Tuesday, May 27, 2008

...Libya and Mongolia...

While Erik was in Kazakhstan, visiting his fifth country featured in They Might Be Giants' song "Alphabet of Nations," Carter and Lea attended a performance by the band at Kansas City's inaugural Jiggle Jam, a music festival for children. You can see Carter here, flanked by members of the band. For Carter, the highlight of the day seemed to be running around the Crown Center fountain, which wore him out enough that he slept all the way home.

This event had to be followed up the next day by a visit to the outdoor pool in Lawrence.
The week while daddy was in Kazakhstan (in Asia, as Carter would explain to everyone) was busy, interrupted occasionally by some typical Kansas spring weather. Carter hiked around the lake at Prairie Park on Tuesday and Thursday, had a visit from Grandpa, Nana, and Aunt Laura, and attended music class. He also spent a bit of time working in the yard, collecting maple seeds and pulling creeping charlie. Indoors, he has learned his states, and spent a bit of time this week on one of his latest endeavors - learning the provinces and territories of Canada.

Kazakhstan Adventure, Part 4: Conclusion

Friday began early in the morning, as Erik's ear troubles had not fully subsided. He awoke around 3 am, and began his day. While annoying, jetlag also gave him alot of time to get work done. Erik brought a copy of his manuscript along on the trip and has been editing it. Yes - all of the chapters are composed and have been subjected to a couple of revisions. He has to finish the conclusion, tend to technical details like the bibliography, and clean the prose. Barring unforeseen complications, he should be able to calmly meet his deadline at the end of August rather than endure all-nighters [the sound you hear is knocking wood].

Friday's only formal event was the final selection of fellows. Erik and Etibar ranked the candidates similarly, agreeing on those who should be rejected and producing almost identical rank-orderings of the candidates. The meeting went smoothly with thorough discussions of each candidate and with consensus decisions on acceptance or rejection.

Erik picked up some lunch on the go, grabbing some pirozhki from a store near the hotel, then walked to the Arbat to do a bit of souvenir shopping. He met Cristin on the Arbat, and they visited the Museum of Musical Instruments. The museum is housed in a lovely wooden building designed by the same architect as the wooden cathedral mentioned in an earlier post. Unlike many post-Soviet museums, the facility was in excellent condition and the objects were displayed well. Most objects also featured explanations in Kazakh and Russian that were reasonably detailed. In addition to displaying traditional flutes, drums, and cymbals, the collection had many stringed instruments. One room even featured a sort of dombra Hall of Fame, with famous musicians' photos alongside their instruments. Erik and Cristin walked about town, stopping to see several monuments and the sound check for a concert of traditional music scheduled for later in the evening. After a dinner of Uyghur lagman (noodles and meat in a savory soup) and some bliny, Erik returned to the hotel. His persistent jetlag, and the failure of his ears to equalize pressure from Thursday's mountain trip, convinced him to turn in a bit early.

His plan to get a good night's sleep was thwarted again by jetlag and ear pressure problems. He awoke at 2:30 am and worked for several hours on his book. As the morning hours advanced, the rain began to pour down. It subsided late in the morning and Erik went for a walk. He met Cristin in the mid-afternoon to go visit the State Historical Museum, the last major site on his list. The museum was well maintained, and had reasonably good signage in Russian and Kazakh. The museum featured ancient Kazakh history, with amazing objects: ornate gold jewelry, bronze weapons, and musical instruments. The second floor contained several displays for the ethnic groups who have lived in Kazakhstan. Erik was particularly pleased by the Turkmen exhibit which featured a traditional rug that was almost identical to the one in the Herron dining room in Lawrence that he acquired in a Moscow market several years ago. On the top floor, contemporary sculptures in wood and iron were displayed in the hallway. As they approached the entry door to the final hall, a young Kazakh man called them over. He had a stack of books in front of him, and proceeded to ask their names. He signed copies of the book, which was a catalog of the sculptures, and gave one to both Erik and Cristin. It turned out that he was the sculptor! Erik and Cristin expressed their admiration for his work and thanked him for the books. The final hall featured President Nazarbayev's exploits, as well as campaign items from his political party. It also had an exhibit dedicated to Kazakh efforts to help remedy the Chornobyl disaster in Ukraine.

