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!

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