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Western Kazakhstan stories

By Kate Mattingly, Peace Corps volunteer in Aktobe (malkofish@hotmail.com)

You haven't lived until you've ridden home from work in a marshrutka with two Kazakh kids in your lap, a babushka's bum squished into your seat, and a kazakh man's generous bottom resting on your shoulder. as i've always said, bottoms just don't belong on shoulders...:)

Anyway, I returned this week from a jaunt around western Kazakhstan with an American, an Australian, a Canadian, and some minor mishaps. Here's how it went:

Located in southwestern Kazakhstan on the Caspian sea, central Aktau is a booming metropolis of grey apartment complexes, condemned buildings, and approximately 150,000 peeps. It also happens to be the home of my fellow Peace Corps volunteer, rea oberwetter, who (believe it or not) was the main attraction for us bright-eyed adventurers. We also had heard that from here we could catch a ferry to Baku, Azerbaijan for $40, or that we could take a plane for $70. Of course being the big spenders that we are, we tried for the ferry, but in true Kazakhstani fashion, we learned that the ferry had docked in aktau on Dec. 26th, and no one knew when it would be going out again. On to option number two. I called the airport 3 days in a row, each time receiving the same reply: no, the flight to Baku for tonight was canceled, but call back tomorrow because there will DEFINITELY be a flight then. so we decided to tread the turf of 7 local travel agencies where we were greeted most firmly with a kick in the backside; all non-members of the former Soviet Union must pay over 100% more than members...oh, and the flight for today was canceled. What do we 4 in-no-way-disheartened travelers do then? Squat at lucky rea's apartment for another day or so before moving on. However, before we left, we did get to see some of the beauty of Aktau: hundreds of black and white swans bathing in the Caspian and playing on the snow-covered beaches; a picturesque sunset beyond the cliffs adorned with stalactite icicles; me, tumbling down an icy hill as my sheet of metal shoots out from beneath me and the giggling local kids sled past me like pros.

What do four westerners in Kazakhstan with 2 days to spare do after a 26-hour train ride, a stolen bag, an overstayed welcome in Aktau, and a failed mission to Baku? That's right, they hop a half-day train to Atyrau, the oil capital of Central Asia! we headed to the hotel that Lonely Planet 2000 listed as $15 per room, and found that it was now $75 per room. So we high-tailed it outta there, and tried the $10 place which had apparently become $24 -- not so great, but doable. The next morning in the hotel, we had the best breakfast I've had in Kazakhstan and, quite possibly, my life: blini (like crepes) with sweet, creamy cheese and raisins, for only about $1. next we visited the oblast's 2-floor, 10-room comprehensive museum, which luckily had an english-speaking guide. I could have done without the "oil mining" and "old soviet people" rooms, but the steppe's flora and fauna and the kazakh history were fascinating. After a couple of hours in there, we decided to walk across the Ural river (not the bridge, but the actual river as it was frozen), among ice-skaters and ice-fishermen, to the iconoclad russian orthodox church on the "Europe" side. On the way there, we came across an 8'x10' bronze sculpture of a sheep's kneecap -- supposed to symbolize national games of Kazakhstan (don't ask). As we made our way back across to the "Asia" side of the river, we stopped to chat with the fishermen, and found that people in Atyrau are much kinder than those in Aktau, or even Aktobe. They invited us to hang with them, but we had little time and so much more to see, so we regretfully declined. And then we saw some old houses and a little kid tried to pickpocket me. Then it was back to the train to conclude our adventure with a heavenly 18-hour overnight train ride to our one and only Kazakhstani home, Aktobe.


Breaking news: appendix useful after all!! (...at least for orphans in Kazakhstan)

The director of the alga orphanage in the Aktjubinsk oblast is on a rampage. apparently some minor problem has arisen, and he's taking it out on everyone. This means that all the children from every class, plus their house mothers and teachers, must stand at attention in the gym for hours on end while the director verbally abuses them. However, some of the children have gotten wind of this and are now one step ahead of his majesty the director: they fake appendicitis.

Kazakhstanis are obsessed with the appendix and its potentially fatal complications. (it's commonly thought here that Americans have their appendices removed at birth.) Therefore, if a child has a severe stomachache, s/he is immediately sent to the hospital to have an appendectomy which comes with a week of bed rest. During this particular incident, 4 children spontaneously contracted terrible stomach pains, and thus escaped the wrath of the director.

One 14-year old, alias pac-man, said that he'd been "saving" his appendix for an occasion like this, "i knew i'd need it one day." and so off to the hospital he went. There's no tv in the hospital room, but there's a radio and some other kids from the town of alga, so it really is like a vacation for the orphans. Meals aren't included, so a friend or family member has to bring sustenance in for the patient once a day -- only once because it's too cold in the morning and at night.

Surely, you say, the doctors must notice that the appendix isn't inflamed or burst when the children go in for surgery. Right you are. But the state pays 3,000 tenge for every operation, and there are lots of kids and lots of appendices at that orphanage. Once an orphan graduates from the detskii dom, s/he is no longer covered by the government, so it behooves them to have the appendix removed prior to that graduation. After biding his time for 10 years at the dom, looks like pac-man made the right decision: "i needed a vacation!"

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