07.13.11 (very backlogged)
Finally, after two whole years of service in Kazakhstan, my family came to visit me! This was actually great because they got to meet all of the people who have become so close and important to me over the last two years, and getting together with everyone also made a good closing to my service complete with celebration, reminiscing and retelling various adventures.
This will be a rather long account of the places we went, things we saw and quality time with people here who are close to me. If you are interested in travels around Kazakhstan, feel free to read through. And if you are ever planning on visiting or having someone visit you, please skip right to the end for the cautionary tale of how to not get turned away at the airport on your way out. 😉 But more on that later.
After a very early morning arrival to Almaty, Kazakhstan’s old capital and largest city. I picked up Dad and Jo from the airport with a fast-approaching thunderstorm on the horizon. We slept a couple hours and woke up too soon after to hit the Green Bazaar in the middle of the storm, where Jo commented that it was like a bazaar in China only nicer and more orderly. All of the fruits and veggies were nicely displayed and the sections were quite well-organized, though our feet were eventually completely soaked due to insufficient drainage systems. We photographed the (in)famous horse meat section, with a nice bowl of raw sheep brains waiting next door.
We also had a lovely dinner in Almaty with some of my great friends there, fittingly at a family-style Chinese restaurant. Very glad that my family got to meet Kunai, Aselya, Zau, Ajar, Janet, Aaron, and (eventually also) Jeffrey and Aida…but more on that little adventure at the end. 😉
Our first trip was out to Issyk, for dad and Jo to meet my famous [host granny, whom I lived with for 3 months at Pre-Service Training], at long last. In accordance with everything I had told them, she prepared a lavish lunch on top of a huge picnic for us, and we spent the entire day eating. After warming up with lovely tea, plov and apple cake, we packed off in our friend Alma’s car and headed off to the gorgeous Lake Issyk.
Of course, the thunderstorm was still a-brewing, which made for a pretty unique lake experience. Right as we pulled up, a ceiling of white clouds rolled right into the lake with us. We literally watched them descend upon our car, wisps of cloud circling and descending onto the lake, covering it almost completely (below: cloud-covered lake!). Then of course right as we had laid out our picnic, it started raining and we moved to the car to eat, yet again. But granny was well prepared and had brought extra rain coats, and Dad was more than happy to be the only tourists at the lake and get to breathe the fresh air and see such a lovely natural landscape (below: dad in the clouds). And of course, everyone was touched by Alma and granny’s hospitality and what had become our own funny little family over the last two years of my regular visits after I moved from Issyk. Granny (and by extension, Alma and her son Damir) were the best host family anyone could ever ask for!
After heading back into Almaty, we took a flight up to Astana (yes, you didn’t think I was going to put my poor family through 48 hours of train rides, did you?! Though that would have been more true to Peace Corps form). Vitalik flew up to his old hometown to show us around, and he met us at the airport. Of course, first thing Joanna did was carefully examine all of his tattoos. 😉
Our visit was perfectly scheduled in time to catch both the 4th of July events at the US embassy with other Peace Corps Volunteers and Foreign Service Officers, take a trip to Borovoe, and come back in time for Astana Day (read: President Nazarbayev’s birthday…of course) on the 7th. While in Astana we stayed with a very welcoming and generous host from the Foreign Service who himself had been a PCV in Kazakhstan (so many of them seem to end up back here).
The 4th of July events were a blast, and I performed my second embassy 4th of July celebration national anthem (first was while I was a Public Diplomacy intern in Estonia), apparently to the surprise of many fellow PCVs who had no idea that I could sing 😛 My sister also caused quite some confusion as no one could figure out who the tall blonde Asian girl was, but I was glad Dad and Jo got the opportunity to meet so many PCVs and some members of our staff and embassy all in one place.
After we came back from Borovoe (below), we caught Astana Day, which is on July 7th, or President Nazarbayev’s birthday. Astana is really his pet project and the day was filled with pro-city propaganda at its finest. We got free VIP entrance to this spectacular circus show (1st collage: us in front of the circus…even more UFO-looking than the others around the post-Soviet world. 2nd collage: the show) with performers from all around the post-Soviet space + Mongolia, I think solely because it was City Day and Joanna and I were dressed up and looked important. 😉 We also got to take two tours I had missed on my [first trip to Astana]: a tour of the indoor beach at the top of the alien-yurt-shaped Khan Shatyry entertainment complex, and a tour of the Pyramid of Peace, an ode to the world’s religions with indoor greenhouses and crazy painted doves on the glass panes.
