January 16, 2004 - Personal Web Site: Sometimes it is hard to imagine that I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kazakhstan nearly 5 years ago

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Kazakstan : Peace Corps Kazakhstan : The Peace Corps in Kazakstan: January 16, 2004 - Personal Web Site: Sometimes it is hard to imagine that I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kazakhstan nearly 5 years ago

By Admin1 (admin) (pool-151-196-35-236.balt.east.verizon.net - on Tuesday, January 27, 2004 - 5:49 pm: Edit Post

Sometimes it is hard to imagine that I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kazakhstan nearly 5 years ago

Sometimes it is hard to imagine that I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kazakhstan nearly 5 years ago

Peace Corps Kazakhstan Journal (Part 1) - August, 1996

Welcome to Karatau, Kazakhstan

Sometimes it is hard to imagine that I was a Peace Corps Volunteer nearly 5 years ago. I was an idealist then who wanted to work with orphans in the Third World. The Peace Corps, I thought, would give me that chance. If I am lucky, maybe I could even try to change the world. Like most Peace Corps Volunteers, I was so naive at that time.

I arrived into Karatau, Kazakhstan, in late August, 1996, by train after a long 14 hour journey from Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan at the time (In 1998, the capital was moved to Aqmola and renamed Astana which coincidentally means "Capital" in the Kazakh language). My journey actually started in Kapchagai (Kapshagai in Kazakh) located just outside of Almaty. Kapchagai was the location of the Peace Corps Training Site at that time. We spent about 3 months training and learning new languages (Kazakh and Russian). I did not particularly like my stay in Kapchagai since I really did not get along with my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs).

At the end of the training, the Peace Corps Training Staff announced to us where all the new PCVs would be serving for the next two years. Unlike most PCVs who were being sent to cities with other PCVs, I was sent to a small Kazakh town to serve by myself. Due to my relationship with other PCVs, this was probably a smart move on behalf of the Peace Corps.

Karatau, which translates into Black Mountain in Kazakh (Kara "Black" and Tau "Mountain"), was located in southern Kazakhstan roughly 100 km northwest of Taraz (formerly Zhambyl). It was technically out in the middle of no where. Upon hearing the news, my Kazakh host mother in Kapchagai nearly broke down in tears. She urged the Peace Corps to keep me in Kapchagai. What my host mother did not know was that I requested to be sent to a small Kazakh town by myself. The Peace Corps was only granting my wishes. It was a decision I never regretted.

A couple days before departing from Kapchagai to Karatau, I met my counterpart from the school I was supposed to work in. I was a bit nervous when I first met her but ended up being dumbfounded after we were introduced. She did not speak a word to me. Not a single word. While all the other PCVs were having a great time meeting their counterparts, I just sat down and talked to the other counterparts. I did manage to eventually get her name thanks to my Asst. Program Manager, Angelina. Angelina noticed that this could be a potential problem for me so she instructed that I find a new counterpart immediately upon arriving into Karatau.

The day that we all left Kapchagai for our Peace Corps sites was a bit of a relief for many of us. Kapchagai was a harsh place to live and there was sand everywhere. We boarded our buses which would take most of us to the train station in Almaty. Once we got to the train station, the Peace Corps asked us to assist each other in loading the luggage unto the trains.

I actually traveled to southern Kazakhstan with the group of PCVs who were assigned sites in Taraz and Shymkent. Our train did not leave until late that afternoon. That meant having to sit around all day at the train station. For me, I was able to kill some time by visiting the Peace Corps Medical Officer (PCMO) at the Peace Corps Office. My PCMO was concerned about my health since I had been sick during my entire 3 months in Kapchagai. After giving me a clear bill of health, I returned to the train station. Nearly a month later, I would be brought back to Almaty after being sick for nearly 2 weeks (More about that in a future weblog).

Our train finally arrived. We then began loading the train with our luggage. Immediately we had problems with the conductors who wanted to sell the seats that we purchased for our luggage to other passengers. Our self appointed group leader, Gerry, and a Kazakh counterpart took care of the situation much to the disliking of the conductors. For the trip, I shared a compartment with Scott (Taraz) and Gerry (Shymkent). Monique (Taraz), Ruth (Taraz) and Chris (Taraz) also made the trip to Taraz with us. It was a long trip but I got to know Ruth's counterpart, Lyazzat, who was nervous that Sharizat still refused to talk to me.

About 15 minutes before arriving to Taraz, Ruth and I decided to get all of our luggage ready so would could unload them immediately once the train arrived into Taraz. We were actually successful in getting most of the luggage near the exit of the train. It took us less than 10 minutes to unload our luggage. Unfortunately, we had one little problem. Ruth was missing her luggage. As we boarded, it turned out that one Uzbek woman had lied to me in stating that Ruth's luggage was hers. Ruth yelled at her and I grabbed her suitcases from the woman. We had made it to Taraz.

