Last weekend I traveled with four other Fulbright students to the southern city of Taraz. This was my first trip to a smaller Kazakh city, and the experience was eye-opening about the challenges of living outside of Almaty. This is not to say that I didn’t have a fantastic time, however: our hosts and hostesses in Taraz were warm and welcoming, and I am very grateful to Jenna for having invited me.
Contemporary Taraz is a city of about 400,000, give or take, and is the provincial capital of Zhambyl province, to the south and west of Almaty. Having suffered the economic troubles of the 1990s, the city remains a reflection of its Soviet self: several large chemical and metallurgical factories surround a relatively impoverished city center, itself typical of those found in Soviet mid-sized cities. What is most striking about Taraz in the winter, though, is how flat and grey it is. Visually, it was quite a depressed and depressing place.
I only discovered upon my return that Taraz has an incredibly rich history. Based on archeological and written records, people believe Taraz was founded over 1,500 years ago – making it significantly older even the Kiev, native home of the ancient Rus people. Taraz (under a variety of names over time) was a major trade center along the Silk Road for centuries and also the point at which the expanding Chinese Tang dynasty collided with the Arab Umayyads in the 8th century. According to medieval sources, the city was once surrounded by four solid walls and an imposing moat. A scant few architectural remnants of the Perso-Islamic period (in the 12th and 13th centuries) remain.
What I most enjoyed about Taraz, however, was the hospitality. Jenna, a Fulbrighter, perviously taught in the city and has maintained friendships there. As a result, we were invited into people’s homes. In general, Kazakhs rightly take great pride in their traditions of hospitality, but like in any other big city, people in Almaty are less likely to welcome people to their homes. Therefore, this was my first opportunity to be a proper guest. In particular, an older woman named Masha treated us to a long, Uzbek Sunday lunch of homemade lagman (拉面 – la mian or “pulled noodles” in Chinese).
Lagman is, to my knowledge, originally a Uighur or Hui (Chinese Muslim) dish, but it is now pervasive throughout Central Asia, reflecting the constant flow and exchange of peoples and traditions throughout this region. The noodles are pulled from dough, buttered so that they don’t stick together, and then stretched and beaten to resemble linguini or, when a bit thicker, Japanese udon noodles, but with more texture and diversity. They are then served under a soup of meat (lamb or beef), peppers (sweet and hot), tomatoes and oil. Other vegetables added to taste or per regional preference. I’ve had lagman in many places, including in western China, but these were far and away the most delicious.
While we ate, Masha produced a large bottle of Kazakhstan-brand vodka, and we drank and toasted for at least 4 hours. After our meal, Masha forced tea and biscuits on us, plumping us up to withstand the cold Kazakh winter. This also provided me a chance to talk with Masha one-on-one.
Masha, like the lagman, and her family are evidence of the mixing populations and arbitrary – but very serious – borders in this region. She herself was born in Taraz, but is Uzbek; she married a true “Soviet Man” of mixed extraction (Chechen, Kazakh, Tartar), and so her children are pan-Turkic. Her husband and son run a Central Asian restaurant in Moscow, where is it relatively easy for them to gain the right to work as gastarbeiters. She has stayed in Taraz, though, and despite how long she has lived there and how integrated she has become, she told me that people in the new, national Kazakhstan often look down upon her for being Uzbek and “foreign.” A large percentage (perhaps as high as 50%, but at least 30%) of Kazakhstan’s population is not ethnically Kazakh, but this does not stop people from being confused about “the people” to whom the new state belongs.
That evening we attended a charity rap concert. One of our number is an occasional rapper from West Texas, and he was convinced to headline this concert for local youth: except for us, the majority of the crowd were local Kazakhs and Russians under 18, many of them self-styled “hip hop artists” and dressing the part. Evidently I made quite an impression on the young women, as a pair of twins and a third young woman all expressed their love to me! I had to break their hearts, however, because our train back to Almaty left at 10pm.
I think it worth noting that the concert organizers, a local NGO, provided a TV and DVD player to a local old-folks’ home. I wasn’t much help in this effort, but I was really happy both that despite the dire reports written by international rights groups, civil society does exist at a low level in Kazakhstan, and they are making significant and tangible contributions to the lives of their friends and neighbors. It is also cheering that Jenna and Austin helped make this possible.