Sunday, December 30, 2012

Green Bazaar in the Holiday Spirit


Alas, I returned to my favorite place in Almaty -- the Green Bazaar! It was more exciting than ever with people getting ready for New Years' Celebration (post to come soon), as vendors sold bottles of champagne (Sovietskoe champanskoe) and party streamers. The bazaar also had its usual array of interesting objects. Since a picture speaks a thousand words, I have attached some highlights of the excursion.

Dairy products at the Green Bazaar.

Meat section at the Green Bazaar.

Shoes at the Green Bazaar.

"Real" designer clothing. Unfortunately, counterfeit items produced in China continue to flood Central Asian bazaars (most of them are transported via light vehicles or trains by shuttle traders. Korgas is one of the foremost border crossing points).


Two summers ago I posted images from the meat section of the Green bazaar. Well, this time I returned with a purpose. Dasha asked me to acquire some beef for our New Years celebration tonight at our friend's apartment. Traditionally on New Years, Kazakhstanis prepare a massive Dastarkhan (shmorgisboard) of food and spend the evening with family and friends dining, drinking, reflecting on the past year and looking ahead to the new one. While the dishes vary from family to family, salads, meat, beshparmak, manti, polenti and balsak are staples. Mandarine oranges are also a traditional New Years food. At 12, President Nazarbayev appears on television to wish the country a happy, healthy and safe new year (in Russian and Kazakh). Anyways, I digress...
 I was a woman on a mission in the beef section -- find meat for 7 people. I went from vendor to vendor asking how much per kilogram. They all said the same price -- 1,500 tenge per kilogram. I said I needed meat for seven people and they showed me a huge slab, as depicted above, which weighs three kilograms. I bargained with this woman to buy the meat for 5,000 tenge. To be honest, I don't know if her meat is better or worse than the others, but she was the only one willing to compromise with me, so I gave her my business. When she asked me what am I going to cook and I responded, "I don't know," she looked at me like I was a crazy person.  After all, Kazakh women who go to the market know what they are cooking. Either way, it was funny and I got such a kick out of buying some 7 pounds of beef.
After acquiring half a cow, I went downstairs and bought some tomatoes, and then spent some time walking around the bazaar and soaking up the energy of the people and vendors. 

Shubat (Camel's Milk).

Santa Claus at Green Bazaar.

Another Santa Claus at the Green Bazaar.

I wish you all a happy and healthy new year! And most of all, tonight, do not drink and drive!

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Americans in Almaty


It has been another exciting two days in Almaty! Friday, I went to the National Academy of Sciences Library where I spent the day taking notes on some Russian-language literature on Soviet nuclear tests in Kazakhstan. The librarians were so nice and the whole experience was pretty neat. Considering I spend 90% of my time in DC on the lower level of Georgetown's library, it is only appropriate I spend some time in the library here.

Friday night, I met up with my American friend, Adam, who shares my love for Central Asian people and culture. Adam plays the guitar, dombra, dutar and shashgar rawap -- a master of stringed, long-neck lutes. He now lives in Almaty and teaches music at the conservatory. One of his students DJs at a local banquet hall. Adam invited me to come along, meet his students, and watch Adam perform. What an entertaining evening.  In the video attached, Adam is playing a traditional Uzbek song, while guests at the party dance.

It turns out, Adam was performing at the New Years party for a group of coworkers at a medical association. I started chatting with some of them. One woman works for an NGO that works to improve public health in Kazakhstan, while another man was a doctor. They were both so gracious and invited me to visit their office. While I unfortunately do not have time on this trip, perhaps in the future. Either way, I love immersing myself in these cultural events. It is such a great chance to interact with people in their element and gain insights into Kazakhstani and Central Asian culture. And extremely entertaining.  This group was particularly fascinated by the fact that Adam and I are both Americans who just happen to be spending time in Kazakhstan and who have some knowledge of Central Asian culture (Adam also speaks Kazakh).

Today, I returned to the library and then had coffee with a former government official who was active in the international negotiations for Kazakhstan in the 1990s. A fascinating conversation.

Снегорошка и Дед Мороз! This is Santa Claus and snegoroshka (snow princess), Santa Claus' niece   A  Soviet cultural staple that is still popular today. They made an appearance at the holiday party.

