Sunday, October 07, 2007

Ghengis Khan Rides Again

. . . on the silver screen, in the newly-released Mongol (links to trailers here), and in the person of a young Australian adventurer and writer named Tim Cope,
who recently completed a 3.5-year journey on horseback, from Mongolia to Hungary, on the trail laid down by Ghengis Khan's warriors in the 13th century .

A couple of weeks ago, the AP covered Tim Cope’s September arrival in Opusztaszer, Hungary, the end point of an ambitious effort that began in Kharkorin, Mongolia in June 2004. Fifteen months of the journey was spent crossing Kazakhstan, from the Altai mountains east of Ust-Kamanogorsk, south and west through the Betpak Dala desert (to miss the northern winter), though the myraid canals leading to the devastated Aral Sea, and finally to the north Caspian, over the Ural River into Europe, through to the Russian region of Kalmykia. After so much focus on the Silk Road routes through Central Asia, which almost entirely skirt Kazakhstan, it’s welcome and fascinating to read about a trek through the geographic heart of the region, and one that dwells in the villages and uninhabited steppe rather than the urban areas.

Cope originally planned the entire 10,000 km (6,200 mile) journey to take 18 months, but he seriously underestimated both complication time (sick animals, theft, personal illness, and red tape) and local hospitality. Time and time again, his intended departure date from one Kazakh village or another is delayed by a party, a wedding invitation, or just a bunch of guys toasting all night.
A heartening evening of toasts, food, and conversation ensued and we left in the morning feeling as if we were leaving old friends. That seems to be the feeling I have when I leave most Kazak homes. They are genuine when they say: ‘Meet once and you are a friend, meet twice and you are family.’ 19 November 2004
Like the British adventurer Burnaby, Cope undertook his journey pretty much for the heck of it. Unlike Burnaby, Cope’s quest also included online journaling, lots of beautiful photographs, and a planned documentary film. You can wait for the book, or you can read Cope’s journal/blog entries in his On The Trail of Ghengis Khan. It’s part introspection, part description and part insight into the regions travelled.

The pace and novelty of horseback travel opened doors into local life that higher-level travellers never see.
In the Betpak Dala one evening, I took off on a motorbike with a young local herder. We spent a few hours with the family as they set up their Yurt tent. The kids played, and sang, a joy and life in their eyes that I have never seen in village Kazaks. This was the equivalent of summer holidays and moving down to the beach for summer. A lamb was slaughtered, yards were built for the sheep and cattle, and by sunset everyone was sitting back sipping fresh yoghurt. The knowledge of the Betpak Dala of these people was so far beyond my comprehension. As they told me, every little section of the steppe has its good time of year when there is fodder, and you can survive. But this is a very small window of opportunity and the nomad is forced to move and move. If you stay in one place too long then you might not make it back to the sands before winter hits. And if you leave the desert sands too late then there will not be enough grass left there to keep you going through the next winter. Even if there was grass all year round near the river dries up by August, sinking into the sands and will not return again until spring. I realised that my journey in contrary is not dictated by the seasons and grass as it probably should be- but by the limits of my Kazak visa and the need to head west. I just have to adjust and tackle, and get through. I envied this family and thought that if I had time I could easily spend a few months with them moving slowly north, then south again. 29 April 2005
A couple of memorable episodes and observations: in Kyzlorda, he meets a fellow who helps him out by finding pasture for the horses out in the country. But,
there was a fear in his eyes when he was in the village, and he told me quietly several times how terrible and impoverished these people lived. It was a relief when he was gone- I felt much more at home with these village people who had a far better understanding of the reality of my journey. The gulf between city and village life in Kazakhstan is really quite astounding. There are two economies and two countries within this one state. 17 April 2005
Then, toward the end of the journey, near the eastern Caspian, Cope is royally swindled by a local man with money and connections, a disaster in his words, which, combined with major visa hassles, delay him for several weeks

