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.


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.

Our car sunk into some mud while fording a stream. We had to call for help, which took several hours to arrive.

I spent last weekend on the true Central Kazakh steppe in and around the city of Karaganda. I hope to post at least a few times about my trip and this unassuming city, because I found the former so enjoyable and the latter so interesting. Today, however, I am going to post only about the steppe.

I traveled to Karaganda with Ashleigh, a fellow Fulbrighter and PhD candidate in archeology. Ashleigh lived in Karaganda from August 2011 through the long winter months before moving to Almaty, and she needed to return to say her thank-yous and goodbyes. Generously, she let me and another American friend tag along.

Leroy, Victor and Ashleigh in Victor’s office.

On the middle day of our three-day trip, Ashleigh’s academic supervisor in Kazakhstan, Victor, offered to take us out onto the steppe. Victor is an ethnic Russian born in Kazakhstan and has made a career and international name for himself as an expert on the early populations of this area. He is short, pot-bellied, and his is shock of white hair and bright blue eyes stand out against his tanned, leathery skin.

Victor also struck me as the quintessential archeologist: his animation belied his age, and while he seemed distracted and absent-minded in his office, he was altogether different once on the steppe. We drove for kilometers over what appeared to me to be untouched terrain before suddenly stopping and piling out of the SUV. Victor would then stalk around in the grass for a bit, eyes focused on the ground as (Ashleigh explained to me) he kicked over rocks looking for archeological remnants. Then he would call us over and show us, hidden under the grasses or shrubs, an artificial arrangement of rocks marking a grave or structure from (depending on the arrangement) the Turkic period, the Iron Age, or even the Bronze Age. He showed us kurgans, the grave-mounds famous across Eurasia, and identified the value of various geologic formations to the early peoples of what became Kazakhstan.

Descriptions of the steppe tend to focus on its emptiness. Lev Gumilev, perhaps the most famous Soviet ethnologist and anthropologist, described the steppe as “monotonous,” and a 1917 description by one M. Dostoyevsky (no known relation to the famous Dostoyevsky) emphasizes how ethnic Russians felt upon first beholding the steppe:

Travelers, coming to Turkestan from Russia on the Samara-Tashkent railway, as soon as Orenburg begin to feel the influence of Asia. The first thing thrown before their eyes is the incomprehensible steppe—flat, without a single tree; desert, with out any signs of life. Infinite—they stricken by the greatness of death; they are charmed by the beauty and peace. (Quoted in:

However, other observers have seen more potential in the steppe. According to the ancient animistic religion known here as Tengrism, Tengri is the god of the sky, the mother goddess Umai is the earth, and people live between them. The photo above suggests the ideational origins of this creation story.  More recently, the contemporary artist Elena Vorobyeva writes: “The steppe is a huge exhibition space where the artifacts are “shown’.” Indeed, many artists before Vorobyeva have also depicted the Kazakh landscape as a dramatic backdrop or stage upon which histories large and small have been enacted.

Picnicking from the back of our car before it got stuck. We kept warm with vodka – or, at least, I did.

I have found the steppe beautiful since I crossed Mongolia by train in 2004. I was impressed by the expansiveness and temperament of the steppe. There is an almost constant wind, which in the winter months can drive temperatures far down. We were even buffeted in the spring. But with Victor and Ashleigh, I came to see the steppe in a new light. They pointed out to me the varieties of grasses and flowers that each survive the harsh climate in their own way; they explained the ancient geology (that the extensive coal deposits indicate that this was once a forest, and that the steppe is created by wind-borne loess burying mountains geography beneath it); and most of all, they illuminated the cultures of the people who lived here millennia ago. The number of pre-modern graves we spotted during just our one “expedition” made it clear that this land is and has been far from empty for centuries.

Of all the unexpected revelations, however, I was most invigorated by something entirely unexpected: the smell. Artemisia, which smells a bit like sage, and other fragrant grasses grow in patches across the steppe. The spring wind carries their scents to the lucky noses of whosoever happens to be there to smell them.

