Archive for September, 2006

Almaty Underground

Almaty Underground


Now you know me, I don’t drink and I don’t do bars, so this little piece is not about the fast life in Almaty.


On our busy street there are periodic underground walkways that allow you to cross streets without fear of getting run over; this was an accidental marriage with risk management I’m sure, but in 2006 I feel much safer being able to walk my child and myself across the street – under the street………


The subterranean walkway is more than just a walkway. It is a miniature Atlanta Underground replete with one or two shops offering last years clothing at reduced rates and in the case of the underground walk closest to our flat, there is a pub that features darts with stouts and ale. It’s a local hangout, not an ex-pat bar by any stretch.


The constant fixture in our underground is an old lady – I call her the Underground Baba or babushka. She looks to be in the age bracket of a typical pensioner. She’s attired in the same shabby cloths with her hair held in check with the same bandanna day-in-and-day-out. Her task is to see that the walk ways and stairs leading in and out of the underground are swept and tidy. She also tends to the cleaning of the pub and the clothing outlets. She has an office – a 4 foot by 2 foot space where she keeps a chair and her cleaning equipment. Out of place is a huge pane of glass – more like a picture window; when she is in her office she is on display for all passersby – a cleaning lady’s version of the display cases for prostitutes in Amsterdam.


This underground has its rush hours – morning and night. Foot traffic moves briskly and it doesn’t appear that Underground Baba has very much interaction during the day. Most people are pretty preoccupied with their cell phone or focused on another facet of their life. I acknowledge here in the morning and in the afternoon; she nods politely.


The great advantage to her job I think is the summer time. While it is sweltering on the streets above, it’s cool and inviting in the underground. Conversely the winters must be brutal being stuck down there in that two hundred foot tube with the wind sending blasts of frigid air along the passageway. I’ve heard from long time ex-pats familiar with the city of Almaty’s operations that it doesn’t sweep sidewalks or streets. Snow just piles up and gets dirty and the task of Underground Baba is compounded with the ice that will surely form in those places that now have puddle water with the fall showers.


Bits and Pieces:


  1. Some new pictures from our Medao trip will be posted shortly. We took the #6 bus south out of town on Dostyk Street. We are only about 12 miles to a beautiful rushing stream. The trip ended at the dead end in front of the old Soviet-style spa (called a sanatorium). From there we hiked up to the ice stadium which will soon be activated for winter skating and then on up 1,500 steps +/- to the top of the earthen dam where there is no lake. The dam was built but the power generation turbines were never put in and for some reason the river was diverted above the dam…….old Soviet efficiency at it’s finest. The 1,500 steps provided a super cardio workout and at the top was an outdoor cafe where we had goat schoslik (goat chunks on a stick) with markofka (carrot) salad – yum….truly….
  2. The long wait is over and a barrier has been breached……..the Lynn’s have all eaten horse meat. We had a horse meant sausage……….as the saying goes it “tastes just like beef! Sophie still has problems eating horse. She says they are “to close” to the human species. That probably won’t stop me. Now that I know that it tastes like beef the skies the limit with horse meat.


Quiet Durok!

Well Nadia and I have reached a cultural divide in our Kazak experience. One of those breaking points when we expatriates recently relocated, have to blow off some steam. This is not a HUGE thing but it is indicative of cultural adjustment.


As I told you in an earlier Blog, there is this thing here with blowing horns in cars. The Kazaks are intelligent people and they blast their car horns, the Italians are intelligent people and they blast their car horns, the French are almost intelligent and they blast their horns as well. Americans are what I characterize as light-moderate horn users except those in New York who would fit in nicely here in Almaty. But the Singaporeans who are confined on a very small island/peninsula don’t blow their horns unless there is an imminent collision that needs to be avoided. What makes them so disciplined I think was the sense of British order that was imparted on their society living under British rule for so many years. The Kazaks are wild, quirky and unpredictable and have no such affiliation with the Brits.


So, here we are in our 6th floor perch on Al Farabi Blvd – the Kazak Motor
Speedway between 2-6 am and a major patch of gridlock the rest of the time. When gridlock hits the frustration mounts and the “Durok Syndrome” takes over. Durok is an all purpose descriptor in Russian mean “jerk”, “ass”, “clown” “butt-head” or it can get worse depending on your voice inflection and the amount of teeth you bare when you utter the word.


