Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Snow...Candy...Valentine's Day...Action!

Today, I'm burning five CDs for co-workers and transferring some
listening files to a hard drive for a friend. Most of that is English
materials. I'd probably be a better volunteer if I showed them how to
do all this themselves, and I keep saying I will, but for now it's
easier for me to do it myself.

I don't mind the somewhat light workload today. This past week we had
a … (Cancel that file copying. My friend didn't give me the power cord
for her hard drive) … lot of work. We gave about five presentations at
local schools and colleges about international education. Through a
grant I wrote back in August, we are going to do more career and
education advising at our org, and we want to get the word out. I also
came in to work on Saturday and Sunday, so I think an easy day at the
office is deserved.

I feel needed at my office. There is work to be done. Sometimes too
much work. Sometimes impossible work (find a place to put five bags
full of books on our already full shelves, finding a place to put all
of our DVDs, etc). Sometimes the work is too simple (why do you want
me to scan all these documents). But it's work. And in general, that's
good. But it's bad too. I don't have as much time to work on the big
picture items of our sustainability, project ideas, etc. I still
haven't made a dent in my list of project ideas for Taraz. I'm too
busy keeping busy. Too many things come along. But I'm happy for now.

Yesterday, for example, was Valentine's Day. The youth at our
organization decided they wanted to do an "Action." I don't really
understand this concept. The goal isn't really to help anyone. It's to
just do something. They're idea was that we'd go to the park, round up
all the V-Day couples, and play some funny games with them. Should we
advertise or do some PR for it? No, they said, it's just an action.
The logic of why a couple would want to stop doing couply things and
play games didn't seem to faze them. There was some concern about the
recent weather (-12C), but not enough to prevent them from continuing
with the plan.

So, as skeptical as I was, I love to see youth here doing anything
active that gets them out of the house, so I went along with it. Aidos
bought the supplies and the prizes, and we all gathered at the office
at 3:00 on Sunday. About eight people from our organization came to
participate. We walked over to the park at 4:00 and began our people
search. There were literally about ten people there. Somehow, about
half of them decided to play. And over the course of the hour, a few
more people came bringing our grand total up to ten! Better than I
imagined really.

Now for the games we played. Kazakhstan has a way of taking games and
making them extra awkward. Maybe they're just because they are new to
me, but here's the run down of how it went.

Game 1: Weight-lifting. Each guy (I was assigned a girl because there
were a group of girls with no boys that had come to see what was going
on) had to pick up the girl and do as many squats as he could with her
in his arms. (I lost immediately when the first squat resulted in her
keys jabbing into my stomach.)

Game 2: Balloons. A blown up balloon is put in the guys lap and the
girl has to sit on it to pop it. (Made all the better by Aidos who
bought high quality balloons that were resistant to popping.)

Game 3: Candy dancing. A guy and a girl have to hold a piece of candy
(about the size of a tootsie roll) between them with their mouths. (We
lost when here side melted.)

Game 4: Banana. A banana is held out and a guy and a girl have to peel
and eat it without using their hands. The idea was that they should do
it together to be quicker, but it pretty much ended up the guy taking
bites of it himself. (Did not place this game).

Game 5: Guess the girl. All the guys were blindfolded and then brought
over to where the girls were standing in a line. We had to feel their
feet, body, and hands and guess which girl was ours. This was made
worse by the fact that when I was blindfolded I had no idea which girl
I was supposed to be paired with. I didn't win.

Game 6: Collect kisses. All the girls put on lip stick and had one
minute to give as many kisses as possible to their partner. Then the
guys had to run to Aidos who was standing about 50 yards away. (Why? I
don't know.) But the lipstick didn't really show kisses, especially
after the first couple of them, so most guys ended up with no signs of
any kisses.

Game 7: Cream. Not played. Partners had to draw or write something on
their bodies with sweetened condensed milk. Then they would have to
lick it off. I think this game was canceled due to time constraints
rather than weather, since we had the can already opened.

Game 8: Longest kiss. Partners had to kiss for the longest amount of
time. Okay, for this, there needs to be some background on Kazakhstan,
parks, and public displays of affection (PDA). Most people in Kstan
live with their family until they are married. Even if you move to a
different city, you may live with a cousin, an uncle, a brother, etc.
So when people want to hang out as a couple, they don't go home. They
go out. To the parks. So while I would say the people in Kazakhstan
are repressed in some ways, in parks they seem to feel completely free
to grope all over each other. It's as if the presence of a few trees
makes them invisible to everyone around them. Whereas in America
couples may sit with their arms around each other, probably holding
hand. If we see a couple making out in a park, then it's probably
unsightly. We think, please, get a room. But here those rooms aren't
available. So the couples are always sitting really close, kissing
very affectionately, etc. Maybe other people don't think anything of
it; maybe they don't care what others think. I don't know.

