Friday, February 1, 2008

Friday Night in Kazakhstan

Well, it is nearly 11pm here in Kazakhstan—by now I would normally be in bed trying to get some sleep before the usual 3am alarm of car horns outside. Tonight is something of an exception, though. My neighbors downstairs have just begun working on ‘ремонт’ (re’mont)—or renovations. Over here, you don’t hire a construction company to take care of renovations—you do them yourself, along with any friends you can convince to help out. Of course, that means that re’mont is done after work, on weekends, and late at night. It will probably be another late night here in Almaty—a good opportunity to sit down and catch up on some writing about events here in the city, rather than the adventures in China. Re’mont is just a fact of life over here—not worth getting upset over—you just have to accept that it will occur at inconvenient times and move on with things.

It is hard to believe that I am already in my sixth month of living in Kazakhstan. In some ways, it feels as if I have just arrived—but in other ways, it seems as if I have been here an eternity. Things that would have seemed so unusual just a few months ago now just seem to be part of everyday life. At a club last weekend, a friend and I met someone here on business for three weeks. Our new acquaintance kept looking around and pointing out things that he thought were incredibly strange. But…to Amelia and me, everything just seemed normal. We didn’t know what he was talking about. Yes, we have definitely settled into life in Almaty.

The adaptation is readily apparent in how we dress. January has been pretty cold—if temperatures are above 10F, it is a warm day. Fur has become a necessity of life over here—I bought a fur hat that I wear just about everyday, and REALLY wish that I had brought the fur coat that belonged to Memere (my grandmother). I could wear it just about everyday over here—because when temperatures are this cold, everyone wears fur just about all of the time.

Strangely enough, although it is so cold outside, my apartment is lacking in cold water. There is an abundance of hot water, though. Make that scalding hot water! The lack of cold water is even more of a problem than not having hot water. At least it is possible to boil water—but it takes much longer to cool water down. I have taken to putting a bucket of water on the balcony at night, so that I can add a huge ice cube to a bathtub of scalding water in order to be able to wash my hair in the morning. Today was the 10th day without cold water—we now have a trickle of cold water, but the water pressure on the 4th floor is nearly non-existent.

Not having cold water makes it difficult to do laundry in my agitator. I have to drain the agitator several times to wash one load of laundry—usually, I have to reach into the machine to remove an article of clothing from the drain. It is rather difficult when the water is scalding hot, though. If we still have cold water in the morning, I anticipate a rather long day of laundry.

At least there has been sufficient heat in my apartment during this cold weather. In fact, my apartment is too warm—by my standards, at least. I have to leave my balcony door open a few inches at night—or it is too hot for me to sleep. But…I keep being told that I am not taking proper care of myself. Among the “facts” I have been told—sitting on a seat without putting a scarf down first is bad for your liver; sitting in a draft will freeze your ovaries (but men also aren’t supposed to sit in drafts, so I don’t know what the problem is); drinking cold milk is bad for your lungs. My incredibly warm German wool coat is also considered to be insufficient—I really should buy a new, warmer coat (my coat is incredibly warm, even though it looks lightweight). I love learning all of these “facts”! All you can do is to appear to pay attention and say ‘thank you’ for the information. People are just genuinely concerned—they are brought up to believe that cold weather is bad for your health. Considering the lack of control over heat in just about every building, it really isn’t surprising—once you have spent time in a building where there is no heat, it becomes incredibly difficult to get warm (as is the case at the university—where there has been no heat in the office all winter).

I am still doing some teaching at Ablai Khan University. However, I have finished teaching geopolitics and am focusing on American Studies. Fulbright likes us to be involved in the community and do some volunteer work—for me, this is teaching. The university wanted to hire me officially once the language grant ended at the end of December. However, to do so would require officially translated copies of my diplomas, passport, curriculum vitae or resume, and a few dozen other things. Just so I could be paid $200 to teach for 4 months. I convinced the department that I would stay for the semester and teach 2 sections of the class (essentially giving the same lecture twice, to classes that meet consecutively) on a volunteer basis. Of course, they responded by giving me a list of documents that they needed—for me to volunteer! The list was identical to the first one they gave me (which would have been problematic, anyway—since my diplomas are somewhere in a box in Kansas. University transcripts aren’t sufficient). We eventually agreed that I would host an “English club” once a week. No paperwork, and the flexibility to leave to do my own research (the reason I am in Kazakhstan!). It is incredibly difficult at times—the universities need so much help, and I have to balance their needs/requests against Russian lessons, my own research, and having time for myself.

