Archive for March, 2017

I just got back from a “spring” break trip to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Last Tuesday morning I woke up early to take a taxi to Sheremetyevo to fly to Almaty, Kazakhstan. Almaty, formerly known at Alma-Ata, was the Soviet capital of Kazakhstan. In the late 1990s, the capital of Kazakhstan moved to Astana, which means “capital” in Kazakh. My trip to Kazakhstan was possible due to the hospitality of my friend Jonathon, who is there for dissertation research. I invited myself to crash on his couch, and he was thankfully not opposed to the idea.

The flight to Almaty was trouble free. I once again flew on Aeroflot. I’ve earned enough miles that my flight to Kazakhstan was essentially free. I only paid $15 for the roundtrip tickets, $5 of which was mandatory insurance. Flying to Kazakhstan was cool, because I got to depart from a different terminal of Sheremetyevo than usual. The flights to New York, both on Aeroflot and Delta, operate out of Terminal D, which is also the main Aeroflot terminal. I’ve only been there. My flights to Tbilisi, Georgia and Murmansk also departed from Terminal D, which I think is the newest of the terminals. The flight to Kazakhstan left form Terminal F, which was built for the 1980 Olympics. It’s been renovated since then, but it does show its age such as with the old style board that announces all of the flights. The terminal is also a little more confusing to navigate. For example, the check-in counters are technically behind a customs declaration zone, which is different than in Terminal D. I went and found the correct area to check-in and drop off my bag. When the woman affixed the baggage tag to my bag, I was pretty sure my bag would not arrive. Instead of putting it around the handle, she just aggressively slapped it across my entire bag.

After grabbing a snack, an announcement was made that my flight had been switched from Terminal F to Terminal E, which wasn’t a huge issue. Both are connected, the only indication of them being different terminals is that the gates for Terminal E are a level above those in Terminal F. Terminal F has a few small places to get food, but the terminal is really just one long string of duty free shops. Terminal E, which is also crammed with duty free, has a few more places to find different levels of food ranging from fancier sit-down stuff to Burger King.

The flight began to boarding on time. While waiting in line to get on the plane, the man behind me saw that I had an American passport and started to speak with me in English. He was originally Ukrainian, but has been living in Canada for about a decade and has Canadian citizenship as well. Like me, he was headed to Kazakhstan to see friends. Boarding was relatively calm, and we pushed back from the gate 3 minutes ahead of schedule. As it was a longer flight of just about four hours, we got a better meal choice. There were three options for breakfast: rice porridge, blini, or an omelet. I went with the rice porridge, or risovaya kasha, which is my favorite of the Russian breakfast porridges.

Aeroflot breakfast.

Looking out of the window was pretty interesting during the flight. Kazakhstan has a lot of steppe and desert land. It was surreal to see snow fields just transition into desert. And there’s also a lot of emptiness, which I noticed even more on my return flight, because unlike the way over, I didn’t spend the majority of the flight asleep. Kazakhstan is the 9th largest country in the world by land mass, but it only has about 18 million people in it, which is the population of Moscow. Seeing it from the air, it was quiet evident that made sense that the largest Gulag complex was in Karaganda, Kazakhstan. The harshness of the Gulag environment was also evident from the flights. It’s been steadily in the low to mid 40s Fahrenheit in Moscow for a few weeks now, but it was around freezing and snowing on and off in my time in Almaty, which is much more temperate than Astana.

Snow to desert.

In Almaty, we landed smoothly. Annoying, Aeroflot did not hand out the migration cards on the plane. I had to find a table for them just before passport control. I stood in line for what seemed like an eternity without the line moving, so I moved over to the other line, which was constantly moving. As I neared the front of that line, we ran into a snag because one of the two windows that our line went towards was occupied with a Hungarian woman. I don’t know what was wrong with her passport, but multiple guards came over and questioned her and I heard her saying something like “no, I don’t have any sisters, I only have a brother” and “why does it matter that I’m wearing earrings now but not in the passport photo?” When I finally got to the window, my border crossing officer was incredibly friendly. I came up to the window and said “hello” in both English and Russian. The woman immediately began to speak to me in perfect English, asking if it was my first time in Kazakhstan, and telling me to enjoy my stay. I then grabbed my bag and got into a taxi to my friend’s apartment.

From the airport I took a taxi to Jonathon’s apartment, which is a fifth-floor walk-up. He lives about 15 minutes from a metro stop that’s two stops away from the center of the city. The Almaty Metro is pretty interesting. In planning construction since the 1980s, it was finally opened in 2011. It only has one line and a handful of stations, but it’s fairly convenient for getting to a few of the places around the center. The metro is sparkling and the halls and train cars have TVs in them, which seemingly only show a series of commercials. The trains and cars themselves are made by Hyundai of Korea. They have a completely open interior design, where you can walk between all of the cars. Unlike the Moscow Metro, it’s relatively un-crowded. Perhaps this might have to do with the fact that it doesn’t go very far, or perhaps it’s because you have to wait 10 minute between trains. While inside the trains, all of the announcements are made in Kazakh, Russian, and English. Kazakhstan is officially a bi-lingual nation of Kazakh and Russian, and there is a generational divide between who knows which languages. Younger Kazakhs are now more likely to speak Kazakh amongst themselves, whereas those who are older still predominantly speak Russian. However, Kazakhstan is now attempting to move into being a tri-lingual country; thus, the metro announcements and signage in major places are in Kazakh, Russian, and English.

