Refrigerated Ketchup and Canned Horse Meat

As much as I’ve waxed poetic about the alluring and intriguing features of Kazakh people, I found the cuisine just as interesting, albeit slightly less appealing.  This is only due to the fact that the majority of Central Asian cuisine seems to utilize lamb, and I am not particularly fond of sheep and other sheep/lamb/mutton/goat foodstuffs.  I find lamb to be quite gamey; it has a taste that reminds me of dirt and grass (not that I know what dirt or grass taste like, but it evokes those smells), which unfortunately does not fancy my palate.  I’ve even been known to describe the flavor of goat cheese like “licking a hamster.”  No hamsters have ever been harmed in my gastro-adventures, but having had dwarf hamsters that I’ve lovingly picked up, kissed, and nuzzled with my nose, goat cheese tastes suspiciously like how little hamsters smell.

I’ve done some research online to determine the cause of sheep-meat funk, and there seems to be several explanations.  The most common statement is that Americans have a distorted appetite for bland, tasteless, unnatural, mass-bred, corn-fed livestock, whereby we prefer saline-injected chicken breasts and want our lamb to be indistinguishable in taste from beef.  The inevitable followup is that when Americans taste “real,” organic meat that has been grass-fed, our plebeian taste buds just cannot appreciate this higher quality; it is lost upon the uncouth masses, like bumbling tourists who prefer the bland comfort of McDonalds over local options while vacationing abroad.

The second explanation comes from an oil that sheep secrete to make their wool waterproof.  This oil, lanolin, is also used in cosmetics, to break in baseball gloves, and in lip balm products.  Lanolin may be the cause of the gamey flavor of lamb, I could not confirm or debunk this.  The last explanation states that the strong flavor comes from lamb fell, which is a paper thin covering of the outer layer of fat.  Removal of this fat may or may not help diminish the gaminess.  Apparently there are also musk glands by the shoulder and leg joints, which were originally thought to be the offenders that impart the smell into lamb, but this has supposedly been proven untrue.

Now that I know there is some legitimate reason why lamb has a strong odor, I feel slightly less embarrassed by my aversion to lamb…I’ll justify it with my newly acquired knowledge of lanolin and lamb fell tainting lamb meat.

So what did I enjoy in Kazakhstan, if not copious quantities of sheep?  I ended up preferring horse meat!  I tried it at an Uzbek restaurant; it was served in plov, both diced and fried with the rice, and also presented as a round medallion atop the plov mound.  The meat was dark red, like beef, and tasted like a hybrid of beef and lamb.  It was less gamey than lamb, but did not taste exactly like beef.

I was also pleasantly surprised to find that Kazakhstan’s Rakhat (rakhat means pleasure in Kazakh) brand of chocolate was quite delicious.  The factory is located in Almaty, close to the Green Bazaar.  As you walk past the building, wafts of warm, sweet chocolate hang lazily in the air, enveloping you like hot cocoa on a cold day.  Many local Kazakhs had recommended the chocolate bars to me, and Baurzhan bought me some to try.  The Kazakh flag is printed on the wrapper, the word “Kazakhstan” is emblazoned in gold font.  The luscious, melt in your mouth milk chocolate is as good as any high quality chocolatier.  Rakhat’s history seems interesting; acording to Rakhat’s website, “First production of the confectioneries had been arranged in 1942 on the areas of alcoholic beverage factory, using the equipments evacuated from Moscow and Kharkov in the wartime.” (sic)  I also just read that Korea’s mega-conglomerate confectionery/department store/hospitality/amusement park/etc. Lotte brand announced plans to takeover Rakhat, buying 76% of Rakhat’s shares for an estimated $157 million.  I hope that Lotte will keep the recipe the same…Rakhat chocolate bars and I became close friends during lonely nights in Almaty.

Whenever I travel abroad, a visit to the local supermarket is always on my to-do list.  I love examining various jars of canned goods, exploring the different flavors of Lays brand chips (seafood flavor in China, salmon caviar in Kazakhstan), and ogling the baked goods section.  Kazakhstan was no different; Almaty and Astana’s supermarkets provided me with ample interesting and unique finds.  Bagged ketchup was placed in refrigerated sections, as was canned caviar.  The dairy section was lined with camel and horse milk, while cow milk ranged from 0.5% fat all the way up to 10% fat (there was a separate section for cream too).  The fruits and veggies looked slightly banged up, and I found the produce at the bazaar to be better quality and more variety.  Cans of horse and sheep beckoned to be examined with its coloring book like illustration, perhaps as a way to make the meat inside less scary.

I brought home some cans of ikra, or caviar, a can of horse meat, and a can of random beef parts.  The depiction of a yurt on a grassland enticed me to buy the can.  Among the 3 cans of caviar, the typical salmon roe was extra briny and fishy, whereas the light yellow colored roe was supposedly pretty good (I didn’t try any).  My prized possession, the black caviar, was nutty and not briny at all.  I dug around on the internet for a while and it turns out it’s because I bought faux-caviar, made from kelp.  Guess I should have learned more Russian before purchasing canned goods…

Other interesting food/drink items I had or noticed while in Kazakhstan: there was a place in Almaty that bought huge barrels of beer, hooked them up to a tap, sold bottles to retail customers.  They had some interesting brews, including dark Irish beer.  Moreover, 1 liter cans of beer are commonly sold.  I’m not sure if that’s typical consumption for one person, or what, but one of my classmates bought it.  Lastly, I was also able to try Georgian (the country, not the state) food in Astana.  I really enjoyed the khachapuri, a thick Georgian bread baked with mozzarella cheese.  It’s hot, soft, carb-y, comfort food, like mac and cheese.

