Medeu on a Sunday Afternoon

Exactly as it sounds — a lovely Sunday afternoon at a Soviet-era ice skating rink. With lots and lots of stairs.

IMG_1902

One of my favorite things about Almaty is its close proximity to the mountains, and just how easy it is to spend time there, even on a day when there’s not a lot of spare time. A couple weeks ago, ahead of hosting a potluck at our house, Maki and I headed out just for an afternoon.

IMG_1893

Medeo, a Soviet-era skating rink, is a standard starting point for getting into the mountains, in part because its easily reached by public transit, and a 45 cent bus ticket is all you need to have access to the mountains. The day we picked, the rink was hosting some sort of snow motorcycling competition, but on an ordinary day, you can rent skates and skate high above the city. We hadn’t intended on skating, though, and instead spent our afternoon conquering the 842 steps that run up from the rink, along the Medeu dam.

IMG_1897

At the top, we got a nice glimpse over the valley, where you can see the gondolas headed up the mountain to Shymbulak, a base for skiing and other adventures (as I am well aware!).

IMG_1916Since we only had a little time anyway, we just wandered around a bit upon reaching the top of the stairs. Continue reading

Welcome to Almaty!

Off to the races!

IMG_1825

The Ascension Cathedral, completed in 1907, after a fresh snowfall.

After a somewhat delayed start, with my return to Kazakhstan comes the return of work! The first week was spent in a haze of bureaucratic errands, in order to get myself registered. I saw three different doctors to get the necessary paperwork (which included an x-ray and an HIV test), registered at the various archives here, and started Kazakh lessons. I’m already on my second teacher, thanks to a scheduling miscommunication, but now that my schedule is clear, I’m very much back to work.

Panfilov Park, in Central Almaty (where the church is located).

Panfilov Park, in Central Almaty (where the church is located).

My days start early here — at 6:30 — so I can be in and out of Kazakh lessons and off to the archive by the time they open. Maki and I also hosted our first guest (the first of many, we hope!). We also through ourselves one fantastic housewarming party, complete with tacos, guacamole (with avocados from the States!), and not one, not two, not three, but FOUR chocolate cakes, thanks to a lack of coordination between our guests. It was pretty much the best, even though there’s scant photographic evidence. But that’s it for now. Now that we’re feeling mostly settled, we’ll be ready to start adventuring again!

 

Been 10,000 miles, been in 14 states…

A whirlwind three four weeks in the US. Complete with lots of new babies, a wedding of a dear friend, a major surprise, and minor visa problems! Warning: photo overload!

Civilization in Almaty!

Civilization in Almaty! To the left, me at the Central Archives of the Republic of Kazakhstan, where I will basically be living for the semester. To the right, top: Nedelka, the cafe that I have also basically been living in. Below, United Coffee, another Almaty cafe.

And before we knew it, we were already touching down in Almaty, where Maki and I would be spending a couple days before heading to the States. Our friend Marysia was kind enough not only to put us up for the 2.5 nights that we were in the city, but also to take our big suitcases so that we’d be packed lightly for our western sojourns. In Almaty, a veritable paradise awaited us, complete with good coffee, fast internet, and friendly people. I think I experienced greater culture shock here in Kazakhstan than I usually experience returning to the US. Of course, I think that should also be taken with a grain of salt: the greatest culture shock is experienced anywhere I land after Tajikistan (see: Kyiv 2011). Anyway, we spent our days collecting the last of our Christmas presents and dealing with a little bureaucracy for my in-process Kazakh visa. And then, we were off! To NYC, via Kyiv, on Ukrainian International Airlines.

Not the most luxurious ride across the Atlantic, but definitely the cheapest! Round-trip from Almaty to NYC for $700? One-way for $450? Yes please!

Not the most luxurious ride across the Atlantic, but definitely the cheapest! Round-trip from Almaty to NYC for $700? One-way for $450? Yes please!

