Some Parting Thoughts…

Well my friends, it seems that my time here has come to an end.  What originally began as a three month assignment stretched into four and a half months, but in reality it seems much shorter than that.  While it will be nice to return home to the States, I also have mixed feelings about leaving.  The people and culture of Kazakhstan have left an indelible mark on my life.  I feel so fortunate to have come here and been able to spend enough time to really immerse myself in the place and get a small sense of what life is like here in Almaty.

While Kazakhstan and Central Asia in general have long remained an isolated part of the world, things are slowly changing in this regard.  Many social and political problems remain, but through careful decisions and planning, the vast potential of this country and region can be fully realized.  I hope that Kazakhstan can follow many of the good governance examples in the West but at the same time not repeat our many mistakes. If so, this place has a very bright future and I look forward to seeing it rise to the challenge.

On a personal level, the hospitality I have experienced here has been unparalleled. While growing up as a rural Southerner in the U.S., I thought I knew the meaning of hospitality, but the people here have not only reminded me of those days but their generosity of spirit has been truly inspiring.  I feel privileged to have worked with and gotten to know so many wonderful people.  In all honesty, my time here has only given back a fraction of what I have received in kind.

It is my hope that the musings and pictures on this blog have opened a window to this part of the world.  I have enjoyed working on it and perhaps future visitors will find it useful as well.  As I return to the States to spend the holidays with friends and family, I wish everyone both here and there a wonderful holiday season!

"Happy New Year!" in Kazakh

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Walking in a Winter Wonderland

Well, Fall may have gone out with a bang here in Central Asia but Winter has wasted no time settling in.  For someone originally from the southern part of the States, this has both a shock and a treat.  The high temperature this weekend was around 14° F and the low hovered around 0° F.  In other words, very cold!  Despite this, I did venture out and try to take some pictures in some of the parks.  The pictures below are both of Panfilov Park.  One was taken during my first weekend here back in August, the other this weekend.  What a difference!

The southern entrance of Panfilov Park this weekend

The same scene taken back in early August. It was about 98 F on this day. A far cry from the 90 degree difference this weekend!

The shots below are from various spots around the central part of the city.  The meandering journey ended at the annual Christmas Craft Fair held at the Central Museum.  I was glad to finally arrive and find some warmth inside!

My friend Bill happened to spot this perfect little Charlie Brown Christmas tree outside of a convenience store

A much bigger tree welcoming the start of the Asian Winter Games in January

Across the street from the big tree is one of my favorite buildings, the Academy of Sciences.

The Academy of Sciences building

Park near New Square looking south towards the Central Business District

A cold and lonely set of stairs

Park near the old Presidential Palace

A quiet path under a snowy canopy

Beautiful building that is home to the President's Foundation

Snowy sculpture garden nearby

Walking downhill along Dostyk Avenue. The sidewalks get sanded but are still treacherous!

Back at snowy Panfilov Park

Panfilov Park

Panfilov Park

Well, that’s it for this week’s wintry tour.  My time here is quickly coming to an end, as I leave in less than two weeks.  I’ll try to take a few more pics if the weather warms up a bit.  Till then!

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Trip to Tashkent, Uzbekistan

We have a small staff and field office in Tashkent so we went for a couple of days to check in with the staff and have some crucial meetings with several Uzbek Ministry officials.  This would be my first time traveling in the region and leaving Kazakhstan.  I was both excited and a little nervous at the same time.  After three months time, Almaty has started to feel very comfortable and familiar.  Boarding a plane to leave the country felt a little strange, which was surprising to me.  This is especially true since my original assignment has been extended another month.  I’m not scheduled to return to the States until just before Christmas now.

Unfortunately, my guide book only covers Kazakhstan so I have very little history to offer on Tashkent and Uzbekistan in general.  It is my understanding that Tashkent is a very old city, with the first settlement dating back to the third century B.C.  Although the city has gone by many names over the various millenia, the word, “Tash” is Turkish and means, “stone.”  “Kent” is a Persian word meaning, “city,” so Tashkent essentially means “city of stone.”  While one can see the vestiges of the Soviet era in terms of the architecture and feel, modern Tashkent is very different from Almaty.  It is much more spread out and there are fewer trees.  It also sits on more of a plain and is not at the base of the mountains like Almaty.  The avenues of Tashkent seem wider and more open, feeling less hemmed in.  It’s also twice the size of Almaty, so there are many more people and much more energy to the place.

