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Thursday 24 Aug 2017 | 19:13 | SYDNEY
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Kazakh-China Diary: About in Almaty

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4 October 2011 18:32

Anthony Bubalo and Konrad Muller are undertaking fieldwork for a new project examining Kazakh-China relations. Earlier posts in this series here and here.

When we first arrived in Almaty the city seemed strangely devoid of taxis. We were soon told by a local why: 'every car is a taxi'.

Stand by the side of the road, stick out an arm and very quickly an ordinary car will pull up. Tell the driver where you want to go and if they agree, a fee is readily negotiated. What gives the whole exercise its charm, however, is that the drivers are not tourist-hunting touts. Mostly, they are locals going about their business, earning a little money on the side by picking up a few passengers on the way. 

As a result, you ride in all manner of vehicles. A few days ago I was taken back to my hotel in Porsche's absurd caricature of a four wheel drive, the Cayenne (I was later told that this was probably the moonlighting driver of some well-to-do local). But even if they are not all Porsches, most cars we travel in are well-tended and tidy, much like Almaty itself. 

This informal taxi system operates — at least to our eyes — with such good grace and trust that it is easy to be romantic about it. It is a practice that goes back many years, at least to the break-up of the Soviet Union, but it also reflects harder economic times for many. The cost of living has risen rapidly in recent years, forcing people to eke out extra money where they can. One local tells us that people smile less than they used to. On a return visit to Barakholka market, this time with a translator, we are told some shop owners have hanged themselves in their shipping containers, unable to repay creditors.

The language barrier has usually prevented extended conversations with our various drivers, although there have been exceptions. One driver asked me the meaning of a few English words. 'What does darling mean?' he asked. 'Dusha', I replied, hoping that it meant the same in his Russian as it did in my Croatian. He tapped his hand on his heart, so I guess it did. 

In fact, the only real difficulty we have had is with appointments at more obscure locations in the city. On one occasion I ended up guiding the driver with my iPad.

Walking is also a pleasure here. There are many beautiful parks and the streets are thickly lined with trees of great variety, all turning golden and red with autumn: poplars, oak, elm and silver birch (or so Konrad, who lives in Tasmania, tells me). Drivers have a maniacal obsession for stopping at zebra crossings, often slowing from great speed at the slightest hint of a pedestrian wanting to cross. But hesitate for a moment and they, having stopped, toot impatiently for you to get moving.

We begin every day (and have ended a few) at the groovy Coffeedelia, heavily patronised by 'centrovski', as the patrician residents of Almaty's inner district are known.

This undoubtedly marks us as the worst kind of soft-bellied tourists who seek comfort in familiar surroundings rather than more exotic experiences. In our defence, it has good coffee and not a few mysteries. Why do they fill my 7Up right to the brim so that only the surface tension keeps it in the glass? Why are the urinals filled — and refilled — with crackling ice cubes? We haven't yet mustered the courage to ask.

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