Kazakhstan Part One

“Where can I buy a goat?”

Our party of three had been discussing our concierge at the Ritz-Carlton in Astana the previous night and I had speculated such a request would not be impossible for Zhasulan (Jaz).

“How old?” Jaz did not hesitate, nor did his cool professional demeanor change.

“This matters – age?” I was impressed.

“Of course… Younger ones are more cheap, but adolescent goat…? $150 USD. I can have one for you in… Maybe 45 minutes…” Jaz began to discuss different considerations and possibilities for this hypothetical goat purchase.

In the lobby of the fanciest hotel I had ever stayed in…

…In front of a life-sized sculpture of a horse made of 8,000 asyks – sheep knee bones.

Astana, Kazakhstan 25Jan23 (Source: author)

Our guide M* had proven to be a walking cultural library and effortlessly provided detailed backstory to Kazakhstan – the people, the history, the goals, and – most interestingly – the contemporary issues faced by Kazakhstan and neighboring countries in the domestic and geopolitical minefield of influence, power, and cooperation.

While in the car, we passed what I correctly pointed out what looked like the beginnings of a light rail system.

“Yes,” M noted with a dry smile. “Here we call it the ‘Stonehenge of Kazakh Corruption. It was supposed to be done back in 2011, but investors kept going bankrupt… so now it sits… with no solid plans for what to do with it. To demolish it would be more expensive than to do anything else.”

Astana, Kazakhstan 24Jan23 (Source: author)

Back to the asyks…

Astana, Kazakhstan 23Jan23 (Source: author)

I returned to the hotel that day to find Alfiya** – smiling and standing beside a table with what looked to be samples.

“Hello,” she smiled with happiness. “Would you like to try some Kumis?”

“Absolutely.” I was in Kazakhstan, of all places… why not?

She ladled what reassuringly looked like milk into a bowl and handed it to me. “Mare’s milk,” her smile never wavered and confidence like that will always warrant a reciprocal effort. “It is a traditional dish here…”

Mare = horse, I pondered as I took a cautious sip. Not bad at all, and my approving gesture invited another offer – this time kurt.

This is also a traditional snack made from mare’s milk,” again her smile was reassuring happiness.

“Spasibo,” I replied, later irritated that I had foolishly defaulted to my limited Russian rather than a clumsy “rahmet.”

First bite split the ball in half and I was impressed at how fast the signal for “chalky/sour” was compiled and transmitted from my mouth to my brain. Kurt is obviously an acquired taste, and one which I repeatedly worked to acquire during the rest of my trip. I graciously finished, but my mouth had every bit of moisture instantly removed from that one innocent sphere.

Astana, Kazakhstan 23Jan23 (Source: author)

Later, after my lunch meeting, I sat down in the lobby to discreetly watch Alfiya greet incoming guests. Some were not interested while others were polite in both acceptance and reaction. After a few moments, she noticed me watching and came over. What ensued was even more cultural education – what life was like where she was from, what honored guests were offered, and Kazakh life beyond the hotel was like.

I mentioned that blogs or YouTube videos would be a great way to share her stories to a larger audience, but she demurred. “I don’t do a lot of those things,” she smiled the never-ending smile. Perhaps she stated it, or perhaps I extrapolated it, but some things are better left to actual experience; either way, it was the truth.

Another front desk attendant, Aisha, remains the human representative of Astana – a combination of warmth, ideas, energy, and potential. We chatted about Western influence, the good/bad duality that is history, and the continuation of stories – either through image or word. Like M, Jaz, and Alfiya, Bota, and Nigina, Aisha created this compulsion to ask more questions than anything and the limited time available to spend with each and every person left me with more questions than when the impromptu chats began. In retrospect, it is entirely fascinating to consider that part of an effective speaker – whether one is a hotel clerk, diplomatic representative, salesperson, or storyteller – is to foster a hunger for more information about the perspectives of the past, present, and future.

Astana, Kazakhstan 24Jan23 (Source: author)

Our work in Astana complete, we moved to our next and final destination: Almaty.

Where the first impression upon walking from the plane in Astana was the intense cold, even in the jetway, my first impression of Almaty was brutal and honest: “That is a strong diesel smell.”

Where our location in Astana was (probably) an unfair representation of the city proper, Almaty was (from my somewhat extended excursions) as honest as it was intent on working with the past Soviet influences.

Earlier in the trip, M had joked that it was a local conspiracy theory that traffic was intentionally stymied to offer the illusion that Kazakhstan was growing – that traffic indicated prosperity. In both Astana and Almaty, I could not escape the sheer amazement at the chaotic traffic, the rigid acceptance and acquiescence to pedestrians (even at uncontrolled intersections/crosswalks), and what appeared to be a local suspension of Newtonian physics as cars cornered in complete disregard for icy roads. Of course, I later learned that the tires of cars are studded with metal nubs, which makes a visit during the transitionary period between fall and winter a point of curiosity to see if, in fact, the chaos increases. There is nothing quite like just watching as cars negotiate 2-point U-turns in the face of oncoming traffic, however… in a culture where car seats for kids appear to be a point of overthinking and every 3rd car out of 10 had the driver executing some of the best multitasking I have ever seen (yes, I did spend about 40 minutes counting… in 0℉ windy snow flurries… counting cars).  

Yes, I found several Ladas, but this was one of the few I was ready for…
Astana, Kazakhstan 24Jan23 (Source: author)

Of course, there will be more to write on this recent trip to Kazakhstan… for now, I am compelled to get this posted, even as my muscles sway and twitch from the flight and complete lack of sleep since… sometime Thursday morning in Almaty…

* Name omitted intentionally

** Name may have been unintentionally misspelled and will be later corrected if appropriate feedback is offered.


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