This October 2005 entry (written by Cope’s brother) sums up the Kazakhstan experience:
Tim has basically crossed Kazakhstan from the widest points and along the way ticked over around 4500-5000km in real traveling distance. The distance however is an unhelpful measure of his experience- for example you can travel that distance in a mere three days on a train. What counts are the more than 70 families that took Tim in (plus the many others who looked after him), the hundreds and hundred of stories they shared, and the openness with which they revealed the secrets of their culture and homeland. Distance also becomes irrelevant when it is the conditions that make things tough and you are on horseback: no shortcuts. In winter he experienced lows of –48 degrees Celsius, and in summer 53 degrees. Finding water and pasture is what has dictated the journey from the very beginning, and in the desert regions of central/western Kazakhstan, Tim and his horses were tested to their limits. During this sometimes exhausting and patience testing process Tim has come to far more intimately understand the reality of life on the steppe and the mentality of the nomad.
After finally getting permission to enter Russia with 3 horses and his Kazakh dog Tigon, Cope spent another 15 months riding through Russia and Ukraine before arriving in Hungary in August 2007.

But, you want to know, what about the saiga?
Though he travelled by horseback and camel through the heart of Kazakhtan’s saiga territory, Cope did not see any of the endearing ungulates until he reached Russian Kalmykia. In this region is another wildlife sanctuary created to protect the saiga, and Cope describes his sighting of the saiga and the dedication of the sanctuary director in Astrakhan Oblast: Freezing Volga, Saiga, Caucasus meets steppe (27/1/06).

All photographs from Tim Cope

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Searching for Kazakhstan: A Book Review

In June, I broke down and ordered In Search of Kazakhstan: The Land that Disappeared from, hideous exchange rate, international shipping and all. I'd had my eye on it for months, and still no sign of a US edition in sight. It was worth the trouble. Christopher Robbins (author of Air America and The Empress of Ireland) has written a breezy, affectionate travelogue-style portrait of Kazakhstan, with history and character profiles interspersed among sights and adventures. And don't forget the apples.

The book opens with a portrait of the unnamed man who started Robbins on his quest. On a plane to Moscow, he sits next to a middle-aged American widower, en route to Almaty to meet his Internet fiancee. Naturally, the author knows nothing about Kazakhstan, and his seatmate proudly relates much of what he'd learned about the homeland of his bride-to-be. As they disembarked, the man "turned and made a throwaway remark that seemed insignificant at the time. The last words he addressed to me were, 'Apples are from Kazakhstan.'"

Robbins' travels cover the major areas -- southeast around Almaty, Astana (where he scores a personal interview with President Nursultan Nazerbayev), Karaganda, and the Aral Sea area; west to Atyrau & Baikonur, south to Taraz, and to Semey in the northeast.
This is neither a hard-hitting expose, nor a backpacker's view of Kazakhstan. The meeting with Nazarbayev turned into several informal interviews over two years, and many of Robbins' excursions are the result of an invitation to join a presidential touring party. A coup for any writer, but no doubt it colored the author's perspective somewhat. Robbins isn't exactly an apologist for Nazarbayev -- he does acknowledge corruption and scandal in the upper echelons of government -- but he clearly emerges as a fan of the former steelworker who climbed to party boss, then President of a new nation.

Fascinating anecdotal history makes up much of the narrative. While Robbins tramps the southeast in search of wild apple orchards, we learn about the rise and fall of Russian geneticist Nikolai Vavilov, who identified the birthplace of more plants than anyone else in history. In Semey, we read of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's doomed love affair and of the Polygon's nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov, who created the Soviets' hydrogen bomb. Trotsky lived in Almaty; in Karaganda, Alexander Solzhenitsyn. A long section relates the adventures of Captain Frederick Gustavus Burnaby of the British Army, who in 1875, on a whim, travelled from St. Petersburg across the steppe to Khiva and back again -- in the middle of winter.

This is all great reading, but begins to feel like a litany of things that have been done in and done to Kazakhstan, by outsiders. The real jewels in the book are the portraits of Kazakhstanis, none especially famous, but all fascinating in their lives and achievements:
  • Krym Altynbekov in Almaty, the master restorer of almost all the archeological treasures found in Kazakhstan in the past 25 years, including the Golden Man and all the objects found with him;
  • Gabit Sagatov in Kyzlorda, the remaining member of the "Kazakh Beatles";
  • Boris Gudonov in Karaganda, Ukrainian by birth, who at age 8 was sent into the Gulag with his father, political scapegoat for a mining accident.
  • Ykaterina Kuznetsova, a journalist, born in China to Russian parents, and raised in Karaganda, who has dedicated her life to documenting the Kazakh Gulag and the people who inhabited it;
  • and the fruit that started it all, the legendary Aport apple, large as a baby's head, once famous throughout the Soviet Union for its scent and flavour, but now "uncool" (though no less delicious), and found only in markets around Almaty.

