to visit. The Putorana plateau in Siberia. Greenland. The Sahara desert. The Amazon rainforest. The Congo basin. Baffin Island. The Caspian sea. Even the remote chance of seeing one such place would be enough to make me choose one flight over another and to ponder for ages on which side of the plane to sit.
Take off from Almaty is at silly o’clock. Outside, a few flurries fluctuate to the ground, rear guard of the snowstorm that has engulfed the city for the whole time I’ve been there. We take off and it’s still pitch black, with only the faintest ribbon of red light peeking from the East, announcing the new day.
My plan for an early morning flight backfires. Despite a record snowfall in November, we left on time and, flying westwards, we are losing the race against the Earth’s rotation with, seemingly, the slightest time difference. The bottom line, I realise after noticing that the ribbon of red light hasn’t grown at all, is that we’ll be treated to the longest dawn possible; beautiful, but would it allow me to see the Caspian sea?
Barely. We are cruising in the sweetest of dawns – the sky bathed in red, the vapour of the clouds a kaleidoscope of gold, orange and crimson – and the dance of colours is so intense that I almost miss it. First a small lake, frozen solid, dark against the livid steppe. Then, it’s the Caspian.
The dark inland sea, ice-free thanks to its salinity, laps shores so barren that they could be from another world. Wavelets lap the foreshore and, as far as the eye goes, no one seems to be there to witness it. There are no roads, towns, villages, beach resorts shut down for the season, marinas or fishing ports. It seems that the only ones looking at this stretch of Turkmen shore are myself and the handful of passengers who haven’t succumbed to sleep yet.
The sun eventually rises through the sky, but clouds thicken and the waters of this great sea return, once again, to mystery. But it isn’t over yet; this flight has still another present to give.
Foreign politics, despite Collins’ convincing argument, have reached us even here, in the upper troposphere. Our Ukrainian airliner is skirting around the Russian bear’s airspace, overflying Azerbaijan and Georgia in lieu of the northern side of the Caucasus watershed. As if on cue, jagged peaks pop out of the pea sup that seems to have taken the place of the world. Cliffs of pure rock and ice gleam in the morning light while, further down below, valleys remain in the dark.
We bank to the south. An impalpable haze, blown upwards from the clouds, blurs the white peaks disappearing in the distance. I cast a last glance and spot an unexpected prize: a giant massif, rising head and shoulders above the other mountains, so large and wide to seem the stump of an incredibly tall tree, long gone. It’s Elbrus, Europe’s real highest mountain. We bank further south and, with a final wink, Elbrus disappears. Clouds span in every direction.
An ever-helpful airshow runs on a loop on my seat’s in-flight entertainment system as we fly high above the steppe towards Astana. A tiny Air Astana airplane flies above a map of the world painted in greens, blues and tans, whilst a ticker-tape message informs me of how many knots we are clocking, how many kilometres of air separate us from the frozen grassland below and, crucially, the air temperature.
We begin our descent over Karaganda, whose power station is busy creating a new cloud system suspended 150 meters above the ground. As our nose points down, the temperature reading remains firmly anchored at -50C. I follow the succession of numbers until we hit the ground and the system is switched off. Before flickering off, I catch a last glimpse: at midday, the temperature is -25C.
As I zip up my outer jacket, last of 4 levels of clothing starting with a base layer and including stuff I’d normally wear on an Alpine trek, I ask myself who’s more stupid, the man who out of the blue decided to turn the sleepy town of Akmola – Kazakh for “white grave”, previously dumping ground of deportees – into Astana, the capital, or me.
Undoubtedly, the moron is me, for while I’m here without a hat, the other chap actually built the collection of outlandish buildings sprouting from all sides in Nurzhol boulevard, a series of spires and pinnacles gleaming in the cold air, a Sheikh Al Zayed road that has left its thermostat 60C lower than usual.
