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.