Sunday, November 18, 2012

Kazakhstan - Days 3-I Don't Even Remember Anymore

Hello patient readers! As you may have guessed, my silence on here has been a combination of nonstop work plus ensuing exhaustion plus terrible internet "access." But I've been in a gorgeous hotel for the past two days with fast wifi and I STILL haven't written. What gives? What's wrong with me? give you a clue, I've nodded off twice since I started writing this post (NOT including photos) and it's only 6:00pm!

I have so much to say about my perceptions of this country and all the insights I've had but I think most of those thoughts and blog posts will have to occur later, after I've returned home.  I have SO MUCH more empathy for what my students go through when they deal with international airports, transportation, simple things like trying to buy groceries, all while not speaking the language.  I'm inordinately  proud of myself for today's triumph - walking (in the high speed frozen winds and snow) to a local florist and purchasing a huge, gorgeous display of flowers for the woman who works for the US Embassy Public Affairs office who put together this whole program.  Oh!  Not only did I find the place, pick out the display, and buy the flowers, but communicate with the woman that I shouldn't walk back to the hotel w/ these delicate flowers in the freezing wind tunnel.  So I also managed to flag a gypsy cab and get the flowers back to the hotel in time to present them to Maira at the opening ceremony for our big college fair.  I'll explain the gypsy cabs later - it's how everyone gets around this country.

I feel like I should explain all the incredible parts of this trip that I haven't been able to capture in photos but that will also have to happen later.  I'm almost late to meet our group for dinner - traditional Kazakh restaurant that we found last night.  I finally broke down and ate the national dish - horse meat w/ homemade noodles.  While the meat tasted quite good, actually....I still couldn't QUITE get on board.  I must admit, there was still that mental block.

Okay, okay....I've only got ten min. left before I'm due to meet everyone for dinner.  GOD!!  I have so much to share still....hotel reviews, interpersonal group dynamics drama that's inevitable when there are people thrown together and forced to work and travel together under strained circumstances.  The INSANE architecture of this last city (Astana)....It's all forthcoming.  And it was also important to me to unload a ton of photos on y'all.  Half of these were taken through the dirty windows of our shuttle buses as we drove from one school visit to another.  The only time I have free to walk around and take photos is late at night.  This  IS a work trip after all. we go:
The big mosque  next to our hotel in Atyrou, the first city we visited.  Atyrou is near the Caspian Sea but we didn't get to see it because we were too busy and didn't have anyone to drive us there.  Atyrou is a weird place.  I'll have to get to that later order to say everything I want to. 

Another thing about Atyrou - the Ural River divides the town and also, apparently, Asia and Europe.  So there's a gazebo on each side of the bridge letting you know which continent you're in. 

View on down the Asian side of the river....this is what a lot of Atyrou looks like - industrial and well...boring.

Yup, Asian side.

After Atyrou we went to Almaty, the city that was the capital of Kazakhstan until 1997.  Here's some background in case you don't want to click that Wikipedia link - Almaty was a big trading center on the Silk Road.  It's also, in my opinion, more like the Philadelphia (only because it's also a former capital) or New York City of Central Asia than the "Paris of Central Asia" as I'd referenced earlier. 

We were in Almaty only two days but luckily the first one was sunny and we could see the mountains.

Our hotel in Almaty was kind of disappointing (especially in comparison to the really nice places they put us up everywhere else - amazing how quickly a girl can get used to luxury accommodations!) but it DID have a balcony and this was the view from my balcony.  The big round building to the left is a circus and at night it's lit up green.

This is looking straight out my balcony.  I never saw the Ferris Wheel up and running, probably because it's the beginning of Winter here.
See that lovely smog?  The one afternoon that I got to spend running around the city this smog got into every pore in my face and strand of my hair, not to mention every fiber of my coat.  I thought the sick, chemical smell would never come out.

See?  Balcony.  Nice.

View of an indoor market in Almaty.  If you wanted to buy crappy pots and pans and overpriced coats all made in China - this was your place!  Not so good for a group of American women who were looking for locally made things.