I have recently been introduced to a new coffeeshop here in Almaty—which makes the ‘time for myself’ aspect MUCH easier. The cafe is owned by an American who is married to a Kazakh woman—and they sell REAL brownies!!! And chocolate pie, real muffins, lemon meringue pie, and GOOD coffee. All at affordable prices—and the shop is less than ½ mile from my apartment. It is my new favorite place. I have been meeting one of my friends there for coffee just about every day—I can’t believe that I didn’t know about it before now! For those of you back in Lawrence—it is incredibly similar to Prima Tazza. I love experiencing Kazakh culture—but there is absolutely nothing like a good coffee shop!

Well, there has been silence from my neighbors for the last 30 minutes or so—I’m hoping that they are done with re’mont for the night. Tomorrow is going to be a busy day—and I’m supposed to meet some friends at a club in the evening—so I’m going to try to head off to bed now. It is only midnight, though—so who knows what will happen for the rest of the night!

China--Train Rides, Border Crossings, and Crazy Drivers

Return to Urumqi

The train ride from Kashgar to Urumqi was not quite as eventful as the trip to Kashgar. We were somewhat familiar with the train system by this point, so the most complicated part was merely a matter of telling the cab driver to bring us to the train station. This was accomplished by the relatively simple task of showing the cab driver a train ticket and smiling. Not difficult at all!

The three of us shared a coupe on the trip back to Urumqi, which made it easier to relax and enjoy the ride. We didn’t have to sit in the hallway to converse—instead, we could sit in the coupe and read, talk, or take a nap. Several hours into the ride, a police officer came into the coupe. It was an interesting conversation, if you could call it that. We spoke no Chinese, and he spoke no English. He kept pointing to my camera—we had been taking pictures out the window—and my initial thought was that we had taken pictures of something that we should not have. But how can that be the case when you are traveling through the desert? It turned out that he was simply trying to warn us that someone might try to take the camera. He motioned to see our passports and visas, and then left with a smile. All things considered, a much better experience than my encounter with the police in Kazakhstan (after my apartment was robbed).

The scenery we saw on the return trip was very different than on the trip to Kashgar. It had been dark when we had traveled through the southern reaches of the Taklamakan Desert earlier. This time, we were able to see amazing scenery—the bands of vivid colors in the Flaming Mountains, irrigated cotton fields in the desert, unusual rock formations, small villages in the middle of nowhere—with satellite dishes on some of the roofs.

As before, the lights on the train were turned out at 10:30pm. At least this time we were expecting this to happen! The following morning, I was able to see a remarkable sight—sunrise over the edge of the Turpan Depression (one of the few areas with relatively fertile lands in Xinjiang). Soon afterwards, we passed through China’s largest windfarm. It was the first, and only, sign of environmental consciousness that I noted in Xinjiang.

Arriving in Urumqi, we took a bus back to the same hotel where we had stayed before. It was surprisingly easy to arrange for a room—we just showed our receipts from before. After a quick shower, we left to arrange for our return to Almaty. We called Jackson (our guide from before) to find out where the bus station was. When we initially arrived in Urumqi, the bus stopped at a hotel rather than the bus station, so we did not know where the actual station was located. Jackson told us to hail a cab, and then he would tell the cab driver via cellphone where we needed to go. This being accomplished, we waited to see where we would end up. Imagine our surprise when we were brought back to the train station! We called Jackson again, and he told us that we were in the correct location. Yes, it was another instance of Jackson not listening to our questions. We hailed another cab, and called Amelia’s sister this time. She told our driver that we needed to go to the international bus station—which turned out to be a block away from our hotel.

We ran into a problem at the bus station, though. Apparently, the border was closed for several days due to holidays. The man with whom we spoke was not sure when it would be possible to take a bus back to Kazakhstan. Train tickets were also sold out (the train only runs twice a week).