And suddenly, we were in New York City. We took the subway into town to Maki’s friend’s place in the East Village to drop off our stuff before heading to a dinner party in Hoboken, hosted by Sara, the girlfriend of Maki’s closest friend. Dinner was followed by a return to the East Village for a Christmas party at a bar. We were total troopers and even managed to stay out until 2 am, including a last night taco and pizza run. Not bad on an 11 hour time shift! The following morning, we enjoyed coffee with Pete, our host, followed by a lovely brunch with Alana, my college roommate, and wandered the area just a bit, before we headed north to Bronxville, to stay with Maki’s cousin for a couple days. One of our favorite babies, Julian, also came with his parents, Maki’s cousin Daria and her husband Roman. Julian was a lot friendlier than when we had met him in June before our departure.

NYC: with Julian, Roman, and Taras to the left and top right. With Alana to the bottom right.

NYC: with Julian, Roman, and Dennis to the left and top right. With Alana to the bottom right.

We spent the remainder of our time in NYC meeting up with old friends in the city and catching up with Maki’s cousins, who were both wonderful hosts. On the morning of the 23rd, we headed off to Ohio for the continuation of our adventures. Things got dicey pretty quickly, however. A couple small delays at every stop of our flight from White Plains to Philadelphia had us missing our connection to Columbus by minutes (we literally watched them pull back the jet bridge), and the rest of the flights to Columbus that afternoon were cancelled. But crisis was narrowly avoided when we had them rebook us for Cincinnati, and as luck had it, Kevin was headed to Columbus from the Cincinnati area anyway. Despite bad city traffic leaving the airport, we managed to get to the restaurant ahead of the Whittingtons with 20 minutes to spare. And oh the surprise! Though we had schemed our whole trip with my siblings, my parents had no idea we were out of Central Asia. My mom’s reaction to seeing us was totally priceless. We enjoyed a wonderful dinner with everyone, minus Thomas, who is spending the year in Berlin as a high school exchange student. Though the time in Columbus was far too short, we enjoyed our couple days together with quite the full house.

Whittingtons enjoying the holidays!

Whittingtons enjoying the holidays!

Christmas Eve was filled with last minute gift preparations, a wonderful cocktail hour, fancy dinner, and the family gift exchange, all well documented to share with Thomas. On Christmas morning, we followed tradition to line up in age order along the stairs. Thomas was along in spirit, so we were sure to photoshop him in:

Starred Photos88

We even squeezed in a quick Skype session with Thomas before Daniel and Lila had to be on their way north to Michigan, to spend Christmas day with Lila’s father. Those of us who remained enjoyed a pleasant hike in Highbanks, a city park a ten-minute drive from our home.

IMG_1650

The next morning, on December 26, the surprises continued as we headed north to visit my grandmother to celebrate Christmas with the Detroit-based family. Continue reading

Tajikistan Farewells

And suddenly, it was time to bid our farewells. Xair, Tajikistan. Salem, Kazakhstan!

Lifting off over Dushanbe. Farewell, for now!

Lifting off over Dushanbe. Farewell, for now!

As we were finally settling into our work patterns, both all too soon and not soon enough, it was time to bid our farewells to our home of the last three months. We were, of course, excited about the veritable paradise that Almaty promised to be, but before we left, there were all sorts of goodbyes that needed to be said. About a week and a half before our departure, Maki got the ball rolling by giving a final presentation at the American Corner about his research and what he studied, which I sadly could not attend. We celebrated afterwards at Public Pub, site of one of our first evenings out in Dushanbe. Since we were joined by a recent arrival in Tajikistan, Jason, we also had a nice chance to reflect on life in the country.

Fellow expats (and Umed) at Public Pub.

Left to right: Umed, Vadim, Lauren, Jason, Nona, and me.

Just earlier that evening, I was fresh off an impromptu house call on my previous host family, where I caught up with Nurov and Khadicha. They seemed to be doing pretty well. In the two and a half years that had elapsed, there were two new marriages (a daughter and granddaughter), and two new babies (another grandchild, and another great-grandchild). They were as hospitable as ever, and I promised to come back to introduce them to Maki. On the return visit, on my last day in the city, we even got a picture! I only regret that I didn’t stop in a lot earlier — it was ever so nice to see them, and a shame I only made it back in my last few days in the city!

