By Mark W. Danielson
Few places I travel to have greater contrasts than Shanghai and Almaty, Kazakhstan. Almaty rates high in natural resources, and yet looks much the same as it did when it was part of the Soviet empire, whereas Shanghai has reinvented itself to become one of the world’s premier cities in the last two decades. The contrast between the two cities is as steep as the mountains that rise above Almaty. So, why are they so different?
I believe the answer lies within the people as much as the infrastructure. China welcomes foreigners, and is eager to show off its cities. The people of Shanghai smile and take photos of each other. They wear colorful clothing, fuss over their children, pack shopping malls, and publicly display their affection. Their hotels are world class, and their employees seem genuinely enthusiastic to serve. The city is a plethora of brilliant colors; on buildings, signs, parks, and temples. There is clean public transportation, fine restaurants, and neatly trimmed parks. Music plays from street speakers. Flowers are common. It’s always a pleasure taking walks here. I can go anywhere in Shanghai, day or night, and not feel threatened. Oddly, in spite of Almaty’s mixed Anglo/Mongol population, I can blend easier in Shanghai.
With few exceptions, everyone in China has a job, and doing it well seems important to them. Sentries on airport ramps stand at attention, laborers hand-wash sidewalks and hang decorations; still others deliver goods on bicycles. And while there is diversity in Shanghai’s wealth, it is evident that poverty is limited, and that working brings a purpose to their lives. There is pride is everything they do. The Beijing Olympics is a grand example of this.
By comparison, Almaty appears to operate as if the Cold War never ended. The run-down buildings I saw six years ago are even worse now. While there is some new construction here, it is minimal by comparison. There is a cold feel to this place, and it’s echoed throughout its people. With the exception of those working within the service industries, most carry dour expressions. When I walk the streets, my smiles aren’t returned. Shopping malls are few; their customers scarce. There is constant noise from blaring horns, squealing brakes, and grinding engines. A thunderstorm cleansed the air so I saw Almaty’s mountains for the first time. Only five miles from my hotel, these majestic peaks rise over sixteen thousand feet. I enjoyed this view for over an hour until darkness swallowed them. Sadly, the smog returned a day later and they were no longer visible.
In spite of its external appearances, there is plenty of money in Almaty. Their amazing night clubs, stretch limos, beautiful women dressed in fur coats, and Mercedes dealerships, all vouch for that. On the way to my hotel, my van passed a convoy of white Mercedes that were following a stretched Hummer limousine. All of these vehicles were dolled up for a wedding that few can afford. The night clubs, which are reserved for the beautiful people, are protected by the mafia.
The faces of the people on city busses tell a different story from those driving cars. It isn’t desperation that I see, though. It’s more like apathy. Stone faces press against the windows while others stand in packed buses. But this isn’t to imply their lives are forsaken. These people are the laborers; the lower class, as in any city. As with Shanghai, I have never witnessed any poverty here, and everyone I see is well dressed. They’re just not colorful as in Shanghai.
Our security briefings highly discourage us from walking alone here, and when we do go out, we must supplement our passports with a “Get out of Jail Free” paper, which is written in Russian. Numerous airline crews have been shaken down by the local police who force them to pay fines for made-up violations. We are easy targets here, with little recourse. It’s easier to pay the fine than risk an international incident. Even so, I doubt this money is accounted for at the end of the day.
Like Shanghai, Almaty has some beautiful sights, but most require a cab ride to get there. Cabs are plentiful, but their prices vary significantly. Curiously, any civilian car can pick up passengers up for a fair. It’s risky, but plenty of people do it. It’s helpful if you speak Russian because not many people speak English.
The world is shrinking, yet Almaty still feels desolate. I spent more time writing there than in any other location. On this trip, I wrote over 170 pages in the 76 hours I was here, and I’m grateful I had that opportunity. Seeing Almaty’s beautiful mountains was the highlight of my most recent trip. Walking its streets with three other pilots was uneventful. Flying into Communist countries always provides interesting insights, and I am privileged to have a job where I can share this part of the world.