Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Beginning of the End

Today marks the beginning of the end of my time in Almaty. I only have three more days of classes left. Where did time go? While I am looking forward to returning to being reunited with my blackberry, 24-hour Internet access and other amenities of a Western lifestyle, I will certainly miss Almaty.  Just as I begin to feel really immersed in the culture and comfortable engaging in conversation with locals, it is time to go back to America. While I do not yet know when I will be back in Almaty, I will return. I have gained incredible insights into Central Asian culture, politics and lifestyle during my time here, but recognize that two months is not enough time to really understand Central Asia.

As for life here, all is well. I'm keeping buys with school, spending time with the host family and of course, enjoying Almaty's fantastic nightlife. Classes are intense as I finished two Russian grammar textbooks. I cannot believe the amount of material I have covered with Raushan! We are reviewing everything now and all of the meticulous Russian grammar rules are starting to make sense. Moreover, I really feel like I am a part of my Kazakh family. My Kazakh host mother is still as eccentric as ever (see previous posts, "Do you want a spoon with that?"). I will certainly miss her asking me every time I walk in the door first, if I ate and second, if I need the bathroom before she quarantines herself in the toilet for twenty minutes reading the daily gazette.

This last week is extremely busy! After classes end on Wednesday, I am taking the overnight train to Astana, Kazakhstan's capital! In Astana, I of course plan to visit all of the major tourist sites but I will also be visiting my friends Beck and Madina, both of whom studied in the U.S. as Bolashak scholars. I met Beck at a Model U.N. conference in Beijing two years ago. Beck studied Housing and Urban Development at Arizona State University and now works in Astana. Madina graduated from GWU last year with an engineering degree and also works in the city. Friday, I will be taking the overnight train and will be in Almaty Saturday morning, giving me two days to cross all the T's and dot all the I's before jetting off to America on 2:00 AM Monday morning. The double red eye aerial adventure is inevitable when travelling to Central Asia, but that is even more of an incentive to have an epic last Saturday night.  

Friday, July 29, 2011

What it Means to be Kazakh

After nearly two months of living in Kazakhstan, it is clear that there is a distinction between the Kazakh nation and the Kazakh state.

Ethnic Kazakhs perceive a distinct Kazakh ethnic nation. The other day, my Russian professor was ill and I had an ethnic-Kazakh substitute. Naturally, I took the opportunity to ask her about Kazakh culture, clans and identity. First, she asserted that there are only 6 million Kazakhs in Kazakhstan. In comparison to clans in other Central Asian states, the Kazakh blood is pure. Kazakhs do not inter-marry with non-Kazakhs to preserve the purity of Kazakh blood. "We must preserve the Kazakh nation," she remarked during our conversation.  Kazakhs are very aware of their identity. At the time of independence in 1991, ethnic Kazakhs were a minority population in the country. Anytime I tell my host mother I'm meeting a local friend, she asks for their name and then comments whether they are Kazakh or not. Consequently, Kazakhs do not inter-marry with non-Kazakhs. All Kazakhs must also memorize seven generations of their family.  In school, if Kazakh students do not know seven generations of their family, their fellow classmates mock them.

The substitute's comments took me by surprise. How can there be only 6 million Kazakhs when the official population of the Republic of Kazakhstan is 16 million? The explanation is that the substitute was referring to a Kazakh ethnic nation, instead of a Kazakh state.

The Republic of Kazakhstan is a modern state with over 120 different ethnic groups representing the ten million non-Kazakhs living within the national borders. Jews, Germans, Ukrainians, Koreans, Uighurs, Dungans, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, and more, all inhabit the country. Indeed, Kazakh government officials laud the country's stability and peaceful relations between different ethnic groups. Living in Almaty, a multiethnic city, there is no palpable tension between different groups. Yet, when I visited the bazaar in Turkestan, a city with a significant Uzbek Diaspora, one Kazakh merchant remarked that I should not purchase fruit from one vendor because he is from Turkey. We asked our cab driver, Tahrir, an ethnic Uzbek, about relations in Turkestan and he said that there are some minor issues but relations are generally peaceful.

