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A City of Change

November 12, 2010

The new Nurly-Tau complex loudly declares: 'We got money, y'all!'

The skyscrapers that greeted me in Almaty were scraping against the memories of a city I held dear.  When I lived here for two months in 2005, I thought of this city in southern Kazakhstan as a charming Soviet leftover, full of dusty streets and pleasant parks.  The tallest building was the Hotel Kazakhstan, a Soviet behemoth on the corner near the language school where I studied Russian and Kazakh. Now, as I drove into Almaty from Bishkek, the horizon was blotted with modern pillars of glass, testaments to the power of oil. Back then, they certainly knew about the oil in the Kazakh slice of the Caspian, but Chevron’s money hadn’t yet trickled down. Now, it was everywhere. The streets were all black and fresh, new underpasses built to streamline the sudden influx of Mercedes and Land Cruisers. A subway system would open next year. Al-Farabi street was lined with buildings that were humorously large, boastful symbols of a new Eurasian power.  I desperately looked for something familiar, but found nothing. It felt odd, a familiar place stamped over with the new.

As Almaty grew up, so did my old families and friends. Five years ago I had stayed with a single Kazakh woman, Aikerim, and her 11 year old son Alibek. Then, they had lived in a crumbling Soviet tenement under a TV tower. Now, they lived in one of the high-rises on Al-Farabi, with fine hardwood floors and large windows overlooking the city. Alibek had been just a little kid before. When I was packing my bags to go back to America, he had come into my room crying. “Dennis – you’ll come back right? You’ll come back.” I patted him on the shoulder and said yes, but never believed it. Yet somehow Kazakhstan had beckoned me back, and now Alibek was a sixteen-year old with a deep voice and English like his Californian brother. “Hey man, good to see you!” he said when I met him at the bus station. Aikerim’s hair had grayed but she still had the sweet smile, and as we drove to their swanky new flat in their swanky new car she went down her list of motherly concerns. “Are you healthy? How are your sisters? Is Bishkek dangerous?” Now we spoke in Russian, instead of the piecemeal English that we had only known before. “Everything is good,” I said, and we drove into a city I hardly knew.

Alibek, my brother from another mother


At their place, I showed them photos and we ate dinner, quietly contemplating it all. Here I was again, but this was not the same place and we were not the same people. At seventeen, I had been chubby and awkward, with long dopey hair and a face polished red by acne medication. In the years since I had lost weight and gotten taller, grown stubble and cut my hair. When I greeted my friend Stas outside after supper, he hardly recognized me. “Dude, is that really you?” Stas had worked at the language school where I studied and had been my designated babysitter. I had stayed with him and his family for a week, and though we were almost the same age, he was like a big brother to me. With the familiarity of an old friend, he teased me as we got into his Lexus. “You used to be so ugly, man, what happened?” “I don’t know,” I said, “but you’re still ugly.”  He looked good, though, like a grownup. Now Stas had his own ride and his own apartment. Like everybody else, it seemed, he had moved up. We ate dinner with his parents, and then hung out with the same school chums who we had hung out with in that era past. Now, though, we weren’t squatting in his dusty courtyard but sipping beers in his kitchen, remembering stories and laughing again and again at what a schlub I was back then. I’m still a schlub, I thought, just older, and with a salary.

I thought I would stay with Stas, but Alibek and Aikerim were reluctant to let me go. They had waited so long to see me, they told me, wouldn’t I be their guest, for a few nights? Through some misunderstanding, they had thought I would be coming in spring, and waited for months for my arrival. Then I told them I would be in Bishkek September 17th, and they thought I would surprise them for Alibek’s birthday two days later. Of course, it was impossible, and it never came to pass. I felt bad for inadvertently breaking their hearts. Sure, I’ll stay around for a while, I said. And then it was back to the old days, when I would sit at home with Alibek, watching TV, both of us afraid to go outside. Now we watched Independence Day and waited for Aikerim to come home and cook us lunch. I thought maybe we could go for a walk, but Alibek just wanted to play GTA and tell me about his new favorite band, the Red Hot Chili Peppers. So instead of wandering around Almaty, we wandered around a model L.A. on his favorite computer game.  I felt absurd, sitting in Central Asia and giving a tour of Los Angeles.

