Karaganda — A Mixed Soviet Legacy

As we prepare to leave Karaganda, a 75-year-old city whose residents include a large number of survivors of Stalin’s KarLag internal-exile system, a few things stand out. There is a hardiness to the people here, bred perhaps by a history of fighting against everything from the weather to bureaucrats and worse. There is also a tendency to cut corners with few standards, whether in putting up or refurbishing buildings or in buying one’s grades in university. And there is a keen interest in other cultures, particularly the U.S.

On the survival front, we talked with remarkable people whose histories are both chilling and admirable. We met a woman whose parents survived the most absurd imprisonment in the KarLag here – her father simply because he was a German in the Ukraine during WWII and her mother because, at 18, she told someone that German sewing machines were better than Russian ones. The woman, now in her early 60s, went on to train as an accountant until she retired. Her husband, a Soviet Army veteran, at 67 works his small farm plot to raise the family’s food and boasts muscles far bigger than mine. Chillingly, his wife said her whole village, Dolinka, is a graveyard from indiscriminate killings in the KarLag days, to the point that her husband has turned up human bones as he has tilled his ground. (See Megan Nichols, with camera, and Megan Plouzek, below).

There is some nostalgia for the Soviet days here. College students told us that their parents yearn for the stability of that era. And one of our guides said there was real tumult for a couple years immediately after the collapse of the USSR, with both her parents losing their jobs and much unemployment hereabouts in the gap between the state-run society and the emergence of capitalism. Indeed, even the college students said they believed things were better in schools then, as they point out that salaries for professors are so low now that buying grades is commonplace – we’ve heard that cheating on exams is similarly universal. They believe the Soviets held students to a higher standard.

And yet, there’s also some resentment toward the Soviets. Russia still launches many rockets here from its Baikonur launch area. Intelligent people are convinced that the repeated launches give them headaches, as radioactivity or toxins fall to earth. They believe, too, that the rockets have upset the weather, making for spring days that start out sunny, turn wet quickly and then turn back to good weather. They argue that the Soviets once paid to compensate for health problems from the rockets, but don’t any longer. This distress over seeming Soviet exploitation of the area seems to echo the feelings of people in another part of the country, the Semey area, over nuclear testing that left a legacy of environmental disaster and cruel deformities among residents and their children.

The ability to survive all sorts of abuse marks these people, though. Economically, Karaganda is a dramatic case study in an overwhelmingly small-business oriented culture. Street vendors hawk toys, food and clothing. Underpasses beneath the city’s main roads are packed with little one-person shops, booths and tables. One walks into modern retail complexes that house collections of such one-person shops, often with tiny stores subdivided into sections. We saw, this, too in Astana in convenience stores. Here, one intriguing-looking building housed a bevy of small merchants selling hardware of all sorts. It’s a peddler culture.

We have seen this even in our latest hotel. We’re staying in the Hotel Karaganda, a classic-looking old hotel now undergoing rehab. We checked in and paid at the desk but then were sent upstairs to our room on the third floor where a woman sitting at a table entered us in her book and led us to our room. It appears as if the hotel is subdivided and this woman oversees her collection of rooms as a sub-letter. The second floor is filled with similarly sized rooms, each with a separate merchant. We’ve noted that most of these merchants are women, and our guide said this has been a longstanding way women earn a lot of the income for the family – in addition to doing all the traditional jobs of mothers and wives, such as cooking, cleaning, etc.

There’s a great need for travelers here to roll with the punches. Reservations can be difficult or even impossible at some hotels, sometimes requiring a payment. And terms can change quickly – we told the folks at the Edem, our first hotel here, that we would definitely stay through last Thursday and probably would stay through Sunday. On Wednesday, I learned they had given away our room and we had to move out on Friday. Then, when we moved to the Hotel Karaganda, our translator had booked two rooms with six beds in all. When we got here, we found just one room with five beds. Fortunately, there are only five of us and the two girls are tolerant of the inconveniences of sharing a small room with three guys – at least for two nights.

If the country is to develop a tourist industry – which it could do – a lot of infrastructure and cultural changes will have to be made. They could start by accepting credit cards and using computer reservations systems in the hotels. Paying in cash for everything – when ATMs limit you to 30,000 tenge (about $200) per day – is a real hassle. Plastic is much more commonly accepted in Astana and Almaty than in outlying regional spots like Karaganda. What’s more, the physical plant can often be challenging – with too few outlets, or outlets hanging out of walls. We’ve been told repeatedly that the construction of even the gleaming new buildings in Astana leaves much to be desired; already, at least one major new building collapsed because it was poorly built, we heard.