The differing conceptions between the Kazakh conception of a distinct ethnic identity and the conception of a Kazakh state present a unique policy challenge for the Republic of Kazakhstan government. While the government actively promotes the use of Kazakh language, the relative stability and lack of serious conflict between ethnicities in Kazakhstan is partially attributed to the widespread use of Russian language. Russian is the lingua franca and is predominantly spoken in the public space, while non-Russian dialects are spoken in the private sphere. I remember while visiting Baraholka, Zarina and her babyshka remarked that the use of Russian in the public space facilitates inter-ethnic communication. Kazakh is the language of the Kazakh ethnic nation. Dungans, Jews, Tatars, and Uzbeks generally do not speak Kazakh, nor do they have a desire to learn the language. Kazakhstan's 10 million non-Kazakhs speak Russian.

Already, there are indications that Kazakh language may override Russian as the predominant language. The government wants all major films to be shown in Cinemas in Kazakh language by 2013. Cars 2 is the first major motion picture to be available in Kazakh. Furthermore, when I visited the newly constructed museum in Turkestan that was built to commemorate President Nazarbayev's 70th birthday, all of the Museum's signs were in Kazakh. Not Kazakh and Russian, just Kazakh. My friend, an ethnic Russian born and raised in Karaganda, knows a little bit of Kazakh but was not able to enjoy the museum because none of the signs were in Russian. "This is Kazakhstan, I speak Russian," she declared.

What will be the effect of promoting Kazakh language? Is the promulgation of Kazakh language a form of imposing the Kazakh ethnic identity on non-Kazakhs? I argue that the promotion of Kazakh language is a form of promoting the Kazakh ethnic nation. This is not "bad" or "good," but it is important to recognize that the widespread use of Russian is central to maintaining peace and stability between different ethnic minorities. Russian should continue to be used in the public space. Signs should be available in Russian and Kazakh. I am not arguing that the use of Kazakh language will lead to violence – certainly not. I am arguing that there is a clear conception of a Kazakh ethnic nation and the promotion of Kazakh language further enhances this ethnic-national consciousness. Subsequently, legislators must be cognizant of different identity constructions when crafting national language, economic and social policies. 

The dichotomy between the Kazakh ethnic nation and the state of Kazakhstan spills over into the political sphere. When I was discussing the million dollar question with a Kazakh friend, who will eventually succeed Nazarbayev as President, she argued that the next president must be qualified and a Kazakh. "How about Prime Minister Karim Massimov?" I asked.
"No, he's Uighur. The next Kazakh President must be Kazakh."

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Monday, July 25, 2011

Sleeping Next to an Armed Teddy Bear

This weekend I took a trip to Turkestan to visit Sufi scholar Ahmad Yasawi's mausoleum. Anton, Dasha, Roberto and I visited Yasawi's mausoleum and the surrounding museum and exhibits on Saturday and on Sunday, we ventured to another Mausoleum and museum several kilometers outside of downtown Turkestan. Having studied Central Asian history, I was thrilled to visit these sites and enjoyed the experience. But what was even more exciting was the train While I enjoyed exploring the site and surrounding exhibits, the real adventure was on the overnight train.

Friday night, Roberto and I took the overnight train to Turkestan. It left Almaty at 8 PM and we arrived in Turkestan 1 PM the next day, where we met up with Anton and Dasha. The train is as immersive of an experience as it gets, as it is the crystallization of the continuation of Kazakh-nomadic culture into modernity. Families purchase entire cabins and bring teapots and food. In nearly every cabin, families sat around a teapot and were enjoying tea together just as they would at home. Cabins were like yurts, as lone travelers moved from cabin to cabin.

Roberto and I shared a cabin with an 89-year old Kazakh from Turkestan. He was a retired schoolteacher who spoke fluent Kazakh and Russian. We were joined by a tall, big-built Shymkent-native with a big, gold-tooth smile and a gentle manner. His wife taught English in Shymkent and he spoke a few words of it with us, as most people do when they find out we are Americans. He reminded me of a teddy bear, until he turned to put his bag on the top bunk, and I saw a pistol on his belt. My eyes widened. I was absolutely petrified. The 89-year old laughed, pointed at his gun and asked him why he was carrying it. The native answered, "to scare people." Apparently, it works. I was petrified to be spending the next 17 hours next to this guy, sleeping, on a train. I was exhausted and fell asleep instantly. Around 5 in the morning, as we were somewhere in Southern Kazakhstan, I awoke and looked over at the teddy bear, 89-year old an Roberto, who were all peacefully sound asleep. Phew – a relief.

