Monday, May 26, 2008

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.

1 comment:

Lea's Dad said...

Erik, you have come a long way from fast food and hot dogs in Flint! Sounds like an interesting adventure all the way around!