Wednesday, August 21, 2013

I just saw three men with freshly shaven heads come out of my building. It crossed my mind that they might be local skinheads, but then I remember the game. Shakhter Karaganda beat Celtic of Glasgow last night in Astana and folks, this was a big deal. Maybe the biggest win in Kazakh football history. There were horns blaring and people cheering all night, and a lot of bets were made. I hope I see more bald heads. I like it when people keep their word.

This weekend was by far the most eventful yet: nightclubs! mountains! kumys! dancing! I suppose to keep my life in balance, the last three days have consisted almost entirely of editing and Project Runway. I've got to start writing again, or something.

Anyway. Friday--Rasta party! I was so excited to hear some reggae...I hadn't realised that most of the reggae at the party would be Russian. It was just fine, but listening to Russian reggae with a bunch of painted up, faux-Jamaican 20 year olds got depressing quite quickly, so I bolted with my colleague and some random Turk to a new, posh, apparently very exclusive nightclub. This was my first experience with what they call "face control," which is just the velvet rope. If you look good or rich, you're in. There may be other categories, but I think those are probably the most important. Anyway, we got in (my colleague confessed after we got inside that the reason he started speaking to me in English as we waited was to push the process along. I guess you can add Western-foreign to the other category that gets in).

The club was fine. Expensive drinks--we got some weird, sweet beer called "El Dorado" that had a vaguely western-style label. As I was ordering the beer, however, I was suddenly engulfed in which, chemical smoke, so much so that I couldn't see D next to me or the beer in front of me. The smoke machines are apparently under the bar. It was weird and hilarious.

We danced. All was well. It was fun.

Four or five hours after that, it was off to Borovoye, a sort of steppe oasis. There's a long legend about how the Kazakh steppe came to have a bunch of mountains and lakes dropped into a corner of it--something about a wily Kazakh making a hold in god's bag of geographical goodies after his people were too proud to ask for anything dramatic and beautiful when he was building the world. It was about a three hour drive away, and the ride afforded me the chance to see the steppe for the first time. It's lovely, with stripes of pale wildflowers drifting away from the highway and the occasional marsh with tall, spiky grass. There were also more trees than I expected in parts. I think some have been planted as part of Astana's green belt and to keep topsoil from running off with the melting snow.

We stopped halfway at a pretty little rest area in front of a cleft in the trees making up a little wood and I had the chance to use the most revolting public "restroom" that I have ever encountered anywhere in the world. Just picture a dank, doorless concrete half-box smeared with shit and ammonia, and a scarily sloping floor leading to a hole over which one squats. There was nothing remarkable about it, really, except in the degree of its foulness.

But outside that hell hole, after I wiped the soles of my poor shoes on the grass outside, I got to see a heard of big, glossy cattle wander by, guided by some Kazakh cowboys. And there was a mini farmer's market set up at one end of the parking lot, with tall jars of honey in a range of colors and opacities, from transparent yellow to brown to solid white. There were pickled mushrooms and bottles of homemade orange linament made from some kind of local berry called "horse seagrass" or something.

At the resort, I got to try kumys--fermented mare's milk, which you drink out of a wide mouthed wooden bowl. It was thin and sour and interesting. I didn't love it, but I wouldn't turn it down. I'm a sucker for fermentation.

Then there was the mountain itself and the climb, which was surprisingly hard. The lower slopes were covered with all kinds of mushrooms--big, fleshy white ones that the men collected to eat, yellow and red-spotted ones that were poisonous and dangerous brown pufffballs that belch out some nasty brown power when you poke them. The organiser warned me not to get near the power.

There wasn't really a trail up the mountain; we just made our way up through the sparse pine and beech forest whatever way looked the clearest. It was a pretty steep, direct climb of about 950 meters, the top of which was a fun boulder scramble up to some pretty remarkable views of the flat blue lakes scattered below and the edges of the forest oasis as they faded out into the steppe again. I was very glad I'd decided not to sleep in. The Kazakhs giggled and chatted and shouted and took photos and I spent most of the day in a sort of noisy meditation, which was fine. I'm getting so used to being an outsider, I don't know how I'm going to ever interact normally with people again. Not that I ever probably did.

The mushrooms were lovely. The birch trees, so amazingly white, are my new favorite things in the world. The stream at the bottom running over a granite bed was clear and freezing and refreshing. I'll have to go again before everything is covered with snow...which means I think I'm going to have to hurry.

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