Snow becomes powder. Stiffened by the cold, each snowflake seems to turn inwards, becoming grain of a powder that squeaks like polished marble as I walk on it. Above my head the sky is endless, a crisp blue where the only clouds are the frozen puffs of smoke coming out of chimneys and smokestacks. The sun shines and so does the snow and every mirror or pane of glass, but it feels as if they are only there for decorative purposes, for there’s no warmth. And all this reflection doesn’t make a bit of a difference when the wind starts to blow.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev, so far the only one in the history of this young country, is the mastermind of this place. Opinions about him differ to extents that would make Marmite seem cherished by anyone and everyone. To some, he’s the saviour of this nation, the guarantor of its economic prowess and stability. To others, he is an autocrat, building a personality cult similar to Stalin’s. Whatever you make of him, it is beyond doubt that the act of moving your capital from the welcoming, verdant Tien Shan foothills to the steppe requires vision. And a lot of stubbornness.
Thirty minutes outside is my limit. Like an apnoea diver, I time my excursions in the open, retreating often in the nearest garish building of this city borne out of nowhere. A flamboyant Kazakh restaurant, where I order beşbarmaq, the national dish made of noodles, horse and mutton meat and where Armenian cognac is sold by the bottle. A 150-meters tall semi-transparent tent, a nod to this nation’s nomad past, where a shopping mall and aqua park bask in 27C, a 55C temperature excursion from outside. Then my last stop is the Bayterek.
Traffic diligently stops at the crossing to let me get closer to this stylised poplar tree, a 100-meters tall embodiment of an ancient folktale. On the side, a sculpture of life-size Cyrillic letters celebrates something with exclamation marks and a dustman gives me the look that those who work outside reserve to sods who have the choice to spend the day snug indoors but, instead, decide to step out in the freezer.
A golden sphere sits perched atop the white metalwork of Bayterek. Inside, the setting sun is enhanced by the colouring of the glass panes, basking the visitors in a mythical aura. Men and women, old and young, mill around, watching their city – the Soviet buildings to the north, the boulevard below them, the new buildings stretching towards the steppe. They look solemn as they take in the degree of change their country is going through, and mischievous when they reach for the golden cast of the President’s hand on the upper podium.
I notice the newlyweds as I watch a girl, evidently bored by all this. They are dressed in their ceremonial best and it’s quite clear that they aren’t used to it. He seems ready to choke in his starched collar and wears his synthetic suit with almost physical pain, as if it was an iron maiden. She’s always ready to fall into her own train, which she drags with the same enthusiasm of a sailor laden with a bunch of wet nets. They amble around, clearly under the spell of their best man and woman – elegant, dapper, confident in their business attires – following sheepishly their commands, as the photographer does. Eventually they reach Nazarbayev’s golden hand cast, and everyone else falls back. It’s their moment. She puts her tiny hand into the cavity, and he puts his on top of his bride; they look in the camera and all the embarrassment is gone. They look determined, quietly hopeful, certain of their future here in the capital of the steppe.
The next day I begin my return to London. Three flights and half a day later I’m standing in the vestibule of a Tube train, sweating in a T-shirt whilst everyone else dons an anorak. It’s raining and everything looks and smells of mud, soggy leaves and wet wool. I close my eyes as we bob along the tracks, thinking at the Kazakhs squinting into the setting sun, the wind blowing snow dust in silent whirlpools in a sky that’s slowly turning ochre and lapis lazuli.
I’d much rather be there.
It was snowing when I arrived, and it hadn’t finished yet when I left. Everything between the flights from and to Kiev – with their cargo of harmonica-playing, duty-free-vodka-guzzling men – happened under a soft blanket of falling snow. Of everything I soaked from Almaty, the most overwhelming impression is the one of the snow. The screeching of the white stuff under my rubber soles, the patting of the flakes on my jacket, the cover suspended over the streets and alleyways: snow is so present that it defines Almaty in my mind, so much that it’s hard to imagine that this city could ever exist without its white cloak.
