I haven’t been everywhere in Kazakshtan. I never made it west past Kyzlorda, so I never saw the Caspian, the Aral Sea, or any cities out that way. I also never made it to Pavlador or Kokshetau. But this past week, I was finally able to cross off Ust-Kamenogorsk from my list. It will most likely be the last new city that I visit in Kazakshtan, since we have travel restrictions placed on us the last three months of our service. (Understandably, they want us to “finish strong” at our sites.)
Back in June, a volunteer in Ust sent out an email saying she was doing a camp on leadership, careers, and international education. When boiled down, that’s really been the focus for the bulk of my service. I couldn’t imagine a better camp, and it would mean work travel to visit East Kazakhstan Oblast. I’d like to imagine the competition was stiff to claim a spot at her camp, but really I have no idea. She said I could help out, and I had to rearrange my summer schedule to make it fit.
Ust is a long way away from Taraz. I left last Thursday on a midnight bus to Almaty. I was looking to go cheap, so I grabbed a seat in the back row. It had been a couple years since I’d done that, and I had forgotten how uncomfortable that row makes the ten-hour ride. I was a zombie all day in Almaty before boarding my 23 hour train to Ust that set off at 10PM. The train ride was much more comfortable though. I was able to catch up on my sleep and finish “The Big Short” which was excellent, and anyone interested in the financial crisis and wanting an interesting story should find and read it. Saturday night I was able to hang out with my old friend AC and Sunday Meriah showed me around the city.
Ust is the capital of East Kazakshtan, but it is not the oblast’s only city. A few hundered kilometers away is Semei, which was home to Abai and also housed Dostoyevsky for a while. I would have liked to visit it as well, but I’m out of vacation days now. Ust is famous for its “strelka” which means arrow. This is the city’s riverwalk. It is call an arrow, because two rivers meet at a certain point of it. Overall, Ust was a lot prettier than I imagined. I had heard that the city was very polluted because of its large industry sector (there’s a lot of mineral processing done there), but that didn’t stop them from having a very nice riverwalk and some nice parks. The smoke stacks from the factories were very noticeable on the city skyline though, and they seemed to be located in the center of town rather than on the outskirts. Also, much like people in Taraz will quickly mention their city is the most criminal in all of Kazakhstan, the people of Ust were quick to say our ecology is horrible. However, they didn’t have any pride in this fact.
Aside from the parks, the rivers, and the smokestacks, the next most noticeable thing in the city was a chain of cafes called Pizza Blues. They seemed to be everywhere. In Taraz, we have a lot of cafes, but we don’t have any major chains. In Shymkent, they have about five Madlens, so maybe that is comparable, but there seemed to be way more Pizza Blues than that. We eventually got to try it out, and the pizza was horrible. I would rate it below a Totinos pizza in terms of taste. It was somewhat cheap though, so it had that going for it at least.
The camp itself ran from Monday to Friday. It was located about 80km outside the city at a camp that the university owned on a small lake. The setting was gorgeous. Small rock mountains surrounded the lake which were great for doing some short treks up and down. Melissa had picked 18 of her best students, all of them being girls because no boys applied for the camp. During the four days, we had them write resumes, statements of purpose, and prepare for a mock interview. I was surprised by how much work they put into it outside of the sessions. In their free time, they may have been sitting down by the lake, but they did so with their resumes and statements of purpose. We also did some teambuilders and leadership activities with them, which they had lots of fun with. In the evenings, we did evening activities, which included me finally using the karaoke program that Ken gave me years ago.
For me, the camp was just awesome. The students were so enthusiastic and engaged. My favorite memories include our talent show at the end (I juggled volleyballs, or at least tried to, while the other volunteers sang Lean on Me), karaoke (the most popular song was “My Heart Will Go On”), team builders, mountain climbing (Jenny, Elena and I actually made it to the top!), and yoga (yeah, I even did yoga for a whole week.) The other volunteers were also great, and amazingly there was someone from Kaz 20, 21, 22, and 23. Now I’m back at. I have thirteen weeks left in Kazakhstan, That’s like a college semester or so. I know it’s going to fly by. I just have to try and hunker down now and finish strong.