West Meets East in Kazakhstan: Life in and Around Almaty, Kazakhstan, in the 1990's from the Perspective of an American Expat

West Meets East in Kazakhstan: Life in and Around Almaty, Kazakhstan, in the 1990's from the Perspective of an American Expat

by Thomas E. Johnson


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The author gained considerable experience of working in countries in the Soviet sphere in the 1980s-Yugoslavia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary-but this did little to prepare him for a long-term stint in Kazakhstan, commencing at the outset of 1993. If his eyes were opened wide in Belgrade, Warsaw, Prague, and Budapest, they were bug-eyed in Almaty, Kazakhstan. There he keenly experienced the harshness and wonders of post-Soviet Kazakhstan.
The good news is that Tom Johnson wrote a series of articles for a local English language newspaper, The Almaty Herald, detailing his observations about life in and around Almaty in the 1990s from the perspective of an American expatriate. West Meets East in Kazakhstan is based on those articles, to which the author has added substantial new material. With wry humor, a positive attitude, and an easy-to-read writing style, the author recounts the gentle and not-so-gentle culture shock that he experienced.
It is difficult to describe the book's content. Each chapter stands by itself and might be devoted to such topics as the following: the heavy weight of documentation required by the bureaucracy, the peculiar habit of carrying flowers with the wet ends up and the flowers down, the lack of public gathering places, or the outlandish nature of goodbye parties for departing expatriates. Several chapters describe the author's forages into the countryside to visit lakes, waterfalls, burial mounds, and "singing" dunes.
West Meets East in Kazakhstan makes a good read for anyone interested in life and living conditions in Kazakhstan, as well as the former Soviet Union. Foreigners who lived or worked in Kazakhstan during the period when the Communist economy was collapsing and before the market economy took root should particularly enjoy the book.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504928113
Publisher: AuthorHouse
Publication date: 09/22/2015
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

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West Meets East in Kazakhstan

Life in and Around Almaty, Kazakhstan, in the 1990's from the Perspective of an American Expat

By Thomas E. Johnson


Copyright © 2015 Thomas E. Johnson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5049-2811-3



Do you recognize the place I describe below?

We occupy a very large and diverse geographical area buried deep in the heart of a vast continent, just about as far away from a saltwater ocean as you can get. Despite the physical dimensions, we have only an exceedingly small human population. We have a mountainous region with snow-capped peaks that offers mineral wealth and opportunities for the tourist and leisure time industries. The leisure activities include skiing – not great skiing, not Alpine skiing, but at least village-plus skiing. We also have seemingly endless desert areas, some with lunar landscapes, which are basically unoccupied by human beings. In some areas, large herds of wild animals run free. Hunting is not only possible but in fact draws professional and enthusiastic amateur hunters from long distances away during the hunting seasons. We have a large lake that offers both good fishing and recreational opportunities, and the lake is starting to attract tourists, sporty types and vacationers.

Our climate can only be described as harsh, sometimes brutally harsh. Our summers can be very hot, with the sun burning down unremittingly during the long days. As if that wasn't bad enough, the humidity can be very high during this period, draining one of energy. Large, vicious mosquitoes invade the area during the summer to the annoyance of everyone who ventures outside or who has the misfortune of having them buzzing around their bedroom at night. For some reason, the mosquitoes seem to be more abundant and larger the further north one goes.

Winters can be cruel, at the opposite extreme of summer, with the winds blowing out of the Arctic region at gale force sweeping over our flat plains unopposed by any mountains or other geographical features to the north that might tame them. Snow covers the ground for several months of the year. The days are very short and the nights are long. The temperatures plunge to horrible lows. The ground freezes so deeply that, if someone dies in the depth of winter, the first thing that the survivors do is to build a charcoal fire at the cemetery to permit the grave to be dug in time for the funeral.

The growing oil industry is located mainly out in the Western region, and the flow of oil adds considerably to our economic strength despite the harshness of the climate which makes it a real struggle to reap this wealth. Of course, we also have other subsoil resources, especially gold up in the mountains, but it is unfortunate that we continue to concentrate on raw mineral production and do not have much by way of metal processing and derivative industries such as those that fabricate machines and other things that are made from the metals we produce.

