Monday, April 21, 2008

Vodka in Central Asia--it is certainly not about the quality!

Unlike back in the US, where vodka can be an upscale beverage, here in Central Asia it is all about finding a unique niche in an otherwise crowded field. The best way to do so is not to produce the best product possible. Rather, it is all about unique marketing of some barely palatable vodka. Over the last months, my friends and I have made a study of some of these finer beverages. I’m listing some of our favorites (?) below—and should note that all three of these bottles cost approximately $11, which is the same price as a somewhat decent bottle of “Gdzelka”—the local version of Grey Goose. It is hard to resist some of the crazier packaging, though—hence the collection of inexpensive and pretty bad beverages. Just in case you are wondering, the collection of bottles started back in October—they are NOT all recent acquisitions!

1. Manly strength vodka—their slogan is something along the lines of “we will not be able to say much about the qualities of our vodka or that it is recommended by kings and wise men. But let your wife tell you about the qualities of our vodka”. Price—325 tenge ($2.70)

2. 100 пудов Vodka—which we do not know how to translate, since “пуд” (pood) is not in any of our dictionaries. Instead, we have called it Thumbs Up Vodka, for apparent reasons. Price—445 tenge ($3.70)

3. Bread Wine—a novel way to view vodka! Clearly, if you only have a few tenge left, this is the choice for you as it eliminates the need to buy both vodka and bread. It is a little pricey, but worth it since it serves a dual purpose. Price—550 tenge ($4.58)

I leave it to you to decide—could you pass up these fancy bottles for something a little more palatable? If the answer is yes, you could—well, live in Central Asia for a while. Your answer then just might surprise you!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Shymkent and Tashkent

Life in Almaty has finally settled back into something that approximates a regular routine. The routine, in fact, has a striking resemblance to my schedule back at KU. Once again there are lists of things to do posted all over my apartment, and large piles of reading materials in every room. Between intensive Kazakh lessons every day, working on the UNESCO report, grant writing, and working on the details of research presentations around Kazakhstan, there is not much free time. There’s quite a bit to get done before leaving Almaty for Shymkent in about 7 weeks time. Plus, next week I leave for a conference in the one place I have wanted to see for years—Turkmenistan. It should be absolutely fascinating, and I can’t wait to have pictures taken in front of every statue of Turkmenbashi that I can find. In the midst of all of the chaos, I am trying to carve out time to write about the recent trip to Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. There really are some great stories!

Sarah, Amelia, and I began our trip by taking the overnight bus from Almaty to Shymkent-in southern Kazakhstan. Of course, this being Kazakhstan, the bus broke down en route and had to have some remont (repairs). The highlight of the trip was when a fellow passenger yelled out for the bus to stop—he would get out and walk, because that would be faster. We planned on spending a day in Shymkent before taking a taxi across the border the following morning. There are several Fulbright Scholars working in Shymkent, so we arranged to meet up with them while in the city. Our first matter of business, though, was to find a hotel. Prices in Kazakhstan are pretty high, and it would have been easy to have spent a considerable amount on a hotel room. Fortunately, we were able to find a small, inexpensive hotel close to one of the major roads. The room was basic, to say the least. But at least there was a shower—or something that came close to approximating a shower. It wasn’t until we returned to the hotel for the night that we realized why the rates might be a little low. Apparently a sex club operates downstairs at night—somehow we missed the picture of the masked man wearing very little clothing that was sitting on the registration desk.

Shymkent was an interesting city to explore—much smaller than Almaty, with more Kazakh language heard on the street. We spent much of the day with one of the Fulbright Scholars and his son. It was great to be shown around the city—and to have a chance to catch up with Jerry (whom we met at orientation last summer). It was a good introduction to the city, and to give us an idea of what to expect when we move there in June.