Finally, there is a real passion for things from other cultures here. The U.S. particularly is held in high esteem. Rock videos from the U.S., along with knockoffs done by the Russians or Kazakhs, blare from screens in restaurants everywhere. A club named Elvis seems to be a big draw, complete with its pictures of Dylan and the Beatles. Pizza is a big dish here, and we’ve been regulars at the pricey Assorti restaurant in the high-end City Mall and at a smaller cafeteria-type place where we get Margherita pizza. The other day, as we struggled to order, a high-school boy came up to help, using English he had improved by recently spending time in Michigan in an exchange program. People here do seem happy to help us, showing a spontaneous hospitality and graciousness toward strangers that one would be hard-put to find in America or elsewhere — though service in the restaurants can be pathetic, with dishes rarely arriving at the same time for all guests.

The U.S. is boosting its presence here. Peace Corps volunteers busy themselves in English-training classes and HIV-AIDS educational efforts, and the U.S. will be stepping up the number of them in the country substantially. There are now about 150 or so. There are also missionary groups active here, ranging from the Mormons we met in Almaty to a group of evangelicals in Karaganda who operate a feeding program for kids, many of whom are children of alcoholics, as well as an English-training program and a church.  A delightful lady from South Carolina who has taken in five young women who don’t have parents, works with the group. She and a friend helped put together an impromptu marathon this morning that drew about 15 people, including Megan Plouzek and me (I managed just 10 miles or so, while Megan did at least 15).

We ran around a park that demonstrates the curious state of the country. About half of the park is relatively well-maintained, with nice stone and dirt paths and a pleasant amusement park featuring a Ferris Wheel and other rides. People work out at spots around the park, using old playground equipment. Another half of the park, however, is overgrown and includes an abandoned-looking lake as well as rusting picnic spots. It appears that the place may have been well-kept in the old days, but has been largely ignored for at least a couple decades. Like much of the country, it seems to be both promising and in need, a place of great potential that has been both scarred and helped by its history.

Karaganda & Dolinka street scenes

A half-hour’s drive outside the regional center, a town called Karaganda, sits Dolinka, a hardscrabble village that once was a key part of the KarLag system. The KarLag was the Karaganda portion of the notorious GuLag camp network that once dotted the backwaters of the USSR. At its peak, the KarLag was home to 75,000 exiles, people imprisoned at various times from 1931 to the 1960s. Now, Dolinka exists as a collection of rough shed-type houses and former KarLag barracks and buildings. In it serves as a memorial to that dark era in Kazakhstan’s history.

We met a woman whose parents were sent here — her father because he was a German in the Ukraine and Stalin in WWII saw Germans as a Fifth Column, and her mother because, at 18, she told someone German sewing machines were better than Russian ones. That apparently unpatriotic sentiment earned her five years in prison.

The photos of a developed town below, including the towering Lenin, are from Karaganda. In a sign of how times have changed, a headquarters of Arcelor Mittal, the world’s biggest steelmaker, sits at the top of the street that is home to the Lenin statue and its logo looms high above Lenin. Mittal is very active in Kazakhstan. The photos with a ramshackle look, including shots of videographer Megan Plouzek and photographer Megan Nichols, are from the rural village of Dolinka. Click on each photo to see it in full.

Test Case: Capitalism’s Rise in Kazakhstan

Nineteen years after breaking free of the collapsed Soviet Union, Kazakhstan remains one of capitalism’s last frontiers. From its nascent stock exchange in the financial and commercial center of Almaty to the sprawling Abu Dhabi-like construction and institution-building under way in the capital city of Astana, the country continues to seek its footing economically. Its mixture of private enterprise and state direction, together with a benevolent strongman’s rule, would make the place a fascinating laboratory for an economist.

There’s no question that Kazakhstan is the economic powerhouse of Central Asia, the richest of the “stans” and the most politically stable. Its oil wealth in the Caspian Sea has already been staked out by China, Russia and the Western countries, especially the U.S. They covet its huge fields of reserves as strategically vital alternatives to Mideastern suppliers. About as big as Western Europe and far less populated, the country also boasts hefty supplies of uranium and just about every other mineral developed societies need.

And yet, it has a long way to go to be a fully formed modern capitalist state. For one thing, many residents still  live in crumbling Soviet-era concrete apartment blocks that can stink of sewage, and feature dark cement staircases with missing windows and poorly planned and maintained common areas. Our apartments in gleaming, modern Astana would be low-end by South Bronx standards. Lines of trash bins next to playgrounds invite vermin hard by spots where kids play. The play area, surrounded by our five-story apartment buildings, is a vivid demonstration of the tragedy of the commons – overgrown and decaying with apparently no one to maintain it or at least to maintain it well. Similar buildings linger in Almaty, as in this photo of one sprawling tower block. (Click on it to see detail).

But in Astana people live in Soviet-era blocks, spread across the old area of the city, because the apartments were given to them free in the Soviet days. Even now, many can’t afford the stunning new buildings still under construction in the newer parts of the city. That housing is being privately developed and sold. Instead, people borrow to buy pricey cars – Mercedes-Benzes, Lexuses, Range Rovers and others dominate the jammed roads here. One of our guides says Kazakh people like to “show off” and they often go deeply into debt to drive glitzy cars. They also crave glitzy western brand names, as Gucci stores in Almaty suggest.