When we boarded the train, the 89-year old greeted us "Kazakh style." He took out bread, sausages, cucumbers and tomatoes, offering Roberto and I food. While we both already ate and politely refused the food, we know that refusing food from a Kazakh is a major no-no and is also interpreted as a yes. He handed me a tomato. In the morning, I gave him and teddy bear an apricot.

After the teddy bear left the train at Shymkent, a new man came on and probably bribed the train attendant. He sat down on the 89-year-old's bed and just started conversing with us in Kazakh. Interestingly, the 89-year old was infatuated with Roberto's Kazakh. Younger Kazakhs speak Kazakh with a sprinkling of Russian words, but his was extremely pure. A few minutes later, a young girl walked by and started talking to him, as if they already knew each other. I scooted over on the bed to make room for the girl. She sat down and all of a sudden, Roberto, the 89-year old and the young man and woman conversed in Kazakh and Russian. We were all complete strangers, but discussed everything from Iphones (they loved Roberto's) to university studies to family. They got a hoot out of Roberto's Kazakh abilities; the girl even commented at one point, "I could understand why a foreigner would study Russian or Uzbek, but why on earth would you study Kazakh?" I found her perspective to be extremely interesting, as she views Uzbek as a more relevant language than Kazakh. I could not understand most of the Kazakh conversation, but was infatuated by the casual, familial gathering between complete strangers. That would never happen in America.

Interacting with Kazakhs gave me incredible insight into their mentality. For example, when the 89-year old, young man and woman greeted each other on the train, everyone asked for each other's clans. Clan identity is still relevant is some form. Our tour guide in Turkestan also told us that when you meet other people your age, you ask for their clan because you cannot marry someone within your clan within seven generations and you cannot marry someone outside your clan. There are very specific rules that govern clan relations that are difficult to discern for an outsider. The relationship between different clans is also very difficult to discern as it relates to modern relations as well as ancestral lineage, as one of the most prominent clan in Kazakhstan, the Kipchaks, derive their legitimacy from Chinggis Khan. With that said, there are many, many clans. The three passengers on the train mentioned clans that neither Roberto nor I have ever heard of.

When we finally arrived in Turkestan some 18 hours later, we left the train and instantly felt the Inner Asian energy. Turkestan was a different world. Immediately as I stepped onto the train platform, women selling fruits, vegetables and bread bombarded me. From the layout of the town, with the houses modeled around a central courtyard, a traditional Islamic style, to the materials used in construction (less concrete, more brick), the city had a distinctive Inner Asian feel. Women dressed in traditional dresses and covered their heads with handkerchiefs – the complete opposite of KIMEP girls. The city bus is a minivan and charges a minimal fee of 30 tenge per person. The bazaar was buzzing with excitement. Like the bazaars I visited in Almaty, most of the bazaar vendors were women. The whole lifestyle is different in rural Kazakhstan. On our way out from lunch on Sunday, we saw some camels chilling in a backyard, chewing on grass. I had to take a picture – it's not everyday you see camels in a backyard outside of your restaurant. Similarly, while visiting a museum in a neighboring town, I looked out the window and saw a cow walking in the middle of the street.

While visiting Yasawi's mausoleum was a thrill, the real adventure was travelling and immersing myself in rural Kazakh culture. I was completely out of touch with the rest of the world – no Internet and even my Kazak cell phone was not working properly. With that said, the people I met along the journey - from the 89 year old to the armed teddy bear - were some of the most gracious and hospitable people I have ever met in my life. Quite the adventure :)

Thanks for reading! Please see attached photo of the train cabin and camels!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Bazaar as a Template for Promoting Female Entrepreneurship

This week, the U.S. State Department convened a conference on female entrepreneurship in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan called Strategies for Success: Central Asia and Afghanistan Women's Economic Symposium. I cannot stress enough the importance of this conference. Empowering female entrepreneurs is one of my passions. As many of you know, I am part of a start-up called AdviseHer, an online personal mentorship platform for high-school girls. You can follow us on Twitter @AdviseHer and please visit our Indiegogo page. After reading Ambassador at Large for Women's Issues Melanne Verveer's speech, living in Almaty for five weeks, and working on AdviseHer, I want to share some comments on female participation in the Kazakh economy. 

