On December 1st 2011 in Almaty, Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev ceremoniously rang a golden bell as the very first subway car pulled out of the station. This occasion marked the official opening of the metro system for public use after 23 years under construction. Spanning two decades and two opposing political eras the world’s youngest metro system is a fusion of Soviet era sensibilities, traces of Kazakh nomadic culture and the ambitions of an emerging, global, urban centre.
Almaty is Kazakhstan’s biggest city and an important cultural hub in Central Asia. Situated in between the 4000 meter tall snow-capped Tian Shian mountain range and the desert steppe; the city boasts a population of 1.5 million from over 130 different ethnic groups. Kazakhstanis are citizens of the country while Kazakhs are the descendants of several Turkic Central Asian nomadic tribes. The majority of the population of the country is Muslim with a large minority belonging to the Russian Orthodox religion. Traditional shamanism, Sufi mysticism and ancestor worship and figure symbolically in the cultural heritage.
Despite the great disparity of economic means that exist in Kazakhstan today evidence of the country’s emerging oil wealth is visible all over Almaty where young Kazakhstanis with an eye for luxury, enjoy afternoon lattes on café patios, shopping promenades, yoga classes and sushi dinners. During the Soviet era it was declared that every city in the union with a population exceeding one million would have a metro system built. However, as was the case with many promises made at that time, only one metro system in the Imperium was completed: Moscow. Construction on Almaty’s subway system commenced in 1988.
Kazakhstan announced its independence in 1991 and it wasn’t until 2006 when a significant injection of government funding jump-started the building and design process of the metro once more. Today the system includes seven operating stations that run along one line at a distance of 8.5 km. Plans are in the works for an additional two lines, the first of which is scheduled for completion in 2017. The final plan is for a 43 km long system with construction costs estimated at 1 billion Kazakhstani Tenge.
Personnel clad in military style uniforms reminiscent of the Soviet era keep a watchful eye over station platforms assisted by brand new Siemens security cameras. Hyundai produced the trains and escalators while the air ventilation system and the tunnel-boring machine used in the construction process came from Germany. Decorative reliefs portraying astrological star configurations used by the region’s nomads as navigational maps for caravans welcome visitors to the central station platform. Kazakhstan’s identity, a complex mix of traditional nomadic heritage, Soviet era infrastructure and the country’s capitalist contemporary reality blend together in a unique kaleidoscope of history, politics and aesthetics on the subway platforms.
Every station is dedicated to Kazakhstan’s history and culture. Almali Station is named for the local apples from which the city takes its name (alma means apple in Turkic). In a continuation of the Soviet era spirit where monuments celebrating nationhood were popular, chandeliers illuminate platforms and expensive natural materials dominate.
The Silk Route Station is the central hub of the system, designed in commemoration of nomadic caravan culture and the famous trade trail. Deciphering the references to Kazakh tradition on the walls, floors and ceilings of the station is like taking a walk through a thousand years of history. Every image is connected to an infinite web of stories.
The floor is a mosaic cut from natural stone referencing local textile design while the overarching linear patterns along the ceiling reference the beams that make up the primary support structure of a traditional yurt.
Tolegen Abilda, a Kazakh architect with piercing clear blue eyes sits at his desk in a Soviet era office building. From behind the window two pigeons softly coo as he quietly flips through the pages of an album about the yurt, a traditional tent made out of camel felt and used historically by the Kazakh people in the steppe. He searches for an illustration to better explain the design process he utilized for the Silk Route Station. He stops at one photograph depicting an impressive dome-shaped interior where a multitude of thin beams each crossing the next in a rhythmic pattern provide the support structure. Around this frame the entirety of the space is covered with thick hand woven textiles, rich with detailed alternating geometric patterns in a rainbow of primary colors.
‘Because of the wide open spaces of the steppe this is where all of our tradition, all of our culture was concentrated. The yurt was like our own little cosmos. This is why the Kazakh people made the interiors so beautiful, so rich. The spirit of the nomad is in our blood and we want to show the richness of our culture in the design of our metro.’
The shanyrak, a circular opening ring in the center of the ceiling of the yurt responsible for upholding the entire structure also used for the ventilation of fire smoke and for star gazing at night is another important symbol used in the design of the metro. Representing home, hearth and family as well as a connection between the inner world and the heavens, the human realm and the realm of the spirits.
‘We say, the shanyrak is our foundation in the sky. We wish each other to have a strong shanyrak, a high shanyrak, to always be under the same shanyrak,’ says Abilda.
Gaziz Yeshkenov is an interior designer of mosques and the art director of the metro responsible for the creation of eleven large-scale installations in tile mosaic, Tiffany stained glass and ceramic relief displayed throughout the system. His reliefs are on display in Silk Route station telling a detailed story of the Kazakh people’s history. ‘The shanyrak is a symbol of home and of family in Kazakh culture,’ he says.
Yeshkenov employs depictions of the camel, an important animal used in the region for transportation, wool and food, the Bairkuchi who hunt with trained Golden eagles on horseback in the winter, the Bekashar traditional Kazakh bridal unveiling ceremony, the Kobyz instrument, Turkish inscriptions, holy trees and other shamanic symbols.
On account of how prominently ceramic figured in archeological digs throughout the region Yeshkenov chose the material to work in in order to further assist in narrating the story of the Kazakh people.
At Baikanour station shining surfaces executed in neon blue and white aluminum replace the neo-classical stone, ceramic and marble. Waiting passengers watch a flickering projection at one end of the platform as if in some alternative gallery space showing archival footage of a rocket launch from Baikanour Cosmodrome and scenes of the Kazakh astronaut Talgat Mussabayer floating within the ship’s interior. A compromise between the young female architect Akzheleng Bassen’s vision and a tendency to favor Soviet classicism among the governing authorities responsible for approving the project design, Baikanour is the most modern of the seven stations.
The city of Almaty lays on an incline at the foot of the Tian Shian mountain range. Since the main metro tunnel runs horizontally, in a near straight line beneath the slanting city above, stations get deeper and deeper as the line moves south. Abai station is one of the deepest metro stations ever built, submerged beneath street level at over 80 meters. Vertigo-inducing, long and steep escalators facilitate entry and exit from such depths.
The depth of the structure of the metro, the frequent use of double columns in the support structure as well as the design of the exit and entrances all take into account the possibility of the earthquakes the region is prone to. In Almaly station, a back-lit stained glass installation was designed to simulate a window generating day light in order to make the experience of being underground more comfortable for passengers.
A fear of being underground during an earthquake may be one of the reasons why the Almaty metro is still relatively quiet. However, a more likely reason is the fact that it is a small communication solution for a big city. The young system also faces steep competition from the abundance and efficiency of Almaty’s unique gypsy cab system. One has only to stand on the street for a maximum of three minutes for a private car to pull over. Some of the drivers are looking for a fare, some are just headed in the same direction and for a small fee will drop a passenger off along their route.
To a visitor this system may appear dangerous but it is used without concern during all hours of the day by both genders and all ages. What will definitely strike any passenger accustomed to riding the subways of New York, London or Tokyo is the complete lack of advertisements. ‘We have designated space where eventually advertisements will be placed. But this space will be very limited so as not to disturb the design of the stations. We want to give the passengers a peaceful experience when they travel,’ says Aygul Yeshmagambetova the metro’s Press Secretary.
It may be the youngest subway system in the world but could it already be one of the wisest?
Photographer: Gabriela Maj