My first impression upon arriving at the 146 meter high observation deck of Almaty’s TV tower was that it was in serious need of a cleaning lady and a window washer. The mostly empty space was dirty and various things were strewn on the floor, such as pieces of wood and the remains of cardboard boxes. The windows were beyond foggy.
But I wasn’t distracted for long as I started to take in the sights of the outside world from this high vantage point with 360 degree clear viewing. Even more impressive for the sights was to take one of the two speedy elevators up to the 252 meter level, nearly two-thirds of the way up to the top, which peaks at 371.5 meters (1,219 feet). Stunning views of Almaty and the mountains.
Years before, I had been to dinner in the revolving restaurant near the top of London’s TV tower, and I could visualize something along those lines in Almaty even if it couldn’t revolve. So could the client who had brought me along on his inspection tour of Almaty’s TV tower.
My client had taken an entrepreneurial interest in the development and commercial exploitation of the tower. To his practised eye, here was a golden opportunity waiting to be seized, and he wanted to do the seizing. A vast capital expenditure had already been made to create a landmark structure. All that was needed was to tidy up the place, furnish it, possibly install a restaurant, and make it the biggest tourist attraction in Almaty.
The client had come to Kazakhstan in the summer of 1999 for an entirely different reason. He was an intermediary (independent salesman) looking for hospitals, medical clinics and any other potential buyers of used, sophisticated U.S. medical equipment. While plying his business in the United States he happened upon a Kazakh doctor working in a U.S. hospital. In conversing with him, the doctor told him about how needy the hospitals and clinics were in Kazakhstan. Even the best hospital in Almaty was using very old equipment and lacked the budget to purchase the latest models available in the international market.
With that introduction to the problem and with the names of a few key contacts in Kazakhstan, my client planned his trip and made a serious effort to achieve some sales. Besides Almaty, he went to Astana (the then new capital), Karaganda and beyond. Unfortunately, although the state of medical affairs was as bad as he had been told, he also discovered that the budgetary constraints on the potential purchasers were even worse than he anticipated.
I was unfamiliar with the used medical equipment market prior to this. My client told me that manufacturers continually produce new refinements and advances in their medical equipment (just like the mobile phone people keep making last year’s wonder products obsolete), and hospitals were placed in the position of choosing between failing to perform their best if they declined to upgrade their equipment or ponying up to buy the latest models. To induce sales, manufacturers would take back the old equipment in part exchange for the new items, much like trading in a used car for a new one. So, with all the accumulation of used equipment, a market arose for reconditioned but previously used equipment. The main market for such equipment was outside the United States. But not in Kazakhstan, it turned out, where all hospitals got their funding from the cash-strapped government.
But enough about medical equipment.
The TV tower is indeed a prominent skyline feature of Almaty. Unlike most of such structures in the world, this one was built out of steel, tubular steel, not concrete. It was constructed between 1975 and 1983, perhaps another example of how, in the Soviet period, the objective of construction was to perpetuate the job, not to finish the project. It is located on Kok Tobe mountain. At its tip, the tower reaches 1,000 meters above sea level. Since Almaty is in an earthquake zone, the tower was designed to withstand earthquakes up to 10 on the Richter scale.
Unfortunately, the tower is closed to the public. However, the man in charge of it told us that it had been opened up for a few wedding parties and other celebrations. He didn’t say exactly what procedure to follow in order to gain access for a party.
Some negotiations followed but no deal emerged. My guess, and it is only a guess, is that the manager had little interest in the proposed venture but a lot of interest in private gain.
The tower was important to me personally in my early years in Almaty. Cellular phones had not yet been popularized, or certainly had not yet arrived in Almaty. But it was possible to have a radio telephone. They came solely in black – like Henry Ford’s cars for many years – and were heavy, mainly due to the battery. Of course there were no apps, no games, no novelty features. Practically speaking, they could be used anywhere within eyesight of the TV tower. They were of no use elsewhere in Kazakhstan or beyond. The batteries had a very short life. I had two batteries, one relatively slim and the other was a chunky, heavy item. One battery was always on the charger. Of course those telephones quickly became history when Kazakhtelecom obtained its first licence for mobile cellular phones.
My trip to what is now called the BT Tower in London must have been before the end of 1981, the year it was closed to the public. It had remained open even after a bomb exploded on the roof of the men’s toilet at the Top of the Tower restaurant on October 31, 1971. The Provisional IRA claimed responsibility for that. I remember going through airport-type security devices when entering the tower.
The UK’s Daily Mail newspaper celebrated the 50th anniversary of the opening of London’s TV tower with a nice spread of photographs, mainly taken during the construction period. Take a look here – but if you suffer from acrophobia you might give this a miss! Remember that the BT Tower is only 191 meters high, including the aerial rigging at the top, compared to Almaty’s tower being 371.5 meters high.
If you like my Kazakhstan-based stories, you will find a lot more in my book – West Meets East in Kazakhstan. This consists mainly of articles I wrote for The Almaty Herald newspaper in the 1990s and later years. The book is about my perceptions as an American expatriate of life in and around Almaty in the 1990s. The book is available in soft cover or as an E-book through publisher AuthorHouse, and the websites of Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
In some countries, hard copies of the book may not be available through Amazon or Barnes & Noble if they do not store copies in their overseas warehouses.