Women represent a major component of the Kazakh work force. On every street corner, there is a babushka selling fresh fruit or a young lady serving ice cream for 70 Tenge a cone (~$0.50) or managing a kebab stand. In the morning, suited women walk to work alongside their male counterparts. Women are definitely breadwinners.  They are also the primary decision makers in terms of household finances. With that said, female participation in the Kazakh economy is most prominent in the informal, cash-based sector. Women own and manage most of the businesses in the Green Market and Baraholka. Yet, the shop owners lack business skills. In a single stand, you can buy everything from teapots to make up and in nearly every store in the bazaar has more and more of the same junk. It's as if the shop owners all approach a single wholesaler and purchase everything in sight. They do not select their merchandise and attempt to develop a niche market and signature image. The shop owners lack expertise about the goods, most of which are imported for pennies from China. Nearly all transactions are done in cash, making it difficult for authorities to track market activity for statistical purposes. If these female shop owners gained the business and technical skills to diversify their products and improve their business models, they would be able to exert greater control over the direction of their businesses and promote free-market competition.

To be honest, I find it difficult to believe that these bazaar stands are actually profitable. As a legacy of the Soviet era, Kazakhs do not consume a lot. They do not purchase goods in surplus, no Costco style, like Americans. But they buy everything –from bread to toilet paper – in small amounts for a specific amount of time. The apartments are so small and Kazakh families are traditionally very large so there is usually just enough space for everyone to fit. Family members do not own a lot and share everything with each other. Moreover, after speaking with friends, I learned that most Kazakhs do not save their money in banks but live from check to check. "Saving" is done in the old Soviet under-the-mattress style. Given that Kazakhs do not consume a lot, have limited savings and a finite amount of living space, it is difficult to see how female shop owners managing over-stocked shops making a profit.

How can the U.S. Department of State and other organizations promote female entrepreneurship in Kazakhstan? Take a trip to the bazaar. Talk to the female business owners. Then develop entrepreneurship workshops and mentorship networks, similar to Goldman Sachs' 10,000 Women Initiative. There is a genuine lack of knowledge of business and entrepreneurial skills. Effective government institutions to incorporate existing structures into the formal economy are desperately needed. Technical assistance programs that provide women with the access to credit, technical skills and business and marketing skills would benefit the Kazakh economy as women gain increased control over the direction of their businesses. Encourage women to see themselves not as shop owners, but as self-sufficient entrepreneurs.  Through education, mentorship and technical assistance at the grassroots level – the bazaar level— will empower female entrepreneurs to compete in an institutionalized economic structure while generating wealth to the entire Kazakh economy.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

More Pictures from the Green Market

Here are more pictures from the Green Market. Enjoy!

From the Market to the Mall: a Meaty Adventure

My Sunday began at the Green Market, the pinnacle of a Central Asian bazaar, and ended at Mega Mall, an American-style commercial shopping Mecca. After visiting the Green Market and Mega Mall in the same day and observing the sharp dichotomy between the two centers, I realize the growing disparity between the western Kazakh nouveau riche and the less affluent populations.

Exploring the Green Bazaar, I really felt like I was in Almaty – it was quite spectacular. The Green Bazaar is where locally produced fruits, vegetables, meats, dairy products, candies and Korean salads are sold.  While the market primarily focuses on foods, there are also some vendors selling soaps, household products, clothing, souvenirs and even dog food. When you enter the building, tables of dried fruit and nuts in every color of the rainbow greet you. To the left, poultry, to the right, flowers, straight ahead, fruits and vegetables, cheeses, pickled products, Korean salads, and fish. The first level includes the most expensive vendors, as renting a space inside costs the most. The lower level and outside vendors are cheaper. To be honest, the quality of the produce is the same throughout.  I walked through the market several times admiring the goods and interaction between the vendors and patrons.

I am not a particularly carnivorous eater, but I was absolutely infatuated with the meat section. Massive slabs of red, fresh meat carpet table tops while tongues, hearts, heads, tongues and limbs hang from metal rods. The meat section is organized by animal, as there is a special section designated for cow, pig, horse (multiple varieties) and lamb products, respectively. Behind the counter, butchers were chopping up meat with axes and sharp knives. No refrigeration systems, just fresh meat. Moreover, the vendors wore no hairnets and touched the meat with their bare hands – no plastic gloves!!  I saw one vendor eating her lunch behind the meat-filled counter. I was so disgusted and yet, so intrigued.