Some of the museum's amusing features reminded Erik of absurdities that one often finds in post-Soviet countries. While he did not see Barf laundry detergent - a favorite photo op for Americans in Central Asia (featured to the left in a photo from Erik's Kyrgyzstan visit in 2004) - he witnessed other quirky things. A clothing store featuring Dennis Miller and Michelle Pfeiffer as models, and the Guns & Roses Cafe, were highlights and are featured below.

A new deluge sent streams of water through the streets and down staircases, but it subsided during the museum visit. Erik and Cristin had a quick dinner, and Erik headed back to the hotel to prepare to go home. He awoke for an early plane departure, and made it back with only minor complications and long plane rides. The Kazakhstan visit was a success, as Erik met new colleagues and experienced one more ex-Soviet republic. Nine down, six to go!

Monday, May 26, 2008

Kazakhstan Adventure, Part 3: Ever Wandered?

Readers of previous posts may have been surprised by the lack of Borat references. Indeed, Erik was prepared for local indignation directed at the movie, but it seems as passe here as in the US. He also saw no signs of the official Kazakh tourism ad campaign, "Ever Wandered?"

Thursday was a free day, but the local hosts had arranged an excursion around town as well as to the nearby sports venues of Medeu and Chimbulak. Cristin had prepared a thorough list of Almaty highlights for Erik, and he had been systematically hitting all of the recommended locations on his walks about town. So, the in-town excursion hit few new and notable spots.

The tour guide chattered non-stop. She clearly loved her city, and was also adept at avoiding answers to tough questions. Indeed, one interesting phenomenon is that interlocutors sometimes constructed clever non-answers to inquiries about sensitive social, political, or historical matters. However, Kazakhstan is not Belarus or Turkmenistan. There is no palpable climate of fear, and many citizens genuinely admire the president's management style and the results of his policy choices. He is particularly popular among many Erik spoke with because of government policies that promote higher education and opportunities abroad. If fully contested elections were held, the president would likely win handily. The Kazakh approach to governance more closely approximates China's model of free enterprise coupled with limited political contestation, rather than nascent liberal democracy.

In addition to stopping by familiar attractions, the tour guide also escorted the group to Almaty's main mosque. The exterior was reminiscent of Samarkand's architecture, and the inside featured lovely tile work. A few people were praying and some were taking a nap on the mosque's spacious floor. While it is not as impressive as the grand mosques of Istanbul, its presence and popularity reflects post-Soviet changes in Kazakhstan. One question Erik hoped to have answered was who financed its construction. Several years ago in Kyrgyzstan, he was told that financiers from the UAE were building mosques. Indeed, money from several sources in the Islamic world has reportedly facilitated mosque construction and is a "soft power" gesture from Iran and other Gulf states.

The tour continued out of town to the mountains. The first stop was Medeu, an outdoor speedskating arena nestled in a valley at the foothills of the Tien Shan mountains. The facility is stunning, framed by the green mountainsides and snow-capped peaks, and it must be a real treat to watch events there. Erik was curious about how fans actually get to the rink, however, as parking for private cars seemed to be lacking for such a large facility. Medeu also featured a "staircase of health" - over 800 steps up the mountainside that host an annual amateur race (the prize - a new TV). Lawrence's Red Dog would be proud (Erik is now a regular at Dog Days, a fitness group led by a feisty former marine for over 25 years. Red Dog loves to have his trainees run steps and hills).

After soaking up the view at Medeu (around 1500 meters above sea level), the tour continued up to Chimbulak, a ski resort. As the van ascended the circuitous path, Erik's ears popped and struggled to catch up to the change in pressure - a bad sign for later. At the top, over 2000 meters above sea level, Erik decided to take the ski lift up for an even better view. For 400 tenge (120 tenge = $1), visitors could rent coats since the temperature dropped substantially in the higher elevations. The normal process was to buy a lift ticket, then go to another vendor for a rental coat. However, the ticket woman offered Erik her coat (so she could pocket the 400 tenge). Erik agreed, but then could not slip the sparkled ski jacket over his shoulders. Marina, another interviewer on the trip, generously traded her borrowed coat for his, and everyone headed up the lift.