Dancers performing in a traditional-style Kazakh costume.
Alas, I am out for the evening. Tomorrow morning, I'm going to the bazaar! Not just any bazaar, but my favorite bazaar -- Almaty's green bazaar! 

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Greeted by Kazakh hospitality in Almaty


It is so great to be back in Almaty! The city is totally different under a foot of snow and in below-freezing temperatures, but it is still Almaty! The signature Kazakh hospitality, conversations with random cab drivers and the city's unique charm are ever present.

After a long flight from Washington through Istanbul, I arrived in Almaty Wednesday morning. My friend Meiirbek picked me up with his mom and I had breakfast at their apartment. They crystallize signature Kazakh hospitality. We had kasha, cucumbers, tomatoes, cheese -- the traditional Kazakh spread. And of course, tea with milk. They then drove me to my friend Dasha's apartment, as I am staying with her. After I spent most of the day sleeping, Dasha came home with a bag of oranges, chocolate and chai, and we had classic Kazakh chai-time.

Yesterday was a busy day -- I had a meeting at the International Science and Technology Center (ISTC) and chatted with the head as well as the head of Nuclear Physics. We had a wonderful discussion about Kazakhstan's scientific, technology and academic community prior and following the dissolution of the Soviet union. I was so touched by the signature Kazakh hospitality of the office manager at the ISTC. She asked me if I was staying alone and had plans for new years. I told her I was with a friend and she said. "Good, New Years is a family holiday, I would hate for you to be alone." This, my dear readers, is why I love this country so much. The people are so genuinely gracious -- hospitality is a national character trait.

During the interview at the ISTC, a Professor walked in to wish the director a warm holidays. It turns out, he is a Professor in the atomic radiation department at Al-Farabi University. He graciously invited me to meet with one of his colleagues who works on atomic radiation. The Professor graciously introduced me to his colleagues and they generously shared their time with me, showcasing new equipment for studying the long-term effects of the Soviet nuclear tests at Semipalatinsk on the environment. One current project, for example, is measuring the levels of tritium in the water surrounding the test site. (For those of you who lack an extensive background in chemistry, like myself, tritium, as it has been described to me, is the chemical in bombs that make them go "bomb!) A PhD student also showed me the university's new equipment used for exploring levels of gamma radiation. One of the machines, for example, was purchased by NATO and used in a project on exploring levels of deposit uranium in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The math and physics building was constructed only two years ago, and all of the equipment certainly is on par with that of Georgetown's. 

I was really impressed with the new quality of the labs and the knowledge and hospitality of the scientists. All of the professors and PhD students spoke english, but we mostly chatted in Russian and if there was a term I did not know I asked for clarification. In fact, I learned that if a scientist speaks english, their pay is three times higher! I also met with one professor who told me how after the fall of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan lacked experts in atomic radiation and atomic studies. Now however, that gap has been somewhat narrowed, as the government has actively supported sending students abroad to study. One PhD student I spoke with just returned from her second three-month trip in Slovenia, where she conducted research and collaborated with international colleagues. 

After speaking with the professor, I sat in a room with a PhD student and took some notes on a book published in 1997 from Moscow on Semipalatinsk one of the Professors gave me. The book detailed studies commissioned by Moscow during the Soviet union on the tests, their environmental impact and the correspondances between Moscow and local staff. The book also detailed how the local scientists were affected. Again, really interesting stuff.

By this time, I was tired, and went to a cafe, where I then met up with Dasha and we had dinner with our other mutual friends.

Alas, it is morning, and I'm off to the library for the day, and maybe some interviews. We'll see where the day takes me! 

Lab for the study of atomic radiation and the environment at KazGU named after Al-Farabi.
Portion of Map, produced by Kazatomprom, on the wall at KazGU named after Al-Farabi that  illustrates former nuclear test sites (primarily Eastern Kazakhstan) and uranium mines (Southern Kazakhstan). I personally LOVE maps and was so excited when I saw this -- unfortunately I was unable to get a copy. It so vividly depicts how Kazakhstan's environment was affected by Soviet nuclear tests and how the country will undoubtedly face this legacy for generations to come. 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Back to Kazakhstan!


