So by now I’ve spent 10 months living and working in Almaty. I’ve had some time to think, what makes Almaty interesting? What sets it apart? Why am I writing about it…besides the obvious fact that it’s the only city I currently reside, and thus my only material for these ramblings.
Before talking about Almaty in specific, let’s consider in general what gives a city it’s character, a sense of place? Certainly there are things that make each city unique. Perhaps it’s quantifiable, e.g. x number of quaint curved streets plus y meters of glittering waterfront times z colorful citizenry. Or maybe its not so specific, an atmosphere, a rhythm. Whatever the case, even without thinking about it whenever you visit a city it doesn’t take long to get a sense of where you are. After some time in Berlin, you are in no way mistaken as to where you are. Tokyo is definitely Tokyo, Paris is Paris, Istanbul is… well you get the idea. The identity of a city is also tied to its country and citizens. Tokyo is quite Japanese, Paris undoubtedly French, modern, sprawling Istanbul is (despite a long and varied multinational history) Turkish.
‘Duh,’ you are probably saying to yourself. What does this have to do with Kazakhstan? Almaty, the former capital and largest city in the country (think New York), lacks a distinct sense of place. Being here almost a year now, I am just beginning to get past this outer layer and discover the unique features of the city, but why so long? If you can list characteristics that make a city unique, can you do the opposite and analyze something generic? What does this say about the country and its peoples? To start with, I can find three superficial causes from three different time periods.
- No “Kazakhness” of the city. If Tokyo is Japanese, and Paris French, Almaty is not a historically “Kazakh” city. In fact that term itself is somewhat of an oxymoron. Kazakhs were, until the Russians came in the 19th Century, a nomadic people, so not much developed in terms of settlements. Almaty was founded as Verniy, a Russian outpost. And until independence was still heavily Russified.
- The Soviet Factor. The city dates back to the mid 19th Century, but most of the development occurred in the Soviet era. The predominant face of the Almaty is therefore the same grey 5-6 story apartment blocks you can see from Vladivostok to East Berlin. So it’s not just a ‘Russian thing’.
- The ‘modern’ new architecture. Alongside these old apartments have sprung up over the past several years many new ‘modern’ high rise apartments. Many of these often beige, orange, blue or glass treasures are of questionable aesthetic and structural quality, but have added an additional layer to the cityscape. More height, boldness, to Almaty’s nonexistent skyline.
Almaty does have a character, does have its own soul, but it’s not so easy to find out. These are just some of the obstacles, just on the surface, that you have to get past to find it.