When I returned to New York City, I was eager to check out a Uyghur restaurant in Brighton Beach, near Coney Island in Brooklyn (there is also a place called Georgian Bread out there, where I was able to satisfy my khachapuri cravings too).  Cafe Kashkar served all the ubiquitous dishes of the region: lagman (derived from Chinese la-mian, or hand-pulled noodles, served fried or as a noodle soup), manti (steamed or fried dumplings filled with either lamb or beef), plov, etc.  Stepping into the tiny restaurant brought me back to Kazakhstan; random tchotchkes and ethnic decor, music videos playing on loop on the TV mounted to the ceiling, ethnic Russians snacking while drinking copious amounts of vodka and beer, taking the occasional break to step outside for a cigarette…with no English being spoken among the patrons or Uyghur waitstaff (save for the single Kazakh waiter), it felt like I was in Almaty again, like I could walk back to my dilapidated dorm room when I was done with my meal.  I miss Kazakhstan.

The People

One thing that I’ve been asked by several people (and had wondered myself before Googling or ever meeting Kazakhs) is “What do they look like?”  I’ve found that a hard question to answer.  It would be like asking “What do Americans look like?” — well, there are Asian Americans, African Americans, Latin Americans, European Americans, etc., you get the point.   Though ethnic Kazakhs look “Asian” in a generic sense, I saw many beautiful nuances among the local people.  Light hair, dark hair, light eyes, dark eyes, round eyes, almond-shaped eyes, tall, short, big, small.  The diversity among ethnic Kazakhs was really intriguing.

I wish I could have taken photos of all the beautiful, interesting people I saw during my time there.  As I’ve mentioned before, the traits that struck me as the most stunning have been those with light coloring along with “typical” East Asian features.  I had heard from several locals that the “original” Kazakhs had red hair and light eyes, but due to the conquering of the area by Mongols, their features became more Asian (don’t quote me on this, I’m just repeating what I was told).  Red hair?!  I could not believe it until I saw it with my own eyes.  I was in a car and as we slowly drove past a mini-mart, there was a young man with bright red hair and Asian features; a “ginger” if you will.  He looked so interesting that I did a double take just to confirm what I was seeing.  Yes, an Asian ginger!  I did not take a picture, but I’ve found some photos of people with similar characteristics.

Another trait that never ceased to shock me was that of having light colored eyes.  I am so used to seeing East Asians who have dark hair and dark eyes, so when I saw people with light and dark brown hair AND honey, hazel, blue, and green eyes, I was captivated.  It sounds so unnatural to me but it looks much more natural than say, my Chinese mother wearing green contacts and dying her hair light brown.  My friend Aizhan has blue-green-brown eyes that are striking against her dark hair and light skin (unfortunately the pictures I got with her do not show how pretty her eyes are, nor do they show the color).  Baurzhan and his brother Chingiz have black hair and dark eyes, whereas his oldest brother, Nurzhan, has noticeably lighter hair, despite having parents with darker features.  Bekzhan has light hair and golden honey colored eyes; he looks like a little doll.  Had I seen statuesque Madina walking around the streets of Paris during her studies there, I would have assumed she was a half-Japanese half-European model.  People walking around with naturally light brown/blonde hair and Asian features always got my attention.  I live in one of the most diverse cities in the world, and the mixture and variety of people here is second to none, yet I hardly do as many double takes in New York as I did in Kazakhstan.  Prior to this trip, I’d just never seen people with these traits.

Many other Central Asians also appear to have mixed ancestry, including Uyghurs, Mongolians, etc.  Even the Hazara people of Afghanistan, though Persian speaking, have Mongolian lineage, and also appear mixed.  I’ve just thrown together some photos of people I met in Kazakhstan and some images I’ve found Googling around just to show the interesting physical features of Central Asians.

Astana: Modernity in the Steppes

The last few days of our program consisted of meetings in Astana, the country’s new capital.  In 1997, Kazakhstan’s capital moved from the southern city of Almaty to the northern city of Astana (literally translated from Kazakh as “capital”).  It is a stark contrast to Almaty’s greenery, older buildings, and mountainous background.  Astana is flat (located in the steppes), shiny, new, cosmopolitan, and is about half as populated as Almaty.

My first impression of Astana was that it reminded me of a Chinese city.  Wide roads, towers upon towers of new construction, and buildings done in what could be described as a neo-Soviet style (massive structures, typically angular, occasionally rounded, definitely “modern” and not “charming”).  Yes the buildings were impressive and beautifully lit at night, but the lack of people in some areas felt ghostly and impersonal.  The city is not very pedestrian-friendly as buildings that appear to be close are actually quite far away.  There is no subway system, though there are buses.  Astana is essentially split into two sides by the Ishim River; the “Right” (technically Northern) bank is the old, gray Soviet side, and the “Left” (Southern) bank is the new, gleaming, flashy side.  Many of the famous sites are located on the left side, with the development of a few interesting buildings slowly beginning to gentrify the right bank.

