The Kazak people trace their ancestry through the Chaghatai and Sheibanid branches of Genghis Khan's great mongol empire. The Kazak had their day in the 15 and 16 centuries when their territories extended north to Tobolsk in Siberia and east to Xinjiang.
They were however subjugated in the 18th and 19th century by the Russians with whom they had allied to resist the advance of the warlike Oyrat Mongol tribe from further east. The Czarist rule was brutal and one million Kazaks out of four million died in revolts or of famine in the 19th century. One million Russian and Ukrainian peasant settlers moved in after the abolition of serfdom in 1861.
The communist revolution was welcomed by nationalist Kazaks who longed for independence. They were purged and executed when Soviet power became complete in the mid 20's. Then, the remaining nomad Kazaks were forced into collective farms. Hundreds of thousands of them resisted, killed their herds and died of famine and disease. The soviet regime kept the lid on by force and by playing the three Kazak hordes one against the other.
Since the dissolution of the USSR, the country has been ruled by a former Kazak communist, Nursultan Nazarbayev who managed to be the only candidate in the 1991 elections (he got 99%). Tensions are high between the previously dominating Slavs (35%) and the Kazaks (45%) and also between the three Kazak Hordes as well. The religious and cultural differences between the two communities are significant and there is no common national perception or identity. More than a million of the better educated slav have left. Nazarbaiev rules with an iron hand, in 1995 he won a referendum extending his tenure until 2001. The economy has been largely privatized but it is now controlled by seven big holdings with very close ties to the government.
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This fine building houses the Supreme Kenges (parliament) whose role is essentially cosmetic since the 1995 constitution. The opposition parties hold only 4 out of 67 seats in the Majlis (lower house of parliament).
In 1994, Nazarbaiev decided to move the government from Almaty to the northern steppe town of Aqmola. This huge Presidential Palace and Residence is still the seat of power in Kazakstan until he actually leaves to go north. He must have good reasons for the move but nobody understands them and the decision is definitely not popular. Like it or not nobody else has a say and Aqmola is probably destined to become an artificial concrete and glass administrative warren like the monstrous Brasilia and Canberra are.
The National Museum is housed in a fine building but it rates a low score for content considering the rich and eventful past of this ancient land.
Here is the Uiot or Ouiot Hotel where I stayed almost ten days while struggling with various administrations and embassies to regularize my visa and to get visas for other CIS countries. Finally after much queuing and kowtowing to many petty bureaucrats I only managed to get visas for Kyrgyzstan and Georgia here.
Many soviet cities have a Gorky Park. Almaty's Gorky Park whose entrance is behind me is a good quiet place to meditate on the meaning and value of concepts we take for granted such as rule of law, democracy, human rights, transparency, competition and so on.
This Gorky Park had all the trimmings, shaded lanes to stroll in, a zoo, rides and games for the children, cafes, bars and shashlick stands.
Gorky Park even had several Karaoke stands and a nice lake to go boating on.
The Zenkov Cathedral, completely built of wood in 1904 was used as a concert hall in soviet times and returned to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1995.
I was very fortunate to establish contacts beforehand through the internet almost everywhere I went. Relaxed conversations with friends like Ilya and Tania Shadrin made all the difference in the world trying to understand what happened in the last decade and how things are going now. The passage from a privileged status to that of an unwelcome minority is not easy for these Russians. Many have left but they are staying on. They were born here and the country needs their expertise. And, where would they go? The situation is bad in all the CIS countries!
For all its difficulties, Almaty is a prosperous city with many shops, a big Zangar department store and this well stocked central market. Kazakstan's oil and gas explain its 3 010 US$ per inhabitant gross national product, the second of Central Asia after Turkmenistan (who has more of it). Several big internationals are investing here. This is a city of big power, big money and very big, very new personal fortunes.
South of Almaty lies the Zailiysky Alatau mountain range glimpsed here behind my friends André and Svetlana Tchakhotine standing near the Medeu ice rink. The large structure in the background is a huge earth dam barrier built there to block the course of avalanches and mudslides on their run towards the city.
From the top of the avalanche barrier there is a good view of the Zailiysky Alatau range further south. A few kilometers up this valley is Shymbulaq, the best skiing center on Central Asia.
Almaty is not a bad place to live in if you have a good job and the right friends. Lots of expats making good money means good restaurants, bars, discos and a lively night life. The large Qapshaghay lake 60 kms from town is an excellent place to go for a picnic as you can see from this shot of my friends Alma, Alex, Olga, Anastasia, Svetlana, André and Elena.