Alma Ata, the City of Apples
‘Please, put that thing away!’
The British Airways flight touched down in Alma Ata, the city of apples, the then capital city of Kazakhstan at around five thirty in the morning local time after a seven and a half hour flight and a six hour time difference from London Heathrow. It had been a pleasant flight on a new Boeing 777, a large plane with hardly anyone apart from me and the crew in the cheap seats out back. After an OK flight meal and plenty of wine – British Airways cabin crews tend to be generous when heading east, bless ‘em – I measured my length across three seats and slept most of the way across what was below from the edge of Europe east mile upon mile of steppe.
Alma Ata airport still had the air of a Russian outpost deep within Central Asia, which of course it is. The city is situated in the south-east of Kazakhstan, just two hundred and fifty miles from the Chinese border. The Soviets had a cookie cutter for their arrivals halls. Concrete of course, and while and jet-lagged and hung over just like being on the inside of a giant ping pong ball raised up on stilts. After a minimum of fuss at Kazakh immigration, I was soon out and into a Central Asian bazaar, lively and noisy, even at earliest dawn.
I hailed a taxi, an old Russian make of car, that might have been knocked together at the old Soviet Togliatti car factory and shipped out east by rail. There is no way the car would have made it in one piece across all that steppe on its own steam.
While not an obvious choice for robbery, I was carrying quite a wad of US dollars which my firm’s accountant had issued to me with the strict instruction of accounting for every penny spent. I was slightly alarmed therefore when two shell-suited Kazakh gentlemen sat up front, rather than just a standard fit taxi driver.
‘The Ambassador Hotel?’ I asked, ‘The Ambassador? V tzentr?’, unsure whether or not to attempt any more of my appalling version of Russian, which deteriorates further when I am tired.
‘Da’, came back the simple answer. I imagined back alleyways with rubbish in them, perhaps a tom cat looking on, handing over my dollars for my life.
What I should have done is added the cost of a proper hotel into the fee quote to my client, a flint-nosed New York based fund manager. One international chain, the Hyatt had recently arrived in town.
Presumably they have a shuttle service.
Soon, too distracted to worry about the drivers, who were speaking in low voices in Kazakh, I tuned out and really feeling the time difference became preoccupied with the strange jagged shaped clouds that were fixed in a vast sky rapidly becoming bright blue and which held my gaze while my mind went temporarily blank as if I had fallen asleep with my eyes open. It was midnight in London. I then realised why the clouds weren’t scudding as by rights they should have been, but were in fact fixed in place, for they were not clouds at all, but the snow covered peaks of the Tian Shan mountain range, which close to the city rise to over 4500 metres , and that top out at peak Pobedy (Victory Mountain) at 7439 metres across the border in Kyrgyzstan, with the second highest, Khan Tengri at 7010 metres on the Kazakh-Kirgiz border, the most northerly mountains over 7000 metres.
The view was magnificent.
The taxi men didn’t rob me of my US dollars and shortly we were in Almaty city, a human scale place in the grand scheme of ex-Soviet cities and with less of the usual high rise concrete blocks about the place or so it seemed to me. Perhaps I had been blinded by the sight of the Tian Shan, more probably in this very seismic zone even the Soviet town planners had taken no risks with the palette-style pre-fabricated block that is de-rigueur in Moscow and just about everywhere else in former communist lands throughout Europe.
The Ambassador hotel was basic but it had a minibar and it being the middle of the night as far as I was concerned I had a brandy from it, looked briefly at a city map to get to try to get my bearings and went to sleep for a couple of hours before my first appointment, due around lunchtime.
It was late afternoon when I eventually met with Roger Holland, an Englishman who had already been established in Almaty for quite some time. Roger had become frustrated at a Moscow airport at a time when there was a lack of fuel and no real timetables. He asked at the Aeroflot ticket desk just where they might be flying to anytime soon, and Almaty was the next reasonable flight out. He had been there ever since, and still is.
Roger had his finger in on the pulse of the vanguard of the wave of the economic revolution that was sweeping eastward – the real estate market. In Almaty this boiled down to a place where new oil money men from the United States could lay their Stetsons for the night and later where their cash rich companies could set up in gleaming new offices, of which at the time Almaty was in very short supply. Roger also published a monthly or weekly newspaper in English, a sort of listing magazine which extended to local news and happenings in and around the city of apples. This is a well-established model of which Roger was the most eastward and forward thinking that I had met to date, but I had met and have met since similar types of truly entrepreneurial types elsewhere, as far west as Rome.
Invariably they are English.
Roger and his associate, an ethnic Russian named Evgeny met me at the door of their apartment cum office in down-town Almaty. As I arrived an important looking Kazakh gentleman was leaving and someone was clearing the way to reset the table for tea in a comfortable room, an important part of business and social ritual this far east of the Urals.
The following day I went to meet with my client’s ‘target’, a Russian managed company that was in the process of constructing Alma Ata’s first round of really large office blocks in the down-town area, and whose job it was to convince me that my client, way out west in Manhattan, should buy the end product and at what price. For those curious about this sort of thing, the locals wanted about thirty million dollars, my job was to work out if that was a good price and a sound investment for a conservative, though savvy New York investor, or just plain nonsense. We had an all-inclusive detailed look around what amounted to a very large unfinished, but getting there, concrete building.
