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Skating for health in Alma Ata

Kazachstan is known for three things: health, skating and Borat. In this story I will elaborate on these three topics and make some connections.

October, 15-16th, 2008 I attended a big conference in Kazachstan that was held to celebrate the 30th Anniversary of Alma-Ata Declaration on Primary Health Care. That 1978 event was the first to put health equity on the international political agenda. The aim of the conference in 2008  was to discuss the current problems after 30 years of experience in implementing primary health care. An important topic as the WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan said at the launch of the new World Health Report: “A world that is greatly out of balance in matters of health is neither stable nor secure.” And in 2008 we are out of balance with three crises that seriously affect the health of people just this year: food, fuel and financial. Of course poor countries are hit worse as always, but this time also rich countries were affected. I became personally sick because of high food and petrol prices, the collapse of my stocks and my habit to eat Chinese food every week that appeared to be contaminated with melamine.

Therefore time to do something different and forget about my misery. Except for the conference – which was very interesting and hard work – I had one other important mission. In 1978 it was not just primary health care that made Alma Ata world famous, but also the Medeo (Dutch) or Medeu (English) outdoor speed skating rink. Especially in the Netherlands ice skating is very popular and in the 1970s and 1980s I spent many hours watching Hilbert van der Duim, Hein Vergeer and Piet Kleine. Medeo has seen many world records in all the speed skating distances from 1951 through the 1980s: 500 m, 1000 m, 1500 m, 3000 m, 5000 m and the 10000 m. In 1974 Dutch Atje Keulen Deelstra became European Champion in Alma Ata. The last great championship event on this ice rink was held in 1988 -- the Men's World Speed Skating Championship -- which was won by the American skater Eric Flaim. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the costs to uphold the arena as a top speed skating rink have proved too high for the independent Republic of Kazakhstan and indoor skating rinks proved to be faster than Medeo. But Medeo was still in my mind, so I bought a bigger suitcase and I packed my skates together with my suit to grasp this chance to see this historic place. Perhaps I could even skate a world record myself.

I arrived in Alma Ata at 5.10 in the morning and was welcomed by a lady from the National Center of Expertise of Medicines. She brought us to the Hotel Kazachstan, located in the centre of Almaty as the place is called now (The name "Almaty" derives from the Kazakh word for "apple", and thus is often translated as a city "rich with apples". The older Soviet-era Russian version of its name, Alma-Ata, originates from a mistake (the name literally means "Grandfather of apples"). At 7a.m. it was actually 3 in the night in the Netherlands, so I took a nap before having a whole afternoon to skate….

At 10.30 a.m. I woke up and took my skates. In the hotel was a small travel agency where three people were sitting. There were only excursions to the mountains in the weekend so it was completely unclear why they were open. They also could not mention any interesting place to visit in this rather grey town of Almaty. And they also did not know much about Medeo or even where it was located and only after some discussion we managed to find out where it was. On the other hand, one lady was very helpful and showed me the busstop from where a bus (number 6) went directly to the skating rink.

I took my skates and after some 20 minutes the bus arrived. It was an old bus where an old man was sitting in the middle of the corridor on a very small chair. He collected the fare during the trip. In the back seat were 6 Kazach young men, rather poorly dressed, looking at me. We first drove some 15 minutes in the city, but quickly reached the outskirts and started to climb the mountain. Medeo is located in a mountain valley (Medeu Valley, or the valley of Malaya Alma-Atinka River) on the south-eastern outskirts of Almaty, Kazakhstan. But as it sits 1,691 metres above sea level the old bus had serious difficulties and the climb went slowly.

The final stop was indeed at the skating rink. It was impressive with a beautiful mountain scenery and in fact the stadium itself looked still quite modern.
But what a disappointment, It appeared to be closed. They are planning to renovate it for the Asian Olympic Games of 2011. I could not skate and realised that the people in the bus must have been amused to see a stupid Dutch guy sitting there with his skates when it was still 20 degrees outside. I tried to make some pictures, but for one reason or another that was not allowed by the guard at the entrance (later that week I returned as the conference excursion also went there and could make all the pictures I missed the first time). I was only allowed to do so when I came back after 6 p.m., but at that time it would be dark and I had to go to the official reception of the conference. I walked a bit further and it appeared that at the back of the stadium it was perfectly possible to look inside as it was more up hill. I took my pictures with the skates in front of me to prove I was there, and to show that Sven Kramer – Dutch and world’s best ice skater at the moment -  was lucky enough to keep his world records as I clearly could not perform on a non frozen skating rink.

I walked back and hired one of the four wheel drive jeeps at the entrance to go to the ski resort even higher on the mountain. The Medeu Dam, built in the late 1960s, stands immediately south of the skating rink, protecting it - and the city of Almaty itself - from potentially devastating mud flows. Viewpoints on top of the dam also provided great views of the stadium and I took more pictures.

The driver of the jeep – a 64 old men – spoke only Russian but with my limited Polish we could understand each other quite well. He told me that Russian President and now prime minister Putin sometimes came here to ski. The president of Kazachstan – Nazarbaev – and his family owned some of the nicest places on the mountain that he could use. In fact another person told us later that it was public secret that all nice buildings in Kazachstan belonged to ‘The Family’. President Nazarbaev is tolerated by the population and elected every 5-6 years, but mainly because there are no opposition candidates.

