Clouds of Kyzylorda

Kyzylorda, Kazakhstan

Things everyone says: “My hometown is the worst.”

I am guilty of this myself, even though I am from one of the prettiest areas in the New York City radius. So when my Kazakh friends complain about being from Kyzylorda, a small town on the Syr Darya River in southern, relatively western Kazakhstan, I take it with a grain of salt.

On the other hand, Kyzylorda is in the middle of the Kazakh steppe hundreds of miles from the nearest city, the nearest point of interest being Baikonyr (where most of the world’s manned space flights are launched), although the actual cosmodrome is on land leased to Russia and you can’t just drop in unannounced. Further up the road (another hundred miles) there is Aralsk, the depressed ex-fishing town that used to be on the Aral sea before they drained a third of the water to irrigate cotton fields in Uzbekistan. What there is to see there now is an interesting history lesson and a “graveyard” of old ships, some sunken, some never taken out of the water when the sea receded.

The point I’m trying to make is: “Kyzylorda is in the middle of nowhere” is a totally valid claim. But that is only a bad thing if you don’t like it here and/or don’t have the option of leaving. For a few short days, I am enjoying it.

Almaty, the big city to the east, has me living under some majestic mountains and all, but also a blanket of smog that never moves. So my first love poem to Kyzylorda would probably be a hundred pages long and focused entirely on the subject of clean air. The air is so clean, you can see really far. The air is so clean, my hacking cough of two months got better as soon as I got off the plane. The air is clean because it’s really windy all the time, but it’s not so cold anymore so it certainly works for me.

It’s been raining off and on for the past few days, so my favorite clean air effect so far has been the clouds. In Almaty, every day is either clear or hazy with nothing in between. In Kyzylorda, every time I look up there is something to take a picture of.

Winter In Almaty

Almaty, Kazakhstan

Winter in Kazakhstan was not something I was entirely looking forward to. I knew temperatures could plummet to -30°C at night (-22°F if it even matters at that point), with far less extreme but squarely sub-zero days. I was aware that the already noticeable air pollution would increase as the heat was turned on (this is done city-wide, all at once). To top it all off, I’d heard one too many stories of people getting killed by falling icicles. After spending so much time reassuring family and friends that Kazakhstan is a safe place to live in terms of crime, it seemed obvious that I’d get killed by an icicle.

In practice, it hasn’t been so bad. Walking to my Russian class every morning at sunrise has been a little brutal, but walking back in the afternoon has been almost pleasant. The more ornate Soviet era buildings look like they were made to have a few centimeters of snow on top; Icing on a row of pastel colored cakes. The mountains, too, are drastically more handsome capped in white.

Today was a day that mostly resembled the picture I used to have in my head of living in Kazakhstan. With the snow on the mountains and clinging to the rose bushes in the parks (but not all up in my shoes), I walked to class listening to the only two songs I know in Kazakh on repeat. The guard at the school gave me some crap for not having a student ID (which I still have no idea how to get because no one will tell me). У меня нет (I don’t have) isn’t a complete sentence but I stared him down a little and he let me through. In class my teacher revealed that she had been sick all weekend and basically didn’t have a lesson plan. Instead she taught us an old Soviet lullaby with whimsical lyrics and a sad sounding melody. During the break I braved the cold to meet one of the Afghan students for a chai. Our teeth chattered while the plastic cups burned our fingers and we discussed our lessons in our broken Anglo-Russian made up language.

Kurmangazy Statue Almaty

I walked home behind a group of twelve-year-old boys along the post-blizzard street. They were playing that game where you kick a snow-laden tree while your friends are passing under and then run away before the avalanche rains down on everyone else’s heads. Despite predicting this in advance, I got caught in the deluge, along with a much older Kazakh man. I had neither the energy nor the linguistic ability to do anything but tuck my head down and wince against the sensation of ice sliding into my coat. The other guy took off like a shot, stomping angrily after the tree-kicker. What do you think you’re doing? Hooligan! he shouted and slapped him hard across the back of the neck. Sometimes I wish I was from a country where you’re allowed to hit other people’s kids if they really deserve it.

This afternoon, on one of the coldest greyest days so far, I visited Republic Square. If Almaty has a city center (it doesn’t), Republic Square is probably the best candidate. If you stand inside the Independence Monument and face south (pictured), you’ll see the Presidential Palace across the street. It’s not used as much since the capital was moved to Astana, but it remains a government building. The mountains rise up behind it along with the cluttered architecture of more recent decades. To your left is the Soviet style television tower, stuck like a pin into a picturesque cluster of hills. Almaty’s beauty comes and goes with the seasons and the smog, but it’s a city that never lets you forget what part of the world you’re in.

