Russian Word of the Day

  • present = padarak

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Almaty Amazing!

March 11, 2009
After our meeting with Gulzhan yesterday, we had time to do a little sightseeing in the section of Almaty near our apartment. What luck that we happen to be within walking distance of some of the biggest sights of the city. Let me take you on a tour.

Walk down the three flights of sloping and uneven soviet era concrete stairs, past the dilapidated mailbox center with its small metal doors hanging open like a discarded advent calendar and out the bright blue metal door of the apartment building. Make a right and walk along the side of the building out to the main street. Now you should be facing the Japanese food restaurant (strangely named “Seoul”) that keeps the blue Christmas lights in its window illuminated all night. Make a left and walk tight against the line of cars parked haphazardly along what we must assume is the side of the street. The concrete curb is only 2 inches tall and as everything is covered in a couple inches of snow, it’s impossible to know for sure where the street ends and the grass begins. The drivers, however, seem less concerned with this distinction. They have parked both parallel and perpendicular to the edge of the street in a rough semblance of a line. There are no sidewalks here and as none of the very smartly dressed Kazakhs want to get their black leather boots covered in snow, everyone walks in the street, completely unconcerned with the cars and SUVs racing past them. When driving the Kazakhs subscribe to my father’s old saying that ‘an inch is as good as a mile.’ In other words, as long as they don’t actually hit you with their cars, it doesn’t matter how close they get. Also, there aren’t any crosswalks here and everyone crosses the harrowing street wherever they want. It took us a while to get the hang of it, but here is how you cross a street in Almaty: Only look in one directly, when there is a break in the line of cars streaming towards you or one of them appears to be going less than 40mph start to cross. Get the middle of the street and stare at the oncoming traffic like a matador in the ring. Exude confidence because if you show weakness you could be stuck there all day. Instead, you should glare at the speeding traffic with a look that says “I’m going to walk in front of your car and if you don’t stop I’m going to be really pissed!” That usually does it.
So after crossing two streets in that way, you’ll reach a wide flight of concrete stairs like you might see outside some impressive courthouse in America. Here, however, instead of leading up to a building, these stairs take you under a huge concrete archway and into a wide plaza flanked with large metal soviet stars and HUGE black statues and commemorating the various wars in which the Kazakhs have fought. When I say that these statues are big, that doesn’t do them justice. They seem to be carved from chunks of a mountainside and have haunting faces and arms brandishing weaponry jutting out from their sides. The largest and most impressive, by far, is the statue honoring the soldiers of WWII. I’ve seen this one before, when googling images of Kazakh weddings. It seems to be a tradition for the couple to take a picture in front of this huge slab of what I think is black granite. This statue depicts a Kazakh soldier, arms spread eagle, face clenched, who seems about to leap out of the rock and into the middle of the courtyard. He is about 2 stories tall and is surrounded by faces of all ethnicities, some peaceful, some tormented. It’s really a powerful image. In the middle of the courtyard is long slab of black granite, I’d say about half a football field, with an eternal flame of remembrance in the middle.

Behind the main statue is a giant and ornate yellow building with blue trim and rounded gold turrets. Sasha the Benevolent had told us that it was a mosque but upon closer inspection it turned out to be a very ornate Russian Orthodox Church filled with very emotional and devoted worshippers kissing the ground and genuflecting.
This plaza, with its statutes and church seems to be a hub for Kazakhs walking to and from work. They walk determinedly with their laptop cases along the wide treelined walkways. The Kazakhs in their fancy black coats trimmed with fur will not make eye contact with you as you pass. We garnered quite a few distasteful looks from the locals when we greeted them with a smile and “Privet!” as we passed. We are quick learners, though, and have almost mastered the indifferent glare we have seen so often. Not that the Kazakhs are cold, mind you, it’s just not culturally accepted to acknowledge strangers in the street. It’s very much like NY or any other big city in that way.
So that was our big adventure after which we mustered up our courage and crossed the streets again, wandered back along the snaking lines of parked cars, passed the colorful rusty metal playground, trudged up the slanty stairs and tried to remember which of the unmarked doors was ours. Then, as has become our habit, we all collapsed in various states of exhaustion. Tomorrow we hop a plane to Astana, and drive to the babyhouse to meet our son!!!


Jennifer M said...

Oh gosh, I'm cracking up over "how to cross a street." That's so perfect! I feel like I'm right there doing it. Your descriptions are so apt.

Regina said...

Thank you for your wonderful writing! After reading your blog and laughing as I thought of you crossing the street i insisted that Kevin and John also read the blog. The pictures are amazing! Thank you!

Sending love your way!