So anyway, just as we are about to start the Longest Kiss game, the
guard for the park tells us it's time for the park to close. Yes, we
knew that the park closed at 5:00, and the current time was 4:55, but
of course it makes sense to save the Longest Kiss game until there are
only five minutes left. But without regard for making the guard wait
on us, we go through with it anyway.

Only two couples decide to participate (being the actual couples); the
other couples were makeshift ones for the day. And I'm imagining a
battle of endurance with some tame kissing, the point being to keep
contact of the lips for as long as possible. But I forget we were in a
park, in Kazakhstan. So when we start the clock the couples begin
eating each other's faces. I guess if they are going to kiss, they
might as well kiss like they mean it, but it was just awkward to stand
around and watch it. (And we had to watch to see if they stopped.) And
while I thought in a longest kiss contest, the kiss would end when the
lips separated, this was apparently not the case. One couple was
smacking at each other. Smack, smack, smack with intense kisses, but
definitely not one kiss. But that didn't matter. The rules seemed to
be, as long as you had the will to stand in the park and make out with
your partner. After ten minutes, one couple finally gives up. But the
other couple continues kissing for at least one full minute. Entirely
bizarre to me, being adverse to intensive public displays of

Thus ended the action. We gave out the prize, went back to the office,
and drank some tea. Certainly, a Valentine's Day to remember.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


I never post pictures mainly because I always forget, but here are
some pictures from the last couple months. We have some from New
Year's, a few from Astana, and some from Petropovlask. For a brief ten
minute period, I have access to blogger, but then it stopped. So
you'll have to check them out on facebook.



Thursday, February 4, 2010

Kazakhstan in the News

I'll interrupt my story of northern travels to link some recent news
articles featuring Kazakhstan. I think it's important that readers get
a perspective of some things going on in the country. I myself have
trouble following the news, and a survey from my English Speaking club
(introduce yourself and say one news story you know from the last week
in which 50% of the people said they knew no news) shows that the
local youth of Taraz may have a similar problem. So here is what's
happening in Kstan:

Typing Kazakhstan into Google News today resulted in some of the
following links:

Major Oil Companies Likely To Accept Kazakh Tax Changes - Analysts
Oil is a big part of the Kazakhstani economy, and the government often
tries to find the best ways to balance foriegn direct investment with
taxes and social development policies.

China tries to lease Kazakhstani land
So this explains the article Mark's host mom showed me in Russian
saying China was trying to buy Kazakhstan. Sadly, I don't know the
result of this proposal.

So a quick search turned up more info. That was actually really
interesting. I would love beshbarmark with perking duck.

Kazakhstan edge Thailand in Fed Cup
I don't know much about Kazakh tennis other than the fact that the new
courts here are always locked and the price is supposedly really
expensive (according to the security guard, since I couldn't get
inside to the actual front desk.)

Kazakhstan To Diversify Satellite Suppliers In Future
My friend Ken actually knows people who work on Kazakhstan satellites
because there is some research center near his village.

Kazakhstan's foreign minister is in Washington this week talking to
Congress about human rights. Kazakhstan is the char of the OSCE this
year, so it is given the added responsibility of advancing and
protecting rights through out Europe.

Oh, so that explains why I'm having to update my blog from my email
these days. Blogger is now blocked in Kazakhstan. So the international
education blogs I want to follow, the health and environment blog that
Asela is supposed to add to, and the blogs of my friends (such as
PCVs, CSs, and others) are inaccessible.

That's more news than from America, right? Pretty much, I heard that
Obama announced a new TabletPC that doesn't play Flash. But maybe I
just didn't hear it right in Russian.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Since the bus to Akkol was AWOL, I had to take a taxi there. Me and two other guys got in a car with a Russian dude and we were off. This Russian driver was special because he cursed more than any person I have ever met in Kazakhstan. Basically his version of the period was the Russian word “Blyad.” (Sorry for any Russian readers.) That’s the f-bomb around here. Although to me, it seems really weak. It’s like you’re saying Blah or possibly making a vomiting sound, and then ending it with a hard “d”. Really? That’s offensive? For locals it is, but this guy was dropping it like crazy. Yeah, this road is really nice, blyad. (Road was soooo nice. It was paved well, had a divider, and had exits for all the towns. I felt like I was back in America.) We’ll be there in an hour, blyad. If you want to pay me 200 more tenge, I’ll take you to the house, blyad. (For non-Russian speakers, you have no idea how offensive the last three sentences were.)