Some of the more famous buildings that we saw included:

  • Bayterek Tower – representing a poplar tree holding a golden egg, based on a folktale.  It looked more like a glorified golf ball on a tee to me.  There is an observation deck inside, and a “gilded hand print” of President Nazarbayev, which I think corresponds to the gilded hand print that is also in Almaty.
  • Nazarbayev University – a brand new learning institute with an amazing atrium.  Competitive entry.  So new that there were bulldozers and construction workers building the newest dorms the day we got a tour.  Much nicer than KIMEP, which was built by Japanese prisoners of war.
  • Palace of Peace and Accord (Pyramid of Peace) – designed by Norman Foster.  “The Pyramid of Peace expresses the spirit of Kazakhstan, where cultures, traditions and representatives of various nationalities coexist in peace, harmony and accord. Bathed in the golden and pale blue glow of the glass (colors taken from the Kazakhstan flag), 200 delegates from the world’s main religions and faiths will meet every three years in a circular chamber…” (Wikipedia).  There is also an opera house inside.
  • Ak Orda Presidential Palace - saw from the street.  Nazarbayev’s office.
  • Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center - giant tent.  Mall.  Roller coasters inside.  Indoor beach.  Shopping.  Free wifi.  Glitzy.

Our hotel was located on the older right bank.  I was the last person left in Astana from our program as both Dan and Jessica departed before me.  Not knowing anybody (Baurzhan and his father weren’t returning to Astana until August 16th) and contemplating how I could get myself something to eat for dinner was a bit depressing as the hotel was kind of in the middle of nowhere.  Luckily, one of Baurzhan and Bekzhan’s friends, Almas, recently moved to Astana to work for Coca-Cola in their legal department.  I was warned in advance that he spoke no English, so I downloaded a Russian-English dictionary app just in case.  We grabbed dinner at Khan Shatyr and he showed me all the attractions that were lit up at night, which was nice since I hadn’t had a chance to see them in the evening (couldn’t see that side of the city from my hotel room).  Thankfully, free wifi is prevalent in the left side, so for things that I had trouble describing, I just used Google Translate on my phone.  I love free wifi.  And that was the end of my trip to Kazakhstan.

Final thoughts on Astana: though Astana was impressive, it lacked the character that cities develop over time.  It also has mosquitoes.  Yuck.  The weather was dreary and fluctuated between warm, cold, sudden downpours, and random bouts of sunshine.  I can appreciate the time, money, effort, and pride that is going into developing Astana as a modern cosmopolitan oasis in the steppes, however I am partial toward Almaty.  It will be interesting to see how Astana “grows up” over the next few decades.

The meetings we had in Astana were very engaging.  One of the most interesting discussions we had took place in the US embassy with the Director of Environment, Health, and Technology.  He described the Kazakh government’s extremely ambitious plan to become a green energy economy, including goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase renewable energy, and develop a nuclear power plant (Kazakhstan is the world’s largest producer of uranium).  And just like the States, there is also talk of using natural gas as a segue toward renewable energy.  These plans are very progressive and grand, however much needs to be done in order for the country to actually implement these projects, including investing heavily in upgrading and adding new infrastructure to the Soviet built electric grid.  Blackouts are still common, even in Almaty (I experienced a few short ones myself in the dorm room), and many rural residents don’t have access to stable electricity or gas to power their homes.  I’d like to stay abreast on the news on these plans; I’m curious to see how these goals will materialize, especially given the differing political opinions on green energy.  However, one thing is certain, if this is an order from the top down (directly from the President’s office, which it is), it will probably move forward.  I suppose that is one of the advantages of a one-party system — when there’s a powerful man with a plan, things usually get done.

Luckily for Kazakhstan, Nazarbayev is a much better political leader than his counterparts in the neighboring ‘Stans.  His forward thinking agenda and encouragement of resource exploitation fostered economic growth and quickly propelled the country from a former Soviet republic into a thriving market economy, one that has piqued the interest of its larger and wealthier neighbors (Russia and China.  It seems like Nazarbayev is handling things well, as he is revered by many.  I’ve only heard a couple of voices of dissent, the majority of people I’ve spoken with love him.  Even I can see his vision.  The excitement and hunger for Kazakhstan to be the best that it can be, in every way possible, and to be recognized around the world as a a major economic and political player is palpable, especially in the capital.  It reminds me of the drive and determination fueled by economic prosperity that motivates China.  It is interesting to note that the 2017 World Expo will be held in Astana, with the theme being sustainable energy.  Sustainable energy, did you notice that?  This agenda is originating from a country rich with hydrocarbons and minerals.  Maybe the President knows that their fossil fuels will deplete within the next 20-30 years, and that if they do not begin to diversify their economy now and modernize their energy sector, they’ll fall victim to more than just the Dutch disease or resource course.  If that’s the case, I have to give him credit for having this foresight.

