Winter in Kazakhstan was not something I was entirely looking forward to. I knew temperatures could plummet to -30°C at night (-22°F if it even matters at that point), with far less extreme but squarely sub-zero days. I was aware that the already noticeable air pollution would increase as the heat was turned on (this is done city-wide, all at once). To top it all off, I’d heard one too many stories of people getting killed by falling icicles. After spending so much time reassuring family and friends that Kazakhstan is a safe place to live in terms of crime, it seemed obvious that I’d get killed by an icicle.
In practice, it hasn’t been so bad. Walking to my Russian class every morning at sunrise has been a little brutal, but walking back in the afternoon has been almost pleasant. The more ornate Soviet era buildings look like they were made to have a few centimeters of snow on top; Icing on a row of pastel colored cakes. The mountains, too, are drastically more handsome capped in white.
Today was a day that mostly resembled the picture I used to have in my head of living in Kazakhstan. With the snow on the mountains and clinging to the rose bushes in the parks (but not all up in my shoes), I walked to class listening to the only two songs I know in Kazakh on repeat. The guard at the school gave me some crap for not having a student ID (which I still have no idea how to get because no one will tell me). У меня нет (I don’t have) isn’t a complete sentence but I stared him down a little and he let me through. In class my teacher revealed that she had been sick all weekend and basically didn’t have a lesson plan. Instead she taught us an old Soviet lullaby with whimsical lyrics and a sad sounding melody. During the break I braved the cold to meet one of the Afghan students for a chai. Our teeth chattered while the plastic cups burned our fingers and we discussed our lessons in our broken Anglo-Russian made up language.
I walked home behind a group of twelve-year-old boys along the post-blizzard street. They were playing that game where you kick a snow-laden tree while your friends are passing under and then run away before the avalanche rains down on everyone else’s heads. Despite predicting this in advance, I got caught in the deluge, along with a much older Kazakh man. I had neither the energy nor the linguistic ability to do anything but tuck my head down and wince against the sensation of ice sliding into my coat. The other guy took off like a shot, stomping angrily after the tree-kicker. What do you think you’re doing? Hooligan! he shouted and slapped him hard across the back of the neck. Sometimes I wish I was from a country where you’re allowed to hit other people’s kids if they really deserve it.
This afternoon, on one of the coldest greyest days so far, I visited Republic Square. If Almaty has a city center (it doesn’t), Republic Square is probably the best candidate. If you stand inside the Independence Monument and face south (pictured), you’ll see the Presidential Palace across the street. It’s not used as much since the capital was moved to Astana, but it remains a government building. The mountains rise up behind it along with the cluttered architecture of more recent decades. To your left is the Soviet style television tower, stuck like a pin into a picturesque cluster of hills. Almaty’s beauty comes and goes with the seasons and the smog, but it’s a city that never lets you forget what part of the world you’re in.
About those icicles though: