Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Off to Astana--or more reasons why I don't find Kazakh men appealing

Last week I took my first trip to Astana, the ‘new’ capital of Kazakhstan. Although it is not technically a new city (being the center of Khrushchev’s Virgin Lands program in the 1960s), it has undergone massive ‘remont’ or renovation in the last decade. Entirely new areas of the city have been built, with fanciful architecture and a rather futuristic skyline. It is definitely a weird place! Unfortunately, I was only there for a day and didn’t have much time to explore. Sarah and I were both ill, so the sightseeing was kept to a minimum. I will be going back in the fall, though, to do some fieldwork. Hopefully then I will be able to do some more exploration.

The train ride to Astana was quite the experience. Let’s just say that it was one I hope never to repeat! We were not able to book the lower berths in the kupe (a 4 person compartment with 2 upper and 2 lower berths that double as beds), so we started out knowing that it was not going to be the most pleasant of rides (the general rule of thumb is that the people with the lower berths -have greater control over the kupe). Initially, there was no one else in the compartment. Our compartment-mates did not arrive until the next stop. As we sat in our berths talking, the door opened and an incredibly large man entered the compartment. He made his presence known by talking constantly—a long monologue about Kazakhstan, President Nazarbaev, ice cream, springtime celebrations, vitamin drinks, and about a dozen other topics. His companion—presumably his son—set up his bed for him, went and brought tea, and basically did whatever the man wanted. The entire time, the older man continued talking. The only break was when he removed a jar from his front pocket to cough up phlegm into, and then put the jar back into his pocket. He didn’t stop talking when he consumed vast quantities of meat every 2 or 3 hours. He didn’t even take a break from the monologue when he stripped down to his underwear and then started rubbing himself down with a towel. It was just not the sort of behavior one might hope to encounter when meeting someone for the first time—it was off-putting to say the least!

The only respite that Sarah and I had from the talking was when our cabin-mate fell asleep. But he woke up talking. It was going to be a very long ride! We quickly decided that it would be in our best interests not to let on that we understood Russian. There are just so many times that you can answer the same questions (Where are you from? How old are you? Are you married? Do you have children? How do you like our country? Have you tried our national food?), and we really didn’t want to spend the next 20 hours being held hostage to his monologues. Of course, after a few hours, our companion decided that he would start talking to us for a change. He became a little frustrated when he didn’t get answers to his questions—and tried the age-old technique of repeating the same questions louder. He kept telling the other man that we must be stupid because we didn’t know what state/government (he kept changing the words) we were from. At one point, he even asked us how many years of education we had had, because we just weren’t that smart. It really was one of the worst train rides I have ever been on—we had to take pictures/video as proof. If you listen to the video, you can hear the constant monologue. Imagine this going on nearly nonstop for 20+ hours in a small train compartment with no air conditioning on a day when temperatures were over 100F. Sheer living hell. [if you don't get the pictures/video in your email, go to the blog at You just can't get the whole picture without the visuals.]

In the early hours of the morning, our train pulled into Karaganda (about 3 hours away from Astana). Imagine our surprise when the second man in the carriage left the train. Apparently, he wasn’t the older man’s son. Or his traveling companion. Or anyone that he knew. He was just a random guy on the train—and the Central Asian “brother” culture demanded that he wait on the older man. It is a culture that I will never fully understand.

By the time we arrived in Astana, we were both totally ready to get off of the train and away from our travel partner. It didn’t help that we both weren’t feeling well (we are still recovering and are on antibiotics). The hotel room wasn’t great, but at least it was larger than our train kupe. And it had a shower—with hot water, too! Yes, strange as it might seem, not all hotel rooms here have showers. And of those that do, not all have hot water. But more on those later!