Monday, December 13, 2010

Holiday Season in Kazakhstan

I know that there are many of you out there who have, your entire life, pondered the exact same question as I have: how could Santa Claus possibly make it around the entire world to deliver presents to every good little boy and girl in just one night?  If you take time zones into account he has about 24 hours of nighttime leading up to December 25th.  And if he crosses the International Dateline a couple times, which would magically teleport him forward or back a day depending on which way he crossed it, he could squeak in a few extra hours here and there.  Still, the logistics seem impossible.  But I have found the answer here in Kazakhstan!  Santa Claus, who goes by the alias Дед Мороз (Ded Moroz) here, doesn't deliver presents for Christmas.  That would be silly, since most of the population is Muslim.  Instead, he delivers presents to Kazakh kids on New Years!  So good ol' Santa can head back to the North Pole and rest and re-pack his sleigh for six days before heading out for round two.

New Years decorations and the security
guard in my building.
And Dasher, Dancer, and all of their friends have an even better deal: they only have to do the North America stint.  Santa re-hitches his sleigh with white horses for the second round.  This confuses the Kazakh kids who attend our school and can't understand why we're singing about reindeer pulling Santa's sleigh when everyone knows that it's white horses who drive the presents to them.

And North American kids get off easy, too.  All they have to do is be good all year long, and then fall asleep, and magically presents appear in their stockings and under the tree when they awake Christmas morning.  Maybe they leave out a cookie or two and a glass of milk, but relatively speaking, it's not a lot of work.  Kazakh kido's, however, have to work a bit harder for their gifts.  They have to prepare a song, poem, or a short story of some kind, and present it to Santa Claus.  Only then does Santa reward them with their gift.  Imagine the pressure!  What does Santa prefer - a song?  But I can't sing!  What if I write him a poem.  Does it have to rhyme? Santa's a bit intimidating.  I'm glad I was born in North America, and all I have to do is fall asleep to get my presents.

And here Santa has a sidekick!  No, it's not an elf - those are reserved for the North American jaunt.  He brings his niece or his granddaughter (that part got lost in translation), who makes fun of him.  I wonder if our Santa is even the same guy as the Дед Мороз character.  Дед Мороз is depicted as a really old, slightly senile guy who is easily bamboozled by this niece/granddaughter character.  The Santa that I grew up knowing was cunning, wise, and of sound judgment.  Perhaps that's why Дед Мороз doesn't have to make the notorious naughty-or-nice list, but just has to listen to a short poem and then dole out a gift.

A lot of the other traditions that we associate with Christmastime have worked their way into Kazakhstan's New Years.  There are trees decorated with lights everywhere.  Ornaments, red-and-green M&M's, and candles are for sale only this time of year.  I would like to see what happens on New Years day here!  Maybe next year - this year I'm headed to Italy to see about their Christmas and New Year's traditions!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Manas and the true story of 7 April: A trip to Bishkek

Manas on horseback killing a dragon, with his wife and adviser.

About a month after I had decided to move to Almaty last March, riots broke out in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.  "Is that the country you're moving to?" my colleagues asked.  I explained to them that although the country I was moving to started with a K and ended with -stan, it was a completely different place.  What I did not tell them (although some figured it out on their own,) was that Almaty is less than 100 miles from Bishkek, where the internationally-broadcast riots began on the 7th of April.  The violence was over soon, and I never felt unsafe moving to Almaty, however close to a "violent uprising."

A memorial to those killed in the 7 April riots.
I was offered a spot on a group tour of Kyrgyzstan during my fall break, and I jumped at the opportunity.  Our guide met us at 7:00 in the morning the first Saturday of my fall break (yes, we get a whole week off school at the end of October) and drove us to the boarder.  We had to walk across, which is a bit of an adventure.  As I waited in line, I watched three stray dogs pass right under the car gate unobstructed.  It made me wish for a furry tail and no collar as I answered questions in Russian such as my real purpose for visiting Kyrgyzstan (yes, the officer knew I was a tourist, but why was I really going?).

My favorite thing in Bishkek was Manas.  Manas is the legendary Kyrgyz hero who united the tribes of Kyrgyzstan so they could better defend themselves against the Chinese and other invaders.  He lived somewhere between the 6th and 8th centuries, before Islam became the dominant religion.  A statue of Manas statue depicted him on horseback fighting a dragon (to represent the Chinese).  To Manas's left was his teacher and adviser, the Merlin-type figure Bakai, and to his right is a statue of Kankay, Manas's Tajik wife.