I should be careful. It is easy to wax lyrical about the steppe after a visit in spring in a comfortable car. As I mentioned, and as the passaged quoted above emphasizes, the steppe is also a very violent and inhospitable place. Ashleigh describes living through the winter in Karaganda with colorful, evocative language, and I am not envious of that experience. Moreover, life on the steppe has never been easy, whether one was a nomad here centuries ago or a labor camp prisoner under the Soviets (the subject of my next post about Karaganda). Even today, maintaining infrastructure in this region is difficult and expensive. Nonetheless, the steppe undoubtedly possesses a remarkable romance.

Looking down on my companions from a hill.

View of Almaty from my window

As I have mentioned before, Kazakhstan and England have in common a love for conversations about the weather. It is a constant and reliable source of either misery or joy, wearisomeness or surprise. “The weather” in Almaty is at once and always both predictable and unpredictable, depending on whatever it is doing that day.

But whatever it has been in the past, and whatever frigid temperatures I’ve reported to you, spring has finally come to Almaty, and it is astonishing how quickly it washes away the winter and all memories of the cold. And not only is it warmer, but for whatever reason, the dense smog that sat on the city has lifted, revealing the mountains just out our backdoor. The city is absolutely stunning right now, as my photographs attest.

The arrival of spring has predictably lifted everyone’s moods. A sense of cheer an bonhomie is palpable throughout the city – that, or I am projecting as much onto everyone I see.

View of Almaty from my office window

Another effect has been to give me a keener awareness of the city’s geography. The city (obviously) sits in a piedmont and, as you may remember, is constructed on a steep but steady northward-oriented decline. In this fine weather, if you put your back to the mountains you can look out across the city and see… nothing, which is in fact the wide expanse of steppe that spreads out to the north almost all the way to Russia.

With the craggy, practically impenetrable mountains to the south and the steppe to the north, it is as if the city has its back against the wall and is watching for invaders. This makes perfect sense, of course, when I remember that Almaty was originally a military outpost for a southward-expanding Russian Empire. Not that I’ve any knowledge of military tactics, but this place would probably be relatively easy to defend, and it backs onto natural fortress into which the Russian soldiers could retreat if need be.

The long and short of this post is that you need not pity me any longer for suffering Kazakhstan’s unforgiving winter.

View of Almaty from my window.

Jeff Foxworthy, eat your heart out: you know you’re a redneck (мамбет, mambet) when you are selling rat poison off-brand zip-lock bags full of asbestos (on the viewer’s left-hand-side of the table, marked “Асбест”) in an outdoor bazaar. This is my favorite picture from Shymkent, and it comes courtesy of my friend Basia Jóźwiak.

Women selling rat poison, chlorium, sulfur and asbestos at the Shymkent market

View of the steppe... in which our car broke down.

This entry reads much more as a diary or travelogue than most. I don’t like simply reciting my adventures, but I think this most recent excursion bears retelling.

22 March was Nauryz (Kazakh: Наурыз), which is the Kazakh spelling of the Persian “Nowruz,” meaning “New Day.” It marks the vernal equinox and the beginning of the new year in the Persianate world. Originally a Zoroastrian festival, its celebration has carried through to the contemporary era in many countries. It is the most important holiday in the Kazakh calendar despite the fact that modern Kazakhstan on the surface has few connections to Iran. The roots of Nauryz in Kazakhstan must be a shared pre-Islamic Zoroastrian tradition and the impact of the Persian empires on all of Central Asia during the spread of Islam and before the Mongol expansion (i.e. 8th to 13th centuries… although I’m not going to vouch for those dates).

Chris and Gabriel, my experienced friends and guides, feasting in a yurt into which we were invited by strangers

The best place to celebrate Nauryz in Kazakhstan is widely held (among former Peace Corps volunteers, at least) to be Shymkent, the largest city in southern Kazakhstan. Like the southern US, southern Kazakhstan is associated with hospitality, religiosity, conservatism, good food and red-necks (Kazakh-Russian: мамбеты, mambety). And like any region known for traditional values, the citizens know how to celebrate a national holiday the right way.

I traveled to Shymkent by overnight train with nine friends of various ages and origins, but most of whom are teaching English in Almaty with a private company. We arrive on Thursday morning – the actual day of Nauryz – and traveled straight to Shymkent’s “Ippodrome” (i.e. the Hippodrome). The Ippodrome is a large, depressed mud field circumscribed by a dirt oval and with bleachers dug into the earth on one side. On Nauryz, though, the Ippodrome comes to life with people selling traditional dishes (meat on a stick; meat in greasy rice; corn and barley in slightly curdled, slightly sour milk; flat nans), constructing and hosting parties in yurts in the parking lot, and spending time with family.

