Monday, May 22, 2006

Aigul Ipakchi: A Kazakh-American Hero

Aigul Buyuk Kiereli Ipakchi immigrated to the United States after WWI as a refugee from Russian/Soviet Kazakhstan. She forged a successful life for herself as a professional nurse and found a true life partnership with a fellow refugee (from Azerbaijan). Her granddaughter Minna contributed this story about the exemplary woman Aigul continued to be, in the foreign and new land of America.


It was 1958, a typical small-town American 4th of July parade. The high school marching band was there, the local fire brigade, some old men from some fraternal organization or another, etc., etc., all marching down Main Street in the heat, nothing unusual. But what no one knew was that some local boys had gotten into the fireworks meant for later that night and they were trying to light them in a field beside the parade route. They went unnoticed, until suddenly there was a flash of light and a loud BOOM!

Everyone watching the parade turned to look, the passing band stopped playing... and we saw a patch of grass was burning and two of the little boys were on fire, shrieking in terror and running in circles. People in the crowd started screaming and some began running toward the field, young men from the local fire company in the lead, but it was far off and the little boys were panicking and thrashing around, only making their clothes and hair burn faster. My sisters and I just stood there stunned, eyes wide and mouths literally hanging open, when in the next second Apa-- about 60 years old at the time -- raced past us on one of the police horses that had been pulling a small float in the parade. A woman standing in front of us literally fainted at the sight of her charging past on the horse. Everyone was screaming and pushing so we climbed on top of a car to look for Apa, to make sure we didn't just imagine it was her. And yes, it was her. People were diving out of the path of the horse as she galloped toward the field at a truly amazing speed, a blur of brown horse and green and pink flowered dress, leaping over all obstacles including, last, a tall metal fence! In the next second she had reached the boys, thrown them both to the ground, and she was beating the flames out with her bare hands!

It happened so fast, none of the men running toward the field had even made it to the metal fence by the time it was all over, the flames were out and she was running, carrying the smallest boy, screaming for the guys at the fence to stop gawking and go get an ambulance. Obviously no one had ever seen anything like that before, and certainly not in a tiny town on the Atlantic seaboard. The little boys had been badly burned and she was burned too (she had scars on the palms of her hands for life) but both boys survived, thanks only to her courage and quick thinking. (The younger boy, who had been the most seriously injured, actually visited her for years afterward, even as an adult. We got to know him pretty well...he always called her "my guardian angel.") Once the initial shock wore off, and we knew she was ok, my sisters and I were just bursting with pride over this rescue. Our grandmother was like a superhero right out of the movies and we figured, well, this is what it must mean to be Kazakh!

The following day the incident appeared in the local newspaper, a front-page story: "Mongol Horsewoman Saves Boys Aged 6 and 9." Back then (not unlike now, really), no American had ever heard of anyone (or anywhere) from Central Asia but Ghengis Khan! This was the '50s, you know -- American women weren't even supposed to work outside the home, so there was also no mention of the fact that our grandmother was a registered nurse -- a high level of education for a woman back then-- and that she had worked for 6 years in the burn unit. No wonder she understood it was only a matter seconds between life and death for those boys. We understood then how much our grandmother had accomplished, but also how much she had to overcome. Not only a non-traditional grandmother, but an Asian woman, from an unknown Soviet nation during the Cold War. She was an amazing woman, and if I am 1/100th the person she was, I'll be happy.

I'm sure we're missing many important events, too, because she really didn't talk about herself much, she was so humble, maybe too much so. You know, she never talked about the rescue at the parade, either -- she would have seen that as 'impolite' somehow or like boasting or something -- I think in part because those little boys had been so badly hurt, it wasn't a pleasant memory for her. She couldn't escape that story, though, because there were too many witnesses, myself included, so she humored us kids and let us tell the story to our friends. The only condition seemed to be that she had the last word about it, always adding at the end that it was "really an outstanding horse" and that she knew in an instant from his eyes that he was special, she and that horse were "in agreement" on what had to be done, and that's why they were successful. (I'm not kidding about this. She really felt the horse was heroic, not herself!)

When we were kids my sisters and I actually thought of our grandmother as almost super-human or something, too, especially after this one episode -- and I think that single incident really shaped what we kids thought it meant to be Kazakh.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

KZ in the NHL

Our next story is about a hockey player from Kazakhstan, Nikolai Antropov. He was born in February, 1980, in Ust-Kamenogorsk, capital city of hockey in Kazakhstan. His father brought him to a hockey school and a kid started his hockey career. "My father was my first influence in hockey," says Nikolai. Soon he became one of the major players of his team “Torpedo Ust-Kamenogorsk”. He played two seasons in Kazakhstanian league, 1996-1998. His scores were not bad at all for the sixteen-year-old youngster; in 50 games he scored 17 goals and made 25 assists. In 1998 he moved to the Russian league, like all the best players from the former Soviet Republics. He played for “Dynamo” Moscow one season (30 games, 5 goals, 9 assists). He also represented Kazakhstan at the World Junior Championships collecting eight points (three goals, five assists) in six tournament games. In 1999 he was ready for the next step. Nikolai’s talent was noticed by the NHL and at age 19 he signed a contract with the Canadian Toronto Maple Leafs as a first round draft choice. Soon he became one of the leaders of the Leafs. In 2 seasons with the AHL St. John’s Maple Leafs and 6 seasons with the Toronto Leafs he has a total of 83 goals and 139 assists, with an NHL total 187 points.

