As the propless crow flies there are just two stops on the jet air route between the Borough of Queens in the State of New York and Alma-Ata, the winter sports city in the Central Asian Republic of Kazakhstan in the Soviet Union, 237 miles from the Chinese border.
On paper, and I presume on the ground, Queens and Kazakhstan are just 7,529 miles apart, a distance which the new U.S. jets and the three-year-old Russian Tupolevs, whose routes link in Paris, can chew up in less than 15 hours. On a recent Sunday night, instead of an evening at home with Sullivan, my wife and I decided to spend an evening abroad with Pan American; and grasping the coattails of a brisk following wind we flew off to Paris in six hours and 34 minutes. There on the following day we were to board the Russian jet which flies from Paris to Moscow twice a week, covering the 1,540 miles in about three and a half hours.
Arriving at Le Bourget Field, we discovered that the Tupolev was in Brussels. Thoughtfully, the Russians handed out tickets on the Belgian airline so we could fly up to meet it. It was our first encounter with the Tupolev which, we came to learn, is possessed of a somewhat Callasesque temperament, frequently delivering a dazzling performance, but highly independent, not always considerate of the paying customers and, like all divas, ultrasensitive to the weather.
On takeoff the Tupolev emits C above high C, but once in the air it whips along at better than 500 miles an hour, usually at an altitude of 30,000 feet. In the interests of avoiding blackouts, should the pressurization fail, oxygen masks connected to sinister black cables are tucked into the pockets of the seats. To avoid red-outs, the magazine racks are stuffed with enough propaganda to subvert a charter chapter of the D.A.R. During the three and a half hours we flew with the Russians, we learned that Lithuania had been taken over at the request of the Lithuanians to prevent the spread of Western imperialism, and that the reason that American authorities permitted the recent wave of "gruesome" jokes to flourish is that these jokes inspire sadistic, aggressive qualities in future soldiers.
March 23, 1959
We floated to earth in Moscow on a Tuesday evening, and it was agreed to catch the Friday plane for Alma-Ata and spend the weekend deep in the snows of Kazakhstan. Aeroflot's Tupolev departs Moscow for Alma-Ata daily at the handy hour of 5:45 a.m., which requires anyone staying in a downtown Moscow hotel to leave a call for 3 a.m. We were saved from this fate when, on Thursday afternoon, on the eve of our departure, the temperamental Tupolev for Alma-Ata was canceled. We were left with the choice of a 15-hour puddle-jumping flight on an Ilyushin 14—it is, after all, 2,125 miles from Moscow to the capital of Kazakhstan—or else a three-hour flight to Tashkent on the jet route to India and a short connecting flight to Alma-Ata. We chose the jet which, on paper anyway, flies daily to Tashkent at 11:25 in the morning. On the day we chose to take it, however, it chose to leave at 9. There followed thereafter a series of happenstances which I noted in abbreviated form and was later able to smuggle out of Russia under my swollen eyelids.
FRIDAY. Rose to jangle of bells at 6 a.m. Shaved, dressed and waited for breakfast. Telephone rang. Unidentified voice said in English that flight was delayed until noon. Dawn not due until about 10 a.m. Town pretty dead. Read Inside Russia Today. Gunther says "Alma-Ata wants to be St. Moritz." 10:30 a.m. Telephone rang again. Flight delayed until 5:45 a.m. Saturday morning. That night went to bed 6 p.m., set alarm for 3 a.m.
SATURDAY. Alarm rang at 3 a.m. Shaved, dressed. Sleepy waiter appeared with breakfast. 3:30. Phone rang. Flight delayed until noon. Looked out window. Red stars glowing on Kremlin towers. Wondered whether Serov's successor was softening us up. By now am ready to confess to antiparty deviations. Noon. They come for us. Drag us off to airport in black Zim. Put in Tupolev 104. Doors close. I would be as complacent if it were Lubyanka. It sits on field for one hour and a half. Suddenly shoots down runway, taking us to exile in Tashkent in far-off Uzbekistan at 500 miles an hour.
