When I spotted this sign in Almaty, I immediately knew how it would fit into the narrative of this trip…
“Beware of slippery” serves as the intellectual warning for the curious, as Kazakh culture serves as a broad topic upon which one could, if so inclined, end up with numerous tabs open and videos going deeper and deeper into an entirely different world.
Think rabbit holes in a minefield.
Part of me wishes that I had sat down, prior to this recent trip, and documented what I thought I knew about this country that is largely paid little attention to by us in the US – beyond that one completely idiotic film back in 2006 which I shall ignore as much today as I did back then. After all, how often does one get the opportunity to compare and contrast personal growth and the related changes in insight?
A little over a year ago, when this professional trip was first brought up, I had severe misgivings about the feasibility and plausibility of such an endeavor – it seemed a reckless trip, given that Almaty was in the midst of political protests/violent riots.
That being the case, the ability to stand at the same locations as some of the iconic photographs from those tumultuous times almost exactly one year later was not a point of significance lost on me; and it was worth the short jaunt from the Intercontinental Hotel in Almaty to reflect on what such unrest means to me.
Let me be clear about something extremely important: I will not pretend to be the subject matter expert on the events of January 2022 in Kazakhstan. These observations of a year ago, just like those of the people and the limited exposure to their country and culture are based upon 5 very jet-lagged days which started with lost checked bags containing all of my cold-weather clothes, toiletries, and whatnot… which coincided with my debit card not working due to suspected fraudulent use in Amsterdam and then Astana. I wondered what were the odds that those would be the same locations I had included in my notice for international travel to the bank? However, I digress, still bitter and irritated at the hot potato I have become to three different airlines…
The events of last January…you might want to know but don’t want to consider the implications. Subscribers of this blog may have noted the intentional lack of discussion on the topic of our own sociopolitical unrest of 2021; I have opinions and thoughts about that which are still incomplete and somewhat incoherent. Likewise, I cannot sufficiently express my ideas about Kazakhstan in 2022 as any attempt to understand and interpret either domestic and foreign unrest would be a venture into partially-formed opinions on corruption, exploitation, media misrepresentation, and the gullibility of the electorate.
…Of course, it could have just been jet lag.
Regardless, in both Astana and Almaty, I could not help but notice the cameras… cameras everywhere. I forgot who had mentioned it, but the local slang for them might have been “grapes” as they are typically clustered on adjacent street corners – either directly mounted to the supports for traffic lights or on dedicated poles.
While there were anecdotes of the successful implementation in resolving property damage, and a relatively low crime rate, this apparently did little to deter human behavior to speed in places where the cameras were not yet installed or to otherwise act in opposition to what was desired by the authorities.
When queried about the legality of cellphone use while driving, one local laughed. “Of course it is illegal, but we still do it – just carefully.”
Another observation on policing in Kazakhstan was more sobering… and terse: “This is a police state.”
Citations are issued by email, court for minor infractions are conducted via WhatsApp, and payment is handled by commission-based agents if not made immediately. While fascinating in its overall efficiency, the casual acceptance of the reality of digital identification and required documentation was surreal: all forms of identification are carried and accessed via a .gov-like portal on the internet. Passports, driver’s licenses, diplomas, professional qualifications, vaccination status… everything.
Another point of clarification for my Kazakh friends who are reading this: this is not written to mock and I accept the fact that my impressions may be entirely wrong. Please let me know if I am misrepresenting that which I know little about and please understand that my amazement is not that this is just the way things are but instead that there are societies who would be equally amazed that here in the US, some have a strong resistance to something as simple as voter ID.
Perhaps the tension for sharing perspectives and thoughts is warranted. Upon returning home and doing what research possible with a 4-year-old who was understandably excited that “Daddy is HOME from Kazakhstan!” (and somewhat disappointed that I was not able to go to the Baikonur Cosmodrome), I stumbled across an article from the Committee to Protect Journalists which was written while I was there in Kazakhstan:
Since January 12, journalists throughout Kazakhstan have seen their cars set on fire, apartments attacked, and offices vandalized, according to media reports and journalists who spoke to CPJ.
Unfortunately, this is not all too surprising on two levels. First, that Kazakhstan is ranked by Reporters Without Borders as 160th122nd out of 179180 countries as of 2022:
While the quality of online news is improving, repression is modernising, with growing control of the internet, the only space where an independent press finds freedom of expression.
Secondly, the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) from Transparency International lists Kazakhstan as 102nd from 180 nations as of 2021 – tied with Sri Lanka.
For context, the US is far from perfect: 42nd out of 180 for Reporters Without Borders and tied with Chile at 27th on the CPI. Only Norway ranked highest in the former while Denmark ranked 1st in CPI.
None of this whatsoever was on my mind as I worked and visited in what I still say is a truly amazing country because of the basic element of any nation: the people. I laughed over plov with mutton and horse meat sausage, my final breakfast was the beginnings of the inevitable farewells over an odd combination of traditional fare like omelets with ham and bell peppers and accented with butterfish, more kurt, and zhent. As one of the final gestures of generosity, our final concierge of the trip, Bota, found a place which could deliver local zhent to the hotel well before my early morning flight home.
I walked Satpaev Street and mulled over the Independence Monument my final day in Kazakhstan; my time there was entirely too short to find the answers to questions I never knew I had. Before me, the reconstruction continued on the City Hall – burned in the protests… the ancillary buildings closest to the street still pockmarked by bullet holes.
To my left, more facades masking the evidence of unrest a year prior. To my right, a family with a girl about the same age as my daughter and as curious as she was adorable.
Pictures of the former, none of the latter – that moment was just for me and the fuel of hope for not just the strangers and friends in Kazakhstan, but for everyone facing challenges as they strive to make sense and a living in a world which could make one go insane… if one were to let it.
I can only hope to return once again, but more importantly, I hope that we, collectively, never lose sight of who where are, where we came from, and what we can do about making tomorrow a better place for the next generations.
Would I recommend visiting Kazakhstan?
Are you kidding? Of course!