Kazakhstan to a Nittany Lion

My thoughts and perspective on Kazakhstani culture. (These are my thoughts and opinions alone and do not reflect the policies or opinions of the Peace Corps or the United States Government)

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Shu Vokzal

Many Kazakhstanis have set foot in Shu, though few have ventured more than a few feet. Their interaction with Shu usually takes place on the station platform near their train. Shu’s raison detre is the junction of the main rail lines between Almaty-Astana and Almaty-Shymkent and points farther west, so all trains stop at the Shu station (vokzal in Russian) to refill on water, to switch electric engines, and to give passengers a twenty-minute break for stretching their legs, smoking a cigarette, and buying food. The railroads transport goods and people and are crucial for the country’s everyday functions as Kazakhstan is a landlocked country, ruling out ship transport, and the great distances between cities make riding the train the cheaper, preferred mode of transportation.

The arrival of a passenger train in Shu is a twenty-minute dance of hundreds of people that begins with the announcement, first in Kazakh then in Russian, of the arriving train on either track one, two, or three. Following the announcement, people begin to move towards the edge of the platform to meet the train on the first track or step off the platform and hobble over two tracks to the second platform to meet trains on tracks two and three. If a train is already standing on the first platform, people often just crawl underneath instead of walking around.
This movement en masse is not just outgoing passengers but tired women pushing dilapidated baby carriages filled with homemade bliny, baked chicken, manti and plov, and cigarettes, beer, and vodka, scrappy men wielding improvised metal wheelbarrows laden with locally grown melons, and fast-talking middlemen eager to wrangle passengers into taxis to the next destination.

As the jostling for position at the edge of the platform intensifies, a tall, usually sky-blue, Soviet-built electric engine glides past with an occasional screech from its informal whistle to clear any last people crossing the tracks, followed by around 15 to 20 blue cars that with a slow whoosh, gradually come to a stop.

After the whoosh comes the clank of the conductor opening the door and raising the plate covering the stairs leading into his car. It is now a melee with outgoing passengers competing with incoming passengers for rights to the car’s stairs and baby carriages competing with wheelbarrows for the prime space nearest to the car door in which to display their goods, all accompanied by the cacophony of shouts like “Bishkek”, “Bliny”, “Taraz”, “Cold Beer” as babushkas and middlemen hawk what they are offering. Pools of people form around the stairways to the open car doors. The struggle to exit or board the train is further complicated by a second fleet of men with wheelbarrows who cart overstuffed plastic bags the size of hay bales towards the car’s stairs with the goal of bribing the conductor to transport the goods in any spare space in the passenger car.

Depending on the season and time of the day, this performance lasts anywhere from 10 minutes to the entire 20 that the train stands at the station. During hot, late afternoons in August when local vegetables and melons are in season, passengers and merchants even haggle and exchange right until the train reaches a speed too fast for running alongside and pushing a sack of melons onto the landing of the train car.

The whir and grind of the electric engine coming to life, followed by one long, cold whistle brings the frantic activity to a close as the train imperceptibly begins its slide out of the station. Any outstanding transactions are hurriedly concluded, with a run if necessary, and straggling passengers flick their cigarettes and scamper up the moving stairs into their car. The conductors man their posts in their open car doors with one rigid, extended hand holding a canary yellow flag until their car has cleared the platform.

The hustle then continues at the other waiting train or else the thinned crowd retreats to sit and wait until the next train’s arrival. On any given day this happens over twenty times when trains arrive from all parts of Kazakhstan day and night. But yet, like other towns on the railroad in Kazakhstan where passengers have stretched and refreshed countless times, Shu remains a large town known to many yet left unexplored.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Spring Pictures

I've had some requests for pictures. I will post some public links below so you all can access my pictures on my facebook site. Since these are public links you do not need to have facebook to access them. Please don't hesitate to let me know if you have any issues with the links.

"Winding Down Yet Heating Up"

"A Typical Unusual Day in Kazakhstan"

"The Dead of Winter"

"The Shu Fall"

"Summer on the Steppe"


Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Spring Shimmy in Shymkent

March 22nd marks the day Kazakhs celebrate Nauriz, or “Kazakh New Year” as it’s sometimes referred to. Though most Kazakhs identify as being Muslim, this is a holiday based more on Zoroastrian traditions celebrating the vernal equinox and the equality of day and night than a holiday based on Muslim traditions. Given the Kazakhs’s history as nomads into the 20th century, they still upheld lots of their former traditions such as Nauriz celebrations rather than abandoning them following the introduction of the Islamic faith, despite their occasional jive against Islamic teachings. Naturally, this holiday is as much a day to celebrate being Kazakh as it is to honor the new year.