The Almaty Metro is clean, bright, and new.

On Tuesday night, Jonathan and I wandered around some of the main sights of the downtown before and after grabbing some dinner. One of the places where we killed some time was at Panfilov Park. The park was built to commemorate the 28 Panfilov Guardsmen, who legendarily all died while attempting to halt a Nazi tank advance on Moscow. I saw a new Russian war movie about them in December, which was a stereotypical war film. A post-war investigation found out that not all of the men had died, but this information was suppressed in the Soviet Union and was only recently declassified. Nonetheless, the myth of the Panfilovities is still popular and widespread in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, the origin locations of the men who made up the unit. In addition to a major sculpture to the men, there are also monuments to those who died in the Russian Civil War, WWII in general, and boxes with dirt from the Hero Cities of the Second World War. Nearby there is also a monument to Soviet soldiers who perished in Afghanistan, a war that is not as frequently commemorated or talked about in Russia.

The monument to Panfilov’s 28 Guardsmen by day.

On Wednesday morning, I got up and headed to Shymbulak, a ski mountain just on the outskirts of Almaty, while Jonathon was a good student and headed off to the archives. He dropped me off at the bus stop and told me roughly where to get off, “at the gondola.” I figured it was the correct bus as I saw a bunch of people getting on with ski equipment, and I just followed them when it was time to get off.

Yup, on the right bus for sure.

The bus ride from the center of Almaty to the mountains takes about 30 minutes. Almaty itself is built at the base of the mountains. The bus stops at a major recreational park called Medeu, which is a massive skating rink. Around the same complex it a gondola, where you buy tickets to ride to the ski mountain base area as well as the lift passes for the mountain. The ride from the Medeu station to the base of Shymbulak takes about 15 minutes. I paid 7,000 tenge, or about $21.00 for a four hour lift pass. The four hour pass itself costs 5,500 tenge, or $16.00, for a weekday. I had to also pay about $4.00 and change for the electronic card for the ski passes. This isn’t uncommon, even in the states. For example, we go skiing as a family at Stowe, Vermont every December before Christmas. Stowe has a plastic card that we had to buy once about five or six years ago by now. We just go online to buy our tickets through our accounts, and the cards work at the mountain. Shymbulak doesn’t seem to have the online payment option yet, though, as everyone was waiting in line to reload their cards.

Shymbulak base after the gondola from Medeu.

Shymbulak, also known as Chimbulak in Russian (there are lots of names that are slightly different in Kazakh and Russian, partially due to Russian spelling rules) is a resort that lies along the Talgar Pass in the Tian Shan Mountains. I spent a lot of time in my youth watching the Warren Miller ski videos, and still do to a certain point. The movies from the late 1980s were probably his best, but I had seen a cool clip from one of his movies from the early/mid-1990s in which his crew went to Chimbulak. The clip is fascinating to watch in terms of seeing how much Almaty and Chimbulak/Shymbulak have developed.

Unlike Gudauri in Georgia, Shymbulak has a true base area that includes a lodge with the ski rental in it. The rental was quick and easy, and they also had lockers to stow gear, which were missing at Gudauri. The locker itself was 1,000 tenge, or about $3.00 for the day, and to rent a board, boots, and helmet for the day cost me about $20.00. In total, I spent less for a good four hours of skiing (I didn’t have more time, but a full day pass would only have cost $3.00 more) and equipment than it would have cost for the lift ticket alone at most other local American ski areas, and half the price at least of major ski areas like Stowe or Killington.

The mountain is serviced by two major lifts as well as two smaller lifts. The major lifts are a strange combination lift that I’ve never seen before. The lift operates both detachable gondolas and quads on the same loading and unloading areas.

Design that I haven’t seen before.

The snow itself was neither hard nor soft the day I went. The trails were very clearly marked, unlike at Gudauri, and showed evidence of being groomed. The run lengths were about the same as at Gudauri, though Shymbulak is technically a few hundred meters higher. Also like at Gudauri, there were also some more difficult “trails” that were basically large swathes of off piste areas. I ventured briefly into some of these areas to test the snow, which was a little more powdery. Skiing without a partner, I didn’t really want to venture off much into the better snow or steeper stuff for a few reasons. In addition to being alone, the medical facilities in Kazakhstan aren’t exactly up to Western standards, and I didn’t want to chance any injuries. There were also a few signs with avalanche warnings, which I was a little afraid of. My good Marker ski jacket at home as a Recco avalanche reflector beacon in it, but for space reasons I have traveled to Russia without it. I would never venture much into avalanche zones in general, but I’m certainly not going to do it without avalanche recovery gear.