Alatau Square, where the riots took place.
I'm fascinated by how prehistoric cultures knew to create rules to combat inbreeding, by requiring men and women to be from different places in order to get married.  Most of these rules would not be popular in modern feminist crowds, and Central Asia's strategy was no different.  The practice of "bride-napping", or kidnapping a bride, was how men obtained wives: they stole them from other tribes.  And yes, this practice still exists today in a less barbaric but nonetheless sexist way.  This was, according to the legend, how Manas married Kankay: he stole her from a Tajik tribe. 

The legend of Manas is written as an epic poem that was solely an oral tradition until the 20th century, when it was finally written down into over 10,000 rhyming lines.  In the National Museum in Bishkek there are tributes to the best Manas story-tellers, all of whom have the entire poem memorized.  Contests of who can recite the poem with the most emotion and drama are popular cultural events here.

Alongside the Manas storytelling exhibit, the National Museum also holds a room dedicated to the memory of those killed in the 7th of April riots.  The way the violence was depicted in the US media is very different from the stories I heard while in Bishkek.  So, between the language and cultural barriers, this is my understanding of what happened:

The week before the riots started last April, a sniper was running lose in the city.  The sniper alternately killed one Uzbek and one Kyrgyz.  There has always been tension between the two ethnicities, and each side thought the other was responsible.  Now the rumor is that the ex-president, Kurmanbek Bakiev, hired the sniper to instill fear and hatred in the people before the April elections. 

Democracy in Kyrgyzstan is slightly different from how it works in the US.  Although allegedly united by Manas, Kyrgyzstan was still a bunch of nomadic tribes until the Soviets forced them to be sedentary.  So of course everyone feels loyalty to those from their own tribe.  This makes general elections difficult: there are dozens of candidates for president, and the one who wins isn't necessarily the most popular, but the one who is from the biggest tribe.  Kyrgyzstan's government deals with this problem by not electing the person who holds the popular vote, but instead electing the one whose votes span the greatest area of the country. 

One thing most people in Kyrgyzstan agreed on, however, was that they needed to vote Kurmanbek Bakiev out of office, which they did.  People from all over the country staged an event where people walked into their local government buildings and "took over" to ensure that the election would be fair.  This wasn't hard since many of the police were supportive, and the "take-over" was easy.  At the same time, crowds gathered in Alatau Square to witness the transition in government.  What they hadn't expected was the snipers situated on the rooftops, who shot randomly into the crowd.  Of course riots would ensue. 

Known in Central Asia as relatively peaceful and complacent people, no one expected a violent uprising from the Kyrgyz people.  Immediately following the riots, the Kazakh government build a barbed-wire fence directly along the road on the Kyrgyz side of the river separating the two countries.  It was quite comical to see, although possibly extremely sad: the fence was build directly along the road, so businesses and buildings on the other side were cut off from Kyrgyzstan entirely.  They were cut off from Kazakhstan, too: the river paralleled the road, and on the Kyrgyz side was another fence.  One gas station looked like it had been in operation when the fence was built: there was still a newish-looking car parked in the lot.  I tried to ask the guide what happened to the people who lived on the other side of the fence now that they were cut off from all civilization.  He just shrugged and shook his head.

Following our trip through the burned buildings and memorials of the 7 April riots, the rest of the trip was peaceful and relaxing.  Kyrgyzstan is a beautiful country as well as a trip back in time.  There are as many people riding donkeys and horses on the roads outside the city as there are in cars.  I'll write more about it later, but this entry feels long enough.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Recreation in the Alatau Mountains

Big Almaty Lake, in the mountains to the south of me.
"We are just now learning how to rest," My friend and colleague said to me, talking about Kazakhs in general.  Her comment elicited a picture in my mind of a self-help group for Kazakhs, where they all sat around in comfy chairs learning how to use a television remote control. 
What she meant was that under the Soviet Union's government that ruled Kazakhstan before their peaceful independence in 1991, the recreation industry was virtually nonexistent.  All industry was owned by the government, and while recreation is not necessarily forbidden under communism, the industry doesn't exactly boom. 