Certainly, people will occupy those shiny new buildings over time, though. The country is developing a solid middle class of well-schooled professionals, managers and state bureaucrats who will take to the new residences once their resources allow it. If nothing else, supply and demand will drop the prices of the new condos, one would think. The construction, driven by a real estate bubble that popped a couple years ago, still lumbers along, albeit at a slower rate.

It’s hard to imagine, much less portray, the extent of new development, particularly in Astana. The city was rechristened as the nation’s capital only in 1997 by President Nazarbaev, and it has risen into a Disneyland-like sprawl of some of the most ingenious and playful architecture in the world. In the new city centre, as it is called, a glass and steel pyramid rises near towering office buildings shot through with arches and sporting clever overhangs or minarets. Bright pastels reflect the sun. Even amid the slowdown, building cranes still dominate the skyline behind billboards that hawk the luxury living promised by the novel structures. It’s as if the whole place is a World’s Fair.

We visited the Eurasian National University on Thursday. The gorgeous facilities, housing a museum that showcases ancient artifacts of the region’s earliest days and paintings of warrior heroes of old, are part of a university created by the president to train future leaders, many in the ways of the West. The president also set up a national scholarship program that sends young students to study abroad, so long as they return to help modernize Kazakhstan. Leaders in the journalism school at the university asked us if we could host students at UNL and develop an educational collaboration – something that I am sure our folks would be keen to do.

Our meeting was almost like an affair of state. We all gathered on one side of a table of microphones and the J School faculty gathered on the other. My name was printed on a card, as was that of the J School director opposite me. A small Kazakhstan flag stood before him on the table, and a small American flag stood before me. The session began with rather formal speeches of welcome, all run through a translator from the U.S. Embassy. (The embassy is a stunning new building, corner of America behind some tight security. Very welcoming folks there, too).

Soon enough at the J School, we got down to finding common ground. Since my colleague, Bruce Thorson, and I and the Kazakh faculty were all about the same age, we bemoaned the lack of reading by our Internet-driven students and fretted over the future of print. I got the feeling, however, that preparing students to deliver Net-ready material is not on their agenda here – yet. A meeting with a newspaper editor later confirmed this, as he complained of declining readership but also said he hoped the Net wouldn’t usurp print journalism until he was ready to retire. He, too, is ahem, of a certain age.

Yesterday, some of the students and I went to a stunning mosque with a helpful guide who counted herself as a far-too-unobservant Muslim. Men and women prayed together in the mosque, unlike the more traditional mosque we visited in Almaty. I was able to sit with the group as an imam led prayers. And, to the dismay and disgust of our hostess, some women walked in sporting short skirts. Islam light seems to prevail here.

Afterward, we went to the Lubavitch-run synagogue, Beit Rachel. The shul is in a beautiful building that features a gleaming Star of David on its roof, much like churches showcase crosses – and far more showy than most shuls in America. Nonetheless, it is fenced off, unlike mosques, and has a security guard in a booth at the entrance. Much as religious tolerance is the rule here, Jews have reason to be cautious, it seems. There is also a large Catholic church in town. At Beit Rachel, young Israelis urged me to lay tefillin, which I did. We all had imposed on them a bit, with a local TV crew running all about the building filming us as we did our photojournalism there.

On Saturday, I went to services where, sadly, there were just a yeshiva boker who spoke only Hebrew, a couple other guys who spoke Russian and one delightful fellow from Baku, who spoke English. I’m told more people come when the rabbi is in town, but he’s in Israel at the moment. Still, it was fun talking with the Azeri fellow and it was a delight to eat cholent, the first meat I’ve (knowingly) had in a few weeks. We had a pleasant time all around and got an Amidah or two in.

Further on the religious front, a group of us on Friday also visited a pyramid where all the world’s religions are celebrated. Conferences there periodically draw global religious leaders to talk about their differences and similarities. It’s part of the president’s vision for a harmonious world. I’m told the Pope is among major world religious leaders who have stopped by.

Religiously and financially, there’s a sense of freshness and newness about the country. It’s as if it is still discovering itself and its role in the world, even as it celebrates its ancient history. It also needs to carefully walk lines, balancing Russia, China and the U.S., as well as keep religious and ethnic differences from becoming problems. It is enjoying — but must be cautious about — the billions of dollars, renminbi and rubles that have poured into place in the last 15 years or so. Its institutions are hard-put to keep pace.

Perhaps the best example is the Kazakhstan Stock Exchange. Set up two days after the country’s currency, the Tenge, was introduced in 1993, KASE is the home bourse for 121 companies. Like markets the world over, these outfits have been roller-coasting in recent years. After soaring past $96 billion in 2008, the market capitalization of the exchange members plunged to about $25 billion last year before recovering to about $64 billion now. The volatility reflects how interlinked Kazakhstan’s economy is with the world’s. The market is still comparatively small and, though heavily electronic, maintains a cubicle-filled trading floor, as the photo here by Sarah Tenorio shows.