The views were pretty unreal.

Skiing mid-week was great. The trails were pretty empty. The people were all super friendly at Shymbulak. At one point, I was in the gondola to the top of the Talgar Pass with three Kazakh girls about my age, who were speaking Russian amongst themselves. As we were getting to the top, one asked me in Russian if I ski frequently, and I said that it was my first trip to Kazakhstan and Shymbulak, but that I ski every now and then in America, which I true. Christmas and Spring breaks in our household usually entailed going skiing in Vermont. Skiing in Kazakhstan felt like a real spring break for me in that sense. The girls were happy I was there, and one started to talk to me in perfect English. I got them to take my photo at the top, and wished them a good day of skiing.

Proof that I was indeed at Shymbulak. Also, ski in Asia: check. This winter season I’ve skied in three continents.

I took a number of good runs around the top half of the mountain and took a quick break for a lunch of a hotdog and tea at an outdoor snack area near the mid-station where I could eat and have my rental gear with me. During my lunch break, I noticed an interesting local wearing camo pants and smoking. He had modern ski boots, but he had late 1970s/early 1980s Fisher skis and a set of the same vintage Marker ski bindings. Having sold a lot of retro ski bindings on ebay, especially Markers, I know he has a set of $60 antique bindings. I sold just the toe pieces of similar bindings to someone in Japan for about $20.00 a few years ago, and have made good money off of some earlier Marker safety release bindings.

I don’t understand why people still use this retro gear, but it’s cool to see.

At one point, I noticed that the ski patrol had a St. Bernard dog, which was hanging around a snowmobile.

Ski patrol to the rescue.

The dog was super friendly, and I went up and gave it a good pet for a while, which was nice.

Making friends.

Shymbulak is clearly partially sponsored by the Head ski equipment company. All of my rental gear was made by Head, and I’m assuming the same would be the same for the ski equipment. At the bottom, I noticed that they had made a ski chair of sorts.

 

Thankfully, the ski chair I made myself is a better design, and truly made out of the skis, unlike taking the lazy route of just arranging some skis behind a regular chair.

Sadly, all good things must come to an end. I had to return my things and head back to the Medeu base to take the bus back to the center, where I had agreed to meet Jonathon after he finished up at the archives. We were both about right on time at the meeting point, and we headed off to see the Zelyoni Bazaar, or the Green Bazaar, which was quite a sight. The main attraction of the Bazaar is the food market. There were a range of meats, but the exotic one for me was seeing horse meat. In Kazakhstan, horse meat is neither a standard meat nor a delicacy. It is not omnipresent nor is it as cheap as beef, but the price is only a little more and it’s not uncommon to find dishes with horsemeat at restaurants around the city.

The bazaar in all its glory with the horsemeat closest to the camera.

From the bazaar, we got dinner at a Kazakh stolovaya (cafeteria) chain called Kaganat. The food was delicious, filling, and extremely cheap. After dinner we walked around a bit more before heading home via the grocery store. I decided to get two products that are reasonably common in Kazakhstan, camel milk and a somewhat fermented mare’s milk known as kumis. The camel milk was basically just a bitter, almost plain yogurt flavored milk, which tasted pretty good in a cup of coffee. Kumis, however, was not my thing. It was extremely bitter, harsh, and tough to palate, but at least I can say I’ve tried it.

Camel milk on left, kumis on right.

On Thursday morning, we got up at went to the Central State Museum of Kazakhstan, a museum about the local culture and history. Sadly, most of the best exhibits from the museum were moved to a newer museum in the modern capital of Astana. After the museum, we headed to a beer hall style café that had horse meat on the menu. I got a horse steak so that I could try the meat. It was incredibly tender, and had a slightly different and vaguely gamey taste from that of beef. I regret nothing; sorry to you horse lovers out there. I enjoy trying new, exotic animals. There is a specialty butcher shop in Pittsburgh that carries exotic meats, and my goal is to eat through their entire list of offerings before graduation.

Horse steak.

On Thursday evening, Jonathon and I flew to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. We decided to fly despite the fact that there are relatively easy to find buses and taxis to go across the border. We wanted to skip them because we didn’t know what conditions the roads would be in with the potential for winter weather. We also avoided them because at times you can pay your driver to take you all the way, but he can leave you at the border. This is such a prevalent practice that there are plenty of taxis and buses station at the border to carry on stranded passengers. Passport control at the border can also be problematic.

Going to Bishkek was my fifth ex-Soviet republic, which means that I’m one third of the way through my goal of visiting all fifteen of them. Bishkek is a 30 minute flight from Almaty. We flew on Air Astana, basically the equivalent of Air Kazakhstan. Surprisingly, the airline was pretty nice. You could check a bag for free even on this short flight, and they offered two rounds of drinks as well as some candies before take-off. We were even lucky and got the exit row for the flight. Getting onto the plane was a little nerve-wracking for me though, as the passport control guard very closely inspected every single page of my passport. He then asked if I had a visa for Kyrgyzstan, which I said I was pretty sure that I didn’t need. He double checked with his superior before sending me on my way.

