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.