Sunday, December 30, 2007

Some local terms...

As I’ve been writing blog updates, it occurs to me that there are some things that I keep defining repeatedly. Instead of doing so, however, it might be easier to just create a mini-dictionary of terms. So…here it is!
Banya--A communal bath. Here in Almaty, we often go to the Arasan Banya near my house. They have Russian and Finnish baths, as well as a swimming pool and areas where you can have a massage. The Finnish bath is a dry sauna, while the Russian bath is heated by steam. You also bring a switch of birch/oak/myrtle leaves, for you (or a friend) to beat your back in the banya. Once you can’t bear the heat, you go jump into the pool for a few minutes and then go back to one of the banyas. Sounds rather odd by US standards, but definitely an experience worth having. We need more of these in the US--it is incredibly relaxing.

Chai--Tea. NOT the chai that you find in many coffee shops in the US, which is usually spiced and made with some sort of steamed milk. Chai in Central Asia just means tea. You need to specify whether it is “zelyony” or “chorney”--green or black. Additionally, there is “chai s’malakom” and “chai bez malaka”. Translation--with milk or without milk. I personally prefer “chai s’lemonom”--black tea with lemon. Then there is Uyghur tea, which I can’t bring myself to try. It is black tea with butter and salt.

Chainik--a teapot

Langhman--a dish consisting primarily of noodles covered in some sort of sauce. Normally, the sauce is tomato-based, with peppers and some sort of meat. Didn’t Marco Polo bring the idea of spaghetti back from this region? It is easy to see where the idea might have come from.

Manti--the equivalent of a Central Asian tortellini, but larger. Meat/onion filling inside some sort of wrapper, then steamed. We had pumpkin manti in Kashgar--delicious and unusual! After all, why would you cook with vegetables?

M’yasa--meat. Don’t ask what kind of meat, because you will receive a puzzled stare. It is meat. That is all you need to know. Why would you ask such a crazy question, anyway?

Pelmeni--Russian tortellini. The filling is similar to manti, but the shape is closer to tortellini. It is also usually served with smetana (a really wonderful and rich milk product that is similar to sour cream)

Plov--also known as Poulo in Xinjiang. A rice dish consisting of rice, carrots, garlic, and meat. In Kazakhstan, the meat is fried and then added to the dish. In Xinjiang, the meat (usually mutton) is boiled and placed on top of the rice. In both regions, the rice is also coated with mutton fat. But it is considered a very healthy dish because it contains (a few slivers of) carrots. Don’t confuse Kazakh and Uyghur plov, since they are clearly (?) very different. People are very proud of their plov, and will tell you that they make the best that there is. However, the very best plov that I have had was made by one of the Kazakh women working at the US Consulate. Asiyat’s plov is topped with pomegranate seeds, and is one of my favorite foods over here.

Quai--Local term for Chinese yen. 1USD=7.4 quai

Shashlik--meat that is marinated and grilled on skewers. Often there is a piece of fat included on the skewer to give the meat more flavor. Don’t ask what kind of meat it is, either. It is m’yasa!

Tapotchki--indoor slippers (or flip flops). It is very impolite to wear shoes inside. Instead, you take your shoes off just inside the entranceway and put on tapotchki instead. If you are staying in a “love hotel” in China, you never want to take off your tapotchki!

Tenge--Unit of money in Kazakhstan. I am told that it literally means “dollar”. Since I have been here, 1USD = 120 tenge

There will probably be some updates to this list in the future-but these are the things that come to mind right now. :-)

Saturday, December 29, 2007


I forgot to put a note with the last pictures--these are the ones of sledding in Chimbulak that should have been included with the Christmas update.

Sledding Pictures

More on Christmas pictures

There should have been several more pictures from Christmas that were posted with the last message. For some reason, though, they didn't appear. I will check on this, and repost the pictures tomorrow.


Friday, December 28, 2007

China-Urumqi Day 1 with pictures of Day 2


As we drove into Urumqi—several hours later than expected—we encountered our first surprise. The bus was not going to the bus station, but instead was dropping passengers off at different hotels in the city. We didn’t have a hotel reservation, and had previously made arrangements to meet our guide at the bus station. What now? Fortunately, one of the women on the bus had a cell phone that worked in China, and let us borrow it to call our guide to let him know where he could meet us.

Getting off of the bus, the first impression I had was that it was cold. Much colder than Almaty. This was to be expected, though, as Urumqi is further north (and closer to Siberia). It still came as a shock, though. The second impression was of absolute chaos. People were gathered around the bus trying to sell us SIM cards for our cell phones, to change money for us, or just to ask us for money. Most people were speaking Russian, so we were able to understand what they were saying. The three of us were clearly foreigners (obviously, since we were not dressed all in black!), so we attracted much more attention. As we waited for our guide, we were continuously approached by prospective salesmen—to whom we kept replying “ni nada!” “we don’t need anything!”. It was amazing how many times we needed to keep repeating that phrase.

Eventually, Ayup (our guide) arrived—but we couldn’t leave just yet. One of his friends was meeting us before we could leave for our hotel. Apparently, Kolya spoke Russian—which our guide (who told us to call him by his “English” name of Jackson) thought would be of assistance. We still aren’t sure why, since Jackson spoke English with some level of fluency—communication wouldn’t be a problem. Once Kolya arrived, we took a bus to another location where we could change money at a better exchange rate and also buy SIM cards for our phones (which we all bought—if just to say that we have phone numbers in China).

After exchanging money, we took cabs to our hotel. Taking a cab in Urumqi was rather different than in Almaty. Cabs in China are regulated, with fares clearly displayed on a meter. In Almaty, every car is a cab—but you need to negotiate with the driver before getting in. We got to our hotel and checked in—the rate for a triple room was an exorbitant $9 per person per night. After saying farewell to Jackson until the evening, we took some time to shower before heading out to find something for lunch. There were a few surprises in the bathroom, however—including “women joy sex oil” and a selection of condoms. Very curious—but we just figured that we were in another country and things were somewhat different.

By the time we all had showered, we were all more than ready to find something for lunch. The question was where to go. We couldn’t read any of the signs, so relied on pictures that showed images of food. At that point, we hadn’t figured out that a carcass hanging near a doorway signified a restaurant. We picked a direction and started walking—and attracted quite a bit of interest as we were clearly foreigners. We eventually went into a restaurant and were faced with a dilemma. None of us speak or read any Chinese characters, and there was not a Russian language menu. So…we began to pantomime with the waitress. We still don’t know what we ordered, but it was hot—some sort of soup with meat and noodles (not langhman, though). One of the street vendors had followed us into the restaurant and sold us some shashlik, too. The cost for lunch for three people--24 quai (less than $3.50).

After lunch, we decided to see if we could find one of the banyas that Urumqi is famous for. We were all ready for a massage! It didn’t take us long to find a sauna—they are usually in a hotel, and there was a large, apparently upscale hotel less than ½ mile from where we were staying. We were directed to the sauna area, where one of the employees spoke some Russian—which made the entire process much easier. Being used to the banyas in Kazakhstan—which are communal baths—we were a little surprised to be directed into individual suites. Each suite had a bath area with sauna and massage table, and a separate room with a double bed, television, mirrored wall, and bars on the ceiling—as well as dim pink lighting. While I was waiting for the masseuse to arrive, I called Sarah in the next room—we both agreed that it was rather strange, but figured that it was normal. After all, we were in a nice hotel and there wouldn’t be anything sketchy going on.

The massage was, well…interesting. Sarah, Amelia, and I all agreed afterwards that the masseuses were not accustomed to foreigners. Even without a common language, the masseuses all managed to communicate how um…different…we appeared. Arriving back at our hotel, Amelia called her sister (who lives in another part of China) and told her about our experiences. Her sister apparently found the story quite amusing—and informed us that we were staying in one of China’s ubiquitous “love hotels”. These are hotels where businessmen stay—and usually have some after-hours company (which explained the items in the bathroom). Furthermore, she said, the banya where we had our massages really wasn’t a banya. And while the masseuses were professionals, they were not professional masseuses. So…after having been in Urumqi for a total of 6 hours, we discovered that we were staying in a hotel where room service included an escort service, and we had hired prostitutes to give us massages. The trip was off to a great start!

That evening, Jackson showed us a popular local restaurant. The specialty of the restaurant is “Beijing Roast Duck”—or Peking Duck. It consists of three parts—slices of duck that you roll in pancakes with plum sauce and various toppings, duck soup, and spicy fried duck. It was the first time that any of the three of us had tried Peking Duck, and we all agreed that it was wonderful. We all indulged—and by the time the waitress brought out the soup and fried duck, I couldn’t eat any more. The cost for this extravagant meal? 91 quai—less than $13.

It was late by the time we got back to the hotel—but not too late for one last phone call. Our room came with an additional service—a bedtime call by a woman looking to see if we needed/wanted any company for the night. Once she realized that we didn’t speak any Chinese, she quickly hung up the phone.

If we were able to pack so many adventures and unusual experiences into only half a day in Urumqi, it would be interesting to see what the next week or so would hold!

Christmas-with pictures!

Christmas in Almaty was definitely a memorable occasion. It was the first time that I was away from family for the holiday, and before leaving for Kazakhstan I had some trepidation as to how I would get through the day. After four months in Almaty, I have been able to create a great network of friends, though, and Christmas was an opportunity to spend time with my closest friends and adoptive family.