After exploring the Green Market, I met up with Roberto and we hiked to Mega mall. We knew Megamall was located on Rosabakiyeva, a street already on the outskirts of town, but we did not know that it was another 20+ blocks up. After walking for ninety minutes in the Almaty heat, we took a cab and arrived at Mega mall within ten minutes. Megamall is an American-style mall, which I found incredibly boring after visiting the Green Market. Zara, the Gap, Addidas and many other Western-brand stores are in the mall, and many signs are in English. Aside from one store selling Kazakh souvenirs, there was no indication that you were in Almaty.  Even the food vendors were Western - Baskin Robbins and Pizza Hut - a far cry from camcca stands.

Roberto and I had sandwiches and coffee before visiting our favorite Kazakh supermarket chain, Ramstor! While there are many standard products such as Nestle instant coffee and tea, there are also Kazakh-specific products like Kephyr, and other regional brands. While I previously visited a Ramstor with Roberto, returning to Ramstor meat section on the same day as the Green Market was quite an experience. At Ramstor, all the meat is individually packaged in plastic and stored in refrigerated containers. To demonstrate the dichotomy, I have included photos of the meat section from the Green Market and from Ramstor.

To me, the Green Market and Ramstor represent two extremes of Kazakhstan. On one hand, there is the nouveau riche generation of wealthy Kazakhs who are eager to embrace a Western lifestyle and consumer culture. On the other hand, there are local Kazakh vendors who want to own their own businesses and generate an income, but want to retain their traditional ways of life and culture. Granted, as a student of Central Asia, I found the Green Market to be fascinating and so much fun. But it is also an important symbol of Kazakh culture and a Kazakh way of life. Kazakhstan's economic development should cater to localized pre-existing economic models and attempt to integrate pre-existing economic structures into the formal economy. After all, who wouldn't want to buy a freshly butchered cow heart?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Conversation with a Cab Driver

A cab in Almaty is really anybody with a car and an empty seat. There are some official taxi companies, but for the most part when you want a taxi, stand on the side of the street, raise your hand, wait for someone to stop, negotiate a fare to your destination and go. Sounds unsafe (probably is), but it works, as I regularly take taxis in the evening because it is much safer than walking home alone. I also enjoy practicing my Russian with the cab drivers -- they are usually pretty friendly and do not judge me when I make mistakes.

Last night, I had a particularly fascinating conversation with my cab driver. When I shared I was American, he remarked, "Do you like Kazakhstan?"
"Of course I do. Do you like America?"
The cab driver exclaimed, "Yes, Obama!"
"Yes, Obama, our President. Do you like Obama?" I asked.
"Obama, yes. Nazarbayev's a Muslim, Obama's a Muslim, I'm a Muslim....I like him."

Not really knowing what to say to the cab driver's inaccurate comment (President Obama is not Muslim), I simply brushed off the comment with a casual, "cool." Yet, the fact that the driver perceives Obama as a Muslim is absolutely fascinating. I don't really know what to make of this, but thought it was an interesting comment. Please feel free to post comments and share your thoughts.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

"I love New Jersey"

"I love New Jersey," are not words I expected to hear when meeting new Kazakhs in Almaty. Last night, I had coffee with my Kazakh friend Adilbek, who introduced me to his friend Mira. Mira is a native of Kostenay, a city in Northern Kazakhstan bordering Russia, and currently works in Public Relations for a firm in Almaty. When I met Mira, she greeted me with an enthusiastic, "Hi I'm Mira, Adilbek tells me you are from New Jersey. I love New Jersey! I used to live in Asbury Park, near Belmar. Do you know it?"
Yes, of course I knew Asbury Park. But why in the world was Mira, a well-dressed, intelligent, young professional, doing in Asbury Park?!
"I worked in Dunkin Donuts for a year. I was there through the work and travel program."
Wow. I was speechless. "Did you enjoy living in Asbury Park?"
"Oh my god, I loved it! I had so much fun, I miss it!"

I was half-stunned, half- confused, and 100% fascinated with Mira. Our conversation took off like lightning. We discussed everything Jersey and Kazakh, from food, films, culture and our experiences!

When Mira moved into the international guesthouse where she lived for several months before renting an apartment, she said there were a bunch of Mexican men doing construction work. Mira had nowhere else to go so for a few days, it was just Mira and the Mexicans in the house. We both joked that Mexicans are to America, as Uzbeks are to Kazakhstan: a source of cheap, migrant labor. In both countries, Mexicans and Uzbeks are frequently doing construction work and menial, physically laborious labor for low wages.

