The father of apples
Soviet trains used to have three classes. In Central Asia, there seem to be two left; second and third, though third no longer seems to accommodate six beds per section, the top-most bunk used for luggage, if at all.
But, in third class, the corridor is lined with seats, and beds, as well.
From Bishkek to Turkestan, with many empty seats, this was fine. But, Turkestan to Almaty was fully booked, with passengers with lots of luggage. On my next trip, I will move up a class.
Several of the train’s passengers were trying to make their money back by also selling goods. Food, paper notebooks and, surprisingly, clothes.
Meanwhile, outside of the train’s windows, endless snow-covered grasslands were passing by.
Central Asian states (and Belarus), have funky flag designs. Perhaps my favorite is Kazakhstan’s flag for its sky-blue color. They chose such a particular flavor of blue that, anytime I spot the color, the association with the country is inevitable.
Kazakhstan as a regional entity was fluid until the Soviets formalised its borders, its people’s for most of history having been nomadic. Even now, yurts, felt tents that can be packed up and rebuilt in a day, as in other parts of the region, are still a common sight in summer.
Fascinating, only in the late fifteenth century did the Kazakh as a people emerge. The Uzbeks, named after an early leader, split into two after an internal feud. Half retreated below the river Syr-Darya, roughly into what is modern day Uzbekistan. The other half stayed up north and started calling themselves Kazakh, a Turkic word for ‘adventurer’ or ‘free rider’.
When, in Soviet times, these central Asian nomads were forced to become sedentary and take up farming, their total lack of expertise meant that hundreds of thousands died from famine and disease.
It’s kind of funny, if not ironic, with Kazakhs still putting a lot of stock in history, culture and tribe, that the most valued ancestor a Kazakh can have is Chinggis Khan.
Kazakhstan, and Almaty in particular, is considered the original source of cultivated apples, and the source for the former capital’s name. ‘Alma Ata’ literally means ‘father of apples’, ‘Almaty’ means something like ‘full of apples’.
A general consensus is that Kyrgyzstan is like Kazakhstan’s little brother, which itself is like Russia’s little brother. The capital of Kazakhstan having moved in 1998 from Almaty, firmly in Central Asia, to Astana, facing Russia, is testament of that.
Bishkek and Almaty also have clear parallels; leafy, mountains in the background, wide avenues, similar climates. But, I couldn’t help but feel that Bishkek is more of a cozy village, with Almaty being more impersonal, even a bit sterile.
Kazakhstan has benefited a lot from its natural resources, the steady economic growth allowing the population to ignore the heavy hand with which the country has been ruled. McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC all have branches in Almaty, and though quite a bit of the colossal architecture is interesting, the noticeable shift to ‘the west’ has made the city feel a bit too generic, like it’s trying too much to catch up with perhaps a Russian version of ‘the west’.
I can also see parallels with Baku, though I expect that similarity to be more present in Astana.
The new Almaty metro, its construction abandoned after the breakup of the Soviet Union, before being picked up again only a few years ago, though useful, also feels like a prestige project, while several other trappings feel like cosmetic touchups to only suggest structural development. These include an inner city ‘free’ bike scheme, where information is only available in Russian and Kazakh, and QR-codes strewn around town to, ostensibly, help tourists to get around. Though an internet connection is required for these to be helpful.
Overlooking the city
A popular destination for those living in Almaty is to take the cable car up Kok Tobe, green hill. On a clear day, uncommon in winter due to the valley unable to get rid of the smog, the views can be stunning. Meanwhile, the top of the hill holds what might be the only statue of the Beatles showing all four members.