Nurd with Anisa, the newest grandchild, and me with Nurov and Khadicha.

Nurd with Anisa, the newest grandchild, and me with Nurov and Khadicha.

On my last weekend in the city, I also managed to meet up with Nargiz. Our final meeting took place at the National Museum, which had been moved to a new building in the three years that had elapsed since my last visit. Parts of it are a little over the top, needless to say…

The National Museum of Tajikistan.

The National Museum of Tajikistan.

I was delighted, however, to see that some of the most precious treasures of its previous iteration were still on display. Mostly, I was excited to see this one:

untitled folder3

After a morning of packing and before my penultimate day at the archive, Maki and I went to lunch at our neighborhood kurutobkhona, a cafe that serves only national food. Continue reading

2014: A Year in Review

In keeping with established tradition, a (belated) look at the last year.

January: Engaged!

January: Engaged!

January is already nearly over and I am only now getting around to my annual review of the past year. Hard to believe this is already the sixth iteration of this annual tradition (See: 2009201020112012, 2013), but unlike previous years, I simply don’t have pictures from a good portion of the year. Still, we’ll do our best, starting with January. We greeted 2014 with a champagne toast at Maki’s parents’ home, a highly appropriate start to a year filled with champagne toasts, continuing just a few days later with champagne to celebrate our recent engagement (January 4), both in Silver Spring, with Maki’s parents, and in an unannounced visit to my parents in Columbus. Two major specters hung over my spring: my comprehensive exams and our wedding. And also, the seemingly endless winter that just wouldn’t go away. Including six full weeks where the temperature never went above freezing.

January, February, March, April: It seriously made no difference.

January, February, March, April: It seriously made no difference.

Though Maki took over the lion’s share of the wedding plans, since I was almost literally swamped by books, essays, and exam preparations (not to mention teaching!). There is good reason there were no blog posts between January and April. Other than a few visits to wedding venues, besides the white wintery landscape, this was basically my view until April 18:

January, February, March, April: Books, books, books.

January, February, March, April: Books, books, books.

And then, it was over. I passed my exams just as the snow was finally subsiding. Things kicked into high gear, with an Easter in Columbus, engagement pictures, a trip to Wisconsin. All sorts of Midwest love. Oh, and a wedding in New Jersey, too!

Top: Another Whittington Eagle scout, Easter in Columbus, engagement pictures, and a quick trip to Wisconsin.

Top: Another Whittington Eagle scout, Easter in Columbus, engagement pictures, and a quick trip to Wisconsin.

And before we knew it, it was already May. Let’s just say May was pretty eventful. All our preparations paid off, and we enjoyed a beautiful wedding ceremony, had a lot of fun cruising around Detroit for portraits, and a fabulous reception. With, of course, more champagne toasts.

May 10: Our wedding. All photos by Adam Sparkes.

May 10: Our wedding. All photos by Adam Sparkes.

And that was only the beginning. After the wedding, things just kept happening, even though Maki and I spent most of the first two months of our marriage in different places. Still, we found time for a post-wedding brunch, some time in DC, a non-honeymoon to California for research, and back to DC for more wedding celebrations, and another New Jersey wedding. And, yes, champagne toasts. Continue reading

Dushanbe from the National Library

Have I mentioned how beautiful Tajikistan is recently? Because I should probably say it again.

IMG_0075

Maki took this photo from the National Library in Dushanbe, and I just love the perspective it offers of the city — Rudaki Park below, the giant flagpole clearly visible, and the mountains spreading north of the city. I’ll miss this beautiful place.

Scenes from Tajik Village Life

Visits to two villages outside of Dushanbe and the tale of one very misadventurous iPod.

Dushanbe from Chorbogh, a village just on the outskirts.

Dushanbe from Chorbogh, a village just on the outskirts.