This is Baerbel and she works for the University of Delaware.  She's also mostly a vegetarian so you can only imagine what she's thinking here.

There are many delicious breads in Kazakhstan - as evidenced here.

I'm still mad at myself for not at least trying on that pink coat w/ the fake fur.  I loved it so.

Ooooh - this woman got SO pissed at me for taking her photo.  She pointed and snarled at me, even though I did it quickly and I hoped surreptitiously.  The one time I played the stupid American card!

This is the amazing and bring Zenkov Cathedral in Panfilov Park, right near the Green Market where we hopelessly shopped for handmade things. 

Woman feeding the pigeons (very necessary might not have been able to figure that out on your own)

Possibly my favorite photograph of the whole trip.  Look at her sweet face!  The pigeons were out of their minds with excitement too.

Yeah, yeah...some big square in downtown Almaty.  Jennifer and I split off from the other two and had a whole adventure in the city, walking around in the nonstop drizzle that was more than a drizzle at times.  We took a bus to what we thought was close to our hotel but wasn't at all....we ran across huge roads, praying for our lives (no such thing as pedestrian right-of-way here), and finally took a gypsy cab only to arrive back at our hotel EXACTLY as our taxi was leaving for the airport.
The other view of this square in Almaty.

My adventure buddy.  She teaches English and Writing at a small private college in Salt Lake City.  She's wonderful.

When we arrived in the capital city of  Astana it was covered in snow.  THIS was the Kazakhstan I expected to see.  This is the Nur-Astana Mosque, the largest in  Central Asia.

You can probably imagine, from those cranes to the right, how this city is constantly being built up....newer and fancier buildings every day.

Mosque again.  Doesn't it remind you of the Taj Mahal of Kazakhstan?

The Shabyt Astana, or Palace of the  Arts.  This is a side view.  From the front it looks like a giant dog bowl.  I thought I was alone in thinking this until, when searching for the actual name of this building, I googled "dog bowl building Astana" and found tons of pages referencing the likeness. 

This architectural and engineering marvel is the Khan Shatyr.  It's Astana's newest (opened in 2010) and biggest and fanciest shopping mall.  Yes, it's a mall.  They wanted it to look like a floating tent.  You can see it at night from almost anywhere in the city, glowing purple with sparkles of flashing light coming from within.  Inside it's even crazier - at least four levels.  The top level has a private BEACH that you can pay to visit and sit in the sand and artificial ocean experience.  There are amusement park rides and just about any shop you can imagine.  We did a college fair on the ground level.  I know I've overused this word to the point of ridiculousness, but it was insane.  I still don't know why anyone thought it would be a good idea to cram 20+ colleges and universities into a tiny square of tables in the middle of this wild mall.  It's not really the ideal environment for recruiting serious students for studying abroad.  But it was an unforgettable experience. 
This is from the 4th level of the mall looking down

And looking up into the center of the "tent."  You can see people riding on the little tram that takes you all around the inside edges of the mall up to the right there.

A restaurant inside the Khan Shatyr

I'll try to upload more photos and add more of my thoughts....just as soon as I get a moment's peace!

Much love to you all!  I leave Astana this evening, fly into Frankfurt.  Spend the night in Frankfurt, fly to Dallas in the morning and will finally arrive back in Fayetteville around 6pm tomorrow.  Then the day after that I'll get in  car with my grandmother, sister, and daughter and drive the 4+ hours to Hot Springs for a family reunion/Thanksgiving.  I can't wait to see my family!!!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Kazakhstan - Days 1 & 2

Well I'm definitely here!  Today was insane.  There is a group of about 15 of us here representing different American colleges and universities.  Starting at 8:00 am we visited three college prep high schools, giving short presentations on our particular schools and having little mini college fairs, an oil and gas company where we met with executives and managers who are interested in either sending their children or relatives to U.S. schools, and then a public library where we met with a group of English language students and gave short presentations and then answered questions.  All in all we finished after 6pm and didn't even stop for lunch.  But it was fun and the students were all very cute and sweet.  My boss and I wore Razorback hats so everyone wanted to have their photo taken with us.

