Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Apple Strudel

There are some things that we consider to be so quintessentially of a certain place or culture that it comes as a shock to learn that its origins are often very different. There are many examples: who can imagine England without tea, Italy without football, Wall Street without (neck)ties, or even Ireland without potatoes. Yet these come from China, England, Croatia and Peru respectively. And why am I thinking about the origins of things? Well, I am now in Almaty (formerly Alma Ata), Kazakhstan's biggest city and former capital. The name means "Father of Apples" because, believe it or not, the common apple, that is so much a part of the European landscape and even culture, has its origins in the foothills of the Tian Shan. Similarly the walnut, another European mainstay,  is also from the region, with the region of Arslanbob at the eastern fringes of the Fergana Valley being home to the largest walnut forest in the world.

And although Almaty can only count on apples for making it unique in the world, it is certainly unique in Central Asia. Arriving from Bishkek I was greeted by the standard wide, tree-lined grid of streets of Russian imperialism. But there were obvious differences to other towns in the region: rubbish bins conveniently placed all over town, a cycle lane (though to be honest, that was a little deceiving as I was to later find out, as I was let off the bus on the only street in town that actually has a cycle lane) and even drivers who stop at zebra crossings to let you cross - something I haven't experienced since perhaps Poland. Indeed, Almaty is an island of Western order in the sea of Asian bedlam (not that I dislike Asia's organic chaos, which is very stimulating and exciting). Upmarket boutiques, swanky bars and restaurants, flash cars and designer clothes are all commonplace and your average Almatian is as refined and educated as their counterparts in Amsterdam or Andalucia. Although Almaty is no longer the political capital of the country (that title, as of 1997, belongs to Astana) it is still very much the commercial and cultural capital. Certainly a far cry from the image we might have in the West where, for the majority, the only Kazakh personality that is known is Borat, Sacha Baron-Cohen's fictional racist, homophobe, anti-Semite, chauvinist. Interestingly, when talking to Kazakhs about him they are quite savvy and realise that it was actually Americans who were being ridiculed in the film, and are glad that their country got some publicity (the president, on the other hand, didn't get the joke and the film was banned in the country).

Such cosmopolitanism is also evident in demographics. The two main ethnic groups in Kazakhstan are the Kazakhs themselves and the Russians. To a casual observer it may seem that these are the only people in the country comprising, as they do, almost 90% of the population. But there are a myriad other ethnic groups in the mix: Uyghurs, Uzbeks, Dungans (Hui - Chinese Muslims), Koreans, Ukrainians, Belorusians, Germans and Poles are also in the mix thanks to Stalin's displacement of populations throughout the Soviet Union. At the national museum in town, a big, brooding, Communist edifice, there is a section devoted to every minority in the country including, surprisingly, an Assyrian minority that numbers 540 souls (of which half are in Almaty). Quite how they ended up here would surely make an interesting story (and perhaps it was recounted in the display, but I read Russian far too slowly to try and go through every caption).

Also fascinating in the museum was the section on recent independence. Although the president, Nazarbayev, is not fostering a blatant cult of personality around himself he has been in power since the very beginning of Kazakhstan's independence 20 years ago. This section was like an ode to his greatness, with speeches where he pontificates on lofty subjects like freedom, equality and justice and pictures of him hob-nobbing with various world leaders. This of course means that amendments to the constitution that allow him to stand for presidential elections as many times as he pleases (note, the amendment applies only to him personally), the bestowing of the title "Leader of the Nation" and the fact that he has won every election with over 90% of the vote usually over 95%) are treated as being natural and obvious. (For some strange reason the section failed to mention that Kazakhstan was found to be in the bottom 25 countries for corruption worldwide a few years back.) Of course, this discrepancy between autocracy and apparent liberalism is only possible thanks to Kazakhstan's enormous reserves of natural resources that have allowed for an increase in living standards despite widespread corruption and embezzlement. It's not only oil and gas (Kazakhstan has among the highest reserves of both in the world) but also uranium, zinc, copper, manganese, chromium, lead (for these six it is in the top 5 in the world for reserves), coal, iron and gold (only top 10 for the last three). Quite frankly, with all these riches and the country's small population, if the quality of life wasn't improving the leadership would have to have been grossly incompetent (take note Turkmenistan).

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