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Almaty

A roadside watermelon vendor on my street. The way fruit is meant to be sold

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.

My brother with a trained hunting eagle. Childhood nightmare?

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.

Earthquakes.

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.

Squatting.

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.

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A sign announcing the new bus fare

Since the beginning of the summer there’s been a rumor that the cost per ride on public buses and trams would jump from KZT 50 (UDS 0.33) to KZT 80 (0.53). While the rise is small in absolute terms (20 US cents), it is a 60% increase in what is for many a daily necessity. But week after week nothing changed. Then, last week, plain and unofficial-looking A4 pieces of printer paper sellotaped inside buses announced the long-awaited increase. The change went into effect yesterday, 23 July (although that didn’t stop some opportunistic bus conductors accepting KZT 80 from me late last week, when I thought the fare hike had already gone into effect).

My friends who have been in Almaty longer than I tell me that it wasn’t so long ago that buses cost KZT 40, meaning that the price has doubled in the last half decade. Government statistics estimate national inflation at 8% annually. To the best of my knowledge, the state does not release inflation statistics for individual oblasts or cities, but I would assume that inflation is even higher still in Almaty and Astana – the two cities in which the vast majority of Kazakhstan’s economic wealth and growth thereof appears to be concentrated. I have no way of gauging what the rate in Almaty might be, but I have anecdotal evidence that the rates are frighteningly high.

I buy a loaf of bread about once a week, and have been doing so since I moved to Almaty just shy of a year ago. Kazakhstan’s bread is good, hearty and tasty, especially compared with the British bread I was eating last year. As the secondary breadbasket of the late Soviet Union, quality bread is perhaps unsurprising. But it is therefore surprising that the cost of my favorite type of bread (borodinski, a black rye bread popular throughout the former USSR) went from KZT 68 to 92 – a 35% increase.

Last winter, the price of one portion of good döner kebab (in Kazakhstan, this means shaved lamb meat, pickles, tomatoes, onions, soggy fries, a red sauce and a white sauce in a wrap and briefly grilled on a George Forman-style “grill”) rose 25% to KZT 500. The proprietors of my favorite döner stand told me that this reflected increases in the cost of meat. Before the 1990s, Kazakhstan was the leading exporter of meat to other Soviet Republics, but this industry collapsed along with the economy in the 1990s and has never fully recovered. If I recall correctly, heads of livestock only recovered their 1980s levels in the early 2000s – which obviously means it is lagging behind population and demand growth as carnivorous Kazakhs become wealthy and larger consumers of meat.

Then, just a couple weeks ago, a businessman with years of experience in Central Asia pointed out to me that vegetable prices are also shooting up. The reason: Kazakhstan used to import veggies from Uzbekistan (as well as China), but the Uzbek government has (supposedly) closed down its greenhouses in order to reroute the power and gas resources used by Uzbek winter and off-season farmers to Chinese consumers. Kazakhstan is compensating by expanding its own greenhouse agriculture practices, but the higher cost of production in Kazakhstan and the lag in transition mean that increased prices are unavoidable.

There are two stories being told here; the first is about food security, which is a huge issue in Central Asia, but one about which maybe I’ll write a chapter in my hypothetical future book. The second is about inflation and Kazakhstan’s financial security. Inflation is itself destabilizing: it causes popular low-level discontent, exaggerates economic inequalities in societies, and may weaken Kazakhstan’s position relative to its looming neighbors, Russia and China. Since the early 2000s, Kazakhstan has done a good job of painting itself as the rock, the island of stability, in a volatile region. Inflation hasn’t yet reached levels where I need to get hysterical about the situation, but it does give me pause.

