Sunday, 24 October 2010


I left Kazakhstan in 27 degrees of heat.
A day or so later and snow is forecast.

There will be frantic activity up on the ski slopes above the town. Almaty is hosting the Asian Winter Games in a few weeks time, and there is still much building of wooden hotels and chalets to be done up there, ready for the influx.

Near to my son's glass tower of an office block a terrifyingly perilous ski-jump rears into the sky. He hopes to be able to watch people hurling themselves down it from somewhere near his desk.
His own skis are ready, near the door of his apartment.
I try not to think too much about the slopes he will be attacking.
I'm not sure that it was such a good thing to have seen them; the rocks, the tree-stumps, the brand-new, untested chair-lift network.

It is only days since we sat in warm sunshine on the terrace of this Georgian restaurant. Fragrant woodsmoke drifted across the steep valley.
Two caged wolves paced nearby, their yellow eyes fixed on us.
All too close to them was a sort of pets' corner of rabbits and chickens. My son fought hard against the urge to pass the wolves a couple of chunky little rabbits.
Kazakhstan is said to have more wolves than Canada, although I'm not sure how anyone can prove that. I just hope those particular wolves will either be released or fed as the snow falls on the mountains.

Snow will be falling on the spacious avenues of Panfilov Park, just one of so many beautful tree-filled spaces in Almaty.

The leaves will have gone.
But life will continue in the little wooden houses in every side street and back lane, where they sit comfortably among the new glass and chrome and the old Soviet blocks.
Every ex-Soviet block has its own courtyards, with play equipment for children, drying racks for the washing and benches in the sun where you can sit and chat with your neighbours.
Every wooden house has its orchard, its vegetable patch, and many near the city centre have a cow or a couple of goats.
We have so much to learn about life-style.

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!

Friday, 15 October 2010

A Letter from Kazakhstan.

I need not have concerned myself too much with Olga and Vladimir, although it is useful to have a few, a very few, phrases and polite greetings.

Valentina the Cleaner came yesterday, and we needed no formal phrases. She had picked me some apples from her garden, demonstrating ably how she had reached up and picked them....'This one? Niet! This one? Ah yes, this one is good for the Mama. Tak, tak, tak.'
In return I presented her with a pot of Gentleman's Relish.......'Put it on bread, small, small, little thin.......' . My son has no toaster. I mime putting bread under the grill.
'Ah ha!' says Valentina. 'X Factor!'
Universal understanding.

Valentina irons my son's shirts most beautifully. She mops and polishes the tiled floors. She talks to me, and I tell her I can't understand a thing she says, but indicate that I am full of admiration for the quality of her work.
She admires the quality of my son.
She says he is very, very bolshoi (big), which is true. Valentina indicates that big mothers make big sons. She looks me up and down and we agree that I am bolshoi, too. (But not as bolshoi in some dimensions as Valentina.)

Valentina polishes the furniture, the ceramic hob, the worktops. She arranges coasters in a star pattern on the table. She stands back to admire the results. She checks the chandeliers. There is no dust.
I sense disappointment. I think she would like more sparkle, more glitz, more of the razzmattazz that rich folk can buy downtown. Stuff like gilded indoor fountains, bear-skin rugs, fancy whips with a deer's leg as the handle.
Nice stuff. The top floor of TsUM (the Harrods of Almaty) is full of temptation.

Before she left Valentina came and sat with me for a while. We chatted in Russian and English with an almost total lack of comprehension on both sides.
Then she began to sing. The volume increased until the chandeliers rattled. She threw back her head and let rip.
I applauded.
'X Factor!' she said again, and I realised that she may be over-estimating my power and influence back in the UK.
But when Simon Cowell comes to Kazakhstan Valentina should be right at the front of the queue.

Today I sit here, in my son's spotless apartment, overlooking snow-capped mountains.
I can hear children playing in the school playground next door. The shouts and squeals and laughter of children at play creates an atmosphere that is universal. I think I can understand what they are shouting and squealing about, whether it is in Russian or Kazakh or English (but it certainly won't be in English).
These children look cleaner and more formal than many I see in England. They are smartly dressed. Their school shirts are blindingly white and their blazers well-brushed.
When the whistle blows and the children are summoned back inside I can hear the band practice from the military academy just up the road.
I can hear the call to prayer from a nearby mosque.

Multi faith, multi ethnic. Full of trees and fountains and sparkling mountain air.
This is a beautiful place.