What? 200 tenge! (That’s about $1.33.) That’s the equivalent of 2 beverages. He told me he knew where my friend lived (there is only one American in town) and it was a thirty minute walk from the center to his house. 30 minutes walking in -20 degree weather or paying 200 tenge? I called Ken and told him to meet me at the center. Ken said we’d meet halfway and gave me the directions of “Keep walking straight down the street you were on.” After about fifteen minutes, I run into Ken and he takes me back to his place for warm, delicious chili. We feel like we are supposed to hang out because we haven’t seen each other in a month, but honestly, its 10PM and we are both tired, so we watch some ATHF and call it a night.

The next morning I wake up and Ken is cooking me pancakes and bacon. Bacon! What? There’s bacon in Kazakhstan? For most of the 120 volunteers, if we want bacon we have to get it shipped in from America. (The exceptions are Sagar and Audrey who somehow have bacon at a random store in their town.) It was delicious. I ask him if he has school. (If it’s too cold, they cancel it.) He says no one has called, so of course he has school. He decided to call his counterpart to double check. “What? No school. Why didn’t you call me?” So Ken doesn’t have school, but they didn’t want to tell him that.

Unfortunately, school or no school, Ken was able to snag a cheap ticket to Petro, and I was not. So I have to take the electrishka to Kokshetau where I’ll meet Jenny and then take a bus the rest of the way. The electrishka is pretty cool. They run an electric commuter train between Astana and Kokshetau a couple times each day. The tickets are cheap. Inside the wagons there are seats like in a metro. It’s a surprising convenience in a usually inconvenient country.

My feet were so cold from my poorly insulated shoes (bought for 2000 tenge in the South, about $17) that I took my shoes off on the train. This was really strange for the people around me, but my shoes are somehow coolers rather than insulators, a fact that would not be fun for the rest of the week. What I could see out the windows wasn’t all that impressive. Some steppe, some trees, some small mountains near Beravoi. Then everyone got off, so I got off. I was in Kokshetau.

Jenny met me at the station. We had lunch while we waited for our bus that was coming in an hour. Psych. Not a bus. A small van with no space for our luggage. So we sat with our bags in our laps for three hours. Not very comfortable, but not that unusual. It was nice to hang out with Jenny, because we never get to hang out. She was one of the people I remember from staging in Philadelphia, and I thought she could become a good friend. But then she never came to Almaty-nights during PST, and she was put at a site about 20 hours away. A lot of potential friendships are nipped by the enormous size of Kazakhstan. (Or with competing cell phone plans. If I meet you, and you only have an Activ number, there is no way we will become friends.)

Once we get to Petro, we get off the bus and call Niall. “Niall, what bus goes to your house from here? You don’t know? How do you not know? Okay, we’ll call Katie.” Niall didn’t know what bus to take. We figure we’ll go to the bathroom while at the station, but we can’t. That half of the station is closed because they were mopping the floor there. I don’t know if it’s everywhere, or just I seem to notice it, but cleaning crews don’t usually do the night time thing here. They clean in the middle of the day when it’s convenient for them. So we instead of going to the bathroom, we call Katie, find out she’s at her house, get a bus number, and head out into the city of Petropovlask.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Michael Goes North

A Michael-road-trip is not about the destination. When I’m traveling, I rarely want to get to my destination as fast as possible. Back when I lived in Illinois, the 12-hour drive home once stretched over four days. But of course, I stopped in St. Louis, Nashville, Atlanta, and Athens along the way. So when I was looking at a trip up to the northernmost city in Kazakhstan, I didn’t see a straight line from Taraz to Petropovlask. (And there isn’t one even if I had wanted, the trains doesn’t run from here to there.)

The original plan was to stop off in Shychinks to see Sagar, but when Jamie learned she had to teach that week, that plan changed. Sagar decided he’d rather spend his time macking on a local girl in Petro than wait around for me. But that worked out for the best. Because between Taraz and Sagar’s site, lies the fabulous new city of Astana!

Really, how many cities can you really describe in that way? The new city of …. Most cities in America are at least decades old. Lots of them in Europe are hundreds of years old. Some cities (like Taraz) can claim to be thousands of years old. But Astana…it’s about fifteen years old. For a lot of different reasons, the Kazakhstan President decided to move the capital from Almaty to Asatna about fifteen years ago. It’s not unprecedented in the history of the world. Washington, of course, was not the first capital of America. Atlanta was not the first capital of Georgia. Sometimes its just good to get a fresh start.

How they decided on Astana (which means “capital” in Kazakh), I’ve never heard. It was a small town in the middle of the steppe about halfway between Karaganda and Kokshetau. It is a lot closer to Russia, so it gives the country more control of the northern Russian oblasts. And its more centrally located (Almaty is in the southeastern corner). So it made since geographically in some ways.