From the president, it is a small step to Borat, the third reason that made Kazachstan famous in the west after primary health care and skating. On the one hand the country does not deserve the characterization by the British comedian  Sacha Baron Cohen. People are very kind and hospitable and of many different backgrounds. As somebody during the tour told us very frankly: Kazach men are much more beautiful than Borat is.

On the other hand, the official government is doing its utmost to make the movie “Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” almost look like reality. For example during the conference there was a moment where we had an official ceremony to give different sections of the Kazach press prices awarded by the government (in fact six laptops). The ‘journalists’ that won the prices deserved this for giving the best (and most positive) news about primary health care in Kazachstan. This comes very close to what Borat Sagdiyev says as fictive Kazach journalist on freedom of press in Kazachstan:

“Unfreedom of press is also false rumour about Kazakhstan. Our president does not forbid opposition newspapers. But in happy country like ours why would a man buy unhappy paper except for wipe his ass? That of course we cannot tolerate. We are modern country. It is forbidden selling toilet paper which is polluted by ink of poisonous journalists”.

And what to think of the announcement on July 3 by the office of Prime Minister Karim Masimov that the Arna Media National Information Holding had been created "in order to provide favorable conditions for increasing competitiveness of the information space of the Republic of Kazakhstan." The Borat feeling was also invoked during the official tour where we had the opportunity to drink horse milk. The  official but very funny tour guide of the Kazach Republic assured us that horse milk makes you very strong and that it is better than Viagra. When we did not immediately recognise her when going back to the busses – she put on a heavy coat – she hilariously offered “to undress so that we could recognise her”.

However, of course no country and people would like to be ridiculised. The movie of Borat is forbidden and only available on the black market. However, most people know it and it is to be appreciated that people themselves take it with a grain of salt.

Perhaps the similarity between the things making Kazachstan famous and one of the lessons of this trip is that sharpness matters. Borat is sharp in its criticism of the dictators in Kazachstan, ice skates should be sharp to perform and to attain health for all we must also be sharp as a surgeon’s knive.

Almaty, October 2008

Annex 1: Track records of Medeo

Afstand Naam Tijd Jaar

00.500 Tometz 00.36.23 1985

01.000 Tometz 01.12.05 1985

01.500 Sjasjarin 01.52.29 1985

03.000 Martsjoek 03.56.65 1985

05.000 Sjasjarin 06.49.15 1985

10.000 Malkov 13.54.81 1985

Annex 2: Kazachstan (in Dutch)

De voormalige Sovjet republiek Kazachstan is vier keer zo groot als Frankrijk. Het land is ruig, uitgestrekt en verlaten. Er wonen net zoveel mensen als in Nederland. Het merendeel is te vinden in het zuiden van Kazachstan, waar de grootste economische activiteit is geconcentreerd. Dat stamt al uit de tijd dat één van de vele Zijderoutes via dit deel van Kazachstan liep, zo rond het begin van onze jaartelling.

In vroeger dagen bestond Kazachstan uit weinig meer dan een verzameling nomadische rijkjes. Door de handel langs de Zijderoute naar China ontstond er rijkdom en beschaving langs de zuidrand van het land, maar het noordelijke deel bleef hoofdzakelijk nomadisch tot de Russische bemoeienis in de 18e eeuw. Hoewel de Kazachen in het laatste grote nomadische rijk stichten dat liep van Samarkand in het zuiden tot grote delen van Siberië in het noorden nam hun macht langzaam af en kwam het land onder Russische controle tussen 1731 en 1742. Drie lokale stammen zwoeren trouw aan de Russische Tsaar om zo bescherming te zoeken tegen het agressieve Mongoolse Oyrats volk.

Stalin Terreur
De communistische revolutie in 1917 bracht geen vrijheid voor de mensen in Centraal Azië. In de jaren die volgden werden grote groepen Kazachen door Stalin gedwongen hun nomadische bestaan op te geven en te beginnen met collectieve landbouw. Naar schatting zijn tijdens die campagne zo'n 1 miljoen mensen de hongerdood gestorven. Stalin is er ook verantwoordelijk voor dat er Kazachen met Duits bloed zijn. In zijn angst voor aanvallen van in de Sovjet Unie woonachtige ethnische groepen van vijandige naties, verplaatste hij in de Tweede wereldoorlog honderdduizenden Koreanen, Wolga Duitsers en anderen naar de afgelegen gebieden van Centraal Azië.

Almaty (Alma Ata)

Alma Ata heeft 1,5 miljoen inwoners en is nog altijd de grootste stad van het land. De helft daarvan zijn kazakken, zoals de oorspronkelijke bevolking wordt genoemd. Dertig procent is Russisch en de rest is een multi-culti mengelmoes van Oekrainers, Oezbeken, Turken, Koreanen, Chinezen en Duitser. Er zijn ontelbare marktjes van Chinese, Oezbeekse, Russische en Turkse koopmannen. Hoppen tussen deze markten is een leuke manier om de stad te leren kennen.

Gouden hand
Op het plein der republiek ligt de gouden hand; een afdruk van de hand van de huidige president Noersoeltan Nazarbayev. Als je hem een hand 'geeft' mag je een wens doen. De wens om meer democratie zal voorlopig niet worden gehonoreerd. Kazachstan is een politiek stabiel land. Het parlement kent welgeteld één oppositielid. En waarschijnlijk is dat een foutje geweest want vrije verkiezingen zijn er nog nooit georganiseerd. De sterke groei van de economie, dankzij de olieopbrengsten houdt de mensen waarschijnlijk rustig.

Music: Sprankelend water ©