When I woke up on Christmas morning, the first sight that greeted me was the new fallen-snow on the trees outside my window. I drank my tea while looking out at the mountains, and then spent about an hour reading. Since I was hosting Christmas dinner at my house, and would be out for most of the day, I then finished up the final cooking preparations. My friends Sarah and Amelia arrived at my house around 1pm--bearing cookies and other holiday treats. We then bundled up and headed off to the mountains for an afternoon of sledding. Sarah brought a thermos of hot chocolate laced with Bailey’s (or was it Bailey’s laced with hot chocolate?), so we were well prepared for any contingency.

As it was a holiday, we decided to bypass the foothills of Medeu for the higher peaks of Chimbulak. We hired a cab to take us up to the ski resort--where we spent several hours sledding. Of course, we didn’t have any actual sleds--instead, we sat on large plastic bags. It was a wonderful time--and whenever we started to get cold, we warmed up with some of the excellent hot chocolate.

All too soon, it was time to return to Almaty. Our driver on the return trip (Sergei) was very excited to have three Americans in his car. His daughter had studied in the US-in Denver--and he spent the trip telling us about her experiences. He was very happy to know that I study in Kansas--only one state away from his daughter.

When we arrived back at my apartment, we had about 1 ½ hours until the lamb finished roasting. We were eating later than usual, as my landlord Yura works until 7pm and we didn’t want to start dinner before he arrived. So, we drank Gluhwein (German mulled wine) and ate smoked salmon on black bread. Once Yura arrived home, he came over with his family (Lyudmilla, Olya--Olga-- and Vasa--Vassily). It was a wonderful time--we spoke a mixture of Russian and English, with different people interpreting as needed. There was quite a bit of laughter, as well as phone calls from loved ones back in the US--for all of us! My family called just as we were finishing dinner, Sarah’s family also called, and Lyudmilla received a call from her sister in California.

All too soon, it was time for everyone to leave. It had been a wonderful day, and one that I will remember for a long time. Christmas wasn’t spent with my family back home--but it was spent with my new family here in Almaty.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Bus Ride to Urumqi

Bus Ride to Urumqi 8-9 December 2007

Since the bus to Urumqi was scheduled to leave at 7am, we needed to be at the bus station by 6am. Buses don’t always leave when they are supposed to--they can leave an hour early, or an hour late. Depends on the driver, I suppose. The early departure meant that I had to be up by 5am to catch a cab to the bus station. It was pitch dark and COLD when I left my apartment. Fortunately, the cab I called was already waiting for me when I got outside.

It turned out that there were five buses leaving for Urumqi. However, the drivers spoke no Russian and the tickets were in Chinese. We couldn’t tell what bus we were supposed to be on--nor could anyone else. When we finally got on the (correct) bus, we discovered that our seats were in the very back. The sides of the bus were lined with two levels of sleeping berths, with four “beds” across the back. That was where we were to sit for the duration of the trip. At least we were on the bottom--it was easier to get out. However, the mattresses for the two seats in the middle had an alarming tendency to slip towards the floor. That was where Amelia and I sat--and we kept having to drag the mattresses back into place. It was made a little more difficult by the fact that the berths were higher at one end--which contributed to the slippage.

We left the bus station nearly on time--7:15am. The ride was to take about 24 hours, so we expected to be in Urumqi early the next morning. We all packed food, water, books, and anything else we might need for the ride. After a few hours, we stopped for the first break. It was our first introduction to real Kazakh lavatories--or, as we would call them in the US, pit toilets that lack any semblance of privacy. Everyone crowds in, and the babushkas keep telling everyone “Faster! Faster!”. That was to be the constant refrain every time we stopped. We kept thinking that the situation would improve once we got to China--and it did change. There were actual lavatories--that were locked. We were sent to an area behind an abandoned building. Or worse--sent out behind the bus which was stopped on the highway in the snow, while other cars continued along the road. No matter how well prepared you are for traveling in different parts of the world, there are some things that will still completely take you aback and make you realize that you will never completely assimilate into a culture.

Riding on the bus was quite an adventure. Groups of people clustered around the lower berths where one of their travel companions was staying. Every few hours, a whole chicken would be taken out and there would be a snack. In between these periods, people sat around and ate sunflower and/or pumpkin seeds--leaving the shells all over the floor. Bottles of vodka were passed around in a communal teacup, and people gathered in the front of the bus to have a cigarette or two. There was one volume. Loud. Everyone was talking, gesturing, eating. I don’t know how they were able to eat when we stopped for lunch and dinner at cafes along the way.

We arrived at the border in Khorgos around 3pm. It took 2 hours to clear customs on the Kazakh and Chinese sides of the border. You have to go through one side, get back on the bus, drive ½ mile to the other side of the border, and repeat the same process. We had to fill out all sorts of paperwork on the Chinese side. “Have you had contact with domestic birds in the last month?” and other similar questions. There was even a place to indicate your temperature. Waiting in line, we were discussing different avian diseases (Amelia had been a participant in the 4H Avian Bowl in California, and I still remembered some things from my poultry management classes from UMASS). After a few minutes, we realized that it might not be the best topic (and there was an English speaking official within earshot). So, we switched to a safer subject. The 2008 Olympics in Beijing. No sooner than we had started to discuss the upcoming games than we were told that “people are working, and talking is forbidden in line”. Hmmm…. But it was the first introduction to one of the catch phrases of the trip. “It is forbidden”. The other one was “You MUST do this”.
After making it through the border, we stopped for dinner in Khorgos. The only problem was that there was no menu at the restaurant. We asked the waiter for a menu, and were told that there wasn’t one. But they served “the usual things”. What on earth does that mean??? By that time, I was exhausted and starving, so I went with the safe option--Shashlik (Meat that is marinated then grilled on skewers. Don’t ask what type of shashlik it is--the answer is always a puzzled look and “m’yasa” or “meat”).

Once we got back on the bus, it was surprisingly easy to fall asleep. Good thing, too--since on the return trip we actually saw what the ‘highway’ looked like. Picture a narrow winding dirt road going through a high mountain pass and you won’t be far wrong. The next morning, I woke up around 8am. The initial excitement of being ‘almost there’ wore off quickly. We arrived in Urumqi at 11:30am, after 28.5 hours of traveling. It was a surprisingly easy trip--we were all ready to get to a hotel, shower, and start exploring the city. But more on that later…

Preparations for China

There are so many different stories to tell from the recent trip to China, that I almost don’t know where to begin. I would be writing for days and still would leave things out. So, I will instead be posting a log of the daily events--based on the travel journal that I kept throughout the trip. These won’t be posted all at once--it would take several days of writing without interruption just to get through my notes.

Preparations for the trip

According to Kazakh law, foreigners living in the country are required to register with the local immigration police. Normally, this registration occurs within five days of arrival. For individuals traveling under the aegis of a diplomatic mission, though, permanent registration is done within 90 days of arrival. I arrived in Almaty on 29 August--which meant that I needed to arrange for my permanent registration by the end of November. The consular office forwards our passports to USAID, and they take care of the paperwork. Normally, it takes about a week. I had hoped to complete these arrangements before Thanksgiving, but with the trip to Taldykorgan was unable to do so (I had to have my passport with me for the trip).

Since I didn’t have my passport back when Sarah and Amelia went to the Chinese consulate to arrange their travel visas, I had to go by myself several days later. My information stated that the consulate was open from 9:30-12:30 MWF. After getting completely lost (a not unusual occurrence in that region of the city--even the city maps are inaccurate), I arrived at 11:40 to find out that the office closed at noon. Not a problem. I picked up the needed forms, filled them out, and got back in line. Then the lights went out. It didn’t matter if you were already in line. Everyone in the office just left. As I was standing there, a man approached me to say that he could help me get the visa--I just needed a letter from the embassy stating that I was allowed to go to China. Seemed rather shady, so I declined. Just in case, though, I called the embassy and arranged for a permission letter to be picked up later the same day.

Monday morning, I met Amelia at the consulate. She was there to pick up her visa, and I needed to get my paperwork finished. Once we got to the front of the line, the official working there refused to assist us. He stated that I needed to work with the ‘tourist company representative’. His English was limited--”That is enough!” “No more!”. I ended up having to leave my passport with “Lev” in the lobby. I paid him the visa fee--plus an extra 1,000 tenge ($8) and was told to come back on Friday.

Friday morning, I headed back to the Chinese consulate to look for Lev. After seeing him, I was directed to go find the “red car out front” to pick up my passport. There was a woman sitting in the front seat of the car passing out passports. She had a huge stack of Kazakh passports--all in complete disarray. It took nearly 40 minutes of standing outside the car until I could get my passport. It was raining/snowing the entire time--and there were so many people crowded around the car that it was impossible to use an umbrella. Since my jeans were a little too long, they acted as a wick to draw the icy slush up my legs. By the time I left, my jeans were soaked to the knees, and my hair was dripping wet. And I still needed to get to the bus station to buy my ticket.

The bus ride to the station was interesting. The driver conformed with the favorite Kazakh tradition of playing bad English-language pop music LOUDLY. I say English language, because the singer clearly had no understanding of the lyrics. It was a song I hadn’t heard before “Later you can sing to me like a shining star/but I’d rather get to know you in the back seat of my car”. It was one of the funniest songs I’ve heard in a while.