Happy holidays! Tis the season for family, friends and research trips to you guessed it -- Kazakhstan! That's right folks, I am off to Kazakhstan tomorrow evening for the next two weeks. I will mostly be in Almaty and Astana, but may sneak in a trip to Karaganda or Ulba. Basically, the plan is to expect the unexpected. All I know, is that I am packing plenty of warm clothes. My grandmother even gave me one of her old-school fake fur coats circa 1970. The coat might as well be real considering I feel like I'm wearing a sheet of iron when it is on.

Anyways, the real reasons I'm off to Kazakhstan are to conduct research on the country's denuclearization between 1991 and 1995 and contribute to So, over the next two weeks, I'll be blogging from here and KazakhWorld, and will be reporting more over the coming months! It will be a jam-packed trip, but I couldn't be more excited.

Pictures and blogging adventures to come!! Until next time, enjoy a Russian cartoon comparing the "American evil dwarf and the Russian grandfather"versions of Santa Claus.

С праздником, с новым годом и счастливого пути!
Happy holidays, happy new year and safe travels!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Strategic Plan 2050


On December 14, President Nazarbayev presented his "Strategic Plan 2050" outlining the political, economic and social development for Kazakhstan for the next several decades.

In many respects, the content, rhetoric and organization of the 2050 plan parallels earlier agendas (such as the 2020 plan). The President first acknowledges Kazakhstan’s leadership in the field of nuclear disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation – one of Kazakhstan’s foremost accomplishments.

He also made some pretty bold points. First, he proposes the election of rural governors, akims. Previously, the position was made by Presidential appointment. If this plan materializes, it will be a pretty revolutionary development in that the President is consciously devolving his power. Granted, “genuine political parties” according to a classic political science definition of a party that aggregates a group of genuine supporters and articulates a policy agenda, are few and far between in the former Soviet republics. The weak party systems, coupled with other mechanisms of voter fraud (such as “caterpillaring” election ballots or forging election lists (see Fish (2005) “Democracy Derailed in Russia”) provide additional opportunities to ensure that the President is satisfied with the electoral outcome.

Assuming that the President does in fact implement legal changes that allow for the election of rural governors, I sincerely hope that he also puts forth legislation to streamline the process of voter registration, candidate and party registration. The print and online media should also be free to comment on political developments without harassment by authorities or other candidates. While allowing elections of local governors is a step in the right direction, the regime must take sufficient measures to ensure that these elections are free and fair. That is where the real test lies.

It is also worth noting that Sunday marked not only the 21st anniversary of Kazakhstan’s independence, but also the one-year anniversary of the Zhanaozen violence. To recap, in the midst of a performance in celebration of Kazakhstan’s Independence Day in Zhanaozen’s central square, several striking oil workers stormed the stage. Violence unfolded between police and civilians in the square. Sadly, several buildings were destroyed and some sixteen civilians were left dead.  

While I could devote an entire blog post to the events on that day, I will instead provide you with some context of the tragic events that unfolded on that day. First, the December 16, 2011 events in Zhanaozen were the unfortunate result of underlying, systemic flaws and short-term instigators. The long-term causes were the high levels of socio-economic inequality that is prevalent in single-industry towns in Western Kazakhstan.

Moreover, this is not the first strike to occur in Western Kazakhstan. In 1989, when Zhanaozen was called “Novy Uzen,” violence broke out between ethnic Kazakhs and oil workers from the Caucuses. Between 2004 and 2006, a series of strikes by oil workers affected the operations of TengizChevroil (TCO) in Atyrau. Hunger strikes, sit-ins and other forms of workers collective action have occurred in Western Kazakhstan since 1991.

Meanwhile, strikes in Zhanaozen began in May 2011 when workers at Ersai Caspian Contractor LLC, KarazhanbasMunai JSC and OzenMunaiGas pressed corporate management for higher wages and improved working conditions. For seven months, the management of Ersai Caspian Contractor, KarazhanbasMunai and OzenMunaiGas, fought with workers over the issues of (1) higher wages, (2) the revision of the collective agreement, (3) equal wages with foreign staff and (4) non-interference in union activities, as detailed by Human Rights Watch.

One striking oil worker in Zhanaozen told the BBC in October 2011, just two months before the December violence, “We want to develop civil society…we want our voices to be heard, not just the bosses dictating what to do.”

So why do I discuss Zhanaozen in this post?

In his Strategic Plan for 2050, President Nazarbayev explicitly states his intention to reconstruct single-company towns and invest in economic diversification. The President advocated a new model of public private partnership, “strong business – strong state,” in regions throughout the country, particularly single-industry towns.