This year I had the pleasure of making the trip to the southern Kazakhstan city of Shymkent to watch the celebrations. On the morning of the 22nd, a couple of volunteer friends of mine and I rode the bus to the edge of the city to the “hippodrome”. Immediately upon entering the grounds of the hippodrome I was struck with the colors on display. Dancers, musicians, and even some spectators were dressed in bright, traditional Kazakh costumes, including many with designs embroidered in gold, amid countless flags and banners hung throughout the grounds. Tall structures resembling Maypoles stood with bright streamers flowing from the tops of the poles. The crowd was forced to weave around groups of Kazakh children dancing, couples swinging on large swings consisting of long, wide planks suspended from three meter tall frames, and orchestras of Kazakh instruments.

The sound coming from one orchestra was like a Siren drawing me near. A group of around twenty five musicians, each wearing costumes, were playing dombras (two-stringed Kazakh guitars), Kazakh violins, a flute, drums and cymbal, and another large guitar-like instrument. The music was overwhelming for its intensity and fervor and its melody heavily influenced by Chinese chords. The music combined with the pageantry on display produced palpable visions of large groups of Kazakhs on horseback racing across barren, grassy steppes in the not too distant past.

Reluctantly moving away from the orchestra, I continued towards the racetrack where I passed numerous yurts assembled by people from villages around Shymkent. Each group had also set long tables (dastarkhan) out in front of the yurts and covered them with fried breads, candies, and round handle-less teacups. Though these dastarkhans were tempting, the smell of cooking meat drew me further into the stadium.

All along the walkway at the top of the stands of the hippodrome built into a hill were numerous vendors fanning shashleek (skewers of lamb and chicken) on long grills, mixing round cauldrons of plov, ladling kumiz (fermented horse’s milk) into round hand-less cups, and hydrating the crowd with brown half-liter bottles of the local brew, Shymkentskoye. I shared a cup of kumiz with a friend and offered a few sips to some visiting parents of another volunteer and witnessed puckered lips and a tepid “I’m glad we tried it” response. Then I dove into a delicious lunch of plov, a rice pilaf dish with shreds of carrot, garbanzo beans, and a few raisins, served in a bowl and topped with some chopped onions, followed by a couple sticks of lamb shashleek doused in vinegar, all accompanied by pieces of bread ripped from a communal flat, round loaf and washed down with a Shymkentskoye.

Begrudgingly moving on again after my delicious lunch, I grabbed a beer and walked into the stands to secure a seat for the games. Similar to a sporting event elsewhere, the participants took the field, though on horseback since these were the Nauriz games, and the crowd rose to its feet and hummed along to the national anthem. Following the anthem, most of us fair-skinned Americans applied sunscreen to prepare for a few hours of sitting in the warm sun watching Kazakh men, boys, and girls gallop, jump, dangle, whip, and wrestle on horseback.

The first event was horse jumping, similar to what you’d see at the Olympics, over three jumps, each of increasing height. The crowd cheered as the graceful animals and their riders successfully leapt over the obstacles and gasped with fear when the occasional horse balked at the third and most challenging jump.

The next event was a crowd favorite, kyz koo, or kiss the girl. In this event, a girl rider around 16 or 17 years in age must sprint away from her male pursuer who rides a different horse started a few seconds behind. If the male reaches and grabs a hold of the girl before the girl rides past a designated mark, he wins a kiss; and in very traditional interpretations, marriage. But if the girl can outrun her potential groom, on the return run she beats the boy with her whip. The four or five sixty-year-old Kazakh men who sat behind me got a great kick out of this game and it was hard to tell if they cheered harder when the boy won a kiss or the girl beat her companion.

The next couple events required incredible riding skills and strength. The first game was wrestling on horseback where two shirtless riders on their own horses would try and drag their opponent off of their horse. The strategy seemed to be to grab a hold of your opponent’s arm or leg and lean the other way in your saddle while inching your horse to move in the opposite direction of the other horse. After this game was a test of the rider’s balance and leg strength, and how tightly he had fastened his saddle to his horse, as a number of red handkerchiefs were placed on the dirt at intervals of four meters, requiring the rider to ride at a canter or slow gallop and lean down to the ground to grasp as many handkerchiefs as he could. (Picture credited to PCV Kate Reynolds)

Lastly, and with great anticipation, came the roughest and wildest of all the games, kokpar. Kokpar, also called buzkashi in other countries like Afghanistan, requires two teams of about eight riders to muscle, beat, and claw their way towards scooping up a wooly, dusty sheep or goat carcass from the ground and haul it towards the rider’s goal. Meanwhile, all the opposite team’s riders are in pursuit trying anything short of knifing the rider with the carcass to prevent further progress. This game resembles rugby for the scrums of horses inching for position over the carcass and then a horserace when one rider does his best to drag his hard earned prize towards the goal. Dusty, brutal, and primal, if I were a khan I would chose my bodyguards based on someone’s success in this game alone.

