a gradient between east and west

For the context and a brief history of Almaty and Astana, see the July 2008 blog post part 1 and part 2 by molapse. This perspective sets the scene for my trip to Kazakhstan and directs my search for authenticity in two new cities re-designed/transformed, built, and inhabited in just over 10 years.
Pre-arrival I wondered if the former capital and long-standing Almaty would look like a new city based on all the recent and ongoing development projects rising from the older city fabric. In truth, I wondered what Kazakhstan would look like in general as it was my first trip to central Asia. Soviet-era planning left a city of epic proportions. Especially the right-of-ways. All infrastructure is massively proportioned by western/European standards. The yards, the sidewalks, the medians, the streets, the drainage trenches and channels are super-sized. Compared to China, the dimensions of city blocks are not as striking, yet the lack of density – the missing clusters of high-rise towers or and unending midrise commercial buildings adjacent to these city arteries- makes Almaty remarkably different, an ‘otherness’ that few places can claim. Molapse observed, “Almaty itself doesn’t have much of a skyline, or concentrated mass of big buildings. Those that exist they are rather distributed in and around the large, uniform center.” When you walk the streets, you feel this. I agree. I’ve never been in the heart of a city and felt so far away from the buildings before. There are so many buffers between you and them – the space between becomes larger than the city when you are on foot, on the ground. The sidewalks are often dark and (unsafe?) at dusk because the light from the street lamps are so far away and separated by a buffer of beautiful, old (which type of) trees. However, this is all changing because taller and more visible buildings are rising out of the fog and so-called pollution that covers the city. Photo artists Vladimir Pronin and Natasha Kartuzova have captured stunning views of this ‘new city’ via panoramic portraits.

However, these dimensions and lack of consistent street frontage, and cold weather (due to my late Nov. visit) did not produce the isolation or lack of public life that I expected…even in the southern, very new districts of the city. There was a vibrancy and amount of activity that is missing in Northern European Cities. There are enough informalities, like the street markets, and small carts of goods, and unofficial taxi drivers, that – similar to cities in India- you are engaging with the people and in the city whether you have chosen to interact or not.

But as I mentioned in the last post, there seems to be a culture of organized informality here that is surprising and welcomed….and maybe it stems from a residue of soviet rule . Drivers operate vehicles with steering wheels on either side, yet the country drives on the right lane and stops for pedestrians at crosswalks like it were the Bay Area. There is a kind of unspoken public neglect of the institutionalized pay consoles on the city buses. Although mandated to pay via this system and report abuse of the system, everyone still pays the privately-owned system’s “meter maids,” or attendants on board. Despite the foot traffic, there is an overwhelming amount of cars in this city. Its dimensions alone branded it as a city of speed, a place to be experienced by the automobile. And, the city’s troubles with implementing an underground metro system have only added to the congestion on the streets (Almaty has been ‘building’ a metro system for over 10 years but high water levels, seismic conditions, and other ground ‘states’ have impeded the process). Cars get first dibs on public space. They are found anywhere level enough to park…..including right up to the main steps of the complexes that make up the city’s most prized civic and public space – republic square.

Much of the new building boom is said to be modeled after Dubai. Yet, will it too be as deserted and in debt as that city is today? There are so many other aspects of Almaty that give it another identity – the mountains, the sloped/terraced terrain, the incredibly visible drainage canals between sidewalk and street, and the pockets of older, single-story Kazakh housing (made of modest brick, siding, and corrugated metal).

Just as I was forming these impressions, I hopped on the ‘Spanish Train’ to Astana and was too amazed at the wifi in the 15 hour sleeper car to blog or post a photo.

In Almaty, it was the same story with the public transportation. There were buses (both mini and standard sized) and unofficial cabs, but no planned – or implemented – substantial transit system. This seems unheard of in new city design/planning – but here I was, in the middle of a Kzakhstan glad that I had (-)40 degree insulating Merrell boots, music, and a pace of about 128 beats per minute. I explored the left (new) and right (old) banks of the city, divided by a river. Molapse blogs about the lack of people in Astana, and – a year and a half later, I tend to agree. However, I thought the weather was the issue. It is cold here….but overall, mild during my visit. Molapse asks about the vacant public waterfronts during the winter. A: They are alive with sport. There is ice fishing on the Ishim River and hockey and skating on it’s smaller, frozen tributary. Again, I observe the unique infrastructure of this country operating in a way that supports, or encourages, a public domain. In the flatness of Astana, there is no need for the dredged drainage canals of Almaty. They have another symbolic network of infrastructure – the very visible “temporary” natural gas pipes snaking through and over the public way. In a way never intended, they become urban thresholds, bus shelters, and public space delineation. People are moving over and past them, under them and even into them on occasion. This urban lifeline, a city-scaled version of the Pompidou, is maybe a reminder of how and why Astana exists in the steppes today….and a presence that makes the future of the place a lingering issue in the minds of those who encounter it.

I don’t think I was in town long enough to see the broad new civic spaces (around the Millenium Axis, and the Baiterek Monument “chupa chup”) in use. I am told there are city-wide events and markets that play out on these plazas. The Astana 2030 visionary city model, which definitely rivals world’s largest scaled model in Shanghai, provides a glimpse of the city’s future. International architect, Norman Foster has proposed four gigantic projects – mainly mixed-use and self-sufficient communities – cities with the city. I wonder if this need for smaller, more compact, human-scaled, (maybe more aligned with old Astana) “fully-functional enclaves is the product of a city-wide vision that failed to deliver the very same thing.

Often the product of high rates and scale of development. (Photographed in Astana.)

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