Air Astana.

The plane was a pretty new Embraer 190 jet. The Russian man next to me was named Vyacheslav, and was very friendly. We chatted for the entire flight. He was from St. Petersburg and frequently travels to Bishkek for business. He was just very confused as to why a Russian speaking American was flying from Almaty to Bishkek, and what we were going to see there. I explained my desire to see as much of the ex-USSR as possible. He then at times insisted on taking photos and videos for me through the window, and told me not to pay more than 500 som for the taxi. He insisted on taking a photo of the takeoff for me, despite me not asking for it. Annoyingly, he filmed in portrait and not landscape, but the view of the sunset takeoff was pretty cool.

Jonathon, however, was not as lucky with his seat partner. The guy next to him spent the majority of the flight with his head buried in his hands. Either he really hated flying, or he was going through some major personal crisis.

The guy was like this the whole flight.

In Bishkek, we easily passed through passport control. We were then swarmed with taxi drivers after passing through the door to the arrivals hall. We got one guy to agree to 500 som, and we followed him off. He had us follow him a little ways off because he explained that you had to pay to park in the main parking area, so he parks off to the side somewhere. He also went proudly on and on about his diesel Ford car, which got great fuel economy, unlike the gas cars that most drivers use. His selection of 1980s pop music was also a delight.

In about 30 or so minutes, we made the ride to the center of Bishkek, where we were crashing in the apartment of another Fulbrighter, Dave. Dave teaches American history and culture at a university in Bishkek in English. He has a great two bedroom apartment, which also had a nice living room. I snagged the couch in the living room, which I quickly discovered was a sleeper sofa. Apparently, another Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in a small city about 90 minutes away frequently stays with Dave, but never bothered to check if the couch turns into a bed. Dave was pleasantly surprised that I checked and made the discovery, and Will was shocked when I told him at dinner the next night.

We dropped our stuff off with Dave before heading to a restaurant that was open a little later. It had a fusion of offerings ranging from Kyrgyz, which is really just a spin on common Uzbek dishes such as lagman (noodles and meat) and plov (rice pilaf with meat) and Georgian khachipuri as well as shashlyk, grilled meat. Entertainment at the restaurant was a man who was singing karaoke and playing the drums. Eventually, he turned into a DJ and the children dancing on the dance floor were replaced with a number of Kyrgyz couples, who danced for quite a while.

A true statement. I really liked Bishkek.

In the morning, Jonathon and I got up and had breakfast at the ex-pat coffee shop, which had a fully western menu. I was able to get a breakfast burrito, and it was delightful. We then slowly meandered around the main roads via a bookstore to the TsUM, Central Universal Store, which is basically a Soviet shopping mall. The TsUM had both a Nathan’s Famous in it (there was another one a few blocks away) as well as a store that specialized in Soviet antiques. Jonathon got some stuff for himself, and we headed off to see the Frunze Museum. We had to walk a little out of our way in the morning, because the Kyrgyz equivalent of the White House was along the way. Someone important must have been coming or going, because the roads immediately along it were closed to both pedestrian and vehicular traffic and there were police officers ever few feet.

The Frunze museum was a standard Soviet leader birth house museum. Like those for Stalin or Lenin, the house is there, but unlike those others, you can enter Frunze’s house. There are also exhibits about his early life, education, and revolutionary activities. We had a fun moment early on in the museum when we noticed that there was a group of Kyrgyz third graders on a tour. We thought we had managed to get a free tour, but unfortunately for us, the tour was in Kyrgyz and we couldn’t understand.

School kids on the museum tour.

The museum has clearly seen better days. Some exhibits were falling apart. At one end of the museum, there was a rope cordoning off some of Frunze’s office effects and his couch. I asked the woman working there if it was possible to go past the rope and to look at the item descriptions, and she allowed us to do so. Then, on the bottom floor, outside of Frunze’s house was a small exhibit on Kyrgyz men who had served in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Jonathon and I were very curious about it, and we very slowly walked around this area and carefully read everything there. This caught the attention of someone working there, who came up and asked if we had any questions. We explained that we were Soviet historians, and then had a lengthy conversation with her before entering Frunze’s house. She also engaged with us again after I bought some postcards and Jonathon bought some books at the museum entrance/gift shop.

Frunze’s dining room.

From the Frunze museum, we backtracked a few blocks to find the major WWII museum in Bishkek, which was opened in 1985. The main part of the memorial is in the shape of a yurt, which was pretty cool. Unfortunately, it was hazy both days that we were in Bishkek, and we couldn’t see the mountains in the backdrop of the city, which you normally can.

Bishkek’s main WWII monument.

From the WWII museum, we headed to the Bishkek Panfilov Park, which is more of an amusement park that has one statue to Ivan Panfilov, who eventually became the military commander of Kyrgyzstan, and was the commander of the 28 guardsmen who heroically died defending Moscow. Panfilov himself died shortly after their stand from a splinter from a German mortar attack. At Panfilov Park, we got a late lunch/snack at a café. What we got was some sort of “burger” which was really shaved shawarma meat on a bun with cheese, “ketchup,” mayo, coleslaw, and French fries. Basically, I got a Primanti Bros. sandwich in Bishkek. Primanti needs to protect their sandwich copyright.

