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Surviving the Winter in Almaty

In this article series, our local reporter Anvar puts a humorous spin on his musings and views on the daily lives of expats and locals in Kazakhstan's former capital Almaty (and beyond).

At the end of every winter, we in Almaty get so tired of it that we very much hope it will never happen to us again. It is sort of a wishful thinking. As you know, if you really hope for something to not happen, you eventually start believing it will not. That may be one of the reasons why Almaty is not particularly well-equipped to effectively manage winter conditions in a safe way. Please do not let your wishful thinking fool you into believing that the winter is not going to be back, because it surely will. In this article, I will try to share some useful information about how to survive the winter in Almaty with dignity.

Looming Dangers

I have tried to break the winter-related dangers down into categories in accordance with regular health and safety procedure. Basically there are two main root causes of winter injuries in Almaty. It is either you doing something stupid, or somebody else doing something stupid. Of course there are low temperatures, shorter days, heavily polluted air, seasonal depression, and other unexpected pleasures, but let’s admit it – what doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger, or…injured.

From Below

First thing to watch out for is slippery ice. The acute continental climate means that weather conditions change dramatically over a short period of time, and most of the time it is either too hot or too cold in Almaty. You know we have this skating rink up in the mountains called Medeu, which is one of the few high–altitude skating rinks in the world. Well, actually all of Almaty is like a big skating rink during winter. The snow melts during the day, turning into water, only to freeze at night and turn into ice. The problem is that we cannot take advantage of this benefit because we do not normally use skates to move around the city. So make sure you get proper shoes and acquire good falling skills just in case.

For a person who first arrives in Almaty during winter, it may seem that we like dirt here. You see these trucks on the streets throwing out tons of dirt around. Well, actually that is not dirt. It is crushed rock and salt used to fight ice on the roads.

From Above

Secondly, be careful of things that are hanging from above. There have been instances of tree branches falling down on people, severely injuring them. This may happen after a particularly heavy snow fall, especially after one that starts as rain, as wet tree branches tend to accumulate a lot of snow, causing them to break off. You definitely don’t want to take a walk around Almaty during or right after the wet snow, unless of course you want to test your skull’s ability to withstand severe mechanical impact.

Whenever you are about to walk past a building with icicles hanging from its roof, make sure that water is not dripping from them. Because if it does, it means they are melting and ready to fall. Naturally, they tend to fall just as you walk beneath them. Actually, regardless of how scary icicles might look, the real danger is the heavier ice that slides off the roof in large quantities. Most of the time you want to stay away from narrow sidewalks adjacent to buildings that expose you to ice falling from the roof.

Coming to Terms with Winter in a Few Easy Steps

Now let’s talk about slow dangers such as smog and low temperatures. Almaty is located in a depression right next to the mountains. Therefore, there is not much wind blowing through the city. Naturally, the pollution produced by traffic, power plants, businesses, and households accompanies us throughout the winter. But don’t worry. The smell of burnt coal is only annoying for a while. You will get used to it very quickly. Just say no to outdoors activities in the city, because with all the smog and smoke they quickly turn from attributes of healthy lifestyle to health hazards. Of course, if you go to the mountains to hike, ski, or skate in Medeu, then it’s all pleasure and no foul.

As far as the temperature is concerned, an interesting thing about Almaty is that the lower the temperature, the warmer it feels in the winter. For example, a nice and dry –20°C is much more pleasant than a humid -10°C. This has to do with relative humidity. Higher temperatures generate more humidity. It is like getting out of the outdoors swimming pool in the windy area and not being able to find your towel. Pollution, humidity and low temperature combined may easily add up to some nasty problems. So follow the local weather forecast and dress accordingly.

Embrace Scarce Commodities

There are also hidden dangers to watch out for. Lack of sunlight and exercise may cause what I call a winter depression. When you are depressed you start looking gloomy, just like many of the locals you see in the streets. You don’t want to look sad, so try to spend every sunny day during the winter engaging in some fun outdoors activities. Almaty has a lot to offer actually. Chimbulak, Akbulak, and Tabagan sky resorts are all located within a short distance from Almaty. There are some skating rinks in Almaty, including Medeu, which is easily accessible by public transport. Unfortunately, there are less cross-country skiing opportunities due to poor urban planning practices resulting in more and more pieces of beautiful green public land in and around Almaty being privatized and used for residential construction, but that is a different topic.

Embrace Local Wisdom

Since we in Almaty cannot grow vegetables and fruits easily during winter, selection is limited to expensive imported stuff. You have to make sure you make healthier eating choices, because no matter how super nature friendly healthy veggie guru you are, to stay warm during our acute continental winter, you have to eat meat, fat, and sugar. Depending on the place you come from, you might not be familiar with the culture of eating hot soups. Our winter will change that. Soon you will be addicted to anything that is liquid, fatty, salty, and hot. There are plenty of all kinds of restaurants, cafes, and coffee houses in Almaty. The largest chain of soviet-style cafeterias called Kaganat offers decent food at reasonable prices.

No Middle Ground

Now, when you feel you are fully prepared to meet all winter challenges in Almaty, I would like to add a bit of sobering realism to your expectations. There is one important thing about the winter in Almaty which every foreigner needs to be aware of. No matter how hard you try to catch up to the weather, your clothing choice will be unsuitable. Accept that. You will either put on clothes that make you sweat or you will underestimate the weather and wear light clothing that will make you freeze. In the morning and at night temperatures fall dramatically, while significantly rising during the day. Go ahead and try to predict it. Of course, you can wear shorts underneath your polar coat, but in my view this is something you must simply accept.

No Middle Setting

You probably love showers. Well, who doesn’t? Depending on what district in Almaty you live in, you have to keep the hot water flowing out of your tap for hours until it gets warm during winter mornings. Conversely, in some districts the hot water coming out of the tap in the winter is practically boiling, so be careful. Almaty, as most Soviet cities, has a centralized heating system that pumps hot water through radiators in your apartment. Again, radiators will either be faintly warm or too hot. Try to consider that when choosing your apartment.

Stay Positive, Stay Realistic

In conclusion, most of the people coming to Kazakhstan for the first time during winter look like they are about to embark on an expedition to the North Pole. Come on! How long are you planning to spend outside anyway? Do not overestimate the weaknesses of Almaty and underestimate its charm. In the end of the day, it is all about your attitude. See it for yourself.


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