28 6 / 2014

I woke up to the sound of my alarm going off.  My flight is in 4 hours and I do not want to get up.  I went to bed late being used to the local time, so an early morning flight feels like such a drag.  My bags were almost packed and I was just getting myself ready as the dog Toma was shuffling around me, with her tail wiggling enthusiastically.  She got used to me and will probably miss me when I leave.  The feeling was mutual.  My last 2 days were bittersweet as I was saying goodbye to my loved ones and wondering how 2 weeks went by so fast.  Here’s what went down:

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I had an inspiring journey to the Big Almaty lake and to the highest altitude I’ve been to in the last 10 years.  Today my aunt decided to drive myself, her friend and my cousin to Kapchagai, a local lake/swimming resort close to home.  I remember it being shabby, with dirty beaches, and not the cleanest water.  However it was something and a favourite spot for the locals (myself included) who couldn’t afford a trip to places a little further like Thailand or India.  

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Enjoying the sun, I decided to explore the area around me.  Just steps away I noticed a hill and climbed up to discover that the opposite shore is all rock.  In the distance I noticed the sailboats and speed boats zooming through water. Very serene and beautiful view.

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The rocks below me featured striations of colour from green seaweed at the bottom to white, grey and terra cotta brown at the top.

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Easily the highlight of my visit to the lake.  I would have never thought that I would see something like that there.  I climbed the rocks with my cousin and made a trip around our resort peninsula.  It was great to feel the sand on my feet.  Nothing like it gives you a sense of vacation and desire to unwind.

We left in the late afternoon and as we were driving away, I was thinking about my departure.  I already started to miss Canada, but at the same time part of me did not want to leave.  I never regret leaving for Canada, however I will always remember where I came from and the memories of my childhood will always be a constant inspiration (sometimes even a voice of reason) to me.  I will certainly miss my relatives no matter how strange/old-fashioned they sometimes can be.  I will miss their home, their delicious home-made food.  I will miss all the places that I grew up in.  Part of me appreciated that some of them were left unchanged, as it allowed for a more visceral experience.  I will savour those moments as I can honestly say that this trip brought me closer to my early days, allowed me to remember them, analyze them and draw significant conclusions about myself.  Ultimately, the trip changed me and gave me a clearer on perspective on life.

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My grandparents drove me to the airport.  It was 4:30 am and rainy when we arrived, not the best day for leaving I must say.  My dad arrived as well to say see me go.  There was little time to wait around as the customs procedures have started.  No tears were visible as I said I will be back much sooner than they think.  After a few cheerful hugs, I went through the gates…

After an hour or so I was back in the sky, lost in the clouds for the next 14 hours…

Goodbye Kazakhstan,

Or should I say, until next time!

A.

08 6 / 2014

More mountains in this one, as I went higher up to an astronomical research facility about 3,500 meters above the sea level.  At that altitude the vegetation is scarce and rockery starts to dominate the landscape.

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My father drove us far beyond a popular Big Almaty lake. In the morning we found out that there has been a mudslide around the area and the entry to the national park was closed for general public.

Thankfully my father’s friend is the managing director of the park. He took a trip with us and got us through security and showed us the safe route towards the lake.

Our Toyota FJ Cruiser zoomed through the hills picking up speed to overcome even the toughest terrain.  I’m not a car person but that kind of made me want one.

My camera was on non stop, capturing the rolling hills, the crumbling rocks, the soft pine tops of forests, and trickling creeks. Expanding clouds swam through the blue sky, only to quickly dissipate in the distance. WARNING: Mindblowing beauty of nature presented below!

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As we climbed higher, the landscape started to look much more pristine. Soon we saw the buildings of the astronomy research center. The architecture has stayed the same since the Soviet days and had a strong vernacular feel. A lot of buildings were in poor shape however the researchers could still conduct their work there as the location was prime. The temperature at that point was about +11C compared to city’s sizzling +30C.  Embracing the cold, I walked up to the edge of the research camp.  I saw the clouds move past me, literally a few feet away, into a valley between two mountains. What a sight! In the next few minutes the clouds let out the sun and the mountain colours have burst into combination of straw yellow, brown and green. About half a dozen of colourful storage shacks dotting the landscape, lit up like tiny candle lights. The air was impeccably fresh, and I was filling my lungs with it beyond capacity. I picked up some Edelweiss (Leontopodium Alpinum), a flower that is a symbol of alpinism.  It used to be very difficult to acquire the flower because one would have to hike long distances to high altitudes. A German 19th century writer, Berthold Auerbach described that “the possession of one is a symbol of an unusual daring”.  Legend has it that young climbers would climb high into the mountains to pick up that flower for their ladies.