As one might expect, oil and mining companies dominate the exchange. But banking and finance is important, too. And all these outfits rise and fall based on global conditions. The finance sector here went into free fall, with lots of bank defaults, because banks here had borrowed heavily from global banks. Real estate, which boomed in U.S. fashion, collapsed amid overextension, leaving Almaty with lots of unfinished buildings. Luxury homes in a neighborhood called Luxor near the KASE offices were going for $4 million in 2008 and they have since fallen by half that.

Still, Kazakhstan’s mineral wealth should sustain the country as long as the world continues to need oil, uranium and other crucial materials. What’s more, the nation’s leaders are keen to diversify the economy to avoid overdependence on such resources. Tourism, for instance, is an area they would much like to expand. If they can improve their hotels and tourist infrastructure, there’s no reason they can’t make a go of it.

Over time, this country’s development will be fascinating to watch.

Kazakhstan: Divine Thoughts

Religion seems to be a modest affair here in Kazakhstan, tolerated if not exactly encouraged. Almaty features a stunning Russian Orthodox Church, interestingly located in the heart of a park dedicated to World War II soldiers. The park, filled with oversized monuments including an eternal flame, seems very Soviet in style. And so, it’s perhaps fitting that the Russian Orthodox Church is there. It’s as if it’s making a statement about the centrality of all things Russian, whether in history or culture.

It was intriguing to spend some time in the church yesterday. Women, and a few men, would come into the ornate church, kiss icons, light candles and make elaborate signs of the cross on themselves. Most of the visitors were older folks, most looking more Russian than Kazakh. I suppose they were praying for relatives and friends and they found something helpful in visiting the icon-filled space. Perhaps the bevy of images of saints and of Jesus and the place’s general solemnity was comforting. Most seemed in need of something, an understandable thing, of course.

The other day, a group of us visited a mosque not far from the church. It was quite different. For one thing, we saw only one woman in the place and she wasn’t praying. Men, instead, were the supplicants and many were fairly young. There were no icons, only a wall with elaborate swirls and writing at the front. There were no chairs, only carpet for prayer (silent, but an active affair, with much standing, kneeling and prostrating). Sarah Tenorio, who took the photo below, and Elizabeth Gamez were allowed in and, as a mark of liberality here, were not required to cover their hair. We later learned that the mosque was built since Kazakhstan declared independence from Russia.

And today a few of the students are visiting the Mormon church services here. This place is far more low-key, based in the bottom floor of a nondescript apartment tower block far from downtown. There are few signs even noting its existence and, true to Mormon style, no crucifixes (they prefer to focus on the risen Christ, I was told by one of the missionaries there). The group, about 130 or so folks including a number of young Americans who incongruously call themselves “elder” or “sister,” is keen to sign up more members here.

We’ve been told that the authorities here are not fond of such small churches. They tolerate Islam, perhaps because it’s such a big part of the culture of Kazakhs, and they seem to value Russian Orthodoxy, perhaps for the statement it makes about the importance of things Russian. But recently there was a campaign against a Hare Krishna group from Russia that set up a compound outside town. We were told the place is being bulldozed after some legal action, since a local developer wanted the land. One could imagine that other small groups keep their profiles low to avoid similar troubles.

My guess would be that religion has not taken as powerful a hold here as in some other Central Asian spots because of economics and decades of official atheism under the Russians. On the economic front, if the system meets basic needs and provides a bit more for the people they may not feel as keen a need for something transcendent. Kazakhstan has developed a substantial middle class, it seems, and it’s not surprising that religion would be a light affair with many of those folks. Further, one imagines that students in Russian-controlled schools were discouraged from zealous practice and religious leaders were relegated to largely ceremonial roles.

The big question, though, is whether Kazakhstan can hold firm against the Islamic tide that grips others not far from here. Muslim groups in China, Uzbekistan and even parts of Kyrgyzstan have grown quite assertive, worrying both the local systems and folks in Moscow and Washington. Russia has had huge problems with Islamic terrorists, who seem to regard it as poorly as they do the West. Will affluence, if it comes, lead to Saudi-style revivalism, where the sons of the rich look for meaning following fiery imams and even the likes of Bin Laden? Or, will downturns in the economy, if they come, lead people to extremism? With the Kazakh president here expected to pass the baton in a few years, and the economy suffering from some real-estate induced trouble lately, all sorts of things could bubble to the surface unless the transition is handled well. It all bears watching.

Kazakhstan — Underexposed by Design

Fearlessness is helpful in a journalist. For photojournalists – especially those working abroad – it is mandatory. This is becoming clearer every day here in Kazakhstan, a place where cameras seem as welcome as American robber-barons would have been in Moscow in 1917.