In the section on social policy, the President noted:

“Over the past 12 months, we launched a single-industry town development program. Significant resources were allocated to create jobs, solve social problems and improve the work of local enterprises.

We will improve the quality of local government. This work is under my personal control.”

By committing his personal attention to the program, the President established an extremely high expectation. I hope that he allocates the necessary financial and human resources to implement a successful economic diversification plan for single-industry plans. Given the timing of the speech, I believe that the plan for single industry towns was the highlight of the strategic plan.

For now, we wait and watch. I congratulate the nation on 21 years of independence but most of all, I sincerely hope that President Nazarbayev follows through on these commitments. 


Also, dear readers, I will be headed to Kazakhstan a week from today! Flying out on December 24th and will be there through January 7th doing research. More details on the next episode in The Sholk Road Adventures to come soon!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Meeting a North Korean

Good morning comrades,

My friend Miles was also on the CLS program in Vladimir, Russia this past summer, and is now spending the year in Vladivostok. Miles is one of the friendliest people I know and a true public diplomat. He also maintains a travel blog and his most recent post details an encounter with a North Korean slave. While this post does not relate to Central Asia, I found it to be so intriguing and insightful that I could not help but share it with you.

Modern Day Slavery

I met a slave yesterday. I guess I always thought that institutional slavery had been abolished worldwide in the late 19th century, but I stand corrected. I met this modern day slave, a North Korean who goes by Shin, one cold day on the ferry coming back from Russki Island, close to Vladivostok. I was on deck with my video camera, bundled up for the below freezing weather and sea spray and wind. It was only me and a handful of other people on the exterior deck and I noticed this older Asian guy watching me film. When I came close he commented on the scenery in heavily accented Russian. I sat down with him on the splintery bench while he smoked a cigarette and we started talking. He told me he was from Pyongyang, North Korea. When I said I was from America he sparked up a little bit. He talked about his job, wife, son. He pulled out a beat up cell phone and showed me a grainy picture of his wife; he had obviously taken a picture of a picture, and this was all he had. He had not been home in five years. My Korean Samsung video-camera fascinated him. Turning it over in his hands he asked me “are they rich in the South?” The ship docked at the small passenger terminal and lots of passengers emerged from below deck where they had sacrificed the panoramic views of the city for warmth and walls. I hopped down the narrow gangplank and saw Shin walking up ahead, so I ran to catch up with him. It is the first time I have ever talked to a North Korean— first I’ve known of anyone save the few people I know who’ve been to the country itself. It is incredibly uncommon to meet a North Korean abroad, as in, North Koreans outside of the country that are not slave laborers probably number in the hundreds worldwide. I had heard that there were labor camps in Russia where Koreans work, usually deep in the taiga on lumber sites. Shin and I walked to the central square and I asked him if he would be interested in meeting with one of my friends from South Korea. We exchanged numbers and agreed to meet in two weeks. Two weeks passed and Shin called me. I couldn’t meet up that weekend so we moved our get together until the next one. Saturday came and I gave Shin a call. We set the meeting for 5 o’clock in the main square and I made it there a minute or two late. Shin was waiting for me. We stood around for a half hour waiting for my friends Micah and Sewon to come. Another friend of mine, a Spanish guy named Victor, also came and met up with us. He had told me about a Spanish guy who is the only Westerner who works in North Korea. This guy is an official in the North Korean government and conducts all of the cultural relations between North Korea and Europe. He tows the official North Korean line, but is free to travel in between the countries and surely is not subject to the rations, intimidation, etc. Micah and Sewon came and we walked to a nearby restaurant. Sewon and Shin broke off into Korean and hung back from us chatting away. We stood in the line at the buffet style restaurant and I encouraged Shin to get whatever he wanted, it was on us of course. He loaded up his plate and we went to sit. With Sewon there, it was much easier to speak with Shin, as his Russian is pretty limited (though surprisingly good, since I’m sure he has had no formal education). We asked him about life in North Korea and were shocked to hear what he had to say. Of course, everyone knows that the North Korean regime is evil, but it is much different to see the face of oppression. Shin’s story: Shin was born in North Korea and lived in Pyongyang. He was forced to join the army when he was 17 and served the mandatory 10 years, building bombs as part of his service. He told us that there was not enough food. After leaving the army at age 27, he had to find some kind of work before being allowed to marry. He married