Posted by: cousindampier | 21 September 2013

The Second Time for First Impressions

The city sweats. Faces are sweaty and people are sweaty and car seats are sweaty and the walls are faded from that kind of heat that makes it all sweaty. Almaty should be dustier than it is. The buildings have that wind-blasted quality about them, smooth yellow-brown cinder block mated with yellow-brown plaster. White is the trim of choice, setting the window frames apart from the muddied world behind them.

Even in the heat, people are out, walking, carrying bags. It is not packed-crowded, like New York. It is less busy than that, but just as unfriendly. Smiling is not the Kazakh way, yet because they don’t smile out of nature, they are friendlier than New York where people don’t smile because the mass of people is painful.

And then one day it changes. One morning I awoke with my blankets pulled up over my head, instead of thrown to the ground, and coats are being worn except for in the middle of the day when it is still hot and sweaty. A few days later I wake up and look out my window and the mountains have snow on the tips and fall is here.

The women dress up, all the time, as if there is some social contract to do so. On weekends it may be less, but it is always jeans and a nice shirt and a sweater or a jacket. Different rules apply for men. Fashion is still important, especially for younger men, but there does not seem to be the pressure to always look nice.

On the weekends I walk to Panfilov Park and sit on a bench and watch people. The park is a stark contrast between the Soviet and the Russian. Three parallel paths run through the center, each lane divided by a small tree-marked island with monuments to individual soldiers. Each monument bears a different name, but all share the same year of death: 1941.

One one side of these paths lay The Church. It’s proper name is Zenkov Cathedral and it was once, or perhaps still is, one of the tallest standing wooden structures in the world. A central dome is surrounded by four smaller ones, set towards the back of The Church, and in front, towering over the entrance, is a tall steeple. The Church is painted yellow, a bright yellow, with its supporting beams white and a roof of dirty green and the further up the church your eyes gaze, the more the paint becomes beaten into submission by the sun.


The domes add more colour, green and blue and white diamond rows, sometimes broken by a row of red. They are topped with golden, onion-shaped heads peeking out above the trees. The Church is rectangular, and the narrow ends are dominated by more colour. Flowers stretch out from the church like a path leading you home, letting you know as you come close. Not that you can really miss it; while it does not dominate the park, its colourful top stands out.

On either side of The Church – the long, rectangular sides – are large plazas. One one side it is lined with benches and a small building where men play chess. On the other are stalls selling food and drinks, some horses pulling a carriage and a train pulling a few cars for people to ride in around the park, and on a fall weekend, everything is active.

The Church stands in contrast with the other side of the path, where the Soviet monuments lie. Here is a plaza about as wide as the rectangular church, boxed in on each side with large, imposing red-brown marble walls. In the middle of this plaza lies a marble monument, almost a long thin box with a flame at the far end, a flame often surrounded by flowers and a flame which never stops burning. Here lies a monument to the war dead, those of the civil war of 1917-1920, and from the Great Patriotic War of 1939-1945.

Standing at the far end and looking at the flame, your eyes move up and you stare at an imposing face. His face is set hard into stone, arms spread wide, legs pushing him out towards you. In reality it would be your nephew jumping for a bear hug, or a linebacker ready for a tackle, but here he is still, frozen in mid-lean, a grimace on his face and a helmet on his head.

His companions hover behind, some over his shoulder, some under his arms, creating the effect of an unstoppable mass rushing towards you.


It is not a friendly place, or should not be. But people walk through holding hands, laughing and taking photos, because, after all, it is a park.

On the other end of this is a small circular plaza with a tall, Greek-like series of columns. Above this sits another mass of rugged brown stone and a golden star no matter what direction your eyes gaze, a stark monument is provided to remind you where you are and what it is for.  





The park is a mixture of old and new.  If the plaza brings to mind the Soviet Union, The Church is both Old Russian in style and New Kazakh in use.  The people surrounding it and filling it are sometimes old and sometimes young, but they represent a nation with a long, broad history and – relatively speaking – a new independence.  



  1. Reblogged this on Jon Jay's Travels and commented:
    You might have noticed I don’t write too much about the actual city of Almaty on my blog. It’s great, but I have too much fun in the mountains to reflect about the city very often. A colleague of mine, who is new to the city, has been exploring and eloquently writing about his first experiences here. I recommend checking out Cousin Dampier’s blog if you want to see Almaty through another foreigner’s eyes.

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