Cars are going by one by one in a heavy rain with episodes of hail. I stand under an umbrella with two men, employees of a nearby gas station, who are having a smoke and waiting for the storm to pass. I ask:
- "Is this always how it rains here?"
- "If it rains, it rains like that." - I get a response with a bit of surprise in the voice.
Last time I've seen such a heavy rainfall was in Beijing in August three years ago. You can get wet in few seconds when being out there in the rain. The streets are full of water few centimetres deep and at times can easily get to your ankles.
Taking aside the weather, Almaty, as a former capital of Kazakhstan, is a pretty sight. Most places are dominated by green colour of trees, bushes and such. This green colour is surrounded by concrete in various forms - remains of USSR and brand new, shiny office buildings or residential houses. If you look further you will notice hills and Trans-Ili Alatau mountains in between which the city is tucked.
This beauty is interwoven with the smell of gasoline and choking smog - depending on where you are at the moment and where the wind chooses to blow. At times, it encompasses the whole city. Even at the below photograph, if you look closely enough, you can see it hanging over to the right. Full sunshine with blue sky is a rare sight. The reasons are various, despite of the location, there is also coal being one of the major energy sources and multitude of uneconomical cars - most of them being quite old or SUVs that burn a lot of gas. As for the latter, gasoline is cheaper then water - go figure the rest.
That being said, the above does not make the people living here all doom and gloom. Quite the contrary. They are welcoming and live social lives. Almaty has a history of contributing to the legendary silk road (a network of ancient trade routes going through Eurasia and connecting East with West) and it can be seen how it impacted the city and it's streets. They are full of people trading goods and socialising.
There are certainly few things that grasp your attention when you arrive in Almaty - apart from the mentioned trading. First is people and the second is transport.
There are 120 nationalities in the city. Europe and Asia mix together in terms of race, skin colour, cultural background and local customs. This is reflected in the streets and restaurants with various styles of cuisine from, almost, all corners of the world. If you visit a trending club like Hard Rock Cafe (with live concerts every day) or, recently opened, Sky Bar (with nice views on the city and surrounding mountains) you will see the same mix of people but better dressed.
If somebody dwelled on the history of transport in Kazakhstan once could say that Uber (the famous app that's disrupting taxis) was invented here. Well, sort of. There is a very basic transport in Almaty. Few buses, some trams and a recently built metro service. I did not see any taxis anywhere. Most people own a car or two and are not using public transport which is occupied mainly by elderly and students. If they choose not to use a car they travel by what I call an "analog Uber".
When I was occupying the mentioned umbrella close to a gas station, before it started raining, I saw a man with his girlfriend standing next to the street on a sidewalk. He was showing a gesture as if he was hailing a cab. A car drove by, they talked, and it drove off. Same was with next two vehicle. The fourth one stopped for a little longer, they had a quick chat, and the mentioned girlfriend hopped on and the car drove off. The man did a similar "trick" for himself and had got a ride as well.
I don't know how it's officially or locally called but this practice is seen all over the city and it can be described in three steps:
The cars that stop are regular people commuting or in between errands wanting to earn some additional cash due to the fact of owning a car. If you have a friend with a car and want to go for a drink you can make an agreement that he or she will be your driver for the whole day for a certain price. Pretty simple right? And extremely popular. There is also an Uber (as most know it) service in Kazakhstan but rarely used by locals and mostly dedicated to tourists. The cars that you can order are rather... Let's say "rundown classical".
One one day we used the analog uber to visit a market. There are plenty markets in Almaty and many small bazaars around Kazakhstan but there are few worth considering. This one was rather an extraordinary example of the latter sort.
Saudakent Market (ru. рынок Саудакент) is based in the North of the city in between Rayumbek avenue (one of the main arteries) and Kazakov street. During the weekend, it's bustling with people and things to buy. It's hard to find and decide on the thing you want. It's a mixture of old and new, of material and food all encompassed in steel intermodal containers known from ships. You can buy here a refrigerator, something to wear, some vegetables and drink a coffee. All in less than 30 minutes. Pretty cool right? On one stall you can buy books and a gas cylinder while on the other clothes and paintings. It's a huge yard sale and it is captivating in it's own unique way. Being packed tightly but a the same time without much order - or, so it seems, when you stroll through the alleys.
We were visiting there with few local friends of ours. One of them needed to sort some out business on one of the stalls. After the business was done we were invited for a glass of... vodka. Only Andrzej took up the challenge as the rest of us was too tired after last night's party till sunrise and having another glass offered by the same gentleman before we left for the market. The stall owner insisted that Andrzej, after each glass of vodka, ate a raw quail egg which he did few times. In the meantime, I was strolling through the market eager to catch the vibe of the place...
It seemed as every group of people - whether a family or a couple had their own container filled with products to sell. The alleys were dense with people lurking, searching, bargaining. At times once could be confused what is the property of which person and if it is for sale, assisting in making business or gaining interest of passerby. Stall owners were a bit reserved and if it wasn't thanks one of my local comrades I might have had trouble with capturing some of the situations. Most people seemed to talk in Kazakh or a mixture of Kazakh and Russian. That's something I'm not so familiar with and it would be hard to explain my intentions and here is when the assistance worked like a charm.