As the dust settled for a break in the kokpar match, I slowly left the hippodrome with a full stomach, a tan face, and a mind awash in Kazakh culture. Nauriz is Kazakhstan at its finest and a gem in anyone’s trip to this country whether for one week or two years.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Pictures for All

Happy New Years!
I found public links to my pictures on Facebook, so now anyone can view them, even if you don't have Facebook. I'll include the links to the different albums below.

The Dead of Winter (January 2008)
The Shu Fall (November 2007)
Summer on the Steppe (Summer 2007)
From the First Five (January 2007)

Enjoy the pictures! I'd be happy to answer any questions or comments you have. Just shoot me an email.

Best of luck in 2008!

Monday, September 24, 2007

A Russian Birthday

On the 14 of September we celebrated Babushka’s birthday here in Shu. Maria Vacilevna turned 70 and we had a dozen or so family members and friends over to celebrate the jubilee. It is tradition for friends and family to come and visit the person who’s birthday it is, so the table must be prepared with food and tea for all of the guests.
While Babushka worked in the summer kitchen outside preparing the entrees, her daughter Olga and I were busy chopping pickles, cucumbers, and sausage and boiled carrots, potatoes, and eggs to make salads. One salad we made is called Olivier, a very popular salad in the former Soviet Union. It has all of the ingredients that Olga and I chopped, plus a healthy serving of mayonnaise to bind everything together. Another salad we made has pickles, cucumbers, corn, peas, and cornflakes all segregated into colorful sections on the serving plate with a space reserved in the center for a dollop of mayonnaise. Once the meal has begun one of the guests is given the task of mixing all of the ingredients together before serving the salad.
Shortly after I had brought our salads upstairs to the two long tables in the living room the guests began to arrive. They were mostly family, but also a neighbor from across the street who is a close friend of Babushka’s. Though four of her six other sisters and her one brother still live here in Shu, I had only met a couple of them before. Her other daughter Natatsha and her three children all around my age also came, bringing with them a new oven as a gift for their grandmother. We all stood around outside underneath the grape arbor for a few minutes while Babushka finished the entrees then headed inside to the living room filled with late afternoon sun and took our seats.
With everyone in their places, Babushka and her daughters brought in two or three large pots off the stove outside. The first course was lapsha, a light soup with long egg noodles and some potatoes, onions, and carrots. Everyone was given a full bowl. The second course of farsheroveny piretts was placed on the table in a couple of large bowls. Farsheroveny piretts are bell peppers stuffed with a mixture of ground beef or lamb and rice, then boiled. They are quite fun to cut with your fork, the soft skin easily parting to create precise cross-sections of the stuffed peppers. Cold, baked chicken was also placed at intervals along the tables.
Now that everyone had their food we were only missing one part of the meal; drinks. I was only shortly into my lapsha when the call was given for the first toast. Since I am a guy and I was seated in a chair with easy exit access, I was nominated to be in charge of pouring drinks. A sommelier might have to recommend what to drink but at least gets to easily pour wine into tall, wide-mouthed wine glasses. I however had to pour vodka and cognac into shot glasses one-handed while leaning over peoples’ shoulders, remembering all the while who was drinking what, and without the benefit of those “built-in pourers” advertised on bottles of cheap vodka back in the States. By the time I made it back to my seat I had just enough time to raise my glass and catch the last few wishes of the toast, “…on this jubilee, I wish you health, many successes, and most of all happiness.” Then everyone rose, clinked glasses with everyone within reach, and threw back their drink.
As people slowed with their eating, Anton, one of Babushka’s grandsons, fired up the DVD player with some video karaoke of older Russian songs. I don’t think the video was needed because everyone already knew the words, but it was helpful for me so I didn’t just have to hum the melody. Singing these songs reminded Babushka’s 80 year old neighbor of some other songs, so the karaoke was paused and everyone tuned in to Valentina Pavlovna and the songs she remembered from working in a restaurant here in Shu, including one about the city of Shu and its trains and train station.
Following more karaoke and shots, and eventually some dancing in the open half of the living room, plates were cleared to make way for the cake. The rectangular cake composed of seven or eight thin layers with brown frosting was placed on the table without any fanfare and then I cut everyone slices. People in Kazakhstan do not do much baking on their own, so whereas everything prior in the meal was prepared from scratch, the cake was bought. Along with everything else at the meal, it was delicious. Cups of chai washed down the cake and fresh grapes cleansed the guests’ palates finishing the meal and the celebrations.
Like how I imagined Babushka to be feeling when I saw her smiling out from the head of the table at her family and friends at many points during the meal, I felt extremely thankful be part of such a joyous celebration with family and friends. I thought this celebration was only fitting for such a generous, industrious, and thoughtful woman like Babushka.