In the final weeks that I was in Dushanbe, I had a couple great opportunities to head out of the city and get a small glimpse at how the other half lives. Well, not quite exactly half, I believe, but a surprising number of people still have deep connections to the village, especially in Tajikistan As a general rule, I have spent very little time in villages in  the former Soviet Union, although I did have a couple forays into villages in the summer of 2011 (one Uzbek village, one Tajik village). My first opportunity this semester came from my conversation partner, Nargiz, who took me to visit her mother in Chorbogh, a village located in some hills just north of Dushanbe. From up above, you can see the city spread out in the valley below, as pictured in the lead picture.

With Nargiz in Chorbogh.

With Nargiz in Chorbogh.

Getting to Chorbogh, which literally means “four gardens,” requires just a 1 somoni (about 18 cents) out from the city’s northern limits, and you find yourself there in just 20 minutes. Despite the fact that you have hardly left Dushanbe, and that you can literally see the village from above, life in the village is entirely different. The first thing that will strike you is the total simplicity of daily life.

Nargiz's niece helps her wash her hands.

Nargiz’s niece helps her wash her hands.

Though there is running water in this particular village, only (VERY!) cold water is available, so even simple tasks like washing your hands tends to be done in a very simple way — with a pitcher of water, a mixture of hot water, warmed over the wood stove, and the cold water from the outdoor faucet. When we arrived, we were immediately brought into the warm room to sit by the wooden stove with bread, with Nargiz’s niece, Samira, who took an immediate liking to me.

IMG_1361

 

The bright room was lit only from the large windows that faced the sun, since in Chorbogh, as in most villages in Tajikistan, there is only electricity for a few hours each day and night. After we had started the snacking process, we headed outside to enjoy the entertainment provided by a village wedding that we could hear down the hill. We danced and laughed and took ever so many selfies.

IMG_1355

As the music died down, we were shuffled back into the room to enjoy a wonderful meal of plov (a Central Asian pilaf of rice, carrots, spices, and, in this case, chicken, although more commonly with lamb). Having had quite the breakfast, my showing was pretty miserable — try though I did, I could not escape the inevitable admonitions to “Gir! Gir! Gir!” (Tajik: “Take! Take! Take!”). My showing was pathetic, though I did my best. After we had both eaten our fill, we settled in for an afternoon nap. After a little rest, I decided to head out to the bathroom, and seeing how the sun was settling nicely, I decided to grab my iPod, which I stuck into my back picket as I headed for the outhouse, the beginning of one of the most hilarious sagas of my time in Dushanbe.

Sunset panorama over Chorbogh.

Sunset panorama over Chorbogh.

As you might guess, the bathroom situation in the village left plenty of opportunity for growth, although the conditions were actually quite good by village standards. I walked into the well-constructed outhouse, got ready to do what I had come in to do, when all of the sudden, my iPod falls out of my pocket, lands briefly on the ground, and then, of course, straight into the hole and then ten fifteen feet below. I freaked out, understandably, since my iPod had literally just fallen into a deep, concrete hole with just a small opening, wide enough only for the business they were constructed for. Let’s just say there is only one direction these things work. Confident I would never see it again, I panicked and called to Nargiz, who asked me, much to my embarrassment, whether I had ever been in such a bathroom. What was I thinking?! Anyway, her mother rushed about to get a flashlight so that we could assess the situation. Shining the flashlight into the whole, one could see my iPod, which had landed sticking straight out of the muck below. Nargiz, ever the optimist, called to her brother, and we schemed away with the tools we had at our disposal. We prepared and lowered a dustpan attached to a 20 foot pole into the toilet and used another shovel, also attached to a long pole to push the iPod onto the dustbin, and carefully, we raised it up. I grabbed it with my hands the minute it finally came into reach, a successful three person operation. Boy, did I feel sheepish!

Nargiz's mother and two sisters, who hung out with us in the village.

Nargiz’s mother and two sisters, who hung out with us in the village.

But, it made for a great story. Continue reading