The first thing you notice about Kazakhstan are the hats. Climbing off the tarmac, strung out after a day and a half of airplanes and terminals and 8 a.m. Frankfurt beers, you’re greeted by a surprisingly modern customs gate. Russian and Kazakh greetings are scrawled on the wall, but you’re far too emotionally emaciated to care to translate. As you crest the tarmac, you notice that the customs agents wear basic forest-green uniforms: sashes and epaulettes, polished shoes and straight backs. Normal Eurasian fare. But they’ve got these hats – “opera bouffé,” as Christopher Robbins called them – that make you pause just long enough to set a pile of Americans blocking the customs entrance.
These hats, the same color as the uniforms, are close cousins of those you’d see sitting atop a traffic cop. However, these shalkas, which add another foot to already erect postures, wouldn’t stand a chance in an open-wind setting. They swoop a foot downward from front to back, a small black bill accenting the disproportion, with the officers’ dull, bored eyes belying the clear thrill that anyone (or at least me) would get from topping a uniform with such flair. As I passed through the passport lines, I couldn’t take my eyes off of them. Aided by 36 hours of little sleep, a trail of drool began to slip from my lips. (Changing perceptions, one puddle of spittle at a time.)
These hats were the first things I noticed. And they were the first things I wanted to buy. (I’ve yet to see if Kazakhstan has any army surplus stores, though I have noticed that there is more than enough boдкa lining thrift-store shelves.) But they were not the only hats that I saw in my first few days. Among the other tête-tops were:
–The traditional Russian ushanka, the quad-cornered fur beast that dots the entire former Soviet Union. These hats are as ubiquitous in Russian-speaking lands as oligarchs and snyek, and are used for fashion just as much as they are function. With nothing but a black Montreal Canadiens beanie, I’ve stuck out like the foreigner I try not to be. As soon as I find the bazaar, I’m shelling out a few tenge and keeping those ear flaps down for the next 27 months.
–The just-as-well-known Islamic skull cap. A latticed, milk-white yamaka, these caps can either be worn directly on the skin or in pill-box form, encircled around the greater part of your head. I’ve not yet attended a musselmani service – I live a five-minute walk from a mosque, and have heard a few of the muezzins calls to prayer thus far – but I’m looking forward to the chance to send the photo to Rep. Peter King as soon as I can.*
*My host family are Turkish supplants, brought over a few generations prior during Stalin’s genocidal collectivization efforts. I’ve not yet pieced together their story, background, or beliefs – language difficulties, and all that – but a gorgeous Koran holds the living room wall, and the lack of drink has been a welcome surprise. As has been the marked mixture of foodstuffs: Russian cakes, Eastern Europe blintzes, Turkish cheese and Kazakh tea have helped me stay any craving for burgers and Tabasco.
–An entirely exotic, entirely conical Kazakh hat that topped the women in the traditional concert with which we were presented during our first morning of training. A dozen fair-skinned women balanced dark-stained violins upright on their laps, turning them more double-bass than foreign fiddle. A few more stood beside, sounding a Kazakh slide guitar and the ever-present dhombra, the two-stringed tear-drop guitar that serves as national instrument. Bringing us a lilting acoustic tune, these women – and a few men bookending with more dhombras – welcomed us to Kazakhstan with as much musicianship as anyone could want. But while a symphony would see black ties and penguin suits, these musicians were dressed in traditional colors, cherry red and cheesecake-white. The men were standing in leisure suits, but the women – oh, the women – had ruffled dresses that cascaded past their feet, shoulder-pads hinging their buttoned shirts and long sleeves, and coned hats pointed two feet in the air. Atop these hats floated white fluffs, the size of softballs, allowing us to follow these women’s head-lolls while we settled into our first day in Central Asia.
Of course, hats are but a small part of what we’ve seen thus far. Fortunately, I have two years to flesh out all thoughts, observations, and consequent puns that will come from Kazakhstan and intermittent travels.* As such, instead of detailing every bust of Lenin that I’ve seen – one of the many things that have given me chills, to be sure – I’ll instead bring you to where I am**:
*According to our country director, the most popular destinations for Peace Corps volunteers are Thailand, Uzbekistan, and Turkey. Discussions have thus far ranged from Istanbul to Khiva to The Philippines, to say nothing of Bangkok and Moscow. Of course, I may just end up in India come July 2012, as that’s my best bet for catching the next Batman in English. (If there’s ever an incentive to learn Russian, it’s coming from Anne Hathaway as Catwoman.)