While we had a pretty packed schedule during our stay, I did manage to block out a few hours in the afternoon to take a tour of the city.  Our local office manager kindly arranged a local tour guide and driver to take me around and see some of the sights.  The tour guide picked me up back at my hotel and our driver whisked us through the city. My tour guide was a lovely and kind ethnic Russian woman who was a retired university professor and spoke excellent English.  She essentially started her own tour company after retirement and works her own schedule.  As we were chatting, she mentioned that not many people requested this particular tour of Tashkent.  That comment seemed odd to me, who wouldn’t want to see the sights of the city?  She then continued, saying that she had only given this tour a handful of times.  Ok, I thought, this seems a little weird.  She then said that I must be a very devout Muslim to want to see some of the obscure sights we were going to.  At this point, I said, “What?!”  She said that I had requested the “Historical and Holy Islamic Tour of Tashkent.”  I told her that I thought I was seeing the general tourist sites of the city.  She said no, that’s not what was requested and she had already purchased tickets for the Islamic Library Museum.  Despite the obvious mix-up, I decided just to go along with it.  I told her that while I wasn’t even Muslim, and I didn’t know much about the religion and have never been to a mosque before,  I would still be very interested in learning more.  She seemed relieved and I admit that I really enjoyed the tour.  She gave me a lot of useful background on Islam and I learned a great deal.  Overall it was a very enjoyable afternoon!  Funny how things happen sometimes!

Our first stop was the Monument of Courage, dedicated to the rebuilding of the city after the 1966 earthquake that completely leveled the city and killed thousands.  It was not far from my hotel, so we stopped to take a few pictures on our way to the Muslim sites.

This cracked cube symbolizes the earthquake and shows the date and time that it occurred: April 26, 1966 at 5:22.

The focal point of the monument is a representation of a family standing strong against the quake.

Close-up of the monument

The next stop on our tour was what is know as the “Old City.”  Here sits the Khast-Imam mosque.  The mosque is actually part of a complex of buildings.  There is the newer and large Khast-Imam mosque, which is the largest in Uzbekistan.  Also on the site is the original mosque dating from the 16th century. There is also a Islamic Library Museum, the Kaffal-Shashi mausoleum, and the Imam Al-Bukhari Institute, which is a training center for Muslim clergy.

The Khast-Imam mosque from the rear, taken from the central plaza and courtyard behind it. The smaller building on the right is the Islamic Library.

Entrance to the courtyard of the Khast-Imam mosque

Courtyard of the Khast-Imam mosque

One of the two minarets of the Khast-Imam mosque

Decorative tile work of the Khast-Imam mosque

Behind the mosque sits the Barak-Khan Madrassah, an Islamic Library and Museum. This library holds the oldest complete copy of the Koran in existance.  It is the Osman Koran from the 7th century.  It is a very large book with pages made from deer skin and Osman was the first to attempt to compile the Koran from various scrolls into a single volume. What is more significant about this copy is that Osman was murdered one night while reading it.  His blood stains still appear on some of the pages!  This is a very sacred book and as such, pictures were not allowed.

Across the plaza behind the mosque sits the Khast-Imam Madrassah.  It now serves as a training school for local artists who rent out the rooms to sell their wares and demonstrate their craft.

The Khast-Imam Madrassah

The beautiful and exquisite tile work of the entrance.

Continuing across the plaza sits the Ensemble Khazret Imam (I think!).  I was told it was the tomb of one of the first Imams of Tashkent.  I’m a little fuzzy on whether this is the correct mausoleum, as I didn’t take any notes at the time.

The Ensemble Khazret Imam (I hope).

After this visit to the Old City, we headed to the mausoleum complex of Zangiata that actually sits a half-hour outside of Tashkent.  This Sufi site is considered very holy by area Muslims and many travel here from all over the country.  It is said that a pilgrimage here may substitute for one to Mecca if one is not able to afford or make that journey. Zangiata’s real name was Sheikh Ay-Khodja.  Zangiata means “black,” possibly referring to his skin color, and it may be that he traveled and settled here from North Africa.  The complex contains his mausoleum and that of his wife, Ambar bibi.

Zangiata mausoleum entrance at the far door

Restoring the minaret at the Zangiata mausoleum. This minaret was originally built in the early 1900's and reflects an obvious Russian influence.

Another shot of the Zangiata mausoleum complex courtyard.

The final stop on the tour was back in central Tashkent.  It was the Kukeldash Madrassah, built in the 16th century and never restored, it gives one a better picture of the original construction.  Today, the building houses another craft guild, where one can find all sorts of traditional Uzbek crafts and souvenirs.

