Arriving in Almaty
In 1995, there were no direct flights from European airports to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, so I flew on Lufthansa from Frankfurt to Kazakhstan’s capital Almaty, 150 miles by road from Bishkek. As we walked down the steps from the plane, another passenger surveyed the dimly-lit terminal building. “Just like Sofia,” he said. “All these Soviet-era airports were built the same.”
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We tramped across the tarmac. Snow was in the air, and I was regretting having packed my woolly hat and gloves in my checked bag. At the entrance we passed a line of uniformed cops, their peaked caps seeming to sit unnaturally high on their heads. They eyed us suspiciously without speaking. The interior décor of the terminal was, if anything, more depressing than the outside—hard, wooden benches and walls lined with faded plastic panels broken by occasional examples of Soviet realism, an oil painting or bas relief of heroic peasants or factory workers gazing towards some misty socialist nirvana, with a uniformed commissar looking on approvingly. My driver from the US embassy in Bishkek was waiting, holding a “Professor David” sign. His name was German (in Russian, some “h” sounds become a “g,” so we would translate his name as Herman). It was too late to make the drive to Bishkek that night. We would stay overnight at the Hotel Almaty, at that time the only “business hotel” in the city where foreigners were allowed to stay.
A business hotel?
At 11:00 p.m., the lobby of the Hotel Almaty—a massive structure, with all the trappings of ostentatious Soviet public architecture—was deserted. There was no one at the reception desk. German banged on the counter and shouted. After a few minutes, a clerk dressed in his robe emerged from a back room, yawning. German helped me complete the registration form. In Soviet hotels, the reception desk does not hand out room keys. These are the jealously-guarded property of the dezhurnaya, the “floor lady” who serves as the queen of her one-floor domain, handing out and receiving keys, fetching blankets and pillows and, if you’re lucky, rustling up tea. Olga was snoring in front of her TV when German and I emerged from the tiny elevator on the 8th floor. I handed her the ticket from reception and she found the key in her desk drawer. “It’s the only key,” she warned. “Don’t lock yourself out of the room.”
Because it was the only “business hotel” in town, the Hotel Almaty could charge ridiculously high prices and get away with it—$90 a night for a small room with a hard bed, rickety furniture, noisy plumbing and AC outlets loosely attached to the wall by electrical tape. (Over the next few years, more hotels opened in the city, and when I next stayed at the Hotel Almaty in 2001, I paid $40 for the same type of room). I flicked through the 50-plus channels on the TV remote, but only two had signals. The image and sound on the old Russian movie were breaking up, and the other channel offered color bars, so I gave up on TV watching. A switch on the wall activated the wired radio system, which offered muzak versions of American country classics, including some Hank Williams favorites. There were two phones. One was a rotary dial, presumably for local calls. The second, the white “international satellite line” came with a “buyer beware” warning on a card. “After the 35 seconds, irrespective of the fact that whether you have succeeded in getting through or not, the computer starts counting the elapsed time, which you will have to pay for. Which means that after the 35 seconds it will not matter whether you have talked to your opponent or not, you will have to pay as it for conversation.” You were instructed to pay in cash within one hour of the call. I didn’t relish the thought of rousing the clerk or dezhurnaya again that night, so resolved to call Stephanie in the morning.
I woke up early as the sun streamed through the windows. I walked out onto the balcony and was rewarded with a panorama of the snow-covered Tien Shan Mountains, shimmering in the morning light. Not worth $90, but still a spectacular view. I called Stephanie, paid at the front desk, and joined German for breakfast. Hank Williams was still on the radio. Surreal.
The Soviet Union—another passing dynasty?
The rickety furniture and electrical system in my room at the Hotel Dostuk in Bishkek was apparently inspired by the vision of the Almaty Hotel’s interior designer. The bed was too short for my six-foot frame. There was a closet, but no drawers for clothes. The light switches hung from the walls at odd angles. At least the TV worked. It offered CNN International and BBC World Service, along with entertainment channels in Russian and Turkish, TNT, and MTV. The Indian music video channel featured high-energy, choreographed Bollywood dance scenes, the men dressed in white suits and the women in brightly-colored attire sweeping their long dark locks in front of the camera. At 9:00 p.m., Kyrgyz public television was offering what appeared to be a lecture on macro-economics, complete with equations and graphs for short-run marginal cost curves. Riveting television.
I spent Saturday at briefings at the United States Information Service. On Sunday, the day before I flew to Osh to begin my project, the embassy public affairs officer, Bruce McGowan, took me for a day out to the foothills of the Tien Shan to see some archaeological sites, with Bakhit, a Kyrgyz historian, as our guide. Soviet archaeologists began excavations in the 1930s, removing their prize discoveries to museums in Moscow and Leningrad; since independence, Kyrgyzstan has been trying to get its history back, with little success. The archaeological digs have stopped because the government has no money for excavations or restoration, and most sites are unfenced, with sheep grazing on them. The most-visited site, 50 miles from Bishkek, is the Burana Tower, the 11th century monument on the site of Balasagun, one of the capitals of the Turkic Qarakhanid dynasty that ruled a large region of Central Asia for almost 200 years from the early 10th century until they were overthrown by another Turkic dynasty, the Seljuks. Archaeologists excavated the citadel of Balasagun and restored the Burana Tower in the 1970s. At another site, sculpted stones mark the burial places of those who fought in the dynastic wars; by nomadic tradition, a warrior was buried with his horse.
We ended our trip with tea at the Issyk Ata (Warm Father) resort, where hot springs from the mountains are piped to baths. In the Soviet era, factory workers and their families came to these resorts, called sanatoria, for their annual break, to enjoy the clean air, walk the mountain trails, play sports, and relax their tired joints in the steam baths. Since independence, the only tourists have been local. Many buildings have fallen into disrepair, with stucco peeling and sagging wooden porches. The lobby of the main lodge features a brass replica of the Kremlin and a sign boasting that “The Collective of the Resort will struggle to uphold the highest quality standards.” It will be an uphill struggle without new investment and an improved economy. Apart from the staff and a few village boys who were sledding in the snow, we were the only people at Issyk Ata on a Sunday afternoon. Near the lodge, an image of Buddha etched on a large rock had been almost obscured by graffiti of the “Sasha loves Irina” variety. In the driveway, a small statue of Lenin in one of his standard poses, his right arm outstretched, looked out over the resort, a scene of post-Soviet decay. Like other dynasties that had ruled this region, the Soviets had come, and they had gone. In the large scheme of historical time, they were really passing through. The Qarakhanids ruled more than twice as long.