After having gone across China, Almaty was stunning only for how vaguely Western the city felt. The city was full of cafes and rundown apartment blocks. Almaty felt like Prague populated by black-haired Kazakhs and blond Russians. The city sits on the southern edge of the Steppe, pressed against the north side of the Tianshan Mountains. From there, northwards extend the vast plains stretching from Mongolia to Ukraine, the Steppe that gave rise to a hundred horseback empires.
But today, Kazakhs, at least the ones in Almaty, are a cosmopolitan bunch. Oil money has flowed into Kazakhstan and it all pools here, the economic, cultural and formerly political capital of the country. Though the government decamped from Almaty in the 90’s, ten percent of this vast country still live within this city.
Almaty has few attractions worth visiting. Galen had to leave two days before, so I wandered aimlessly alone, exploring blockish apartment compounds and eating Turkish-made shish-kabob.
Since it was more closely plugged into the Russian economy, Almaty was even more Russian than Bishkek. Though Moscow was almost two thousand miles away, Russian interests were ever present here. While we were there in August, the Russians were waging an undeclared war in Ukraine. That day, Moscow was threatening to send aid to the pro-Russian rebels, and the television in my hostel flashed with slickly produced Russian propaganda, disguised as news, presented the stories of those in the aid convoy.
A blond man staying a few rooms down from me, was sitting on the couch across from me, half watching the images flash across the television screen, half engaging in a heated discussion with some others. It being all in Russian, I understood none of it. Instead, I tried to follow along with the propaganda.
At some point, someone asked me where I was from, and I answered, “Americanski.”
Mumbles belted through the circle around the television, and I asked the blond. “And you? Where are you from?” I asked.
He leaned his head. “I am from Ukraine.”
Glancing at the television, I asked the Ukrainian, “What are your thoughts on what is going on in your country?”
“As I was just telling my friend here,” the Ukrainian said, holding his burly hand out towards the small, dark haired man he had been arguing with, “I think the Russians are good people, but if I were back in Ukraine now, if I did not have to be here, I would be, how do you say, killing people.”
We had spent the summer traveling across China, where low level violence is breaking out with increasing frequency. Then, on my last night before flying across an ocean, I sat face to face with the potential human costs of escalations in this kind of violence.