I would have to say Almaty, Kazakhstan felt like one of the most incongruous or diverse places I have visited. So many aspects of the place felt familiar, but from other places all over the world … and yet when you put it all together, it is an incredibly unique place.
The red-dust-edged roads between the city and the villages reminded me of driving through country Australia … although the transport looked more like rural China.
The apartment blocks in the city reminded me of former communist East Berlin (and the bureaucracy certainly had that Iron Curtain feel!)
The snow-capped mountains covered in fir trees could have been in Canada or Switzerland.
The crazy traffic reminded me of both Cairo and Bangkok.
The glitzy new shopping mall would have been at home in Paris …
… while the village food markets were more reminiscent of Africa.
The light displays and fountains in President’s Park could have been in many US cities.
The Russian Orthodox Cathedral is, obviously, very Eastern European …
… while the village mosques were similar to those I saw in Indonesia.
It can be difficult to know whether you are in Asia, Eastern Europe, the West, or the Middle East!
All this is not to criticise! I loved my time in Almaty and think it is a fascinating place, with some amazingly friendly and hospitable people. I particularly loved looking down on the city at night from the mountains above.
I also loved that pretty much any car is a “taxi”, and I really enjoyed the local shasliks, where there was certainly no skimping on the meat!
So, what did I learn from Almaty?
Formerly part of the USSR, the Kazakh people are reclaiming their identity along with their independence, but this makes for lots of challenges in a population made up of two different ethnicities with different languages, cultures, religions, values and dreams. It’s not always easy negotiating the history of past hurt and the competing current agendas.
But they are giving it a go and learning along the way, and while it can be easy for outsiders to criticize, I actually think we have much to learn. I live in a country that claims to be “multicultural” but has not really come to terms with many of these issues and challenges. The diversity I saw in Almaty certainly challenged my thinking about what it might look like to embrace and accept differences. And the hopes of people for justice and peace and significance are the same hopes of people the world over. We are all so very different … and yet so much the same.