Kyrgyz Primanti Bros.

After our meal, we went back to Dave’s apartment for a quick break before joining Dave at the American Center of Bishkek for the English conversation group he leads with Amanda, the Fulbright ETA. Jonathon and I joined in on their discussion for the day, which was about fashion. There was one older man of about 50 or 60 who kept saying funny things. He complimented my jeans and later said that he likes women who wear miniskirts, because he likes to look at their hips. The first table I spoke with was mostly dominated by a strange and highly opinionated guy of Slavic decent with a mullet. He basically shooed me away from the table. “You can rotate you know, so you should rotate. That table doesn’t have anyone, go there.” I figured it was easier to leave than deal with him being hostile, so I did. The other table was much more excited to have a new American to interrogate. The wanted me to introduce myself and asked me questions about myself and why I was in Bishkek, etc. One guy asked how old I was, and asked if I was married when I said I was 27. He then started to ask questions like why wasn’t I married, did I want to be married, and what kind of guy do I like? I asked if he was making some sort of proposal.

Sometimes I miss working as an English teacher in the former Soviet Union.

From the American Corner, we went to a local Korean style chicken restaurant called Chicken Star where a group of 15 or so of us who had connections to the Fulbright program in Kyrgyzstan gathered. Some were Kyrgyz people who had done Fulbrights in the USA or worked for Fulbright in Bishkek. There were some Fulbright researchers, ETAs, and State Department English Language Fellows around as well as one Boren Scholar. I had a good time talking with the people there, and had a great chat with one Kyrgyz guy especially. He was about 50. I’m not quite sure what his connection to Fulbright was, but we were chatting and he asked me if I was German. Apparently my heritage is also noticeable in other ex-Soviet Republics beyond Russia. I told him that I used to live in Ulyanovsk, and he got excited because his father lived and worked there at one point. We discussed the virtues of the UAZ 469 jeep, which he claimed was pure Russian engineering, and he claimed that the Mercedes Geländewagen is a derivative of the 469, which I don’t quite agree with. We also talked about the Mercedes in Bishkek. Many of them are W124s (1986-1995). Although most of them are post-1990 face-lifted W124s, there are still plenty of 1986-1989 ones running around the city. The W124s are also quite popular in Almaty, where they are quite prevalent; however, the ones in Almaty are mostly 1990-1995 models.

A snow covered W124 in Almaty.

In Bishkek, most of the minibuses, or marshrutki, are also Mercedes. There is a good mix of Sprinter vans and older Mercedes vans from the 1970s and 1980s, which I was happy to see.

Old Mercedes van marshrutka.

I also learned that the W123 has a special name in Kyrgyzstan, where it is called the Krokodil, or “crocodile.” Jonathon got a little frustrated with me taking photos of all of the Mercedes in Almaty and Bishkek, but he was overall a really good sport about my obsession.

A W124 taxi in Bishkek.

The next morning, Jonathon and I woke up to walk with Dave to the Osh Bazaar, the main Bazaar in Bishkek. It was a lot rougher looking than the bazaar in Almaty, and wasn’t a place that was good to take photos for a variety of reasons.

Entrance to the Osh Bazaar.

Kyrgyzstan on the whole is a lot less well off than Kazakhstan, which has a lot of oil and gas money. The city of Bishkek clearly received attention in the Soviet era. Walking around the city was actually like walking around a Soviet time capsule. There were a ton of Soviet buildings, which have not been changed, unlike in Almaty or Tbilisi, Georgia. However, in the post-Soviet collapse, not much has been improved or well maintained.

Soviet Bishkek.

Despite this, though, there were a good number of western stores and chains in Bishkek, as well as some delightfully funny local knockoffs, such as BFC, which seemed to be a Bishkek Fried Chicken.

Bishkek Fried Chicken?

From the Bazaar, we went back to TsUM to get a few more things at the souvenir stand. After that, we grabbed some lunch at a local stolovaya cafeteria before walking back to the apartment to pack and get a cab to the airport. Our cab driver to the airport was fairly chatty, and he made sure to point out the village next to the airport where a cargo 747 from Uzbekistan had crashed in the fall. That was just what I wanted to hear about before flying away from Bishkek.

Things got momentarily worse when we were in the airport. We checked in without problems, but ran into a snag at passport control, or at least Jonathon did. He was questioned for an extra long time about his past travels. Thankfully, he was eventually let through and we waited around for our flight. The plane from Almaty was late. Then, there was no announcement made, but our plane was beginning boarding at a completely different gate than posted on the sign. We only discovered this through an Australian couple who were traveling with their three young children on a visa run from Almaty. The mother was walking around with one of the kids to get him to calm down, and then came and told her husband that the gate had been switched and that the plane was going to board soon.