Our photojournalism students are having their mettle tested here. Repeatedly, as they try to shoot in seemingly public places, they are waved off. Scary-looking security guards pop out of buildings, flailing their arms and jabbering away in Russian or Kazakh to tell them “no pictures.” The other day, as all eight students and I approached an indoor market area, a guard radioed to a colleague perched on a rooftop high above us. Roofman formed X signs with his arms to make it clear that no snapping was allowed. And all we wanted was lunch!

Fortunately, the students are rising to the challenge. They are using friendly smiles, charm and a certain fearlessness to disarm reluctant subjects and persuade them they mean no harm. Yesterday, as Patrick Breen was shooting fortune-tellers near the Green Market he managed to stave off some character who was accusing him and Elizabeth Gamez of being from the FBI and somehow helping foment a Kyrgyzstan-style revolt. They also persuaded a fortune-teller to let Patrick photograph her (in a scarf above) even though many of her colleagues protested the attention. (Patrick’s fortune looks bright, by the way, she told him).

People do usually welcome our students once they understand what they’re up to. With the help of one of our guides, Travis Beck got one of the photos attached here at a “family home,” a kind of orphanage located in Talgar, 20 kilometers east of Almaty. Director Eskozhina Tuyak, smiling over the bread, was happy to tell him about the place – called “Nur,” Kazakh for sunlight – which houses some 66 college students, some married couples and others. Some 110 people aged 4-25 live at the place, which Tuyak started in 1998 by selling her personal apartment. She worked in the state’s ministry of education for 43 years.

This is a country of many contradictions. On the one hand, people could not be more hospitable. Our waitress in an Internet coffeeshop, for instance, went out of her way yesterday to help us get a ride to our next appointments, visits to the Internews press-advocacy group and the Kazakh Stock Exchange. And folks there, similarly gracious, helped us get back on an exchange bus. We wander about at will, with no one holding us back or shadowing us. Travis was also able to photograph a group of children at play, below.

On the other hand, it’s a place where security concerns loom large, often pointlessly so. The hostility to cameras, for example, is widespread. Signs in restaurants bar photography. People in cafes gesture “no” with their hands and shake their heads when our students point cameras at them. No photographs are permitted, we were told, during trading hours at the stock exchange – only shots of the empty trading floor after hours.

Theft is not uncommon, we’re told. Don’t hand your cameras over to anyone to shoot your picture because they’ll take a flier with your gear. And yet, the common way of getting around is taking what our kids call “random cabs,” standing in the street and holding your hand low until some random person picks you up and you negotiate a ride around the city – always under 500 tengey (about $3.25). It’s common for women to accept such rides well into the evenings, and we took a couple random cabs yesterday.

It’s as if there’s a blend of Central Asian tribal hospitality and Soviet-style state paranoia. Since the country was a part of the USSR until the early 1990s and remains heavily Russified, worries about security and a need for control seem to be woven into the cultural DNA. Why does our nearby indoor supermarket have three guards, one stationed near the entrance and two just outside the cash register area, even as one or two more stand sentry at the mall entrance? Why do buildings under construction need guards in their lobbies? Why do police cruise the streets at night, pulling people over for U turns on deserted stretches of road or checking IDs? And why is Google’s eblogger seemingly jammed?

Certainly, security worries are a big part of the American experience, especially since 9/11. Think about how guards now roam with abandon across all areas of American life and security has become a huge industry, going far beyond the airports. New Yorkers are considering putting virtually every street under surveillance. And plenty of American institutions, such as corporations and government bodies, bar press photography on their premises unless it’s under tight control. Here, though, it’s security on steroids, whether justified or not, and without the newest technology.

Another thing that has struck us is the lack of homeless people. This plague, rife in American and European cities alike, seems not to be an issue here in Almaty. We have seen none. Partly, we’re told, this is because people are family oriented here and take care of their own. Partly it may be because mentally incompetent people are confined by the state, as they once were in the U.S. There are a few scattered beggars – see Patrick’s photo of one unfortunate footless man – but no bedrolls in the parks or people pushing grocery carts. Poverty is an issue, to be sure, but its human face in the city seems less obvious.

So I must admire our student photographers. They are managing through these challenges, finding fresh ways to show life in this fascinating society. Our work, of course, should be helpful to the place, as we tell readers about how ordinary Kazakhs go about their days – whether they run apple orchards and brokerage operations or pray in the mosque or, as in Patrick’s photo below, play with pigeons.

As they rove around, cameras in hand, the students are surmounting all sorts of obstacles. Language difficulties, transportation challenges and persuasion of reluctant sources. It all demands a bit of nerve, and they are summoning it in spades.

Kazakhstan — Day One!

Call it a Kazakh stew (or borscht maybe?) Our opening day yesterday in Kazakhstan was marked by Third World confusion, a string of encounters with police and a short struggle with sleep in an overcrowded apartment I’ve taken to calling our Pink Palace. This was followed by a plunge into a sprawling open-air bazaar (see Travis Beck’s pix right and below and Patrick Breen’s fabulous goat head pix at the bottom of this post), visits to an ill-maintained cathedral-like mosque and a discreet Mormon church, and finally dinner with some really intriguing folks. All this in under 20 hours.