A berry-picking girl on a picnic.
Since Kazakhstan's independence and simultaneous conversion to capitalism, tourism and recreation has blossomed as an industry, and Kazakhs are very receptive.  Gorky park, Almaty's biggest park complete with paddle boat rides on a small lake, carnival rides, an aquapark, and a zoo, is packed every weekend. 

But a large chunk of the Almaty population takes after my own heart and likes to get out of the city on weekends.  Two buses run from Almaty to different parts of the Alatau Mountains, the local ridge line in the Tien Shan Mountains that are south of the city.  These buses are packed on weekends, as are the trails.  Often small groups of people will be headed out overnight.  While the mountains are some of the most gorgeous I have ever seen, it is obvious that locals are relatively new to getting out and enjoying them.  The leave-no-trace ethic that I so whole-heartedly believe in and follow is non-existent here.  Not only is there trash thrown everywhere across the trail and human feces and toilet paper found behind trees, but the sensitive desert crust and alpine zones are driven over with cars, and chopping down a tree for a family shashlik BBQ is routine practice. 

Charyn Canyon, in the steppe to the
northeast of Almaty.
Picnics are huge here.  Families carrying with plastic bags full of food, blankets to sit on, and fire-starter head out into the hills for a picnic. 

I took a bus out to Charyn canyon a couple weeks ago.  Kazakh bus rides are quite an experience.  I had a cold to begin with, but riding for four-and-a-half hours over bumpy dirt roads in the back of a full, 1970's German bus with broken seats that poked into your back and no air circulation didn't help my mood.  Still, the canyon was worth seeing.  It looked like it belonged in Utah.  When my friend from Germany and I exited the bus, we walked the opposite direction from everyone else.  While Kazakh vacationers headed down into the canyon armed with plastic bags full of shashlik (Kazakh shish kabob), plof (a rice dish), and other picnic foods, my friend and I walked along the top of the canyon.  Looking down over the ridge I expected to see water, and was surprised to only find a road.  Where was the water that had obviously carved these crazy-looking paths through the desert?

I found it about 5 kilometers later, flowing down another canyon.  When we finally decided to join the other tourists by the water, we realized how fast it was flowing.  Glacial run-off is cold, and there is a story floating around my school of a woman who fell into the Charyn River (right where I was) and was never found.  As much as I wanted to jump in, I kept my distance. 
One of the most amazing-looking trees
I've ever seen.  It looks like something
out of a fairytale!

The river was an oasis.  From the top of the canyon, as far as the eye could see was beige desert.  But down by the water the land was green and lush.  Charyn canyon is northeast of the city.  The following weekend I hiked up to Big Almaty Lake, in the mountains south of the city.  Although the two places aren't all that far about (a couple hundred kilometers or so), the landscapes couldn't look more different.  The snow-capped mountains provided a sharp color contrast to the bright turquoise water typical of glacial lakes, and the dark blue of the sky (which is a nice change from the smog-infested sky from the city).  The desert landscape provided little contrast.

 I feel fortunate to have moved to a city with so much nature around me.  I was nervous when I accepted this job that getting out of town would be a challenge.  I'm lucky that this is not the case!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Learning the Ropes

View of the Eastern edge of town from
the top of the ferriswheel in Gorsky Park.
The internet guy just came to fix/install my home internet!  And for some reason I am able to access my blog from home, when I wasn't able to from school or any internet cafe.  Of course, I had to choose between internet or telephone - they can't seem to find a way for me to have both.  Sort of like I have to choose between having my washer work or my toilet flush - how they're connected is a mystery to me, but it's one or the other.  And no, unplugging the internet and plugging in the telephone doesn't seem to work - there's some kind of Kazakh magic at work that I'm not privy to.

Navigating the Blogger site in Kazakh was also a challenge.  I finally figured out how to choose my language and have the directions in English, but for a while it was dicey whether or not I was going to be able to do that. 

Things at school are also a bit unpredictable.  The supply order for this school year that was ordered last November hasn't arrived yet.  We have nothing.  We were told to use paper sparingly, which means I can't print out the syllabus for my students, and I have about 3 pieces of chalk.  When my computer, the internet, and the school's server are all working at the same time (a rare coincidence) I can use my projector, but the computer often locks up in the middle of a PowerPoint presentation with a message saying something like I do not have permission to view the remaining slides (of the presentation that I created). 