Anyway, so my first stop on my trip was the NEW city of Astana. There’s a ton of cool, new stuff there. In some ways it’s like Dubai, but not as extreme. There’s a pyramid structure, the Palace of Independence, Baiterik, the President’s residence. The architectural plan seems to be, let’s build cool, crazy stuff. For example, the treasury department’s building is wavy like a piece of money.

Some people like the new capital and some people don’t. But everyone agrees on one thing: It’s cold! Almaty had the advantage of being in the South. But Astana (while still quite a few hours from the northern border) is north and in the middle of the steppe. Cold and windy. I had heard horror stories of the Astana wind. I wasn’t even sure that I had clothes to prepare me for the weather. Layers ended up working though (long underwear, shirt, long-sleeved shirt, fleece, heavy jacket.)

My train ride up to the city was fun. I find that when you travel during January, you usually get a lot of students on the train who are on break. We played Kazakh backgammon (much simpler) and checkers (more complicated, I think, but maybe I just don’t know how to play checkers). And we finally reached Astana at about 8:00 in the morning. My friend Berik was waiting for me at the station. And we began are day of tourism.

I had heard that you only need one day to see Astana, and this was almost true. We spent about an hour at Berik’s apartment warming up and eating delicious borsch. Then off to the pyramid. This place was built to be a meeting place for all of the world’s major religions. They have a meeting every two years or so. I don’t know how they define major religions (maybe percentages), but I don’t think Brian-ism would ever get an invite. The architecture of the place was actually really impressive (especially when Berik told me about seeing it on the Discovery Channel). And you can rent it out for parties or weddings (but the guide didn’t know how much that was.)

Next, we went across the street to the Palace of Independence. The inside may have been prettier than the outside, but since it was lunch they wouldn’t let us go inside. Just kidding, it was 12:50 and lunch was at 1:00. But the guard said we couldn’t walk the 50 yards across the lobby to the main meeting chamber to look inside. This was not cool, but now I have a reason to come back to Astana.

Then we took a bus across the river to the other side (because apparently there is no pedestrian walkway yet connecting that section of the city). Taking a bus in Astana (and in all the northern cities) was strange because all of the windows were frosted over. Don’t take a bus tour of those cities in winter. You will see nothing.

On the other side, we did some picture taking in front of the President’s Residence (more his office, I heard) and then we went to Baiterik. Just like in the Pyramid, Berik had already been like four times with other people, so he didn’t pay to take the tour. Baiterik is built exactly 97 meters tall because 1997 was the founding of the city (or maybe of Baiterik, I forget.) On top if a golden hand you can put your hand in. I heard it was Nazerbayev’s hand from a number of sources. From the outside it seems really small compared to the impressive new highrises being built around it, but it seems tall from the inside. You can look off in the distance and see the edge of the steppe.

After that, we decided to go to the aquarium. Once again, Berik waited outside while I explored. I’m not a big aquarium fan though. I like the ocean, but not seeing tanks filled with fish. However, this aquarium was sweet for three reasons. One, for an aquarium it’s size, it is farthest away from any major body of water. Kazakhstan is landlocked. It does have the Caspian, it had the Aral sea, and there is big lake Balhash. But most Kazakh people will never see an ocean. But it’s brought to them here. It was great to see other people seeing aquatic life. Second, they had a mermaid show. They have one of those cool tunnel things where the fish swim all around you, and twice a day mermaids show up! Why don’t other aquariums have attractive women swimming around the tanks? Great idea. Third, I ran into another Peace Corps volunteer there (Aaron Bean). He happened to be in Astana with his org. (He works for a handicapped advocacy org and their local government paid to send ten disabled people to Astana for two days. Basically the trip of a lifetime for most of them in a country that has about no handicapped accessible transportation.) I had no idea he was in the city, and we just happened to be at the aquarium at the same time. Crazy.

Next up, what else, but MEGA. No trip to a Kazakhstani city is complete without going to the local MEGA. Unless of course, there is no MEGA. But then it’s debatable whether it should really qualify as being a city. We chilled out there for too long. Because our next stop was the President’s Museum of Astana, and it was already closed for the day. (5:15! It closed at 5:00.) There they have pieces from The Golden Man (although I love to tell locals about how it was most likely, but not proven to be The Golden Woman). The Golden (Wo)Man is one of the coolest archeological finds in Kazakhstan. It is golden armor from thousands of years ago, when Kazakhs may have looked more white than Mongolian. Supposedly, the level of quality and detail in the gold would have trouble being rivaled with modern technology.

After that, the day was coming to a close and we just spent some time walking along the river bank. The city was pretty empty overall, but it was -15 degrees outside (F). We stopped back at Berik’s place then went to the bus station. Ken assured me there was be a bus to his village about two hours north. There wasn’t. I took a cab there. But that story will be saved for the next blog.