Culture Crash in Kazakhstan

By Warren Brown
Sunday, November 12, 2006

ALMATY, Kazakhstan

"Alma" means apple in the Kazakh language. That being the case, it's fair to call this city Kazakhstan's "big apple."

With 1.2 million people, it is the largest urban area in the nation. But its population is only a fraction of that of America's "big apple," New York City.

Nonetheless, when it comes to automobile traffic, this big apple has a much bigger problem than does New York City.

That problem in Almaty, the country's former capital, is three-fold, beginning with tailpipe pollution.

After only a day here, I developed one of the worst headaches I've had in years. Had it not been for a huge packet of painkillers I carried with me, I think I would've been rendered completely immobile.

I complained to a hostess at the Intercontinental Hotel. She smiled and suggested that it was "the air." But in time, she said, I'd get used to it.

I didn't stay long enough in Almaty to determine the accuracy of her assessment. But it was clear -- and I use the term "clear" advisedly -- that my headache stemmed from the clouds of untreated tailpipe emissions billowing from the aging Lada, Moskvich and Fiat cars plowing Almaty's roadways.

I do not say this to give credence to Sacha Baron Cohen's "Borat" movie, which is all the rage in the United States but is viewed with opprobrium here. I join the Kazakh people in their repudiation of the "Borat" film, which is as repugnantly stereotypical to them as America's "Amos 'n Andy" was to me.

But there is no ignoring the problem with tailpipe pollution in this city. Many of the older cars seem held together with baling wire. If they have emissions-control systems, they aren't working. By noon, the city is enveloped in a translucent haze. Local environmental officials estimate that 70 percent of Almaty's air pollution comes from the tailpipes of poorly maintained cars -- a situation further aggravated by dirty fuel, or by gasoline and diesel that have been chemically altered to increase fuel volume and profit.

The flip-side is that, thanks to Kazakhstan's huge supply of oil, gas and mineral resources, the city is getting richer, though that wealth is not reflected in Kazakhstan's steppes and in other outlying areas, where poverty rules the day.

But in Almaty, the new money is reflected in a surge of high-end automobiles and sport-utility vehicles, such as BMW 5-Series and 7-Series cars, huge Mercedes-Benz S-Class sedans, and Land Rover Range Rover models, which almost always seem to be painted black with deeply tinted windows -- front and rear.


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