Central Asia used to comprise a big part of British and Western imagination. With a few exceptions (Fitzroy Maclean, Langston Hughes), however, the end of the Great Game and the closing of the Iron Curtain ended this genre and once again cast the region into obscurity.
Things opened up at the end of the Cold War and a new generation of writers rediscovered the region. Colin Thubron, the great travel writer, had an early chance to visit in Summer 1992, just a few months after independence. In The Lost Heart of Asia, he catches the city in-between booms that have marked its growth over the past 100 years. The history of Almaty can be divided into several of these boom eras: the coming of the Turksib rail line and becoming capital in 1929-30, the 1960’s-70’s explosion of housing that helped the population double in 20 years, and the present day growth (both vertical and horizontal) that began around 2001 with the influx of oil revenues.
Visiting in 1992, he also sees an Almaty and Kazakhstan in-between countries as well. The overall mood is a mixture of melancholy and confusion at what has been lost and a undefined hope of a better future. He seems to catch a city out of time, out of country. Even his style supports this, presenting fragments of cityscape mixed with seemingly random encounters with Almaty’s citizens.
We begin with his travel by train from Turkestan:
For a day and a night my train curled northeast through grasslands towards Almaty, the Kazakh capital. Now and again the land moistened to meadows where egrets paced, or smoothed into giant fields. An enervating heat descended.The passengers fanned themselves uselessly and fell into the torpor. One by one the card games and conversations died, and the picnics of yoghourt and cherries were abandoned. A noon hush set in. Opposite me two policemen sat in silence together. But the moment either left the cubicle the other would agitate: ‘How much do police earn in England? What;s their life like? Do they carry guns? How much…?’ Until silenced by his companions return.
It is strange. you arrive in a city by night, and staring down from a hotel balcony on its light-gazed streets, looking more secret and seductive than they will by day, you wonder how you will ever decipher it. but within a morning the puzzle unravels with desanctifying speed. A few hour’s walk locates the main avenues, elicites a conversation or two, uncovers a mood, and you return to a hotel no longer swimming among mapless lights and possibilities, but anchored, grey and unlovely, on the corner of Gogol and Krasin Streets. (Fun note: this is the Hotel Otrar – molapse)
Yet from my balcony in Almaty there was no sign that I was in a city at all. I looked across parklands where the spires of a cathedral hoisted gold crosses against the mountains. Its people numbered over a million – more than half of them Russian – but its grid of streets, mounting southward to the Tienshan foothills, ran half empty through hosts of oaks and poplars. Sometimes, so dense were these trees, I imagined I was walking along tarmac tracks through a forest. Behind them the chunky russian offices and flat-blocks spread anonymous for mile after mile. The air blew up sharp and pure from the mountains. It was like a suburb to a heart that was missing.
It was the Russians, of course, who had raised and nourished it. All its institutes and monuments were theirs, from the fountained boulecard of Gorky street (now renamed Silk Road street) to the soulles hocels and war memorials. But now the city belonged to nobody. Communism, Marx and Lenin streets might be renamed after spectral khans who had ruled the steppes a century or two ago, and ministry facades be veneered with pseudo-Turkic motifs; but the Kazakh culture had no true urban expression.Less than three generations ago, virtually the whole nation was split into a haze of migratory villages… …For decades the Kazakhs had been a minority in their own country. And now this alien cit had floated into their hands. They were now curiously unencumbered, even by Islam: a tabula rosa for the future to write upon.
In this short introduction, as a great travel writer will, he does indeed capture the true soul of the city. What makes Almaty special are the trees, the green, the un-urban aspects. On a human level its leveling architecture is the homogenous backdrop for what is actually a diverse, multi-ethnic city. Intermarriage, which was more common then, is a common theme in his writing as well.
Thubron talks about an open, unclear future, and also the past. Ethnicity (or ‘Nationality’, in Soviet lingo) is everywhere. After just a few months of independence this is an uncertain nationalism. For example, the confusion over whether to be thankful for or angry at the Russian legacy is presented in an exchange with two Kazakh law students after a theatre performance, one from the south (More Kazakh), one from the north (more Russified).
The northerner suddenly said: ‘ But we’ve been surrounded by Russian culture always. We’ve received a lot from it. The Baltic states reject it wholesale, and Uzbekistan falls back on its past, but we haven’t got a past liek that. Almost everything we have comes from Russia.’
‘But we’ve been blinded by it!’ said the southerner – they were being tugged away byt the crowd. ‘We were toldwe were part of this great movement forward, and all the time our own past was being buried.’
‘But our past isn’t enough …’ began the northerner, then they were swept away in a slipstream of friends, and I was left standing by the statue of Auezov, avancular and balding in his armchair.
Twenty years later these issues have not been resolved. In 1992 the country remained half in the past, half deciding its future. There is a reference to the December 1986 protests, but the nationalist fervor of that time had since become muted. The overall picture is very different from the portrayal of independence today, that of an explosion of a new country into its rightful place on the world scene. Perhaps that is because the economic boom brought a significant measure of confidence with it.
Yet already a feel of archaism intruded. Musical references to Swan Lake abounded, and the clowns’ jokes about perestroika seemed coined in another era. Towards the ends a shambling brown bear was led into the ring’s centre to play the accordion. It looked drugged and old. It reeled on its podium. The accordion was strapped to its paws like handcuffs, so the few melancholy notes rose involuntarily as it swayed. It was at once ridiculous and heart-rending. The audience cheered. They were simply seeing a collusive beast, I suppose, pretending to be human. The animal, I think, saw nothing. Its eyes were inscrutable beads. Maybe only I, fancifully, was seeing in its tottering bulk the Russian bear on its last legs.