In addition to the oil and mining industries, we are strong in the agricultural sector, being a net exporter of farming produce. In some regions, the farms are enormous in size, and during the growing season you can look out over oceans of grain. But in this industry, as in the oil and mining industries, we mainly export unprocessed grains and other agricultural products for conversion into food and other products elsewhere.

Life in the rural villages and on the farms is difficult, and despite the introduction of television and some of the other ingredients of modern life, many young people and some older people migrate to the cities in search of a better life and a better future. Some people even leave our area entirely, looking for better opportunities and an easier life elsewhere. This migration tends to cast a certain pall over the farming communities, and it also tends to cause some social unrest in the larger cities where the inflow of people from poorer areas must be digested.

We have an indigenous population that has its own language, its own culture, its particular style of clothing, and its own traditions. We also have had so many immigrants from abroad during the last generation or two that they now outnumber the indigenous people. Integration of these two groups and the preservation of the old culture and language are modern-day concerns that probably will remain with us for many years.

So, do you recognize this place? I do. This is the State of South Dakota, U.S.A., my home state in the middle of the United States where we have the Black Hills, the Williston Oil Basin, the Homestake Gold Mine, the Bad Lands, the prairies, the big lake on the Missouri River, the Lakota Indians and the Indian reservations, and the other features of the state where I grew up.

And I thought I had managed to get away from it all!

* * *

This article was published on 30 January 1977. Shortly after that, while attending one of the monthly meetings of the Business Roundtable of the U.S. Embassy, a man from Nebraska introduced himself to me, congratulated me on writing articles for The Almaty Herald, and laughingly told me that, when people back home in Nebraska ask him what Kazakhstan is like, he replies, "It's just like Nebraska!"



Lufthansa Airlines led the way in opening up the Republic of Kazakhstan to international air travel late in 1992. During the Soviet era, the Kazakh S.S.R. – with its rocket testing facilities, the spacecraft launching facility at Baikonur, the ICBM silos, and the atomic bomb testing grounds – was pretty much off limits to foreigners, and those few who did manage to get here came primarily by way of Moscow or one of the other rare entry points for international travel to the Soviet Union. Upon achieving independence, the Republic of Kazakhstan suddenly faced the need to operate its own customs and passport control service, and it faced the challenge of opening itself up for the growing number of arriving foreigners.

In fact, however, it was not exactly "Lufthansa" that led the way. "Condor" landed here first, this being the charter flight subsidiary of Lufthansa. Why this was so is not clear. Maybe Lufthansa preferred to use Condor to test out the route, to see what level of traffic would develop, and to permit Lufthansa to withdraw quietly and without adverse publicity in the event that this new and exotic route did not work out. Maybe it was simply a matter of aircraft and crew availability. Anyway, it seems that the new route worked out very well indeed and in not too many months Lufthansa officially took over the route from Condor.

Condor's airplanes are basically laid out as a single class, as one expects on a charter flight, with all the seats being identical with economy class quality. However, for the flight to Almaty, a dividing curtain was installed to segregate the business class up front from the economy class in the rear. Those who sat in front of the curtain were in business class, and those who sat behind the curtain were in economy class. That was useful information to know because, without that curtain, there were very few clues that there was a business class. Nevertheless, despite the lack of significant differences between the two sections, the business class very quickly caught the attention of international business travelers. What a relief it was to be able to skip the horrors of travelling by way of Moscow's airports at that time when the real objective was to come to Almaty. Typically, Condor's business class was entirely filled whereas, in the economy class, one could often stretch out on two or more seats for the long, dark winter flights. On one rare occasion, there were a few vacancies in business class and I, as a frequent traveler, was offered the chance of a free upgrade. I declined. Back in the economy section, three empty seats were available to me each of which was exactly the same size as the seats in the crowded business class.