That is not to say that I do not see any problems.  Indeed, there are many, including the absence of SMEs (small & medium enterprises), high interest rates, corruption, and what seems to be a lack of a strong backup leader should the President suddenly pass away (he is 73 years old after all).  Becoming a member of the Russian customs union has also caused some roadblocks, like the sudden crazy tariff on imported cars, and the inability to join the WTO.  There are also physical limitations to contend with as well; Kazakhstan is a huge landlocked country (five times the size of Texas), without many paved, reliable highways traversing the land.  But despite these issues, I have no doubt that the future of Kazakhstan is bright.

Central Asian Hospitality

On the Monday of my last week at KIMEP, I grabbed lunch with the PhD student I was assisting.  We were joined by another PhD student named Aizhan.  The first thing I thought was “Wow, her contacts are an amazing color.  I wonder if I can get some colored contacts like that.”  After a few minutes, I realized she was not wearing contacts, and that her blue-brown-hazel-gray eyes were au naturel, extremely striking against her light skin and dark hair.  I was not feeling well that day, so I did a poor job of introducing myself.  Imagine my shock then when I received a call from Aizhan a couple days later, asking if I wanted to meet up and hang out.  I had really wanted to make some friends with local students but didn’t have a chance to, so I was happy to hear from her.

We met on campus and walked over to the nearby restaurant/cafe and chatted for several hours.  I found out that her dissertation is on company valuation in Kazakhstan, and that she also teaches a couple finance classes to undergrads during the school year.  I also heard about some of her more unfortunate experiences with the school, validating some thoughts and experiences I had as well.  And frankly, it was just really nice to finally hang out with a female my age.  Most of my fellow students were males, a couple years younger than me.  The two local female students I lived with moved out two days after I arrived.  I don’t mind having male friends but there are times where you just need a good girlfriend, you know?  I was missing texting and chatting with my best girlfriends at home, so it was quite fortuitous for me to be contacted by Aizhan.

The following day she invited me over to the flat where she lives with her mother.  Aizhan and her mother have a beautiful, large, comfy, luxurious apartment in a high rise tower near the local supermarket up the street from KIMEP (OMG Aizhan, your closet is totally to die for!  I could only dream of having a closet like hers!).  Her mother (sorry, I forgot her name!  It started with a G) answered the door; a cute, smiley, friendly little lady (seriously, I felt like a giant next to Aizhan and her mother.  I’m only 5’6″ but I look like an ogre next to them in photos).  I noticed the dining table was beautifully set with fresh fruit, salad, and silverware.  The next thing I knew, I was being served a giant bowl of delicious fusion pasta bolognese.  I was so happy that it was made from beef; it was delicious!  Light, not oily or fatty, and served with fresh parsley and dill.  Yum.  I learned that Aizhan’s parents are both professors, her mother is an economics professor, though I can’t remember what her father teaches.  I also found out that Aizhan’s mother is part Tatar (not to be confused with cream of tartar, tartar sauce, or Tardar Sauce aka Grumpy Cat), and shares the same beautiful blue-gray eyes as Aizhan.  We chatted about my time in Kazakhstan, her experiences attending conferences in the States and Korea, and I showed them pictures of my family.  I had a really lovely time with them, and wished I had more time to hang out.

Later that evening, I was invited to a birthday party dinner.  The birthday guy’s name was also Baurzhan; he turned 27 and and was hosting his close friends at his flat that evening.  He showed me pictures of his wedding, both the traditional Kazakh event (hosted and paid for by the groom’s family), and the Western event (hosted and paid for by the bride’s family).  These separate events take place over two consecutive weekends.  I enjoyed seeing photos of his bride’s traditional Kazakh wedding dress, they make the bride look like a snow princesses or something.  Here is a link for photos of traditional dresses and descriptions of the customs of Kazakh weddings.  Baurzhan’s sweet wife is a tiny little thing, 6 months pregnant with their first child, a daughter.  Despite that, she still managed to create a wonderful feast of homemade manti (meat and onion dumplings) and other yummy things including some sort of meat pie and beet and potato salad.

One tradition that I thought was interesting was that everybody at the dinner table was expected to make a toast to the birthday person, myself included.  This was a serious affair.  When it was the well-wisher’s turn to make a toast, the room got silent and the speaker’s tone became quite serious, each word spoken very slowly, and slightly hushed.  Everyone paid attention.  There was no crazy, drunken “I love you man!  You’re my dawg, happy birthday homie!” as far as I could tell (the only alcohol was kumis, the fermented horse milk, and it’s got such a low percentage of alcohol that I’d be surprised if somebody could actually get drunk off it.  I think you’re more likely to get digestive problems than buzzed by consuming large amounts of kumis).  Actually, to be honest, I had no idea what was being said because the majority of the conversation was spoken in a blend of Kazakh and Russian, though it seemed mostly Kazakh (So what would that be called, “Russzakh”?  “Kazussian”?  Cuz I speak “Chinglish” at home with my parents.).  Occasionally I would hear quips of my name, and then the whole table would chuckle, and a girl or two would look at me and smile.  Actually, that happened quite often.  I kind of felt like a smiling dunce, sitting there not knowing what was being said in reference to the random American.