We needed some time to discuss our options—so decided to go to the bazaar to do some final shopping while we thought about what to do. Train tickets were not an option, we didn’t know when the bus would run (and the bus station was closed for the night), and we weren’t sure about hiring a driver since we would have to hire someone from Urumqi to Khorgos, and then another person from Khorgos to Almaty. Eventually, we decided to figure out what to do in the morning—and go back to the restaurant we had gone to the first night in Urumqi to have more “Beijing Roast Duck”.

Much of the next day was spent trying to arrange for transportation back to Almaty. We had to go across the city several times to different transit offices. Everyone with whom we spoke had a different answer when we asked about when the border would reopen. Would it be the next day? Perhaps the day after? Or was it sometime after Christmas? We really needed to get back to Almaty, though—Sarah’s visa expired on the 28th, and it would take about a week to renew. We eventually agreed to spend a little extra money and hire a car to bring us to the border. It would be about $35 each, and the car would pick us up at our hotel in the morning.

By the time transportation arrangements were settled, it was late afternoon. We decided to spend the last few hours in the city at one of the many banyas. And this time, we were determined that it would be a legitimate one! The banya we found was remarkable. For the exorbitant (?) sum of $42, we spent five hours relaxing in hot baths, getting facials and body wraps, enjoying the sauna—after the dinner that was included—having a Thai-style massage, where the masseuse literally walks on your back. Wow! What a difference from our first “massage” in Urumqi!

The following morning, our driver picked us up at our hotel for the drive to Khorgos. The drive was relatively uneventful—it was dark when we left, and I slept for much of the ride. Most of the drive was on a fairly decent highway. When we approached the Kazakh border, though, the situation changed. The ‘highway’ was essentially a two lane semi-paved road that went through a mountain pass. Along the way, we passed Lake Sayran in the Tien Shan Mountains—our driver stopped to allow us to take pictures. While we did so, several groups of herders came through the area, with a flock of sheep and a large group of horses. It was amazing sight, particularly on a ‘highway’.

When we arrived in Khorgos, our driver helped us to find a relatively inexpensive hotel. We had a few hours, so we explored what we could of the city. We stopped off at a Uyghur restaurant for an early dinner (where we had the ubiquitous langhman), then found our way to Starbucks. Yes, there IS a Starbucks in Khorghos. It just isn’t a real Starbucks—the only similarity is the ridiculously high price for a cup of coffee. We had “cappuccino”—which was essentially instant coffee with a whipped topping that has a slight resemblance to Redi-Whip.

We knew that there would be a line at the border the next day, so we decided to leave as early as possible. The border had been closed Monday and Tuesday due to Independence Day in Kazakhstan—and it would be closed again on Thursday and Friday for one of the Muslim holidays. When we left the hotel, there were several vehicles out in front—each driver offered to bring us to the border for what seemed rather high prices. We declined, and went to the main road to hail a cab. Unfortunately, the only cabs that stopped were too small to handle our luggage. We would up taking a rickshaw to the border—for the ridiculously high price of $4.50! It was by far the most expensive ride we had taken in China—most cab rides cost no more than $1.50, and lasted longer than ¾ mile. But how often do you get to take a rickshaw?

The border itself was packed—hundreds of people crowded around the gates to the customs building. Several men were taking money to expedite the process—but we didn’t think paying someone in full sight of embassy guards in China would be particularly smart. When the border eventually opened, it was a mad dash to the gateway. People were pressing in on all sides, and the men who had been taking money were lifting people (and all of their vast amounts of luggage) over the gates. One man apparently thought that Sarah had paid for this service—so we had the visual of seeing her lifted and thrown over the gate. Amelia and I were right next to the entryway, so were able to squeeze through without too much problem.

We had no problems clearing Chinese customs—but then had to wait for the shuttles between the Chinese and Kazakh sides of the border. It would have been no problem, but it took about 30 minutes for the shuttles to arrive from the Kazakh side. By that time, the number of people waiting for the shuttles had swelled from a few dozen to a few hundred. But…the experience of driving in Boston combined with several months of living in Almaty definitely helped. As we say over here—“elbows out, side to side”. I was successfully able to block the door to the second shuttle, so that the three of us could board. The meek might inherit the earth in most places—but in Kazakhstan they would be trampled underfoot. It is going to be hard to move back to Kansas—where everyone is so polite—after a year and a half in Kazakhstan!

