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.”