A Little Culture Lesson

In addition to all of the work we’re starting around sustainable farming, we have a smaller project to help revive the beautiful botanical garden in Almaty. It is more than 100 hectares and could be a jewel of the city. At the moment, it is kind of run down and not very accessible.

Today we convened the first meeting of a project advisory board. I have to say, it was loads of fun. I think we have good representation from all of the important stakeholders and there was a lively mix of people.

I also learned some new things about Kazakh manners. Tea always served when people get together and it is never served alone. At minimum there is a little bowl of candy and sometimes cookies or crackers. But today, I was told that if you are hosting someone from a higher rank or a special guest, you go all out with the tea snacks. This must have been an important group of people because check out the cakes that were on the table

This takes "tea cake" to a new dimension

There are all kinds of protocols for respect and authority. Even though we had important guests, there is no doubt that Gulnara (Director of the Institute of Botany) was running the show. You can see that she is in charge because of her special-fancy tea cup distinguishing her from the rest of us.

check out the tea cups to see who is in charge


Day Off With Larissa

Today is Sunday so I had a down day, which I spent with my colleague Larissa. She was kind enough to take me around to see Almaty a little. We went to the history museum where we saw an amazing array of textiles, costumes, jewelry and many things from Kazkh daily life long ago. It was really impressive.

She also took me to Paniflov Park which is one of the prettiest public parks anywhere. It is very large and is essentially kept like a little forest. It is a very special retreat from the city. Inside the park, you find Zenkov Cathedral – a Czarist era church built of wood with no nails. It is one of the only buildings to withstand a terrible earthquake in 1911. Larissa told me that it was a history museum during the Soviet era. It is back in regular business since the collapse and we found it full of people lighting candles and paying their respects to various saints.

Zenkov Cathedral in Paniflov Park. The trees look groomed and organized here. But they are like a forest in the rest of the park. It is gorgeous

Just a short walk from the Cathedral to the edge of the park, you find an enormous memorial to Kazakh people who defended Moscow during World War II. It is an impressive and moving sculpture. As Americans we often have a rather distorted view of that war because all of our studies focus on our own involvement. As huge as that was, it is nothing compared to what the Russians did or went through. They lost 20 million people just for starters. I like to be this far from home and have the chance to see commemorations like this just as a reminder to myself.

Monument to the sacrifice of Kazakh people in Moscow during WWII

We followed Paniflov park by visiting another park high above Almaty. I am embarrassed to admit that I have already forgotten the name of it. But, it offered amazing views of the city, which was sadly covered in smog and fog today. The views of the Al A Tau (or Tien Chen) mountains were dazzling. The air was clear and beautiful even though it was pretty cold. It was a lot of fun to be up there and get a sense of my place in the landscape and to get out of the haze of the city a little.

View of the Alatau or Tien Chen from the wonderful park high above Almaty

This was a very special day and I’m grateful to Larissa for sharing it with me and showing me around. There is nothing better than having a native show you around.

Lovely Larissa

So, today we had a plan to head west of Almaty to meet with a farmer and check out some land where we are thinking of building a cold storage facility for area farmers. The location is called Aksinger (pronounced Ahk-sing-gare) and the translation describes the way light plays on ice and frost covered plants on a sunny day. It sounds poetic and it does a good job of describing the place. All of the plants are frosted in ice and it must be gorgeous in the sunshine.

Zhumangali arranged the whole thing and we let him lead the way as we went charging off of the paved road out onto the steppes in Mr. Alexander’s van. This van is probably better suited for delivering kids to soccer games than wandering aimlessly over snow-covered grasslands, but that did not stop us.

This farm was only supposed to be 7 kilometers from the village and it wasn’t long before we started wondering if we’d missed a turn. So, every time we saw a herder or came across a lonely line shack we stopped to ask if we were going the right way. People started to tell us that we had missed the turn but there was another way, we just had to keep going a little farther. We finally came upon a livestock station and the guys there said we were on the wrong road, had gone 22 kilometers out of our way and had to turn back. The story goes on and on like that. I won’t bore you with the details – I’ll just skip right to the moral of the story. This is a culture that does not ever want to disappoint. People work very hard to make you happy by telling you what they think you want to hear. In this case we started our journey at the wrong village and none of the people we found on the steppes had any idea what we were talking about. But, they all answered us as though the farmer we were seeking was their dearest friend and they knew right where his farm was. And we, foolishly (and I mean that because I was in a car with real Kazakhies who should know better) believed them and followed their directions all over no where.