Eventually I arrived at the bus station and met up with Sarah and Amelia. We were able to get tickets to Urumqi, leaving the following morning at 7am. Not much time to prepare! Then it was back home to do some grocery shopping and get ready. Not much sleep that night--it was too exciting.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Christmas plans

Before leaving for Kazakhstan, one of the concerns I had was how I would get through the holiday season. After all, it is one of the most difficult times to be away from home. However, it has been going very well thus far. One of my cousins asked recently for some ideas on how to get through the season when you’re away from home. My advice was to do something that you would never be able to do if you were at home. In my case, that was the recent trip to China (and updates will follow soon, I promise). Now it is just a few days until Christmas itself. I’ve been so busy having new experiences and seeing new things that I haven’t had time to feel sad about not being home.

I do have plans for Christmas, though. My fellow Fulbrighters and I will be heading up to the mountains on Christmas Day either to go sledding or ice skating. We’re going to bring thermoses of hot chocolate and spend much of the day outside. Afterwards, we will be going back to my house--where I will be hosting Christmas dinner for my landlords--whom have adopted me as their other daughter. At home, we usually have a wonderful rib roast. However, since my French-Canadian side insists that beef be as rare as possible (or, as Liz says, run through the kitchen with the lights on), I won’t be serving a roast. Beef here needs to be cooked to well done--an abomination, in my opinion. Instead, I will make a traditional leg of lamb, with potatoes, squash, and whatever vegetables I can find at the market. Tomorrow, I plan to walk to a grocery store near the university that sells marshmallow fluff. If all goes well, we will have some homemade fudge to go along with the apple pie I will be making on Monday.

So…I might not be at home for the holidays, but we will be celebrating nevertheless. It might not be just like home, but it will be as close as possible. And I will be with new friends, and my Russian family.

Merry Christmas!

Crazy things in China

In no particular order, here are some of the crazy events that occurred as part of the trip to China. I’ll be updating the blog soon, but here’s a preview of things to come… :-)

Having to give your passport to “Lev” in the lobby of the Chinese consulate to arrange for a visa--then picking up the passport from someone “in the red car out front”. Très Cold War!

Riding on the sleeper bus to Urumqi--with Kazakhs who were drinking whole bottles of vodka and pulling entire roasted chickens from their bags for a brief snack

Getting a massage at what appeared to be a legitimate banya (bath house) only to find out later that the masseuses were really prostitutes. In retrospect, maybe the dim pink lights and bars suspended from the ceiling should have been a warning. But we were all exhausted after nearly 30 hours of travel and not thinking clearly.

Ordering food without being able to read the menu. Or not having a menu, and having to use hand gestures to communicate with the waiter.

Identifying restaurants by the assorted carcasses hanging in front. And by the butcher block and hatchet next to the front door.

Knowing your food was nearly ready when you heard the sounds of meat being hacked into smaller pieces in the kitchen. Then having to pick out the small bits of bone from your food.

A tour guide who admitted that he actually failed the test to be a licensed tour guide (which came as no surprise by that point).

Being serenaded by an incredibly cheesy Russian man with a mullet at the Uyghur restaurant we went for dinner. Apparently, taking a picture to record the inanity of his performance (as well as the atrocious plaid suit) meant that we were huge fans. He later dedicated a song to the “three women from Kazakhstan”. Eek!

Prostitutes calling at bedtime. By the last night in Urumqi, we even had a call from a male prostitute. Every night, we tried answering the phone differently (you had to answer and say something, or they would call back). “Hello” in different languages/voices worked for a while. Then we switched to “how much does it cost”-one of three phrases we knew in Chinese.

Being told by the receptionist at the front desk of the hotel in Kashgar that “Foot Massage, 7nd floor” (real spelling) was actually “a specialty service-for men only”. We weren’t trying to find ourselves in these situations--they just seemed to happen.

“Woman Joy Sex Oil” in the bathroom of the hotel in Urumqi. Don’t ask what it is--I have no idea and really didn’t want to find out!

Restaurants with no menus. They only have “the usual things”. What does that mean?

Internet cafes without computers

Arranging for a camel ride 150km outside of Kashgar--by miming

Ordering by pointing at the menu in a restaurant--and getting intestines AGAIN

Having a live chicken killed for your lunch--and having the pictures of the entire process

A tour guide who bought several chickens while we were camel riding--and brought them back in the trunk of the car. We only found this out after the clucking became rather loud. This was not the tour guide who had failed the licensing test, either.

Being concerned that one of the dishes served at lunch contained something other than the chicken that was recently killed. And the only other animal we had seen in the area before was a dog. Fortunately, we found out it was goat. Good thing, since I really liked it!

Seeing a man chasing after his donkey cart--after the donkey ran away

Taking a taxi when you don’t speak the language. To get to the train station, we had to show our tickets and hope we got to the right place. Fortunately, it worked. Although there were times when we had to actually give the name of a location/hotel. We always made it there, though!

Bedtime on the train between Kashgar and Urumqi--10:30pm lights out. Lights go back on at 8 am.

Train bathrooms that are locked whenever the train stops. Because they flush right out onto the train tracks and they don’t want to have to clean the area around the train stations.

Pit toilets. When there were lavatories. At one point, we were even sent to the area behind the bus to Urumqi--which was stopped in the middle of the highway in the snow. And other cars were passing by, while most of the women on the bus stood around talking and smoking. Never thought I’d be thankful to be dehydrated after only one cup of tea all day. Purel is a MUST when traveling, too.

Stirring communist marches playing over the loudspeaker on the train.

Figuring out if places operate on ‘local time’ or ‘Beijing time’. Officially, the entire country is on Beijing time--2 time zones ahead of local time.

Eating “Flesh with capsicum” in the dining car on the train--actually, beef with peppers. But the name calls Hannibal Lecter to mind!

Trying to arrange for tickets home to Kazakhstan--and finding the border was closed Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday because of Kazakh holidays. You can’t buy round trip tickets, only one way--so we couldn’t arrange for our return beforehand. We HAD to get back, since Sarah’s Kazakh visa expires on 12/28 and you need at least a week to renew it.

A bus station ticket office that was actually in a converted hotel room

No one knowing when or if the border was really closed--and getting conflicting information from everyone. Is it closed until the 25th? Or the 20th? Maybe it is the 21st? Who knows??? Definitely not the people selling bus or train tickets!

Having to take a cab from Urumqi to Khorgos (the border) not knowing if we would be stuck there for a week.

A “Starbucks” in Khorgos--overpriced, really bad cappuccino (that doesn’t deserve the name)

Tajik men inviting us to their room at the hotel in Khorgos. Don’t think so!

Taking a rickshaw from the hotel to the border. It was the 5th method of transport--following the bus, train, taxi, and camel.

Watching Sarah being thrown over the gate at the border, while Amelia and I barely were able to squeeze through the crush of people around the edge of the gate

Being told by Chinese officials that we were not allowed to talk in line. This was after discussing the Olympics. However, our previous conversation about Avian Bird Flu was acceptable.

Hiring a cab to take us from Khorgos to Almaty--only to have the car break down in the middle of nowhere because the driver hit a bump too fast and broke the exhaust. Apparently, the driver had the same problem five months earlier--and never had the car repaired properly.

Watching the cab driver jack the car up ON ICE, without blocking the tires, and then sliding underneath the car. In the middle of nowhere. Other Kazakh men stopping to discuss the problem, and having an informal meeting in the middle of the highway--while nothing gets accomplished. Pictures to follow.

Driving 100mph down the road after the car was fixed, weaving in and out of traffic while the driver waved at people he passed. And frequently paused to pray--by putting both hands in front of his face. WHILE DRIVING! I’ll try most things--but NEVER want to do that again.

It was definitely quite a trip! As I commented in an earlier email, Central Asia is not for the faint of heart. But we made it through Xinjiang with few problems--and many, many wonderful memories. And a really great handmade copper tea kettle. And lots of teaching materials. At least, that is what I am calling the set of miniature handmade Uyghur instruments that I bought in Kashgar. :-)


Sunday, December 2, 2007

Almaty in December

Almaty looks like a completely different city from the sprawling urban mass I first encountered in late August. The entire city is gearing up for New Year’s--a major holiday in the post-Soviet world. All across the city, businesses are busily decorating. There are large “New Year’s trees” in front of all of the major city buildings, and stages are being erected in front of Old Square. Not only is New Year’s rapidly approaching, but 16 December marks Independence Day in Kazakhstan. Yes, there was another day of independence in October--but that marked the declaration of sovereignty by the Kazakh SSR. 16 December is the day that the government declared its independence from Moscow.

On Sunday, I walked from my house to the botanical gardens (a distance of about 4.5 miles). When I arrived at the entrance, city workers were setting up a New Year’s tree--complete with Santa Claus. Actually, poor Santa was being hoisted by a crane and was dangling in mid-air while the workers tried to figure out what to do with him. For a few minutes, I thought that they were going to go for a tea and cigarette break--leaving the unfortunate Kris Kringle aloft until they returned. Fortunately, they decided to finish the job first.

All of the stores are selling New Year’s ornaments--which look strangely similar to Christmas ornaments. But then, they are all made in China. Garland is everywhere--you can’t escape it. After all, this IS a country in which there is no word for “tacky”. (My friends and I have asked. It doesn’t exist. ). Sovyetskoe Champagnskoe (Soviet champagne) is on sale in just about every store--marked down from $3 to $2 a bottle. Based on personal experience, it should come with some Advil as well--it is incredibly sweet and just 1 or 2 glasses is enough to guarantee a headache the next day. Which has not stopped my friends and I from indulging on special occasions.

