Michael Ryan loaded and read an e-version of my book, West Meets East in Kazakhstan, just before taking his first trip to Kazakhstan near the end of October. Upon his return to the USA two weeks later, he wrote the following account to me, which I publish here with his permission.
What a pleasure it is to read that local residents still roll out the welcome mat for foreigners, just as they did for me more than 20 years ago.
Michael’s letter reminded me so much of one of the experiences I had at the Shymbulak ski area. I had taken a break from skiing and was sitting at the outdoor dining area and was joined, to my surprise, possibly my consternation, by a local policeman as I had spare space at my table. We conversed amiably as strangers do when in close proximity, such as with seatmates on an airplane, and the policeman eventually invited me to join him and his family for a feast at the approaching end of a religious holiday! What to know more? See Chapter 44 of my book.
I’m always glad to hear from readers who write about Kazakhstan and, of course, about the book.
I wanted to follow up to share my experiences with my short two week trip to Almaty, Kazakhstan.
I didn’t know what to expect, but reading about your experiences in your book with the subtitle “Life in and Around Almaty, Kazakhstan in the 1990’s” gave me somewhat of a reference point before I arrived.
I was sent by my employer to work with a team in a field office near the Zhibek Zholy Metro station.
Overall, my experiences were positive during my stay in Almaty. I met a lot kind people and found the variety and quality of food remarkable. The only one negative point that would prevent me from ever living in Almaty is the fog of pollution that weighs heavily on the city. There’s definitely a lack of pollution controls that gives way to the bad air quality (especially from the buses). Coming back home to the States, I was relieved to breathe again! Thank goodness for the enforcement of emission laws in the States!
I arrived solo on this trip, so for the most part, I was on my own until I met some friendly Kazakh locals who spoke English during the middle part of my stay.
To learn more about the city I used every form of transportation available: walking, taking the bus, riding the Metro and occasionally hiring gypsy taxis. I used Google Maps and Google Translate applications on my phone to navigate the city and the Russian language. Google Translate employs the device’s camera to recognize Russian words/phrases and instantly translates them into English. So happy to be living in the 21st century!
When I first arrived to the airport, I was greeted by several Kazakhs who wanted my business. I started my pricing negotiations and went with the gentleman who was the most aggressive and could speak English. He gave me a ballpark figure that was higher than I wanted along with the story that inflation has gotten the best of him and his family. I agreed to his proposed amount under the condition that he would need to help me as my personal translator to purchase a SIM card with a phone and data plan. And these services needed to be activated and working before I arrived to my hotel. The gentleman agreed. With his help, I had purchased the SIM card and loaded money into the account. On the way out, he couldn’t figure out how to activate my phone given the instructions in Russian. He then called a friend that he picked up on the way to help with activation. The friend helped and I paid as promised. We had a fun time in that taxi ride talking about life in the States and in Kazakhstan. After they asked what my name was and learned it was Michael, they asked if they could call me Michael Jackson. Once we arrived to the hotel we all got out of the car, shook hands and gave each other hugs. It was a humble moment for me.
The Field Office
The field office was situated in a large building with multiple floors. The floor that I worked on had an open floor layout with several groups of desks headed by a series management desks which were positioned to keep an eye on things and provide support when needed. I was very interested about the integration of women with men in the workplace and pleasantly surprised to learn that they worked and collaborated well together. When it came to seating arrangements, the men and women would cluster in segregated groups. During the work day I had observed sisterhood in play. On one occasion, a woman had offered her chair to another woman and then started braiding her hair which took around 30 minutes to complete. During the lunch period, I had observed several office workers snoozing in their chairs. Naps in Kazakhstan are just important as they are in Mexico.
It was in the office where I learned how important handshakes are in the Kazakhstan culture. I shook hands several times a day at various times when colleagues arrived to the office and later in the day when they departed for home. People who I didn’t know nor worked with arrived at my desk to shake my hand. I always responded with a firm shake and a smile.
The Metro stations are beautiful and well kept and reminded me of some of the stations I’ve visited in Moscow. Here is where I’ve seen the most security compared to other countries I’ve visited. The officers wear uniforms that are reminiscent of Russian military with the large “Zhukov” caps. They always appear vigilant with dubinkas [truncheons] in hand.
On Sunday morning, it was misty and there was rain in the forecast. But, I needed to get out of the hotel and get some fresh air and exercise, so I took a taxi to Medeo [above the city in the mountains where there is a huge ice skating rink, the highest in the world]. I heard that one could get to the Shymbulak from Medeo, but once I arrived and scanned the area, I didn’t know how to advance up further and I was also worried about how I would return back to the hotel. The clerks selling passes for the skating rink had trouble understanding me. I took a chance and bought a 2 hour pass and went skating. I had so much fun and bumped into a guy who asked me a question in Russian. I told him that I spoke English and he replied, “me too”! I was so happy to meet this Kazakh man and his son who he was taking skating for the day. We ran into a group of his friends who were wearing NHL jerseys from various teams. I felt like I was at home again. My new friend offered to take a drive up to the Shymbulak and in exchange I bought him, his brother and his son lunch at the restaurant. There wasn’t much of a view with the rain and it was too early in the season to ski, but having lunch and spending time with my new friends brought me a lot of enjoyment.
There is the possibility I may return to work in Kazakhstan. I’m very happy that I now have connections with friends in Almaty that I can reach out to if I do return. Now I have a place in my heart for Kazakhstan!
I really enjoyed reading your book and liked very much your talented style of writing.
Note on the smog
Winter smog over Almaty is an old problem. The mountains to the south trap the air over the city when the wind is from the north. The chimneys from the coal-burning power station emit dust particles around which rain droplets form, and noxious fumes come from the vehicle traffic.
A long time ago there was a Japanese proposal to construct a large tunnel in the mountains, a kind of exhaust vent for the city. Now, more practical solutions are being considered and tried. Buses probably will be converted to compressed gas. Modern cars struggle with low quality fuel from Kazakhstan’s refineries, but the refineries are undergoing major upgrades. The partly constructed ring road around Almaty will siphon off some cross-city traffic when completed.