I am also concerned about inflation in Kazakhstan because of what I presume to be the driving source of the upward pressure: oil and mining. Now, I’m no economist, and I run the risk of misunderstanding causes and effects, but I believe that consumer goods inflation reflects the growing pool of money sloshing around Almaty. The political impact of resource wealth like that possessed by Kazakhstan and concentrated in the hands of narrow segment of society (as it is here) are well-studied, and I worry that Kazakhstan might not follow the Norwegian example, as it should, and instead become another petro-state (if it isn’t already). Certainly, there is already a degree of corruption, inefficiency and imbalance in Kazakhstan, but it could get much worse. So far, Kazakhstan seems like it has been reasonably well managed, and I hope it continues to be. Does the extra 20 cents I paid for my bus ride today bode ill?

If I’ve been delinquent in my blogging responsibilities, it is because my summer in Almaty has kept me very busy. So busy, in fact, that I drove my body into the ground, and I am now laid up at home on antibiotics and painkillers, recovering.

Falling ill precipitated my first interaction with healthcare since I came to Kazakhstan. I’ve written before about my hesitations regarding medical facilities and knowledge in the country, and for this reason I confess to having gone to the fancy, expensive foreign clinic to be looked over. But I feel I had good cause. I learned earlier this month in a cocktail party conversation with a USAID employee that Kazakhstan, similar to the other Central Asian countries, has among the highest rates of HIV transmission in hospitals anywhere in the world. This is because of bad practices with syringes and blood. Supposedly (again, this is a ‘fact’ coming from a casual conversation, but with a professional in the field) only 50% of blood slated for transfusion is screened for blood-borne diseases.

I was prescribed my medications without any jabs or transfusions, so I’ve avoided the major risks of my hospital visit. However, the facts above, in conjunction with some other statistics I’ve learned from various sources and conversations over the last few weeks (and not all independently verified, by the way), have served as a wake up call for me about: first, the gap between Almaty and Astana and the rest of Kazakhstan; and 2, the unseen problems challenging even the ‘developed’ parts of Central Asia.

The other statistics I heard were:

  1. Kazakhstan has the third highest young adult suicide rates in the world, behind only Russia and Belarus, and, according to Wikipedia, as of 2010 (although some figures are older) had the fourth highest absolute suicide rate in the world, trailing Lithuania, South Korea and Guyana.
  2. Supposedly heroin is cheaper per dose than a new syringe in Central Asia, leading to lots of shared needle use in among drug addicts. This explains the fact that…
  3. Kazakhstan, along with its regional neighbors, is one of the few places in the world in which the HIV/AIDS infection rate is still growing, and in fact has one of the fastest growing HIV populations in the world. This superlative is mitigated somewhat by the fact that the infected population is relatively low to begin with (a fast rate of expansion is easier: 75% growth in a population of 4 is only 3 new cases; the same rate in a population of 160 requires 120 new infections), but is shocking nonetheless.

I am shocked because these statistics do not resonate with the city and country as I’ve experienced it, which appear to be on the up and up even outside of Central Almaty. What the facts tell me, though, is that I’ve been somewhat complacent in my explorations and adventures. I’ve become very comfortable in Almaty, and I take for granted the creature comforts that this city – which I heard a US Foreign Service type refer to as “the best kept secret” – offers to foreigners with disposable income. But it comes as no great revelation that expats, including myself, mistake the city’s superficial and cosmetic accomplishments for real improvements in quality of life and social welfare. While they were still in Kazakhstan, the Peace Corps folks liked to tell Fulbright grantees living large in Almaty like myself that we didn’t know or hadn’t really experienced Kazakhstan. This is preposterous on one level because, well, if I’m not in Kazakhstan, then I don’t know where I am; but on another level, I am sympathetic with their frustration at people confusing the part for the whole, and perhaps misjudging the part at that. Even after the better part of a year here, it is very hard for me to say what is going on here, where the country is going, how people feel about their circumstances, etc.

It is unlikely that, in my last month in the country, I’m going to strap on my hiking boots and set out for the “real Kazakhstan” (perhaps an imaginary analog to Sarah Palin’s “real America,” but you get the idea). I say “unlikely” not because it would be hard, but because I really have come to appreciate my creature comforts, and I don’t want to set off on an expedition in the summer heat. Instead, I am taking comfort in the idea that I’ll be back after my Fulbright research is over. That I raise these (and many other) doubts about my experience now means that I have questions to answer in the future.