I have never, ever in my life seen so many children in one place. Not even in an elementary school. One of the most noticeable things about Shymkent, especially in comparison to Almaty, is that all women between the ages of 18 and 35 (I didn’t ask – these are eye-ball estimates) is pregnant. I saw pregnant women with four and five children in tow. I saw dads with children hanging off all limbs. You’d think these were the last people on earth and they were doing their duty to save humanity. And In a sense, they are survivors: there aren’t that many Kazakhs on the planet. Shymkent wants to change that.


The highlight, however, was definitely watching kokpar (Kazakh: көкпар, buzkashi in Dari). This game is famous in lore and legend – and the film Borat did a lot to advertise its existence. In essence, two teams of horseback riders compete to drop a 50 kilo (110lbs) sheep’s carcass filled with sand into the opposing team’s mud pit at the end of a mud pitch. It is a cross between polo and rugby, and although I had almost no idea what was going on, it was impressive to watch. At one point, a horse ran full-tilt into the “goal” structure (which is reinforced by rubber tires). The horse flipped heels over head, and it goes without saying that the rider was thrown. Both got up and continued to play.

The next day we traveled to Turkistan, site of the late 14th century mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yassaui, a 12th century Sufi mystic. Timur (aka Tamerlane, of warrior fame) constructed the mausoleum in the poet-mystic’s honor. It stands today as one of the few examples of great Islamic architecture in Kazakhstan.

The crazy thing about Turkistan is the amount of foreign money on display in the middle of the desert. The drive from Shymkent to Turkistan took 3 hours, and our bus passed through a small handful of the most down-and-out farmstead-villages I’ve ever seen. Hardly anything distinguishes the buildings in these “towns” from the earth on which and out of which they are built. They are in some cases tens of miles apart from each other. The people who live in these places, especially in the cold winters and baking summers, are like the bacteria that thrive in the sulfur-rich thermal springs at the very bottom of the oceans: extreme life forms adapted to extreme climates.

Yassaui's Mausoleum

Then, out of nowhere, the nicest building we’ve seen for a hundred miles is the Sinooil (a Chinese oil company’s) gas station announcing your arrival in Turkistan. Then we pass the gleaming steel-and-glass (and thus entirely impractical) new university and clinic facilities, both funded by Turks from Turkey. In the center of town there are new public toilets and vegetarian options on menus (a sure sign you’re not in Kazakhstan). All of this is explained in part by the fact that 3 (or 4, we disputed) pilgrimages to Yassaui’s mausoleum is considered by some Muslims to be equivalent to completing the Hajj. Representation from Western donors was notably absent. This is how we are losing ground.

A cry for help

Despite all of what we’d seen and done, the real treat came next. We drove into the steppe on the straight, flat and pot-holed Shymkent-Kyzylorda highway on our way to Sauran. Our car broke down on the way, leaving us temporarily stranded in the middle of nowhere. See the photo at the top for what “nowhere” looks like. This was the view in all directions except for where the road came and went. We maintained high spirits by spelling things with our shadows.

After a replacement an arrived, we continued to Sauran – an archeological site stranded in the middle of the steppe much as we just had been. But it was not always so. Sauran was a ceramics center along this Silk Road. Now all that is left are crumbling remnants of once robust city walls and an enclosed area littered with medieval pottery shards. Despite the fact that there were obvious archeological digs underway, there was not a single other soul in sight. We had free reign to clamber about and no doubt distort the archeological record. We also enjoyed the sun setting over the steppe as we defended our make-believe new capital against imaginary hordes.

What a way to start the new year!

The walls of ancient Sauran at sunset

Sign on the floor of the Delhi metro notifying passengers that the first two cars are reserved for women.

