December 21, 2009 (backlogged again…sorry but this was pre-new years resolution!:P)
Haibo came to visit, and stayed for two weeks. We hung out in Shymkent and he met my fellow PCV sitemates, as well as other important people in my life (my host family, director, English club students, etc.). We ate authentic Uzbek plov at one of the best restaurants in Shymkent (see last post for explanation of plov, which my host mom also makes every Thursday as an Uzbek tradition). We also threw a great dinner party with authentic Chinese food and an insane game of Taboo filled with volunteer inside jokes. We cooked dinner at my sitemate Phillip’s house as well, and went to the bazaar to explore a couple of times (Haibo bought a real Kazakh beaver hat in the process!).
Over the weekend we took a short day trip to Turkestan, a city also in the South Kazakhstan Oblast (SKO) about 2.5 hours from Shymkent that is considered the holiest Muslim site in Kazakhstan. Turkestan is a historical site famed for its beautiful mausoleum to Khoja Ahmad Yasavi, a Sufi sheikh that lived there in the 11th century and was commemorated by Central Asian conqueror Timur (aka Tamerlane) in the 14th century. Here they call Turkestan the “Second Mecca,” and say that if you make a pilgrimage three times to the Mausoleum in Turkestan, it is the equivalent of a hajj to actual Mecca. 😛 I don’t know about how well-known Turkestan is outside of this country, but it made for a really beautiful and worthwhile trip. We met up with Leah, the Kaz-20 PCV who was placed in Turkestan, and she showed us around.
December 16 was Kazakh Independence Day, commemorating Kazakhstan’s declaration of Independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 (it was the last Soviet Socialist Republic to do so, as you may remember!). We all had the national holiday off from work, so Haibo and I took a trip back to the Almaty area to visit my friends there and my host family/friends from training in nearby Issyk.
We had a blast hanging out with Kunai, Emma and Alex again, driving around the city and catching some of the independence day celebrations, and then hitting up the banya, going to dinner at an amazing Indian place, learning how to play poker (well, I learned in any case:P) and going on another day trip to nearby Medeo. Medeo is an amazing outdoor skating rink in the middle of the mountains near Almaty; located at 1,691 meters above sea level, it is (I have heard) the highest altitude outdoor rink in the world. Many world records for speed skating were achieved at Medeo during Soviet Union times, and now it remains a popular and pretty place to both skate and hike. Our gang climbed the 800+ stairs to the top-most vista, and checked out the breathtaking views:
We also went to visit my host granny and local friends back in Issyk, which was so wonderful. I brought in tow early Christmas gifts sent all the way from my mother in the U.S. with Haibo in his overweight luggage, and they were all thrilled. We were fed her famous apple cake, pizza and salads until we burst, and played with adorable Sasha (her grandson, as you may recall), who immediately took to Haibo after some quality Beauty and the Beast watching. I sent Haibo off on Saturday which was very tough; the trip flew by so quickly! But there was no place more comforting than back at home with my babushka and friends…at this point for me, Issyk still does feel more like home than Shymkent. I managed to see everyone again before I left on a jam-packed day that included going to church to see Yegor and Natalia Mihaelovna in the choir, dropping by Kyle’s workplace to say hello, and having lunch with Kunai, Emma and her parents who were visiting from the States, before catching the night train back to Shymmy.