Almaty does its own thing, and this is what makes the place very much itself.
There isn’t a single Starbucks in Almaty. At least not one that I could find — which says a lot about a place that’s the cultural and commercial capital of an entire country. But the reason for this seemed to be the exact opposite of the usual: Almaty has no use for a Starbucks.
Places without Starbucks are usually beyond the fringes of trendy, modern, middle class, white collar culture. When you can do a full 360 in the core of a city and not see that circular green sign it usually means you are in some bumfuck backwater — a place that in now way shares the image of that otherwise ubiquitous coffee chain.
The presence of a Starbucks is often a measure of globalism — a particular type of cultural and infrastructural development that could be called the new status quo of internationalism: a force which has created a giant class of people who consume the same exact things and live a remarkably similar lifestyle across all the continents of the world. It could be called the Starbucks Index: the more of this coffee chain a place has is a measure of how globalized it is.
A sign of the first wave of globalism.
Developers in China will sometimes encourage this coffee chain to move in right away with free rent and other incentives because they know that its presence will help brand their entire new development. If it has a Starbucks it must be developed, right?
That Starbucks emblem is a certified stamp that a locale is certified “global,” that it’s a place in the center of something, that it’s a location that’s going to grow and be the next “somewhere.” It’s clearly a contrived conceit, but it works as bait to draw other brands and people into a new area.
Although the irony of Starbucks is that the developing country will see this coffee chain as a sign of modernity while the developed country will see it as a sign of a past era when we used to like the fact that all of the businesses on every street were the same.
Although I’ve only visited Almaty twice I would say that it is moving fast into post-globalism, into an era where small, unique, diverse, and locall is again what’s truly modern. We can see the same thing happening in the trendiest cities of the world, of which I believe Almaty is certainly one of.
But the reason why there isn’t a Starbucks in Almaty seems to be very different. There isn’t a Starbucks in Almaty because there is no need for one. This place has evolved beyond Starbucks before it could even arrive. The culture is uber-modern, educated, thoroughly post-globalized. They’ve been beyond the fringes of this milieu of development for so long that they’ve just developed their own ways of doing things.
The big chains are too late in Almaty. Local entreprenurial actors have already flooded the city with original and truly unique cafes, restaurants, and bars that are not only more trendy but far better than anything international chain can throw out.
Almaty is so trendy in this regard that it has “non-cafes,” places that look and feel like cafes but don’t serve anything — you bring in your own food and drinks and just hang out with your friends.
There is a modernity here that is unlike almost anywhere else in the world. This isn’t the type of modernity can amounts to copying the trends of the West or the East, but a modernity that is very much itself. Almaty is like Almaty. It’s not trying to be anything else.
This is Central Asia — a crossroads of cultures for millenia — so this is nothing new. Traders, conquerers, and investors come, make their mark, and are either absorbed or sent on their way. Mongolians, Persians, Turks, Arabs, and Russians have all spilled their cultural guts here. This is a place that has seen so many invaders that it perhaps knows that what the outsiders have isn’t any better than what they’re already shipping.
About the Author: VBJ
I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. VBJ has written 3657 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.
VBJ is currently in: Astoria, New York
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