The view from the top was indeed spectacular (see the photo below). The snow-covered rocky peaks, wrapped in wispy clouds, seemed close enough to touch, and the green valleys below glowed in the sunlight. Small wildflowers - purple and yellow - accented the deep green grass. The top was quiet too - only the hum of the ski lift was audible. A second ski lift offered a trip further up the mountain, but there was no time to explore higher altitudes. After loading in the van, we began a rapid descent that became painful. Erik's ears could not equalize the pressure changes quickly enough and he was soon temporarily deaf (Erik is susceptible to this problem and often encounters it on planes).

The final stop of the day was dinner. The original plan was to dine at Almaty's only Thai restaurant. But, its $100+ price tag per person caused a change of venue. On a terrace overlooking the ersatz Eiffel Tower, the group broke bread together. As the sun set, moths began to attack diners (especially Erik's table), and showed a distinct preference for Georgian wine. Almost everyone at the table had to fish at least one moth out of a wine glass during the meal. Erik had whole, fresh, grilled trout that was moist, flaky, and delicious. Trout is a local favorite, and having it grilled without any accompaniment was the best way to enjoy the catch of the day. Although he had trouble hearing some of the conversation, everyone chatted about a wide range of subjects from Kazakhstan's education policy and electoral politics in Georgia, to food and entertainment preferences. As the sun disappeared and the moths directed their attention to Almaty's bright lights, we capped off the meal with dessert and strolled back to the hotel.

Kazakhstan Adventure, Part 2: So Hungry I Could Eat a Horse

Tuesday was a work day, with interviews at the House of Friendship near the hotel. Jet lag kicked in around 3 am, and Erik spent the early morning hours working on his book manuscript. As the sun rose, he decided to take a stroll about town. He headed up the main street (literally up - Almaty has the majestic Tien Shan mountains on its southern border, and the steppe to the north. The upward angle of the street gives quite a workout). Erik walked toward the French House, a purveyor of perfumes, most notable because of the large faux Eiffel Tower erected in front of the building. He wandered about New Square (Republican Square), a large space in front of former government buildings. When the capital moved to Astana, these buildings ceased housing the main institutions of Kazakhstan, although the president maintains a grand residence nearby and reportedly stays in Almaty frequently.

New Square includes monuments to the history of the Kazakh people, and features a great mountain view. In 1986, thousands of Kazakhs - especially students - demonstrated against Mikhail Gorbachev's decision to remove the ethnic Kazakh head of the local communist party and replace him with an ethnic Slav. In the riot that followed, security forces opened fire, hundreds were reportedly injured, and the death toll is unknown. The picture on the left is from a series of images dedicated to Kazakhstan's history that includes Zheltoqsan, as the event is called. Another memorial is situated nearby on the street where thousands of protesters entered the square. Zheltoqsan hinted at future ethnically-driven rivalries and also illustrated that the desire for local control would become more salient in the Soviet Union. While Kazakhstan lagged behind in the parade of sovereignties as the USSR collapsed - President Nazarbayev initially agreed to preservation of the union - the movement for local control drove independence efforts in the region (especially in the Baltic states). Today, New Square is bounded by large metal walls hiding construction work. After looking at the monuments and soaking in the views, Erik walked further up the street, past the historical museum, the presidential residence, and a large western-style shopping center.

The work day commenced with preparations for interviews, then the interviews themselves. The House of Friendship, where the interviews were held, is a cultural center with displays dedicated to the peoples of Kazakhstan. Erik and his colleague Etibar (from Azerbaijan) conducted meetings in the Blue Room, a grand, gaudy, reception hall. The ornate, mirrored room was an intimidating space; Erik was glad to be asking the questions! The candidates were quite good, though one was so challenged by the inquiries that she almost teared up. Of course, driving applicants to tears was not our goal and we were able to redirect questions and calm her.