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The wind started to give me chills, and it was time to go, but I so did not want to. I just wanted to start walking into the valley and discover the unknown…

Coming down was just as incredible, swerving around the hills felt like we are being sucked into the depths of the hills, into the trees, into the green.

We stopped by a small village to drink Kumis (horse’s milk)  and have some Shashlik (BBQ meat skewers).

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For the first time in 10 years I began to understand the enormous scale of this mountainous landscape, looking at it with much greater appreciation. We play such a huge role in affecting such large amounts of land, and yet a lot of people take it for granted. I noticed garbage being left behind at the camping sites, with no concern for natural environment.  

How can policy influence people’s attitude towards nature? The induction of nature into mass consumer market, somewhat glorifies it but is it enough? Do we have the right approach?

As a future landscape architect I think about all those things and most importantly stewardship, preservation, and most importantly evolution of those lands would be something I would like to work on. Working with biological systems and thoughtful shaping of nature have recently become a strong research point for me. As the cities grow bigger and encroach upon those precious lands, landscape architecture becomes very potent to start addressing that dichotomy.

The next blog would be the last one in the series documenting my journey.  I went to swim in the lake Kapchagai, a popular local lake near Almaty and stumbled on a colourful rock outcropping.  Stay tuned! :D

19 5 / 2014

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I present to you the view from my window as I was leaving Karaganda to return to Almaty.  This snapshot from my room on a train easily shows the general perception of Kazakh landscape - vast, dry, prairie-like where the sky seems endless.  As the train gained speed I could not stop staring out the window, watching the changing tones of 2 bands of green and blue…   

Returning to Almaty I wanted to go back to the mountains.  They have always pulled me back and I will forever hold them close to my heart.

After arriving in the morning, my grandparents drove me to Lake Issyk. It is located 70 km east of Almaty and is a gem of a lake that looks like a bowl of water surrounded by mountains.  
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I snapped pictures along the way.  I could not get enough of this landscape!

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This rock pile up was fun to stop by and examine.  Rich and expressive colours showed so much diversity, and Lenin’s portrait is so appropriate among these ruins!

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As soon as we arrived, I saw the lake as a beautiful turquoise blanket surrounding the mountain peaks.  My grandma pointed out that when it was fuller it was spectacular and was one of the top tourist spots in the country.  Below is a historic photo from the 50s of when the lake was much fuller.  In 1963 a mudslide came down destroying the lake in just several hours, washing away the resort infrastructure in the area.

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It was beautiful still, especially the serenity of the place.  The tiny rock escarpments were ideal viewing posts, as if deliberately placed to enjoy the surroundings.

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Around the lake I discovered ruins of old hotels and resort houses. Apart from the ruins, the other structures were the lunch huts around the shore.  It was eerie, walking through the foundations and the arched entryways. The arcade like spaces looked wild with grasses and weeds.  The nature has been swallowing architecture slowly with time…

Driving back other views started to open up around me.  Being in the mountains offers you endless vistas, every single one is more dynamic and inspiring than the other!

Can you spot me?

On our way home we stopped by at a family friend’s house for some tea. Very hospitable lady and a good friend of my grandma, has a 2 acre property with her own mini zoo!  Best things about this journey have been the nature, fresh home-made food and good company of friends and family.  Only a couple more posts and that would be the end of the journey that left a tremendously positive impression on me.

I’ll leave you with some pictures of domestic animals roaming around…the two cats are my favourite! :)

20 4 / 2014

My journey through my native land continues.  Soon it will be exactly a year since I’ve been writing these entries.  I would love to dedicate a few days and finish off all my thoughts and lay out all the notes that I have acquired from my trip from last summer but I can’t, so I’m working with whatever time I have.

To recap, I have visited Astana, capital of Kazakhstan in my previous blog entry,  This time I arrived to the city of Karaganda.  It’s located 2 hours South-East from Astana.  A smaller and more humble city, Karaganda, formerly and industrial town, was dominated by the mining industry.  It is strongly expressed through this monument to the miners found in the centre of the city.

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Soviet memorabilia can be found in a form of residential architecture like this:

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and more cultural places like this square with wonderful mozaic mural, depicting miners and other industrial workers.  The working class was really the backbone of former communist superpower and this city espoused that.

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Architecturally there is something but very little the city can be proud about.  This theater was finished recently and adds a bit of newness and nationalistic flair to otherwise a city that is growing dull.  