At the train station, I remember Lyazzat saying something to Sharizat. It has been my intention to take a taxi cab from Taraz to Karatau. At this point Sharizat started talking to me in English. She did not want to take a taxi to Karatau stating too dangerous at night. Instead, we walked down and boarded another train that was to depart for Karatau at roughly 7 AM in the morning (It was about 2 AM at the time). As we boarded, I remember Sharizat getting into an argument with a conductor. I learned later why. With my luggage, Sharizat felt it would be safer if they put us in the conductor's compartment. The train we were own did not have private compartments like the earlier train.

I actually slept until the train departed at 7 AM. It had now been 5 hours since the other Americans. I now knew I was on my own with Sharizat being my guide (Not reassuring I know). As the train moved, Sharizat did something that surprised me, she started to make conversation. She began to complain that she knew nothing about me and that the School Director, our boss, would be angry with her. For the next two hours, Sharizat kept asking me questions. It kind of bothered me since I was actually enjoying the scenery. There is nothing more beautiful than the Kazakh steppe.

As our train arrived into Karatau, I immediately noticed the closed phosphate mine on the outskirts of Karatau. Everything was brown and for some reason, Karatau reminded me of Kapchagai. Once we got off the train, I realized that this town was dead. Why did the Peace Corps send me here (something I would say over and over again for 2 years). We unloaded my luggage and walked toward the front of the train station. I remember the weather being sunny and cool that morning so I did not mind waiting for Sharizat as she tried to locate a ride for me.

Our School Director, Asan Orazimbetov, picked us up in his blue Jugari which resembles a Lada. We loaded my bags and then his assistants push started the car. The ride to the school was very interesting. The streets of Karatau were clean and lined with trees (which later would due wonders for my allergies). It was a short ride to the school and they took me to my apartment.

My first apartment was located on the first floor. It was actually quite big and they reassured me that it was very warm in the winter. After dropping off my bags, I then went with Sharizat to Asan's apartment which was located in the same apartment building. There, I met Asan's wife, Adigul, and had a small meal. After the meal, I then went to my apartment to take a nap. Before I left, Asan offered me two rooms in his apartment for me to stay in if I did not like my apartment. His wife offered to cook for me for a week until I could get my stove working.

I ended up accepting Asan's offer since my first apartment did not have a metal door or bars on the window. It was a burglary waiting to happen. The Peace Corps actually made these bars and a metal door a requirement for the safety of PCVs.

I took my short nap and then went outside to tour the school. I found out that the apartment complex I was staying in used to be the dorms for the teaching staff of the Karatau Lyceum. My apartment actually located on campus (which was nice when since I could get an extra 30 minutes of sleep per day). It was now really hot outside.

Asan saw me walking and met up with me. We then went to my apartment to start moving my luggage. My new apartment was located on the second floor. What was interesting was that Asan's apartment was actually three apartments in one. He combined them to make a townhouse. He basically moved his daughters from the two rooms I was to occupy and moved them to another room (I found this out after the fact). Asan then had his assistants move all the furniture and "air conditioner" from the other apartment to my new apartment. It took a couple of hours at which point I finally unpacked.

(Asan and Adigul Orazimbetov)

That evening, my host mother made a good traditional Kazakh meal for me called beshbarmaq (Translated into 5 fingers since you eat it with your fingers though I used a fork). This was when my host sisters started to talk to me in "English." Aizhan and Gulzhan could speak English. Ainura and Shurik, the youngest boy) could not. Adigul, who ended up becoming my host mother, started to offer me shots of vodka. Yes, on my first day in Karatau, I got real drunk with the School Director's, my boss, wife. I slept really well that night.

Some postings on Peace Corps Online are provided to the individual members of this group without permission of the copyright owner for the non-profit purposes of criticism, comment, education, scholarship, and research under the "Fair Use" provisions of U.S. Government copyright laws and they may not be distributed further without permission of the copyright owner. Peace Corps Online does not vouch for the accuracy of the content of the postings, which is the sole responsibility of the copyright holder.

Story Source: Personal Web Site

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Kazakhstan; Blog



By Pavel Goss (213-182-127-75.teleos-web.de - on Tuesday, March 30, 2004 - 2:30 pm: Edit Post

I was born in Karatau and lived there till 1989.
I haven´t seen my place of birth for fifteen years. It must be nice there, now that the nature is awakening from winter sleep.

By Anonymous ( on Monday, August 22, 2005 - 3:59 am: Edit Post

Hi! Kev, do you remember your "mister talker"? :) It me. Now i live in Russia. In Novosibirsk :) Guys help me to find another volunteer. He was in Karatau in 1999-2001 Bryan C. Parham.
my contact: squal@ngs.ru
phone: +79139212150

By Matthew Turner ( on Tuesday, December 05, 2006 - 11:35 pm: Edit Post

Hi! I hope you recieve this messege. I'm the current PCV in Karatau, my name is Matthew. I just started here three weeks ago and so far I'm loving it. I work in the school Karl Marx if you know it. There is another volunteer here as well. Send me your email so I can here about what Karatau was like.

Add a Message

This is a public posting area. Enter your username and password if you have an account. Otherwise, enter your full name as your username and leave the password blank. Your e-mail address is optional.