“A magic dwells in each beginning,” – says Hermann Hesse in his poem. Teachers said these parting words to my son and his classmates at a graduation ceremony in Berlin in 2017. The same may be said about the creation of the Republic of Kazakhstan and the beginning of Kazakh-German relations I witnessed 25 years ago.
I clearly remember the early morning of July 14 (national holiday of France) in 1992, when the Tu-154 aircraft was landing over the snowy “celestial mountains” (Tien Shan), and the view of Siberian houses of Alma-Ata, which then was the capital of Kazakhstan. I had just graduated from the diplomatic academy two months before, and it was my first mission abroad.
In a small but decent airport built in Soviet baroque style, I was greeted by the head of the administration of the German embassy, which was under construction at that moment. In his apartment, I had some strong coffee and amazing blinis. Those Russian crepes were baked by Nelly, a Kazakh woman of German origin who spoke fluent German. Later we went to the Hotel Kazakhstan, which had been built for a UNESCO conference in 1970s and stood out against the background of Almaty (Kazakh name of the city).
For the first few months, our advance team occupied several rooms of the hotel. There were tables instead of beds in five or six rooms. The first embassy of Germany was ready!
The reception was also situated in one of these rooms. In the afternoon, after a short rest in a small corner suite (two rooms with a big fridge), I was sitting at the reception with our receptionist. That is when I met my future wife who had just graduated from the Institute of Foreign Languages majoring in German and English. That was when fate took its toll. Three years later, at the end of our stay in Kazakhstan, we got married at the Wedding Palace of Almaty.
As my parents had lived in Turkey for several years, I spoke a little Turkish. When I studied International Relations in the USA shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall, I heard there were many Turkic peoples living in the Soviet Union who also served in the Soviet Army. There were questions about the consequences of islamisation and the aspirations of many peoples towards independence. Peter Scholl-Latour published perhaps somewhat gruff but interesting books “Allah is with the Steadfast” and “The Sword of Islam,” where Middle Asian and Caucasian Turkic peoples of Soviet period were described vividly. I was very interested in this, and in autumn of 1991, when it became clear that the collapse of the Soviet Union was inevitable and everything was leading to the creation of new states, I made a quick decision: I applied for a job in one of the newly created German embassies in this region. Our then Minister of Foreign Affairs Hans Dietrich-Genscher, as is always the case, beat us, and in autumn of 1991 visited Alma-Ata. Apparently, the decision to open the German consulate was taken during the official reception with the Kazakh national dish Beshbarmak (five fingers) decorated with a sheep’s head. At the same time, he definitely remembered about approximately one million Germans living in Kazakhstan. After the Soviet flag was removed in Kremlin on Dec. 31, 1991, and the flag of a new Republic of Kazakhstan was hoisted in Alma-Ata, it was decided to open the embassy of Germany. In February 1992, the head of the delegation went to Alma-Ata via Moscow and started dealing with the first administrative issues, particularly, preparing workplaces and housing for future diplomats. We all hardly spoke Russian, not to mention Kazakh, which is a Turkic language. Yet, I was flattered by the opportunity to compare my little knowledge of Ottoman Turkish with Kazakh, and later with the Uighur language of a neighboring Chinese region called Xinjiang (with the capital of Urumqi). On the plane, I read familiar words “Fasten seat belts” in Russian, which gave me hope of improving my Russian skills. But at first, we were dependent on our interpreters, and I could not resist the charms of one of them.
However, the trip was not easy, and this question is still relevant in the context of the new Silk Road (“Belt and Road” initiative): how to get from Bonn to Almaty and get your personal belongings there? We had not yet had such experience in 1992, and my employer, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, out of long habit relied on its employees’ spirit of enterprise. Together with Bonn freight forwarding companies, which shipped things around the world but never to Central Asia, we considered and compared several options: it was possible to rent a Soviet Antonov aircraft (there was an airport in Almaty) but this option was rejected because of its high cost. That left us with rail or truck transport.