The Kukeldash Madrassah

The arch at the entrance of the Kukeldash Madrassah

Inner courtyard of the Kukeldash Madrassah. It was starting to get dark and the waning light gave the courtyard a very peaceful feel.

This entry’s final picture is of an elevated table for sitting, where one can just picture a group of imams taking their evening tea in the quiet of the courtyard.  It was a lovely tour and I feel much more educated and enlightened about Islam than when I started the tour.  Given the fear and ignorance that plagues much of America when it comes to this religion, I wish more Americans could take a tour like this and learn to respect and appreciate another of the world’s great religions.

A quiet and peaceful place to have a rest or take a tea.

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Fall Goes Out With A Bang!

Fall is quickly coming to an end here in Almaty, but not without one last hurrah.  The past few weekends have been spectacular for color and I was able to capture the slightest essence of it.  Speaking of color, I also thought I would post some pics I’ve taken here along the way of various flowers.  I’m certainly no horticulturist, so you’ll have to forgive me for not knowing the varieties of the ones I’ve posted below.

The snow is creeping down the mountains, ever closer to Almaty

I took a stroll around parts of the city on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon.  Some parts were familiar, other random turns took me to new places.  I just snapped pics wherever my eye was drawn.

Panfilov Park ablaze with color

Two beautiful trees showing off to the evergreens around them

A small yet beautiful park off of Ablai Khan Avenue

A very artistic park bench kept company by a rather cartoonish wooly mammoth (?!) sculpture

A statue of a Kazakh maiden in traditional dress

My favorite shot of the afternoon!

Park across from Republic Square. The roses were barely hanging on but they were putting up a good fight against the colder weather

Below are some additional shots of flowers taken over the past three months.  One little known flower fact about Kazakhstan is that the tulip originated here!  Don’t tell them in Holland!!  It grows in the wild in the northern part of the country. Unfortunately, I’m in the southern part and here during the late summer and fall so I haven’t seen them.  I have seen pictures and heard stories, however, about entire hillsides being covered in color!

I believe this picture was taken on the grounds of the eagle hunting museum

Another shot from the grounds of the eagle hunting museum

More flowers from the eagle hunting museum. With the half-starved eagles and dogs primed for the upcoming hunting season, the place was kind of depressing. I guess these shots of flowers were an attempt to find some beauty there.

These did not look at all familiar to me. Anyone know them?

This shot of wildflowers was taken back in August at Big Almaty Lake, high in the mountains

The final shot of this entry, also taken in August at Big Almaty Lake

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Trip to the Capital – Astana

Sorry for the delay in creating a new post.  My internet service has been down at my apartment for the past two weekends, so that has delayed things a bit.  I was also out of town recently.  It was my first trip to another part of the country.  I flew with a work colleague to Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana.

Kazakhstan's capital, Astana, is an architectural wonderland. The symbol of the city (and country) is the Baiterek, or Tree of Life from Kazakh legend.

Astana has been the capital of Kazakhstan since 1997.  The word literally means “capital” in Kazakh and the decision was made to create this new capital and move it from Almaty (which is where I am based) only three years earlier, in 1994.  There were lots of unofficial explanations for the move.  Almaty is basically hemmed in on three sides by mountains, thus limiting growth potential.  Almaty also sits just over 100 miles from the Chinese border and this may have affected the decision as well.  Another explanation is that creating a new capital gave the country (and its president) the opportunity to showcase a newly independent and confident nation.

Although Astana was previously named Akmola and had a population of about 300,000 people, today the population is effectively double and the city is much more sprawling.  The new part of the city was planned by famed Japanese architect, Kisho Kurokawa and most of the new government buildings were designed by Norman Foster.  It’s not often that one gets to plan a city from scratch (i.e. Dubai), so the results are really interesting.

My itinerary in Astana consisted of many meetings so there wasn’t really ample time to check out the sights.  Our driver was courteous enough to give us a windshield tour of some of the highlights, however.

Arrival at the Astana airport. Although this was mid-October, our early morning arrival was greeted by a -8 C temperature on the northern steppe!!

The Nur Astana Mosque, with enough room for up to 5,000 worshippers.

An interesting triad of office buildings seen from our windshield tour.