After the day of interviews, Erik met Cristin, a KU grad student in geography conducting her dissertation research in Kazakhstan. They stopped for dinner at an outdoor cafe featuring Kazakh food. Erik talked with the waiter and settled on a dish called meat in the Kazakh style. It turned out to be wide, flat noodles in a light bouillon, with medallions of meat. The meat appeared to be some kind of lamb organ, though he was not sure which organ. Cristin and Erik debated this point; she offered kidney and he thought that some was tongue. Suffice it to say that Kazakh cuisine will not be the next culinary trend in the US. Erik and Cristin strolled more around town, visiting a lovely pedestrian mall area (the Arbat), Zhenkov Cathedral (made only of wood - legend says no nails), and the Soviet war memorial (see the photos below). Amorous young Kazakhs were out in force, though Cristin reports that the parks will be thick with pheromones as spring moves on.

Wednesday was the last heavy work day. Erik and Etibar met with several candidates and one from Armenia via conference call. Some of the candidates were quite strong, others weak, but all were full of hope for an opportunity that could enhance their careers. Although we were able to accept many candidates, it was inevitable that we would have to crush the dreams of others (some of whom were trying for the second or third time).

The last formal task with the candidates was a reception at Kok Tobe (Green Hill) - a scenic park overlooking the city. Moments after Erik arrived at Kok Tobe, he saw a familiar face who bounded toward him, giving Erik a welcoming hug. Doulatbek, a Kazakh scholar who spent a year at KU, had heard about Erik's arrival and came to see him. Erik had attempted to get in touch prior to the visit, but assumed that Doulatbek's email address had changed when he received no reply. However, fate intervened. Doulatbek knew one of the applicants to the fellowship program and chatted with him after the interview. Doulatbek happened to ask who conducted the interview and was surprised to hear Erik's name. Erik reminisced with Doulatbek about his time at KU, talked about Doulatbek's new son, and got some tips on Kazakh cuisine. Walking to the restaurant, Erik admired the gorgeous views of Almaty and the Tien Shan mountains, and made a quick detour to see the peculiar statue to the Beatles. The view was indeed spectacular, especially as the sky turned crimson, pink, and purple with the setting sun. As natural light subsided, neon signs came to life all over town, turning Almaty into a small Las Vegas.

Dinner was Kazakh cuisine, and Doulatbek helped identify all of the items on the buffet. Erik recognized one plate - it had the mystery meat from his Tuesday dinner with Cristin. Doulatbek explained that it was horse meat. In addition to this item, the table had smoked horse meat, lamb liver, lamb kebobs, chicken, vegetables, and cheeses. Horse meat had a bit of gamy flavor and was rather dry, although it also featured chunks of fat. Its closest taste equivalent in Erik's experience is goat. Smoked horse had the same texture, but the subtle addition of smoke enhanced the flavor substantially. Grilled lamb liver was soft and bitter, and its fat-wrap was a bit too greasy. The lamb kebabs, veggies, and other treats were perfectly prepared on the grill. Erik tried a little bit of everything, ranking smoked horse meat as best, followed by regular horse meat, with the lamb liver occupying the bottom spot of the new foods he tried. Overall, the meal was quite tasty, and a great way to learn about Kazakh cuisine. Erik had a chance to chat with many of the candidates at the reception which only enhanced his apprehension at the task on Friday. Having friendly chats with people who will be rejected from the program reinforces the bittersweet nature of the job. While more of the candidates are accepted to the program than are rejected, many fail. Clinking glasses and drinking toasts with soon-to-be-fallen applicants was the only gray cloud hanging over the lovely evening.