The book is illustrated with small sketches, including one of that wonderfully goofy ungulate, the saiga, in a discussion of Kazakh wolf overpopulation. Though there are no notes or even an index, it appears to be well researched.

Whether you're headed to KZ for business, adoption or adventure, living in Kazakhstan and wanting a positive, contemporary look at the country for overseas friends, family & colleagues, or an armchair traveller ready to explore, you'll enjoy the engaging writing, range of information, and a level of description and history lacking in the travel and political books. Christopher Robbins likes Kazakhstan. You'll like his book.

In Search of Kazakhstan: The Land That Disappeared. Profile Books, 2007. £12.99

In Search of Kazakhstan was published in the US under the title Apples are from Kazakhstan. Atlas & Co, 2008. $24 (hardcover)

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Koryo Saram Premieres in Almaty, July 15 & 17

Browsing through old news items & links, I just saw that a Kazakhstan screening of the new documentary, Koryo Saram: The Unreliable People, is scheduled for next week, on July 15 (Sunday) and July 17 (Tuesday). This film traces the history of Koreans forcibly deported from coastal Far East Russia to the steppes of Kazakhstan in the 1930s & 1940s. It sounds fascinating, uncovering the history of one of the many hyphenated-Kazakhstani ethnicities. From the film's website comes this description:

Koryo Saram (the Soviet Korean phrase for Korean person) tells the harrowing saga of survival in the open steppe country and the sweep of Soviet history through the eyes of these deported Koreans, who were designated by Stalin as an "unreliable people" and enemies of the state. Through recently uncovered archival footage and new interviews, the film follows the deportees' history of integrating into the Soviet system while working under punishing conditions in Kazakhstan, a country which became a concentration camp of exiled people from throughout the Soviet Union.

A quick search hasn't come up with any more information, such as location or times. Anyone in Almaty who can find out (Gulnara? Leila??), please comment!


Koryo Saram: The Unreliable People website

"Koryo-saram" article at Wikipedia

"Forced Deportation and Literary Imagination": an article exploring the effects of deportation to Kazakhstan on the Soviet Koreans, and how these experiences are realized in Soviet Korean literature.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Wild Kazakhstan:
The Rise and Fall of the Saiga

This spring brought two news stories about endangered animal species in KZ. One was the massive die-off of Caspian seals (the only mammal in the Caspian Sea), and the other was the creation of an enormous wildlife reserve in NW Kazakhstan, called the Irgiz-Turgay Nature Reserve.

Anybody reading an basic introduction to Kazakhstan might get the impression that there are two kind of wild animals in the entire country: 1) eagles and what they can be trained to hunt (foxes, rabbits & wolves) and 2) snow leopards, with some wild camels here and there for local color. Wikipedia has a better list, but doesn’t have articles for many. Could it be I want it too easy? Where’s my full-color Field Guide to the KZ Steppe? I’ve been interested in the non-human inhabitants of Kazkhstan for a while, so I followed up on the Irgiz-Turgay story to learn more.

The area of the Irgiz-Turgay reserve is home to several endangered species, which is the driving reason for creating the reserve. One of the main species to be protected is the saiga, an ungulate (hooved mammal) that’s somewhere between a sheep and an antelope. It looks like a critter Dr. Seuss would think up, and the story of the saiga is like that of the truffula tree. From millions to rare, back to millions, and now endangered again, in little more than a century.

There’s a fair amount of information available online, but the most comprehensive English-language article I found on the saiga (in Russian, saigak) is in the multi-volume Grzimek’s Encyclopedia of Mammals. Basic saiga facts: Saiga tatarica is the only species in its genus; the closely related saiga borealis became extinct during the Pleistocine era. They are related to, but very distinct from, the mysterious Tibetan antelope also known as the chiru. Zoologists first classified saiga in the goat family, but now they are thought to be a separate species between sheep and antelopes, and placed on the gazelle family tree.