In many ways, Almaty is very reminiscent of home during the holiday season. Except without the sounds of Mariah Carey (Scary?) screeching Christmas carols being piped throughout all of the stores. I DID hear some Christmas music this week, though. While walking through the pedestrian shopping district, a young man was playing “I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In” on the flute. It was a great feeling to hear familiar seasonal music--until I realized that he only knew a very small part of the song and kept repeating it. Then, at the other end of the shopping area, another young man was playing his guitar and singing. Again, I stopped to listen. But since he only knew one line of the song (“knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door”. Repeat. Repeat again. Repeat again somewhat soulfully. Repeat and screech this time)--well, I didn’t stay long. There was quite an audience, though. I guess it makes a difference if you understand the language the song is in.

I have also been enjoying walking past Old Square each day--seeing how the decorations have progressed (or haven’t progressed--decorating is a rather lengthy process that involves much smoking and drinking of tea). Thursday, my observations were rewarded with the sight of the first protest I have encountered here in Kazakhstan. About 20 students were gathered in the center of the square, while someone spoke through a megaphone. I’m not sure what they were protesting, since the speaker was Kazakh and had a difficult accent to understand. After the events of the past week, I didn’t want to get too close or ask questions, either. One encounter with the police was enough! I’ve already been accused of being a criminal and a prostitute--I don’t need to add dissenter to the list!

Today it snowed--not enough to really stick to the ground, but enough to coat the trees and make everything appear a little more festive. I spent the afternoon making soup, reading “A Christmas Carol”, and drinking tea. It was a nice and relaxing way to enjoy the season. The next several weeks will be busy--I will hopefully be leaving for China next Saturday, and am trying to work in a trip to Semey (in northeastern Kazakhstan) before the end of the month. But today was for relaxation--it was great to have time to spend at home doing nothing more taxing than deciding between Turkish chai, black current tea, or Earl Grey. Since I couldn’t decide, I made all three (at different times, of course). And had a cream horn. And a piece of German chocolate with hazelnuts. I’ll walk it off tomorrow.


It occurs to me that--while I have often described the situation in Almaty--I have failed to mention a favorite area just outside of the city. Medeu is about 20 minutes away from the center of the city (as long as you don’t encounter a probka-or traffic jam), and it can be hard to believe that you are so close to such a major metropolitan area. The area is actually a large park--although some people do live there--and is nestled right at the base of the Tien Shan mountains. I love taking the bus there midweek, and enjoying the fresh clean air. When possible, I also enjoy some hiking--but always being careful to stay away from the less populated areas. There is a ski resort (Chimbulak) further up the hill from Medeu, but the buses don’t run that far. However, there are cabs from Medeu--and I’m hoping to get to Chimbulak fairly soon. But I don’t want to go by myself, so will wait for my friends to accompany me.

When you first get off of the bus in Medeu, you encounter a massive Soviet-era building. It is actually an ice skating rink--and where Soviet athletes practiced, once upon a time. There are the requisite bas-relief sculptures of speed skaters above the entrance to the rink. The ice itself is rather different from skating rinks in the US, or those that I have encountered in Europe. After walking up a steep flight of stairs, you enter the rink itself--which is built right into the side of the mountain. There is no separation between the ice and the spectator area. It is just a large open area of ice with some snow along the edges. No zambonis, no guard rail, nothing. People fly by on their skates, while in random areas others practice their figure skating.

I went to Medeu on Wednesday--not to skate or hike, but just to breathe the clean mountain air for a while. When I entered the stadium, I could not help but laugh. I was walking up the steps to the rink--and was directly underneath those bas relief sculptures of speed skaters--when a new song began blaring through the stereo system. Yes, it was “Winds of Change”--that late 80s/early 90s anthem to the fall of the Berlin Wall and end of communism. I had to stop and just enjoy the moment.

Once I entered the stadium, I found a seat near the edge of the ice and just enjoyed watching the skaters and the music that was playing. How often do you get to hear Paula Abdul on the radio anymore? Particularly when it is her classic (?) song “Rush Rush” (Please don’t ask why I know the song. Some things just should better left unsaid). Halfway through the song, the radio announcer cut into the music to announce that the artist (?) was the famous choreographer for the Los Angeles Lakers cheerleaders. It was one of those delightfully surreal moments when all you can do is laugh. And make sure to write it down in your journal, so you don’t forget it later.

There was quite a mix of people skating that afternoon--families with small children, would-be hockey players, the obligatory drunk man staggering around on skates, and adolescents trying to impress members of the opposite sex by demonstrating their prowess on the ice. One in particular caught my attention--a young man doing everything he could to impress another. He would skate around the object of his affections, trying out dance moves and generally trying to be as suave as possible. To no avail. She was clearly not interested or impressed. To make the situation even funnier, the young man was a doppelganger for a neighbor from the same building as my sister and me when we were at UMASS. It took me a minute to realize why he looked so familiar--but it suddenly struck me that he was the image of Kevin Messina. Had Kevin been even slightly coordinated. (You can stop laughing now, Catherine!).

When I left the rink, I walked around surrounding area for a while. While doing so, I came across the bus for the Kazakh national speed skating team (complete with logos from the last Olympics in Turino). Unfortunately, there was no one on or around the bus--that would have been pretty cool. At least I was able to take some pictures--which I will hopefully be able to post sometime in the near future. Or at least in the next few months.

Thoughts on this past week

The passage below is part of blog by Jon Katz, who writes about life on “Bedlam Farm” in upstate New York. He was writing about the different types of loss, and how we react to it when it happens. These words seem particularly appropriate this week, and have helped to deal with the feelings of loss caused by the violation of my home and the realization of personal vulnerability. Each day is a little easier than the last, though. And each day, I realize how incredibly fortunate I am to have such an amazing support network of friends and family. That knowledge is the ‘something better’ that Katz writes about.

“I think loss is best handled slowly, in bits and pieces, with deep breaths, by taking one walk, talking to one close friend, walking dogs, reading bits and pieces of a good book, or poem. Journaling helps, in that loss is recorded, dealt with noted, as it should be. Acknowledging the loss to yourself and to others is, I think, also good. I think it is somewhat appropriate to be embarrassed by loss, otherwise, we would be drowning in it, and stories and laments about it. Loss is an inevitable part of life, even if it surprises us, overwhelms us, and hurts. Like pain it's a mystery, since a benevolent God wouldn't allow us to suffer it. And, I suppose, it is a private thing, since even if we are fortunate to know people willing to share our loss, or help us with it, it is also something that only we can feel, that sense of pain, of having a piece cut out of us, of having lost something we may never find again. Sometimes people deny loss, thinking of it as temporary, or are reflexively reassured by people telling them things will be fine, what was lost will inevitably be recovered, regained, replaced. I'm not sure. Sometimes what is lost is gone for good, in one way or another. I do believe that loss is a gift, like most things you feel, that opens us up and leads us to different places. And I tell friends who have suffered a loss, this: toughness doesn't come from denying loss, but from the ability to think and see beyond it, to imagine a hole filled in with something else, a time and space where will inevitably fade and soften and be replaced by something else, if we are lucky, something better.”

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Thank you

So many people have sent letters and called these last few days. It means more than you know. Thank you. I will try to respond to each and every one of you as quickly as possible--right now, I'm using an older laptop that my landlords loaned to me. It doesn't connect to the Internet, but at least I can write letters and bring them to the internet cafe on my flashdrive (which was somehow overlooked).

Things are going a little better here in Almaty. I would up spending yesterday morning scrubbing my house from top to bottom, then went to the Russian/Finnish baths for the afternoon. Life definitely looks better after a massage/facial/manicure, and a few hours in the sauna. Now I'm getting ready to go to Medeu to look up at the mountains. I'll start back at work next week--but for now, I need a little time to process everything.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Cops and Robbers

There have been many positive experiences here in Almaty, but as with anything, there is also a negative side. Yesterday, I discovered this aspect for the first time when I came home after a short shopping trip to find that my house had been robbed. All of my electronic equipment, as well as some clothing, 2 suitcases, and a few other things were missing. As they say here in Almaty, kashmar--or nightmare. On the bright side, no one was hurt. My landlady came right over from work and we spent the afternoon dealing with the police and the embassy.

I must say, it was an interesting experience dealing with the police. I was called a criminal, asked repeatedly for the names of the men that I must have brought into my house (because Kazakh men apparently are irresistible. Must have missed that memo!), and generally treated as if the theft was my fault. While waiting for the embassy officials--because the police legally cannot speak with me without proper representation--the police officers sat on the couch in the living room and read the newspaper. Of course, this is the room that was completely destroyed by the thieves--they had to be shamed into knocking on doors in the building to see if anyone had seen anything.

While the robbery was upsetting (something of an understatement), at least I have many friends here in the city. Word quickly spread and people called and stopped by all afternoon and evening. It was nearly 12 hours later when I had my apartment to myself for the first time since returning home.

