We’re about 36 hours into our stay in Almaty, but it’s already becoming familiar and friendly. We were met at the airport by a PhD student from the University, along with his sister. They dropped us at the “House of Young Scholars”, a dorm for international students and guests. After a very short sleep, we set out exploring the neighborhood around campus. While there’s plenty of city we haven’t yet seen, so far Almaty is proving very pedestrian friendly, welcoming, and easy to navigate.
Landing in a new city is always a little intimidating, even for fairly seasoned travelers. There are always some initial checkpoints to begin to settle in. As we left campus, our goals were simple: get some money, get a coffee and get some breakfast. Immediately off campus, we found a row of tents with folks selling baked goods, yogurt, meats and picked vegetables. A helpful shopkeeper pointed us to a bank where we got some cash, and we then got our first food in Kazakhstan – some jam filled corn muffins from one of the tents. Down the street, we popped into the coffee shop at the Botanical Gardens. It was just opening for the day, so we settled in while the espresso machine came up to temperature. The barista helped us practice our Kazakh, and we studied our guidebook. A few americanos and croissants later and we were ready to venture on.
Almaty is full of malls, big and small. There’s one right near campus, which features all your typical mall experiences, plus a trampoline gym and a “pretend to be an adult” world for kids. We got some very tasty Korean food for lunch, and wandered up and down the streets in a light drizzle. We did an initial run to the “Magnum” grocery store to stock up on some essential items, hoping that the things we believed to be butter and yogurt actually were (they were).
Due to a bit of confusion about whether housing would be provided as part of our visit, we also booked an Airbnb. Because it was such a lengthy booking, we weren’t able to cancel it for a refund so we decided to go ahead and check in. It turns out to have been one of the rare Airbnb’s that’s way nicer in reality than on the internet (though, having stayed in a number of Soviet-era apartment buildings now, they all have pretty dreary stairwells). We were met by the enthusiastic caretaker, Dima, who showed us all the features – a full kitchen, fast wifi, a great living room, and even a little balcony. Because we’re old and snobby, we decided to fully move in, and bid the dorms goodbye. We walked back to the dorm, packed up and called a taxi.
By around 6pm, the combination of 3 hours sleep and a 12hour time shift were hitting us pretty hard. We had some ramen and called it a night early.
This morning, we got up and fixed breakfast, then headed for campus. I was instructed to meet at the history department at 10. We’d done some initial research about where the history department was, but it was a bit confusing. Fortunately the assistant from the department sent a WhatsApp message and offered to come find us. All of the buildings on campus require anyone to swipe their badge at a turnstile to enter, so we wouldn’t have been able to get in anyways.
I had a brief meeting with the chair of the history department, and then it was straight off to the classroom. My class, at least today, is bigger than I expected – perhaps 20 students, plus a number of faculty members. I did my initial “who’s this guy” talk, and I hope convinced them that I’m a pretty approachable, low-key person. Then we chatted about topics in digital historic preservation. There’s a great interest in the preservation of documents – especially official governmental documents – but I think my focus on the preservation of our broader material culture will open some eyes. The idea that “preservation” applies to modern materials and not just the conservation of historical objects is foreign to folks with a traditional archives mindset.
After class, some of the students offered to give me a little tour of campus. It’s a fantastically diverse group – Kazakhstan is a true melting pot of Central Asia, and the students come from all cultural backgrounds – Uyghur, Chinese, Russian, Turkish, Kurdish, Uzbek, and more. They’ve got a great rapport with each other, and hopefully are enjoying the chance to chat with a native English speaker. They’re firmly grounded in American internet culture – one of my favorite quotes from the day was “We don’t really watch TV because it’s mostly propaganda. Like your Fox News”. What’s going on across the border in western China is also very real for many of them, with family members who’ve disappeared.
I had lunch with the students in one of their cafeterias, and then we toured the library. By that time, they all had to get on to other classes.
Now, we’re settled in at a charming little coffee shop near our place, enjoying a snack before dinner. So far so good.