I wish we could stay a bit more so I could sink more in the vibes of the place and maybe buy one or two things for myself. This was rather a quick visit without a designated plan. We moved later on to a Korean restaurant. This type of cuisine is quite popular for being cheap, tasty with 24 similar venues offering their services in the city. Choose your dish carefully though as, not knowing, you might consume not only a chicken or mutton but a dog as they are not forbidden to serve. We knew what we were ordering (a chicken) but that was thanks to speaking in Russian. If you don't then it's sign language or a Google Translator ready at hand.
The prior visit was on a day that we were departing from Almaty towards Moscow. When we have landed in Almaty, in the beginning of our journey, we visited yet another market. We needed to prepare and buy things that would not be easily perishable during a week's travels. The host in our hostel pointed us to the Green Market somewhere in the city centre. Some opinions on the Internet encouraged us to visit as well. It was quite enormous and did not only serve as a large greengrocers. It wasn't as "wild" as Saudakent but that does not mean that it was unappealing.
Everything had it's own place and space. There were the foodstuffs, clothes and even an electronic market after closed doors. I could go for hours and still not see it all. Some sights were as if from a movie. I strolled along the narrow alleys and saw a tiny workshop of a watchmaker. The owner, an elder man dressed as in Europe 1990's fashion and focused, with a magnifying glass, on his work. On the right, I could hear young ladies chatting about the cutlery they bought for sale. Having walked hundred meters straight I ended up in a part of the market where arts were sold. These were not paintings by the stall owners themselves but rather replicas to make a home look better.
Our main goal on that day, though, was to take care of the inventory so we didn't starve while travelling through the country. Our focus being the greengrocery side of the venue we spent most of our time tasting products on various stalls.
One of the stalls was special due to the personality of the owner (photographed below). He had mastered the craft of salesmanship very well. He was constantly giving us various things to try and, most of them, were delicious. We bought one after the other: dried blueberries and grapes, figs, pekan nuts and many more. Some of the fruits we could not name at all. Then came the time when we needed to put stop this charade. The final price for our shopping was 11830 Tenge which equals to 32 EUR. Not that much if you take into consideration that the food lasted the three of us for a couple of days and we shared them with some other people we met on the way.
That being said, while on the road, we were passing several street bazaars and stalls frequently during our travels through towns and villages of Kazakhstan as described in part one and part two of two previous stories Some of which you can see below. The markets on the side of the road differ from those in the city. They are purely consisting of locals shopping. Some of them are made in a bizarre way that is to protect from the sun, rain and for the roof not to fall. "Improvisation" and "whatever works" are the words that come to my mind. Both approaches are popular and well respected but it's not something that is not to be seen in other Asian countries or some villages in Europe. Some are small whereas others are adjacent to shops. Some sell only green products whereas others were mixing them with... Balloons in the shape of sea animals. There were also those selling particular range of products like a range of bottles with milk and... car oil and gasoline.
Forgive me the quality of the images - most were taken from the car while we were en route to Charyn Canyon.
Kazakhstan as a country is a grateful choice in terms of photographing people and local customs. When I started my journey with street photography while back it really was not what I was expecting. I had to find myself somehow anew in this genre. Having, earlier on, concentrated more on landscape and urban photography now I did not have the luxury of the time to capture frames. I needed to be close, somehow vulnerable to others humour, spontaneous behaviour or being able to discretely photograph a moment while unseen.
My first shots were from a more remote distance when I did not yet break the barrier of a conversation. I also noticed that a lot lays within the culture I am visiting. It's more easier for me to approach and photograph people in the East than West. In both worlds it helps when you find somebody local that knows people and places (as we had in Kazakhstan). It takes much less time to get accustomed and relate with the people your photographing - not from a distance, not only in close proximity but also getting to know them by who they are and what's their journey. This creates an atmosphere that, at times, even a camera cannot immortalise. Those moments I cherish the most. They are fleeting yet remain in my memory for long and I tend to revisit them every now and then. They keep me going, motivate me to meet and talk to strangers but also look. Look closer and deeper through the original facade of the first glance and not to get entangled easily in stereotypes.
Below: View from Kok-Tobe (kz. Kök-Töbe; ru. Кок-Тобе) - a mountain which makes the highest point (1100 m) in Almaty giving a splendid view on the city and offering a series of attractions for the masses. The latter include a bobsled track which you can see lit on the hill at the bottom.
Having seen the wilderness and Kazakhstan from a multitude of angles there was one more angle to see - from above. Parts of country's landscape look as if they go for miles and miles with no end. Whether it's a road seen as a straight line going till the horizon (left photo) or valleys with strange rock and earth formations (right photo) - it's often a breathtaking sight. The vastness of the country for a European can be overwhelming at times. I would say it's similar in Russia when you look at the space that Siberia or Kamchatka envelop but with a different fauna and flora.
Having spent only 8 days in the country (excluding flight time) there are many more stories to tell. There are also many more beautiful sights to explore and get to know. I encourage you to visit, rent a car and go deep in the Almaty Region or the Altai Mountains (as recommended by a couple of local friends). These will offer you you something extraordinary. There's a quote of one of my favourite writers of all time that fits the picture:
“I was seized at once with a profound fascination, a burning thirst to learn, to immerse myself totally, to melt away, to become as one with this foreign universe."
- Ryszard Kapuściński, Travels with Herodotus
If I convinced you to visit I'm also here to help if you have any questions related to the journey or way to organise things. Apart from what you've read here you can also revisit part two & part two on Kazakhstan's wilderness. If you like what you've read you can hit the "subscribe to stories" button below and receive an e-mail update once a new story is out. No spam, no additional messages. That's a promise.
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Below: Moscow as seen as seen from an evening Aeroflot flight.