Back to the toasts.  So when it was my turn to speak, I wished Baurzhan a happy birthday, told him that he had a beautiful wife, I’m excited for their upcoming present, them being able to welcome their amazing little girl soon, and that I hope he has many family and friend-filled happy birthdays for years to come.  I also thanked them for opening up their home and welcoming me, a total stranger, on such a special and intimate occasion (it was a small gathering).  Later, I reflected on just exactly how kind, generous, helpful, and hospitable the majority of the people were toward me that I had gotten to know in Kazakhstan.  As I thought about my meal with Aizhan and her mother, my time with Baurzhan and his family, Bekzhan, his friend Renat, and his wife picking me up from campus and taking me out, and even recalled how helpful and nice Nodir was (the Uzbek guy who works for Ferrero that I met on my flight from NYC to Almaty), I greatly appreciated the hospitality that people who were initially strangers demonstrated toward me.  The only other place that has rivaled this feeling of good will for me was in South Africa, when I studied there many years ago as an undergrad.  However, it was slightly different as I never had unknown local people approach me, extend themselves, open their homes, and befriend me.  These thoughtful experiences definitely more than made up for the several unfortunate instances I had earlier that week.  I hope one day I can be just as generous and gracious a hostess, should any of the people I met in Kazakhstan head my way.

After dinner, a few of us went to Medeo, a huge ice skating/bandy rink (don’t worry, I had to Google “bandy” too — apparently it’s like a hockey-soccer [or "football" to you non-Americans] hybrid game played on ice), situated high up in the mountains above Almaty.  Construction of the rink began in 1949 during the Soviet Union.  According to Wikipedia, it sits 1691 meters/5547 feet above sea level, making it the highest skating rink in the world, and holds about 10,500 sq. meters of ice (about 113,020 sq. feet).  It was really nice to escape the relentless heat that blanketed and suffocated Almaty lately.  Apparently this extreme heat (90 degrees and upwards, slightly humid), like the extremely cool weather in early July, is atypical.  I am not usually a sweaty, wet person.  I can handle extremely dry, hot heat, and have suffered through NYC’s worst summers.  However, I was completely uncomfortable in Almaty, most likely due to the lack of mass air conditioning.  I would sit around and begin to perspire from my own body heat; I had hot flashes so often that I showered a couple times a day.  I had a fan in my room which definitely helped make my stay bearable, but others were not so lucky (Brad, the Scottish student, resorted to dragging his mattress to the balcony of his room and slept outside for the last week of the program).  I’ve only perspired so much twice in my life: the first was in Taipei, during the middle of Taiwan’s stuffy, humid, wet summer, and the second time is every time I subject myself to a sauna or steam room.  NYC gets quite warm and humid but I am able to blast the AC all day, and only experience the sweltering heat as I walk to/from my destination, and while I wait for the subway.  Not so in Almaty.  My hair would get flat, my nose would get wet, and the waves of hot flashes that tormented my body made me feel like I was experiencing an early onset of severe menopause.  I would much, much rather be freezing cold than so hot.  Perhaps it would have been better to go to Kazakhstan during the wintertime, though temperatures in the negative Celcius degrees isn’t too appealing either…but at least I wouldn’t be sweaty.

Medeo was like paradise for me.  In fact, it was so cool up there that I needed to put on a light sweater.  I was surprised to see that it was a very popular destination for both families and young people alike.  Restless youth leaned against their cars, smoking cigarettes while chatting up their dates, and parents bought horse rides for their little kids (there were people selling horse rides).  The cool breeze, interesting view, and occasional hollow sound of hooves hitting the pavement as horses galloped by clack-clack-clack was quite relaxing.  I would have liked to have returned during the daytime as you can take a tram/suspended cable car (I’m sure there’s a better word for it, but I can’t remember what they’re called…the small enclosed carts that are hung up in the air) to an even higher vista, but I didn’t get the chance to.  Next time!

How Bazaar

As much as I love giant, air conditioned, sterile supermarkets, I also love grimy, colorful bazaars, flea markets, and night markets, so I knew I would love Almaty’s Green Bazaar.  Situated in the northern part of the city by the main mosque, the Green Bazaar (зеленый базар, pronounced “ze-leo-nee” bazaar) is a bustling assault on the senses.  Anything and everything is sold here: fruits, veggies, spices, clothes, toys, housewares, etc.  There is a busy hum from the people jostling around, I smelled musky spices, sweet fruit, polyester, and raw meat.

Many of the items (outside of the groceries) come from China and Turkey by way of Kyrgyzstan.  The vendors are as varied and diverse as their products; I saw many non-Kazakh sellers — Tajiks,  Persians, Turks, Kyrgyz.   If I squinted hard enough and ignored the bubble-gum pink bras and gaudy glass chandeliers hanging from the walls, I could almost imagine what the Silk Road was like.  I picked up a couple souvenirs, but was mostly fascinated by flaps of meat hanging around, which I think amused and slightly confused Bekzhan (he probably thought “Why is she so interested in butchery?  I thought girls liked clothes and stuff like that.”), who had come to help me navigate and procure souvenirs.  There were slabs of horse meat, sheep heads, beef innards, and of course, chicken.  It was like taking a stroll in the zoo, except instead of gawking at live animals, I was ogling at chunks of livestock.  It was amazing.