She said that on the first morning, she noticed a bunch of black, gangsters sitting on her backyard porch. Their pants were down to their knees, boxers showing, rapping and smoking. Mira and a friend did not know what to do and when they opened the back door, all of the guys were like "woah, sorry." Mira befriended them and they became her "black, gangster friends," who took her to local clubs and bars.

I tested her Jersey-ness. I asked her if she went to 7-Eleven and Wawa. She passed with flying colors, and commented she loved the 7-Eleven slurpees and liked 7-Eleven coffee more than Dunkin Donuts coffee. She only liked Dunkin Donuts' muffins. Adilbek said he misses American food. He patronized all of the fast food establishments I despise: McDonalds, Subway (his favorite), KFC and Starbucks (after all, he did live in Seattle).

Like a real Jersey commuter, Mira also took the NJ-transit train into NYC to Penn station. "I love Brooklyn. When I visited the Russian neighborhood in Brooklyn, I felt like I was in the former Soviet Union. Everything was in Russian!"

Of course, whenever Adilbek and Mira said they were from Kazakhstan in America, the universal response was "Borat!" They also received weird comments, like "oh, that's next to Afghanistan." No, America -- just because a country ends with a –stan does not mean that it is geographically proximate to or culturally similar to Afghanistan.  Mira also commented that one American told her that Kazakhstan is next to Azerbaijan. Yes, the two countries do share the Caspian Sea, but they also share the sea with Iran, Russia and other countries. 

Coming from different parts of the world, Adilbek, Mira and I were able to truly understand, appreciate and accept each other's cultures and world views'. Just as I know there is more to Kazakhstan than Borat, Adilbek and Mira know that America is considerably more complex than "Gossip Girl," and "Glee" (both of which are translated in Russian and shown on Kazakh TV).

To all my friends reading this blog – go travel and live abroad! Immerse yourself in a foreign way of life! Most importantly, support government funding for international student exchange programs. Funding has taken a hit with budget cuts. Adilbek, Mira and my immersion experiences in Seattle, Asbury Park and Almaty, respectively, crystallizes the value of international student exchange programs to the promotion of a positive American image abroad and promoting cross-cultural communication. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

An Adventure with Raushan: Medeu, Kumiss and Lagman

Yesterday, July 6, was President Nazarbayev’s Birthday and Astana Day, a federal holiday here in Kazakhstan. KIMEP classes were cancelled and most offices were closed. To celebrate, Raushan took me and another student, a Korean engineer who works for Samsung in Almaty (really nice guy), to Medeu.  Located some 15 km outside of downtown Almaty, Medeu is a 1,700-meter natural playground and winter sports facility located in the Malaya Almatinka valley on the foothills of the Tian Shan Mountains. The three of us enjoyed an eventful day hiking the majestic Medeu valley, followed by kumiss and shubat tasting at the Green Market and a Dungan feast at Raushan’s favorite restaurant.

First, let me say that Raushan cracks me up. She is a character. Not only is Raushan a Russian-grammar Tzarina and her cell phone ringtone is Jennifer Lopez’s “On the Floor,” she is also a photo enthusiast. While driving to Medeu and while hiking the mountain, every five feet Raushan exclaimed, “Ooo, photo!” at which point she directed where I placed my hand to my angle relative to the sun. After she took a picture, she exclaimed, “now me!” so we switched places and I took a photo of her. “Show me…” we then looked at the photo on my camera… “Clasna,” (Russian for “nice/cool/good”) Raushan approved. In honor of Raushan, I have posted a picture of us next to a tree in a “romantic pose.”

Ten minutes after we began trekking up Medeu, two Kazakhs with horses offered us rides to the top of the mountain for 500 T. Raushan enthusiastically volunteered both me and the other student and before I could say “да,” I was riding a beautiful, brown 7-year old horse guided by a Kazakh. The last time I was on a horse was when I was a toddler, when I rode a pony in a circle at the community fair. Surrounded by the spectacular scenery, perched on a Kazakh-sewn quilted saddle, and conversing in Russian with my Kazakh company, I felt like an Inner Eurasian nomad. “Я Chinggis Khan,” I jokingly declared, which solicited a chuckle by the two Kazakh horse owners. If only I had a falcon eagle on my shoulder…

Horseback riding was definitely the highlight of the day. After ten minutes on horseback, we thanked the Kazakh horsemen and proceeded up Medeu by foot (a fantastic workout). Of course, at the top, we had our ten-minute Raushan-managed photo shoot followed by a history lesson of Medeu. I am so grateful that I am able to explore Almaty with Raushan, a native Kazakh. Both at Medeu and at the Central State Museum last Saturday, Raushan shares her insights and tells fantastic stories about the local history and culture that I would otherwise not find in a textbook. Thanks to Raushan, I am able to appreciate these sites not as a tourist, but as a Kazakh.  