About those icicles though:

Icicles In Almaty

Nauryz Kutty Bolsyn

Sayram, Kazakhstan

Nauryz Kutty Bolsyn! (Happy Nauryz!) exclaims every neighbor, vendor and storefront window across Kazakhstan this week. Spring has arrived. The nation is on vacation.

In most Central Asian countries the spring equinox is celebrated as the beginning of the new year. In Kazakhstan specifically, people celebrate by eating, hanging around outside, eating some more, and playing a sport that vegetarians might not wanna watch called .

In a week or so of Nauryz (or Nowruz) celebrations, I was lucky enough to spend the second day in a majority Uzbek village called Sayram, just outside the city of Shymkent. It’s not a village I would have thought to explore— or would ever have been able to find— on my own, but a local connection of ours had invited us to a community picnic which would be the center of the Nauryz festivities for the town. When we arrived, he introduced us to some of his older students at the after school program where he teaches English, and they very graciously showed us around for the rest of the afternoon.


Sayram isn’t much to look at initially, but it is over 3,000 years old. The remnants of various empires dating back to its first contact with Islam (766 AD) are still visible, but you need to know where to look. The most obvious distinguishing feature of the town, even to the untrained eye, is the lack of Soviet planning. The streets curve in random directions while the town center sits on the same crossroads that have been used for centuries. In contrast the rest of Kazakhstan, I don’t think I saw a single building more than two stories high. So although most people spoke to us in Russian and there were a fair number of Ladas driving around, it was interesting to get a taste of a culture that passed through the Soviet era largely untouched.

I think we ate four lunches that day, one of which involved a bottle of red wine bottled in The Kazakh Soviet Republic (no date) along with a plate of lamb plov served from a steaming cauldron that could have fit twelve people inside. The cook proudly told us he had used 20 liters of oil that day as he gave the plov a stir with a paddle the size of a cricket bat.

Everyone we met wanted to feed us and there didn’t seem to be any shortage of food, so we just kept eating. Some kids brought us over to another table laid out by the local school where I ate my first pumpkin samsa (similar enough in concept to a samosa, but completely different execution). And our final meal for the afternoon was mostly just Turkish desserts.

It was the men from the Turkish Culture Society who took us perhaps too seriously. We were all asked up to the main stage of the event to address a small crowd while they were waiting for some musicians to get started. We obliged in English, Russian, French, German and extremely limited Kazakh, and I guess we were a hit. If I had known we would cause that much of a ruckus, I might have voted to spend another day in Shymkent instead, but we were finally able to escape the attention once the musical and dance performances began.

We can’t be the first out-of-towners who have ever stumbled into the village of Sayram during the holiday, but with everything we did turning into a public display of foreignness, it only took a few hours to wear us out. Our student chaperones were sympathetic, but adamant that we make one last stop at a drama theater that hosts Uzbek language productions. The director treated us like some kind of official European delegation and let us watch part of a performance for free. We understood very little of the production itself but the cultural importance of the theater was clear. The director showed us photos from the opening ceremony in 2003, attended by President Nazarbayev himself to promote his platform of support for ethnic minorities in Kazakhstan. We couldn’t quite escape before they pulled the staff photographer off work to come take pictures of us, but he didn’t really seem to mind.

[On an unrelated nerdy typography note, major shoutout to the creators of the SignPainter HouseScript font, which I used in my Nauryz postcard. Besides being a gorgeous font, it supports Kazakh characters “қ” and “ұ”! There are very few fonts, even those with cyrillic support, that include the extra letters used in the Kazakh alphabet and it’s literally a design issue in Kazakhstan. Look at printed things. You will see what I mean.]

Somewhere In Kyrgyzstan (Barskon Valley)

Along the south shore of Issyk Kul, near the village of Barskoon (Барскон), the single road that hugs the perimeter of the lake splits off to the left. This was once a Silk Road shortcut, providing access over a towering mountain pass into China. Now the road is largely maintained by Canada.


The Kumtor Gold Mine (operated by a Canadian mining company) sits at 4,000 meters above sea level on a mountain plateau, only reachable by the abovementioned road. My traveling companions and I had no interest in the gold mine itself, but a decently maintained trucking route into the elusive far reaches of these mountains seemed like a guaranteed scenic detour on our meandering eastern Kyrgyzstan drive. Why should a gold mine be allowed to spoil all those dramatic mountainous landscapes for everyone else?