The beginning was anything but auspicious. Shortly after midnight, we all got off a wonderful Lufthansa flight where crisp, cheerful attendants plied us with free wine and spoiled us with us damp towels after surprisingly good meals. (Those efficient Germans have it all over the folks at United). Outside the gate, our hosts met us, bleary-eyed but excited after we’d been in the air or in terminals for over 24 hours straight. (This included a few hours at O’Hare and a couple more in Frankfurt’s airport, which is an overblown Ikea, decorated in bright colors and naked industrial ceilings and equipped with odd little smoking booths). After our endless time “Up in the Air,” we were like kids who badly needed naps but were jumpy from too much sugar.

Then the confusion began. Our hosts – remarkably accommodating and genuinely nice folks who all are Kazakh members of a Mormon church here – didn’t know exactly where our four apartments were. So we set out to find them and the police adventures began. First, our three-car convoy was stopped when we came upon a minor car accident and one of our drivers had to sign papers agreeing to be a witness. Then we were pulled over when another driver made an illegal U turn and was ticketed for it, a 45-minute ordeal. Finally, in two separate groups, we were quizzed on foot outside the apartments and had to produce our documents for curious police who wear really odd up-tilting oversized caps. It all felt very Soviet.

And, ah, the apartments. The first was in a crumbling Soviet-era concrete tower block where the elevator didn’t work, leaving us to walk up nine floors of unlighted steps and broken floor tiles. Thank G-d for flashlights and cell phone lights. A second place was too far away from the others. The final two were decent, though oddly appointed (the Pink Palace, in the “Deluxe” tower, features textured tinted swirls on the ceiling, dotted with little spotlights, and an inner support wall that rises to the ceiling in 10-foot high S curves. Kinda Vegas-y, but we now call it home). It has a wonderful East-facing window that overlooks a hilly stretch of the city.

After shuttling from one apartment to the next in the pre-dawn hours, we decided to change plans. We dumped the idea of four places for the 10 of us – four girls in one, four boys in the other and Bruce and me in one each. Instead, we squeezed into two one-bedroom places. Two of the boys and I share a living room and two of the girls have the bedroom in the Pink Palace. Same for Bruce.

It’s actually worked out fine. As Elizabeth Gamez, Sarah Tenorio and Patrick Breen and I all chatted chummily last night, it occurred to me I’d feel mighty lonely in an apartment by myself. That would be especially true if it was a lot further than just down the hall away from the others. The only downside is we need to be discreet as we stumble around the lone bathroom at shower and bedtime.

Our body clocks are totally screwed up, understandably since we’re 11 hours earlier here than Lincoln. We are literally on the other side of the globe. We got set up in the final apartments shortly before sunrise and some of us managed just about three hours of sleep, if that, before our hosts arrived at noon to take out us on the town. Nonetheless, our visits to the street market and mosque went well. We stopped, too, for lunch in an odd place where they served a deceptively appealing pink lemonade-looking drink that turned out to be an oozy paste made with potatoes. Uck! Pastries were tasty, though.

Dinner was fascinating at the Edom restaurant. Our 10 were matched by 10 or local and expat folks, including a saucy and pleasant BBC reporter, an Uzbek, I think, and her British Al Jazeera stringer hub, a former UNL exchange student and two girlfriends who work for an agency that helps poor kids, a couple Internews gents who work to liberalize media laws here, our driver-translators, a journalism instructor here who hails from Washington state and a few other folks who had some good story-idea advice for us. Talk of politics, disabled-rights activists and the revolution in nearby Kyrgyzstan dominated my end of the very long table.
Some of the folks seemed to like making connections with one another almost as much as with us.

Almaty is exotic, to be sure. In places it resembles photos I’ve seen of Ho Chi Minh City with stretches of odd-looking shack-like houses hemmed in by high sheet-steel fences. In other places, top-flight stores offer pricey designer-name brands but the shops are often garishly lighted with a lot of neon. Signs with racy images of girls pitch perfume and such in English, Russian and Kazakh. The place is an odd admixture of Russian culture (the Russians have dominated here since the early 1900s at least) and American influences, with a touch of local flavor. Internet addresses pop up on billboard ads, showing how small the world is becoming.

Clearly, there is a lot of money here. Fancy new buildings are replacing the tumbling-down Soviet concrete piles that still sprawl three or four stories up on many of the streets. Indeed, a big real-estate bubble here, fueled by easy lending and high oil prices, has gone bust. Our Pink Palace, luxurious by Kazakh standards, isn’t even finished, but people are living in it and renting out places to the likes of us. And the streets are jammed with Mercedes-Benzes, Peugeots and BMWs, along with beaten-up old Soviet cars. We’re told people who can’t afford to buy houses buy status cars instead.