Another interesting building...quite the monolith once up close

Independence monument against the beautiful sky of the northern steppe

Close-up of the Independence monument

Across from the Independence monument is the Palace of Peace and Harmony.  The inspiration for the building came from the First Congress of World and Traditional Religions which was held in Astana in 2003.  Apparently, it was so successful that the President had this building commissioned to host the second Congress in 2006.  It was designed by Foster and Partners and replicates the proportions of the Great Pyramids of Giza.  Besides being an ecumenical and non-denominational spiritual space, it also houses a 1,350 seat opera house, a Museum of Precious Metals, and a Winter Garden in the top of the pyramid.

The Palace of Peace and Harmony

This building sits next to the Independence monument. I was told it was an art university.

Not sure about this building, but interesting none the less.

Statue of the omnipresent Abai

I think that is the Kazakhstan Sport Center but I'm not entirely sure.

The Presidential Palace, known as "Ak Orda."

This wall-like building sits near the Presidential Palace and is known as the House of Ministers. It spans several blocks and houses twelve difference Ministries, each with their own separate entrance.

Buildings across the street from the House of Ministers

I believe this is a hotel but I can't recall the name.

I'm told this is the Ministry of Transport and Communications. People have nicknamed it "the lighter" as it does look a Bic lighter. Unfortunately, the top floors caught fire in 2006 and helped cement the name!

Well, that was my whirlwind trip to Astana.  It would have been nice to have some free time to explore the city in a bit more depth, but I am grateful for being given the opportunity to go in the first place.  While cold to me, I can’t imagine visiting in the heart of winter when the temperatures are much, much colder and the wind off the steppe is brutal.  My hat’s off to the denizens of this very interesting capital city!

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Almaty Street Scenes

It has been a rather quiet and restful weekend here, without any major events or excursions.  As a result, I thought I would post some pictures of my many walking adventures around the city over the past weeks.  I don’t have a lot of history to share with you in these shots but you can at least continue to build a more complete picture of the city and witness some of the features and architecture that I find so interesting.

Fountain outside of The Promenade shopping center

New mixed use building with a mural done in classical Greek style? Perhaps a tribute to the upcoming Asian Winter Games in January.

Almaty is such a nice city to explore not only because of its grid layout and compactness, but with all of the sidewalks and pedestrian paths, it begs to be discovered on foot.

One of the many wide (and often double) sidewalks along the main roads

The many quiet pedestrian paths allowing easy access to the interiors of the majors blocks of the city

Always busy Furmanov street with lots of shops to explore

One interesting scene I came upon was this cardboard cut-out of a small child walking to school and propped up in the crosswalk.  I’m assuming that this was some sort of pedestrian safety campaign.  It really worked as cars were slowing and some even stopping until they realized they’d been had.  I was even startled by it as I thought the child was real from a distance and might be trying to leap out into traffic!

Pedestrian safety campaign?

Not sure what this building is but I liked the color. Apparently it was a very popular color during Soviet times.

One of the very few U.S. chains in Almaty - not sure how popular it is since there is a plethora of pizza places around the city.

Another interesting feature of Almaty is the look of city in terms of old versus new.  Often times, it is a very stark contrast between the Soviet period architectural style and the coordinated effort to create a more modern Kazakh style.  The picture below is a good illustration.  In the center is a statue commemorating the great Kazakh musician, Zhambyl.  Behind him on the right is a classic Soviet era apartment building you see all across the city.  Right next door on the left is a newer, more modern apartment building whose architecture is somewhat more European but also retains some uniquely, if somewhat generic, influences of Central Asia.  It will be very interesting to what the city looks like in another 20 years.

Old versus new apartment buildings

I really liked this apartment building for some reason

"Ah, Paris in the......hey, wait a minute!

As I mentioned during the tour of the Folk Instrument Museum last weekend, Kazakhstan’s great 19th century writer, poet, and musician was Abai Kunanbaev.  His image and work permeate modern Kazakh culture as well as the city.  There is a wonderful statue of him on Dostyk Avenue as he stands guard in front of the Soviet era Republican Palace of Culture, a classical concert venue from the 1970’s.

Abai proudly watching over the residents of Almaty

Abai rendered on a street corner

Below is the Hotel Kazakhstan.  This rather unique building with its golden crown, is a city landmark.  It was the first western style hotel to be built in Almaty in the late 1970’s.  While most of the rooms have been renovated since then, it still remains a tribute to a very different period in Kazakhstan’s history.

The ubiquitous Hotel Kazakhstan

A random building in Almaty whose blue shudders and trim caught my eye

The beautiful thai restaurant appropriately named, "Thai."

