|By Admin1 (admin) on Sunday, February 16, 2003 - 5:38 pm: Edit Post|
Everett Peachey's Peace Corps Dispatches from Kazakhstan
Everett Peachey's Peace Corps Dispatches from Kazakhstan
Fri, 06 Sep 2002
Dear Friends, Family, and Colleagues:
Greetings from Kazakhstan! I have been getting emails from some of you wishing me well in this new adventure, and I have been getting other emails that can only be described as a "deer-in-headlights" email. Those of you who haven't read your email (or MY email) in a long time are surprised to hear that I am no longer in Russia, but rather in one of it's former Soviet member states. I am surprised, however, that I haven't been getting many questions such as "Where IS Kazakhstan?" or "What city is THAT?" I have to do my part to keep America from forgetting even MORE about the rest of the world.
Anyway, I got here late Thursday night a week ago (it feels as though I have been here a month already!), and I was met at the airport by a Peace Corps driver and four current volunteers. When I asked the country desk office in Washington the day before whether or not there would be anyone at the airport to meet me, their response was "Well, here is the address of the office just in case. You know Russian and you're a Peace Corps volunteer. You'll be able to figure it out." Yes, I guess I would've been fine, but I wasn't really keen on finding my way around a foreign country with 125 pounds of luggage at midnight. Once we got my things settled at the hotel, we all headed out to a local cafe for some late nights snacks and a chance to sample the local beer. I hadn't known it, but I came to Kazakhstan on the eve of a four-day weekend. Friday was Constitution Day and Monday was Labor Day (well, at least for the Peace Corps staff and the Americans in the city it was a four day weekend).
My first day in Almaty, the Medical Officer, David, took four three other volunteers and me up the nearby mountain, Shimbulak, on a hike. I dressed for a rather warm day, wearing shorts and Birkenstocks, thinking that we were going to the Peace Corps office and not on some mountain hike. The day had other plans for me.
We drove to the upper edge of the city (the city gradually slopes downward from the nearby mountains) to a speed skating rink nestled in the valley at the mountain's base. Behind the stadium, you could see this vast staircase running up to the breast of a dam. The dam seemed enormous, and I was surprised to see a dam of that magnitude so close to the city and the skating rink. I was told, however, that the dam was built in the event of a mudslide or avalanche from the surrounding mountains. It sounds to me like it was also there because of a large Soviet works project to create jobs.
We hired a driver at the rink to take us up to the mountain ski resort of Shimbulak. Most people hire drivers to get to the resort (unless they have powerful cars) because the road is so steep and long that many cars can't make the climb. So the five of us piled into this 4x4 and headed up the mountain. We passed dump truck after dump truck making is caterpillar-speed climb up to the construction sites of dozens of brand new lodges at the base of the mountain. Yes, there are plenty of "New Russians" here as well, and there is plenty of oil money to feed their checkbooks. All along the road there were what looked like a cross between ramps and exit ramps off to the side of the road. They were emergency ramps in case the brakes gave way on any of the trucks coming back down the hill.
It was noticeably cooler once we got to the base of the ski resort, purportedly the best in Central Asia. From there, one could buy a ticket up the three ski lifts to the top of the ski runs. The first two lifts looked reasonably modern, but the third one had old wooden chairs that were soldered together and looked as though they were going to give way at any moment. You also saw scattered debris on the way including old chairs and old pulleys from the lift itself. Not the most reassuring of views. You could also see wild hemp growing in the rocks below. I'd never seen hemp before, so I probably wouldn't have been able to distinguish it from any other weed in the field if one of the others hadn't pointed it out. Unfortunately for those of you who "like" that kind of thing, I was told that it's effects were nil compared to it's lab-enhanced brothers. I guess you'll just have to cross THAT off the list of things to do when you come visit.
It was cold all the way to the top as the lifts moved in and out of clouds. The air cooled as it rose up the mountain, forming clouds and decreasing visibility, but by the time we reached the end of the chair lift there were no clouds and the sun was shining. From there we decided to go for a little hike. We followed a trail off to the right side of the lift and kept moving our way up a valley that rose into the mountain heights. The terrain got a little hard to navigate (especially considering what we were wearing), but we finally made it to a plateau about halfway up the mountain. We were told that from there you could climb the mountain and find yourself in a box canyon which eventually made its way to Kyrgyzstan. One of the most fascinating parts of the trek was getting to see glaciers (albeit small ones) moving down some of the hanging valleys. It was the first time that I had ever seen a glacier, and I NEVER expected to see one in the middle of summer. Truly a magnificent view.
The weather on the top was in the low fifties, but as we started our descent down the chair lifts, the weather got much colder. The cloud cover had increased significantly and the temperature got much colder, having dropped to the mid to low forties. Fortunately it got much warmer as we approached the ski base and started walking around again, but I was worried for a minute or two that I was going to catch a severe cold from being improperly dressed in such weather.