The road is closed to the public, but like most things in Kyrgyzstan that are closed to the public, you can enter anyway if you have some extra cash for the guard on duty and are competent at negotiating in Russian. So we weaseled our way in. It was a special occasion, after all: Our last trip in Central Asia for a very long time.

The road heads up into the mountains via a tight series of switchbacks. The road is paved and fairly wide, but there are seldom guard rails. Every so often, there is a landing where mining trucks can safely pass each other, and that’s where you’ll get out to take photos of the plunging rock walls surrounding the valley.

Eventually, the road emerges onto a marshy plateau sprinkled with small clear lakes. A handful of people seem to live up here but there are no visible settlements; Just miles of grassland hemmed in by snow-capped peaks, now considerably less towering. We did feel like we might be pushing our luck to continue too close to actual mining operations, so we headed back down from there, past stunning cliffs and fields of grazing horses, back to Issyk Kul.


Foreigners In First President’s Park

Almaty, Kazakhstan

After a month or two of Russian classes at KazNU, some of our teachers loaded all the beginner students onto two buses and took us on a tour of Almaty. By this point I had already seen a lot of the city myself, sometimes the extremely hard way, with a working knowledge of a few main bus lines, a pair of good walking shoes, and roughly a 50-word Russian vocabulary. But there was one place that always seemed too far, at the extreme southern end of the city and the end of Al-Farabi Avenue: Парк Первого Президента, or First President’s Park.

“More like only president’s park,” mumbled a student from Afghanistan, nailing both the Russian genitive case and the appropriate level of sarcasm.

He wasn’t wrong. Nursultan Nazarbayev, the first and thus far only president of Kazakhstan, has been in office since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. He was a well liked leader of the Kazakh SSR in various capacities for over a decade prior, and the election, in which he appeared alone on the ballot, was a no-brainer for most people. But anyone who does want to see Kazakhstan under different leadership will likely be waiting until he dies.

For now his image remains synonymous with Kazakhstan itself, and as our group of sixty students gathered together for a group photo at the end of our visit, it was not the elegant colonnade at the park’s entrance or the stunning mountainous backdrop of the park that our teachers herded us toward. It was the massive bronze statue of Nazarbayev, seated in front of two looming and less-than-suble abstract eagle wings bearing inscriptions in Kazakh and Russian. My classmates couldn’t sit still, but our teachers were beaming in every photo.

I returned to the park in the morning of my last day in Kazakhstan. The early summer weather had tripled the amount of green space and brought the detailed landscaping to life. A series of paved paths leads deep into the park, towards the foothills of the Alatau. Seeing those mountains every day is, without any doubt, the thing I will miss the most about living in Almaty, and First President’s Park yields a completely unobstructed and relatively smog-free view.

First President's Park Mountains

World’s Tallest

A friend in Kazakhstan once told me: “Don’t go to Dubai unless you have money to spend.”

This turned out to be sound advice, but I went anyway on a two-day stopover between Istanbul and Delhi.

There’s nothing I can say about modern Dubai that isn’t already common knowledge. Depending on your taste, the downtown area is either a gleaming display of architectural prowess or an obscene and vaguely desperate demonstration of excess. Either way, the whole thing erupted out of the bare desert in less than 25 years on a wave of oil revenue, leaving few traces of the old trading town behind. It is a destination for those seeking a hot sun, a warm sea, and unbelievable luxury; As a visitor, you’re unlikely to get a true window into Emirati life just by walking around the city.

In late May, it was 104°F/40°C outside and Dubai was a ghost town. Everyone with the option of spending their day inside an air conditioned building did so, leaving me and my traveling companions nearly alone to wander the beach and the empty streets downtown. During the hottest part of the day, I could almost stand to be outside for about an hour at a time. A group of landscape workers caught me staring at them as I wondered what ten hours of daily physical activity must be like in this climate.

A sticking point for me in getting to know a place like Dubai is its reputation for abusive practices towards foreign labor. While that criticism alone could be leveled at almost every developed country on earth, Dubai is unfortunately unique for reports of construction companies literally for years at a time with no other option than to work long days in intense heat for low wages until they can afford to escape.

As a tourist, maybe you’re entitled to ignore this sort of thing. But I think it’s better to confront it; To view Dubai not as some miracle oasis that grew out of the Arabian Desert when the time was right, but a city built with as much human sweat as tons of steel, and no small amount of blood.

It’s ok to know this, and to still find the Burj Khalifa pretty amazing.