I have now left Kazakhstan and returned to the USA. This means that I will soon be closing down this blog. However, before I do so, I wanted to share some valedictory thoughts.
One the flight back I had a good think about my favorite and least favorite aspects of my life in Kazakhstan, what I expect in the immediate term to miss, and what I will be just as happy to leave behind.
I will miss:
Grocery shopping in proper markets. I am no stranger to bargaining, but this year was the first during which haggling over the price of lemons, dill, melons, eggs and sausage was a weekly occurrence. It meant working for my food, in a sense, and I came to really appreciate this chore as a feast for the senses. At least in the spring and summer, the bazaar offered a riot of flavors, smells, and tastes. I don’t believe I really knew how cucumber tasted before coming to Kazakhstan. Perhaps the vegetables’ exceptional quality was the consequence of being handled by the weathered, dusty hands of the Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Tartar, Uighur, and Uzbek grandfathers and grandmothers working the market stalls.
The Zailisky Alatau Mountains bordering Almaty to the south. Anyone who has lived in the city and has two functioning eyes in his head (or has, as in my case, heavily corrective visual aids) will tell you that the snowcapped, craggy range is Almaty’s outstanding geographic feature. The mountains featured in one of my earliest blog posts, and they continued to be a source of inspiration and enjoyment throughout the year. They are both majestic and accessible.
The weather. The weather features heavily in discussions about and usually as a negative factor: winters are too cold; summers are too hot. My blog is also guilty of indulging in this habit. But the reality is that Kazakhstan’s climate need not detract from one’s enjoyment of the country. The English talk ceaselessly about weather, and in so doing they are stretching the limits of what there is to say about drizzle. In contrast, Almaty has exciting weather. Kazakhstan has climate with character. I will miss the crisp winter mornings and languid summer evenings as much as the perfect spring and autumn afternoons, when individual leaves on the trees stand out against the pellucid sky.
Shashlik. Shashlik is meat roasted on a metal skewer, but is distinguished from barbeque is the USA, kebab in Turkey, and chuar in Northern China by its dense, smoky flavor. My favorite shashlikhana was little more than a converted garage with a fancy tarpaulin for a roof. As far as I ascertained, its menu consisted only of lamb, beef, chicken, duck, heart and liver (I don’t know of what animal) shashlik; fresh Kazakh draft beer; simple salads of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, and dill; chopped onions; bread; tea. The restaurant was never fully stocked despite being consistently crowded; many nights they ran out of either tea or beer (never both). I failed to discover the secret ingredient in the shashlik, although the best shashlik is supposedly grilled over an endangered species of steppe juniper.
I will not miss:
Horsemeat. I tried it, tried it again, and tried it again after that, so no one can say I didn’t give it a fair trial, but it just is not for me.
Being forbidden to help with any of the cleaning of cups or dishes because I am a man.
I fully intend to import to the USA:
Drinking vodka as it was meant to be drunk. Westerners learned to drink vodka in martinis, and American university students to drink it lukewarm out of plastic cups with orange juice, but no one living in a vodka-dependent country drinks it this way. My Korean-Kazakh friend taught me a better method: in shots poured out of a frosty bottle, chased by herring or black bread, and consumed alongside warm green tea. This is a recipe for a relaxing evening and an almost hangover-free following morning. Look out friends.
Hunting with eagles. Who needs guns for either hunting or protection when this is your pet? I think the NRA has missed the boat on this.
The Russian language’s colorful array of interjections and swearwords, which have an impressive and impressively gradated range of offensiveness and impact. The most useful is “blin’,” which is used like “shoot” or “darn” but is less hokey. Blin’ literally means pancake (as in blini, which is the plural) and came to have this meaning because the first blin’ of the batch always burns in the pan. I won’t share the more colorful words I learned.
I plan to return to Central Asia in the near future, so my premature nostalgia and respite are both equally temporary. Until then, however, I will do my best to practice those habits I appreciate, purge myself of those I don’t, and keep alive the memories of my amazing adventure.