February 16th, 2018 - Winterstan
Hey there everybody,
I hope this year is treating you well, whatever season’s grip you are in right now. I've just traded in a Stan-country winter for the dry season in southern India – a swift 50°C change from -20°C to 30°C. And while this is a pretty sweet weather-moment to be in Chennai, the winter wasn’t a very typical season to travel the Stan-countries.
I’ve never based my travel decisions on climate charts; I’m not waiting for sunshine to explore a country, nor do I make a point of avoiding them during high season – I go whenever I feel like it out of curiosity for a place or because of being in the vicinity or to visit somebody or for many other reasons. A fair case can be made for both visiting during or off peak season: the former usually allows for more versatile and convenient travel, while the latter means fewer tourists and a less common impression of a place.
Trying to keep my travels authentic and getting a glimpse of what it’s like elsewhere also means not reducing my steps to picture perfect moments and weather conditions. There were no hikes waiting for me in wintry Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and a lot of the nature these countries are famed for was out of my reach this time. But then again, 6 months of winter are a substantial part of the Kazakh and Kyrgyz experience and so is living in the cities.
So what was there for me to explore at -20°C?
Throughout my last days in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana I hung out with my friend Aida some more and once we visited a dog shelter where she volunteers on a regular basis. Hundreds of dogs dwell there in long rows of kennels at temperatures as low as -40°C. Aida and others feed them with wheelbarrows of dog food and snow, before they are being put down or taken in by someone.
Aida feeding the dogs with a wheelbarrow of snow
It was quite a different scene to be beamed up by an elevator into the golden globe of Bayterek Tower the next day – Astana is a city of oil-induced splendor but the black gold doesn’t trickle down through all society layers.
At least the president allows the common people to touch his golden hand print high up in the sphere for good fortune while looking onto his lavish palace.
In all fairness, the people don’t seem to be too bothered by the politics of their unchallenged leader and I liked the sculpture with many religions in peaceful vicinity on the same pedestal as the golden hand.
Astana wasn’t for me. In my eyes the cityscape looks as though some 8-year-olds played a board game and rolled the dice once too often – a strict soviet grid covered in an arbitrary accumulation of grossly lavish skyscrapers.
Contrary to Astana, which was hoisted out of the barren steppe merely 20 years ago, former capital Almaty was supposed to be a student city with a history and heart. And while the city indeed felt more like a city and less like a competitive architecture model, I missed the heart that I had hoped for. Literally, not figuratively. Let me explain: I can see how Almaty is a beloved and hearty city for many, both locals and foreigners, even though my time there was too short to ignite that spark in me. The literal heart that I missed though is the one you can point to on a map – I like cities that have one or more distinct centers, hearts whose street-arteries provide them with people that flood the lively establishments.
The quarters in cities built on soviet promises seem more homogenous to me, more institutional than homey, more functional than hearty. Bland apartment buildings line wide avenues and the color palette doesn’t extend beyond grays and pastel colors – I find it a bit drab to be quite frank. Of course winter doesn’t help the hue along.
blend of Central Asian heritage and soviet past in Almaty
residential neighborhood in Almaty with gas pipes and trash disposal
Kyrgyzstan’s capital Bishkek isn't exactly an explosion of color and cozy architecture either, but its neighborhoods seemed more defined, walkable and hence livelier. I stayed for a couple of weeks and came to really like it. Certainly the fact that I had more time in Bishkek than in Almaty as well as my much higher expectations after people had talked up Almaty a lot, factored into these impressions.
And anyway, cities are not only made of buildings, but also of people and I found plenty of welcoming folks throughout Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan who made my time worthwhile. I thought the nexus of Central Asian culture with former soviet influence and Islam as the predominant religion very interesting. Looking at people’s features you would probably place them in East Asia, listening to their conversations would speak for them being Russians, while their religious monuments point towards the Middle East.
day trip to Burana Tower, where climbing up the spiral staircase feels like being in a snail shell
where to next
Nowhere for now! I will live in Chennai for the next couple of months. It’s my second time around and it feels great to be back, but more on that next time!
July 25th, 2017 - idle facade, busy behind the scenes