As a frequent traveler, I observed that on virtually each successive Condor flight on which I travelled the grey dividing curtain had been moved a few notches toward the rear. Little by little, the business class section was threatening to take over the entire airplane. The question passed my mind whether or not there is some rule for international flights that prohibits a commercial airplane operator from converting an entire aircraft to business class. I never did learn the answer from Condor. By the time the dividing curtain was nearing the tail of the plane, Condor was retired from the route and Lufthansa introduced the popular Airbus on which a business class ticket really buys a business class seat with business class service.

Many of the first flights to Almaty stopped as well at Tashkent. I think there was a certain rhythm to these flights, like one time going from Frankfurt to Almaty to Tashkent and then back to Frankfurt while on other days the airplane would fly Frankfurt-Tashkent-Almaty-Frankfurt. Tashkent probably was included on the route because, during those early days of the independence, the Republic of Kazakhstan experienced serious shortages of aviation fuel, and it would have been crucial to pass through the better stocked Uzbekistan. Alternatively, the Tashkent stop might have been part of early testing of the strength of both routes. Those flights, however, were particularly rough on passengers who were going from Tashkent to Frankfurt. They spent hours at the airport in Tashkent awaiting the arrival of the middle-of-the-night flight from Frankfurt. Then, after the one-hour flight to Almaty, they had to deplane while the aircraft was serviced for a couple of hours. At long last, their flight took off for the 7-hour flight to Frankfurt.

Not every flight left Almaty on time, of course, and I can remember at least one flight that was thwarted by bad weather for so long just before Christmas 1993 that everyone returned to their hotels or apartments in Almaty. In a triumph of human endurance over the perils of travel, virtually all of us discovered when the flight was going to leave, and we made it back to the airport in time to board the otherwise unannounced resumption of the flight.

There certainly were some unexpected and even jolting features to those early flights. On one occasion we hit a pothole – that is what the pilot called it – in the runway just as the airplane landed at Almaty. The tires survived but the front wheel mechanism was broken. The pilot tried to steer the plane by using the rudder and by adjusting the thrust of the engines, but to no avail. He simply could not steer the plane on the ground. We sat there for a very long time in the middle of the runway until a suitable tractor was located which towed us to within walking distance of the terminal. Nowadays a tractor is always used to park the arriving aircraft but in 1993-94 the practice was for the arriving aircraft to come as close as it could to the terminal and then swing around quickly in a bravado maneuver so as to prepare the aircraft for departure without the aid of a tractor. There was no need for a passenger bus either - passengers walked the short distance from the airplane to the terminal.

With regard to the broken wheel mechanism, there was naturally no replacement aircraft in Almaty and it was impossible for the outbound passengers to switch to some other carrier. There were none. Nor were there replacement parts in Almaty or experts to install them. I think the outbound flight was cancelled until Lufthansa could specially bring in the parts, the engineers and a replacement flight crew.

As strange as some of these flights seemed in the air, the really weird part was to arrive at the terminal in Almaty. This was at the building destroyed by fire in 1999, not the replacement opened in 2004. (The story at the time – joke? – was that the firemen raced to the Tax-Free Shop before tackling the fire, resulting in loss of the entire building.) In those days, arriving passengers were herded into the same lounge that currently is used only for international departures. The result was that arriving and departing passengers were not entirely segregated, and in the confusion some arriving passengers came precariously close to departing without yet having entirely arrived in the country.

Another noteworthy feature of these early flights was that the luggage was manhandled off the airplane in a labor-intensive and painstakingly slow manner compared to the aluminum containers which now permit bulk transport of the luggage. The items were then handed through a small window, one at a time. Normally there was no one on the inside of the window to accept them, and there certainly was no carousel, so passengers would often initiate a brigade, like a fire-fighting bucket brigade in an old Western movie, and the bags worked their way from the window to the other end of the room.

The procedures at Almaty International Airport have undergone continuous evolution and improvement even if these are rather modest in scope when compared to the changes at Heathrow, JFK and various other major airports which are constantly under construction and never finished. One of the first "improvements" was the installation of an 8-meter long conveyor belt that led away from the window through which the bags were handed. As before, however, no one manned the conveyor belt which simply carried the bags to its end where the bags dropped to the floor and accumulated in a pile. Since most passengers were still tied up in the slow-moving passport queue, the baggage area was entirely littered with bags piled on top of each other. In those days, practically everything conceivable arrived with the passengers. I do not recall ever seeing a kitchen sink but I certainly saw Western mattresses, a lot of computers and many other items of office furniture. You could tell when miners were on the plane because their heavily padlocked trunks which seemed to be filled with very heavy equipment would be among the last items for the unhappy baggage handlers to shove through that window.

