Closing in on six months in Almaty, Kazakhstan means that we’ve nearly fully cleared the culture-shock hurdle. Capturing the bizarre, the delightful, and the shocking for this blog is becoming more difficult because the weirdness of Central Asia has become, well, just part of life. Incredibly (and eerily), Sam and I have carved out a life similar to the one we had in Washington—with a few notable differences.
It’s Saturday. You live in Almaty, Kazakhstan. You:
a.) Take the dog for a walk. You are virtually guaranteed that something memorable will happen.
example #1: Two Kazakh (i.e. Russian-speaking) boys, both about seven years old, come barreling down the canal path towards you. They are jumping and dancing, clearly inspired by the music seeping out of one of their jackets. One is small, with glasses. The other is round-faced, red-cheeked, and virtually stuffed into his clothes. LMFAO’s Sexy and I Know It is playing loudly from his pocket.
example #2: You notice a large plastic bag by the edge of the path. And then, just a few feet away from the bag is the former contents of the bag: animal parts, fur, something smooth and pink and shiny. Your mind does cartwheels trying to identify the animal; trying to put the pieces back together. And then, to your horror, it succeeds: the animal is a dog, its head still fully intact in the pile of parts.
example #3: One of your friends, also an American diplomat, grapples with a shovel-brandishing shepherd after his dog chases the shepherd’s flock. Yes, there is a flock of sheep in the middle of Almaty (maybe more than one). No, neither our friend nor his dog were hurt. But the shepherd got in a few good swings before he was tossed to the ground and relieved of his shovel.
b.) Eat curry. Either Sam’s mouth-watering Balti Butter Chicken or The Shakespeare Pub’s virtually perfect, spicy curry. The owner of this Old’e English establishment hails from Pakistan, and cooks up Chicken Tikka Masala like the best of the Brits.
c.) Make art. Whether in Washington or Almaty, art-making is the same—well, at least until my supplies run out.
d.) Go on a hike (that you think will impress your friends). If the scenery doesn’t impress them, then the harsh conditions certainly will. Many hikes around Almaty boast peaks soaring 14,000 feet above sea level, are littered with scree as far as the eye can see, and require technical rock climbing know-how.
e.) Drink. Vodka. We live in Central Asia. No further explanation is necessary.
f.) Dust. On a designated day each October (unknown to any of the residents), the city begins pumping hot water to radiators in all of its buildings—central heating is part of life in the former Soviet Union. While Almaty is purportedly making an effort to switch to gas-powered heating, much of the existing system is powered by burning coal, which in turn is responsible for a significant amount of air pollution—a hazy blanket of brown settles over the city every winter.
Many people living in formerly Soviet cities can’t regulate their central heating: when the radiators get too hot, they open the windows. Not only does this deal a crushing blow to your inner environmentalist, but it also means that a fine layer of black coal soot settles on windowsills and other surfaces inside.
g.) Watch The Wire. Or any other American television show. And forget—one hour at a time—that you no longer live in the U.S. (Thank you, Hola Unblocker.)
h.) Slow-cook a pot roast. But first, you have to buy a giant slab of what you think is beef. It may be horse. Or sheep. You’re pretty sure it’s beef because you bought it from the aisle that has a picture of a cow at one end, but there were definitely several whole sheep hanging behind the woman who sold you the “beef”…
i.) Draw eyebrows on the dog. Alright, so we never did this in DC—but I’m certain we would have if we had had a dog there.
j.) Go ice skating. Медео (pronounced “meh-day-oo”) is an outdoor speed skating and bandy rink. Located in a mountain valley just outside of Almaty, Медео sits 1,691 meters (5,547 feet) above sea level, making it the highest, and probably most picturesque, skating rink in the world.
k.) Plan Thanksgiving. Is it appropriate as Thanksgiving Day hosts to serve turkey pieces rather than a whole, intact turkey? Is $26 per kilo of turkey too much? Is $12 for four sweet potatoes too spendy? While we may not know the answer to these questions, we definitely know that a “business casual” Thanksgiving is not our style.
l.) Call your mother. Or skype with your mother, to be more exact. Sam and I spend approximately six hours each week talking to friends and family back home.
m.) All of the above.