Many people in Kazakhstan brag of the beauty of Borovoe, one of the country’s national parks and only forested areas a few hours outside of Astana. Borovoe consists of a medium-sized lake with surrounding greenery, a sight for sore eyes after miles of steppe leading up to it. We went up with V and some of his childhood best friends in Astana, staying in little log cabins and eating tasty smoked fish on the beach.
Many of Borovoe’s “sights” are rather funny – among them we saw a 2-foot-tall “waterfall” (i.e. bump in a little stream), a stone-constructed “throne” of Ablai-Han (an old Kazakh hero), and a “shell” that was actually a large man-made hunk of metal painted white. Little Soviet-era tourist busses nevertheless bustled people around the lake to these various oddities. The most pleasant part was taking a paddle-boat out onto the water and simply enjoying the lovely forest, lake and fresh air.
Finally, my dad and sister made it to the highlight destination – my site! Shymkent was at its summer best, and though Joanna got a bout of food poisoning (standard rite of passage for the south, really) we were up and about the next day. They saw Abai park, rode the ferris wheel, photographed at my favorite giant tulip fountain, visited Spartak, ate at Madlen’s and Kokserai…all the important Shymkent stuff. 🙂 But most importantly, at long last they met all of my wonderful coworkers, friends and volunteers that have been my second family for the last two years.
My director Kuralay organized a lavish banquet dinner and invited our entire organization. They gave Joanna a gorgeous pair of silver Kazakh earrings, and daddy a traditional robe and hat! By far the best gifts ever. They even had something to bring home for mom – a certificate of appreciation for raising me so well. Yes, I’m serious. 😉
I wanted to show dad and Jo the “real South Kazakhstan,” especially after the extravagant gaudiness of Astana and the lovely gentrified streets of Almaty. Shymkent is real enough, but it is still the oblast capital and its urban sprawl doesn’t reveal the rural lifestyle an hour or two out of its borders. So Vitalik and Murik helped out, and took us on a private excursion to Kaz-Kuu, a lovely hillocked valley where some of his relatives own a farm and horses.
Now I will never forget this horse ride. Joanna used to love horseback riding when my parents took her out to inner Mongolia, so she was a pro. And Vitalik grew up in Kazakhstan, so enough said. I had no idea what riding an unbridled, galloping horse actually felt like! For those who have not done it, it apparently involves clenching onto nothing but a tiny jutting knob of leather on the saddle in front of you while your entire body is being bucked around in a half-standing position on nominally existent stirrups that you have no possible hope of hanging onto with both feet. I flashbacked to my childhood fantasies of “riding like the wind” ala Pocahontas, hair streaming in the wind…now I have no idea how anyone, animated or not, looked so elegant and composed on such a thrashing beast. My horse loved to bend down to eat, yanking the rope out of my inexperienced hands. It also would jolt off as soon as either Jo or Vitalik’s horses increased speed, which resulted in me wildly pleading for everyone else to slow down while they just laughed at me. Eventually, I gave my ornery horse back to Murik and rode the rest of the way on the back of Vitalik’s, after instructing him to not break into so much as a trot under any circumstances. 😉 And by the way, horses are big – getting off involves quite a leap, and I don’t want to know what falling off feels like!
Part of the real village experience was of course getting Dad and Jo to try koumiss, fermented mare’s milk, and kurt, a hardened, chalky, incredibly salty ball of milk-based something or other, squished together by the hands of old ladies and hardened under the steppe sun. You drink the latter with beer, chipping at it with your teeth (a seemingly unending process). Joanna was of course traumatized by these national delicacies (see the photos below), but dad, in true (Central) Asian form, took to both quite nicely!
