Lakefront at Kapshagai

This is my last week in Kazakhstan, and I still have so much to share, and even more that I haven’t yet explored. To celebrate the end of my US tax dollar-supported adventure, I intend to post several times this week so that at least my American followers can feel like they got their money’s worth.

Last Saturday I made it out to Kapshagai (alternately Kapchagay), a city on a reservoir along the Ili river. I’ve been hearing about Kapshagai since I was first in Kazakhstan last May, but it wasn’t until this weekend that I finally took the hour-and-a-half, USD 7/person taxi ride. Kapshagai is a popular summer weekend destination for Almaty residents and has been since the reservoir was created in the 1960s by the construction of a dam. “Resorts” and beaches (man-made?) along the banks offer a version of an island vacation in this landlocked desert country. However, the effect is ruined by the old industrial complexes: Kapshagai is also, and has long been, an industry town. The giant tombs of deceased and decaying Soviet manufacturing plants dot the landscape just beyond the beaches.

I suspect the combination of resort and industry is not accidental. Although I don’t know Kapshagai’s history in sufficient detail to make this assertion confidently, I imagine that Soviet rationale dictated that no one was more deserving of water-front relaxation than factory workers, and thus the two worlds should be forced to cohabit this small oases in the steppe. Of course, the plants also likely used the river and discharged effluent into the same.

Kapshagai’s unfamiliar mix is made stranger still by its new mission: becoming “Kazakhstan’s Las Vegas.” Several elaborate but sad casinos with names like “Aladdin” and (bewilderingly) “The Astoria” have popped up along the man road into town. The Strip it is not.

I steered clear of the casinos, but enjoyed a resort called “Freedom.” I’ve long known that Russians on vacation are deserving of sociological and anthropological study, especially as regards what is considered appropriate beachwear, and Kazakhs are little different. Lots of butts and boobs, and lots of really pale Russians baking themselves crimson.

As an antidote to my Kapshagai adventure, Sunday I went with two friends into the mountains south of Almaty. We climbed to a glacier lake at about 3500m in altitude, above the tree-line. The mountain pastures are overflowing with beautiful wildflowers, and the mountain peaks are still draped in their perpetual snows. Although we weren’t entirely alone, it was a much less crowded day. Funnily enough, though, the trek did not provide respite from Russian men in undersized swimwear. It is not uncommon to see a man in hiking boots carrying backpack and hiking pools wearing nothing but a speedo. Sorry I don’t have any photos. I was too shy.

My friend Kitty during our hike to a glacier lake. Time from Almaty: 0.5 hours in a bus, 3 hours walking.


Although I’m supposed to be focused on Central Asia these days, China just won’t leave me alone. A while back I was in contact with friends who work as producers for the US public radio show This American Life; they asked for leads on interesting Americans living in China. While they didn’t end up using material from any of the folks to whom I introduced them, they did produce a really good hour of reporting about the expatriate experience in China. Everyone should be able to stream the show here. I also get thanked at the end, which is exciting and, let’s face it, the real reason I’m posting about this. That’s a joke.

The one thing I will add in order to bring this post back around to my experiences in Kazakhstan is that, like Michael Meyer, I am asked numerous times a day several of a list of questions, usually in this order:
1. Where are you from?
2. Do you like Kazakhstan? (Which is an unfair question, coming from a Kazakh.)
3. Where did you learn Russian? (Usually preamble to: And why don’t you speak Kazakh? Answer: I can’t reproduce either the vowel sounds or some of the hard consonants.)
4. Are you married? (Headache-avoiding answer: Yes.) Where’s your wife? (New York.)
5. Do you like [our] Kazakh women? Why don’t you have a Kazakh wife / girlfriend / service-provider? (Headache catches up to me: I can’t afford two wives, let alone a wife and a girlfriend.)

Almaty being a blessedly and forgivingly small city, this is about as far as the conversation usually gets before I pay and go about my business. In longer taxi-rides, I’ve ended up talking about circumcision, my salary, and (of course) my thoughts about Obama and Putin. One female friend of mine was told by a taxi driver: “If I weren’t already married, I would kidnap you.” We decided this was meant as a complement.