An interesting flower basket sculpture on an island in a busy city intersection

The final shot of the day is an art horse tucked away on one of the streets near a major shopping area.  There are several art horses and camels around the city that I would like to capture.  So much exploring, so little time!

Art horse near Gogol Street

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Folk Instrument Museum and the Circus

The Museum of Folk Musical Instruments

It has been a weekend of interesting activities here in Almaty consisting of two very divergent and eclectic activities.  The first part of the weekend was a bit cold and rainy, so something indoors was in order.  We decided to finally take in the Museum of Folk Musical Instruments.  You’ve seen it from the outside before, as it sits in Panfilov Park.  While not a huge space, it was very quaint inside.  I’ve been wanting to visit for a while, not just for myself, but also for my very good friend, Susan, who is a wonderfully accomplished musician back home.  I also had the brief pleasure of learning piano from her.  The visit to this museum really reminded me of her and I know she would have enjoyed it.

Deja vu? Not really, just a reminder of what the the Museum of Folk Musical Instruments looks like (formerly the Soviet Military Officer's Club)

The lobby of the museum had a large map on the wall showing the various types of traditional instruments played across the country.  As you might imagine, people in the southern parts of Kazakhstan used instruments more closely related to those played in the rest of Central Asia and the Middle East while the northern and eastern parts reflected more Russian and Mongolian influences.  As you may recall and for reference, Almaty is in the far southeast corner of the country as indicated on the map.

Folk Instrument map of Kazakhstan highlighting regional differences

Beautiful carved wooden doors graced the entry to one of the main halls.

The national instrument of the country is the Dombra.  It is a long neck lute instrument whose strings are strummed by hand or plucked individually.  The Kazakhs have a history of singing ‘bards’ similar to Celtic culture, where these traveling musicians tell stories of traditional myths and stories through their songs.

Famous Kazakh dombra players and their instruments

Various traditional Kazakh folk instruments

More Central Asian folk musical instruments

Below you can see a rather large frame drum made from camel skin.  It was used in special ceremonies and legend has it that the sound from it could carry across the steppe for up to 70 kilometers [ed: they used the metric system back then??].  I can only imagine the deep and impressive resonance this glorious instrument must have made in its day.

Large camel skin drum

Another sacred instrument is the Kobyz.  It is a carved wooden instrument with two strings traditionally made from horse hair.  The two resonance cavities were typically covered in goat skin.  This was an instrument used only by shaman, or traditional healers, to ward off sickness, death, and evil.  During Soviet times, a more modern version was developed that used metal strings that gave it a sound more similar to a violin.  This version was played in various folk music chamber orchestras of the day.

A well-preserved sacred Kobyz instrument

A carved wooden sculpture of Abai, one of Kazakhstan's most famous and prolific writers and musicians, quietly watches over one of the main exhibition halls.

The Circus

On Sunday, I was invited by one of my co-workers to the Circus!  She was taking her daughter and I thought it would be a lot of fun as well.  What was fascinating to me is how popular the Circus is here in Almaty.  It is such a part of the culture that the city has a permanent venue or ‘big top’ if you will that various troupes come through and perform every few months.  I thought it rather humorous that given the nomadic history of the Kazakhs, they had a permanent, sedentary circus venue in the city, whereas in America, our circuses tend to be nomadic and travel from town to town.  This particular circus troupe was from Moscow, and is fairly renowned in the region.

The Almaty Circus. I bet it is full of lights and colors at night!

Below are some pictures I took during the performance.  I have to apologize in advance as my meager point-and-shoot camera doesn’t capture action shots well at all.  Sorry for the blurriness!

Trapeze Artist

Magic show and disappearing act


People kept popping out of this car!

Below is a scene from the chimpanzee act that didn’t quite go as planned.  You could tell that the chimp had been around for a while as the gray in his face gave you a clue as to his age.  To me, he just seemed like he was tired of this same old act and couldn’t care less that the audience was watching.  His trainer, however, was less than amused.  I found the chimp’s obstinance pretty funny, however.

A rather old chimpanzee who was not cooperating very well!

Some crazy poodles barking and jumping their way through a bevy of tricks

It was a pretty extensive show, lasting about 2 & 1/2 hours in all.  It was a great way to spend the afternoon and I was very grateful to my co-worker for suggesting it.  Below are some shots I took as we exited the facility.  The circus forms part of a larger entertainment complex, with an amusement park and central sports stadium adjacent.

Circus entrance with a very cool gateway

The fountain outside the circus entrance

The picture above was my favorite of the day and seems like an appropriate parting shot for this week’s entry.  Till next time!

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