During the 2004-2005 player lockout, Nik went east to Russia, playing for the Kazan Ak-Bars and the Yaroslavl Locomotiv, and by all accounts improved his skating and overall play. He returned to Toronto in fall 2005, and despite an injury plagued season (he underwent knee surgery again in April), Nikki contributed 31 points (12 goals, 19 assists). He is currently one of only two Kazakstanis playing in the NHL. Married to fellow Kazakhstani Lena Synchenko, Nikki is father to two sons. He has also captained the Kazakhstan National Hockey team in the 2002 and 2006 Olympics.

Here are some of Nikki's career highlights:
  • Registered his 100th career NHL point (goal) December 23, 2003
  • Played his 200th career NHL game April 3, 2003
  • Best NHL year to date, 2003-2004, with career highs in games played (72), goals (16), assists (29), points and penalty minutes
  • Ranked 15th in the NHL for game winning goals (6-tie) in 2003-2004
  • Made his first career hat trick in his first season, December 1999
  • Made his first career point in his first NHL game, October13, 1999

•Team Calls Him: Nikki
•Height: was-6'3 now 6'5

•Weight: was-191lbs now-219lbs
•Born: February, 18th 1980
•Place: Ust'-Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan
•Contract Status: Active
•Shoots: Both (Prefers Left)
•Position: Centre
•Last Amateur Club: Dynamo (Russia)
•Strengths: Size
•Pronunciation: AN-TRO-POV

Nikolai Antropov at
Nik's lifetime stats at
Profile at Legends of

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

A Window into Ex-Pat Life, Volunteer Style

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, several Central Asian countries have hosted volunteers from the US Peace Corps as teachers of English ,and as consultants in the growing private business environment. The first Volunteers arrived in Kazakhstan, Kyrgistan and Turkmenistan in 1993. The Peace Corps only works where it is welcome; it suspended the Uzbekistan program in June 2005.

With new Internet technologies, volunteers have been able to share their experiences and insights with family and friends (and the rest of the world) through "blogs", personal websites created with easy-to-manage Internet software. Blogs are as individual as the volunteers (PCVs) -- some are insightful and thoughtful, some cynical, some more intended for close friends than for the Internet public; none are always upbeat and positive. And of course, none of them are representative of official Peace Corps policies or views.

PCV blogs can be a unique way to peer into daily life as an ex-patriot in a foreign land (be sure to look into older archived posts, not just the most recent). Here's a list of some favorite blogs by PCVs around Kazakhstan.

Coming of Age - Ust-Kamengorsk/Oskmen (E KZ)
Ryan Giordano in Kokshetau ( North KZ)
Stuck on the 45th Parallel - Pavlodar (NE KZ)
No longer in KZ
The Durrrty South of Siberia - Petropovlovst (N KZ)
You May Say That I'm a Dreamer . . . - Almaty (SE KZ)
Stanmenistan - Uralsk/Oral (Northwest KZ) No longer in KZ

Monday, May 01, 2006

Rebirth of a Dying Sea

<- Aral Sea(s) as seen from space in 1985

With the ever worsening smog in Almaty, the nuclear contamination around Semey and pollution and overfishing in the Caspian Sea, good news on the Central Asian environmental front is a welcome change. In early April, both the New York Times and the Washington Post reported that a World Bank-funded project to restore waters to the Aral Sea, long considered possibly the biggest environmental disaster of all time, is not only successful, but ahead of schedule.

The Aral Sea, shared by Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, was once the 4th largest inland body of water in the world. It supported a vibrant fishing industry, and the wetlands formed by the deltas of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers teemed with animal and plant life. The Syr Darya begins from Himalayan glaciers in Kyrgistan and Tajikistan, and flows northward from the mountains through southern Kazakhstan, passing Kyzlorda and Baikonur Cosmodrome before emptying into the northern Aral. The Amu Darya flows from Afghanistan through Turkmenistan to Uzbekistan and the southern end of the Aral.

The Aral Sea began to shrink in the 1960s when massive Soviet irrigation canals diverted 95% of the water in the two rivers to cotton fields in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Between water lost to evaporation, and the lack of fresh water to replace it, the Aral had lost 75% of its surface area by 1996. The water became too salty for fish, the dry sea basin blew away in fierce dust storms, weather patterns in the area changed. The port cities of Aralsk (Kazakhstan) and Muynak (Uzbekistan) became stranded more than 50 miles from the coast. Water levels are so low that the sea has split into two, the small North Aral (entirely within Kazakhstan) and the larger South Aral.

The World Bank project is focused on saving the North Aral, and consists of improving the efficiency of the irrigation canals, and an 8-mile dam which was completed last summer. With more water flowing into the sea, the salinity drops, the water rises and reclaims the desert. Project coordinators originally expected the sea to fill in 5 to 10 years, but the canals had been so wasteful of water that improvements made a much bigger and quicker difference than anticipated. Perhaps someday Aralsk will again be a city by the sea.

Background and More Information

Map of the Aral Sea and Surrounding Areas
New York Times & Washington Post Articles (April 2006)
Northern Aral Sea Fills Up Ahead of Schedule as Part of World Bank Project
(February 2006)

The Aral Sea (The Water Page, 2001)
International Response to the Aral Sea (, 2000)
Release the Rivers: Let the Volga and the Ob Refill the Aral Sea
(Proposal to Save the Southern Aral)