his wife at age 30 and they have two boys. One of the boys serves in the army and the other is still in school. His wife works in a window factory. He had been picked in some kind of raffle to work abroad. It is apparently a highly sought after opportunity to work outside of the country, even though the conditions are truly terrible. He showed us his passport: full of communist insignia with a notice on the last page saying exactly how many pages were in the passport and special anti-counterfeit numbers on each page so that there was no way to leave. Shin told us that their Russian bosses will sometimes steal their passports and return them only if they are paid. Shin has been living in Vladivostok for 7 years and has not been home in 5. He is allowed one letter a week home and no phone calls. Needless to say, there is no skype or email. He said that people escape every once in a while, but that it is a death sentence to their families. Still, some cannot take it after seeing the outside world and being in a real position to flee. The North Koreans all live together in an apartment somewhere far outside of town. Sixteen people to one room and there is no kitchen. The “company,” which is state owned, collects 100% of the wages and then gives back just enough so that the men can buy a little bit of food. There are some meals provided by the company, but Shin said that they are terrible. We finished our dinner and Shin still had half a plate of food. Apparently he didn’t like the Russian food. I thought it was strange since he has been here for 7 years, but then I realized that he has probably not eaten Russian food at all. The Koreans stay among themselves and have no money to go anywhere or try anything new. Russians could care less about migrant laborers, especially ones from a poor and backwards country like North Korea. We went upstairs to the bar and ordered a round of beers. Shin was really excited for beer. Without any money to buy alcohol, the Korean laborers will sometimes purchase raw ethanol and mix it with water if they want to celebrate. Shin said that in North Korea only rich people (people in the government or high level military) can drink, everyone else makes homemade wine out of grapes. Shin reveled the beer; it was something completely out of the ordinary. He told us that he loved Vladivostok and said that he was most surprised by the way women here dress: scantily. While we waited for Sewon to translate we all joked that he was probably most surprised by the beautiful women here. Guys are the same everywhere I guess. He said that Vladivostok was much better than North Korea, though he missed his mother, wife, and children bitterly. We asked if he thought there was any hope for the country with the new leader, the son of Kim Jong Il. Shin shook his head. This is the son, nothing will change. He became depressed and he and Sewon broke off in Korean for a while. We are curious, but this is another person’s reality. This is the life of their family. Shin borrowed Sewon’s phone so that he could call his boss to tell him he would be home late. If he missed the role call, there would be punishment. Grown men with a curfew, and if they violate it they owe money. Of course, they don’t have any money, so it likely means that they will be put on a starvation diet for a few days as punishment. We ordered another round of beers and bought some dried fish to snack on. Shin said he was so happy to have found new friends and said that he would happily be my colleague. He told me that if I find a good girl I should love her with all my heart. We told him how glad we were to have met him. Shin was hoping to head home for the New Year, the first time he would hold his wife and sons for five years. But, he doesn’t know if he will have the money to go home. It maybe be another lonely New Years anonymously wandering the main square near the statues of partisans for Soviet power, attracting the suspicious stares of Russians who say that there are too many Asians here. We walked Shin to his bus. He was not sure if he had time catch the second bus that would take him 45 minutes into one of the neighborhoods to his Spartan barracks. Micah bought him a pack of cigarettes and we said goodbye, promising that next time we would take him for Korean food. After he left, Sewon mentioned that he had tried to get close to her. She wasn’t uncomfortable, just found it strange. Five years without female contact, I imagine that having a pretty young Korean girl take interest in his story must have been wrenching for him in a way that probably men can understand. A desperation for physical, emotional, sexual contact that overwhelms, depresses, excites. I cannot help but wonder whether we put Shin in danger. There is no doubt that talking to foreigners, especially Americans and South Koreans (with whom North Korea is still at war officially), is strictly forbidden. I know for a fact that speaking about the North Korean regime is a punishable offense. Friends I have who have been to North Korea were made to sign a contract saying that they would not speak about the trip afterwards. Of course, no one listens. But, for Shin, he has to go back someday. He is still subject to their laws, their crazy whims. What if someone were to find out? Was he endangering himself and his family for a few beers and a free dinner? Or, was it for a taste of freedom, of friendship? Breaking the bonds of slavery for a few short hours?

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