My itinerary in India left me scant time to blog, and since I returned to Almaty two nights ago, I’ve been struggling to find the best ways to share my trip. A simple chronological recitation would hardly be compelling, especially since my last few days in India were spent at a conference. On the other hand, I wouldn’t presume to “explain” anything about India to anyone. Like a student of Eastern philosophy, what I learned during my first visit to the Subcontinent is that I know nothing about it. But I hit upon a possible solution when I reflected upon the fact that yesterday was 8 March. Let me explain, and bear with me. This might get a bit convoluted. The interspersed photos are of variable relevance to the text.

Late 15th century Lodi Dynasty mausoleum, Delhi

In the CIS countries, including Kazakhstan, 8 March is International Women’s Day, a holiday devoted to celebrating women. On this day (and, it bears saying, this day alone), men assist women in their traditional “duties,” especially cooking. Men also buy the women in their lives flowers and congratulate them – for simply being women and, one suspects, for putting up with men.

“Men” (to generalize) are notoriously poorly behaved in Kazakhstan (and elsewhere, of course, but I am circumspect about addressing cultures in which I’ve not had direct experience). I know several divorced women who are openly relieved about having escaped their ex-husbands: alcoholic, philandering or abusive. If nothing else, demanding and unhelpful around the home. I don’t have any hard statistics, but early mortality rates among men suggest the prevalence of alcoholism. Anecdotes, jokes and “common knowledge” (for what it’s worth) testify to infidelity and domestic violence.

Moreover, gender roles are strict. Ask a room of students if there are any girls who play sports and their eyes grow wide. A few of the girls might blush or snicker. As a man, if I try to clear or wash the cups after one of the endless tea breaks in each workday, I’m tutted and tisk-tisked. “We’re Asian women,” I’m told, even by the ethnic Russians, “We can’t let you clean.” Today, when I asked a store-keeper at the bazaar for a specific laundry powder, she answered directly to my friend Ashleigh.

Early marriage, “bride-napping,” workplace discrimination, discriminatory social expectations… the list of more and less insidious gender inequalities goes on and on. Worst of all to my mind, education and culture have co-opted women into policing their own prisons. The frauenräte. On numerous occasions I’ve had young, educated, upwardly mobile local women recite a variation of the same syllogism:

A. Women are different than men. (Okay. Nod.)
B. Men are strong, assertive; they therefore play sports, work jobs, have lives oriented outside their homes and families. (Okay. Nod, but less vigorously. The subtext is, of course, that they also drink, gamble, whore, leave.)
C. Therefore, women cannot do, cannot be, cannot have those things reserved for the male sphere. (Hold on a second…)

I find this limitlessly frustrating, and it struck me yesterday, on International Women’s Day, that I have spent far more time thinking about gender equity since starting my Fulbright than I ever have before. Admittedly, I’ve never had much of an interest in the subject beyond a relatively uncritical belief in contemporary American “liberal” and “educated” norms. But even as a man, in Kazakhstan I feel a difference in gender relations and equity every day. I’m uneasy in my seat as my PhD-holding colleagues wash my mug; I’m insulted when male guests shake my hand but ignore my female boss’s.

Okay, and here’s where India comes back into the pictures: the strongest thread running through my India trip (and which binds my visit to my broader Fulbright experience in Central Asia) is a nearly constant awareness the variations in gender relations across time, space and culture. I can’t weave my observations into an argument, but I offer several inexpert snapshots suggesting complexity.

Red Fort, Mughal construction, Delhi

I started my visit in Delhi, where the first two cars of every metro train are reserved for women. Ostensibly, this provides a space for Muslim women to travel sans male relative without having to fear violating religious rules regarding eye-contact, etc., but many non-Muslim women also ride in the cars. They’re less crowded, probably smell better, and the risk of male impropriety is obviated.

The metro took me to the heart of bustling, crowded Old Delhi. Having been raised in Hong Kong, I was used to the crush, but the way people (and cars, motorbikes, peddie-cabs, bicycles, hand-drawn carts, cows, dogs) move through space was challenging. There was a distinct fluidity, a lack of order, like a river breaking over rocks, that I was not used to. People in Hong Kong have retained the innate urge to queue. Moreover, in Hong Kong you see many more women on the street.