Kazakhstan sits on some of the largest oil and natural gas reserves in the world, but it's also a former Soviet country now struggling with adjusting to quasi-socialism/capitalism.  Driving through this city (Atyrou) is a trip because we'll pass blocks and blocks of dirty, crumbling concrete-block construction apartments with clotheslines hung with freezing, smoggy clothes strung across balconies and then suddenly we'll pass a gated community with huge Italian-style villa mansions.  The oil and gas company we visited today was interesting.  It's a huge, shining clean building with armed guards patrolling outside.  We had to show our passports at three different checkpoints, have our bags checked outside AND inside, go through a metal detector and then finally were given visitors passes that we had to scan to get up into the offices.  It was also the only place I saw that had lush green grass growing.

We passed over the bridge that separates Europe and Asia several times during our transits between schools today.  That might surprise some of you geography nerds.  You thought that happened only in Turkey?  Nope, apparently the Ural River also separates Europe and Asia.  At each end there is a commemorative gazebo labeled either "Europe" or "Asia" in gold letters in English, Kazakh, and Russian. 

The students are all very cute, as most eager, sweet teenagers tend to be.  Kazakh people look very Eurasian....duh...probably because they are.  But I think I pictured Russian-looking people in my head before I came.  And yes, of course I know Russians from Siberia and Far East look Eurasian also...because they are.  The girls tend to all have gorgeous, very long black hair.  Because of the weather coupled with the desire to still be fashionable, women here wear fantastic boots, tights, skirts, and fur coats.  I've been in a constant state of boot envy.

I've only eaten traditional Kazakh food once and it was delicious - it was a handmade thick noodle with meat (I think definitely wasn't horse, the national meat of choice) and peppers.  The breakfast here at the hotel is quite the spread - eggs both scrambled and poached, at least six different kinds of meat, muesli with various toppings, at least seven or eight varieties of breads, cold cereal, juices, salad with toppings like cucumber, carrots, olives, and cornichon pickles, and several cheeses.  It doesn't start to get light outside until after 9:00am so it's very odd to be eating this huge breakfast when it's still pitch black outside.

Next to our hotel is a huge, four-story shopping mall that contains like 15 women's clothing stores that appear to basically sell the same things, a huge beauty-supply store, a move theater, ONE single fast-food restaurant and a supermarket.  In the big stores you must check any bags you have at the counter.  They have a wall of lockers inside each of these big stores and you must put your bags in one and they hand you a key so you retrieve your things after you're finished shopping.  The big supermarket is like a smaller Wal Mart, with everything from kitchen wares to soaps to alcohol and of course food.  There are many varieties of canned meats, with canned fish and canned horse meat apparently the most popular.  I still haven't managed to work up the gumption to eat horse yet...but I think I will, because I like to at least TRY the national dish of a place.  Plus, I've been reassured by some of my colleagues on this trip that horse is very lean and not as strongly flavored as say lamb.  And I like lamb.

