When Bears Consume Cornpuffs – The Shymkent Zoo (& Other Adventures)

So shortly after I first got here, my counterpart took me on a trip to the Shymkent Zoo. The trip was yet another culture shock lesson on many levels. The first shock for me was in the planning: one day my counterpart and I were sitting with a friend of hers having tea, and they asked me “Do you like the zoo? We have a zoo!” I replied…”Sure, I guess so. Let’s go some day.” Little did I know, “some day” was the next day. Starting from 10 a.m. that next morning I got over 50 call waiting beeps from this guy while I was on the phone long distance with  America. He literally called once a minute for the next two hours, and then started calling my house when I didn’t answer (how he got that number, I don’t know). When I finally picked up, he informed me that we were going to the zoo, and that they were already waiting for me at Mega Center. “Today??” I asked. “I didn’t know we had actually made plans…” Oh, naïve Becca. Shymkent makes plans (involving you) without you, remember?

I meet them and we drive to the outskirts of Shymkent, stopping at a few extra attractions along the way. The first was a stark, empty war memorial in the middle of nowhere. We passed a tree tied with handkerchiefs, which is a common tradition here – each shred of cloth represents a wish or a commemoration.

[War memorial and handkerchief-tied wishing tree] 

We also stopped at an interesting mosque that looked like a mix between an Islamic holy site and a science fiction space vehicle. The best part though was the brides – they were EVERYWHERE. It was a Saturday, which is when most weddings happen here, and the common tradition in post-Soviet parts (it was exactly the same in Russia and Estonia, for example) is to go around whatever city you are from and take numerous photos in front of every single notable site, monument or tourist attraction. At least several poofy winter snow-bride-balls whirled around us that day with their comparatively subdued-looking grooms in tow. Unfortunately for my fashion-sensitive self, only one of them had on a dress that did not resemble a marshmallow factory’s excretion onto one giant never-ending ruffle.

[Futuristic mosque and lonely snowpuff bride…]

When we finally got to the zoo, I saw an impressive-looking entrance with a large, clear front sign labeled “Children: 100 tenge, Adults: 200 tenge.” Worried that I didn’t have exact change on me, I started digging around in my purse. Before I could even lift my head however, my friends had already shooed me inside. None of us had paid, but a small 100T bribe might have been slipped to the guard up front…this was Shymkent, but of course!

[“Zoo(park)”, in Kazakh]

At the entrance of the zoo, we bought four big bags of corn puffs – two for us people, two for the animals. I didn’t realize then how depressing this would turn out to be. EVERY single animal in their smelly, unkempt outdoor cages would follow us the length of their cell, begging for corn puffs. Even the bears. The zoo budget clearly wasn’t going to keeping the animals fed, because last time I checked, bears didn’t eat corn puffs…One of them even stood on its hind legs and rattled its cage, doing a little dance with teeth bared into a grotesque clown beggar-bear grin. There were no guards anywhere, and the boys we were with freely crawled up on the railings and leaned up against the cages to feed the poor animals.

[Feeding corn puffs to horses and bears]

Oh, and as we left, we saw a big banner advertising Shymkent paintball. I wrote down the number for future reference…who knew?

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One Response to When Bears Consume Cornpuffs – The Shymkent Zoo (& Other Adventures)

  1. av2247 says:

    So bizarre — awesome, in the saddest ways possible. Exactly what I love reading in a travelogue 🙂

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