After clearing customs on the Kazakh side of the border, we next had to arrange for a cab to take us back to Almaty. Prices were higher than usual, due to the border closure. We negotiated with a driver to take us back to Almaty—only to find out that he was not our actual driver. He took us to another location, where we met our actual driver. After loading our luggage into the car and beginning what should be about a six hour drive, our driver told us that he was going to stop to pick up one other person. That wasn’t in the agreement! It was only after Sarah told him that we would just get out of the car and hire someone else that he agreed not to stop for anyone else.

Initially, the drive was uneventful. We had hired a typical driver from Kazakhstan—which meant that he drove fairly fast and did not pay attention to the rules of the road. Not always comfortable, but not unexpected. His Russian was absolutely atrocious—but he was convinced that we could not speak the language and just didn’t understand his eloquence. After about 2 hours of driving, our driver went a little (a lot?) too fast over a bump in the road—and broke the exhaust pipe. But…he was prepared to fix the problem. Pulling off to the side of the road, he jacked the car up to check out the problem. Of course, the road was covered in ice and he failed to block the tires. Our job—to direct traffic around the car. We were no where ANY sort of assistance—you can see this ‘road to nowhere’ in one of the earlier postings. Sarah offered the driver some duct tape—and he wrapped this around the exhaust pipe. The tape held for about 10km, then melted. It was time to watch the car be jacked up once again. This time, several other cars stopped and we were treated to the fascinating site of a group of Kazakh men standing around discussing the problem. Eventually, they ran the tow rope under the bottom of the car to prevent the pipe from dragging (it had broken near the front axle).

The next few hours were spent trying to find a place to have the car repaired. Apparently, the problem had happened four or five months previously—and the driver never had it properly taken care of (you can see the ‘garage’ in one of the earlier postings, too). In between trying to find a garage, our driver was determined to make an impression Sarah. Amelia and I were all but ignored, as he attempted to convince Sarah to convert to Islam (seriously!) and give him her phone number. There are times when I am incredibly thankful that men here really don’t bother me—because I am clearly too old to have nine or ten children (although I’m still told not to sit in a draft, since it will freeze your ovaries)!

Eventually, the car was repaired and it was time to head back to Almaty. Except I wasn’t sure if we would make it—since our driver was hurtling down the road at about 100 mph. Every time he passed a car, he would wave at the other driver. Periodically, he would pray—and would pass his hands over his face in a traditional prayer. The problem was that he was still driving when he did this. There is NOTHING like driving 100 mph down what would be considered a secondary road back home, with no one steering and the driver covering his eyes. Did I mention that seat belts don’t exist over here?

It was pretty clear that our driver really didn’t have any actual driving skills. At least we didn’t realize how lacking his skills were until we arrived in Almaty. It was about 10 degrees F outside, but he kept opening the car windows. When we asked why he kept doing so, since it was pretty darned cold, we found out that the reason was to “hear where the other cars were”. Mirrors apparently weren’t adequate for the job—or he just didn’t know how to use them. I suspect that it was the latter.

I was the first to be dropped off, and gladly stumbled up to my apartment to take a shower and a nap. Apparently, though, the adventure was not over for Sarah and Amelia. The driver stopped to use the restroom en route to their building—but left the car running with the keys in the ignition. From what I understand, there was serious temptation to drive off and leave the driver behind. I can’t say that I would have blamed them!

All in all, it was an eventful trip! We traveled by just about every method of transportation available—bus, train, taxi, camel, and rickshaw (too bad we didn’t get to ride a donkey cart, though!). We ate strange and exotic foods, experienced an entirely different culture, saw amazing scenery, and had a wonderful time. It was an adventure in discovering exactly what we could do, and how adaptable we could be to unusual circumstances. What is next? Well, if all goes well—hiking to Kyrgyzstan, and then going to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Who knows what will happen on those trips? But…it just won’t be the same as Xinjiang, since we all speak Russian and won’t have the same communication barrier in other parts of Central Asia.