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.

A Soviet ambulance-hearse

One of Almaty’s two dual-purpose ambulance-hearses left over (as best I can tell) from the Soviet period. Who said the Soviets were inefficient?

Although I’m neither particularly knowledgable about nor interested in medicine, Kazakh medical beliefs and the national healthcare system have featured heavily among my conversations since I moved here. From my perspective, at least, local attitudes towards health and treatment are nothing short of bewildering. There are aspects of both traditional, “old-wives-tale”-type prescriptions and proscriptions as well as behaviors lingering from the Soviet period. Many of my discussions with foreign friends attempt to disentangle these two strains and figure out if there are any “merits” (from a Western medical perspective, at least) in the mix of remedies and precautions.

Grandmas will upbraid young women for sitting directly on hard or cold surfaces of fear that doing so will cause the younger woman’s ovaries to detach. Going outside with wet hair or eating cold foods in the winter causes pneumonia, and people looked at me wild-eyed in the winter when I dared step outside without a hat. Most sinister of all, however, is a draft. A skvozniak (сквозняк) through a room can wreak havoc on one’s “organism,” and it is for this reason that in the colder months, especially, there can be no two open apertures in a room. This rule holds true no matter how over-heated the apartment, car or train compartment.

I am lead to understand that because neither patients nor healthcare providers in the Soviet period saw or were responsible for the costs of treatment, medical care was both responsive (as opposed to preventative) and aggressive. When a man entered a hospital in poor condition, the doctors threw the whole kitchen sink of treatments at him, often disregarding the potential negative effects of such physical bombardments. Hospital stays were also prolonged and frequently used by the healthy-but-exhausted as an excuse for a few days relaxation. Workers supposedly checked themselves into hospital in order to catch up on sleep. The result was high rates of in-patient infection. There was also a predilection for injections. Even now, one can get vitamin injections!

I equate the desire for injections to the sounds – the beeps and pings – that computers used to make when connecting by modem to the internet. Those sounds were entirely artificial, but they gave the user a sense of something being done while we waited for AOL or Netscape to load. Getting an injection simply feels medical, and thus doctors go on giving needless injections.

A big problem confronting the medical profession in Kazakhstan at the moment is the low quality of medical education. The education system as a whole is ravaged by corruption: teachers taking bribes, students buying diplomas, and plagiarism by academics and students at almost all levels. Of course this has a negative impact on the country’s human capital as a whole, but it makes one particularly nervous in the medical profession. I was advised that, should I need medical attention, I should find an old doctor with a Russian surname. He or she would have been Soviet trained, and that is (despite what we might think of the Commies) a guarantee of at least some standard of training. Otherwise I might be treated by a doctor who bought his or her medical degree instead of studying.

I don’t really know if it is as bad as all that; knock-on-wood, I’ve not yet been to a hospital here. But I have heard some horror stories, including one young American student returning to the USA after being he diagnosed with cancer based on some flu-like symptoms. Knowing the rumor mill in Almaty as I do, there may be a miscommunication somewhere in the chain of gossips, but I’d rather not put it to the test. I’d be extremely uncomfortable getting into the ambulance-hearse / hearse-ambulance.

A map of Central Asia if it were on the NYC street grid

This morning I was treated (thanks to a link on Alex Kain’s Facebook page) to an interactive map of the world in which longitude and latitude are replaced by a global extension of Manhattan’s grid of streets and avenues. Not only did this make me homesick for the city I love, but by some magic of the cartographer’s art I cannot begin to understand, it also turns out that the “North Pole” in this reoriented map lies in central Uzbekistan. (I live nearby at 46,302nd Avenue and 115,257th Street.)

It would certainly make it easier to navigate the Central Asian steppe if every few blocks there were a pair of signs indicating the coordinates. Of course, not even these would be sufficient to help a contemporary young New Yorker; s/he would nonetheless still need a smartphone map app to figure out north from south, but it would sure beat navigating by the nearest sand dune or hillock.