With the exception of the school supplies, these minor inconveniences are somewhat endearing.  I'm told that I'm in the "honeymoon" phase of living abroad; that I will become more annoyed with living here as time goes on, and even become spiteful.  Somehow I don't think so - I genuinely like this city.  The people here are so kind and willing to help.  My mode of transportation currently is my bicycle, and I often get lost when going to new places, so I'm constantly having to ask people on the street how to get here or there.  They are always tolerant of my broken Russian and my requests to repeat their answer more slowly, and point me in generally the right direction most of the time. 

The little turtle looked out of place in the flowerbeds
of a small park in the center of Almaty.
Although I generally don't have the best sense of direction, I have to defend myself in how often I get lost in Almaty: the streets aren't always labeled at the intersections (they're often labeled a street or two back), and each street has an old Soviet name such as Lenin or Frunzia as well as a new Kazakh name such as Caina or Auezova.  My map is labeled with some of the old names and some of the new names, but many streets on my map aren't labeled.  Also, there are two Auezova streets, and the one that the school is on is mislabeled, which caused me some anxiety the first time I was trying to get to work. 

I really can't complain too much, however, because it's instantly apparent the second I start going in the wrong direction.  The mountains are always visible, and they are to the south.  The entire city slopes downhill to the north.  Since my main mode of transportation is my bicycle, I know immediately when I'm headed in generally the wrong direction because I have to change gears.  School is north of where I live.  It takes me 25 minutes to bike to school, and almost 50 minutes to bike home, so the slope is decent.  If I find myself going uphill when my destination is to the north, then I know I've taken a wrong turn. 

Sculptures in the center of town.
There is a much easier way to get around: gypsy taxi.  A gypsy taxi is anyone with a driver's license, a car, and who is going generally in your direction.  Kazakhs stand on the street with their hand out, tell the driver where he or she wants to go, and negotiate a price (usually less than 500 tg, or $4.00).  It's a nice safety net for me wandering the city: if I ever get really lost and I don't think I'll be able to find my way home I can always wave down a taxi and tell the driver where I want to go. 

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Clutch-burnt Air, a Cement River, and Mountain Construction: My first few days

