Ice Ice Baby

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On our way to Kok Tobe.

I can’t explain why winter in Almaty has been so delightful. I’m speaking truthfully here—somewhere between the persistent darkness and the treacherous sidewalks, something magical has happened. Almaty, it seems, was made for wintertime. The stereotypically Soviet personality fits: brusqueness perhaps built on the desire to stay warm—“Hurry up! It’s cold out here!” The crumbling, bunker-esque buildings fit too: most have ghastly, mismatched exteriors, but the interiors are warm, inviting, even extravagant. (Lost on us during the summer months, many of Almaty’s idiosyncrasies and eyesores begin to make sense, or even become attractive during the winter.)

Our first big snow happened one week before Thanksgiving. Eight inches of glorious fluffiness fell from the sky, scrubbed the sooty air clean, frosted the mountains, and made the city sparkle. Mishka and I were in heaven, and plowed a fresh path over Sheep Hill and up to Kok Tobe (the highest point in Almaty proper) from which we could admire the city as if it were a miniature holiday village, complete with snowy rooftops.

The muted color palette and slower pace suits Almaty, too. The dark, gray branches of bare trees are offset beautifully by the white snow resting on them—the lack of wind guarantees a gorgeous wintry display every time it snows; the fir trees bow and dip with the weight of the stuff. And, most people stay inside, dry and warm—which means that it’s the perfect time to get out.

The chilly air is welcoming after the oppressive heat found inside most buildings. It takes only moments to escape the city to a place where wintry scenes await. In the mountains the snow reaches to mid-thigh; most paths would be impassable without snowshoes or hiking poles…

I was composing the above in my head while hiking, delighting in Kazakhstan’s snowy spectacle, when I slipped mightily on a steep, snowy portion of the trail. My knee made a sickening pop when I fell. As you know, knees normally bend in one direction—forward. But mine decided to make a 90-degree deviation from the norm. I’m certain that I yelled the ‘f’ word no fewer than 6 times—both because of the pain and because of the rushing realization that I may have massively screwed up my knee. I will be doomed to months indoors! But after a doctor’s visit, I celebrated my tenacious ligament—my injury was just a sprain.

As a direct result of this injury, I’ve been thinking a lot about the healing process—the awareness of body and mind, the passage of time. Luckily, this is my first medial collateral ligament injury, and the pain has already started to dissipate. Slowly, yes, but I can mark the passage of time by decreasing increments of pain, and the increasing ease in my gait. It will be two weeks before I can hike or ski again, but I am thankful for the opportunity to sit and read, or write, or draw (albeit with an ice pack strapped tightly to my knee), as I don’t typically make enough time for these things. I’m also thankful for the reminder to move thoughtfully and wear my helmet: you live in Kazakhstan, girl! Any serious injury means an emergency trip to London for surgery. Oof.

The things I’ve learned about healing are also pretty awesome ways to live your day-to-day—that is, as long as you’re willing to take a deep breath and accept your new reality. Healing is about time, about prioritizing, about taking care, and surrendering to limitations. It’s about awareness, and about patience. Healing forces you to slow down and take in the sleepy winter morning, the pink glow of the sun just peeking over the mountains. Healing is about the recognition of imperfection, and about being willing to admit that you need help getting down the ice-packed stairs.

Right now, the slowness fits. It feels as if the hum and rhythm of the city has finally matched mine—or maybe mine has finally matched it. Either way, I’m feeling rather in harmony now, much like how it feels to sit quietly in a warm concert hall on a frigid December night, watching tiny ballerinas spin in time to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker suite;[1] or the ease of skating on fresh ice, that quick-slippery-almost-flying feeling.

Is it possible to maintain this blissfully measured pace? Not a chance. When my two weeks is up, you better believe I’ll be right back out there: bright-eyed and rosy-cheeked…but this time, I will definitely, definitely be watching my step.

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Waterfall, nearly frozen.

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Birch trees in the snow.

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Mishka sprints to catch up with my hiking partner.

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[1] Classical music has been shown to smooth brainwaves.

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