I will try to keep in touch as much as possible--but it will be a little more difficult until I can find a way to replace my computer. But possessions can be replaced--the important thing is that no one was hurt.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Picture from Thanksgiving dinner--and a real apple pie

I’ve just come back from a real Thanksgiving dinner with some friends—turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and the rest. Even in Kazakhstan, it is possible to celebrate in true American fashion. My contribution was the apple pie. Unfortunately, we forgot to take a picture before cutting into the pie, but this picture should give an idea of what it looked like. The design was rather tongue in cheek—and something of a joke among the Fulbrighters (a “C” surrounded by rays of sunlight). It is surprisingly difficult to bake a pie in an oven without a temperature gauge, and also in a square pan rather than the usual circular shape (the dough drapes differently in a square pan). Although I understand that baking the pie was easier than roasting the turkey. Stoves over here are rather small, and in order to keep the oven door completely closed, it was apparently necessary to prop the kitchen table against the oven. Over here, ingenuity is essential!

Tomorrow evening it is off to the drama theater for a Russian play. I don’t know what it is, yet—but it should be interesting. We’ll see how good my Russian is (or isn’t). Then on Tuesday, I will likely be going to see the classic Shakespearean play “Gamlet”. Right now, it is time to head off to bed and sleep off the effects of too much dessert. I’ll have to get up early tomorrow to start walking off all the pie…but it was worth it!

Friday, November 23, 2007


This year has been the first time that I have been both away from family and outside the US for Thanksgiving. While I do miss all of the traditions and the people, this week has been an extraordinary opportunity to reflect on what Thanksgiving really means. The holiday is really what you make of it. For me, it has been about spending time with several groups of teenagers, sharing stories of the US and trying to encourage them to explore opportunities to expand their horizons beyond thoughts of their immediate future. Exhausting, draining, exhilarating, and wonderful all at the same time.

Along with the other Fulbright students in Almaty, I was asked to travel to Taldykorgan (the regional capital) to speak to a group of teenagers living in an orphanage. We were presenting material on the educational system in the US, but were really there to provide encouragement and support for these teens who have been given few opportunities to think of a future beyond leaving the orphanage. Most of these kids are not orphans in the true sense of the word—instead, they were left at the orphanage by teenage parents, families who did not want more children, or parents with substance abuse problems. While it was apparent that they are well taken care of physically, there is little support and encouragement for these teens to think beyond their immediate future. If this group follows the well-established path of those who have already left the orphanage, many of the girls will marry young in order to have a family of their own—and likely be divorced within 2-3 years. Lacking connections and the requisite education, the young men will drift to the areas of town where the unemployed gather, hoping that someone will drive by and offer them a temporary job as a day laborer.

After a six hour trip to Taldykorgan (a distance of only about 300km), we arrived at the school where we were to speak. Most of the afternoon was spent giving presentations and spending time with the teens. I don’t know whether our talks inspired any of the teens to attempt the long and difficult process of changing their situation—but I hope that we did something positive. If nothing else, the students will remember the day that four American university students came to spend the day with them. A change from their usual routine, and maybe something that will make them smile in memory.

The following day, the four of us spoke at different middle/high schools around the city. The topic was the same, but the audience was very dissimilar to the day before. We were met at our hotel and driven to the schools—where we were met with great pomp and circumstance. There wasn’t the opportunity to interact with students individually—in my case, I was escorted personally around the school by the rector and was proudly shown all of the English language classrooms. It was clear that my role had changed—rather than being there as a mentor, I was instead an official representative of the US and treated accordingly. After speaking at the schools, it was time to drive back to Almaty. Fortunately, the return trip only took 4 hours (since we missed the traffic in Almaty). The trip was short and mentally exhausting, and I would leave again in the morning to start it all over again.

After returning home, I barely had 12 hours to prepare for my next public speaking event. And that 12 hours included time to sleep. Previously, I had been asked by the consulate to speak at the National Children’s Library in Almaty, describing Thanksgiving traditions in the US. With preparations for an early Thanksgiving dinner, as well as the trip to Taldykorgan, there hadn’t been any time to think of what to say—so I was a little worried. It does help being from Cape Cod, though. A few postcards of the area where the Pilgrims landed, a map, and the memory of Glenn Miller’s lecture on the human geography of the cranberry industry made all of the difference! The students were an incredibly audience, and my five minute presentation ended up being nearly thirty minutes. Afterwards, several of them remained behind to congratulate me on the Thanksgiving holiday (it is customary here to offer your congratulations for holidays, birthdays, etc.). Then, while drinking tea with the library director, the students came back to ask if I would come to their school to speak with them again. Naturally I agreed—their enthusiasm is irresistible! As soon as they left the room, they let out a loud cheer—it was one of those moments that I know I will never forget.

Tomorrow (Saturday), I will have Thanksgiving dinner with friends. It will be a real Thanksgiving dinner—complete with turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce. As I sit in my kitchen writing this update, an apple pie is baking in the oven and an empty pie shell is cooling on the counter. So, some things are just like home. And the recent outreach activities really make me appreciate how many things I have to be thankful for.

picture from Monday

There have been several comments on the picture I posted yesterday. For the record, I am NOT living on a secret commune in western Kansas, contemplating my naval. The picture was taken on the road between Taldykorgan and Almaty. However, there is a local term for the scenery in the picture. It is called the “Kansas Steppe”.

Also, if you click on the picture from the blog itself, you can see more detail.

Thursday, November 22, 2007


It has been an incredibly long and busy week here in Kazakhstan—a whirlwind trip to Taldykorgan to speak at an orphanage about the possibilities of studying in the US, and another talk at the National Children’s Library about Thanksgiving traditions. Today (Thanksgiving) is the first break I have had in nearly a week. I’ll be spending it catching up on some much-needed housework and going to the bazaar to pick up the ingredients for an apple pie for the Thanksgiving dinner my friends are hosting on Saturday. I had hoped to spend the day up in Medeu, hiking around the mountains—but the weather isn’t cooperative.

I’ll write more soon about the events of the last few days, and will hopefully have an update posted sometime tonight. It was an incredible experience, but one that was also very draining. Until then, I’m posting a picture to give you an idea of the incredible vastness and desolation of the countryside around Almaty. This picture was taken on the major highway between Almaty and Taldykorgan (the capital of Almaty Oblast). It is also the only road between these two locations—which makes traveling very interesting. Fortunately we were in a car that had a very good suspension system!

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Thanksgiving and Outreach Activities

It is strange to be sitting down with a glass of wine right now, when back at KU the Geography Dept. is gearing up for tonight’s huge “Globe-O-Mania” competition to end up Geography Awareness Week. Normally on this day, I’m running around with lists and trying to maintain some semblance of sanity (frequently a lost cause). The event is always tremendous fun and a great opportunity for students to see a different side of the department (and no one has been too traumatized yet!).

The situation here will change tomorrow, though. When all of the volunteers—and Shannon, especially—are able to sit back and relax somewhat, the pace here in Almaty will speed up dramatically. I’ll be assisting with some of the preparations for a Thanksgiving dinner to be held on Sunday (good thing I finally learned how to make pie crust this summer, Mom!), so there will be some shopping as well as cooking involved over the next three days. And lots of list making—my inner control freak is completely and blissfully happy at the moment!!

Thanksgiving dinner is not the only event on the horizon, though. Early Monday morning I will be picked up by a diplomatic vehicle (how cool is that???) for my first overnight trip outside of Almaty. Next week is International Week, and each year the embassy/consulate works with an orphanage somewhere in the country to try to provide the children (or in this case, the teenagers) a broader perspective on the world. The goal is to encourage them to think beyond their immediate future—many of these orphans have no idea of life beyond limited confines of the orphanage. They have little thought of a university education—and face extremely limited prospects for the future.

The goal of the embassy program is to let the young adults in the orphanage know that there are opportunities if they are willing to put in some effort. The US government sponsors many programs to bring students to the States to study, and are additional outside scholarships available as well. The four Fulbrighters in the area have been invited by the consulate to travel to Taldykorgan (the capital Almaty oblast, about 3 hours from the city of Almaty) to speak at an orphanage and to give some idea of what university life is like in the States. Our role is to provide encouragement, and to let the young men and women know that there are possibilities to effect change in their lives and improve their future prospects. Often, they are never given any encouragement, so it will be an extraordinary opportunity for us to try to provide some hope for a different life.
We will be in Taldykorgan for two days—the first day at the orphanage, and the second day at local schools giving the same presentations.

I’ll write more after returning from the trip, and try to provide more of a description of the area. In the interim, here is link to some information on Taldykorgan. The site also gives a good idea of the intense love of statistics over here. It should be readily apparent that the author is not a native speaker of English. Considering that I will be going to an orphanage where there are a large number of children who resulted from teenage pregnancies, maybe stating that there are “27 treatment - prophylactic establishments” is not the best possible wording!

Monday, November 12, 2007

Happy Veterans Day!

It is a little strange being in Kazakhstan on Veterans Day—it is been a day that has reminded me of how much I miss the sight of the American flag flying in the breeze. Veterans Day is not a day that is celebrated here in Kazakhstan, so there were no parades or ceremonies. Instead, I went to the remembrance memorial in the park near my house where there is a large monument to those who served in WWII, as well as another statue dedicated to those who took part in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

I have been incredibly fortunate to have so many family members and friends who have freely served our country. So, on this Veterans Day, I’d like to thank Dad, Catherine, Noel, Pepere, Grandpa Burke, Gramp Chandler, Uncle Leon, Neil, Brad, George, Wally, as well as others too numerous to name. To Geoff Stewart and all those who are deployed to distant places away from their loved ones—words cannot express what you do. Be safe, and come home soon.

