Monday, August 4, 2008

Reasons not to travel in Kazakhstan in the summer

Originally, Sarah and I had planned to spend this time doing research on nomadic and rural life in Kazakhstan. Much of the preliminary work had been done: checking out which locations would be best, making contacts with individuals and organizations who might be of assistance, improving our Kazakh, and ensuring that we had adequate equipment. After our experiences with giardia, however, we agreed that we would have to be completely healthy in order to spend a month traveling between rural areas and going to the mountain pastures where people still practice some elements of nomadic life.

Eventually, we agreed on a plan that would take us down towards the Uzbek border, to an aul (village) where our friend Sayat is originally from (Sayat now lives in the US—we met him through the Fulbright associations over here, as his wife was one of the Fulbright Scholars working in Shymkent). Almost anyone working in Kazakhstan will tell you that the most difficult part of the research process is gaining access to individuals and having people talk with you. It is a very closed society overall, with family (and perhaps clan, but that is hard to ascertain when people don’t talk to you) being of paramount importance. Sayat was tremendously helpful letting us know where we could go for our research, and offering his assistance in making the necessary contacts. The added advantage was that his aul is not far from Shymkent, so that in the case of illness Sarah and I could quickly return home.

Of course, nothing ever works out the way that you intend over here. Both Sarah and I were pretty ill and agreed that we needed time to relax and recover. Physically—and mentally—we were just not ready for the rigors of traveling between villages, likely having to eat suspicious meats and drink unpasteurized milk products (a recipe for disaster!). Any question of this travel ended last week, when Sayat called from the US to say that we should NOT go to his village under any circumstances. A relative of his had just died from anthrax, and about 60 others were being treated for possible infection. Oddly (?) we had not heard of the anthrax outbreak here in Kazakhstan. It had not been on the news or in any of the newspapers I have seen. After some research on the internet, I finally found 1 article that mentioned the outbreak. If Sayat had not mentioned it, though, we would not have known. So…needless to say, I will be spending the month of August in air-conditioning in Shymkent. With temperatures above 100 F every day, it is a much more pleasant way to pass the time! I will be heading out for survey work in a few weeks, traveling to Aktobe, Atyrau, and Aktau before returning to Shymkent for a few days in September. After that, I will be in northern areas of Kazakhstan. At least that is the plan—we’ll see how it all turns out!