We went to several other types of markets/bazaars too.  We drove to what seemed like the outskirts of the city for Bekzhan and his friend Renat (Raynat?  Unsure about the spelling) to go clothes shopping at a giant market, similar to clothing markets I’ve been to in China.  This market was HUGE, probably the equivalent of 2 square blocks in area.  While the guys went and did their ‘thang, Renat’s wife and I strolled the market together.  Her English was not very good, though it was better than my meager Russian, so I tried to keep the conversation simple.  I found out that she was from Kyrgyzstan, and had only been in Almaty for one month, as her hubby moved there for work.  She studied Economics in university, and worked in a bank in Bishkek, but cannot work in Kazakhstan until she gets her citizenship.  Also, at the ripe ol’ age of 23, she’s looking forward to becoming a mother…soon.  Eek.  So anyway, back to the clothing market…I saw so much polyester that my mind began to get wander and I was seriously wondering if, by some horrible circumstance, the place caught on fire, would the structure burn much faster due to all the poly?!  I was also distracted by some unfortunate mannequins (some with limbs missing, some naked).

The next market we went to was also further out from the city center, and was markedly more ghetto, for lack of a better description.  It was crowded, unpaved, dusty, and teeming with strange characters.  Certain parts of the market consisted of freight containers, stacked on top of each other.  I was told that there were a lot of Chinese vendors in this market.  I was hoping to hear some Mandarin, but I realized by Chinese, they meant Uyghur, not Han Chinese (Han Chinese being the majority population in China, and what one typically thinks of when referring to “Chinese people”).  Uyghurs are a Turkic, Muslim people in Central Asia, like the Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Turkmen, Uzbeks, Tatars, and even Azerbaijanis (though Tajiks are not from this ethnic group, they are of Persian origin).  The largest Uyghur community is located in China, with over 8.4 million Uyghurs, mainly in the Xinjiang (far Western) province; the second largest community of Uyghurs reside in Kazakhstan.  The first time I saw Uyghur people was when I studied in Beijing several years ago.  I would walk past a couple of Asian-y mixed looking young men who sold an interesting honey granola mixture from carts.  Their Mandarin was not very good, and they seemed as fascinated in me as I was in them.  I guess we both had a similar sense of curiosity of the other person, each thinking “Huh…this person is Asian but doesn’t really look it.”  Remembering the two Uyghur brothers in Beijing, I recalled their light hazel green eyes, freckles, bronzed skin, high cheekbones, and slightly Asian features.  If you have no idea what Uyghurs look like, you should really do a Google image search on them; they’re quite captivating.  Apparently genetic testing has shown that their ancestry ranges from about 30-60% European ancestry, with the remainder being of East Asian ancestry, which explains why they look half-Asian.  Hmm…despite being of a similar genetic makeup to Uyghurs, (50% East Asian and 50% European), I look nothing like them.  Darn!

Anyway, another characteristic of Uyghurs is that they’re thought of as separatists and radicals in China (like the free Tibet movement).  There has been a lot of ethnic and civil strife in Xinjiang, with Beijing sending many Han Chinese to the area to try to integrate and build up the local economy, hoping that the advantages arising from economic development and an influx of Han Chinese would help to quell Uyghur resentment.  Kind of like what Americans did when we decided to tame the “wild West” by setting up shop, running out the indigenous people, and establishing political and cultural hegemony.  What seems to happen is that the Uyghurs feel even more marginalized as Han Chinese culture is forced upon them, which causes them to rally for their own East Turkestan state, independent from China.  Oftentimes this breaks out in the form of riots and violent clashes between Uyghurs, Han Chinese, and the police.  I was slightly surprised to hear that the Uyghur community is also marginalized in Kazakhstan too.  I guess I had wrongly assumed that maybe people of a similar ethnic background would empathize that these people had no official independent country.  Bekzhan said that Uyghurs are not very well regarded as they tend to be anti-social and have no interest in integrating with local Kazakhs and the community.  I also got the impression from him that they’re perceived as sketchy (“Kazakh parents would not be happy if their children married a Uyghur,” I think he said), and to be wary of them, much like when you refer to people that come from “the other side of the tracks.”

Anyway, I digress.  The only thing interesting to me at the last market was staring at the random vendors and hearing a Kazakh perception of Uyghurs.  Pictures below.

I’m Not an Alien, I’m Just Jogging

Since I could not work out at the school gym (well, I could have, but only being allowed 3 hours of workout time per week is not worth it), I decided to take up jogging as a way of both exploring Almaty and forcing myself to do something I don’t like for the sake of my health.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m definitely not a couch potato, but I prefer going to the gym because I have a hard time regulating myself while jogging outside (though I don’t have this problem on the treadmill), and end up with exercise induced asthma.  I have not yet had a chance to go to the doctor to get an inhaler, but I find that not doing any super crazy sprints and inhaling/exhaling only through my nose helps (as opposed to nasal/mouth breathing).