Veterans Day should also not pass without recognizing the incredibly important part played by the family members of those who serve their country. They also make tremendous sacrifices, but do not receive the same recognition.


Just a quick note about sending a message to the “Kazakhstan Updates” group—any messages sent to this address automatically is forwarded to anyone who receives updates from the blog. While I love hearing from people, I don’t want to clog up anyone else’s email accounts. If you don’t have my email address, the best way to get a message to me is to add a comment to the blog—these are sent to me before they can be posted for anyone to see.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Shopping for Jeans

Yesterday I finally broke down and went to the bazaar to buy a new pair of jeans. After looking at the recent pictures from Tamgaly-Tas, I decided that it was well past time to retire the jeans I had brought from home. I also needed to buy a new purse, since the zipper on my old one no longer works. So…a trip to the bazaar was definitely in order.

How to describe the experience? Well, let’s just say that a trip to the therapist or a few glasses of Old Tbilisi might be in order. I knew that finding the right jeans would likely be the most difficult part of the excursion, so I headed to the clothing section of the Zelyony (Green) Bazaar first. There are numerous narrow aisles of stalls, packed full of any type of clothing you can imagine. Most of the jeans were pretty awful—they looked like someone was set loose with a bedazzler. However, there were some that were quite nice as well as flattering. The selection was further limited by whoever was operating a particular stall. There are no changing rooms at the bazaar—the merchant usually holds up a sheet to give you some semblance of privacy, so I would much rather have the merchant be another woman. It’s a little more comfortable that way.

When I finally found a pair of jeans that I liked (strangely enough, they happened to be [real] Levis), the fun part began. I had to climb over all of the jeans lying out on the stall counter, and then sit down to try them on. Apparently, that particular merchant doesn’t offer the amenity of a sheet. The woman also felt it necessary to…um, assist. The entire time, people were walking by and looking to see what was going on—strange men, grandmothers, school children. The bright side is that I was able to garner multiple opinions before deciding to buy the jeans. Fortunately, it seemed to be a unanimous decision, and I only had to try on one pair before clambering back over the counter to the pedestrian area.

What goes better with authentic Levis than a knock-off purse? Fashion is paramount over here, although it often seems to be taken to extremes. The most important accessory—a purse, of course. I finally found one that I liked—an imitation “Miu-Miu”. I really wanted to buy the imitation Versace, but had issues with the “Mede in Italy Ciani Versace” embossment. I suppose it is fine if you don’t read English—but it was a bit too much for me. I really like the note that was tucked into the purse I bought, though.

Don’t put in the sun and don’t touch rain
Don’t touch corroden, t, acid and alkaline (the actual spelling)
Don’t touch rough things

With any luck, I won’t have to go shopping for jeans again anytime soon. But if I do…well, I’ll know what to expect! And I’ll make a stop at the wine stall at the bazaar before heading home.

Monday, November 5, 2007


[WARNING: this post is relatively academic in nature!! J ]

Kazakhstan is a relatively new country, achieving independence only in 1991. One of the fascinating questions (for me, at least) is how people and the government of the country have shifted from accepting a common Soviet identity to a new vision of what it means to be Kazakh. Within a very short space of time, the citizens of the Kazakh SSR (Soviet Socialist Republic) had to re-imagine themselves as citizens of a country that had never before existed in the modern sense of statehood. To complicate the matter even further, ethnic Kazakhs did not even comprise a majority of the citizenry. According to the 1989 Soviet census, the population of the region was about 40% Kazakh and 38% Russian. How, then, would it be possible to create a new Kazakh identity that validated the country’s existence? An obvious solution for the government was to draw upon the history of different groups in the region, and to create historic sites as well as to construct monuments and markers throughout the country. [In case you are wondering, this is an abridged version of a section of my Master’s thesis and will likely show up in the dissertation. It’s definitely a little more readable in this format—omitting such references as “Hooson’s seminal work on effective national territory” and “Agnew’s imperative not to view the state as a container of a homogenous society”. So now you know a large portion of what I do, without all the extraneous verbiage!]

Tamgaly-Tas is a great example of a site established by the government that emphasizes modern-day Kazakhstan’s connection with the far-reaches of history. It is located in the middle of nowhere—as I described in a previous post, it took over an hour to drive between 20 and 30 kilometers to the site. There is also nothing at the site—no souvenir shops, no restaurant, no place to buy anything. The only amenity is what was described to me as a ‘primitive bathroom’. That statement is an exaggeration (the word bathroom suggests that there is some sort of plumbing—which does not apply to a thatched-roof hut with a rough hole cut in the wooden floor. Outhouse is a better word). I do not want to suggest, though, that it was impossible to spend money at the site. When we arrived, we were met by several men on horseback. For about $10, you could take a horseback ride around the site and across the steppe. Kazakhs were historically a nomadic people, and horses have always been an important part of the culture. It is truly a beautiful sight to see someone riding a horse across the steppe—a National Geographic photo brought to life.

As we drove closer to Tamgaly-Tas, I began to understand more about the decision to use brilliant turquoise blue and goldenrod-yellow in the Kazakh flag. It was a beautifully clear day, without a cloud in the sky. The colors perfectly reflected the colors of the flag, from the blue sky to the yellow of the grassland vegetation. Driving across the steppe—on a path that had first been built for the merchants of the Silk Road—it looked as if the sky was reaching down to the ground. When we finally stopped and got off of the bus, the first thing I noticed was the air. It was the first time that I could truly breathe since arriving in Kazakhstan. The air in Almaty is incredibly polluted—so much so that I have developed a (second hand) smoker’s cough. In Tamgaly-Tas, the air was incredibly clean and pure, laced with a faint spice from the grasses—a wonderful scent.

The site at Tamgaly-Tas was established more than 3,000 years ago, during the Bronze Age by the Sakha people—or Scythians. The religion at the time was based on the worship of Mithras, the sun-god. However, this god was replaced by Tengri, the sky-god. The petroglyphs are part of a sacred site, located where the gently rolling plains of the steppe abruptly rise up in a series of low hills that have large areas of exposed slate (perfect for petroglyphs). The inhabitants of the area viewed Tengri as the originator of the universe, to be worshipped by all animals and people. Tengriism was an animist religion, in which shamans played a key role in bridging the gap between the heavens and earth. The petroglyphs at Tamgaly-Tas reflect this religion, depicting both mythical and real animals, the creation of the universe by Tengri, and shamanic ceremonies (including one of the most important, that of sexual relations between the shaman and an animal—usually a bull—which was seen as a sacred and desirable event joining the animal and human worlds. The site is situated so that on key days during the year (vernal and autumnal equinoxes, summer and winter solstices) very specific and sacred areas receive direct sunlight. Ceremonies were held to celebrate these events, and their locations are marked by sacred trees where people still tie white ribbons to mark their prayers.

It was very easy to see why the worship of Tengri might have replaced the worship of Mithras—the sky in the steppe is incredibly vast, and dominates the visual landscape. It seems to be a much more dominant power than the sun, and the light and shadows take on a life of their own. From the top of the escarpment, the steppe fades away into the horizon—very similar to the way the ocean shimmers off unendingly into the distance.

Even after the time of the Sakha people, the site continued to be used for ceremonial purposes. There are several graves from the Andronov period, as well as a burial kurgan (barrow) which would have marked the grave of an important personage within the tribe. The graves are all situated so that the individual’s feet pointed directly to the location of the sunrise at the time of their death. Women were buried facing the steppe, and men faced the sacred sites.

Two thousand years later, these same hills were part of the famed Silk Road. Markers (which have since been reconstructed) at the peak of each hill pointed travelers toward the main road which would eventually take them west to Europe or east to China.

I found it interesting that most people had never heard of Tamgaly-Tas until very recently (the last five or ten years). Although people knew of the existence of Tamgaly-Tas, it was not ‘discovered’ until the middle of the 20th century, when a Russian scholar explored the area. When I asked why the site was discovered so recently—and by a Russian, no less—I was told that the Soviet government did not view these to be appropriate cultural artifacts and preferred to forget their existence. More recently, though, the Kazakh government has cooperated with UNESCO to document and preserve the site. It is now an officially recognized World Heritage Site. In a relatively short space of time, the government has created a popular tourist site that celebrates the long-standing history of those who inhabited the vast steppes of Kazakhstan. Additionally, the site connects Kazakhstan to the Silk Road, even though most of the trade routes were further to the south. [As a note—the Caspian Sea, which borders Kazakhstan to the west, is named for the Silk Road. Caspian is a Persian word for silk, so it is the ‘Silk Sea’.] It was a remarkable opportunity to see such a beautiful place, one that tells so much about both ancient and modern Kazakhstan.


A few people have asked about sending postcards from Kazakhstan. While I would love to be able to do so, there is a problem. They don't have postcards here. Tourism is not as well developed as it is in other areas, and the idea of the 'souvenir stand' has not reached this area of the world. I'm posting a picture of the UNESCO designated "World Heritage Site" at Tamgaly-Tas to show just how little there can be at tourism sites.

There's also another factor in sending postcards--if you think that everyone looks at them in the US, it is nothing compared to here. Who knows what might happen--and if a postcard would even arrive? I will do my best to send something to those who have asked, but there are no guarantees.