After a few occasions unless looking at say the Chrysler building or the Empire State both of which beguile me, one office building is pretty much the same. Parking lots really do hold no interest for me whatsoever and I have often had a sinking feeling in my stomach and been at a loss for words on when a proud owner of floors of underground parking has insisted that we carefully inspect all available floors. What to say? ‘Nice parking, I like it a lot’.
Thankfully we got through the ‘inspection’ fairly quickly. The shark-faced suit clearly did not think that I was important enough or rich enough to spend any more of his personal time with me – note back to Manhattan here – and very shortly shot back to his huge office, presumably to feed his grandma’s cat to his piranhas, or to do some more body-building.
He left me with an assistant to show me the rest of the city – I needed a full overview of countless facts and figures and impressions before I could form any opinion that would even begin to pass muster with the client, who after all was paying for this trip handsomely and who wanted his penny’s worth. I knew well that the client had been trying to contact me, as he had been doing daily for a month, surrounded by his analysts and legal team, including most Saturdays.
I had started to feel like indentured labour and to dread the time when Manhattan ‘woke up’, which in the case of this team was usually in the late morning when I was in the office in London.
They were very keen.
The time difference between Alma Ata and Manhattan had thrown them off my scent for the time being and I was determined not to have my every opinion nit-picked and mulled and re-mulled over by them, at least until I returned to London. On the one occasion my mobile phone went I explained briefly that communications out in Alma Ata were very basic and it was hard to hear them and keep a line open for long, before hanging up and switching off the phone.
Tais was originally from Georgia. She was considerably more beguiling to look at that the ‘target’ investment, and come to think of it could give both the Chrysler and the Empire State buildings a run for their money. Whoever first met a girl like Tais must have coined the phrase, ‘white skin like porcelain’. She had long hair that was running to red, but was in no way getting close to ginger. She had striking green eyes, a bit like some sort of exotic, perhaps poisonous reptile, though her tail was considerably more alluring. She was not in fact cold, just a bit distant perhaps, suspicious of what must have been a fairly rare Englishman in Alma Ata. Especially of one that spoke such an appalling version of Russian, which we mainly spoke in as Tais’s English was even worse.
She took me around town, with no real remit from her undoubtedly cold blooded boss.
It seems her duties were to keep me busy for the rest of the afternoon and into the evening. I wondered if my luck was in and this was going to be a post-Soviet version of the old honey-trap and that in the morning I would be presented with such ‘kompromat’ (compromising evidence, a skill honed for years by the KGB paparazzi) that I would have to immediately get onto the boys in Manhattan and recommend that Alma Ata was a steal at thirty million bucks and that they should get a deposit down immediately before they got gazumped by all the other hungry vultures that had packed the plane down.
In the event Tais and I gradually built trust between us and apart from the unavoidable glance at her swaying backside when she got ahead of me, all was innocence, and we had a pleasant afternoon wandering around Alma Ata in the shade of the city’s trees and along its grid pattern, straight streets, which were quiet for a city of about one and a half million people, and only a little bit dusty. At the end of most streets hung the high snow-capped peaks of the Tian Shan Mountains reaching up into a deep blue sky. I was constantly in awe and would have liked to get up into the mountains with Tais as my guide.
We had dinner in the only western chain hotel in town – the Hyatt – on a wide open square in its kitschy-feel restaurant, with a view of the mountains.
By then we were more comfortable with each other and relaxed. Tais told me her story. She was thoroughly Georgian and missed being in Georgia, another mountainous country where the people speak a language far removed from Russian or any other. For those interested, the Georgian national epic, “The Knight in the Panther’s Skin” is spelt, ვეფხისტყაოსანი, not then a language that I felt I had time to get to grips with. It is also the country that produced Iosif Vissarionivich Dzhugashvili; the bloody minded Josef Stalin, a man with a chip on his shoulder and a lot of axes to grind.
After we had settled and ordered, I asked Tais a bit more about her story. What was a young girl like herself doing so far out east here in Kazakhstan? She was straightforward with her answer, she said, ‘I was kidnapped’.
This alarmed me and I nearly choked on my aperitif. A short period of silence set in and I felt protective. I would have rushed to her side, but as I was already seated next to her (it is an eastern European thing not to sit opposite) that would have been a bit far-fetched.
‘Kidnapped?’ I asked.
‘Yes. The President’s son came to my house and he kidnapped me’. I hoped that this was not something that was likely to be repeated during the course of our dinner, ‘the President’s son, you say?’ I asked. ‘Yes. It is the tradition in my country for the men to kidnap the girls’. I could not think of a lovelier girl to kidnap if there had been such a tradition in the United Kingdom though I did not say so and the competition would in any case been enormous.
Perhaps only the Prime Minister’s son would have been able to pull it off or one of the Royal princes.
‘But don’t you miss Georgia?’ I asked.
Tais could feasibly have been Miss Georgia.
‘And aren’t you worried that they may come after you again?’ Tais replied, ‘Well do miss Georgia and my family very much, but I am not afraid of kidnappers’, she said, ‘now I carry this’.
And with that she reached into her handbag and pulled out a neat little loaded pistol. Tais saw that I was shocked and she laughed, leaning forward into me, showing pert clevage and revealing a beguiling perfume.
‘Please, put that thing away!’ I said.
It was the first and to date the only time that I have been out to dinner with an armed lady, and while the gun was not actually pulled on me, the barrel was certainly pointed in my direction at about gut level, and besides, what were the other diners supposed to think?
Fine company I was keeping.