Almaty! That is a name that evokes exotic visions of the Silk Road1, tales of 1001 Nights, Marco Polo, the Mysteries of the East...
Imagine, then, having arrived from Europe in the middle of the night, you wake up in the morning, and look out of the window:
A trifle disappointing...
Almaty is still the business and cultural centre of Kazakhstan. Given the ethnic tensions (Russians are in
the Northern half, Kazakhs in the Southern) the President decided to move the capital from Almaty to a
place called Akmola. Due to some misunderstandings concerning the translation “Akmola” was often
quoted to mean “White Hell”. Slightly peeved with this, the president then decided to change the name
of the town into Akmola (which happens to simply mean “Capital” in Kazakh; this in turn led to stories
like: a Kazakh meets another in the street. ‘So glad to see you, can I introduce my wife? She’s called
“Wife”, and this is my dog, it’s called “Dog”!’). Anyway, Akmola is in the middle of a very flat plain,
prone to strong winds and low temperatures. In winter, during a storm, you may get lost just by going
outside your front door. But don’t worry, they’ll find you again in spring. It had also been decided that a
twenty year move (like from Bonn to Berlin) was far too long, and thus the move took place within two weeks, by decree.
By now you may wonder at the meaning of "Almaty" … please bear with me for a few sentences & all
will be clear. You – as a West European – may well think that apples are and always have been, home
grown, especially if you are English & think of all the varieties available: Cox's Orange Pippin, Braeburn,
Golden Delicious, etc. Actually, according to molecular biology, apples are recent immigrants, brought by those very civilised Romans, some 2,000 years ago. The rare native apples in Western Europe are
totally unrelated to today's enormous, juicy, sweet apples. In fact the local English variety Malus sylvestertis, is small, spiny & inedible. So the Romans
brought over their own sweet version & cleverly grafted these onto the bitter native crabs.
But where did the Romans get the apple & the grafting technique? Well, they thought apples came from Syria & the grafting skills from the even more clever Greeks
(but no written records of Greek grafting survive, only lots of tragedies & philosophical ramblings see The Odyssey, Socrates, Plato etc.). Educated guess is that those equally clever Persians
invented grafting and so evolved the technique of conserving and spreading chosen varieties, since apples do not come true from seed and cannot be
grown from cuttings (as any true gardener can instantly tell you).
Syria, therefore, was not such a bad guess, but research (molecular biology again) points to regions far to the east – possibly China
. The provinces of southern, central & western China are rich in tree & shrubby plants, since they never suffered in recent geological time the devastation of total glaciation &
have more than 20 true wild species of apple, but mostly small – the size of cherries. So how did these
evolve to the big, round, red & juicy things we take for granted today? Hints point to the old autonomous provinces of the Soviet Union – today's Uzbekistan & Kazakhstan
. However, the whole of the central part of Kazakhstan & most of Uzbekistan has been wrecked, firstly by several thousand
years of nomads & goats, then by Stalin's and Krushchev’s virgin lands projects & total disregard for the environment. If one perseveres, one can visit the lower mountain slopes of the
Djungarian Alatau, an outlier of the great Tien-Shan range (heavenly mountains) just north of the Illi River & looking over
into China. There, you will be surrounded by virtually unknown fruit forests: apples, pear, plums,
apricots & so on. Real apples at 1800 metres enjoying +30C in summer & -30C in winter! The fragments
of this forest still exist, accidentally preserved by accidents of political & military whim & by being on
the "right" side of the vast frontier of the Great Game – i.e. wherever goats & cows (originally domesticated 8,000 BC in SW-Asia & 6,000 BC, also SW-Asia, respectively [source: “Guns, Germs & Steel” by J. Diamond]) could penetrate, forests have disappeared. The evolution & spread of the apple can be
attributed to 4.5 million years worth of natural selection first by sweet-toothed mountain bears, whose
"droppings" are stuffed with the pips of apples, plum stone & other seeds. Later came the Silk Roads of
the past 10,000 years, passing nearby with caravans pulled by camels, horses & mules. Later perhaps, Alexander's cavalry unwittingly carried selected seeds back to Macedonia
(although Alexander was beaten back by robust Kazakh nomads & turned south to softer targets in the Hindu Kush, at least he got into the edge of this region – to see, how far, try this animated map
). After all, a horse's guts
(like those of bears) don't harm apple pips & then the seeds get "planted" in a fertile medium (horse-shit).
So, if you have patiently read so far, the mystery will be revealed: Almaty means: "The Place of Apples" (Source: "The Common Ground Book of Orchards").
Getting about requires the use of professionals (you definitely do not want to drive by yourself!)
(in case you’re wondering, the driver is on the far left)
More random street scenes:
One thing which is noticeable really once you think about it: there are very few street signs. Hardly any “No parking”, “Don’t even think
about standing here”, or “This way to x,y,z”. Presumably it is assumed that you either know where you are, or you don’t belong here anyway.
The various offices don’t look too great from the outside...
... or the inside.
Note the tasteful interior decoration and the state-of-the art lighting.
Similarly, we tend to stay in privately rented flats. The entrance is usually via the back yard:
The inside isn’t much better...
But we try to make the best of it. An old friend of mine described
the meal had here, somewhat underestimating our cooking prowess, as “Potage aux Fines Herbes à la manière de Knorr”.
Home catering does take on a completely different meaning: rather than stuffing suitcases and briefcases with mega
-important files, they are filled instead with the best selections of Marks & Spencer ready-to-eat meals (for those consultants
hailing from that Emerald isle) and 1001 varieties of sausage and slabs of pig for those consultants from Germany...
There are occasions, of course, when one went native and to the local market. A colourful experience, and a phantastic choice of spices and stuff!
Work involves Important People doing Important Things...
Arguments are settled peacefully...
There may be time to go explore the town...
And here’s the company of soldiers to take him away.
There are some occasional outings - Almaty is a stone’s throw away from the mountains, where one may take walks in the drizzle (I’m
told the weather can be fine, too - but I’ve never experienced it)
All in all, we tend to get along fine. (Even if one is forever buying the boss’s drinks!)
By popular request, here’s another random street scene. Notice the mountains in the background.
The Silk Road
is an ancient trade route that, linking China with the West, carried goods and ideas between the two great civilizations
of Rome and China. Silk came westward, while wools, gold, and silver went east. China also received Nestorian Christianity and
Buddhism (from India) via the road.
Originating at Sian, the 6,400-kilometre road, actually a caravan tract, followed the Great Wall of China to the northwest, bypassed the
Takla Makan Desert, climbed the Pamirs (mountains), crossed Afghanistan, and went on to the Levant; from there, the merchandise
was shipped across the Mediterranean Sea. Few persons travelled the entire route, and goods were handled in a staggered progression
With the gradual loss of Roman territory in Asia and the rise of Arabian power in the Levant, the Silk Road became increasingly unsafe
and untravelled. In the 13th and 14th centuries the route was revived under the Mongols, and at that time Marco Polo
used the road to travel to Cathay (China).
The road now partially exists in the form of a paved highway connecting Pakistan and Sinkiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China. The
old road has inspired a United Nations plan for a trans-Asian highway.