Laughing about earthquakes in Almaty

Laughing about earthquakes in Almaty

If you haven’t visited, I’m not sure what image you have of Kazakhstan. But I find my colleagues are thoughtful and open. Several people have asked me about the storms in Oklahoma, and how the 2008 worldwide economic krizis is affecting Americans back home.

We had a strong storm blow through last week (dark clouds, tiny hail) and I started asking about natural disasters here. The consensus seems to be that it sometimes hails, but rarely. Tornadoes are unlikely, given weather patterns. Strong winds can cause damage, and winter cold causes suffering. In the past, a severe winter freeze (djut) could starve the livestock and their owners, but few people are so dependent on livestock now.

“But in general,” one young man told me, “Kazakhs picked a good zher (land) on which to live!”

Down in the country’s former capital, it’s a less certain story. I’ve spent three summers in the city of Almaty, surrounded by a million people and the seismologically-active Tien Shan mountains. And I must admit, I’m always aware of the geology when I visit Almaty. Will it happen, or won’t it?

On my first visit, I learned about the big 1887 earthquake, back when the city was called Verny. This Russian article has striking old photos, and describes structures as quite damaged. Among a population of 30,000, 800 people died:


So I had all this in mind one afternoon last July, as I attended classes in Almaty. Since I’m on the subject, I’ll relate the story now:

Conversations on Earthquakes

July, 2012. Almaty. Today I get to school late, dripping sweat and clutching my backpack, only to find our teacher delayed. My classmate, Laney, is calmly sitting under a tacked-up plywood balcony of café tables, but becomes increasingly angry as she reads blog posts about gun control in America.

Just as we begin an engaging discussion of the merits of the U.S. constitution vs. protecting citizens from rogue killers, loud sirens go off. In Russian, then Kazakh, then English, our building warns us: Nazar audarynyz! Pay attention. Earthquake is coming. Please leave the building and go to the emergency meeting space.

Laney and I look at each other in disbelief. Three trendy Kazakh youth with milky lattes merely smile from a nearby table. We slowly gather our bags. Our teacher, Aryslan, shows up and looks over at us from the line at the coffee bar. The barista smiles, too.

After Aryslan orders, we three walk out to the balcony, coffees in hand, not sure what’s going on. Time elapsed: 5 minutes. They can really predict earthquakes and notify us like that? I’m thinking. Sweet!

But when we get to the red-framed glass doors, a student tells us it was just a practice.

On the paths below, we see forty Korean exchange students dutifully trooping to the campus “meeting spot,” in a thicket of trees.

“Trees?” I ask Laney. “Should your meet-up point during an earthquake be in a miniature forest?”

She shakes her head. Aryslan reminds us to speak Kazakh, and comments that we’re standing on a flimsy concrete set of stairs–the worst place to stand in the whole building. We pause and watch as orange-vested men conduct an emergency training, then wander back to our classroom.

Wardrobe Protection

At lunch, we run into Mike*, a red-faced NGO worker who helps Kazakh kids apply to American high schools and universities. “They all want to go to Harvard,” he laughs, but says he steers them toward places like Harvard, Ohio State, and Columbus State, depending on their preparation and income level.

Mike also rolls his eyes about the sirens.

“They can’t predict those things,” he says. He felt one in May, he tells us, woke up at 3:30 in the morning, felt it, yes, and went back to sleep.

“I watched water move by my bedside,” Laney shrugs. Almaty survival skills at work. She says that her friend felt strong tremors as her high-rise building swayed at night; the girl leaped out of bed and pressed her hands against the wall, instinctively trying to hold it up.

“What you have to do is stand by a shkaf,” Laney tell us, referring to the heavy tall wardrobes in every post-Soviet house.

“A shkaf?” Mike says, surprised. “But those things fall over!”


She shakes her head. “Just huddle down by the side, and things will fall down around you.”

He gives her a withering look. “I have this big shkaf in my apartment,” he says, comparing its width and height to the wide double doors in the campus café. “And if that thing fell on me…”

Laney crouches to the left of the doors to demonstrate.

“No, no! You go to the narrow side, not the front, and tuck yourself into the corner. Then if there’s an emergency, stuff will fall around you, and hopefully not on you.”

“Anyway, these buildings aren’t very good,” our teacher comments. “The new ones, they’re poorly constructed. The old Soviet ones were safer.”

A common sentiment, but then people say everything was better under the Soviets, perhaps how everything was better in the 1950s for us. Or perhaps it really was better before a massive and cruel economic collapse.

“And even if a shkaf doesn’t fall on you,” Mike adds, “it probably doesn’t help if the whole building falls down.”

Evening Notices

I spend the afternoon writing, and get home to my host mother, watching the sky as it darkens and boys play throw-ball outside in the nearby park.

“It was on the news, the practice alarm,” my host mom says, serving tea and sweet cakes, “and they sent an SMS so that we wouldn’t be scared.”

She thinks the government is concerned because of the small tremors a few months ago, when some people huddled outside all night for fear of their buildings.

“In the last century,” host mom tells me, “when the city was called Verniy, there was a big earthquake. It killed many people. And it split the ground open, like this –” she pauses, drawing a gaping, jagged line with her fingers. Her finger trace a ‘fault scarp’ on the table, where the jarring of an earthquake becomes visible on the surface. “I saw it in the old pictures.”


Well. Ten years ago, when I visited Almaty for the first time, my hosts told me that the “hundred year earthquake” was due any time. The best of seismologists are monitoring and testing. Almaty residents wait out the sometimes-flutters beneath their feet. But this is – no human is ever sure when good or bad will arrive. Tomorrow? Or in a thousand years? And so – God protect us all – even in Astana where it’s ‘safe,’ we think of Almaty, and we’re waiting with them.

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