USA v. Kazakhstan

Fresh raspberries. I ate one whole tub this evening. With a little cream.

And the living’s easy.

Summer has come to Almaty, and that means so have two of my favorite things: fresh raspberries and outdoor water polo. People pick the berries at their suburban or rural cottage (dacha) and then have grandma sell them in plastic tubs on the street for a few dollars a tub. They are sweet and tender, as raspberries were probably meant to be. The pictures of water polo are from the USA v. Kazakhstan match, which the USA won 11-8 (give or take a point). I consider this revenge for the winter’s bandy match. The Central Pool doesn’t have a terribly original name, but it is a really beautiful facility: 50-m with a 30-m all-deep section for water polo. The pool is framed by Almaty’s mountains in the background, which impart a sense of the dramatic. Someone joked that the US players must have felt strange getting on a plane to Kazakhstan because it is such a remote location (and because of “Borat,” of course), but I imagine even they, who train at Stanford, would respect the Almaty pool. I’d love to swim in it, but day passes are USD60 a pop, and the Fulbright is not that generous.

All through the winter, friends have been promising me that summer is the best time of year in Almaty. There is certainly a life to the city that I haven’t experienced before; people are far more athletic and active than I’d believed, and there are a fair number of outdoor activities of which I hope to take advantage in the next two months.

The lesson for today, kids, is that France is pretty clothes.

Friday at the museum, everyone was wearing their sparkliest polyesters. The occasion was the opening of the new exhibition “Pearls of France,” which is a show of French art through the ages sponsored by the Elysée Palace and corporations with interests in Kazakhstan. Somebody called it “grandiose and epoch-making.” It is an opportunity to see how the French project their cultural heritage unlike any we might have in the Europe or the USA, where we know a bit more about France. We can’t so easily be served Two-Buck Chuck and told it’s Grand cru (we probably could be, but no one dare try anymore).

The show is organized chronologically, beginning in the Medieval period and blowing breezily through periods like “The Age of Enlightenment,” “Romanticism” (Imperial France, roughly 1800-1850), and “Modernity.” Wall text is minimal, and the curators have substituted period music played through headphones in each room as a substitute for explaining context. While this is clever “multimedia solution” – very museum-of-the-21st-century feeling – one gets the sense it was dreamed-up primarily to save on translation costs. Music, though expressive, can also only tell you so much about the founding of the Third Republic.

Jean Daret, “Portrait of the Artist as a Guitarist,” 1636

At the outset of the exhibition, it is announced that the theme of the show is something like “the good life,” which already reveals a lot about how France is choosing to market itself to Kazakhs. The exponents (paintings, prints, photographs, tapestries and sculpture) are chosen to reflect the heights of material cultures and fashions in each period. The early climax of the show is therefore the Baroque period, in which lots of mildly cross-eyed women in improbably hats prance in Watteau-esque fantasies. But of course they don’t have any actual Watteaus. The French have provided only second-and third tier works, posters and photographs, even if some have famous names (Renoir, Matisse, Cartier-Bresson in the later rooms) attached to them. I know selection in this case was probably a function of insurance, but it comes across more like condescension. We can just imagine a museum director in Paris on a phone with the organizers: “You want to send what where?!

The exhibition’s theme is sitting uneasily with me. The decision was either made by the French side, in which case they are marketing themselves to wealthy Kazakhs as the home of the highlife, land of silky butter and women, or by the Kazakh side, which is perhaps worse. The coordinator on the Kazakh side was none other than Dariga Nazarbayeva, daughter of the President, head of some cultural committees, and amateur opera star. Evidently her cosy relationship with the French goes back a few years. What irks me about the possibility that the luxury focus  of the exhibit was her idea is that it appeals so baldly to the material envy of the aspirational-and-rising upper-middle class of Almaty and no one else in the country. They’ve certainly priced the exhibition as such: whereas normal price of admission is KZT 100 (USD 0.66), the cost of a ticket to “Pearls of France” is KZT 1500 (USD 10). More than any I’ve seen in a long time, this exhibit is bereft of social and educational purpose.

