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!


marigold jam said...

Thank you so much for sharing your postcards! That first building is amazing - I had no idea what it might be like where you are so it si good to see your photos and hear what you think of it all. Fancy you teaching those children English too!


Zhoen said...

Sounds like lovely weather for a t-shirt and skirt, and language lessons.

Lounging on the edge of disaster, enjoying the sun.

pohanginapete said...

Perhaps the locals feel the nominal temperature in Fahrenheit rather than Celsius? I'd be wearing a padded jacket, gloves, etc. if it felt like -6.7° ;^) Mind you, I tend to wear that kind of clothing most of the year...

Loved the story about your teaching English.

Frances said...

These are fascinating posts and photos, Relatively Retiring. Thank you.

leslee said...

That's so cute. Kids learn fast, especially with a good teacher.

Relatively Retiring said...

Thank you all for your comments.
Your perception about lounging on the edge of disaster, Zhoen, feels so accurate. At first I thought the proximity of the mountains was breath-taking. Then I realised it could literally be breath-taking.

The acceptance and offers of friendship by tiny children is touching. They were bemused by me initially, as were their minders.

Jane said...

Wonderful photos you're giving us, Judith. It sounds a fascinating place - hope I can borrow the Cathedral photo to add to my architectral features collection!

Relatively Retiring said...

Jane: thank you. I have others of the main facade of the cathedral that might suit you better. Come and have a look at some point. I'll be in touch.

Isabelle said...


Relatively Retiring said...

A long way to go to visit a son....but also one of those life-changing experiences.