The flight back was fine and without issues. We got a taxi back to Jonathon’s and basically passed out. In the morning, we got up and lazed around before meeting another grad student, Sean, and his wife and daughter at a café in the center for a late lunch. From there, Jonathon and I rode the gondola at Kok Tobe, to the observation point above Almaty. Unfortunately, it was a snowy day, and the view was obscured by the clouds. The area at the top was interesting, though, because they had a zoo with some strange animals ranging from goats, rabbit, and deer to ostriches and emus. There was also a monument to the Beatles at the top for confusing reasons.

The bottom of the gondola from my first night in Almaty.

After Kok Tobe, we grabbed tea in a café before wandering around a bit and getting dinner at Kagant again. The snow picked up a bit, and we headed back to veg out for the night with Russia related youtube videos. In the morning, we got up and explored a local park before getting lunch. I used YandexTaxi to get a ride to the airport. The price was an unbelievable 1,500 tenge, when the good normal price is 3,000 tenge. My driver was a nice 4th year university student. He was excited to have an American in his car. He was telling me how had spent two years in the Kazakh military and earned the rank of Lieutenant. Military service is not required in Kazakhstan, but it’s fashionable and can help get a variety of other jobs related to the government such as working for the police. He multiple times asked if I was married or planning to marry. At one point, he asked if I would ever consider marrying someone who was Kazakh. I’m not sure if he was implying something or not as he also kept talking about how much he wants to travel to America. He also had never been to the airport before, I was his first drive there.

Checking in for my flight back was smooth, as was passport control. We had a very rough takeoff that was caused by the old runway itself. The runway was clearly worn and in bad shape. I didn’t notice the same amount of bumps in the smaller Embraer, but in the larger Aeroflot Boeing 737, the disrepair of the runway was a little more evident. Still, it’s a long way from the Soviet Union where a number of distant airports didn’t even have paved runways. Soviet jets were designed to takeoff on packed snow or gravel runways.

I flew back without any problems with passport control. The landing was smooth for the rain that we landed in, and it was a perfectly Russian experience of having everyone clap loudly because the pilot didn’t crash. Everyone also got up while we were still taxiing to remove their items from the bins.

Now I’m back in Moscow and itching for my next adventure.

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Last night I went to see one of my favorite bands, Trubetskoy. Well, they’re actually the remains of one of my favorite bands, Lyapis Trubetskoy. After the band’s 25th anniversary, they basically dissolved. One of the singers went and formed the band Brutto, while the other singer and a few other members, such as the guitarist, went on to tour as just Trubetskoy. Lyapis Trubetskoy started out as much more of a ska influenced band, and they got progressively more rock and metal over the years. They hail from Minsk, Belarus, and have also become far more political in their messages and lyrics over the years.

К нам приехал Тубецкой!

I’m a pretty huge fan of the band. I listen to their music quite frequently. I saw them play in Ulyanovsk five years ago, when they were still Lyapis Trubetskoy, and my department cubicle and apartment in Pittsburgh are decorated with their posters.

Lyapis Trubetskoy posters from Ulyanovsk and a map of Ulyanovsk are what every home needs.

 

The concert was held in a very small club venue called Club Theatre. I went with Anne-Marie. I got her a ticket for the show as a birthday present. We had celebrated her birthday in the dorm with the full crew, and a good night it was. The pièce de résistance of the night was the surprise made by two of the other French Canadians – poutine. One had produced a packet of gravy for the poutine. The other fried up the french fries from scratch, and some Russian cheeses were used as a passable substitute for cheese curds. It was delicious and wonderful.

Poutine à la russe.

Before we went to the venue, we went to a nearby Georgian restaurant called Chito-Ra. I had found it by chance by looking for restaurants near the concert on Yandex maps. I later found out that a friend considers it to be the best Georgian restaurant in Moscow. When we got there, the place was packed, and we had to wait about 10 or 15 minutes before we could sit. The food was indeed excellent. We got my favorite khacipuri, khachipuri po adjarski, which is a delightfully decadent bread boat filled with melted cheese and a cracked egg on top. We also split an order of khinkali, Georgian dumplings, filled with a mixture of beef and pork and greens.

Georgian for the win.

From the restaurant, we walked over to the club and waited in the hallway for about 30 minutes before being allowed to walk onto the floor. The hall was tiny, which was nice because we were fairly close to the group. At about 8:30PM an opening act took the stage. They were a ska group called Faktory, and they were pretty good. They had some funny songs about social media and another about taking selfies and selfie sticks.

Around 9:00PM, Turbetskoy took the stage and opened up with their anthem and signature starting song “Trubetskoy,” which fans had been chanting the lyrics of while waiting for the group to strat. “К нам приехал Трубецкой; он как Моцарт но живой” (Trubetskoy came to us; he’s like Mozart, but alive). The chorus goes on to list a number of famous musicians in various repetitions such as Lennon, Joplin, Hendrix, and Elvis.