I took refuge in the Red Fort, much as the Mughal emperors who built and resided there did. Here, as in Jaipur (where I traveled next), I was struck by the incredible material wealth, time and craftsmanship devoted to royal women, to their entertainment and protection. Every inch of some rooms and buildings were covered with the most intricate, detailed, almost obsessive inlay and carving. India was, and may still be, afraid of the flat surface, undecorated wall and empty space. But are the palace buildings in the Red Fort and elsewhere guilted cages or opulent paradises in which consorts and concubines were spared the difficulties and indignities of a woman’s life outside these compounds?

Nanni, Manu and I next to their home

My hosts in Delhi were the warm and wonderful Nanni and Manu, parents of my mentor at Cambridge. Over a delicious Indian dinner, Nanni told me that she does not work. She quickly added, “This is normal in India,” reflecting the belief that stay-at-home-mothers are antique in the West; my own mom, I told her, is also a homemaker and former stewardess – not “flight attendant” – by choice.

In Jaipur, I met with my friends Anna, Amy, and Karen, white Americans all. Without complaining, they made me aware of how few women we were seeing on the streets, the extra stockings or scarves they carted around despite the heat in order to cover up to enter certain buildings, and how they felt more comfortable along certain streets than others. I acted as “bodyguard” on trips to the ATM. Although I am relatively well sensitized to cultural differences and safety concerns, as a skinny, 6’2″ (185cm) white guy who prefers long trousers to shorts, I can move through most spaces without great deal of concern. This was definitely not the case for my female friends in northern India – which is not to say that women there are necessarily suffering, only that moving demands more time and energy.

Two of the highlights of my trip were in Jaipur: the Hawa Mahal (“Palace of Breezes”) and the Amber Fort. Both examples of Rajasthani royal architecture, the former from 1799 and the latter built over centuries, but begun in the 11th century. Both are examples of structures designed specifically to institutionalize gender. The former is famous for its five-storey façade punctured by rows of windows filled in with intricate stone screens. The stone is so delicately carved it looks light, like lace, but their purpose was to mask the princesses looking onto the street.

The façade of the Hawa Mahal

In the third (of four) courtyard of the Amber Fort, nine rooms on the bottom of two floors surround a central open space. In the middle stands an open pavilion. Each of the rooms was for one of the king’s wives; the king himself lived on the second floor and could move through a system of secret passages to any one of the nine rooms below without being seen. This allowed him to pick a partner for the night without the others seeing and becoming jealous. Our guide then enthusiastically told us that the central courtyard could hold 300 dancing girls. The current raj of Rajasthan (who no longer lives in the Amber Fort, but this gives an idea of who might have used these passages and rooms in the past) is 15 years old. His predecessor, his grandfather, recently passed away. He was in his late 80s.

From Jaipur, I flew down to Kochi, Kerala, for the annual Fulbright conference. Kerala is India’s only majority Christian province and, by coincidence, Indian Communists have been strong there for many years. I also saw many more women on the streets (although I am not suggesting that either Christianity or Communism is necessarily responsible for this). Sadly, I didn’t get to do too much sightseeing in Kerala, and as a result I do not have anything much more insightful to say about gender relations in southern India relative to the north.

A street in downtown old Kochi (formerly Cochin)

However, a large portion of the Fulbrighters are conducting fascinating research on topics and issues relating to women and gender studies, so it was the subject of many conversations, both academic and informal. One married American woman based in Tajikistan, who I’ll call Sue, exploded the myth (and my belief) that Central Asian women are modest when talking about sex. That, Sue said, is only true when women are speaking to men and to unmarried women. When unmarried women get together all bets are off. She related one conversation in which Tajik women asked her, whose husband is (if I remember correctly) a Marine stationed in Afghanistan, whether Sue had “made any arrangements” for her husband while Sue was away.

“To have sex?” Sue clarified? Nod. Sue, blonde, tough and bright, said she turned her head to the side and said, pointedly, “No, I didn’t. He’ll be fine.”

I’m not sure what point this long post reaches or what argument I’ve made. I am certain, however, that I don’t want anyone to come away thinking that I condemn gender relations in Central Asia and India (nor that I believe women’s equity has been achieved in the USA). This is a subject I’ve neither studied with any depth or rigor nor one in which I believe there are simple solutions. Suffice to say, therefore, that I hope I’ve both succeeded in sharing a little about my trip to India and given you food for thought about the women in your life (even if you are yourself a woman).

Happy belated International Women’s Day.