Already then, Almaty had connection to the Trans-Siberian railway through Turksib. We were thinking of putting two containers in a way that nobody could open them without permission. But what were we to do when the shipping containers would arrive to Almaty? There were no contacts of logistics companies, which would forward our things from the station to the apartments. We contacted by satellite phone with the head of the administrative department who looked out of the window and confirmed the availability of trucks on the streets of the city. But were the packers there?
Finally, the problem was solved by a German-Polish company, which earlier had been engaged in delivering assistance to Russian Germans in the Soviet Union by instruction of the federal government. It provided us with knowledgeable drivers and trucks, and the Rhine transport company helped us with packing and unpacking.
The last remaining question was how to get there myself. Taking into account my basic knowledge of Russian, a trip across Moscow (arrival at the Sheremetyevo international airport, further flight from the Domodedovo regional airport) to the other end of the big city did not sound so appealing to me (I estimated realistically the support of the Embassy in Moscow provided to young colleagues travelling to Central Asia). At that time, there were rumors that Türk Hava Yolları airlines started flying to Almaty. The Turkish representation in Bonn had no information on that matter and offered me to buy a ticket only to Baku. Luckily, the then Minister for Economics of Lower Saxony Peter Fischer offered a convenient line to Hannover to a new Kazakh airline that used Aeroflot’s flying equipment. That is how I became one of the first passengers who flew directly from Hannover to Almaty. As the flying range of Tu-154 was insufficient, the aircraft reached the east coast of the Caspian Sea (if I am not mistaken, it was either Shevchenko/Aktau or Guriev/Atyrau), where it refueled, and then we reached Almaty. At the Hannover airport, I bought a box of chocolates, which let me make the first move to my future wife.
The work as a referent on the issues of culture and minorities first in the Hotel Kazakhstan and later in the embassy’s building was dynamic and interesting. I was able to accomplish my task on “creating cultural security for German minority” only partly, and this had been clear to me from the very beginning, because the majority of them were packed and ready to leave. At the same time, surprisingly, the German theatre could have been preserved for a long time, not without effort, of course. We also managed to conclude the first German-Kazakh cultural agreement (I think, it is still in force), which led to opening and increasing the number of lecturers of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and German language teachers in Kazakh schools. I was especially pleased to cooperate with Kazakh archeologists. For example, in 1994, together with Professor Etmar we managed to hold a mobile exhibition about cave drawings found along the Karakorum road in Central Asia. Visiting the Golden man (full golden garb of a Scythian prince) served as the first step to the full-scale exhibition “The Scythians’ Gold” organised by Professor Parzinger in Berlin.
I remember the tombstone for German soldiers who apparently died as war prisoners in mines of nearby Alatau Mountains at the Alma-Ata cemetery created in cooperation with the Secretariat of the defence attaché and a Kazakh non-governmental organisation. Then there was a trip with my wife to Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva, Bishkek in 1993. There were helicopter flights, mountain walks through Issyk-Kul and two long trips to China – the first one to Urumqi by Xinjiang airlines and back to the West to the old Silk Road, the city of Kashgar at the foot of Palmira and slightly higher in Karakorum to “Mukhtazh Ata” (Father of the Ice Mountain).
The second trip was to the East to the end of the Taklamakan Desert (if you go there you never come back) through the Dunkhuan oasis with its impressive cave drawings to old Chinese capital Sian, then to Shanghai, where a friend of mine met us.
I am grateful to my stay in Almaty where I experienced the Russian cultural world for the first time. I was able to improve my experience later in Moscow (2003-2006), where I visited the source of the Volga River and Baikal. Now I am convinced that we can learn a lot from intercultural and interreligious experience of peoples who live along the Silk Road, and therefore we have to strengthen this dialogue.
After creating the Eurasian Economic Union and China’s “Belt and Road” initiative, old caravan routes of Central Asia became economically relevant again. Everybody is excited about how this will affect its transformation! I remember with pleasure my first trip to Almaty 25 years ago when my professional career began at the German Federal Foreign Office, which also influenced my private life.
The author is a diplomat at the Federal Foreign Office of Germany.