We went to the Green Market after the mountain. I had never tried kumiss (fermented mare’s milk) and shubat, as I had previously tried kephyr at home. The market is full of fresh fruits and vegetables, VERY fresh meat (you would not see this in America), and boutique dairy products – it is a foodie’s paradise. We went to a dairy vendor and I tasted kumiss. Not knowing what exactly to expect, I found kumiss to be extremely tart. I preferred shubat, camel’s milk. I think my palette is still acclimating to the Central Asian diet…

Finally, after a long day of hiking, we went to Raushan’s favorite Dungan restaurant. We feasted on an assortment of Dungan food, from lagman to spicy vegetables and chai. For those of you who follow my blog, I made lagman with Zarina’s (my Russian tutor and an ethnic Dungan) babushka after visiting Baraholka. Everything was delicious and conversing with Raushan and the other student in Russian was so much fun!

Thank you Raushan for a memorable and enriching excursion – one of the best thus far in The Sholk Road Adventures! J  

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

An American July 4th in Almaty

On Sunday, July 3rd, Anton and I attended the American Chamber of Commerce in Kazakhstan (AmCham) Barbeque at the Intercontinental Hotel in Almaty. Loads of hamburgers, hotdogs and shashlyck, activities for kids, and schmoozing. The US Ambassador to Kazakhstan and the Deputy Chief of Mission were also in attendance. It was a fun, relaxing and (surprisingly) extremely American atmosphere….even in the middle of down-town Almaty.

We met one very impressive woman who owns her own shipping and logistics company. An ethnic Kazakh, she learned English in school and attended university to become a teacher. She then enrolled in a program through Chevron that provided professional training to Kazakh English speakers in the oil and natural gas sector. She enrolled in the program and continued to have a career at Chevron, before starting her own company. After she shared her story, Anton commented, "so often we read how oil companies do not benefit the local community, but I think your story directly contradicts this." Anton could not have been more spot-on in his analysis….what better spin-off effects could a country wish for than to train an entire generation of entrepreneurs who understand the oil and natural gas industry and are able to use that knowledge to build their own enterprises?! Sure, there may not be immediately tangible benefits accrued to the local economy, but no investment project is perfect. The real testament of a great investment is the quality of professionals it produces. After meeting that woman at the AmCham barbeque, I am confident that there are locally accrued benefits from foreign investments.

On Monday, July 4th, I met up with some of the people we met at the AmCham barbeque at Staut, a local brewery. At our table were four Americans (one of whom came with an American flag), five Kazakhs, plenty of drink, and Russo-English conversation about everything from the regional politics to local restaurants and travel adventures. Even without fireworks (there were sub-par fireworks at the AmCham barbeque, but to be honest they were quite disappointing) and the corn-on-the cob, it was a great fourth! :) 

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Shabbat in Almaty

I celebrated Shabbat in Almaty at the city's only synagogue. The evening began with lighting the Shabbat candles and ended with a discussion of wine making. It turns out, the Rabbinical Clergy are also passionate vintners.

After services, I had dinner with the rabbi and his family. At the end of the meal, he said "You mentioned you like dry wine during the Kiddush. You do, right?"
"Yes, I do."
"One minute." The rabbi walked into the kitchen and brought out in a plastic bottle with a rich red colored wine. I tasted the wine, which was extremely dry and had a unique flavor and thick consistency. Also very potent.
"It is home made." It turns out that he and the other rabbis began producing kosher wine about ten years ago. Three years ago they got their first really good batch. They then bottle and sell the wine to the entire Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. It is purely organic – grapes and sugar. And you taste that. 