The woman Myra who put together all these fairs and visits is amazing.  She works for the Public Affairs office for the US Embassy in Astana, the capital city.  Her brother Yellan lives here in Atyrou and he's given us rides to a few places.  He's so very kindhearted and sweet to us (by us I mean my boss and my new friend, an English teacher from a small school in Salt Lake City...we've already become our own small group within the group)....I learned later he left his job in the middle of the day yesterday for the sole purpose of giving us a ride a few blocks away to a traditional Kazakh restaurant, just to save us from having to eat at Champions, the awful and offensively overpriced "American-style" sports bar in our hotel.  He's an angel.  Today he was driving us from one school to the next (our group is so large that we can not all fit into the van Myra had hired through the we always needed a van plus a car.  I ended up in the car all day, which was fine and very entertaining) and a police officer summoned him over.  Apparently it's against the law to carry three passengers in the backseat.  We felt awful...but of course he wouldn't let us pay for the ticket.  I have no idea how much it cost.  There are quite a few issues with locals taking advantage of visiting Americans.  They get a lot of visitors due to the oil & gas companies I suppose....because I sure can't figure out any other reason why someone would come to this city.  That's terrible but it's true.  One of our colleagues got shaken down...or there was at least an attempt to, when he was picked up at the airport.  When he got to the hotel he realized that a stack of papers, mostly containing our itinerary and his reservation information for the hotels and flights within the country, was missing.  A little while later his gypsy cab driver (who had already tried to charge an exorbitant amount just for the fare from the $100 USD when it should have been no more than $20) returned to the hotel and tried to sell these papers back to Thomas!  Of course WE all know that all he had to do was get into his email and re-print these papers so it wasn't a big deal...but I guess to a conniving local who can't read English well they looked like important papers.  Apparently the local was infuriated that Thomas scoffed at him when he tried to ask for money for them, "But they're your important papers!" the guy said.  Ha!  Nice try man...nice try.  These international recruiters are some of the most seasoned travelers I've ever encountered.  You know George Clooney's character from Up In The Air?  Imagine that but on a much bigger, international scale.  None of these people would ever do something as stupid as leave truly important documents in a vulnerable location like the outer pocket of the suitcase!  I like hearing their battle stories about lost luggage, crazy connections on ghetto airlines, and cross-cultural misunderstandings.  I hope to one day be able to share my own.

It's after 2:00am local time, after 3:00pm Arkansas time.  I need to go to sleep because it's going to be another long day of school visits, a big college fair and then tomorrow night we're flying to Almaty, the city that everyone keeps describing as "The Paris of Central Asia."  Sounds good to me!  Because I think we've been in the Duluth of Central Asia the past few days.  If Duluth were state-controlled.
Without further ado - here are some photos of the past few days.

We had a seven-hour layover in Frankfurt, Germany so my boss and I took the train into the city and walked around.  I'm so glad we did because I FINALLY got to practice my German with native speakers and see a world-class art museum.  Frankfurt is extremely common hub for international travel so if you ever get the chance, do what we did!
A lovely dark green cylindrical building on the bank of the Main River in Frankfurt, Germany
You guys know me by now - you know I love to take photos of architecture.  Like these cool buildings on the Main.

How about a larger view?  What you don't see are the people rowing off to the left, just outside this shot. 

It was still beautiful Autumn in Frankfurt

Requisite artsy shot of cobblestone sidewalk with colorful leaves

Sweet little side street.  SO DARN EUROPEAN!

I absolutely fell in love with the crazy, organic shape of these trees lining the sidewalk

Doesn't this look more like elephant skin than tree trunks?

Almost Dr. Seuss-like

I was so sad to be leaving Fayetteville when it was ablaze with color so I was really happy to see these trees in Germany

Let's just look a little closer, shall we?

I have no idea what this building is but it looks old, beautiful, and very German so that's enough for me!
Here's what the rest of that regal building looks like

The Frankfurt Rowing Society building is mere yards away from the Main River.  You can almost see the couple who got off the river and walked their boats straight into that open doorway. 

Something I LOVE about traveling is deciding to do something just because it presents itself.  As w were walking along suddenly we saw this beautiful big building with a line of people out the door.  Hey, if that many people want inside then I do too!  So that's how we ended up spending our free afternoon in Frankfurt at the St├Ądel Museum

We immediately went to the museum cafe where I had a cappuccino and the best apfel Kuchen (apple cake) I've ever had in my life. 

This museum was astounding in its scope and impressive collections.  Downstairs, devoted to contemporary art, seemed neverending

There's my boss, wandering into the next room.

This was a motorized wheel that pulled strings around in a circle that, as it moved around and around, left circles in the mound of sand and gravel placed right there on the floor of the museum.  I can't remember the artist's name but I'm sure it's the same guy who did a similar piece I saw at a Whitney Biennial, only in that piece the wooden arms had candles on them, leaving ever-growing and hardening circles of wax on the floor.  Like a modern take on a zen garden!