Image from petroglyphs

More on the petroglyphs's a picture from yesterday, in the meantime. Just as a note--out of the 50+ people who were on the trip, only one other person wore hiking boots. I couldn't imagine hiking through all the loose shale in nothing more than a pair of Keds, but then...I'm American and fashion doesn't always come first. Instead, safety is a little more important.

Prospective roommates

After a few hours of sleep and vast quantities of tea, I am once again alert enough to sit down in front of the computer and write. It is a beautiful morning here in Almaty, and I’m enjoying the sunlight streaming through my kitchen window as I listen to the cheerfully subversive music of Elvis Costello (insert comment about the Grand Hotel Krasnapolski here, Mom and Dad!)

These last few days, I have not been quite alone in my apartment. It began on Friday night, while I was writing a few letters on my computer. Normally, the stairwell here is very quiet—most people who live in this part of the building are elderly, so it is pretty quiet. On this occasion, though, I could hear several people speaking loudly in the stairwell. It was pretty obvious that they had been indulging in some sort of alcoholic beverage (an educated guess would be Baltika 9, since that seems to be the local favorite). So…I was not about to go out and see what was going on—especially I haven’t learned how to say “can you please keep the noise down and go drink somewhere else” in my Russian class (maybe I should ask my teacher to teach me, though!). Also, confronting at least one drunken man in the hallway doesn’t quite seem like a safe thing to do. Fortunately, the noise dropped off after about 30 minutes. Since I was focused on writing, the situation entirely slipped my mind. That is, until I was about to go to bed around 11pm. I was sitting in my kitchen with just a small lamp for light (I don’t like the overhead light). The weather was nice, so I had opened the doors to the balcony in the living room earlier in the evening. Suddenly, my house was filled with the sound of very loud breathing. I couldn’t tell where it was originating from, so I very cautiously walked to the living/bedroom and turned on the light. It didn’t seem likely that anyone would be able to get into the living room—unless they came down from the roof, but this IS Kazakhstan, after all. Fortunately, there was no one there. That’s when I realized that the loud breathing had become louder snoring. Yes, there was a drunk man sprawled across my doorstop. Yurya (my landlord) tried to wake him up to tell him to leave, but the man was insensible.

The next day, I asked Lyudmilla and Yurya about the situation. They told me that it is not uncommon in the colder months. Sometimes it is someone who is homeless, but unfortunately most often it is someone who is too drunk to stagger home. We have an outer door that is supposed to be closed and locked during the night, but not everyone shuts the door behind them. And, of course, the top floor (where I live) is the most desirable location to pass out, since there is less likelihood of being disturbed. They normally leave early in the morning (which around here is about 9am)—but I’ve been told that sometimes it might be necessary to step over someone while heading off to work. Just when you think you know what to expect here, something new happens!

Sitting down to write this update, I suddenly heard another strange noise. This time, it was coming from the window—a continuous low tapping sound. I had left the window cracked open last night to try to lower the (incredibly hot) temperature in the apartment. When I looked over at the window this morning, I found another prospective roommate—a 4 inch preying mantis. Now, I have some standards after all—no strange drunk men, and no one/nothing that consumes its mate are allowed into my house. I usually have no problems with getting rid of insects and other creepy/crawly visitors (including drunks). A preying mantis, however, is slightly different. I have strange images of opening the window wider to get rid of it, but instead allowing the mantis into the house. And I really don’t want to chase a 4 inch bug all over the apartment. So…instead I closed the inner window and effectively shut the preying mantis between the inner and outer windows—kind of a homemade terrarium. It is now staring at me out if its huge pug-like eyes, and using its long legs to tap on the glass. I can really see why there are so many Far Side cartoons with at least one preying mantis. Just as long as it remains a case of “same planet/different worlds”!

I’ll write more later either today or tomorrow about the trip to the petroglyphs. Right now, I need to head off to the store—it’s time for a slight change of hair color and I’ve been told that Dastarkhan has a recent shipment of American products. I don’t mind experimenting with different shades of red, but I just don’t want one of those strange shades that don’t occur in nature…

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Rocky Mountains...or Steppe?

It has been another very long day here in Kazakhstan—leaving the house at 7:30am and returning at 9pm. The university had a trip to Tamgaly-Tas, about 2 ½ hours outside of Almaty. It is an archeological site with Bronze Age petroglyphs, and was absolutely fascinating. However, it was definitely not in the Rocky Mountains—rather, the site is a very low escarpment rising up out of the steppe. Not tall mountains at all. However, it did remind me quite a bit of Kansas (with the exception of the trash on the sides of the roads and old men riding donkeys across the steppe). I will write more on the site later, but am completely exhausted and will be heading off to bed soon.

Before I go to bed, though, I wanted to briefly describe the trip out to Tamgaly-Tas, since the bus ride was unlike any previous experience I can think of. We were on a large charter bus, completely full of people (and—in at least one case—someone had to sit on someone else’s lap so we could all stay on the bus). Tamgaly-Tas is only about 20 or 30 kilometers off of the main road. However, it took over an hour (closer to 1 ½ hours) to drive that distance. The road itself was once part of the ancient Silk Road—and that is approximately when it last received any attention or upkeep. Our driver, Sergei, needed to keep swerving off of the road to avoid the many, many potholes or uneven patches. What made it extremely interesting was that the bus also has a television—set to a channel showing the very latest in Turkish and Russian videos. Just imagine sitting on an overcrowded bus swerving all over the road (and off of the road) while the driver chain-smokes and ogles the scantily-clad women in the music videos instead of watching where he should be driving. There is no place quite like Kazakhstan!

More later—now it’s time for a glass of wine and a good book. I’ll be asleep within 30 minutes…

another day, another adventure

In a few minutes, I will be leaving my apartment to meet some faculty members from the university. They are taking me to the "Rocky Mountains" for an all-day trip. I actually have no idea where we are going since no one has mentioned the real name of our destination--and "Rocky Mountains" are not listed in my guidebook. should be interesting! I'll try to post an update soon about this latest trip.

In other news--apparently there is no daylight savings time over here. So, once you change your clocks back home, I'll be 11 hours ahead of the East Coast and 12 hours ahead of the Midwest.

It will be another busy week here--an art opening for the embassy tomorrow night, wrapping up the grading for the semester for my American Studies students, and trying to arrange for a visa to Kyrgyzstan for next weekend. Yes, Kyrgyzstan. Bishkek (the capital) is about 4 hours away, and a group of us decided to see if we can make it there for the long weekend. We've all been anxious to do some traveling, and the opportunity presented itself. We're also trying to put together a trip to Urumqi (Urumchi), China for the end of the month. It's only an overnight bus ride, after all!

Well, time to go make sure I have enough warm clothes for today. It hasn't been cold at all thus far, but people are already bundled up as if it were deepest winter. And, since I'm the guest of honor today, if I'm also not warmly dressed, people will be trying to give me their coats, gloves, etc. all day. They find it strange that I actually like it when the weather is cool (but I've been told that the climate here is different, so even though the weather doesn't make me sick at home, it definitely will here). More later...

Friday, November 2, 2007


I've had a few emails from people regarding the pictures on the blog, since not everyone is able to see the (few) pictures I've posted without actually going to the actual website. Apparently, there is a setting that needs to be adjusted to ensure that pictures are included with updates. Let me know if you'd like me to change this setting, and I'll take care of it as soon as possible.


Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Hallowe'en Reflections

Although my schedule here in Almaty is usually pretty busy, there is still quite a bit of time to stop and think about things. It can be good, but at the same time there is also the downside of focusing too much on what is in your mind—it can border on the self-absorbed and begin to be detrimental. Whenever that begins to occur—or whenever you begin to feel rather self-satisfied with the ways things are going—something has a way of giving you a reality check, though.

The last few days I have been a somewhat out of sorts—overwhelmed at the amount of work to get through this week, frustrated with my geopolitics students, and a little tired of being asked so many personal questions by those who are—at best—acquaintances. In addition, I went from thinking that my allergies were just worse than usual to a major sinus infection almost overnight. It is normal not to feel quite the same physically over here as you do at home, so the normal cues that something is off just don’t seem to work.

This morning really helped to put everything in perspective, though. Wednesday mornings I teach my American Studies classes. The first hour is the Russian group (all of their classes are in Russian or in English) and the second hour is the Kazakh group (they have a few classes in Kazakh). The students are getting ready for a 6 week teaching practicum, so today was a rather relaxed class as they gave their presentations on different elements of American culture that they find interesting. In between presentations, we spoke a little about Hallowe’en and—in my first class—told some ghost stories. As my second class ended, one of the students from my Russian group came back to the room to invite me upstairs for a few minutes. One of their other classes was having a Hallowe’en party, and they wanted me to be their guest. The Hallowe’en party was great fun. We told more ghost stories—as well as some rather silly stories—and ate lots of cookies and tortes. We took quite a few pictures, and then they presented me with a small glass bead to put under my pillow to ‘make wishes come true’. I don’t know what to wish for, though. I have so much already.

