One fine day, we made the complicated trek to the city to do some urban sightseeing. By then our group had been blessedly joined by a real Russian speaker (actually, he was from Eastern Europe just like me, but was one of the last of the generation that had participated in mandatory Russian classes in his school youth, thereby getting by better in that language than me, since he actually had, you know, learned to read Cyryllic script and knew actual Russian words and such. Speaking Polish slowly and with what was probably a Ukrainian accent had not got me very far). He was therefore tasked with finding some form of transportation to get us to the city center.
Public transportation, did not seem to reach our rural subrubs. Or maybe it did. But it was impossible to even find our way to the gate blocking the exit from the park and sanatorium. The hotel staff, when asked repeatedly for a taxi, tried to tempt us with mud baths and sea salt soaks, but finally proferred with much disapproval the number of a taxi service. Upon arrival (about 45 minutes late), the taxi service turned out to be a white minivan with a gruff driver.
Our colleague’s elementary school Russian must not have passed the test; we got dropped off at some sort of a ‘shopping center’ rather than the ‘city center’ we were hoping for. I later realized that was because the quaint city center with age-old historical houses simply did not exist – gray or grayishly green Soviet-style apartment buildings were everywhere we looked.
Almaty, beloved city of the Soviet system (for which it underwent a name change from “Verniy” – “loyal” to “Alma Ata” = “City of apples” in 1921) seems very much loyal to its Soviet benefactors. It was as part of Soviet Union that Almaty flowered, becoming through the development of rail and later air travel an industrial hub. It also held the title of capital of Kazakhstan (until 1997) and seems to me to be desperately hanging on to a last-resort claim to fame in its designation as Kazakhstan’s “scientific, cultural, historical, financial and industrial center” (by official decree in 1998). (Dethroned capital cities have a way of doing that. Some poor addled people of Krakow still think that it is Poland’s capital, in spite of over 400 years of history proving them wrong).
Architecturally, the city seems to be a mixture of Soviet steel and cement greyness and modern glittering shopping malls or luxury apartment buildings. The whole effect is rather disconcerting and I soon resorted to watching the passersby rather than keeping my eyes peeled for architectural gems.
For instance, I discovered that dressing like a princess is the fashion the world over when you are an 8-year old girl.
Or when you are a little bit older than 8-years old but it is your special day:
For the best people watching in Almaty, two words of advice: Panfilov Park.
As a bonus, you get to see the second tallest wooden building in the world (built with nary a nail!), Zenkov Cathedral: