Алматы (Almaty) Text and Videos

There’s really too much to write about this time. Even though I didn’t see much in the way of tourism, thanks to Anzhelika I accomplished more than I thought possible in my five days in Kazakhstan.

Open World Leadership. Steve. Exchange in general

What a massive change in Almaty. Just as I was getting tired, finally, of poor infrastructure, hoping for a touch of swankiness, I found it in Almaty. Thanks entirely to the connection made by Steve Kalishman between myself and the 2015 Open World Leadership participants who came to Gainesville, I’ve been absolutely pampered and enabled in Almaty. After an extremely hot and dusty Marshrutka ride from Bishkek, I was able to meet up with Anzhelika easily at the main station.

So far this summer, I’ve stayed in many kinds of accommodation – 찜찔방, homestays, host families, yurts,  a beach “eco hotel”, and now, finally, a proper hotel. Anzhelika and Yerbol showed overwheming generosity, treating me as a true guest and reserving the Hotel Almaty, affectionately known as the Алматучка, for the four nights I would be there. This is the view from my room.

I had a lot of down time in Almaty, which was perfect for catching up on writing blog posts and processing images and videos. I somehow brought the infrastructure problems with me, as the day I arrived Almaty experienced a massive electricity shutdown across large swathes of the city. Throughout my stay, the electricity would turn off and on at random, and the hot water was also unreliable. Sometimes the WiFi would continue to function during power outages, sometimes it didn’t function while the lights worked. It was still reliable enough that I was able to upload a couple videos at night and send emails to the upcoming sister city and school contacts.

I also had a lot of down time due to the completely new traveling style. I was with Anzhelika almost my entire time in Almaty. On summer break from a PhD program split between Almaty and 西安, she had the free time during the days to take me around. We met up after breakfast and she would drive me somewhere. Our pace of tourism was very slow, and we had a lot of idle time as I deferred to her schedule and thoughts. She spent a lot of time on her phone helping to arrange all the exchanges I would do. She still had a lot of work to do via her phone due to being a working lawyer – every short drive she would have someone on speaker phone through the car to arranging a meeting, procure a document, iron out specific details, etc. I admired how she addressed everything immediately, reminding me of Ponz in a way, and I thought “This is what separates those who do and those who don’t. Those who get things done do things immediately.” She was a bit perfectionistic about some things, such as my biography blurb, which resulted in long periods of sitting in the hot car as she composed the perfect message on her phone. At the same time extremely worldly and almost willfully naive, I got to know her very well as we babbled in Russian for hours every day. I’m now at the point where I understand almost everything but still can’t confidently make a simple sentence due to grammatical complexities and my penchant for ignoring them.

At any rate, Anzhelika took me to the National Art Museum on my first full day. Immediately we headed to the kids workshop/school inside and within minutes I’d sat down and was teaching a lesson on Blind Contour drawing. The young boy was a poor student, but the two girls were excellent and took direction well. Already I’d participated in an exchange, spurred by Anzhelika’s naive optimism and quick action – she’d walked in and told the teachers about me – an artist from America interested in exchange and who speaks great Russian. We wandered the museum slowly after that, only getting through two large rooms before needing to leave, as Anzhelika had an appointment at 3pm. Before leaving, however, I met with the director of the museum – Anzhelika had been texting the teachers from the gallery as I drew. A testament to her extraordinarily efficient style, she’d gotten their WhatsApp contact information and shared videos and photos of the short lesson. The two young teachers and the director gave me a beautiful museum catalogue and translation companion as gifts – what generosity I would never know by myself!

After a long time relaxing and writing at the Italian Restaurant Anzhelika left me at, she spent some time contacting a friend of a friend to arrange a lesson on my last night. We went to a shiny well-stocked art store where I spent far too much money on pens and had to tear myself away from buying more paper. Almaty in general is very shiny, green, and completely different from what I expected. For dinner, she insisted on taking me to eat Chinese food, where I consoled myself by ordering horse meat.

With some work to do in the morning, Anzhelika picked me up from the hotel for a late start the next day. We again spent a lot of time arranging the lesson via WhatsApp, and she also needed to scan some documents. When we finally arrived at the smoggy but beautiful Medeu, it was late afternoon. We took the scenic cable car to the ski resort base but couldn’t take the following two as they had just closed. I walked up little ways to a green area, thinking to walk to the top of the hill. Anzhelika had tall platform shoes completely unsuited to hiking, though, and I felt quite tired from even the short walk – likely due to the smog. We sat and again Anzhelika happily introduced me to the various Kazakh tourists who came by and expressed interest in my drawings. A father and daughter from Караганда and two brothers from Актау. Anzhelika would later say “Even the horses are attracted to meet you!”

When traveling with Brent, I find I must balance my enjoyment of meeting locals with his desire to disappear (despite this usually being impossible). With Anzhelika, I was quite enabled and emboldened. We chatted with the four other Almaty residents heading down the cable car and exchanged contacts, and even took a spate of photos with a set of slightly tipsy young people from Актау, something I’d usually be adverse to – generally weary from all my traveling of people asking for my photo. It’s quite tiring to continually repeat the same conversation in multiple languages – there must be something else we can talk about besides where I’m from and the fact that I don’t look American, continuing on into a set of comments about China and Chinese culture.

A quick aside on the climate surrounding my visit. Just a few months prior, the only president Kazakhstan has had since independence stepped down in a very choreographed manner and the ensuing election sparked large protests with many arrests. Labor leaders have been jailed recently, an explosion of a munitions depot in the South has left many without homes, the electricity issues in Almaty struck just as I arrived, and a new internet law took effect on my final night in Almaty, as all internet users were suddenly presented with a required application download from the government monitoring all internet activity. The pollution levels spiked to about 280 on my ride into the city. A very active time in the news, yet one wouldn’t know it from the ground.

On my last full day in Almaty, I felt a bit off and took a morning in the hotel before braving the heat to walk to the main park and Zenkov Cathedral. As I sat to draw, a family from Тараз sat down right next to me, with the father pushing uncomfortably against me. “Here we go again” I thought, answering his predictable questions “Where are you from?” “What’s your nationality?” “Do you like Kazakhstan?” without glancing his way, at first. Somehow I warmed to him, however, and realized that he was different from most of the aggressive encounters of this type. He wasn’t trying to sell me anything, he was just interested. He asked me to draw his daughter, and I acquiesced. It’s always a bit terrifying to draw on demand, especially a portrait, but I’ve tried to focus on portraits this summer, so I couldn’t very well refuse. When I finished a minute later, he wrote a ton of information to the side, and his whole family posed with me while his wife took a photograph.

That evening, I taught a master class in drawing at a new Art Studio/School called Craftika. Anzhelika had shared the video of me teaching the quick lesson in the Museum, and they’d expressed interest in my teaching the same lesson, expanded, for their students. In the spirit of exchange I naturally insisted on teaching the class for free, though in the end I was offered a small amount of money due to the “Post-Soviet mindset” requiring a fee from the students to give my class a value. This reminded me of the dynamic between busking and playing in cafes from my busking days.

I’d been slightly terrified of teaching this class ever since arranging it, as I knew I’d need to do it in Russian. I’ve taught full classes in English, Thai, Mandarin, and Spanish before, but never a full-fledged high-level lesson in Russian. I’d spent much of the morning preparing for it by looking up key art terms such as line weight, blind contour, thick and thin lines. I even quickly wrote out an introduction in Russian (which made me more nervous, actually, than if I’d just gone for it). Initially shy during this intro, I quickly snapped into teacher mode for the hour and a half lesson, gauging my students – much older than anticipated as I’d been told 12-18 and they were all adults, save for one high school student – and dropping and adding elements on the fly while keeping an eye on timing. It was an excellent lesson, a combination of the best bits of drawing classes from Yale and my own practice in Taiwan and in Florida – Blind Contour, Eggs, Negative Space, and a Mock Critique at the end.

Afterwards, the owners effusively invited me to return and to send friends over, and I even sang a bit of Wade in the Water to demonstrate my other favorite lesson.

That night I finally met Yerbol, the other participant from the Open World Leadership Program who’d come to Gainesville. As the head judge of his district, he had been too busy to meet up with me, but I was adamant we meet up at least once so I could thank him for the hotel and hospitality. We had a very pleasant dinner at a Turkish restaurant switching between Russian and English as we alternatively practiced each. He had me promise not to post his photograph due to his position, but was otherwise a very jolly and sardonic man. We stopped by the Artist/Pedestrian street known as Arbat afterwards and once again I was approached by a slightly seedy looking man interested in procuring my drawing services for his art business. Anzhelika and I decided to put him in contact with the high school student I’d met just that evening who’d asked me about commissions in Almaty. A great coincidence and possibility for something positive, but also something to be wary of, due to the differences in age and the slightly black-market feel of the man, which I stressed to Anzhelika after we left.

Anzhelika arrived slightly late on my final morning due to having procured a massive assortment of chocolates – some to send home to Steve and Natasha (and Tom) in Gainesville and some for me. Unfortunately, all those that went with me melted to a very impressive soup in the very hot Marshrutka back, as I feared. We spent over an hour at the post office, as I’d requested to go there to send back my journals, drawings, and the gifts from the museum. The efficient middle aged woman there was extremely helpful, arranging my things perfectly into two packets, one a parcel and the other a box, to minimize the cost of shipping and tariffs accrued due to sending chocolate. Anzhelika then took me to see her long time friend Асель, who gave me a catalogue of her father’s sculpture and drawing, then brought me to Sayran Station where I was amazingly the final person necessary to fill up the marshrutka. We said a swift goodbye. I still don’t know how to thank Anzhelika enough.

 

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