All the chuckling and eye-rolling over the earthquake in the D.C. area — “You call that a quake? Come on!” — brings to mind the strongest (and so far only) temblor I’ve experienced. It was about seven years ago in Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan, hard up against the Tian Shan mountain range. On the plus side, that makes ski trips a breeze, and gives you scenery to rival the Swiss Alps. On the debit side, the mountains are so close that there are actually avalanche barriers just outside Almaty.
It was December and brutally cold, and since few residents of the city believed in shoveling their walks, everything was locked in rock-hard, dirty ice and hard-packed frozen snow. Almaty is supposed to be a beautiful garden city in the spring and summer, but in the winter it is one ugly town.
The woman warrior and I were staying in an apartment in one of the city’s Soviet-vintage concrete towers. Just before dawn, I was sitting in the living room when the chandelier made a little tinkling sound, the way ripples in a puddle announce the approach of a T-Rex in one of the Jurassic Park movies. You know, I thought to myself, that could be the start of an earthquake, and just as I thought “earthquake” the entire building started lurching from side to side. It will give you some idea of the kind of trip it was that my only reaction to practically being thrown out of my chair was to think, Of course, an earthquake. Now I’ve seen everything.
The Woman Warrior, who was born in California and knows about these things, raced into the living room and cried, “That was an earthquake!” There was then the question of What to Do Next. We were barefoot and wearing only light sleeping clothes, and it was pretty freaking cold outside. But the building was pretty shabby looking, and to our untutored eyes looked like something that would collapse after a good hard push, much less an earthquake.
But when we looked out the windows, nobody was outside. After a whole, we went back to bed. When in Rome, do as the Romans do — or, in this case, don’t. “We get a couple of those a year,” one of the locals told us later on. I can only admire that kind of savoir faire.