Almaty (Kazakhstan), Aug.25 : If there are places to assimilate the impact of multi-culturalism and modernisation, Almaty, the "Apple City" of Kazakhstan should make the list in more ways than one.
At least that is the first impression that one gets on seeing the city, widely regarded as the cultural and business capital of Kazakhstan, for the first time.
Having been a student of history, one recalls most of Central Asia being in the grip of and influenced by an ancient and traditional nomadic culture, passed down from one generation to the next, from father to son and so forth.
What I recall from my lessons were stories of courage, resilience, hardship, survival tips to make it in what was essentially a tough "man's world", of nomads, particularly Mongoloids, Chinese (Junghars) and Central Asian tribes, constantly on the move, covering their tracks as they conquered and aggrandized territory, but retaining their links with nature, ever grateful for its bountiful benefits.
We students were told of great leaders like Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan, Tamer Lang and Babar, all of whom began their long and arduous struggle for greatness and fame from the early years of their youth, crossing what were then insurmountable natural barriers.
Almaty, we were told, too has passed through such phases of tradition, nomadic existence and, was essentially till the middle of the 20th century, a small trading outpost, steadily converting itself into a city of some reckoning in Central Asia.
The break-up of the Soviet Union in 1990-91 into sizeable Central Independent States (CIS), may not been to the benefit of the Russians, but in the over decade and half since that emotional and landmark event, it has given republics like Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Tajikistan, opportunities to embark on a historical and practical journey of socio-economic development that today can be said to be the envy of the world.
This first day of my four-day visit to Almaty has been nothing but an eye-opener if one assesses progress on the basis of established socio-economic paradigms.
I would not be very far off the mark in saying that modern elements or influences of Europe have come to Almaty in a big way in the last 17 years, and are here to stay.
Sunday's itinerary began with a striding hour-and-a-half-long walk through tree-lined up-market area of Dostik (Friendship) Avenue with the famous Abay Square and the towering Hotel Kazhakstan and 372-metre tall TV tower in the background.
It was sheer joy to see rivulets of the River Almaty crisscrossing the various wide streets of the city, symbolizing the Kazakh spirit of oneness with nature. It seems that there is a fascination for Egyptian, French and Italian brands, which dominate the business landscape - be it pizzerias and pasta joints like Assorti, or fashion statements like Sergio, Valentino, Yves Saint Laurent, Kenzo and Missoni.
Then there was the eternal link between music and food in the form of the "Guns and Roses" Pub and Grill, or the "Nirvana" Club and Bowling Alley.
For this city of a little over one-and-a-half million, living life with passion is a mantra, but you can still find spots with links to the immediate past, as for instance, electricity poles - made of "tree trunks and concrete pillars" to ward off the threat of electrocution. Another unique and public-friendly scheme are roadside automatic teller machines and newspaper kiosks that also function as currency exchange centers.
Almaty will be playing host to the Seventh Asian Winter Games in 2011, and the Kazakh Government is leaving no stone unturned to use this regional event to showcase its development, economic and sporting prowess to the world.
Construction of state-of-the art five-star hotels and sporting complexes are in progress, and so is Asia's largest skiing track (at over 3000 meters above sea level) on Changshai Mountain above the picturesque at "Shymbulak" (Wild Berry Spring Water) and the Alatau National Park (with over 1000 species of coniferous trees and scrubs).
An almost naturally made dam created by landslides between the 1930s and 1960s, and firmed up through prompt government initiative, adds to the beauty of Almaty. At its highest point, one could see the fascinating Central Asian steppes extending outwards towards the north and northwest in the direction of China, its wildness leaving one in wonder about what the past may have been like.
The afternoon was spent at the convention center and having a cable ride up towards the "Kok Jynde (Green Mountain). Mountains surround Kazakhstan on all sides, except the north. Being a Sunday, we were told by Rimma, our guide and protocol officer that people from all over Kazakhstan seek out Almaty to experience and enjoy its natural climate, be it through walks, picnics, jogs, roller-skating, cycling eating out or going to the pub.
With schools reopening on September 1, she said parents and elderly are using the remaining weekends of August to bring their kids to Kok Jynde or the Alatau National Park for "their day out".
The day rounded off with a traditional Kazak meal dominated by horse's meat and lamb at the Zher Uyik (The Promised Land) Restaurant. Of course being Indians, the bland fare had to be naturally spiced up to meet our taste buds.
For starters, we were served with fermented horse milk known in the Kazak language as Kymyz, an assorted salad that included tomatoes and cheese made from cows milk, cottage cheese and olives. Plates of horse's meat and the head of lamb garnished with pasta followed.
It is Kazakh tradition to present the latter - brain, tongue and ear et all to "guests of honour" as we were labeled. The signature of the evening was a series of popular Kazak songs - vocal and instrumental. One was particularly taken up with the traditional instruments of "Dombra" (a violin) and "Kobyz" (a Kazakh-style banjo) that were used to render European and Western Classicals and the more robust Kazak tunes. An unforgettable experience all in all for a first time visitor.