Saturday night we met with one of the Peace Corps language instructors, Luba. She was the instructor of one of the volunteers who was staying in the same hotel with me, Todd. She invited us to go with her up to the top of a local hill surrounding the city, on which is situated the city's television tower. From the center of the city, there is a gondola that goes to the top of this hill, and you can see most of Almaty from there. The view from the gondola made is seem as though we were looking down at a Central American town and not at the outskirts of a Central Asian city. There were small houses and sheds built all over the sides of the hills nestled among the trees. But as you got farther away from the city, the houses became newer and bigger. Luba told us that we were riding over the prestigious region of the city and that a lot of the New Russian (or New Kazakhs) by the plots of land, bulldoze the old houses on the plots, and then construct their own "cottages." The word cottage in Russian most nearly means mansion in English. Once at the top of the hill, you can't see all of Almaty because of the smog that hangs over the city. The air quality isn't QUITE the best. Nonetheless, we spent about an hour at the top, took the gondola down, and ate at this outdoor cafe called Dastrahan.
Dastrahan is an interesting cafe because everyone complains about it but keeps going back to it. The second time that we went there (with Luba) we were charged for two more beers than we drank. Luckily, we were joined by this guy Dan, a local university student (and friend of Todd's) who had lived in America for a year. He, like most Americans, gets enraged by injustices, and asked to see the manager to talk about the problem with the check. The manager comes to our table and tells us that we must be mistaken because the computer cannot be wrong. Since the orders are taken electronically, he said WE must been mistaken. We insist that we are not, and we ask for the fax number of the owner (and his name), as we are going to fax him the receipt along with a letter of complaint. The manager claims he doesn't know his boss' name nor his fax number. Right.
Then, it dawns on me that a similar situation happened to us the night BEFORE at Dastrahan (the first time I was there). Todd and I each ordered pizzas, and the waitress forgot to charge me for mine. We got up to leave, and she came back to us to tell us that she had forgotten to charge me for mine. I asked how much it was and I paid for it. No questions asked. However, what I now think happened was that she ordered the pizza via the restaurant's fancy electronic system, and once it was made she cancelled the order. Then when she approached me to tell me that she had forgotten to charge me for the pizza, I paid her and the money went directly into her pocket.
This Tuesday Todd and I went back for the third time. This time the receipt was correct and we paid the bill. The total came to 467 tenge (the Kazakh unit of currency). I gave the waiter a 500 tenge note, and I didn't get my change. I waited and waited, and he never returned. Todd and I finally saw him standing with his compadres by the bar laughing and joking around. There goes another scam. You may say that it was his tip, but a ten percent tip is already factored into all restaurant receipts here in Kazakhstan. Needless to say, I am not anxious to return to Dastrahan anytime soon!
Since then, I have been trying to keep busy in the Peace Corps office working on odd jobs for the TEFL program managers. I will be "stuck" here in Almaty until September 15 waiting for things to get ready at my site and for the last in the rabies shot series. I might as well make good use of my time here. I am currently designing a survey to be sent to a number of sites throughout the country to be used in revising Peace Corps' long range goals and planning.
Once all of this is done, I will be heading north to the city of Karaganda (Qaragandy). It is Kazakhstan's second largest city with a population of about one million. I will be teaching English at a university specializing in foreign languages. I know very little about the university and the city itself at present, but I DO know that there is a lot to learn about the place.
Unlike Vyborg, one of the oldest cities in Europe, Karaganda is relatively new, having sprung up around the 1930s. It was built as a center for the Russian GULAG camps, and thus is has a high percentage of Germans and other Eastern Europeans. Because many of these prisoners were intellectuals, they founded a number of universities in these cities once the camps were closed. However, after unification, the German government offered people with German heritage citizenship. As a result, quite a large percentage of these Germans emigrated to Germany, only to find that they were settled in East German towns where they faced discrimination. Some of them, I'm told, were more "Kazakh" than German, and thus subject to discrimination because of their "second-class" status. Emigration of the German population has slowed somewhat, so I'm told, but I hear that there the emigration of Jewish people to Israel has still remained fairly constant. There is still a daily flight between Almaty and Tel Aviv.
Large coal deposits also brought people to the region. Today there are unfortunately a large number of abandoned coal mines in the region, leaving a large sector or the population unemployed.
Below you will find my mailing address until I head to Karaganda. You can send mail to this address any time during the next year, and it will be forwarded to me home or work address when I get it. Please know that all of your postcards, letters, and correspondences are GREATLY appreciated. I am just sorry that I don't have time to respond to ALL the fan mail that I get! Perhaps I will make a much better effort this time around.
U.S. Peace Corps
PO Box 376
Take care and I will be in touch.