Lucien Guy, “Woman in Profile,” 1910

However, the museum staff are over the moon about the show. I keep hearing: “We’ve never had an exhibition from Europe!” And with a show from Europe came all these European standards and requirements. The French installation team (again, not trusting the locals) hung new track lighting, reinforced several of the walls on which tapestries or heavier paintings would hang, and issued a strict injunction against touching and photography. To comply with this last, the museum has tripled or quadrupled its staff of Old Crones, who seem just delighted to snapp at the young women and children who stroke paintings and sculptures (which does in fact happen a lot). All the pictures included here I took on my iPhone at great risk to life and limb lest an OC come at me with fingers hardened into knives by arthritis. When I asked a young staff member what she thought of the show, she said to me wide-eyed, “They repainted all the walls.” The museum doesn’t have the resources to do that for each new show – and yet we need to know about the good life in Louis XIV’s court?

Admittedly, the show includes some entertaining bits and pieces. I enjoyed the collection of photographs and prints in the 20th-century room, and I’m a sucker for Edith Piaf recordings, even if they are painfully predictable. I am also thrilled that the Kasteyev museum staff have pulled off such a publicity coup and, as they say, received an exhibition from Europe. With any luck, this will be the first of many, and the next will be better. “Pearls of France,” however, is a flop in my eyes. As I look around the halls, this pervading but evasive snobbishness haunts my peripheral vision. Even the Frenchman who wrote the lone critical essay in the very pretty catalog can’t muster the energy to be enthusiastic or interesting – his essay is just a recitation of the basics of French history possibly cribbed from Wikipedia. Had Americans done this, at the very least the show would be more successfully fun.

Photo of the May 1968 riots, inclusion of which seems like the bravest (or most clueless) decision of the show.

Evening concert and fireworks at Astana Square

Wednesday was Victory Day (День Победы, Den’ Pobedy), a public holiday across the former Soviet Union commemorating the end of the Great Patriotic War (aka World War II. Notably, the dates for the Great Patriotic War are always given as 1941-1945, which correspond to the Soviet conflict against the Fascists. All the inconvenient “stuff” prior to 1941, like the Molotov-Ribbentropp pact, is left out of the history). Celebrated on 9 May, the day the Germans surrendered to the Soviets, Victory Day is used to honor living and deceased veterans. Those surviving don their old uniforms and, chests heavy with medals and honors, and are escorted by their children and families to the war memorial; everyone else gives gathers to give the veterans flowers and thank them for their service.

Comrade Joe Stalin makes an appearance

This is my first time celebrating Victory Day, and it is an incredible throwback to Soviet times. As one friend remarked: “Oh, so this is what is was like.” The morning began with a flower-laying ceremony at the Eternal Flame in front of the local war memorial. Banners in Russian and Kazakh unabashedly displayed the hammer and sickle. Several veterans waved the Communist flag. Good old Uncle Joe Stalin even made an appearance – in portrait form. In the evening there was an orchestral concert of Soviet marches and hymns in Astana Square in front of what was the former Communist Party HQ (now the Kazakh-British Technical University). Clips of Soviet war films were projected onto a giant screen behind the stage. People of all ages were there singing along to their favorite old tunes. Even I knew some of the words.

Two things struck me as odd about this event. In the first place, it was not only very Soviet, but also very Russian. Although Kazakhs served in the Red Army, and Kazakhstan itself was integral to the war effort as the home of relocated industries and the breadbasket of the USSR while Ukraine was overrun, the majority of the veterans Isaw were ethnically Russian. Furthermore, the days events were by and large (although not exclusively) conducted in the Russian language, which is unusual these

Veteran holding a flag for photos

days for major public celebrations. In the second place, I was surprised that there is not more animosity, or at least ambivalence, among the population of veterans in Kazakhstan towards the USSR. It is my understanding that Soviet POWs returning from Axis camps were after the war sent to the corrective labor camp in Kazakhstan (part of the famous Gulag system) for fear that they had succumbed, in effect, to Stockholm Syndrome. This is how many of the non-Kazakh veterans – although admittedly probably not that many of those still surviving – ended up here to begin with.