In all fairness there are a number of public works projects in the final stages here in Almaty that are adding to the frustration. These are major “must-finish-before-the-snow-flies” projects like underground electrical infrastructure, new track sections for the trams, road paving, etc. But even so the level of horn use has breached my psyche and that of my beloved four year old, the ever-perceptive and occasionally acerbic-tongued Ms. Nadia.


She heard me muttering something about “Duroks” the other night. She inquired what I was upset about as she already knows some of the meanings of this wonderful all-purpose Russian word. I explained very calmly that I was really frustrated with how Kazak people increase their frustration level and that of innocents like me in traffic by laying on their horns. Nadia I find out doesn’t like the noise either.


We discussed what they needed to do. We know they love their cars like Americans, so they are not going to give them up. And, they have a cultural bent on being spontaneous. I told Nadia Kazaks also have a police establishment that understands bribery and extortion. I had to take 15 minutes in a side-bar explaining to her what bribery was. I told here about how you see lower middle class cops here who are making the equivalent of $300-$400/month driving around in Mercedes Benz; there is no Amway or Mary Kay here, so ya gotta wonder, right? Our plan is to marry up the horn blowers with the cops on the take.


The police announce a major crackdown on “noise pollution” in the city and say they are going to ticket each horn blower $100 for each offense. The cops hit the streets and the tickets begin to be written; but they don’t get finished because the motorists end up settling for $25-$50 “out of pocket” to the nice officer who is writing the ticket. I think we have the elements for a perfect plan here! The horn noise diminishes and more cops are living better – it’s a win-win for this growing nation. Kazaks have a high threshold in tolerating graft amongst their officials. This will work and will be a total success.


Since Nadia understands about bribery we have an expatiate child who can live in almost any country on the globe and empathize with this curve ball of human frailty. Now we can only hope the cops will actually implement the plan. While they are at it, how about $1,000 fines for speeding on Al Farabi Blvd. between Furmanova and Dostyk Streets between 2-6 am?


When the noise rises to unacceptable levels Ms. Nadia and I utter our favorite epithet at the gridlocked motorists of Almaty…………”QUIET DUROK!”…..Not too loud, not with too much “force”. But my child does go out on the balcony now and then so she is “closer” to the cars and they can hear her more clearly.

The School Bus

Nadia started her new school on Friday Sept. 1 – The Kazak-American Primary School, actually a part of the Kazak-American University. Today, Monday the 4th, was the first day on the bus. It’s really a mini van, no seat belts – no one wears them here. I reported at 5 pm to the school to accompany my child home on her first “bus day”. I can tell you it was a most successful exercise in ultimate childhood chaos.


It seemed the kids were ready to get on their buses and knew right where to go. The adults on the other hand were the confused ones. All the returning kids already know their driver and what the drill is. Our driver is a Kazak’s Kazak….strong facial features, almost chiseled, wiry hair and black eyes; that Mongol look that is very prevalent among men here. His name is “Ye-Es Beck” like the initials E. S. Beck and he was dedicated in seeing that every last screaming kid and every clueless, confused parent made it home safely on the first bus trip. I was not only clues less but language-handicapped. These folks mostly speak Kazak NOT Russian – not that I’m an expert Russian speaker yet but we made it through with good sign language and I wrote out my questions I needed answered BEFORE I left to join Nadia on her first school bus home.


Nadia is a bit of an oddity as well. Most of the kids in the school already know she is American and many of them are very academic and a little envious of the fact that a 4 years old American can speak two languages AND she announced on her own in class today she was ready too learn Kazak! They are in fact starting to teach it and Nadia is ready to plunge head first into her third language.


I watched Nadia on the bus. She is a bright eyed child, eager to share with other kids but she is pretty laid back. She doesn’t brag or strut herself like a lot of the Kazak kids do.


And for comparison, here we are on the bus ride home, let talk status symbols. All the stops we made to drop kids were all gated condo communities. We on the other hand live in one of the old 9-story Soviet-designed apartment blocks built in the 1960’s or 1970’s. We live here by choice because of the location (1/2 block for Sophie to her Deloitte offices and 8 blocks for me to walk to my work) and most of all its cheap. I couldn’t be happier that there is a growing upper middle class living in gated communities in Almaty; a clear sign that the oil money is trickling down and really greasing this economy. Big cars, big new houses, everyone is working.


New photos of Nadia at church. She insists going to an Orthodox church every Sunday and wearing the proper head scarf like the women are supposed to and light lots of candles. She is very curious about the chanting the priests do and the iconic pictures in the Church.


More later.