There are lots of trees, lots of Soviet monuments (visionaries gazing into the revolutionary future) and flags marking the recent 65th anniversary of the end of World War II. The war-end celebration, last weekend, was a big deal here, since Kazakhstan contributed lots of soldiers and industrial might to quash the Germans. It also seems to give people a chance to salute the pervasive Soviet influence, which independence has apparently not diminished much. Red Stars and hammer-and-sickle symbols are dotting the city.

The place is heavily Muslim with a dash of Russian Orthodox. Islam here, the Sunni variety, is on the light side, though. When we visited the mosque, the folks there made accommodations for us – Sarah and Elizabeth didn’t have scarves, but they still were let in and allowed to take photographs. First, like everyone we had to go to washing areas in an outbuilding where we were told to use little stalls to wash our ears and tushes, then to another outbuilding where men sat in front of faucets to wash their hands and feet and, if needed, clear their noses. Then we went into the mosque, removed our shoes and were allowed to shoot pictures. Travis Beck and Patrick both shot a fellow outside who complained that they were stealing part of his soul, and then he demanded $10 (which he didn’t get).

Inside, scattered guys prayed. Their style: touching the ears, kneeling, prostrating themselves and then getting up again to repeat the standing, kneeling and prostrating – all that before a giant greenish mural with prayers on it. Overhead, a giant chandelier hung from the high ceiling and the beautiful carpets graced the floor, but otherwise mosques are surprisingly empty places, with no chairs and a curious staircase-structure next to the big mural in the front for the imam to lead group prayers.

On our way back, fortune-tellers spun their tales to individual clients in a wide park-like median strip not far from the big market area. Fascinating place, Almaty. It has the feel of what I imagine New Delhi to be like, with thriving market areas, too many people and cars going every which way. It’ll be a grand spot to spend the next four or five days.

Kazakhstan: The Tale Begins

So today, the adventure begins. We head off to Kazakhstan. E-tickets in hand, bags packed, passports in our secret waistband pouches (designed to never leave our bodies to stave off pickpockets and such). This will be a once-in-a-lifetime trip for eight high-energy journalism students from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, a colleague here and me.

But what a headache getting to this point. First there was that nasty business in Kyrgyzstan. Even though we had read up on the country, listed stories we planned to tell and developed contacts for them, mapped out a detailed travel plan, etc., the folks there decided to go and have a revolution. It’s that “hopey, changey thing,” I guess, since the economy there was in the Dumpster and corruption reigned. Bottom line for us: fascinating stories there, sure, but it’s a no-go on safety grounds.

So, we’re going next door. We’ll pop in on a country akin in size to Western Europe, a place of forbidding desolation on the steppe and remarkable beauty, in places such as the Red Canyon of the Charyn River. Ah, doesn’t that sound like something out of a fantasy! Just check out the image of Lake Kaindy on the top of this post. Much of the country, in fact, sounds like something out of “Lord of the Rings.” One imagines traveling the countryside like Hobbits on a crucial mission. Certainly, Kazakhstan sounds nothing like the place Sacha Baron Cohen satirized in “Borat,” an image Kazakhs are understandably keen to erase.

We’ve moved fast to get up to the speed on the country. Replicating our Kyrgyzstan research, we’ve reached out to contacts in the last couple weeks, developed tentative story lines and done our best to nail down an itinerary. There will be much to tell: unlike Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan is relatively well-off, enriched by natural resources including oil and uranium. It has modern cities in Almaty, the financial capital hard by China, and in Astana, the political capital, more centrally located. Urban wealth and rural poverty should make for intriguing contrasts.

There’s also a ton of history there that influences the place today. As a longtime Soviet Union member, until independence in the early 1990s, the place was a favorite dumping ground for Stalin. The remnants of Gulags endure not far from Astana and Russian survivors of the exile camps and their descendants still live in the area. A bit further from Astana is Semey, a place where the Russians tested nuclear weapons, leaving a population that to this day exhibits the genetic problems and deformities spawned by radioactive contamination. It’s the reason Kazakhstan has renounced nuclear weapons, selling its uranium for peaceful uses, it says.

Politically, the country is run by a former Soviet Kazakh leader who remains remarkably popular. Nursultan Nazarbayev, we’re told, has brought economic stability and a general level of comfort that has some folks calling Almaty the Singapore of Central Asia. While not as free a place as many countries in the West – with restrictions on the press and little political debate– it is nonetheless a thriving state-directed capitalist economy that seems to do right by most of its citizens. It has a stock exchange that I’m hoping to visit in Almaty and its capital, Astana, rose Brasilia-like by design at the instigation of the national leader.

Religiously, it sounds like a fascinating place, too. As far as I can tell, the people follow a modernized version of Islam. We intend to visit Saudi-funded mosques to test this theory. I suspect the radicalism that infects other stans, notably Uzbekistan, is missing from Kazakhstan. It sounds something like Turkey.

