Deep within the halls of Almaty’s Central State Museum, behind several bombproof doors with wheel locks guarded by fierce Kazakh women, is the so-called Open Collection of golden adornments. These ancient Scythian pieces date from the 8th century BC, and are made of pure gold so finely wrought that the display vitrines contain built-in magnifying glasses to allow tiny carved antelope and fish with turquoise and cornelian eyes to be seen in full detail. Hundreds of tiny ears of grain decorate a collar, a diadem is edged with threads of minutely twisted wire, all the 24-carat gold has a burnished glow. Fabulously beautiful. Otherwise the museum is as you would expect. Ethnographic displays of yurt dwellers and herding folk, models of stelae and petroglyphs, and a huge hall devoted to the life of President Nurbayev.
Almaty is a modern Soviet city; it’s still hot here but is an easy place to walk in – there are grids of leafy streets and lots of fountains, cafes to dawdle in and all kinds of restaurants, and plenty of western designer shops for the Audi and Merc-driving classes to enjoy. There seems to be plenty of money around, except in the northern fringes near the main bus and train stations where we have been today. We’ve seen the cathedral, the mosque and the main market. We’ve taken the cable car up to the high place to see the view, and we’ve taken a ride on the new metro – only a handful of stations, almost rivalling St Petersburg in splendour, work on building the rest of the system now cancelled due to ‘the freezes’ as a subway policeman in a magnificent hat explained to us in pretty good English.
Most striking is the variety of faces. The ethnic mix features Tartars, Mongols, Persians, Koreans, Roma, Caucasian, Chinese and plenty of others, with seemingly no distinctions made between any of us.