Bad chronicler that I am...I don't know any of these paintings' artists but love the way they're displayed. 

Closer look

This guy was oblivious to those paintings.

My boss again - check out those incredible lights!!

It just went on and was like going to the Met or the Smithsonian when you just have to realize that there's no way you can see it all in one visit so just pick an era and relish it.

The stairs going up to the older works

Something drew me to this painting of domestic workers in 1800s Germany.  I think it was how the dappled shade was so perfectly represented...and seeing this slice of every day life that wasn't often captured in painting. 

So the big exhibit was titled, "Schwarze Romantik" or "dark romanticism"...OR, in other words, about as German as you can possibly get. 

Oh man I loved this Dali.  Who wants to give it to me when I turn 40?

The woman in this painting looks exactly, to me, like my oldest best friend Ginny's mom Eileen.  Or how I always remember here from when we were  young. 

A cool light installation.

I love paintings where there's a lot going on, even if you don't notice it at first.  Just take a look again.  And again. 

I also love paintings that show light the way it really this just post-sunset dusky light  painting. 

Looks like your average orgy painting, right?  This was called "Youth Tempted by The Vices" and was painted in 1664 by Luca Giordano.  Notice anything odd?

That's right...the vices will tempt the youth, apparently, by shooting breastmilk at you!  RESIST TEMPTATION, O YOUTH OF 1664!!

After the museum we walked across a gorgeous big footbridge.  The moment was so perfectly GERMAN, with this guy playing the accordion as we walked along.  I tipped him a Euro and he said, "danke schoen" and I was beyond thrilled to reply (a little too loudly in my excitement of speaking auf Deutsch) "BITTE SCHOEN!"

Lovely lovely

Downtown Frankfurt.  This building is a block or so from the baunhopf (train station)....where we had to go to get to our final destination and further adventure.

Here's where we get to Kazakhstan - I forgot my big camera today so these are all from my phone...please forgive the shoddy quality. 
See the cute girl in the scarf?  She's my new friend from Utah.  Does anyone know what a "knowledge society" is?  Nope?  Me either.  This was at a science and technology based high school where we all gave short presentations. .

From there we visited a trade school that specialized in metals, oil & gas drilling and also, apparently, masonry.

The electrical students

At the trade school we were given a cultural presentation.  This girl is singing the Kazakh national anthem.  I wish I knew what this instrument is called.  She is also wearing a traditional dress and singing beautifully here.  

She played an instrumental song and then two YOUNG couples got up and performed ballroom dance - see below.  The couple with the girl in yellow?  Can that guy be older than like 13?  I can't see how that's possible.  This performance was harder to understand how it played into national Kazakh culture...but whatever, still entertaining:

Hey, who's that tired lady? 

Example of a typical Kazakh meal.  We ate this sitting on a carpet and a big pillow around a low table.  Tea is always served as well.  This is my handmade noodles with meat & peppers with just the right amount of dill.  In the background you can see a salad of napa cabbage w/ tomatoes and cucumbers, also w/ chopped dill, a bowl of borscht, and two types of bread:  a typical small roll and then up to the upper left a pillow-y, soft delicious bread that had to have been fried.  It was all delicious.  And I'm not just saying that because I hadn't eaten all day. 

Our sweetheart driver Yellan wearing the Razorback hat we gave him. 

This beautiful girl was just walking around our hotel lobby tonight and I realized I recognized her from working the front desk last night.  So I guess sometimes her job is to dress in traditional dress and just walk around.  Isn't that hat also straight out of Dr. Seuss?

I ordered a mushroom pizza because I figured there are lots of good wild mushrooms around here.  I figured right.  It was amazing and had no fewer than five types of mushrooms on it. 

So there you have it my friends. Days one and two (I think...they're all kind of blurring together at this point). I'll try to remember to take my good camera tomorrow but I certainly will when we experience the Paris of Central Asia on Thursday and Friday! I love you all!