Two things of note happened on our arrival in Central Asia three and a half hours later. It was discovered that five miles up over Mother Russia, Vadim—who had been assigned by Intourist, the Soviet travel bureau, to be our mouthpiece while in the country—had blown an eardrum. Secondly, we were met by Siegfried Dubrofsky, a young fur-hatted Grover Whalen who greets visitors on behalf of the local Intourist agency. Dubrofsky's greeting to us was that a congress of cotton pickers had descended on the town to celebrate their meeting of the year's quota, and in view of our many delays he had been unable to hold our rooms. We retired to the airport restaurant to drown our miseries in a bowl of vodka—I could cheerfully have drowned Dubrofsky—and to see what manner of haute cuisine to shake the very foundations of Escoffier emanates from an Uzbek kitchen in an airport 3,500 miles from Lapérouse.
The setting could hardly be more splendid. The dining room has lavender walls, great crystal chandeliers and those looping satin drapes that hang in the cafés of Vienna. There wasn't a Sachertorte in sight, but the place was jumping with Uzbeks, who sat about the tables in black-and-white skullcaps hovering over giant soup bowls called kasa. A pair of Russians were at the next table. They had been joined by a third, a man equipped with bifokalnie ochky, eyeglasses so thick they seemed to have been cut from the bottom of milk bottles. All three now—I could have sworn they were clothing merchants from West 26th Street-turned around to stare at my wife, doubtless the only American girl for miles around. They were only outdone at this practice by the Uzbeks, who moved in so close that I began passing out cigarettes. They responded by placing their hands over their hearts and bowing slightly, but it hardly deterred them from enjoying the refreshing American view of what one of our interpreters referred to as my "dearest half." Indeed the dearest half was lapping it up, and in view of the tenets of the share-alike society, I began to think of her as the People's Wife.
As for our hotel room, it was clear that some quota-meeting Uzbek had got his cotton-picking hands on our reservations, and there was nothing for Dubrofsky to do but dump us at the airport inn, a cheerless, bathless ramshackle Roto Broil, suffocating with heat.
The only note of cheer the next morning were the blinchiki prepared at the airport's lavender restaurant. The Uzbeks had long since folded their tents, but our three Russians were there—indeed, they had shared our pyre in the airport inn that night—and were now about to fly off with us to Alma-Ata. Our three Russians waved us aboard and then filed in behind us. Presently, Bifokalnie Ochky, whose glasses froze his face in a look of constant surprise, sat down alongside us and cleared his throat. "Khow [as in Khrushchev] are you filling?" he asked. I was, as a matter of fact, filling that I should have stood in Lake Placid. "Twenty years ago I visit United States," he said. "Klivvland, Detroit, Bultemoor." Rummaging through my bag I found a phrase book I had been ready to jettison days before when I discovered that "Look out!" was "Boot-tyeh-us-tah-rawzh-nih!" (By the time you get that out somebody is unconscious.) What with flipping the phrase-book pages and comparing living conditions between Bultemoor and Klivvland 20 years ago, the two-and-three-quarter-hour trip from Tashkent to Alma-Ata went by before you could say "Boot-tyeh-us-tah-rawzh-nih!" Just as Dubrofsky and Vadim had promised, an interpreter was waiting for us at the door of the plane. His name was Anatole and he could interpret very well, in either Russian or French.
RIGHT OFF SCHEDULE
It was Sunday afternoon, just a week after we had set out to spend a jet-propelled weekend at Alma-Ata. After lunch Anatole took us through the city, covered with snow, down an avenue of leafless poplars, with the great white shoulders of the Tien Shan range, the Heavenly Mountains, rising out of the end of the road. Youngsters skated down the highway, and Kazakh farmers sat on low sleighs and were pulled by donkeys. Huge sleds piled high and wide with hay came skimming over the white roads, and boys skidded down hills on runner-and-handlebar contraptions made out of one continuous piece of bent rod. Nearly all the houses in Alma-Ata are painted rose, and the ladies emerged from them and walked to the street corners to fill their pails at the open-air pumps.
Alma-Ata is certainly less than St. Moritz, but it is also much more than a Swiss resort in the mountains. For one thing it has a population of 400,000—mostly Kazakhs, but also Russians, Ukrainians, Uzbeks and Chinese Moslems. It sits astride the old silk route to China, at 2,425 feet, and since 1929 has been the capital of the Kazakh Republic, a vast preserve whose farthest border is 2,800 miles away. The Kazakhs, who resemble Mongolians, used to be largely nomads. They rode camels and horses, made their clothing out of sheepskins and knew nothing of trains, let alone planes, until 1930. Looking around for the most remote place in his dukedom, it was to Alma-Ata that Stalin banished Trotsky after they parted isms.