My apartment building - I live on the 6th floor. 
The first thing I noticed when I stepped off the plane at Almaty International Airport was the smell. It was burning rubber, like riding a clutch too long, or driving with the breaks on. It sat heavy in my lungs, dirty with dust, exhaust, burning trash, construction, and limited environmental regulations.
I relaxed with the smell. My anxieties about moving here that were spinning out of control only hours before were centered around my fear of the unknown. But this wasn’t unknown at all – it was the same smell that overwhelmed my senses the moment I stepped into Delhi and Beijing. It is the familiar stench of Asia.
There is one thing you should know if you decide to move to Almaty with more luggage than you can carry on your person: the carts at the airport are few and far between, and highly coveted by those who can speak Russian well and are able to be more pushy. Having to ask someone the word for cart (telega), and having spoken no Russian for 11 years, I was in no position to be pushy about my need for one. No offered to help when I stacked my bags in a clumsy pile and attempted to drag them out the door to where (thankfully) the curriculum director of Almaty International School was waiting with a big smile and helping hand.
The driver brought me to my 6th-floor apartment, furnished for royalty and complete with security and a doorman, at about 2 in the morning. It was another two sleepless nights before my body decided that it would in fact make the 10-hour time zone change and sleep when the sun slept. (I know I told everyone that there is an 11-hour time zone difference between Kazakhstan time and EST, but I didn’t take into account daylight savings, a season not recognized by Kazakhs).
I have trouble sleeping when I don’t eat, and the clutch-burnt air of Asia, coupled with the fact that I can’t seem to keep my mouth closed in the shower, always has a nauseating effect on me. In the past I’ve stop noticing it after a while, and only remember that it’s there after returning to the states and having it disappear.
Standing on top of Chimbolak, the local ski resort.
After a couple days of settling in, exploring the mall directly adjacent to my house and walking along the Big Girl-From-Almaty River (ok, so translating this river name isn’t easy) that runs by my front door (see picture: the Kazakhs built it a cement channel so it wouldn’t become confused and inadvertently re-direct itself down a street), I decided I needed a bicycle. A new American friend of mine who has lived in Almaty for the past three years took me to a local bike shop. After some initial difficulties in convincing the store owner that I wanted to buy (not rent) a used bike (not new) that was complete with all its parts, he told me to wait an hour. I didn’t really believe him, as my friend and I were the only ones there, but he proceeded to find lots of other customers who spoke Russian during that hour. Almost an hour and a half of sitting on the front steps later he came out with a bike. I thought that maybe I’d get a choice – he had a long line of used bikes piled in the back. But no – that was the one I could have, take it or leave it, thank you very much. When I asked if I could ride it a bit he looked annoyed, but consented. It’s not a bad bike – a Gary Fisher mountain bike that cost me 25000 tenge. It’s strange paying in bills that have so many zeros. I think the exchange rate right now is 147 tenge to the US dollar.
Ascension Cathedral - a Russian Orthodox Church
On Monday the directors of AIS took all of us newbies on an outing. We were going to drive up to Chimbulak, the local ski resort. The plan was to take the lift up to the top, and hike around for a bit. Why the road even has switchbacks is a mystery to me. Although it traverses the mountain, I can’t imagine it’s any less steep than if it ran straight up. We got to Medeu, the ice rink that lies approximately half way between the city and the ski resort, and the bus driver decided that the bus couldn’t make it any further. So we got out and walked. I was looking forward to a nice hike, and wasn’t too disappointed when this plan was decided. A few kilometers into it, however, I began to reconsider my excitement. The pavement was brand new – the road was being re-done for the Asian games that are going to take place in Almaty and Astana (Kazakhstan’s capital) in February. The sticky, smelly black stuff we were walking on was also hot. Coupled with the construction fumes and noise that was constant the entire way up, were the cars and construction vehicles that were often bigger than the road itself, and loved to honk at us. They weren’t the best smelling things either. When we finally reached the top of the chair lift we were all too exhausted to hike very far. Still, the views were amazing. I’m excited to explore the mountains!

Monday, August 9, 2010

Moving to the Other Side of the Planet

For the last few months, many of my conversations either begin with or ultimately lead to me saying, "well I'm moving to Kazakhstan soon, so..." which is followed by one of three reactions:

1) A blank stare, and, "...where?"
2) A big smile, and, "My cousin/friend/colleague lived there.  What an amazaing adventure!"
3) "Why would you ever..."

I was surprised by the number of people who had difficulty pronouncing the three-syllable country name (KAZ-AK-STAN), but less surprised by the number of people who had no idea where it is, or only know the name from the movie Borat

Kazakhstan is a big country located smack dab in the middle of Asia, bordering Russia to the north, China to the east, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to the south, and the Caspian Sea to the west.  I knew almost nothing about it before I decided to move there.  The book Apples are from Kazakhstan by Christopher Robbins, and the Lonely Plant's Guide to Central Asia are my only sources of information.  From these books I've discovered that Kazakhs are known for their skills as horsemen, and were nomadic herders until Soviet days.  From what I hear, Kazakhs are extremely friendly and hospitable people. 

I'll be living in Almaty, which is in the southeastern part of the country, very close to both the Kyrgyz and Chinese boarders.  To the south is the Tian Shan mountains, which, like the rest of the Himalayas, run east to west.  Most mountain ranges I've ever seen run north-south, and I'm excited to see how this axis influences the ecology (science nerd that I am).  Exploring these mountains is what excites me the most. 

I'm going to be teaching at Almaty International School, a private day school that is designed for children of expatriates from around the world.  Almaty International School is one of 36 schools run by an organization called Quality Schools International ( 

My goal in keeping this blog is to keep everyone in my life informed on what and how I'm doing while away on the other side of the planet.  Central Asia seems to be a big blank spot on the mental map of the people I know.  I'm excited to fill in some of this area for you.  I have also heard a lot of anxiety in the voices of my friends and family members when they talk about me moving to the blank spot on their mental maps.  I hope that by sharing how I'm doing and what is going on, I'll bring light to this dark area and quell these anxieties that stem from the unknown.

Please feel free to ask questions and tell me what you want to hear about!  I also welcome emails ( and hearing about how everyone is doing back in the US.