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Apart from buildings, I loved the monuments of famous Soviet figures and events that showcased resiliency of the people against various adversities.  I noticed a great sculptural integrity about them.  With their forms they evoked an unwavering spirit of victory, optimism and hopeful future.  The monuments are still relevant because of universality of those themes. They still resonate despite the failure of communism, reminding citizens that a hopeful and prosperous future is possible, whatever challenges may lay ahead.

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The newer monuments present themselves as one-dimensional, appearing to favour size and height above all else.  As if that is the only way to represent a blossoming republic with a diverse population and rich history.  I feel like they could be so much more…

Driving through the city and comparing fresh impressions of Astana to Karaganda’s humble districts, made me like this kind of city more than the capital.  According to residents I spoke to, Karaganda evolved organically, by the people and evolving economy.  There is no manicuring or pretense about it, no rushing to some imaginary finish line of glory.  

Like nature the city slowly shifts, grows and ages becoming something deeper and more meaningful to its inhabitants.  

13 4 / 2014

Hidden architectural gems in Toronto parks.

Hidden architectural gems in Toronto parks.

25 3 / 2014

18 3 / 2014

Can we break the cycle of history?

18 2 / 2014

How Wolves Changed Rivers

Awesome video! Proof that everything in Nature is interconnected.  

02 2 / 2014

The optimism of this song inspires me this day! Never lose hope :)

30 1 / 2014

Let’s continue the last part of my trip to Astana.

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I am at the entrance to Norman Foster’s Khan Shatyr.  Seeing the preliminary drawings I was impressed with the structure. Quoting from the firm’s website, “The ETFE membrane and cable roof is very lightweight and thus efficient. The large spans would make for a very heavy structure if it was steel and glass, therefore by hanging the roof from the tripod all the cables are simply in tension, which is a very efficient system for steel.  Because of the cable net’s nature as a tension structure the entire roof is designed to move as wind and snow loads are imposed - the whole structure will thus move - but in fairly small amounts.”

I wont dispute the strength of the roof as it has not collapsed just yet, but I have a feeling it might, based on the low quality construction I’ve seen around the city.  The best part is that diffused natural light floods the space in the interior courtyard.  That, along with dramatic tripod structure creates an impressive scene as one enters the building.

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Curved mezzanine levels snake around the perimeter and host dozens of retail stores and restaurants.  Most of it is fast food like KFC and McDonald’s, though I usually stay away from those.  The mall has mainly superficial Kazakh cultural identity, but mostly it is a good example of western consumerist values as it features all of the foreign brands that you find in any North American store.  

Still I was impressed by the space.  Take out all retail and people, and It would make a good space of tranquility and contemplation something skin to a museum or a gallery.

As I traveled higher up, with every floor the air felt more stuffy.  On the fourth floor of the amusement park it started to feel like you are inside of a greenhouse.  There seemed to be a lack of ventilation and someone told me that the building’s skin was supposed to breathe so the space would not rely on air conditioning.  I refused to believe that a prominent architect like Norman Foster would overlook something as basic as proper air ventilation in his building.  My father’s friend, a local resident, told me that cheap labour and expedited construction might have been a factor.  

Scale of the structure is enormous!  I avoided the stores and focused on admiring the pillars which were holding up the roof.

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Although, I didn’t think that the interior climate would even suit that T-Rex, if he was alive.

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We lunched on some authentic Kazakh cuisine.  Food was delicious but with very bad service.  I did not complain as I was full to continue my tour of the city.

Next we drove to the nearby park with a highway running through it.  I cannot even put those things together in my head!

A gas company headquarters surround the park and one feels completely dwarfed by the scale of the buildings.  It’s always fun to visit the place right after you have seen a scaled down version in the model of the city.  This is how you really get in touch with it, as it affects you mentally and physically.  My experience left me with a surreal, confused feeling of what that park is all about.

Right away the highway going above the park at a slight arc is a shocker to me as it creates such an oppressive threshold which ruins the intimacy and pedestrian feeling that a park should have.  On top of that, it was gross to see cars parked right in the open square of the park near the central fountain.  Probably the best way to destroy a valuable public space is to designate it for cars.  Even the main passageways leading into the central fountain and around the perimeter had abundant parking spaces with cars in every single one of them. 

A mid-sized ring road surrounds the park, with no adequate pedestrian crossings.  One has to cautiously cross the road in order to get to the other side, meandering between the parked cars.  Somehow I imagined the park to have more green elements than metal.