These things aside, however, I very much enjoyed and respect the celebration. We have analogous holidays in the USA, but not nearly to the same extent. The politics of various wars aside, we could do more to honor those who have served and their memories. Moreover, the purpose of the holiday has expanded to recognize not only veterans, but also the elderly in general. As one young Kazakh guy told me, Victory Day is “a day for our grandfathers.” The cult[ure] of youth in the US being what it is, I appreciated that a day is set aside in the public calendar for Kazakhstanis – as well as people across the former Soviet space – to recognize the various contributions of their forebearers.

Great Patriotic War monument in Almaty

The numbers on my door.

James C. Scott, who teaches at Yale and whose works I read extensively in my Masters program, writes about the “legibility” of societies, by which he means the government’s ability to locate and measure all of the territory and population over which it is sovereign. In his conception, as I remember it several months on, the process of rendering a society legible involves dividing and defining space, time and population subcategories (through tools like censuses and maps, about which Benedict Anderson has written most influentially, and also through cadastral surveys and orderly urban and agricultural planning) and the purpose is to give the state “panoptic” control over its sovereign possessions. It also helps with the levying of taxes.

Kazakhstan is arguably the least legible society I’ve ever lived in. This isn’t saying too much, since I have lived in Hong Kong, Beijing, New York and Cambridge, England. These are hardly the “wilds.” However, it was nonetheless surprising to me because part of the Soviet high-modernist project (Scott’s phrase here) was precisely to render society into a unified, productive machine, which of course required that all of society be legible. By way of example, unemployment in the Soviet Union was referred to as “parasitism.” (The term also extended, mind you, to artists who were not officially employed as such full-time.) As a corollary to the USSR’s super-legibility, the Soviets were also fanatical note-takers and filers. Soviet archives are treasure-troves.

Kazakh appears to me to be “illegible” in little, perhaps insignificant ways. Take, for example, that I live in apartment 85 not on the 8th floor of a building of 39 independent apartments. Friends of mine in another building live in apartment 46, which is on the 3rd floor: across the hall and up one floor from apartment 45. The street number system is also inconsistent: although most streets use the “American” numbering system (odd numbered lots are on one side of the street, evens on the other, and both sets increase as you move in one direction), at least one street uses the London system (numbers increase going up one side of the street, cross to the other side at the end and then continue to rise as one returns to the start). Needless to say, finding anything in the winter can be excruciating.

These foibles of management, as I’ve taken to thinking of them, seemingly penetrate into all spheres: excess employees with no work to do; the impossibility of printing anything unless you have access to a relatively upscale office; restaurants advertising food they don’t have or running out of tea when too many customers appear; whole computer networks at institutions so riddled with viruses that it is inadvisable to transfer any files off the system. In May 2011, when I first came to Kazakhstan, there were new street signs designed for pedestrians at intersections. Those were removed in the summer such that by the fall of 2011, the only street signs are again those for cars, which are positioned such as to often be hard for pedestrians to read. Why would the city take down perfectly useful signs?!

Of course, some of these problems result from deficits of resources and funding, but many are simply inefficiencies that no one cares to resolve. I suspect (and here regular readers can hear the sound of familiar hooves approaching) that many of my perceived inefficiencies date from the Soviet era, when efficiency was never paramount, and that the system has perpetuated these for its own reasons. It is, I imagine, easier to be corrupt or to hide in Almaty than in Chicago. These quirks are, however, unmistakably a source of Almaty’s charm – as long as you don’t have anywhere to be in a hurry.