Nonfiction

Travel to Almaty

by Thomas O’Harra

So, it seems that I’ve found myself in Almaty, Kazakhstan. I’m writing this from more than halfway across the globe, sitting in a hotel room that is literally held together with packing tape. I first heard about this place when I attended the Junior World Ski Championships last winter in Italy. After some disappointing results there, I turned my attention to Almaty. Knowing that it was there—and that I definitely had a good chance at making the team—motivated me during training over the summer and fall. In retrospect, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

Almaty is a city of 1.6 million people (I asked Wikipedia) situated in a valley in south-eastern Kazakhstan. The main languages here are Russian and Kazakh, both of which are very similar and Cyrillic-rooted. There is definitely a certain helplessness associated with being in a completely foreign country with no connection to the language. You really have to rely on translators or bank on the hope that the people you talk to will speak at least a little English.

One of the things that scares me the most about this city, though, is the smog. I heard about it going into the championships, and I knew that it was bad, but I really was not prepared for this kind of smog. Outside smells like there is a volley of fireworks going off just right over there; like acrid gunpowder. Today, when we went skiing at the venue, we were up on a hill above the worst of the smog, but I could still barely see the tops of the mountains above me, or the blue sky above. When the sun began to set, it turned into a fiery red disk, leaking through the orange haze. I would venture that the visibility is less than two miles from up on the ski trails.

The city itself is a very strange assortment of architecture. For the most part, the buildings are concrete, painted pale green or pink, with bars over the windows. However, there are some very modern, all-glass office buildings just up the hill from us. Farther up the valley, just below the venue, there are many houses that are half-finished, frat-looking cubes. Some are stranger still, such as the hotel Team USA is staying at. The lobby is a two-story marble and glass show of grandeur. Hanging from the ceiling is a twenty-foot glass (or crystal) chandelier that lights up in the evening. It feels like a tacky, 70’s-era Las Vegas casino.

The ski venue itself is very much still under construction. While walking to the waxing trailer this afternoon, we were stopped by a group of men welding two beams together across the middle of the stairs. Not all of the trails have enough snow to ski on yet, and there is only one snow gun running (I strongly suspect that it might be one of the only, if not the only snow gun in Kazakhstan).

I am impressed with this place, and I am really looking forward to the rest of my time here. Expect more soon, and thanks for reading!

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