Kazakhstan Adventure, Part 1: Another Big Apple

Erik was invited by the Open Society Institute to participate in fellowship interviews in Almaty, Kazakhstan for a week. Erik had never visited Kazakhstan, so it was an offer he could not refuse. Erik's flights were long, but relatively uneventful. He left Kansas City at 5 pm on Saturday, May 17, transferred in Memphis, and arrived in Amsterdam mid-morning on Sunday. With a 7+ hour layover, OSI provided Erik with a business lounge pass and he took full advantage of it. The KLM Crown Lounge was swanky, comfy, and stocked full of snacks and drinks. Leather lounge chairs, small dining tables, and desks for laptops provided a nicely varied opportunity to rest and relax in different ways. Several travelers took naps in the leather chairs, and recharged their electronics with the electrical outlets amply situated in most nooks and crannies of the room. Others snacked on the hot soup, rolls, salads, fruit, and sweets while they downed potables - potent and not - provided gratis by KLM. The only negative was the presence of smokers, but they were sequestered in an area that contained most of the foul tobacco odors.

Upon arrival in Almaty (whose name means "Apple place") on Monday morning, Erik passed through passport control and customs, and met the driver. The driver provided running commentary during the trip to the hotel, and gave Erik a brief history lesson of the city, beginning with its outpost days when it was called Verniy, through the Soviet period, and the post-Soviet growth and development. He also highlighted the effects of earthquakes which have devastated the city in the past - its location is classified as the most earthquake-prone. The city is green, with lovely trees lining the streets, and the older part of town is low-lying. Almaty is bordered to the south by the Tien Shan mountains, and to the north by the steppe.

Since Almaty is the financial capital, with governance duties moving to Astana in the north several years ago, new glass towers are being built to accommodate the growing Kazakh economy (benefiting from oil and natural gas). Politics is dominated by President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who image was featured in a few billboards along the route from the airport. Erik's favorite was the one featuring small children surrounding President Nazarbayev, happy about their opportunities in growing Kazakhstan. It was reminiscent of a similar billboard he saw in Baku, Azerbaijan a few years ago praising Heydar Aliyev.

Erik's hotel was reportedly the former Communist Party facility for visiting VIPs. It was indeed nice, modern, and in a surprisingly quiet location given the significant traffic flow on a major artery a block away. After a nap, he met the staff of the organization that invited him on the trip for lunch. The cafe was modern and hip, with red and black decor, couches and lounge chairs instead of formal tables, and a young attentive staff. The food was unremarkable, with a few Russian-style dishes (beet salad) accompanying generic meats and side dishes.

After lunch, Erik and two other interviewers gathered for an excursion to Great Almaty Lake. The lake serves as a reservoir for the city, collecting the runoff from mountain streams (you can see the pipeline in images below, featuring minor leakage problems). The route was short, but bumpy and a bit treacherous, However, it was also stunning. Each turn on the serpentine roadway revealed a new vista - clear streams flowing down green hillsides; gray rocky outcroppings and tall, lush conifers; and finally the white peaks of the Tien Shan range. The driver wove from side to side on the road - though calling the strip of pock-marked asphalt and stretches of gravel and rocks a road is generous - as well as up and down in the four-wheel drive German-made van. The photo on the right gives a flavor of the road and the sheer drop offs along at the edge (some drop offs were short, others were not). While this road was higher quality than the empty stream bed that we climbed in Slavsko, Ukraine, it was only slightly better and much longer. It took us over an hour to go one mile horizontally, since we had to wind around the roads curling up mountainsides and through valleys. The road claimed at least two victims while we were there. A young couple sat by a fire next to their car, which had tipped over into a small ravine with the front pointing toward the earth and the trunk visible and pointing to the sky. They made the best of a bad situation while waiting for the tow truck (which arrived as we left).

We passed several Kazakh families on picnics, and a few commercial yurts serving as cafes. Kazakhs seem more distant from the nomadic lifestyle than their Kyrgyz neighbors; the Kyrgyz countryside was dotted with many clusters of yurts with families living off the land. Erik did not notice as many yurts in Kazakhstan (though perhaps they are more common in other parts of the country). While the ride up was cloudy, bright sunbeams penetrated the cloud cover as the turquoise lake drew near. The air was fresh, the views remarkable, and the beauty of the Tien Shan range kept Erik awake (along with constant bumps in the van). You can see why in the pictures accompanying this post below! After a long stroll, everyone loaded up for the trip back to Almaty. After the return, Erik took a quick walk around the neighborhood, picking up a roll for dinner, and headed off to bed.