Thursday, April 29, 2010
Friday, April 23, 2010
This week was busy. It's my second week of teaching a night course at my organization. I really enjoy "Business English" but its tough to finish the day at 8:30 to 9:00 four days a week. This week was made even longer by the fact that it was our Spring Week of Kindness. Traditionally, we do tons of volunteer events during this week. And we did, but just on a smaller scale than usual. I really wish I could get more focus on our volunteer activites. They were doing so good two months ago, but then they have fallen apart again. But yeah, I was at work every day around 9 or 9:30 and going until 8:30ish. Long days for me. But good days. For the most parts.
Other news, I saw the group Bi 2 live last night. Apparently they are one of the coolest Russian rock bands ever. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bi-2 They played for two hours, which I was impressed with. And the setting of Navigator (still the best club in town - www.navigatortaraz.kz/ although web site is usually down) is great for rock concerts. Or has potential to be. I don't understand how some people can chill out in the VIP sections just eating and talking while there is a rock concert going on. But Bi 2 was great.
Soon, I'll be posting a heroic story of when I entered a hot dog eating contest a couple weeks ago. Hopefully that will start Monday. Happy belated Earth Day to all!
Sunday, April 18, 2010
Friday, April 16, 2010
The other perk of a visit to Astana was a long-haul train ride on Soviet rails in a Soviet train. I've always had a dream of traveling the length of the trans-Siberian railroad from Moscow to Vladivostok, and I decided that 21 hours to Astana would be a good "trial run" of my ultimate train adventure.
You may remember that my original Kazakh train trip from Almaty to Taraz was in the luxurious 4-bunk-per-room Chinese train. Now on my fifth day in country, it was time for a "real" Kazakh train experience: platscart. Instead of sleeping in a room with built-in bunk beds and a door, I was now traveling in a train car packed floor-to-ceiling with beds and Kazakh families. Six beds now occupied the space of four. There were no doors, no hallway, just beds and spaces between beds almost large enough for you to stand up in. Pictures really explain it better than I ever could.
The train was full, cramped, and blazingly hot. It was also a place where bizarre things seemed to happen with no explanation nearly all the time.
Michael and I had a set of bunk beds, and the other bunks near us were occupied by a young family traveling with a six month old boy. Shortly after we departed Taraz, the entire family took turns changing out of their street clothes and into "train clothes," which Michael explained was normal and to be expected for such a long trip. Then the family had lunch together. Inexplicably, they had packed full, elaborate meals of chicken, bread, and endless side dishes. Entire bags I had assumed to be full of luggage were stuffed like sophisticated picnic baskets. There were drinks, there was vodka, there was Raxhat candy. Once they finished eating there were snacks. Then came another meal.
Food also abounded at the various stops that the train made throughout the night. Michael explained that each stop was "famous" for a certain type of food. Sometimes it was fruit or bread, sometimes kebabs, sometimes I couldn't even start to figure out. Then we reached the smoked fish stop.
I would have taken a picture but it was the middle of the night and the sight of fish was already too much for me to bear. Women entered the train cars holding dozens of smoked fish strung up by the gills. The fish were huge (easily 24 inches) and completely disgusting. They were brown and looked half-preserved, half-dried in the sun for weeks. They were fat and flat and people were buying them with reckless abandon. The family sharing our bunk area bought four or five, much to my disappointment. Michael later asked and they said they always brought them to relatives in Astana. It seems the smoked fish are a sensation throughout the country. This fascination with fish is particularly bizarre because Kazakhstan is about as landlocked as a country could possibly be.
After buying the fish, the family folded the fish in half (cue the cracking noise of fish scales and bones) and stuffed them in a bag. If that wasn't bad enough, they stuck the bag of folded fish on the luggage rack about four feet from my head. That's when I knew it would be a real Kazakh platscart experience.
By this point, it was dark outside, I was hot, and the fish were smelly. Michael wanted to take a nap and I decided to escape in search for fresh air. I found respite next to an open window at the back of the train car next to the bathroom. This location was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because the window existed, but a curse because the combination of terrible bathroom facilities and a constantly rocking train care meant that the smell of bathroom pervaded the area.
I coped by hanging my head out the window and looking out over the steppe. The near-full moon and near-empty landscape were a welcome change from the relative chaos of the train.
Thursday, April 15, 2010
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
Tuesday, April 13, 2010
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.
Monday, April 12, 2010
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
Friday, April 9, 2010
Saturday, April 3, 2010
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Peace Corps Volunteer - Kazakhstan