Opera in Almaty

We only visited a small corner of Kazakhstan, which has nothing to do with the movie Borat (Sacha Cohen is Jewish and speaks Hebrew despite the anti-Semitic jokes). The ninth-largest country by area, Kazakhstan is roughly the size of Western Europe, but it has only 16 million people. Large parts of the country are steppe or desert. With weather getting cold and time running out, we decided to hit only a few places along the southern frontier: Shymkent, Turkistan, and Almaty, the second-largest city in Central Asia.

Although it is no longer the capital of Kazakhstan, Almaty is a thoroughly delightful, cosmopolitan city. Trees line the streets and even the soviet-era architecture is interesting. A wide variety of coffee shops and excellent restaurants offer everything from French to Korean food. On the south edge of town are the Zailiysky Alatau mountains, which form the border with Kyrgyzstan. Just the other side is Lake Issyk-Kol, the huge lake that we drove around before and after our September trek in the central Tian Shan.

Almaty is a Russian city, and it has several lovely Orthodox churches. This brightly colored one was built entirely of wood in 1904 and is one of the few buildings to have survived an earthquake that hit a few years later.

A small wedding took place while we were there. Just as in Uzbekistan, the party had to visit several places for filming. But this time the religion was Russian Orthodox.

A service was in progess when we visited another cathedral across town, with the haunting polyphony of Russian Orthodox singing. The service was still in progress when we left almost two hours later.

One of our adventures was registering with the migration police. Kazakhstan follows the soviet tradition of requiring registration of any foreigners who stay longer than five days. We probably could have ignored it, because we expected to leave just a few hours before the end of our fifth day. But if we were delayed for any reason, we would be subject to a huge fine or other problems leaving the country. So we went to the police office, filled out forms in Russian, paid a small fee to the cashier, and joined a huge swarm of people leaving passports for the day. At 5pm, we went back and picked up our passports and certificates in an equally large scrum. I was proud of Marcia, who pushed her way to the front of the crowd to get our documents.

On our second day, we took a cablecar up a hill south of town, which had a number of attractions for local visitors, including a Beatles memorial.

Our hotel was across the street from the Almaty Opera House, and we decided to go to a performance on our last night in Central Asia. On this Saturday night, they were playing Tschaikovsky’s last opera, a one-act work called Iolanta. Buying tickets was no problem, and the best orchestra seats cost $12. The opera house itself was a nice theatre seating about 800. Only a third of the seats were full this night, but Swan Lake was sold out the next day. It wasn’t the San Francisco Opera, but the performance was probably as professional as any western opera company between here and Tokyo.

In a few hours, we will board a very slow train to leave Almaty and cross the border into China. This two-night journey will be the end of our time in “wugesitan” (the “five stans” of Central Asia) and the start of our return to China and more language study in Kunming. But we still have two weeks along the Silk Road across the desert of Xinjiang, the “new frontier” of western China. Stay tuned!

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