It’s amazing how time both stands still and yet flies by when your world gets turned upside down and inside out. Less than a month ago, I was off exploring another far corner of the globe, conveniently setting aside the responsibilities and realities of my everyday life. The nearly three-week journey to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in Central Asia flew by, but when I arrived stateside, I was promptly faced with what I would easily describe as the longest week of my life. In the span of about 24 hours after returning to my cozy home and the warm embrace of my husband in Napa Valley, the deadly Wine Country wildfires erupted during the middle of the night, bearing down on unsuspecting people and communities. The infernos would turn out collectively to be one of California’s largest and most destructive wildfire events in history.
That first night, awake thanks to jet lag, but alarmed by the overpowering smell of smoke, I watched the horror unfold online as the fires swirled to the north, east, and most unnerving, directly west of us in the hills above our neighborhood. It was that night that time just stopped – my world travels were already a distant memory. Without getting into all of the details, my attention for the next week was simply to stay as informed as possible, be ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice, and try to stay healthy as the air quality deteriorated to dangerously toxic levels.
But this is actually a blog post about Kazakhstan believe it or not, so to wrap up this fire intro: we remained safe throughout the entire disaster. We dodged a bullet, and I am very, very grateful. It’s only been the past couple of days that I’ve been able to stop obsessively following the news, unpack my bags, and see time resume it’s normal pace.
I’ve also been able to start solidifying my thoughts about my latest travels (mostly: did that really just happen?). My Central Asia adventure started in Almaty, Kazakhstan with two friends. We had four days in the city, and didn’t get to see any other parts of the vast country (it’s the ninth largest in the world, but home to only 17 million people total). I didn’t know what to expect, only that I wasn’t going to set my expectations too high. But in a word? Almaty is remarkable!
I’m happy to report that Almaty blew any pre-conceived notions of this former Soviet republic out of the water. The geography reminded me so very much of my home town of Salt Lake City, Utah – Almaty is built on the plains of a high desert, and surrounded by the Zaiilisky Alatau mountain range (which is part of the Tian Shan mountain system – the “foothills” of the Himalaya). We spent two of our four days in the mountains – visiting the pristine turquoise waters of Big Lake Almaty one day, and exploring the Shymbulak Ski Resort in the Medeu Valley on the other. At the ski resort, a series of three successive gondola rides eventually deposit you at Talgar Pass (10,500 feet) which is surrounded by glaciers and 14ers. Heaven for this mountain girl! If only there had been more time for hiking and climbing. Next time….
The city itself is a wonder. It’s a modern city with sleek, new architecture; efficient public transit including a beautiful metro; park after leafy-green park; and wide, pedestrian-only streets – complete with food trucks and Insta-worthy photo tableaux. With universities, a vibrant arts scene (symphony, opera, and ballet are wonderful remainders of the Soviet era); and a bustling cafe culture, it feels European and cosmopolitan (in fact, our first respite for refreshment was at an Irish Pub), while still having some neighborhoods rooted in cultural tradition. It was a fringe city of the ancient Silk Road, so its multicultural heritage is readily apparent, as is its religious tolerance. We visited Christian cathedrals and Muslim mosques, with worship making a comeback after 60+ years in the 20th century when Communism essentially banned religious practice. And the franchises of the world have found Alamaty – McDonald’s and Starbucks were both within a block or two of our hotel.
I knew going into Almaty that it was a bustling city (indeed it’s home to 10 percent of Kazakhstan’s entire population, but at 1.7 million, still small in the grand scheme of things), but I honestly didn’t expect to be charmed by it. A huge part of the reason I was charmed by the city is thanks entirely to a fellow Californian. We spent one day with the delightful and insightful Dennis Keen of Walking Almaty he’s an expat who turns out to be quite the celebrity in Kazakhstan, thanks to his excellent television show, “Discovering Kazakhstan” (I implore you to watch it!). We wound up dubbing him the “Rick Steves of Kazakhstan.”
Dennis knew we were photographers in search of authentic person-to-person interactions, so he went out of his way to take us to places where we could be part of daily life as it unfolded; places not exactly on the tourist circuit. We wandered the Malaya Stanitsa neighborhood – the oldest part of the city – where we got to witness a Russian Orthodox baptism, stroll through the daily bazaar, and see some of the original log cabin-style homes that are a world apart from the severe Soviet-era apartment buildings in the city center. He also took us to the thriving marketplace of Bishkek and its adjoining village, where thousands of shipping containers have been repurposed – stacked one atop the other – to create a sprawling marketplace. It’s easily the size of a city itself, with business and trade taking place in the warren of streets, alleys, and storefronts created by these stacked containers. Dennis steered us to interesting sights; broke the ice with the locals (leading to lots of invitations to join them in their homes or businesses); schooled us on the best street food snacks; and generally just treated us as friends, which I dare say we were by the end of the day. We even got to meet his lovely wife (a Kazakhstan native) in a surprise meeting in the mountains the following day. Our time with him was amazing, and I hope that our paths will cross again someday.
As for my photos, I don’t think that my work from Almaty is very original in the least. But that doesn’t mean I don’t love them – which I do, only because I loved my time there so much. I didn’t get to witness any of the elusive falcon hunters in Kazakhstan, but some of my favorite images from Almaty are of falconer Pavel Pfander from a visit to the Sunkar Falcon Center. The center is a sanctuary that breeds and releases critically endangered raptors – including saker falcons and golden eagles – and got to see and photograph Pavel’s training demonstration of the birds in action, which was pretty impressive.
At any rate, take a look at the complete KAZAKHSTAN PHOTO GALLERY, and enjoy a look into the wonderful city of Almaty.