Desparately seeking swimming in Almaty — a reminiscence

It would have been better to ask about the cloudy water before swimming for an hour.

“The chlorinator just kicked out on us last night. The water will be back to normal tomorrow.” This is America, so the Y official with this message must have considered the safety of the pool water when he allowed it to stay open. I had just finished swimming about a mile in the murky stuff, and I was wondering how I would know whether the sickness I was about to get was the result of the three black-legged deer tick bites I had recently received or swimming in what must be a polluted pool.

His comment splashed me back to Almaty, Kazakhstan, February, 2004. I was there working for three weeks so I needed to keep up an exercise routine. The Lonely Planet mentioned that the city had five 50-meter pools where, in Soviet days, Olympians had trained. Wouldn’t that be fun, I thought. I could swim in each of those pools. I knew without seeing it that my hotel’s pool would not be conducive to lap swimming.

Almaty seemed to be a swimming town. Even the hotel pool was almost lap swimmable.  Still, I asked the concierge where I’d find the pools listed by name but without addresses in the guide book. Her horror was palpable. “Oh, no, you will swim here,” she said that day and every day when I persisted in my quest. “Those pools are dirty,” she kept saying. “I have shower shoes,” I kept answering. She would not help me.

Thinking the problem was too many years on her part in a fancy international hotel, I asked the translators working with us for help. They knew the pools, but were no more eager to help me find them than the concierge. In desperation, I took a Swedish team mate who spoke some Russian to one of the pools I had found when exploring the city.

The building did not seem to be open, but we walked around to a side door that was not open but also not locked. Inside a woman was cooking rice in a steamer and washing the floor. How dirty can it be, I thought. No, the pool was not open; we could hear people inside. No, I could not just take a look. No, there was no other time when I could return to swim. NYET was the answer to all of Paula’s questions. Paula, too, gave up.

I went by myself to another, what appeared to be much smaller, pool. Surely this was not one of the 50-meter Olympic pools, but my time in Almaty was running out and by now I had a small vocabulary and some questions written in Russian with which to ask about swimming. The door was open. Women attendants wrapped in layers of black were in abundance as were young girls getting ready to swim. Encouraged, I started asking about swimming. I got the usual string of “nyets.” Finally, one attendant slapped a postage-stamp sized piece of paper printed with several lines of Russian — centered, I remember — into my hand.

“Dermatologist,” the attendant said in disgust at my thickheadedness. “Woman doctor,” a young swimmer said. Suddenly “dirty” meant not the locker room floors but the unchlorinated water.

Things may have changed since 2004. I went back to check the Lonely Planet — this time online — to see what it said about swimming in Almaty. Five pools mentioned previously have been reduced to one recommended one. Check out that last line “No medical certificate…”!

Lonely Planet review for Rakhat Fitness Swimming Pool

Rakhat Fitness Swimming Pool, near the Central Stadium, has the best public swimming pool in the city, 50m long and open year-round (it’s covered in winter). No medical certificate is required.

Read more:

And right here in the US of A, I was swimming in water with a broken chlorinator — whatever that is.

I did not get sick. But, the Y pool closed for six weeks to replace the old filters with a new system that does not depend as much on chlorine to keep the pool clean. The water is decidedly more appealing, smoother if that’s possible, but I still wear shower shoes in the locker room.

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