They gave a lively show for about 90 minutes that included a two song encore. They pretty much stuck to playing songs from two of the later Lyapis Trubetskoy albums, Kapital and Manifest, while also mixing in some of their newer songs. They sadly didn’t play my favorite song of theirs, “Kapital,” but they did play some of my other favorites like “Ogon’ki,” the video of which is what led me to discover the band. Even if you don’t understand Russian/Belorussian, I highly implore you to watch the two following videos. “Ogon’ki” or “Lights” has an interesting collage of Soviet nostalgia.

Kapital is a fun play on the modern world versus the era of Communism. I just love the chorus that says, “In my left hand a Snickers; in my right hand a Mars; my PR manager is Karl Marx; Capital.” This video has English subtitles.

 

The crowd at this particular concert was also interesting. There seemed to be more women in the crowd than men. Those attending were dressed in a mixture of regular flannel and jeans casual to full punk vests and plaid pants. There was also one very creepy spectator, who freaked out me and Anne-Marie. He was dressed in a jester’s outfit, and sat in the smoking area and just stared at people. We both had moments of legitimate fear upon seeing him. There was a really intense mosh pit at the show, but thankfully we were insulated by a few rows of people in front of us who intercepted the stray moshers.

Scary jester guy in the background. Zoom in for full effect.

I was slightly worried about getting home after the concert. As of the first of the month, there is a new security firm with the contract for the university. We’ve got all new guards, some of whom dress like nightclub bouncers in cheap suits. In general, they seem friendlier at first than the previous guards. I’m just slightly upset because now I have to forge all new relationships with the guard staff. In addition to getting new guards, we also have a new curfew. Previously the dorm closed at 1:00AM, which was fine with me because that’s when the metro stops running. Now, though, the dorm supposedly closes at 11:00PM. We were not notified of this change by anyone at the university, only through trial and error and word of mouth from people trying to enter or leave between 12:30 and 1:00. Before heading out, I asked the guard when the dorm closes. He said that it is indeed now at 11:00. I said I was going to a concert and wasn’t sure when it would end. He said it was ok, that if there was a problem, there’s a buzzer by the door (it took me a long time to find it when heading out), and to ring that if there was a problem with the door being closed. They’re not very punctual, though, because the door was still open around 11:15 or so when I came back.

In general, the earlier curfew is a problem. In Ulyanovsk, the dorm also closed at 11:00PM, but there the public transit stopped running around 9:00PM. My current options are to lead a very boring life and always return home by 11:00PM; be extra crazy and stay out until 6:00AM, when the doors reopen; sneak through the crack in the vehicle gate, which is under video surveillance; or to climb over an 8 foot wall between some buildings on the periphery of the university campus. I’m not entirely thrilled by any of these options.

I also have succeeded in achieving a massive personal victory in the wake of last week’s somewhat depressing situation with the DDT concert. I complained to the ticket office about how thousands of us were left out on the street in the rain while the concert started. My complaints there got me nowhere, but I also complained to the band’s tour manager, whose email address I found on their website. After a few days, he responded. Apparently my Russian complaining skills are at a very high level. He apologized for the situation and offered me tickets to any other DDT show in 2017. I responded that the offer is nice, but was also useless unless the band had any other planned concert dates in Moscow or America that were not listed on their website. Currently, the site shows only concerts in Siberia in April, one show in London, and a few shows in Israel in June. I said that it was meaningless to offer free tickets if I had to fly to a different city or country and also pay to spend a night or two there. He then answered that the band will be at a festival in Moscow in July, sadly after I already leave, and that the band is in talks to finalize a concert in New York in October. I said I would go for the October tickets, and I’m to email the guy in September to set that all up. My faith in DDT as a a group that cares about its fans has been restored.

We are sorry about the entrance problems, we apologize, and offer you tickets to any DDT concert in 2017.

On late Sunday afternoon I met Erin in the Prospekt Mira metro stop to go to the ДДТ (DDT) concert. DDT is one of the best known late-Soviet, early Russian Federation rock groups. They were mostly based out of Leningrad, today’s St. Petersburg, and have always had fairly political messages in their music.

We went to an Indian restaurant that was in the lobby of a hotel near the stadium before the concert. The food was pretty good. The staff was funny there. When we asked for the food, we said we wanted it to be spicy, and not Russian spicy, which means not spicy at all. She then asked if we wanted Indian spicy, and we responded that we didn’t want it quite that hot. When we finished our meal, the coat check guy asked if we were from America. He then said his friend had invented something for cars and he wants to patent it there. We said we didn’t really know patent law, but we said he should give it a try. He then asked if we knew a program where people design things and get to show them to potential investors. I told him that in English it’s called “Shark Tank” and he asked me to write it down for him.

The concert was both wonderful and miserable at the same time. The tickets said that it started at 7:00. We had just general admission tickets for the floor space. We arrived somewhere around 6:30 and the doors were still shut. There were literally thousands of people standing on the street in the rain. At that point, I suddenly realized why the ОМОН (OMON), aka the Russian SWAT/Riot police were the ones in charge of crowd control. We kept standing and every now and then the line would shuffle a few feet forwards.

The crowd before us to get in at 7:22PM.

Around 7:30 or so, it seemed that the concert began while at least half of the crowd was still outside of the stadium.