Another feature of arriving in the very crowded and small arrivals hall is that most people checked quite a few pieces of luggage, boxes of office supplies and so on. Lone travelers quickly made friends with someone they thought they could trust as they struggled to accumulate their own pile of suitcases, boxes and so on while looking for the last remaining pieces and also peering past the customs officials in anxious search for their drivers.

Lufthansa probably has had a natural advantage over rival airlines so far as Kazakhstan is concerned, and this advantage may explain why Lufthansa was so quick to start the Almaty run. Lufthansa each year carries a large number of the ethnic German immigrants – locally referred to as returnees – who have a right to go back to Germany. It seems that the German government buys the tickets for the returnees and helps to fill up some of those otherwise under-used mid-week flights. Although a large number of ethnic Germans have already left Kazakhstan, one still sees immigrant groups on the airplanes. Not so long ago I was ousted from my favorite seat in the center section of the economy class where I hoped to snooze on four seats for the flight to Frankfurt. Virtually the entire center section was block booked for 50 ethnic Germans "returning" to Germany and a new life in the West.


Excerpted from West Meets East in Kazakhstan by Thomas E. Johnson. Copyright © 2015 Thomas E. Johnson. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Preface, vii,
1. Hey, Where Am I?, 1,
2. The Condor Has Landed!, 4,
3. The American Embassy Business Roundtable, 10,
4. Hard Times in Kazakhstan, 14,
5. The Market Economy, 25,
6. Direct Marketing, 26,
7. How to Read an Invitation, 27,
8. Bank Accounts, 33,
9. Our Plastic Friend, 36,
10. Much Ado Versus Nothing, 41,
11. A Day of Sledding, 45,
12. Eating Out in Times Past, 46,
13. Telephone Manners, 52,
14. Take The Load Off Your Feet, 56,
15. Hellos, Goodbyes, and Congratulations, 61,
16. Stranger Strangers, 64,
17. Fringe Advertising, 68,
18. Kazakhstan's National Pastime, 71,
19. The Universal History of Paper, 75,
20. East Meets West Over the Dinner Table, 81,
21. English Penetration, 87,
22. English As She is Spoken, 92,
23. The Perils of the Open Road, 97,
24. Consumerism in Kazakhstan, 102,
25. Cranes, Taxis and Expensive Cars, 107,
26. Paper Weight, 113,
27. Take in a Wedding!, 121,
28. The Dangers of Drink, 125,
29. Spotlight on Light Bulbs, 128,
30. Rules of the Road, 131,
31. Tripping The Light Fantastic, 136,
32. Taxi! Taxi!, 143,
33. Upside Down, Inside Out and Back to Front, 149,
34. In Praise of Apartment Balconies, 154,
35. Lucky Tickets, 158,
36. Close Scrapes, 159,
37. The Expatriate Community, 167,
38. The Goodbye Party, 170,
39. Good News Report, 177,
40. Did The Soviet Union Trip Up On Its Stairs?, 182,
41. Femininity in Almaty, 186,
42. The Way I See Things, 189,
43. Skiing at Chimbulak, 193,
44. A Day at Chimublak, 201,
45. A Daytrip to Kapchagai, 208,
46. A Daytrip to Ili-Alatau National Park, 213,
47. A Wet Weekend at Issyk Kul, 219,
48. A Trip to Big Buddha and Kapchagai Lake, 226,
49. A Trip to the Singing Dunes, 232,
50. A Trip to Issyk Lake, 240,
51. A Trip to England, 246,
52. A Trip to Butakovka Waterfall, 251,
53. The Almaty Metro, 256,
54. Charyn Canyon and a Happy Moment, 260,
Acknowledgements, 265,
Dates of Publication of Articles in The Almaty Herald newspaper, 267,

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