Monday, April 12, 2010

Day One: Almaty (guest blog)

Greetings to all of Michael's loyal readers!

Two weeks ago, I had just finished my surgery clerkship. Still reeling from three months of 4:00am mornings and endless menial labor, I boarded a plane (well, four planes actually) bound for the Republic of Kazakhstan. I was bound for uncharted territory, known only to me through this blog, Wikipedia, and Borat.

The journey was 30 hours and 11 time zones. I picked up an Economist in London and some kebab in Istanbul, and before I knew it I was waiting in a disorganized immigration line in the Almaty airport. I had remembered to apply for a visa. Two travelers on my plane had seemingly forgotten; I last saw them sitting forlorn near the door to the runway. After some obligatory cultural misunderstandings and lots of smiling and nodding, I hustled down a hallway and through the baggage line to greet Michael just behind the small army of taxi drivers looking to score a foreign traveler.

Michael and I were roommates for four years at the University of Georgia, and while I saw him periodically since graduation we had been rather out of communication since his Kazakhstan adventure began. I'm sad to say that it had been 18 months since we had seen each other and several since we really had a chance to catch up over the phone. Needless to say, it was great to see him standing there. For one, he rescued me from the ravages of airport taxis.

Visiting Michael was, after all, the entire reason that I decided to spend my last "protected" spring break in Kazakhstan and not Park City or Pensacola. I arrived with one goal in mind- to spend a week with a good friend and try to understand what in the world this Peace Corps experience was all about. Now two weeks after my Kazakh adventure, I feel that we accomplished both goals. I'll be guest blogging for the next six days, chronicling our adventures together and hopefully offering some outsider perspective on Kazakhstan and the Peace Corps experience. I'll also provide photos of key elements of the trip. But before I begin, I want to make the point that Kazakhstan and the Peace Corps are both things that are better experienced first-hand. Rahat candy defies explanation. Yurts must be built to be understood. So, if you have a free week, book a trip to Kazakhstan. Otherwise, just keep reading.

Michael had a few "special requests" for my trip. First, he wanted a new computer. Second, he wanted Krystal hamburgers. The computer was easy enough, but the burgers were quite a logistical problem. They had to arrive fresh, without squishing, and undetected by airport security. And I'm pleased to admit that a mere 34 hours after they were assembled in Nashville, Tennessee, Michael was enjoying two delicious #1 burgers.

A number of other Peace Corps volunteers (PCVs henceforth) were gathered in an apartment in Almaty, where this photo was taken. This photo captures the unfettered joy that Krystal burgers brought to Michael. It does not, however, begin to explain the mayhem that unfolded once he invited other PCVs to partake in American fast food hamburger goodness. Pro tip: If you come to Kazakhstan, bring at least a sackful of Krystals.

Once the feast ended, we headed to a wonderful coffee shop to feed my still-raging caffeine addiction (a handicap which I gradually overcame through the trip). Then we dropped by Hotel Kazakhstan for internet before meeting a couple of Kazakhs at a bus stop and heading for Medeo.

Medeo is an ice rink in the hills around Almaty. It bears the distinction of being the world's highest outdoor skating rink and the future site of the 2011 Asian Winter Games. It is also very expensive to maintain and has thus fallen into disrepair since Kazakh independence in 1991. With the games next year, the rink will reopen for general use.

The stairs in the foreground are the site of an annual Kazakh tradition, the "running of the stairs." Essentially, every year a bunch of manly men get together and race up these 841 ice-covered, super-steep, irregular stairs that run from Medeo to the top of a dam. The winner is crowned king of the mountain and is lauded by all. I did not race up the stairs.

We left Medeo by ski lift to visit the far reaches of the slopes surrounding the rink. Many people came to ski, but we preferred to walk around on the snow and in general look like we had no business on the side of the mountain. The ski lift people took note of this and encouraged us not to do things like 1) slide down the mountain on snow shovels we found, or 2) roll down the mountain in hopes of creating a giant snowball. In the end, we chose to return to the bottom of the slope unharmed.

While waiting for the bus to retun to Almaty proper, I spotted the following creature:

It is a Kazakh squirrel. I have nothing more to say. This photo speaks for itself.

After our Medeo adventure, we met a group of PCVs for doner kebab near the main bazaar in Almaty. Doner kebab in Kazakhstan is different from doner kebab in Turkey, Germany, Greece, or anywhere in Europe for that matter. It starts with a large flour tortilla and doner meat, which is finished with regular doner toppings plus mayonaisse and french fries. The whole concoction is wrapped and pressed (like a panini). It is significantly more odd but similarly delicious as doner kebab anywhere else in the world.

After our lunch we headed to Panfilov Park in the center of Almaty. The park is home to the Ascension Cathedral, a wacky turn-of-the-century Russian Orthodox church patterned after Moscow and Kiev. For trivia buffs, the cathedral is built without a single nail or screw; it is thus the second tallest 100% wooden structure on earth. (I do not know what the tallest is.)

Just when I thought I had seen all that Almaty and Panfilov Park had to offer, Michael took me to see a string of Soviet war memorials. Everything was in Russian, but I think you can get a sense of what they're trying to convey without reading the words.

Soviet WWII memorial:

Soviet WWI memorial:

A giant belt buckle? Nope, another war memorial:

I had never really thought about what people convey with war memorials. These certainly left an impression on me.

By this point in the afternoon, we were exhausted. On the way back to the PCV apartment, we decided to detour past the central mosque of Almaty for a little R&R. The mosque is beautiful, if understated, and was busy with late afternoon visitors when we arrived. We spent a few minutes examining the iconography, listening to chants, and relaxing against the cool walls and columns inside.

Rejuvenated, we left the mosque only to discover something altogether unexpected and magnificent (thought I would only learn the magnitude of this discovery days later in the small village of Asa). Just a few blocks from the mosque, we encountered the Rahat chocolate factory and the associated factory store. Rahat is something of legend in Kazakhstan- a fine chocolatier producing a variety of solid and filled candy bars and individually wrapped sweets. Rahat candy is sold everywhere, consumed everywhere, loved by all. One day a Kazakh asked me about my tea drinking habits. I responded that I didn't drink much tea in the US. Taken aback, he responded, "Then what do you drink with your candy?"

The store was filled with dozens of bins of brightly-colored, individually-wrapped sweets. At the time, this was completely foreign to me. As Michael stood, wide-eyed in front of row after row of candy, I felt a moment of profound cultural incompetence. But, after all, it was only my first day. There was plenty of time to learn.

We left Almaty late Monday evening on a Chinese train bound for Taraz, Michael's fair city. I climbed into my top bunk and was alseep before we even turned off the lights.

- Brad Lindell


Margie Hotard said...

How did you manage to get krystals to him after 30 hours. We saw some of the same things you did. It was amazing. The candy is so good. The train you went on was better than ours and faster. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the story.

Kenneth Balla said...

how did the burgers stay good? me being a carpetbagger - i prefer white castle to krystal, but i have discovered one thing about sliders that i think might be comparable, if you let the burgers sit out unrefrigerated - they create a parabolic graph - originally delicious -> kinda old and soggy -> back to delicious and then this increases exponentially over time until they crash and go bad after maybe a week, keeping them on a dashboard also helps keep them warm. especially in summertime.; anywho - u should come back in september for the official run up the stairs race, i did it my first year here, it was terrible and my quads failed into cramps, but worth it

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