Of course, the end of the trip had a nice surprise for me – though the day didn’t seem particularly hot, it was a Shymkent summer sun after all and I ended up getting some kind of sun sickness/heat stroke for the first time in my life. That evening I felt very tired and strange, went to bed sickly and woke up in the middle of the night absolutely freezing. I was shivering and my teeth were chattering, though it must have been 80 degrees minimum in my apartment. I bundled myself in a long-retired winter blanket, put on my one remaining long-sleeved shirt that I had left unpacked, and went back to sleep. I woke up later sweaty and feverish and wondering why in the world I was covered in so much stuff…definitely the strangest feeling in a long time, but no real harm done. Moral: wear hats out in the sun, especially if horseback riding is stressful for you! 😉
I managed to take Dad and Jo to see a village very close to my heart – Sairam, a historically Uzbek village with a lovely mosque and small mausoleum. It is also home to some of my best Model UN club participants and Aaron and I would go out there regularly to conduct sessions. Dad and Joanna got to meet Ulugbek, a wonderful English teacher at the Sairam school, and Dilrabo, one of my brightest young MUN leaders from the village. We all had a dinner of delicious Uzbek plov together in the typical copious portions.
All in all, мы везде успели is all I can say! We ended up seeing the highlights of the country and my service in 10 short days. However, before the story ends, there is of course the fiasco of my poor family’s trip out…which I will tell here as a cautionary tale.
When foreigners enter Kazakhstan, they give you a tiny white slip of paper with some indiscernable random Russian on it. It’s not stapled to your passport, it’s not addressed or noted in any way, and no one tells you what it’s for or that you have to keep it. The deal is that you cannot leave the country without this slip of paper, as it is your immigration «registration» in the country. if you spend over a certain amount of time in Kazakhstan (something short like a week), you have to RE-register with the immigration police and get this tiny slip of paper re-stamped at a local office. Insanity.
Needless to say, my father lost the slips of paper because he is the person who also loses his glasses when they are on his head. This would have been okay, had I been around the city and able to come back and sort things out – but after dropping everyone off in the morning with some 6 hours to spare til their flight, I had gotten in a taxi to drive to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan – yes, a different country – for a business trip. When I got the panicked call from Jo on a random airport lady’s borrowed cell phone, I was already nearly at the border. I had no idea what to do, so I called Peace Corps Security. And I am very grateful for the fact that they went above and beyond the call of duty to save my poor stranded dad and sister, who speak not a word of Russian and didn’t know how to properly bribe the crappy Air Astana officials when they tried to extort $100 from them (apparently they had no cash and my sister volunteered to go to the ATM, but they refused to let them out for fear of reprisal).
What ensued was a tragically insane comedy of errors in which I start losing phone access through the mountains and go on Kyrgyzstan roaming with my Kazakhstan cell phone, my sister is frantically trying to sort out everything by herself because she doesn’t trust my father with anything, they have no phones so I am calling random airport numbers trying to reach them, I call everyone I know who might be able to help in Almaty and even Ulugbek, who thankfully works part-time at Air Astana (very handy and actually, the Shymkent office is very nice)…and simultaneously every two seconds PC security is calling me to find updates on the situation.
Eventually my dad and sister are taken in by my wonderful friend Jeff and then assisted to an apartment the next day by my other wonderful friend Aida. I owe these guys so much for hosting my lovely family when I was far away and felt so helpless and worried! Crazy Air Astana then told my family they could get on a flight in three days after they had re-registered, but thankfully 1) my father miraculously found the papers, in his document pouch (this was worth it though just for the hilariously tragi-comic email I got from my sister afterwards), and 2) Ulugbek came to the rescue and got them a free flight a day earlier. So thank you to PC, Jeff, Aida and Ulugbek for saving the day. My family got an adventure in Almaty, a country-wide email was sent to PCVs reminding everyone with visiting family to keep their random immigration slips (we don’t need them since we are registered by PC, so none of us knew!), and Joanna really grew up and took charge, which I was very proud of her for.
Well, the fam actually ended up getting a very accurate insight on my life as a PCV – crazy and unexpected challenges can come up at a momen’ts notice, but when you have stalwart rocks of support you can count on to help you through it, it turns out to be quite a good story and you are better off afterwards for having survived it. 🙂