The crowd behind us at 7:22.

There were no announcements made about what was going on at all. I took to checking Twitter and Instagram to find a mixture of people in the stadium demanding the group come on stage and angry rants of those stuck in the mob with us. I killed time by engaging with a fellow enraged mob member through Twitter, and posted my angry photo on social media with the caption “Что такая очередь” (what is line), a pun on one of DDT’s most famous songs “Что такое осень” (what is autumn).

Twitter and Instagram were full of these. The caption says “‘Wonderfully’ organized concert – 1.5 hours after the start and thousands of viewers on the street.”

After about two hours of standing in line in the cold and rain, we approached the entrance. As we got closed, we were literally crushed in the crowd. Erin and I both remarked at how dangerous the situation was, and how we’ve rarely felt uncomfortable like that at concerts. You also begin to realize in situations like that, or just generally around in Russia, that most places here are death traps. Emergency exits are often locked or blocked in this country, and like lifeboats on the Titanic, there aren’t nearly enough.

At the door, we showed our tickets and passed through metal detectors and a bag check. We then went around to a different line where we had to get wrist bands before being let onto the floor to see the show. Unfortunately, we didn’t know about the wrist bands, which were off to the side, and had to go around some barriers and back. The organization of this concert was non-existent. It was held at the Олимпийский Стадион, Olympic Stadium, which was built for the 1980 Olympics. There was no indication of when or where people should go, and there are internet rumors that the organization was intentionally botched as a sign/punishment towards Yuri Shevchuk, the openly political and critical leader singer of the band.

Once inside, the concert was fantastic. The band was lively and played a steady stream of music plus two encore songs. They must have finished close to 10:30, so they gave a three hour concert, which is a pretty impressive feat. I got to hear them play a number of their most famous songs, including Последный Осень (Last Autumn, which I jokingly called the lesser Осень), but sadly I didn’t get to see them perform my favorite Что Такое Осень (What is Autumn). I’m not sure if they played it earlier in the show of if they oddly decided not to play one of their biggest hits. One of the encore songs was my second favorite song of theirs, Родинда (Motherland), so I was somewhat placated.

Red for Rodina.

Nonetheless, it felt like a sucker punch to miss half of the show. I was even more disappointed when I checked the news after the show. Yuri Shevchuck and the band knew that there were thousands of fans on the street who couldn’t enter the stadium, yet they decided to start the show anyway. The moral of the story is the DDT is great to see live, but anything at the Olympic Stadium should be avoided.

Other than the concert, there’s not much else to report. Work is progressing as usual in the archives. Watching Russian TV has once again proven itself to be useful for my research. I started watching a series called Мажор (Silver Spoon) on Netflix. It’s overly melodramatic and some of the plot points are over the top, but it has its uses. From a cultural standpoint, it’s a fascinating show because it’s about the son of an oligarch who begins to work for the police after some rather improbable situations. Part of the plot involves shady goings on of gangsters in the 1990s and there’s something about an oligarch connected to crime who is untouchable because he’s a member of the Duma. Only the first season is on Netflix, but the second season is available without subtitles on youtube for those who are fluent in Russian. The language of the show has also paid off. From it, I learned the word for autopsy (вскрытие), which came in handy when I stumbled upon some autopsy reports of German POWs in a collection of files of the Department for Repatriation in GARF. Watching countless hours of television has its uses when it’s in a foreign language.

Life in the dorms is fairly quiet with the exception of continuous problems with new neighbors. The French and Germans smoke in their rooms, the kitchen, and the toilet, which is unpleasant for those of us who don’t smoke. After getting into trouble for doing so, which is forbidden in the dorms, some have begun to burn incense in their rooms to try to hide the smell. As a result, the dorm halls and some of the rooms smell like a terrible mixture of cigarettes and lavender. We also have one neighbor who is about 50 and speaks only Russian and German. Based on a few conversations with her, I’m pretty sure grew up in the former East Germany in a Russian family. She speaks Russian with a slight accent, and one of the Germans said that her German also has an accent. She had some very strange comments about my research and the post-war development of West Germany, which were of a standard Marxist-Leninist perspective. She has decided that we are now friends, which is annoying for me, and also terrible when I went to leave my room at 10:00PM one night and found her standing outside of my door. I’m hoping she had just arrived as was about to knock and that she hadn’t been just standing outside my door for an unknown length of time.

I’ve also had a few good days of food lately. While over at Alla’s one day for blini, she invited me over again to have dinner with the Canadians and to bake with her. The main course for our feast was roast leg of lamb that Alla gets from a specialty market.

Om nom nom.

Alla became interested in my signature baked good for family functions, a key lime pie from my grandmother’s recipe. She was eager to try it, so I converted the ingredients into metric and headed over earlier than the others to bake the pie. I had to slightly modify the ingredients as well. I usually use cream of tartar for the meringue, but I had to try a corn starch one for Russia. The result was pretty decent, but not quite up to my usual pie. I guess this just means I will need to bake more. What a terrible burden.