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23 Years in 12 Minutes: the Story of the Almaty Metro

“A subway was first mooted back in the 1970s,” according to the official Kazakh metro website. But for Almaty, the journey from mooting to reality would take more than three decades.

The Soviet Union established subway systems in its cities after they passed the million population mark, and for Almaty that only happened in 1982. And it wasn’t like constructionist public transportation architects were counting it down. In 1988 they drew up plans and then scrapped them a few years later because, well, they didn’t have a country anymore. Fair enough.

In 2011, as one more sign of Kazakhstan’s development as a modern, middle-class-friendly nation, the Almaty metro officially opened, the 16th in the former Soviet Union (I’ve been requested to stop calling it the FSU). Significantly more expensive than the bus and about 1/3 the cost of a gypsy cab, it hits a target audience right now of people who need to get from one end of the metro to the other. It currently only traverses 8.5km, with plans to stretch a total of 45 (but given the project’s history, I’m not going to go buying real estate off the scheduled stops any time soon).

Still, a post-Soviet metro is no dirty Manhattan utilitarian melting pot of subterranean, subversive activity out of Total Recall. It’s closer to The Core meets Eyes Wide Shut, with Himalayan escalators into marble-walled stations. There may not be a booth at the bottom of the escalator for a babushka to judge your escalator behavior, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t excessive staff constantly mopping or managing security. My large backpack got me a tour of the security backroom with a bored young Kazakh rent-a-cop.

The city of Almaty is a hill. Not hills, but one big slope. It’s like a Risk game board that somebody lifted at an angle to dump the remaining pieces into a box. So you may pass Virgil on the way to the first station, but by the time you reach the terminus a few clicks later, you’re about 18 inches below the surface.

Nothing but the best for this metro, the trains can reach speeds of 80km/hr. Not on these tracks though, where they only get to about half that–making it through the current seven stops spanning 8.5km in 12 minutes.

I’m not sure how it’s going to make money exactly. I was there during rush hour and the sparse seats weren’t even filled—in a country where buses are often packed to the point of accidental pregnancies from strangers.

Maybe the metro is a long-awaited, preemptive infrastructural investment for a country on the move. Or maybe it’s a top down construction job conceived to convince a nation that the most modern public amenities are the best indication of collective affluence.

I would note though that all of the above judgment is based on three days of riding and no actual research. So there’s that.

There are no doors between cars, which will be very convenient if the train ever fills up. Or if they install skee ball.
Five will get you ten he's eating sunflower seeds.
Those in either yellow caps or blue outfits work for the metro. The other half are passengers.
I waited about six minutes for a fellow passenger to fill this frame before my train came.


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