Anyway, I took advantage of the fact that Almaty is quite green and not very crowded, so jogging around seemed like a no brainer.  When I first arrived, my jet lag worked toward my advantage and I would go out for a run anytime between 6 and 8 AM.  It seemed like barely anybody was awake at that time; the busy road near campus was completely empty, and the only other souls wandering around at that hour were the street sweepers.  No people impatiently waiting for their Starbucks, no backlog of cars trying to get onto the highway, no excited children skipping to school.  I liked it at first, but as soon as I got acclimated to the time zone, it seemed like getting up early to jog was harder and harder to do.  Moreover, I was getting bored with the running around the street along the campus, so when I got an email from a college friend asking if I could swing by his childhood home and take some photos, I happily obliged.

Igor and his family left Kazakhstan about 20 years ago; he now lives in San Francisco.  I actually didn’t even remember that he was from Kazakhstan until a couple of months ago.  It was a bit difficult to find the street on the map, but I figured out the location and jogged over there one afternoon.  I took some photos of sites along the way, including the underground mall that you have to walk through in order to cross the street, a giant geometric Soviet building that is home to “Nurbank,” and the new City Hall.

I finally got to Igor’s old neighborhood, huffing and puffing and miserably sweaty.  Figuring people would already assume I’m just a weird foreigner, I walked around the building and took pictures of the property.  It was fun to imagine someone I know as a little kid, running around and playing in the vicinity.

After loitering for a while, I jogged back to the dorms and emailed the photos to my friend, who confirmed that that was the right place, and shared a couple stories about where he played in the photos, which flat was theirs, etc.  I was relieved to know that my creepy, perspiring presence in the neighborhood was worth it.

Here is where I will complain about jogging in Almaty.  People STARE at you like you’re an alien.  It’s like they’ve never seen anybody jogging in their life.  A couple other foreign students confirmed this feeling as well.  I don’t get it.  I mean, really, are people jogging such an oddity that it’s necessary to gawk?!  Though I always wore sunglasses, I could still see and feel the stares.  It was so bizarre.  Finally, my friend found a more secluded place to jog along a creek trail behind the Children’s Palace (or Youth Palace, whatever it’s called…basically a grand looking YMCA).  Finally!  Trees and a babbling creek and mothers and grandparents strolling with little kids and benches and pull up bars and people walking, jogging, and bicycling.  So that’s where my fellow exercisers have been hiding!  From that day forward, I jogged from the school to the end of the trail every day, about 3.2 miles.  I enjoyed it so much that I plan on jogging along the East River here in NYC.  I finally understand why people like going out for a run.  Thanks to the stupid gym rules at KIMEP, I’ve now developed a nice habit of jogging.  I guess there is a silver lining to every cloud.

Poked, Prodded, and Pickpocketed

So after being overwhelmed with more than a few things, I had little to no time to update this blog.  I will briefly write about what has happened in the last couple weeks.  I went and did some bizarre medical exams that were apparently required of all students at KIMEP. One exam included getting a chest x-ray; I was not explained what the x-ray was checking for, but I’m assuming it’s for tuberculosis.  A local student took a Scottish student and me to the hospital nearby to get this procedure done.  We took a bus to said hospital and stood around for over an hour, waiting in line, and then waiting for the examiners to come back from lunch, or to fix the printer, or perhaps both. I wasn’t able to figure out what was going on.

Finally, it was our turn to do this dreaded chest x-ray. I walked into a room staffed by two grumpy women and was told to take off everything waist up and step into a giant plastic pod-like machine.  I was awkwardly semi-naked and had no idea what to do.  One of the women began to yell at me in Russian.  I still had no idea what to do.  She began to yell even louder, and with more force.  I wanted to yell back “I DON’T UNDERSTAND YOU!” but I doubt she would have understood me either.  Exasperated, she went outside and got Madina (the local student) to tell me what to do.  Madina explained that I had to step up to the plastic square and literally squish my chest against that area.  EW.  Really?!  Ugh…I did not see them wiping this machine down between every chest squish.  GROSS.  I was wondering if this machine is looking for some sign of TB, and if there is someone with TB here, could I possibly be rubbing up on some TB germs?  Shudder.

I endured this excruciating 15 second chest squish and then slathered myself with Purell.  Brad went after me, then Madina.  Lucky Brad.  I showered right before coming to the hospital, so his chest squished up against the wall that my chest had just cleaned.

We waited another 45 minutes to get our results.  I was surprised to see that my chest was okay, as I felt like my insides were melting with the anxiety of potential germs happily proliferating on my décolletage.

The school also had to determine whether I was healthy enough to work out in their gym, and that was a pretty ridiculous exam too.  Instead of just being able to pay and work out at the gym, one has to prove that they are healthy enough to work out.  The explanation I received was that this is a precautionary procedure (if your heart rate is wonky, then the doctor can advise you to take it easy, etc.), another comment I heard was that this was just another way for people to make money (it’s a whole bunch of tasks to satisfy a bureaucratic checklist).  Either way, it was annoying.  Again, I was taken to a hospital where I was shuffled into a little room and ordered to take everything off from the waist up and lie on uncomfortable medical slab whereby I was strapped to an ancient EKG to monitor my heart rate.  After the EKG showed that my heart activity was fine, I was ushered into another room filled with gossipy, bored, young women.  Had it not been for their white lab coats and the Soviet, bloc-like building I spied in the window, I would have thought I had walked into a nail salon in California.  I was weighed, my height was measured, my heart rate was checked, and I had to spin on a stationary bike for 3 minutes, maintaining a certain speed.  The women in the room asked me the same questions that a Vietnamese nail tech would ask.  Basically, I experienced Anjelah Johnson’s Nail Salon skit except in a hospital in Almaty.  Half the time I had no idea what they were saying because after every answer, they would chat and giggle and gossip among themselves in Russian and Kazakh.  Eventually, I was able to leave with some scribbles on a sheet of paper, declaring me fit and able to go to the gym.  But after all that, I never ended up using the gym because I had to do even more paperwork and would have only been allowed to go for 3 hours a week.  3 hours?!  No thanks.  It wasn’t even that nice of a gym.  Instead, I went jogging almost every day.  I usually hate jogging but in this instance I had no choice.