A mature saiga is around 3 to 3.5 ft. (90-100 cm) tall and 3.5-5ft. (120-130cm) long, weighing 45-110 lbs.(21-51kg). Their coats are short, thick & brownish in summer, and in winter saiga sport a 70% shaggier, nearly white woolly coat. Like the platypus, a saiga seems a pastiche of different animals stitched together -- the body of a sheep or goat, legs like a very short deer, neck like some sort of llama, horns of an antelope, and a big moose- or llama-ish head.

The curious-looking head is due to the huge humped nose, which looks something like a short elephant trunk (a ‘proboscis’). Inside that big hump is a very large nasal cavity, which is a fabulous adaptation to the harsh steppe climate. In summer, this nose protects the saiga’s lungs by filtering out airborne dust; in the winter, icy air is pre-warmed before getting to the lungs. Oddly enough, saigas have a terrible sense of smell, but excellent eyesight, able to detect danger over half a mile away. Saiga seasonal migration is unpredictable, varying with the severity of summer and winter weather. When they go, they go all together, thousands at a time, and in a straight line with the direction of the wind, ignoring all dangers.

While the schnoz makes the saiga interesting, it’s the horns on the males that make them valuable. Since the 19th century saiga have been hunted for their horns, which are ground into a powder and used for aphrodesiacs, and as a fever medicine in traditional Chinese medicine. Grzimek’s says nearly 350,000 pairs of the ringed, translucent amber horns were sold in just two Central Asian markets between 1840 & 1850. There are accounts of Kirgiz/Kazakh hunters hunting them with steppe eagles and greyhounds, and deadly spiked ambush corrals, killing up to 12,000 a day. On the verge of total extinction after WWI, the Russian Soviets banned all saiga hunting in 1919 and the Republic of Kazakhstan followed in 1923. In July 1929, a zoological expedition set out from New York to “Siberia and Russian Turkestan” to collect rare specimens, including Siberian tigers and saiga, for the American Museum of Natural History. The New York Times reported in July 1930 that they returned with 3 tigers, 6 saiga, and “400 other specimens of smaller mammals and birds.” I assume they all came back stuffed; a live menagerie of that scale would be a management challenge, to say the least.

The Soviets were serious about preserving the saiga, so between no hunting (and presumably limited poaching) and the saiga’s incredible fertility rates (right up there with rabbits!), the species made an astonishing comeback. By 1958, the number of saiga in Kazakhstan & Kalmykia (Caucasian Russia north of Azerbaizhan, bordering northwest KZ) was estimated at 2 million. The number of saiga doubled, from half a million to a million, in the 5 years between 1966-1971. Saiga are incredibly good at reproducing -- female saigas mature at less than one year old, an average of 90% of females conceive every season, and approximately 75% of all saiga births are twins! Males mature a bit later, and some of the more experienced bucks collapse exhausted after trying to handle all those wanna-be moms.

So what happened? How did a globally-heralded success story turn to critical loss in such a short time? Two events, happening at roughly the same time, accelerated both the supply and the demand for saiga horn. On the supply side was the 1991 demise of the Soviet Union and its tight controls on hunting and poaching, the ensuing urgent need of the people for food and income, and the opening of previously closed borders. The demand side comes with a twist -- by the late 1980s-early 1990s, the saiga population seemed so large and secure that the World Wildlife Fund, and other environmental groups working to save the endangered African Rhino, campaigned in Hong Kong, China and other Asian countries to persuade pharmacists to use saiga horn as an effective alternative to rhino horn. In an ironic example of successful marketing, in 2002 alone, authorities in Kazakhstan confiscated 6 tons of saiga horn -- from approximately 20,000 slaughtered male saiga. One kilo of horn (from 2-4 males) can bring $80, a fortune to a hungry villager. A dramatic visual: as reported in a National Wildlife article, during the harsh winter of 2000, some 80,000 saiga in Russia migrated south from Kalmykia to Dagestan. “Weeks later, only a few animals returned. Witnesses reported that the snow was red with blood from the slaughter.”

