Dom Joly: I toasted my telly and braced myself for an earthquake

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Iread with great sadness about the Desarmes family who, after the terrible quake there, left Haiti to go and stay with their eldest son in... Chile. Having now survived two huge quakes, they are living in the garden in understandable fear of another.

Spared the appalling experience of the Desarmeses, I'm currently staying at the top of a very high building in Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan and getting more and more paranoid about earthquakes. These seem to be happening all over the globe at the moment and Almaty is in a high-risk area. The whole city was destroyed by a huge earthquake in 1911 with only one building, the wooden Cathedral of Holy Ascension, surviving. Locals at the time believed the spiritual nature of the building spared it, but scientists (they always ruin this kind of stuff) now feel the unique wooden construction of the cathedral had allowed it to expand and absorb the shock.

Modern-day Almaty arose out of the ruins – a tree-lined Soviet city built on an efficient grid system. The state department has ranked the earthquake threat here as a level four (the highest it assigns). Locals expect another big one at any time. As my glass-fronted hotel is most definitely not made of wood, I just hope that the architects employed in the construction were made well aware of the seismic history of this area. There was a large tremor just the day before I arrived but so far, nothing massive.

Almaty has not been lucky with Nature. The city sits right under the beautiful Tien Shan mountain range whose snow-capped peaks of more than 4,000 metres form a wonderful backdrop. Unfortunately, the mountains seem keen to visit the city. A huge mudslide hit Almaty in 1921, causing great loss of life, and you still come across huge boulders that lie around like embarrassed conquerors.

To combat this threat from the mountains, in 1966 the Soviet authorities set off some "controlled" mudslides to form a huge barrier to protect the city from future slides. The explosions used to create these "controlled" slides caused subterranean tremors that registered seven on the Richter scale and made for a very nervous day in Almaty. The fortifications showed their worth, however, when in 1973 they held back a huge, potentially catastrophic, mudslide.

All this is too much information for a visitor as I wandered about the city trying to avoid the odour of freshly grilled horse shashlik. I jumped nervously every time a large lorry roars past, and flinched whenever an angry babushka slammed a door. After a while, I decided that vodka was the answer. It worked wonders. After a couple of toasts in honour of my parents, my Labrador... my TV... I was blissfully unconcerned about the possibilities of a quake. Indeed, if anything, I was rather looking forward to one. I could immediately become one of those on-the-spot journalists who report breathlessly on rolling news channels while getting their cameramen to jiggle the camera a bit to make it look even worse than it is.

The worst example of this was a man in Chile who I watched on my telly through a vodka haze last night. He was on a beach when some soldiers started screaming at everybody to get to higher ground as a tsunami was coming. The reporter legged it immediately, later admitting he had left his producer in the danger zone. As he ran, he shouted to "keep rolling" to his jiggling cameraman as he tried to interview people fleeing next to him. "How are you feeling?" he asked a woman struggling to carry her little child up a steep hill. Sadly, nobody punched him in the face. That was the real natural disaster.