Alma-Ata (which is pronounced with the accent on the last syllable of both words) means Father of Apples. Aside from an abundance of the McIntosh variety, the metropolis also turns out a quantity of Soviet champagne that is highly regarded on the home grounds, and a number of college graduates, any one of whom is more highly educated than the most quick-witted nomadic Kazakh of old.
Before 1955, Alma-Ata was all but closed to the world. It had no foreign tourists at all. Things changed after the 20th Party Congress, the meeting noted for Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin. In 1956 there were 15 tourists; in 1957 there were 167. Of the 565 who came in 1958, one out of five was from the U.S., the rest from 24 different countries. All of them stayed at the lone, ramshackle hotel, where dark-cloaked figures huddle in the lobby, never removing their hats, and other guests skitter about the corridors and the lobby in striped pajamas, a rig no less fashionable in Soviet hotel circles than gray flannels and a blue blazer at Monte Carlo.
At mealtime the third-floor restaurant fills with a medley of Asiatics, golden Mongols with drooping white mustaches, beige Kazakhs, once nomads in sheep's clothing but now got up in store clothes with party decorations dripping from their lapels. Much of this will be lost to the traveler's view when Intourist opens a new hotel at the end of this year, but at least the traveler's lot here in this Asiatic St. Moritz-to-be will be easier. As things stand, the menu is printed only in Russian, a technicality which required us to order all our meals through Anatole. Once, for dessert, we ended up with two small chocolate bars for which we were later charged $1.50. And a breakfast which Anatole ordered the night before, only after an earnest conference with us, arrived in our rooms at the prescribed hour the next morning; but instead of oranges, toast and coffee it was three bowls of soup.
Most of the tourists come to Alma-Ata in summer, when it is bursting with leafy trees, with plums, apricots, cherries and grapes and when its famed apples hang heavy in the orchards. But in winter it is cloaked in soft powdery snow from early November until the beginning of April. On Sunday afternoons all of almond-eyed Alma-Ata turns out to skate around the frozen track in the city stadium while the loudspeakers moan Italian love songs and the Heavenly Mountains, heavenly white tinted with the maraschino of the late sun, are a massive barrier reef in the sky.
FOR SERIOUS SKATING
Many competitions are held in the downtown outdoor skating rink, which is flooded and frozen, in the Park of Culture and Rest. But serious skating takes place on Alma-Ata's famed rink in the Malo-Almatinsky Gorge, 12 miles out of town. The Committee of Sport of the Council of Ministers of the Kazakh Republic insists it had no orders from Moscow, nor any notions about the 1964 Olympics when the Visokogorny Katok, or high-mountain skating rink, was built back in 1951. The site was picked, they say, because it was handy to the road, the river was just alongside and the mountains protect it from the sun and wind. It proved to be a good pick. Over 50 world records have been set here since opening day and the Russians who got their training here have been world beaters.
Despite the mystery that has grown up about Visokogorny, the rink is merely a piece of flatland of nondescript shape, tucked in a pocket at the 5,400-foot level. It is frozen with mountain water that is pure melted snow and free of all mineral salts. Although I journeyed up to the gorge at different times of the .day I never saw the ice with a snaft of sunlight on it. By all odds it is the best rink in the Soviet Union. Skaters from all over Russia come each winter for a fortnight of competition for the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic Council of Ministers' Prize.
While it has achieved a certain international notoriety, the rink is true to the principles of Soviet utilitarian austerity. Nothing has been done to make the place attractive. There are a few primitive tribunes, usually covered with snow, and one drab shack is the only building near it. Visiting teams stay at the Medeo Rest Center, a sort of combination hotel and nursing home where Soviet workers come to gird themselves against future quota-meeting efforts.
Alma-Ata may be famous abroad for its skating, but the main mass sport of the Kazakh Republic is not skating but skiing. Men and boys ski down the boulevards, along the frozen snow-covered river beds. On the highways they slip around the donkey-pulled sleds and the old-Buick-like Zims like Vespas tormenting an elephant. Downhill and slalom skiing are practiced at Gorelnik, a camp for skiers and Soviet tourists two miles up in the mountains beyond the Visokogorny skating rink. The only way in is by a Gaz 57, the Soviet version of the jeep, named for its factory, the Gorky Automobile Plant.