The normal saiga gender ratio is 1 male for every 2 to 3 females. But since it’s the mature males who are poachers’ targets, the ratio has become terribly skewed. One 2003 study reported that male saigas comprised only 1% of the population, down from 25% in 1991. And, to make matters worse, it appears that male saiga need to fight other bucks to keep their fertility high. Nobody to fight, fewer babies made. It’s a downward spiral. The total saiga population in Russia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia has dropped 95%, from far more than a million to fewer than 50,000, in only 10 years.

The saiga has developed over thousands of years, surviving and adapting to a the inhospitable steppe environment, probably contributing to human survival in the region. Saiga bones are almost always found in excavations of steppe sites inhabited by early humans. They do not compete with domesticated animals for food, water or pasture -- they eat over 100 different kinds of plants, primarily herbs & shrubs, and get their water from the plants they eat, or from snow. Thirteen percent of their food comes from plants that are toxic to or rejected by domestic herds.

Why devote money and huge amounts of land to preserve this odd creature? One reason is that we simply don’t know what the result of extinction would be. The use of saiga horn as a fever medicine is actually supported by WWF-sponsored research; what other medical uses might be discovered in the future? The role of saiga migration and grazing in the web of steppe ecology isn’t clear. Perhaps they control the growth of toxic plants, or fertilize steppe grasses. If managed well, saiga could be an ongoing food supply for rural inhabitants, and support other steppe animals such as wolves.

Another reason is that extinction could happen in a dramatically short time span. The animal does not adapt well to zoo life, and attempts to re-introduce them to areas where they used to roam are largely unsuccessful. Grzimek’s lists the saiga life span at 6-10 years, while New Scientist claims a life span of only 3-4 years. In either case, the saiga story could be a closed book within a decade.

The establishment of the Irgiz-Turgay nature reserve will create a long swath of protected land across the central Eurasian steppe, from Southern Russia (in Kalmykia’s 121,000 hectare Black Lands Biosphere Reserve) across northwestern Kazakhstan to the area north of the Aral Sea. I can’t find a map showing the boundaries of the reserve area, but Turgay is a town on the border with Russia, while Irgiz is some 650 mi to the east (in Aqtobe region). At 763,549 hectares (almost 3,000 sq. miles), this is almost as big as the US state of Texas. The area includes lakes and wetlands that are important to 100 species of waterbirds, including two other endangered species, the Dalmatian pelican and the white-headed duck. The wetlands of the Ural River delta (where the Ural flows into the Caspian Sea) is nearby (I’m not sure whether it’s included in the new nature reserve) and is an important flyway for other endangered birds. It would be a fascinating location to explore for anyone interested in steppe wildlife.

Intention and a coalition of international NGOs is good, protected land is a start, but Kazakhstan will have to commit money for enforcement of the hunting bans, and for education and marketing. Local communities need to benefit from protecting the natural resources, through sustainable harvesting and the development of eco- tourism, to outweigh the immediate benefits of poaching.

I would love to hear from anyone with more information about the Irgiz-Turgay nature reserve, the overall implementation of the Altyn Dala Conservation initiative (of which the new reserve is a part), or other wildlife areas in Kazakhstan. In the meantime, I will leave you with a final saiga fact -- when sensing danger and beginning to flee, a saiga first jumps into the air a few times to look around before starting off at a gallop.



Grzimek’s Encyclopedia of Mammals. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1990. Vol. 5, p.485-494.
Find Grzimek's in a library near you.

"Kazakhstan: Government Expands Protection of Steppes"- Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 5 April 2007.
"Kazakhstan “steppes” up protection of endangered antelope." - WWF, 27 March 2007.
"Saga of the Saiga." National Wildlife Magazine, April/May 2004 (source of Photo #1 above)
"Rhino rescue plan decimates Asian antelopes." New Scientist, 12 February 2003. (source of Photo #2)
Endangered Species Handbook.
EDGE: Species 62
Williams, Laura. "Kalmykia: Reviving the Dusty Plain." Russian Life, Sep/Oct 2003.