Meandering paths and greenery make it all nice and park-like, but the highway’s presence dwarfs everything and creates a compression effect when you are under it.  I appreciated the shading that it provided from the blazing sun at the time, but I can’t help but ask, seriously? Who designed this?

However I did like the street furniture and planters, there was a vernacular feel about them, like they really do belong there.

Walking through the park I quickly started noticing that the scale of the public spaces is messed up, there is almost too much space on the main boulevards with nowhere to sit, or hide from the sun.  One has to walk a substantial distance to seek refuge, and even there you don’t have a tree to sit under, except for a tiny shrub and flowers.  It feels like the park was planned for cars not for the people.  

Moving along I decided to check out Norman Foster’s Pyramid on the other side of the neighbourhood.  Driving by I noticed this atrocious piece of architecture was actually built!  Reminds me of the 1970’s North American architectural pastiche.

The pyramid or Palace of Peace and Reconciliation is placed right in the center of an expansive park (this one is nicer, with a lot of young trees and beautiful flowers).  The placement of the building is aligned with all the other landmarks like Khan Shatyr and Baiterek.  Walking along the main boulevard to the entrance reminded me of those imperial palaces where architecture is used to suppress and dwarf the peasants and assert the power of the emperor.  I like the idea of the procession, but I think it is over-exaggerated here.  Instead there could be more intimate spaces or domains for people to enjoy.

I did like this landscape idea where the stone paving creates these round mini hills adjacent to each other.  They in turn create wading pools, where kids were jumping and running around playing with water.  

I walked inside. Once again huge lobby, massive spaces and a rather disorienting colour scheme on the ground floor - reflective black tile on the floor and on the walls plus dark ceiling.

The atrium space on the upper floor is designed to flood natural light inside, creating a pleasant gathering space. Hmm, maybe this building is not that bad after all…

Here is an interior garden where 60% of the plant’s are fake (according to the tour guide), dominates the next level.  Spiraling stair walkway leads to the upper chamber where religious leaders gather to talk about pressing religious matters.  I noticed the overall progression from light to dark which I loved, and the green wall that surrounds the garden is super cool!

The top chamber is amazing! It is nothing more than a boardroom, but the mural on the windows, the abstract national flag at the top and the abundance of sunlight made it a truly special place to be in.  The inclining walls and windows covered in flying white doves, obstruct the overall view of the city, so instead you are forced to sit at the table and bath in sunlight with blue and yellow colours all around.  Norman Foster managed to place a mediocre looking building in the city, but he counter-balances it with some of the best architectural spaces I’ve seen. I’m glad I paid a visit.

Walking down to the exit, I spotted some cracks in the interior finishes.  I thought it was odd because the building is only 7 years old, however as I left the building, I noticed these tiles, completely falling apart!  Did the weather affect them? Vandalism? or maybe it is the quality of construction?

We walked on, and nearby I saw a square and a few starchitecture buildings on each side.  Between them and myself - an 8 lane-wide avenue with no crossing in sight…

Due to fairly low amount of traffic, we successfully jaywalked across to see more of this bizarre architecture.  The Presidential Square has a monument to Nazarbayev and a lot of marble went into its construction.  Coming closer I noticed the same bad tile joinery as in the independence hill with the national flag.

The endless sea of granite paving dominates the public space with no seating and a handful of flower pots.  The temperature that day was +40 C, and I feel bad for the elderly visiting this square as they surely will pass out before walking to the other side.

I decided to take a look at the blue round building behind me and found nothing but glass and stone.  A giant ramp wraps the inside of the structure with no sense of pedestrian public space.  It looked like it was still under construction, and I already spotted some damage on the tile work.  Whats going on?

All the examples of poor design that I learned in school, I saw before my eyes.  Is this supposed to be world class architecture as described in the magazines?  It seemed like the neighbourhood was designed to enjoy by observing it from the distance.  Once you come closer you see how it just does not hang together with issues pertaining to scale, craftsmanship and use.  Is this the future of the rest of the city?

The sun was setting and we drove away from it all, to the old parts of Astana and somehow they just seemed more appealing to me…more humanized.  Yes, they are old soviet apartments, extremely utilitarian and familiar.  However, they are still standing and some of them are in better shape than the new buildings.  They have their own problems due to aging but somehow there is no pretense or confusion about what their purpose is.  

I leave Astana with a sense of disappointment, but also with a hopeful prospect that the city will turn around.  It just has a lot of growing up to do…

After dinner we drove to a smaller city called Karaganda.  A miners town that is the opposite of what I’ve seen in Astana.  Should be a very interesting experience!