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  

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