The Hallowe’en party this morning is easily one of the best I have ever attended. Not because of the party itself, but because of the realization of how happy such a simple thing on my part—just attending—made my students as well as their other instructor. Since arriving here, I’ve been struggling with the hospitality that is such an integral part of the culture here—it’s a mixture of guilt because of the awareness of the disparity in our economic situations, as well as a little of that innate New England reserve. My students, though, are teaching me more than I could ever teach them. They are so enthusiastic and openly generous that it is impossible not to reciprocate. They teach me to be more spontaneously open and to give more of myself—and that doing so does not take anything away but instead leaves you with more than was there before. It is impossible to spend time in their company and depart untouched. I could not begin to imagine what my stay here in Almaty would be like without them.

The events of the day did not end with the Hallowe’en party, though. The consulate had asked me to speak at Suleyman Demurel University as part of a presentation on studying at US colleges and universities. The panel included the US Consul to Kazakhstan, so we had every possible courtesy extended to us. Suleyman Demurel University is sponsored by the Turkish government (it is also known as Kazakh-Turkish University). We were met at the front door by the assistant to the Rector, and then escorted to his office for a real Turkish tea (which was incredible). The rector spoke little English and no Russian, so we communicated through an interpreter. We were asked if any of us had been to Turkey and, when the rector found that I was born there, he was very excited to find that someone representing the US also had ties with his country. Such a simple thing (and something I had no control over—it was the US Army that sent my parents to Istanbul), but it was clear that it meant a great deal to the rector.

Returning home this evening, I could not help but feel overwhelmed by the incredible opportunities and experiences I have had here in Almaty. In so many ways, I am in awe of how life here is unfolding. Maybe I do have a wish after all—never to forget the importance of the people with whom you cross paths, however briefly.

Happy Hallowe'en!

Happy Hallowe’en! It’s been another busy day here—teaching and a presentation at Suleiman Demeral University. I just now returned home, and am heading off to fix some dinner. Before I do, though, I wanted to send a picture of my students from the Russian group of my American Studies class earlier today. As you can see, they were very enthused about the holiday! More later, after I get something to eat….

Monday, October 29, 2007

A busy day...

Well, it’s been another long and exhausting day here in Almaty! But definitely a great day. The next few days are going to be insanely busy, so I wanted to do a little writing tonight before I stumble off to bed—otherwise, I don’t know when I’ll have the chance. Between teaching, student presentations, and another unexpected lecture to prepare, there's not going to be much free time (the consulate just asked me to speak with a State Dept. rep at the Turkish-Kazakh University--the topic is "educational opportunities in the US". They want me to participate because--as Asiyat said--I've been in school for a very long time. Ouch.)

I’m writing from the kitchen right now, sitting at my table sipping a cup of tea. And playing Sweet Caroline as loudly as possible on my computer (not loudly at all, but it suffices). Sweet Caroline, good times never seemed so good! Messages are starting to trickle in from back home—Boston must be absolutely insane right about now. When I flew back in 2004, there were championship signs all over Boston for the Sox and Patriots (plus, I was on the same flight as Tim Wakefield. Too cool!). I’d like to see the same thing again when I get back from Kazakhstan.

Okay, that is enough New England elitism (for now, at least). In all seriousness, though, it has been a great day here in Almaty—and not because the Sox and Pats both won. I started off the morning by giving several lectures at the Kazakh-British University. Lyudmilla teaches there, and several weeks ago she asked if I would be willing to come speak to the students when they begin learning about different types of celebrations in English-speaking countries. As with many things, it became somewhat political—the university wanted me to speak to classes other than Lyudmilla’s. So…I had to tell them that I would be happy to present several lectures to Lyudmilla’s students—and other professors were welcome to attend with their students. After all, it was Lyudmilla’s idea to ask me to the university, and she was so excited about being able to do something like that for her students. It helped both of us, too—I will be giving some seminars at the university in January, and it was good to establish some clear boundaries in relationships with the administration (it is very easy to be taken advantage of here, if you allow it to happen). At the same time, it let the university admin know that I was there specifically at Lyudmilla’s request.

The presentations began this morning at the ungodly hour of 8am. Yes, I know, that is not that early—in the US. Here, that is well before the crack of dawn. The city doesn’t really wake up until 9 or 10am. I had two lectures—at 8 and 9—and spoke about holiday celebrations in the United States. It was great fun—we told ghost stories for Hallowe’en, talked about why my mother makes the best apple pie anywhere for Thanksgiving (seriously, it’s the truth), and listened to all different types of Christmas carols. At the end of the second lecture, the students presented me with a completely unexpected—and totally charming—gift. It’s a small statue of a Kazakh man holding a stringed instrument—absolutely beautiful, and something I will treasure.

Following the presentations, I had tea with the department chair. Wow. I completely love these teas. There are all sorts of dried fruits and nuts, small pastries, black or green tea, and great conversation. As it turned out, both Lyudmilla’s supervisor and her department chair spent time at KU through some of the cultural exchange programs. They all spoke very highly of the university, and it was nice to be able to share stories of Lawrence all the way over here in Almaty. I also made the acquaintance of someone else from UNESCO (an American, this time), who will be a valuable contact when I begin the actual fieldwork portion of my work here.
I’m finding that giving these brief presentations and lectures have rewards that I never imagined. The interaction with the students is always fascinating—they are so curious about American culture and traditions, and in turn they make you enthused. It is addictive—for such little effort on my part, they give so much in return. Additionally, I’ve made contacts with people in all different professional realms—the connecting factor is an interest in education and improving the educational system in Kazakhstan. Oddly enough, the gender divide that is so apparent across the country works to my advantage. It is mostly women working in these fields, and they have welcomed me as a peer into their extended network. Before arriving here, I was unsure how I would be able to make the contacts I need for my research—but those connections are being made almost without thinking. The hard part will be deciding which ones to use.

Well, it’s rather late now and I need to head off to bed. Last night was a rather late evening, and there was no time to relax today. Sarah and Amelia hosted a Hallowe’en party for Sarah’s students from Ablai Khan. I joined them, and we had one of the more intriguing Hallowe’en parties I’ve ever been to. Just imagine 11 Kazakh students in costume, trying to bob for apples or hit a piñata, all the while giggling and admiring their costumes. Once all the students left, we headed over to the corner store to get something so we could spike what was left of the punch. And how could we resist “Thumbs Up” Vodka? For all of $2, you get a 1 liter bottle of vodka—complete with plastic thumb instead of a bottle cap. You really can’t make these things up—it is just everyday life over here.

Who said that Mondays are no fun???

Although it is completely unrelated to Kazakhstan, I just have to say it...


Definitely a great day in New England--wish I could be there to see all the mayhem (and the boys doing the Papelbon Dance--send video if you can, Catherine!)

Happy, happy Monday. And now Mom and Dad can start getting some sleep...

Sunday, October 28, 2007

message from a student

I just received this message from a student in my American Studies class. What more can I say, except that I am so fortunate to have a job that I absolutely love and that gives back so much more than I put into it.

I'd like to thank you again for inspiring us and giving a hand. It's so nice of you! Special thanks for attached files on American Studies. I'll probably
use them on my teaching practicum,if you don't mind. Besides, I find
them practically useful on my current job. I'm working as a teacher
of English now (at one university). I really like my job! I find it so
interesting to work with my students. Unfortunately,I have no idea how
to make them speak! They're so shy! Sometimes I just run out of
patience! I go on repeating them the same thing we have learned
before,lesson by lesson. I surely do not blame them for that. Like
they I was too shy to speak English when I was at the same age and
level. However,I see how they are trying hard. All the time I carry on
telling them what a great leap they've made when comparing with the
previous times. I believe they'll do their best very soon. And,as you said,they ll
never let me down.

I loved your lectures we attended. In fact,I got more than I expected
to. Usually,as soon as I leave the class,I forget everything that was
told. But I remember almost every topic we discussed in your
class,that's the most amazing thing for me! ))

From the bottom of my heart,

Thursday, October 25, 2007


My friend Amelia took the GRE exam on Monday, scoring a perfect 1600. What is one to do afterwards but celebrate??? That evening, Sarah and I took her out to our first Kazakh discothèque. Wow! What can I say??? Mere words cannot describe the experience.

We went to a club near my house—about ¾ mile away. It is called the “Shishibar” and—according to our source—was 20% off on Monday nights (not true, but that is what the ads all said). The décor was rather unusual—a mix of Egyptian and Indian motifs. However, the bathrooms were labeled “Women” and “Men” in English, against the background of the Harley Davidson logo. Drinks were on par with clubs in the US, if not a little more expensive. One cosmo was 1300 tenge, or just over $10. Ouch! The music made it all worth it, though. We arrived around 10pm, which is very early by Kazakh standards. The music started at midnight, and was an amazing mix of incredibly obscure 80s music. I’m sad to report that I was the only person who knew all of the songs and their lyrics—including that classic by Laura Branigan, “Self Control”. It really didn’t seem to matter, though. As long as you could keep up with the drum machine, you were fine.

As to the dancing—let’s just say that American men all dance like Fred Astaire in comparison with Kazakh men. They dance in groups, in a rather homoerotic fashion. You would never see two straight men dancing together in quite the same fashion at home. Women dance separately—also in groups, but they essentially stand on the dance floor swaying ever so slightly and giggling. They don’t appear to have the first idea of how to move their hips when ‘dancing’—Sarah, Amelia, and I all attracted a few stares because we were actually dancing. Apparently we must have confirmed some stereotypes of American women. We had a great time, though. We stayed until about 2am (early by Kazakh standards), then headed home. I wouldn’t want to stay out so late on a regular basis, but it was well worth it.