Sunday, August 19, 2007


Your requests for pictures have been answered, but you will have to have a Facebook account to view them unfortunately. Due to limited bandwith here at site and a pesky firewall at the Peace Corps office in Almaty this was the only option. So if you are interested, please log onto Facebook and check them out.



It is now nearly August and the fruits and vegetables of Shu are in full bloom. The kitchen garden at my house has already born its crops of cucumbers and strawberries, will soon be giving us bunches of grapes, and is currently serving us one of Shu’s prized products, tomatoes.
The tomatoes here at my house are coming off the vine in the dozens. I’d estimate that close to half of our garden is dedicated to tomato plants so this means we start to eat tomato salads. Often. But these tomatoes are delicious. I’ve been told that the soil in Shu, drier due to Shu’s location on the middle of the steppe, is key to producing these ripe red fruits. And it’s not just the people in Shu tooting their own horns about their gardens. Before I even moved to Shu last November one of the first things people in the Almaty area would reply when I said I would be living in Shu was, “They have great tomatoes.”
This dry climate does sometimes have its drawbacks however. For me, one of the biggest drawbacks is the heat. We feel the brunt of the “extreme continental” weather system with temperatures consistently up in the mid 90s for days on end. During this heat just standing out in the road talking to a neighbor is cause for a bath in your own sweat. I’ve since switched to showering at night.
The heat, thankfully a dry one, also takes its toll on the ground making the air around any unpaved road a fog of dust any time a car drives by. I’m pretty sure the heat also put an end to our cucumber plants as when I returned from America I was surprised to see the once wide green leaves had turned khaki and wilted.
So in the heat and amidst the ripe fruits and vegetables summer progresses here in Shu. I’ve been keeping cool reading in the shade, meeting with one my English clubs in the evenings, and working at summer camps for schoolchildren. One month to go and it will be the start of another school year.
I hope are enjoying your summers and I wish you the best from Shu.


Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Spring in Full Swing

Spring is certainly a beautiful season here in Shu. There are green leaves on the trees and grape vines, flowers are blooming, and there are many high-pitched spring lambs bleating out on the steppe. I must have picked one of the peak days to take a ride across the steppe down to the town of Merke to visit some other Volunteers the other day because the steppe was bursting with red poppies. Lining the road and at times stretching to the top of a hill and over the horizon were thousands of bright red poppies.

Merke is a medium-sized collection of villages totaling about 100,000 people located an hour’s drive south from Shu across the steppe on the same road you would take to Taraz. It is located at the foot of the mountains and is known for its clean air, nature, and its dairy plant. It also has well-developed downtown with a large main street with a large bazaar and a number of cafes. The one my friends and I ate at served some delicious shashleek and samsa from the tandoori. It was a great trip.

Yesterday was May 1st and that meant it was time for another holiday. This was Prazdneek Edeenstva Naroda Kazakhstana or “Holiday of the Unity of the People of Kazakhstan.” A number of teachers, the director of my school, some students and I represented our school at the parade held on the square in Tole Bee, the rayon center just down the road from Shu. All of the organizations of Shu, schools, the railroad, colleges, and others, sent people to hold banners and signs to represent their organization in the parade. We had great weather, clear skies and temperatures in the low 80s, which provided a great backdrop for the groups marching through the colorfully decorated main square in front of a few hundred people and the reviewing committee. After the parade my colleagues and I went to a café for lunch to celebrate.

Great weather, spending time outside with friends, and frequent ice cream purchases would be a way to quickly sum up spring here in Shu. Three more weeks of classes then school is over for the year. So within all that I’m still busy with work, making summer plans and shaping long-term plans for some of my other work here in Shu. That’s all for now.