We’re not as well-prepared as I’d like to be, though, given the short prep time we’ve had, we’re better off than we might be. We have apartments reserved in Almaty, have made contacts there and in other cities we intend to visit and have a general itinerary. But we will make a lot of decisions on the fly, based on the guidance of folks we meet. Essentially, we will ask where the most intriguing stories are and pursue them. This will be a journalism of discovery.

My colleague, Bruce Thorson, is nonplussed by the lack of a detailed roadmap. His experience in South Africa and Kosovo, on prior reporting trips, involved thorough preparation and then the need to toss it all out once on the ground. As in wars, battle plans prove useless once the fracas begins. We’ll meet folks in Almaty and Astana, he says, who will lead us where the news is. And, indeed, we both have reached out to a good number of folks who are amenable to helping.

So, unless the volcano in Iceland gets in the way – a lingering cloud, ahem, on our route through Germany — we’re off shortly to Omaha, Chicago, Frankfurt and Almaty. We leave in the early afternoon today and arrive a bit after midnight Almaty time on Wednesday. United and Lufthansa will carry us literally half-way round the world from Nebraska. Should be a great ride.

Quotron, E.F. Hutton and the Future of Newsweek


[another piece from the Tabb Forum series:]

For folks in finance, change is nothing new. They’ve long watched technology race ahead and markets shift, long been subject to tectonic changes that left stock exchanges and investment banks to adjust or die. Their world is littered with such relics as stock-quote tapes and Quotron devices, along with fading memories of once-titanic names (remember E.F. Hutton and Paine Webber). Wall Streeters have learned to roll with the punches.

But for those in the media business, change is surprisingly difficult. Newspapers, magazines and even TV networks become “venerable” after a few decades, and they are thought to be immortal, at least by others in the biz. Most of the scribblers who people the offices of the leading media outfits believed – until recently at least – that their institutions would far outlast them. Storied names, such as Newsweek or BusinessWeek, would never go away.

As the Washington Post Co.’s move to put Newsweek on the block shows, however, nothing in any business really lasts forever. Creative destruction is the way of capitalism, whether on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange or in the offices of a weekly news magazine. Newsweek has been eclipsed by the Net, just as the historic role of specialists has been made all but irrelevant by electronic trading. The weekly could easily go the way of Life and Look magazines, pubs done in by TV and the popularization of cameras.

Will Newsweek survive under a new owner? Maybe. Surely, some wealthy character eager to burnish his or her global rep will snap it up for the power and influence it still commands – at least for now. It will likely become a plaything for some mogul, perhaps a Chinese or Middle Eastern potentate, who wants the access to political leaders the media still brings. Almost surely, it will have to be someone who doesn’t mind losing a lot of money on the mag as a tradeoff for the benefits that come along with a big media property.

But will the product be the same? And will it endure? Certainly, a new owner would make a mark on the magazine, for good or ill. In Newsweek’s case I fear that it will be for ill, since the folks there now have a pretty good idea of how to produce a quality newsweekly. Adding to what they already do well – or, more likely, cutting – could be problematic. The people there now are pros and tinkering with their approaches seems doomed to come to grief.

Of course, it all depends on the owner. Bloomberg bought BusinessWeek last fall and, so far, has managed to make some notable improvements. The editors, by reaching into BW’s past and adding some nifty contemporary touches, are turning out a product that boasts of lots of promise again. It’s a far better book than the thin glossies that have marked the last few years. Editorially, Bloomberg’s market-savvy journalists add value, and the parent’s financial backing may just see the pub through until advertisers want in again. However, it’s an open question whether BW’s cachet and exposure to 4.5 million readers – taking the Bloomberg name to more places than the outfit reaches through its 300,000 terminals – will need to be underwritten forever.

Newsweek is a tougher case. So many news organizations are so hard-pressed that it’s tough to see which could be a natural buyer. The synergy issue is crucial. And non-news owners – the moguls – may tire of their toy quickly, especially if they add no real value. Worse, its readership could fast erode, as the Net’s inexorable march proceeds. Yes, the staff will produce versions for the iPad, Kindle or Nook that readers can buy. But will the public want the book even then? While BW does add value for a specialized audience – folks in the capital markets can attest to that – Newsweek by definition serves a broad audience. The mass market seems far less interested in its kind of journalism anymore. Instead, it prizes immediacy and multi-media approaches.

In the end, imagination and technology will dictate the future for people in finance and media alike. The adjustment can be brutal – just ask the scores of talented people BW and Newsweek have lost in the last couple years. Or ask all those bright folks who once populated the mighty investment banks that no longer stride the earth, gone the way of the dinosaurs. Standing outside the process, it becomes clear that the public is better served after the system’s creative destruction has reshaped things. But, now, in the middle of it, it’s hard to see little but rough road ahead for a while. To the good folks of Newsweek, godspeed.