Why Almaty?

Assuming that you're reading this in order, you know the basic story from the Why Istanbul? section: several of us North Americans who knew each other from our time in Japan decided to rendezvous in Kazakhstan with fellow expat Charles, who is now living in Almaty.

What is he doing there? It's actually pretty romantic. Charles met his girlfriend Assel, who is Kazakh, at American University in Washington D.C. They were both studying for their MA degrees in International Affairs and began dating in the winter of 2002. Charles then went off to Japan for a year, and after completing his MA he decided to go to Kazakhstan with Assel.

Charles is now the Director of Student Affairs and a lecturer of Public Affairs at the Kazakhstan Institute for Management, Economics, and Strategic Planning (KIMEP). Assel is a lecturer of Political Science. I even got to lecture one of Assel's and one of Charles' classes on legal research and writing.

(All of my law school friends are probably yelling out loud as they read this, "You taught what?! Legal Research and Writing??!?! Are you nuts?" I would of course have preferred to teach something else, like American politics or international relations. But both Assel and Charles teach "Research and Writing," a required course for all students regardless of their major, and although the infamous "LRW" is one of the most tedious, frustrating classes of law school, I actually had a lot of fun teaching the basics of writing about law. Plus, the students were absolutely wonderful.)

All courses at KIMEP are taught in English. Established in 1992 shortly after independence from the Soviet Union, the idea was to train people for Kazakhstan's future with an education that would help the country develop and shed the Soviet legacy of poor and inefficient management. Students study only the necessary social sciences: public administration, politics, economics, management, and the like. The vast majority of their teachers are US-trained PhDs. You can find out more about the school here

Anyway, I stayed with Charles and Assel on their fold out couch in their Soviet-style apartment. What a place! Situated on the third floor of building constructed in the 1960s, the place originally housed party members and is a "model" of communist planning. What do I mean by that? Get this: to reach their apartment you have to climb three flights of stairs... and no two steps are the same height! Check out this photo. That's not an optical illusion -- every step really is a different height from all the rest.

Here is Assel in their very, very narrow kitchen.

And here is Charles and I enjoying some horse sausage. Yup, I ate a whole lot of horse on my trip, which you can read more about in the Kazakh Cuisine section.

For the first three days of my trip I was in Almaty with just Charles and Assel. On the evening of the third day, Ashle and Roy safely arrived in Almaty after a 24-hour bus ride from Urumqi, China. Roy was my traveling companion from my trip through China. Unfortunately, our friend Chad Kohalyk never made it. Chad's friend Chad Kriese -- that's not a typo, they both have the same first name -- was traveling with them and had come from British Columbia, Canada. Kohalyk had a Kazakhstan visa but Kriese had been unable to get a visa for Kazakhstan, so both of them decided to remain in Xinjiang, China and explore the far west, including the frontier trading town of Kashgar. This was a mild bummer because Chad Kohalyk was the only member of our party with Russian language skills, the official language of "interethnic communication" in Kazakhstan.

The 24-hour bus ride from Urumqi sounded exhausting, and you can see it in their faces. That's Roy on the left and Ashle on the right.

On a related note, Roy's travelblog for his six weeks in China and Kazakhstan can be found here.

But to finally answer the title of this section, this trip is part of my long-lasting interest in Turkic Central Asia. Kazakhstan isn't just a former Soviet Republic. This entire region of Central Asia has long been a pivot of power, controlled by the Persian, Mongol, Chinese, and Russian Empires. Although I spent just a week in Almaty, I saw and learnt a lot about this Turkic, Russian-speaking, nominally Muslim, oil-rich, and newly-independent state.

P.S. Almaty is in Southeast Kazakhstan right next to the border with Kyrgyzstan, and not terribly far from the Chinese border.

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