Autumn’s gentle melancholy has descended over Almaty. The air is decided crisp now and I’ve started bundling up: I’m wearing long-johns, which is a phrase that gives “cellar door” a run for its money. Today was the first snow, although throughout the day the sky was uncommitted to any particular form of precipitation. Further, the trees here are deciduous, and thus each morning the streets are carpeted in orange, yellow and brown; an army of elderly women are then dispatched to sweep up the brittle leaves – a Sisyphean duty from which only the first heavy snows will release them.
In defiance of the seasons (and folk medicine), I continue to behave such that Kazakh women over forty are all convinced of my imminent demise: I go outside with wet hair; I sometimes eat while walking; I refrain from my sixth or seventh cup of black tea each day; and I shower daily – an act sure to invite pneumonia. I think my Russian teacher is shocked each time I show up for my lesson.
I’ve heard a great deal about the winter weather here, and I cannot say I’m looking forward to it. Temperatures in Almaty are said to hover around -20ºC (-4ºF) for a few weeks – but this is brushed off as nothing. “In Astana,” or Aktau or Aktobe or Kostanai – all other cities in Kazakhstan not in the cradle of the Zhetysu region – “it gets really cold in the winter,” by which people mean -40ºC (-40ºF). This is because Almaty’s natural basin protects it from the worst of the winds and the cold fronts.
Fortunately, Almaty is good for winter sports. It hosts one of the world’s largest ice-skating rinks (Medeo) and there are three ski areas within short drives. There are also great ways to keep warm, including the municipal baths, great fur and faux-fur hats and vodka. I therefore hope to make the most out of the frozen months.