The next morning, we left for Tashkent. We hired a taxi to take us to the border—and our driver kept asking us if we wanted to make ‘arrangements’ to get through customs rather quickly. By arrangements, he meant offering a bribe to the guards. The decision was surprisingly more difficult than one might think. We knew that the border was nothing more than a series of what could be best described as cattle chutes—and hundreds of people could be crowded into each one. Depending upon the crowds, we could expect to spend upwards of 4-5 hours crammed into a small space waiting to get through the border. The issue of safety had to be balanced against our opposition to contributing to such a corrupt system. When we arrived at the border, though, we agreed that we would just take our chances and cross the border on foot. We were lucky—it only took about 1 ½ hours to reach the other side.

Once we were in Uzbekistan, we hired a cab to take us to a hotel in Tashkent. The Lonely Planet guide has some great recommendations for hotels in Uzbekistan, and we went to a lovely B&B that was fairly inexpensive (about 18,000 som each—roughly $14/person. Of course, the 1000 som note is the largest there is, and rather hard to come by, so it was a rather large stack of bills). The guidebook mentioned that the owner liked to pour vodka rather liberally—but we thought that it would be too early in the day. After all, it was just about 1pm. Well, we were wrong. When we went into the office to pay, we were told to have a seat in the dining room. Then it was time for toasts to “international friendship and unity”. Before I realized what was happening, our host had filled my regular glass with beer. That was 14% alcohol!

Once we escaped from the hotel, we took the metro to the bazaar. Tashkent has the only metro (subway) in Central Asia—it was so nice to be on public transportation and not have to worry about being stuck in traffic! We went to the Chorsu Bazaar—the zipper on my purse had broken somewhere in the crush at the border, and I needed to buy a new purse. You know you have been in Central Asia too long when the choice of which purse to buy is obvious. There was a wide selection from which to choose, but only one that had a long fringe on the front and sparkling rhinestones along the sides. Why would you want anything a little more subdued??

We didn’t spend much time in Tashkent, though, since we would be returning in a few days for a conference on the Aral Sea. Next on the itinerary was the Silk Road city of Samarkand, followed by Bukhara. More on those soon!

Friday, April 11, 2008

Borat is alive and well in Kazakhstan

As an American living in Almaty, there are several questions that people often will ask. How old are you? Are you married? How many children do you have? Why don’t you like children? (sometimes asked when you say you don’t have children) Have you tried our national food? And, of course, my favorite. Have you seen the movie Borat? The correct response to this is to say “yes, of course I have seen Borat. It is a satire of American culture and does not represent Kazakhstan.

Well, after living in Central Asia for almost eight months, I can say with some authority that Borat really is alive and well in Kazakhstan and Central Asia. Let’s see…dislike of Uzbekistan? Yes. Hearing people say “You like?” Yes. Potassium reserves? Yes. Chickens on the bus? Yes. Okay, so maybe not LIVE chickens, but there are enough live birds running around the streets of some of the towns I’ve been to. People using the restroom very publicly? Yes. Insane drivers? YES!

There are probably many, many more scenarios in the movie that can be seen in everyday life in Central Asia. Tonight, it will be put to the test. Sarah, Amelia, and I are meeting to have a dinner of burgers and fries (something we don’t often have over here—unless you count the local ‘gamburgers’ topped with shredded carrots and parsley). After dinner, we’re going to watch Borat, snack on hot wings, and have a beer or two while we count the number of things in the movie that we have actually seen. The original plan was to have a sip of vodka every time we recognized something, but we quickly realized that we’d likely be very ill indeed! So, we’ll settle for some Baltika.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Olympic torch relay in Almaty

Earlier today, Sarah and I were able to see the Olympic torch relay in Almaty. The Kazakh president was one of the torch carriers, but we were unable to see him as he was at the opposite end of the route from us. It was quite the experience to be at Old Square for the event, and there are many stories to tell--seemingly lax security, a mysterious relay route, not knowing what time the torch would appear. Those tales will have to wait for another day, though. In the meantime, here's a picture of the torch as it passed directly in front of me earlier today.