** Because I forgot to bring along a converter, my camera’s juice is running low. I’m looking to hit up an electronic store soon but until then you’ll just have to use that wondrous imagination of yours.
The town of Berbulak, with a four-figure population, is a residential settlement situated to the east of Almaty. A tour of town on Sunday – a collection of close houses around the town minaret, all covered in six inches of mid-March snow – saw me and my host brother, Muybin, tramp around the basics: the postcha (post office), th magazeen and boutique (store), the shkola (school) where I will soon be studying for Kazakh teacher-ship, and the peevo (bar) where I will going soon afterward to unwind with mountain-spring beers. Along the tour we walked under a trio of squawking vabronas, crowing in the empty trees; savolkas, pheasant-tailed magpies; and a flock of varabays, black-cheeked sparrows bopping among the snow as we passed the blockish, flat-top houses. The Kazakh sun turned the snyek blinding, and my hand was kept warm only by flipping through a Russki-Ingliski Dictionary as I searched for “ice” and “shoes” and “frostbite.” Dried trees lined the dug-out roads, and neighbors walked by with ah-salah-wahlay-kums and the accompanying two-hand clasps. (As soon as they hear the nasaled accent of my ma’alakum sa’laam response, their faces light up with the recognition of a foreigner. Amerikaneets! Children then flock like we’re the passing ice cream truck, trying out their “hello’s!” and “good day’s!” and “welcome in Kazakhstan’s!” I understand that working with Peace Corps would earn certain respect, but I never thought it would allow us celebrity status.)
Surrounding the township are the foothills of the Tien Shan, a mountain range dominating the south and providing clear direction from Almaty to us in the outskirts. Kazakhstan is, of course, mostly steppe – moreas of grass that stretch as far as you could imagine, and then some more. But we’re sitting in the southern part of the nation, a few hours from both Kyrgyzstan and Xinjiang (nominally and majority Chinese, but traditionally Turkic).* This area is little drier than the rest of the nation but, because the mountains trap what little moisture weighs in, these bluffs are far more fertile than anything the steppe could ever provide. (It has been postulated that settled farming began in the Tien Shan instead of the Tigris and Euphrates cradle, but I’ll leave that up to the agro-archaeologists.)
*The eastern province of Xinjiang, which means “New Frontier” in Mandarin, existed as a sovereign nation in the 1940s before being subsumed by Han diktat, predating the similar Tibetan annexation by some 20 years. The area brims with the majority of China’s 65-million-strong Muslims and serves as the home of the Uighers, a group of people known in the West for little more than providing a few prisoners in Gitmo – but who make a wondrous veggie dish called mahnti, dumpling-like bites containing gourd and spice. Xinjiang is also the area that, after perhaps Khiva, I most wish to visit. Kashgar, Yarkand, and Urumchi – the ancient axes of Eastern Turkestan – exist in the same hazy, beyond-the-border state as the rest of Central Asia. If you ever wanted to travel to another time, I imagine Western China would be a good place to start.
The Tien Shan – Chinese for “Heavenly Mountains,” and birthplace of the Malus pumila, the original cultivated apple – erupted some 10 million years ago. Since its birth this altayskee hribet (mountain range) has chained the Kazakh steppe to the Kyrgyz Pamirs and down to the Roof of the World, the monstrous Hindu Kush far to the south. Now, I’ve seen my fair share of ranges in my day. I’ve driven through Southern Alps of New Zealand, admiring Peter Jackson’s keen cinematographic selections. I’ve taken trains through the original Alps that scar central Europe. I’ve flown across the Rockies, and woken every morning to the distant Mt. Hood anchoring Portland’s east side.
And none of them compare.
The snow of the Tien Shan foothills is peppered with trees and Soviet-era constructions, a reflecting white with green-black dots crawling its sides. The hills are inviting enough, beckoning the childhood sledder in all of us. But if you peer through the sunned haze rising from these bluffs, you’ll find, as if in mirage, the ruts and peaks of the miles-off range, emerging from what was previously blindingly blue sky. And if your eyes somehow adjust to this newfound layer, you then realize that that secondary layer is just that – secondary. For amidst the midday evaporations, you’ll piece together a picture of another layer beyond that which you’ve just found, ever-higher, ever-further, ever-more-imposing. I’ve never seen anything quite like it before. It looms mythical, distant, two-dimensional and imagined. It’s as if the peaks ripple outward from the highest points, scattering in staccato crags before smoothing into Berbulak and the rest of Almaty. The mountains just go on, higher and further, further and higher, walling us in, keeping us in awe.
They’re ethereal, almost. Ghostly. Heavenly. And they’re just outside my window.