Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Day Two: Taraz (guest blog)

The Chinese train to Taraz is faster and more comfortable than the Soviet train. I have no first-hand knowledge of any other train to Taraz, but by all accounts the Soviet one looks just like the train in Goldeneye. Don't remember? Go blow the dust of your N64 or VHS player and take a gander. Soviet trains would become part of my life near the end of my trip.

We arrived in Taraz early in the morning, before the city was awake, around 24 hours after I landed in Kazakhstan. Exhausted from my day of time travel and an action-packed Almaty itinerary, I was unsure what the day would hold. A cordial taxi driver in a charcoal suit picked us up outside the train station and dropped us in the courtyard of a block of towering Soviet-style apartment buildings. Nothing had ever seemed more foreign, but we were home at last.

We were standing next to an old, broken playground painted in primary colors. Piles of sand obscured see-saws, and odd blue roofs topped unknown structures. The scene was surreal- but bizarrely familiar as if I had seen it in dozens of movies before but never realized that a place like this really existed. We moved toward Michael's building. A dilapidated building with metal windows and iridescent tiles set on a concrete background so imposing it looked like a four-story storm shelter. I had never seen anything like it before.

As I stood outside in this courtyard for the first of many times, I began to realize that Kazakhstan was a very different place than any other that I had visited. There was something very familiar about everything, but it all seemed a bit "off" from what I would expect. I would later go on to identify a number of these characteristics, which may be the essence of this Cold War era concept of the "second world." I will readily admit my ignorance when it comes to Soviet history and the subsequent history of Kazakhstan, but just from my first moments standing in a very typical residential area in Taraz it was easy to feel a "difference."

Michael took a nap and I visited an internet cafe, which provided a first exposure to my complete inability to speak Russian. Very, very few Kazakhs speak English, and those that do did not seem to frequent internet cafes. That morning I only knew two Russian words: internet, and yes. With smiles and hand gestures, that's all I needed to get by.

We spent the morning visiting a few notable sites in Taraz. Foremost among these was the Old Banya Museum- a bizarre collection of 3D relief maps, artifacts, and life-size murals of nomadic Kazakh life all contained within the chambers of a now-defunct 100-year-old banya.

Banyas are public showers and saunas which remain very popular in Kazakhstan. This particular banya fell out of favor, into disarray, and has now been recycled into a semi-public space for science education and cultural discovery. We had a great tour guide who, via Michael's translations, taught me about the history of Taraz, legacy of the USSR, and the social importance of banyas.

After our departure from the Old Banya Museum, we happened upon another apartment complex with another courtyard and another swing set. This swing set was notable for the very traditional Russian metal poles which serve as the swing chains. My reaction to these swings was the same as my reaction to many things in Kazakhstan: initially, I questioned why in the world would someone choose to hang a swing by metal rods? The answer: don't worry about it.

After a delicious lunch of shashlik, we headed to the village of Asa for our most significant activity of the day: building a yurt! For more information on yurts, I recommend that you read all about them on Wikipedia. Ok, now that you know all about yurts, let me tell you our plan and how I found myself building a yurt after being in Kazakhstan for less than 36 hours.

The story of the yurt begins with the story of Dave, a former PCV who lived in the village of Asa. I did not meet Dave, because his term of service ended some time ago. That being said, the legend of Dave has only grown in Asa over time. Dave lived in an apartment above a nice, kind Kazakh family who ran a youth developement program in Asa. He got to know them pretty well during his time in Kazakhstan, and ended up working with their organization extensively.

When he decided to leave Kazakhstan, he acquired a yurt to bring back to America. However, due to unforseen shipping rates, his yurt was far too expensive to transport halfway around the world. And so Dave bequeathed his yurt to the youth organization run by his surrogate host parents. By all accounts, owning a yurt is a source of great pride for Kazakhs, and so Dave's family became the "yurt people" for lack of a better term. When Michael was preparing for my trip, he was quickly referred to the "yurt people" for all yurt-related inquiries.

I will spare you the details, but yurt building is difficult and requires many steps, which are shown generally in the following pictures.

After successfully building the yurt, and now hot and sweaty after hard manual labor and a hard-hitting game of soccer with a bunch of Kazakh men from Asa, it was time to blow of some steam and get clean at the banya.

Michael has already written extensively about the banya experience in Kazakhstan. Here's the quick run-down for banya in Asa:

1) put all of your clothes in a locker
2) hang out with a group of naked men around a single shower head in the corner of a large room meant for relaxation and bathing
3) go to the sauna for a hot, steamy sweat-fest
4) exit the sauna and have someone pour ice-cold water over you
5) repeat steps 3 and 4 ad absurdum
6) beat your partner (or anyone else) with leaf-covered sticks for "exfoliation"
7) take a final shower
8) retrieve your clothes

Michael and I were popular at the banya that night, mainly among middle-aged overweight men who liked drinking beer while they bathed. They even bought us a round of beers, which I viewed as a self-esteem booster I guess? We left soon after, to return to our yurt for a long, chilly night's sleep.

-Brad Lindell

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