I used to work for an alcohol beverage organization, so I have some knowledge of wine production. Naturally, I asked about the production techniques. It turns out they use a hydraulic filtration system to compress the grapes and filter out soot (this is a very common technique). They use huge metal bins and use grapes from a vineyard in southern Kazakhstan, not far from Almaty (Fun fact: Shymkent and Southern Kazakhstan is a "wine region." It is not the Bordeaux Valley by any stretch, but they do produce wine). The rabbis use no refining agent or any chemical additives to alter the tannin levels. The equipment is all from Israel. Durign the year, they sell the wine for around $7-$8, but reduce the price around pesach because they believe everyone should have wine on Passover. I asked when is harvest and what season they make the wine. He said in the fall, around September, October.
"Oh right before high holidays."
"Yes, it usually falls right in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur."
"Well, Sukkot is right around the corner and that is the holiday of the harvest."
"Ha, yes that is our inside joke. We make wine to celebrate the holiday of the harvest," he joked. 
"And who is our? Who is involved in this operation?" I asked.
"Really just me and the other rabbis and a few members of the community."
So my evening ended discussing wine production with the rabbi. Who would have thought.
He then showed me on the way out the kosher grocery store. They use a retailer who brings kosher products to Central Asia. It was sooo weird to see Shop Rite brand in KZ. He said the dry wine that I tasted is the most popular product. It is called "yaffa," as they named the wine after ancient cities this year, but change the name every year. We discussed the different varietals and different preferences of consumers. He proudly stated that some people love their wine so much that they consume it instead of vodka, the prevailing drink of choice in Kazakhstan. Rabbi and impassioned vintner...not someone you meet everyday.

Even though I follow a different denomination of Judaism, I had a lovely evening and thank the Rabbi and congregation for their Shabbat hospitality. Celebrating Shabbat in Almaty was definitely an experience and I had a great time. I definitely did not expect to discuss wine production, but as the saying goes, "when you travel, expect the unexpected." :)

Friday, July 1, 2011

Thursday with Aliya and the Abay Ballet

I attended a performance of "Red Giselle" at the famed Abay Ballet and Opera Theatre with Zarina yesterday evening. The theatre is aesthetically fantastic: a yellow exterior with white and gold-buttressed columns beckons theatergoers to a cream marble lobby. In the atrium, there was a sea of gold chairs with lush blue, velvet cushions and a painted sky (literally) on the ceiling, with ornamental touches of gold enamel.

Unfortunately, the ballet fell short of my expectations of a Bolshoi quality performance. I'm not a ballerina but I did take ballet for over ten years and have seen many performances from the New York City Ballet to Alvin Ailey and the Washington National Ballet. I recognize quality ballet. In this performance "Red Giselle," dancers were falling out of their arabesques in the adagio and did not fully straiten their legs. A few committed the dancer's ultimate sin of hopping out of a pirouette. I lost track of the number of times I saw girls running across the stage flat footed or in fifth position with poor turnout. Throughout the entire performance, I was imagining my old ballet teacher, Nadine, yelling "turn out, turn out!" Moreover, the principals were far from Nureyev and Fontaine.

What was really cool about the performance was that it started with a speech by the Kazakh Vice Minister of Culture and his Japanese counterpart. From what I could understand, they were announcing increased collaboration in cultural affairs between the two countries. What was most intriguing was the lack of security. After they spoke, they sat down in the middle of the orchestra, devoid of a cadre of security officers and posse of advisors. At the end of the performance, the ministers left the theatre with the rest of the theatre goers, again without security. Now that is what I call accessible, politicians of the people. I would love to see that in America…

On another note, as I was completing my homework in my room yesterday afternoon, my host sister Aliya (age 8) enters. She is always enamored with my computer, blackberry (which doesn't work here, but she enjoys staring at the black screen and caressing the buttons), Ipod and Nokia cell-phone. As I sat at my desk completing grammar exercises, she laid on my bed completely encapsulated playing games on my candy-bar Nokia cell phone. She probably thinks it is the best thing since the invention of refrigerated carton kumis. I have no idea how one can be entertained by one of those phones for such a long time -- but she was. Now, I am NOT a "kid" person at all. But living with a large host family, next to my eccentric host mother, Aliya is my favorite family member as she is so curious and always asks me a million questions which is not only great for practicing Russian because when I make a mistake she laughs, but she also puts the world into perspective.  To me, Aliya crystallizes the disparity between life in America and life in Kazakhstan. In New Jersey and Washington, it is blasphemous if one does not own a blackberry, Iphone or at least a phone with email capabilities.  I do not know a single person who would find a standard Nokia phone thrilling, let alone socially acceptable.

Now it is Friday and I am so looking forward to the weekend. I'm going to the museum with my Russian professor tomorrow and on Sunday I am attending a 4th of July barbeque hosted by the American Chamber of Commerce in Almaty. Thanks for reading J