Here are Zhumangali and Alexander asking a herder for directions. Can you see him waving his arm in the direction of the fake farm of his fake best friend? We went right where he sent us.

We eventually caught on and decided to forget about finding the farmer and find some lunch instead. Zhumangali said it was all David’s fault that we did not feel motivated to press on because he made Zhuman impress upon the farmer that he was not to kill sheep for us and make our visit into too much of an event. Zhuman said that if we knew the farmer was going to that kind of trouble, we would have pressed on. Then he said, the farmer probably thought Zhuman had already decided not to come when he called about the no sheep agreement and was not surprised when we did not show up. Eventually the farmer did climb up a little hill where he could get his cell phone to work, contacted us and we were able to apologize.

Meanwhile the temperature was dropping fast and I was happy to get on the paved road and happier still to stop at a little roadside place for lunch. I was served a steaming bowl of bright cherry-red borsht with a dollop of snow white sour cream and a sprinkling of bright green fresh dill. A perfect ending to a perfect day – and I mean that. It sounds pointless and ridiculous but I honestly had fun wandering around out there and listening to my colleagues tell me Soviet jokes. I’ll post one of those next time.

A view of the wide open space in Aksinger. There are hilly areas too, but this gives you an idea of how lonely and open it is.

Earlier this week, David mentioned that the Agricultural University was sponsoring a conference on slow food and sustainable agriculture. They asked his to give a talk on organic agriculture at WSU. Since he is a relatively recent hire and has never actually been to WSU, he asked me to do it. I felt like a bit of a fraud because I am not an agronomist. But, as I put the presentation together, I learned that I knew more about the program than I thought. Some of my colleagues sent good material and, in the end, we put on a good show. Her are some pictures

Here is the audience before our talk. Can you tell that it is a Soviet era building with malfunctioning heat?

David is translating for me

Swan Lake In Kazakhstan

Yesterday I arrived at 5:20am and felt right at home as soon as we drove into Almaty. It is great to be back. All of the beautiful green trees that I saw in September are now bare and frosted with snow. It is very pretty. I am staying at a new hotel that I like. It is a busier neighborhood than where we stayed before so I should be able to move around a little more freely and take care of myself. Yesterday I walked to an open air market where I bought cheese, bread and fruit for lunch.

In the late afternoon I met with my colleague David to get ready for our week. He said that we are just a couple of blocks from the Almaty Opera house which is performing Swan Lake. So we went. It was wonderful fun – a beautiful building with gorgeous old fashioned painted sets and a very pretty ballet. Audience members buy flowers across the street before the performance. At the curtain call, they just walk right up on the stage to give bouquets to the performers. Loved it.

I took a little video of the space right before the performance. Sadly, I’m having some trouble uploading but will post as soon as I have it where you can see it.

video here

Return to Kazakhstan

Early tomorrow morning marks the start of a new adventure in Kazakhstan. Now that we have done our initial research it is time to put a program together and begin getting some things done. I am traveling by myself this time and will be working with our team of colleagues in Almaty. So, it promises to be a very different type of trip.

I am packing today and finding it a new challenge. This is the first project I’ve done in a cold weather place and my usual strategies do not apply. I plan to do my Christmas shopping while I’m on the road so as I lay everything out to pack, I’m thinking “which do I want more, this warm sweater or space in my bag for gifts I pick up along the way?”

Agencies who help the most vulnerable people in the world have been hit hard by the financial crisis as governments reduce their contributions. In order to carry on with their excellent work, the World Food Program has launched a campaign challenging a billion people to donate a euro each.

It is easy to do! Just click this icon  it will only take a moment and could save lives.Donate to feed the hungry

Read more about the campaign in this article in Reuters.