So you’re probably wondering where the pickpocketing part of the story comes into play.  Well, on the bus that we took to the hospital for the chest x-ray, I noticed a creepy guy staring at me after he saw how much money I had in my wallet when I opened it up to pay for the bus ticket.  I felt his eyes boring holes into my side so I scooted up closer towards Brad and Madina, and held my purse close to my body.  As I was stepping off the bus, the jerk scrambled up so close to my back that it felt like his head was a parasitic twin growing off my shoulder.  I felt a shove, and then I was outside.  His shove was the very moment he stole my wallet.

I have traveled to over 35 countries (including some places notorious for pickpocketing) but have never been pickpocketed, so I suppose I should consider myself lucky.  Except for the fact that I was screwed.  My driver’s license, credit cards, ATM cards, random sentimental things, and about $150 worth of Tenge (Kazakh currency) were in that wallet.  The aftermath was a huge time suck.  I spent hours trying to reach my banks, only to find out that there are no retail Citibanks in Kazakhstan, therefore I wasn’t even able to access any cash from my checking account.  Even though I would have my cards overnighted to me, it would still take about 5 business days to make it to Kazakhstan.  I also had to figure out every account that was set to autopay on those cards, and notify them of my situation.  I then tried to go to Western Union to receive some money, but because the US passport (luckily I still had that) does not have a separate field for “Middle Name,” my “Given” or “Full Name” has both my first and middle name.  The inept, retarded, thick skulled-pea brained bank teller (there are no stand-alone brick and mortar Western Union stores, just local banks that facilitate Western Union transactions) would not give me the money that was wired to me because transaction only had my first and last name.  She kept saying my passport, my legal ID, had my middle name as my “full name,” so she wouldn’t give it to me (Laura Anne on passport, Laura on Western Union).  OMG.  Lady, areyouforreals?!  I tried explaining to her that there is no separate demarcation for middle name on my passport, nor was there a field for middle name in the Western Union transaction, to which she replied that I should just have the money re-sent and that the sender should put my first and middle name as my first name.  No.  Look at the damn picture on my passport, and look at my confirmation number.  I am clearly not committing some sort of fraud, and just give me my money.  She would not budge.  I became an irate, annoyed America and resorted to giving her dirty looks, exasperated explanations, and showing her my school ID (which luckily had my picture and first + last name).  She was still not convinced.  After realizing she wouldn’t budge I began to raise my voice and swear, because at this point, I was just livid and could not express myself in broken Russian and gave up trying to pantomime the difference between “full name” and “first/middle name.”  I felt so helpless and annoyed, I wanted to smite her and let her know that I would pray for a plague of locusts to decimate her clan and that I hoped she would get hit by a scooter on her way home or something.  I left the bank utterly defeated, trying to pick my dignity up off the floor on the way out.

After that complete failure, I walked with my classmate up and down the street where the guy got off the bus with us and peeked inside every public trashcan to see if the pickpocketer just took my money and tossed the wallet.  Nope.  So I did what any helpless, overwhelmed semi-adult would do: I got in touch with my parents.  My parents then used their AMEX to try another attempt at Western Union, this time I told them to put my first + middle name under the first name field.

The next morning, Bota, a representative from my program, went with me to another bank to try my luck at Western Union again.  If you are like me and anticipated more strife, you were right.  This time, the bank teller kept asking for my Kazakh taxpayer ID number, never mind the fact that I was a student there on a 1 month tourist visa.  Not understanding this concept of “American girl not having a Kazakh taxpayer ID number,” she called her boss over, who then told Bota the same thing.  Bota tried explaining over and over the situation, trying to show them my Kazakh visa in my passport, but they wouldn’t budge.  Eventually she called the program director just to confirm that no, I did not have a Kazakh taxpayer ID number, right?  After about 60 minutes of waiting and the incomprehensibility of me not having a Kazakh taxpayer ID number, I was finally able to get some cash.  FINALLY.  Except now I did not have a wallet to put this money in.  I felt like a shady person with a giant wad of cash, paranoid about the world.  I ended up stashing some cash under my bed, in crevices in my room, a bill or two in one purse, a bill or two in my backpack.

The next time I go to a foreign country, I will sew spikes into the elbows of my jackets just in case somebody gets too close to me.  I also hear that fanny packs are back in style.  Oh, you say they are not?  Well okay then I’ll just get a money belt or something more secure.  Lesson learned.