Led by the redoubtable Anatole we bounced and jostled our way up to Gorelnik one sunlit afternoon and found it steeped in pines, snow and Slavic solitude. Three horseback riders nodded along the rim of a mountain trail. A caretaker chopped wood in front of his cottage. Three cows, brought up to supply the skiers, nibbled on hay strewn in the snow. Up the slopes, in between the great pines, we could see the stanchions of the lone T-bar lift that takes practiced skiers to Chimboulac for the beginning of the giant slalom course. And farther still was the crag of Abai, a peak named for a 19th century Uzbek writer and composer, looking down at us from 13,260 feet.
A new lift being built in Czechoslovakia will add another 500 feet to the present T bar, taking advanced skiers even higher in the Kazakh mountains. But there are nursery slopes too, and 60 tovarishes sent by sports societies come to Gorelnik at a time, for 10 days of ski instruction, rest and mountain air. All accommodations are in dormitories, and afternoon naps are obligatory. Ski boots, poles and skis are all provided by the management, and the bill is not paid by the fledgling skier but by his trade union or sports society that sent him.
IT'S A LONG WAY TO ST. MORITZ
While all of these winter sports showed a formidable activity, Alma-Ata still seemed a long way from becoming St. Moritz √† la russe, and to learn more about future plans I requested a meeting with a member of the local sports committee. The interview was granted immediately, on one day's notice, and we were ushered into a room filled with 21 committee members, four bottles of carbonated apple juice and several piles of Alma-Ata apples.
Each committee member was introduced in turn, and the representative from the Dynamo sports club started a trend by pinning us with emblems of his society. He had no trouble with my lapel, but he came a cropper with the People's Wife who was wearing a fuzzy mohair sweater imported from the shelves of far-off Lord & Taylor. After pinning the seal of the Dynamos to fuzz a few times, the Dynamo man with trembling fingers finally hit enough yarn to secure a successful planting. Flashbulbs popped. He took his seat dripping with perspiration, and I was therefore surprised at the élan of other badge-wielders who followed in order until at last our chests glistened with more enamel than Marshal Zhukov ever wore in his salad days.
The chairman assured us that the Kazakh Republic was very young in the matter of sports, but that under the aegis of Marxist-Lenin dialectic materialism, 32 sports are now being enjoyed by the Kazakh people. By 1965, under the seven-year plan, the Sports Committee of the Council of Ministers of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic fully expects that sports development will, in the near future, be tripled.
Toasting each other in carbonated apple juice we said goodby and were presented as a farewell gift with an enormous quantity of sporting books and pamphlets, all of them printed in Kazakh.
At that, the meeting with the sports committee was only our second most memorable farewell, for that night we were tendered a small reception by the local agency of In-tourist. It was given by the Intourist manager, a diminutive Kazakh named Dgapar Tnaline, who has bronze skin, broad Asiatic features, a quick smile and heart trouble. For an interpreter he had produced, at last, someone who spoke English, a Kazakh beauty named Maya, who only last summer had spent 45 days in England and who, despite these cosmopolitan travels, flushed through her brown skin at the mere mention of girls or boys.
Tnaline was disposed to explain how primitive things were before the October Revolution, and his comment that a man wishing to marry a girl had to give her father 45 horses produced an enormous blush from Maya. All that was over now, he said, and Kazakhs were marrying for love. They had also been liberated from the Moslem rule about liquor. Tnaline first pulled the cork on a bottle of sweet red dessert wine which had won a gold medal in Western Europe. After a gulp of that he opened a bottle of Moscow vodka, poured us a whopping snort of it on top of the wine and said the Kazakh equivalent of here's how. The canapés, which Tnaline assured me were a delicacy—and before the October Revolution were a privilege reserved only to the rich—were two platters of kaze, which is a sort of sausage made of horse meat. On one platter is lean horse meat, and on the other is pure smoked suet derived from specially fed horses.
Kaze is eaten now by 10 million people of Central Asia—Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Kirghiz, Turkmen, Tadzhiks and others. But, despite these impressive statistics, the People's Wife decided she was just a girl who couldn't say neigh. She made a hasty retreat to our quarters, and the next morning we flew off from Alma-Ata dreaming rather longingly of St. Moritz. Not being habitual dreamers we think maybe it was something we ate.
Alma-Ata resort lies deep in central Asia astride historic silk route to China, only 600 miles from Samarkand. North by 1,000 miles from torrid heat of New Delhi, the once-isolated paradise is as close to Peiping as Moscow but is cut off from rest of Orient by towering Tien Shans and Himalayas, on northeast Indian border.