Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Day Three: Asa (guest blog)

I would be lying if I said that I got a great night's sleep in the yurt. It was cold and the beds were pretty primitive. That being said, I had only been in Kazakhstan for two nights, and I had yet to sleep in a real bed, so I had no trouble getting some rest. I woke up in the morning to roosters crowing and watched my breath condensing in a tiny shaft of light coming through the woven panels of the yurt's outer shell. I felt pretty Kazakh.

Asa is a small town with one main paved road and a full spectrum of housing- from Soviet apartment blocks to single family homes and even some pretty primitive dwellings on the outskirts of town. It's a very pleasant place to be, and a place where it's much easier to feel connected to the roots of the country and its people. Cities like Almaty and Taraz have certain unique attributes, but in the end they are much more akin to American or European cities than to villages like Asa.

You will note in the above picture that two basic utilities are funneled into the homes of all Asa residents. The power lines should look familiar. But the bright yellow pipe suspended six feet above the ground and engineered to soar high above driveways and intersections is probably pretty foreign to you. It certainly was to me. I've heard two theories for the content of this pipe, though no one could tell me for certain in Asa. It either carries steam or natural gas, and either way it functions to provide heat for homes in the winter. As best I can tell, this practice of piping "heat" into peoples' homes began well before Kazakh independence and continues to this day, though no one really understands how it works.

We left the yurt and walked a few streets over to the home of Salavat, a resident of Asa (and former friend of Dave) who Michael knows well. He greeted us cordially and served us a wonderful breakfast.

This picture captures so many things about meals in Kazakhstan: the table cloths, the way food is served, the fact that bowls are used as tea cups, the constant supply of chocolate candies made by Rahat, the absence of traditional breakfast foods except for fried eggs. I could go on and on about the things on this table and the setting in general, but it's better if you just take some time and examine. Breakfast was delicious.

After breakfast, Salavat offered to let us ride his horses. Salavat's family owns a miniature herd of horses, probably more than a dozen, and they participate in a "cowboy cooperative" of sorts. Each day, one person from the cooperative takes the group's horses outside of Asa to the pastures where they can graze. We would visit these pastures with Salavat and his trusty steed Tony.

Tony was a relatively large, relatively ill-tempered horse who liked to gallop and behave in unpredictable ways. I ended up riding Tony for some time. Here are some highlights:

I felt pretty much like a rockstar.

We rode into the distance - Salavat, Tony, and I. But not so far into the distance that we reached those mountains, which are some 25km away.

At one point, I decided that it would be awesome if Tony would pose with me on some railroad tracks. It seemed like the perfect manly picture. I would be riding a horse, standing firmly in the way of the inhuman force represented by the railroad, a bastion of tradition for hard, grizzled men everywhere. Unfortunately, Tony would not oblige.

I also met a cowboy while out on the range. He was looking after the horse cooperative for the day. He let me hold his whip and pose with his (much smaller) horse. I think it's pretty clear that I have no idea what I'm doing here.

When we returned to town, Salavat invited us to his sister's apartment for beshbarmark, a very traditional Kazakh dish made from homemade noodles, boiled potatoes and carrots, fresh onions, and stewed horse. You eat it with your hands from a communal platter and chase it with funny looking bread.

The food itself was fine, if a bit salty, and eating horse did not give me pause. It was, however, baffling to my hosts that we do not eat horse in the US. I explained that in the US we ride horses instead of eating them, and that horses here are expensive, but I didn't really convince anyone. Funny enough, the day I got home from Kazakhstan, the Tennessee legislature was considering a bill to allow slaughter of horse for meat. The measure was vocally opposed by Willie Nelson.

We left Asa after lunch, and I thought about how many traditional Kazakh things I had been able to do during a 24 hour period: ride in overcrowded minibuses, build a yurt, sleep in a yurt, ride horses on the steppe, and eat beshbarmark with horse meat. It had been action-packed.

That afternoon I went to Michael's English conversation group, where I was the main topic of conversation and I tried to obtain some additional information about my recent Kazakh experiences. I learned that few people in Kazakhstan build yurts, almost no one sleeps in them, and beshbarmark is very popular. It was great to see the kind of work that Michael has been doing recently, and his students spoke very highly of him. A number came up to me after class to tell me that they really only come to English club to hang out with Michael. I told them that's why I had come, too.

English conversation group in Taraz was where I first met Acela, Michael's girlfriend. Having heard so much about her, I was eager to finally meet. We spent some time together before English club, and afterwards she invited me and Michael over to her apartment for dinner. He had to wrap up some work at the office, and so Acela and I headed over to her house to begin preparations.

The plan was to make manti, which is basically a steamed bun made with homemade dough (without yeast) and a meat filling. She rolled out the dough and cut it into pieces, and I was charged with filling the dough and tying the manti into little packages of meat.

When they were all prepared, we steamed them in a funny looking pot.

The dinner was great and reminded me of a Chinese recipe which Karen and I make frequently. I also got to sample several Kazakh beers over dinner, which were largely of the full-bodied lager variety. There are not many IPAs available in Kazakhstan.

After dinner, Michael and Acela tried to teach me a Russian card game called Durak, but I promptly passed out on the floor. My nonstop activities and travel had finally caught up with me, and I caught up on some much needed sleep.

-Brad Lindell


Anonymous said...

I'm enjoying your blog. It interedting to see where you went .We also meet salavant and his family. They cooked us a lunch. The food was delious. We had beshbarmark at onother host famlies house. Matter of fact we eat in a yurt.

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