A few days passed like this, and then I moved out. Stas would surely like to have me as a guest too, I explained. He had to work all day, but at least I didn’t have to babysit anybody. So while he was at the office, I finally strolled around town. I saw the old university where my friends used to study, the movie theater where we saw a Brad Pitt movie, the school where I spent most of my time. Like everything else, it was being refurbished, and I couldn’t go inside. I walked down the street to Panfilov Park, where I used to go to do my summer reading and check out local school girls. Past the eternal flame to the “Great Patriotic War” was an old lumber building, the Museum of Kazakh National Instruments. I remembered going there before, and writing in my journal “Today, we went to this museum after school. There were lots of weird old cellos.” In the years since, I had actually read a lot about Kazakh music, and was thrilled to see those weird old cellos again (they’re actually called kobyzes).

After paying 200 tenge (a little more than a dollar), I was allowed to walk through the halls and admire the vastness of Kazakh creation. There were horse-hooves for percussion and some kind of bag-pipe, ten kinds of dombyra and a Soviet accordian passed off as Kazakh heritage. Kobyzes glittered with with shamanic mirrors and amulets. None of the displays were in English but I was entirely satisfied. Through a half-open door I found a young man sitting in the dark, strumming a dombyra. I sat there and listened, pleased but confused. Then the lights came on and a tour group filled up the room, and the performance became public. His fingers moved gracefully and I smiled at the sound of his song, but the Kazakhs who sat watching stared on without emotion. Perhaps they were innerly moved, but they just looked disinterested. This archaism could not compete against the brutal tide of global pop. Justin Bieber already had their hearts and this guy wasn’t about to steal them back.

The dombyra player tunes his instrument between songs


(Here is the entire performance, spliced into songs, for your listening pleasure. There were two performers. One played instrumental pieces and the other sang. They each played three songs.)

Dombyra Player 1

Dombyra Player 2

Dombyra Player 3

Dombyra Singer 1

Dombyra Singer 2

Dombyra Singer 3

Further into the park was an old Russian Orthodox church, painted in easter egg pastels and made without nails, or so they said. They also say it’s the second tallest wooden building in the world. Regardless of hearsay, it was a beautiful place. Inside it felt holy, even to this godless heathen. The cavernous space made an eerie echo, amplifying the crackle of candles and the whisper of widows. They crossed themselves and intoned prayers, looking upwards, then leaned over and gave the gentlest of kisses to paintings of the Virgin Mother coated in overlays of pearls and gold. Other babushkas shuffled around quietly, sweeping up ashes from the floor. I came at ten to four, and as the hour struck a service began. A man decked in black rushed through his prayers like an auctioneer, but he mumbled with such intensity that it struck me as vaguely Tibetan. When he came to a pause, chanting arose from behind a facade, mysteriously emerging from a panel of Jesuses. The doors opened and men came out in yellow robes, swinging smoking golden vessels through the hall. The smell of incense and the sound of chanting made me shiver. I felt strange and left, making the sign of the cross as I went out, just to fit in.

Get a feel for the atmosphere. Listen to my recording of the chanting here.

The rest of the week was mundane, nothing I feel like reporting to the masses. I met a few American friends, and watched television, and went for a drive in the mountains in the dark of the night. I spent time with my brothers, both Russian and Kazakh, and felt good to be home, good to be home.

Me and Aikerim, my Kazakh mama


3 Comments leave one →
  1. Darby permalink
    November 16, 2010 8:09 pm

    I have been worried about what you will do when you grow up, but no longer will I lose any sleep……you are a travel writer extrodinaire!!

  2. Tirzah permalink
    November 17, 2010 7:25 am

    Crazy how Almaty has transformed, it’s happening everywhere kinda. And it’s cool you have a relationship with a place like that, maybe you’ll go back in another 5 years and have more observations to build on. I love your blog and thanks for the vivid writing to indulge our living vicariously! Miss you Dennis be safe and see you soonish. 🙂


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