Monday, 24 October 2011

On the Silk Road

(Traditional Kazakh restaurant. The small 'confessionals' behind fretted doors are private dining rooms.)

Almaty feels fresh and clean. Lorries with powerful water canons cruise around, blasting leaves and any other debris into the deep channels at the road sides. Then I notice that there is hardly any other debris.
There are no polystyrene food cartons, blobs of compacted chewing gum or piles of dog mess (in very sharp contrast with most towns in England), but there are dogs, a few, very few, taking their owners out on leads. There are many more, living independently in packs, being fed but not turned into pets, being tolerated everywhere, viewing humans with mild interest and vague expectation.
My son's freezer accidentally defrosted, and we put a pile of burgers out by the wheelie bins. Within minutes they vanish.
In one of the many beautiful parks a girl lies flat on the grass, photographing her Chihuahua. The tiny dog wears a lace frill round its neck, and has a minute, mouse-sized diamante harness. Behind her, in the shade, sits a pack of free-range dogs. Their leader appears to be a great grey chap, unnervingly like a wolf. His companions include a look-alike Papillon, and a look-alike Jack Russell. The pack relaxes in the shade and observes with interest.

Here, on the ancient trading route of the Silk Road, cultures and traditions mix as they have done throughout time. The new financial centre looks like Canary Wharf. There are shops full of bling, and every bit of technology a modern heart could desire. On every road just out of town there are stalls selling fruits, vegetables and the fermented mare's milk that promotes health and beauty.

(The business and financial centre, Almaty.)

Then there is the Green Market, said to be the largest covered market in Central Asia. My son takes me there to browse, but photography is not allowed.
On the stalls outside there are beautiful displays of dried fruits and nuts. Further in are fresh fruits and vegetables, polished and arranged to perfection. We buy bowls of raspberries and of the most delicious mountain strawberries.
Everything here gives evidence of the prosperity of this country, its land and its people. We are invited to sample. We are something of a target audience.

Deeper inside the market the stalls are laid out in long specialised rows. One whole row is devoted to honey and honey products, beautiful glistening chunks of honeycomb, and translucent jars of honey in every shade of amber.
The meat stalls are grouped together with helpful picures of animals - sheep, cow, chicken and rather a lot of horse. There are many bits of animals that are unrecognisable, entrails in see-through plastic bags, and slabs of fat.
There are stalls full of cheeses and other dairy products, and a whole aromatic section of herbs, spices and seeds, many of the herbs freshly picked. The stall holders offer medicinal advice along with their herbs.
The covered market meanders into different sections, clothing, electrical goods, tools - a glorious mixture of Barcelona Food Market and Birmingham's Bull Ring. People-centred trading at its essential best, catering for real needs and wants as it has done throughout the centuries.

We wander through Almaty down to the wooden cathedral. A clutch of babushkas sit on the pavement, huddled in beige anoraks, old fur boots and headscarves, their begging bowls on the ground in from of them. It is over twenty degrees, but all the Kazakhs are dressed in winter clothing.
I notice one of the babushkas is chatting on her iphone.
A place of paradox.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for such a very interesting series of articles about a little-known place. I'm very glad I found your blog, and look forward to reading more.

Molly said...

It is so interesting to visit this fascinating place through your eyes!

Zhoen said...

Everything and everywhen, all together.

I remember being startled at how Saudi Arabia had such a modern freeway system. I don't know what I expected, but not that it should look a lot like urban California.

Mouse said...

It sounds lovely. I wonder at the basic culture of the people, food is important and cleanliness, yes? but what else...

Relatively Retiring said...

L.B.M: thank you for reading and commenting. I appreciate your interest.
Molly: many thanks. I felt so differently about it on my second visit, much more relaxed and less 'strange'.
Zhoen: yes, so much reminds me of Riyadh, especially the amazing amount of bling, and the huge, gas-guzzling cars with darkened windows!
Mouse: I take your point. Basically a Moslem country with Russian Orthodox influence. It seems a wonderfully harmonious ethnic and cultural mix. Although basically Moslem there do not seem to be any of the restrictions evident in Middle Eastern cultures. Women are not veiled, they drive and there is co-education.

Isabelle said...

You can't imagine how much good it's done me to read your wonderful posts about K'stan. I'm very stuck in the house at the moment.

Relatively Retiring said...

Isabelle: I'm so glad that it helped, and I hope things will improve for you.

Jenny Woolf said...

The more I read about this place the more interesting and worth a visit it sounds.

Relatively Retiring said...

Jenny: it's not an easy place to visit, but if it was nearer to Europe and more accessible it would be over-run by visitors.
It's snowing there now, and the ski slopes will be open any day!

Leslee said...

What an amazing place! Probably just as well that it is so far off the beaten track and, hopefully, somewhat protected from the craziness of the rest of the modern world.

Timon berg said...

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