Wednesday, 20 October 2010
Postcards from Kazakhstan
Beauty comes at a cost.
This is believed to be the largest wooden building in the world, built without a single nail. It is a very small part of the Cathedral of the Holy Ascension in Almaty, and it is built of wood to withstand earthquakes. Almaty sits on a major fault line.
In the past Almaty has been devastated by earthquakes and drowned in torrents of mud and melt-water rushing down the steep mountain valleys into the town.
Now the water is channelled along every street, irrigating the trees as it flows.
It provides water features and fountains everywhere. It makes the numerous parks lush and rich. It makes the city a lovely place to walk.
But then a lake, high in the mountains, empties itself down a valley and takes more than two hundred houses along with the rocks and mud and the great walls of melted snow.
This happened from Lake Esik in July 1963.
Now the lake is a fraction of its former size, still a favourite place for picnics and a starting point for hiking, but its earlier dam, thought to be protective, was swept away completely, and the valley is empty.
Fountains and water everywhere.
In the morning I sit near the fountains in the apartment gardens. It is over twenty degrees. I am wearing a tee shirt and a cotton skirt.
The little Kazakh and Russian toddlers living in the apartments also trundle out into the sunshine, escorted by their nannies and babushkas.
Everyone else is dressed as for the ski slopes, padded coats, scarves, boots.
Every toddler wears a woolly hat.
I get some analytical stares from impassive almond-shaped eyes.
Every toddler who can sit unaided is pushed in a chariot.
These chariots are shaped like cars or motorbikes, brightly coloured and fitted with numerous devices that dangle and rotate and chime and generally entertain their passengers.
Round and round they go.
Round and round the fountains.
After a few mornings of this the toddlers and nannies and babuskas relax about the strange white-haired old lady wearing barely adequate clothing.
I am approached by a tiny toddler in a spangled gauze skirt, a red velvet jacket embroidered in gold, red fur hat, gold tights, red patent leather boots.
She leaves her pink plastic chariot with the gold dangly bits and totters over.
She extends a shrimp-sized finger towards the zip on my bag.
I slide it open, saying, 'Open', and closed, saying, 'Closed',
I repeat it a few times.
'Closed', I say, and look at her expectantly.
The shrimp-finger points again.
'Open!' she commands.
There are cheers and applause from the watching nannies.
'English!' they say.
Forget learning Russian.
I am teaching English here!