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A dead-serious woman hands me a flimsy city map with the solemnity usually employed for the ratification of peace treaties. On its cover, the map shows a vista of Almaty that I immediately found optimistic, for it showed sweeping mountain views, wide boulevards flanked by double lines of poplars, their trunks painted white. A quintessentially Soviet town, built verbatim from the Stalin’s own manual for city planning after the inevitable earthquake had flattened it in the 1940s.
However grand the views might be, what I can see stretches only a handful of meters from my nose. The falling snow shrouds everything into mystery, closing the grand boulevards after a few poplars. Cars, trolleybuses and people disappear, becoming mere impressions, diapositives against a black background. Under the trees, pavements become trenches, wide enough to let pedestrians pass in Indian file, trying to guess where ditches, steps and other obstacles might be lying.
Echoes of the USSR reverberates stronger, here, than they did in Yerevan or Tbilisi and their sounds are irresistible for this Cold War kid. I toy idly with the idea of tracking the two remaining statues of Lenin, apparently dumped in somebody’s backyard, desist and set for a park downtown where the brash, bombastic monument to Panfilov’s 28 erupts from the snow.
This excrescence of dark bronze, this postmodern – and super-armed – version of Kali is the perpetuation ad aeternum of the cult of the 28 Guardsmen, many of them Kazakhs, who fell defending Moscow, not before destroying 18 German tanks and elbowing their way into Soviet Olympus. Like every gospel, this one too was apocryphal, for an enquiry found the Guardsmen weren’t 28, weren’t all dead and weren’t all squeaky clean – some of them cooperated with the Nazis. However, the Almaty burghers didn’t seem too worried about letting facts getting into the way of a good story, and their monument still stood, a protrusion of limbs and stony faces and weapons, rushing with little regard for gravity towards the eternal flame and a sombre office building, standing on skinny plinths on the other side of the square.
Those pillars seem too flimsy, too weak to support the bronze behemoth, akin to a massive brow, hanging creased from the building’s façade. I stand daunted in its shade, aware that my feelings are precisely the ones sought by the designers – here comes the Soviet train and you, you little decadent imperialist, better jump on it or be crushed like a cockroach, it’s your choice really – squinting in the snow, fixed on the centrepiece star, like a rabbit caught in the headlights. That star is the epitome of the whole Soviet lie that sold the world images of nuclear silos lurking in the steppe, armoured divisions ready to steamroll through Fulda and not the ones of Aralsk or Chernobyl. The flag flying atop isn’t crimson but sky-blue, with a sun and an eagle and delicate, golden ornaments. Its pole ends with a trident, a three-pronged concoction that, I suddenly realise, has got nothing to do with socialism. It’s a simplified tug, the banner of Genghis Khan.
I walk into the city’s Green Market, losing myself between stacks of dried fruit and pomegranates stacked so neatly that you’d be ready to bet that sellers would be sighing at the prospect of having to spoil the geometric perfection when forced to finalise a trade. Hawkers call me in Russian, but everyone else speaks a different language: I recognise the soft consonant and cadence that I heard earlier, in Istanbul. That’s the beauty of Almaty. If it were a person it’d be wearing western clothes and would be writing in Cyrillic, but her face – tucked between hoods and scarves – would show the timeless features, high cheekbones and almond eyes, of the Turkic peoples.
I leave the market, and head towards the minarets of a mosque, peeking incongruously from behind a drab tenement left behind by a Brezhnevian architect. A man crosses the road opposite me, gliding along the powdery snow tormented by the wheels of many Land Cruisers and Lexus. He wears a white turban, electric-blue cloak, felt boots and black, baggy trousers. I look at him and the surprise in my eyes makes him smile, smile at this strange man in North Face windproof, green trousers and Salomon trekking shoes. He caresses his beard, smiles again and then he’s gone.
Towards his horse, towards Genghis Khan’s encampment and the rest of the Horde I daydream, before realising I’m still bang in the middle of the road.