For further reading:
Saiga Conservation Alliance (information, video & still photos)
Saiga tatarica Fact Sheet at Ultimate Ungulate (source of Photo #3 above)
Biodiversity Conservation Center (photos & video; source of photo #4 to right, by Igor Shpilenok)

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Schizo: A Movie Review

I've finally figured out how to squeeze in time to watch movies, and have at last watched Schizo, the only Region 1, English-subtitled Kazakhstani film I know of (Nomad: The Warrior is scheduled for DVD release in July). I’ve had it around for over a year, but was somewhat hesitant to watch it because of the publicized “Fight Club” aspects (I don’t do blood well). So now I’ve seen it, and I’m glad I did. It’s sticking with me, and making me wonder and think -- and not about the bloody (icky) parts.

Basic plotline -- a 14-year-old boy in rural KZ gets kicked out of school and works for/with Saukura, his mother’s boyfriend, finding men to participate in bare-knuckle fights against trained boxers. One of the recruits gets mortally beaten, and with his dying breath asks Mustafa (called Schizo, as in schizophrenic, by himself and others) to take the advance money to his girlfriend and his son, who live at the edge of town. Schizo goes back to this house again and again, bringing gifts and money, advocates for the boy’s welfare, finds enjoyment in the woman’s company and eventually makes love for the first time with her. These three form an odd, tenuous sort of family, but with no cementing bond. Schizo gets deeper into the sordid doings of the fist-fight gang, gets double-crossed, and apparently gives himself up for the wellbeing of Zina and Sanzhik.

Yes, I got queasy at the fight scenes (full disclosure: I also can’t make it through a First Aid training film without hyperventilating and dizziness), but the majority of the violence (and all the sex) in Schizo is implied, off-screen. What we see is the aftermath, the emotions (or lack thereof). For me, Schizo remains an enigma. He’s the age of your average American 9th grader. What goes on in his head is a mystery. I read several other reviews stating that Schizo “falls in love” with Zina, but I’m not sure I entirely believe that. He is drawn to this odd couple, the sort-of-widow stuck with an orphaned child (hmm, does he see his mother in Zina, and himself in Sanzhik?) He does what he can do to make sure the boy is cared for. He sleeps with Zina -- “becoming a man.” There is something there for him that endures and sustains him. Sometimes that’s the best any life can offer.

What I do know is that for me, Schizo is a beautiful, haunting film. The landscape is both lush and barren. It’s set somewhere in the southeast steppe but away from the mountains, on a waterfront big enough for something that looks like a fishing industry (Lake Balkash?). The post-Soviet bleakness is apparent, and as the director, Guka Omarova, states in the interview extras, not too different from contemporary rural life and opportunities. The ethnic diversity of Kazakhstan is well portrayed, as are the inter-ethnic relationships - both Zina and Sakura are Russian, while Schizo and his mother Kulgash are Kazakh. I’d say that the description of Olga Landina (Zina), as a “Slavic Sissy Spacek,” is right on.

It’s very interesting to me that both Olzhas Nussuppaev (Schizo) and Kanagat Nurkay (Sanzhik) were “unknowns," “discovered” in orphanages. It’s interesting that the director went looking and held auditions in orphanages to begin with. In the interview extras, Nussuppaev seems only slightly more animated that he does in the film, with the same engaging crooked smile. Was he really only playing himself? I can only imagine the surreal aspects of going from Internat to Almaty to New York, with little-to-no life preparation for any of it. He says he hopes to act again. I hope he makes it.

The original US release plans included multiple cities across the country, but lackluster box office takes made them pull it after a few weeks. It’s a shame. It’s no worse and a lot better than many of the foreign ‘art films’ I’ve seen, and it might have found a following if marketed as such. I wouldn’t take anybody younger than 14 or 15 to see if, but whomever you see it with, I’d predict lots of questions and things to talk about afterward.

What others have written about Schizo:

New York Times
San Francisco Chronicle
ReelTalkMovie Reviews
Emanuel Levy

Friday, May 04, 2007

Manti, Kaz-Am Style

This was not exactly a new "Kazakh Cooking Experiment", but more of a repeat with slightly different variables. Like Tex-Mex cooking is basically Mexican, but varied and adapted by influences on the American side of the border, the manti I made tonight are basically Central Asian, but adapted to American ingredients and speed-of life.

• Instead of handmaking the dough, I used the biggest packaged wonton wrappers I could find (about 3” across);

• I halved the amount of meat -- only 1/2 lb of a medium-fat (not lean) coarsely ground beef (I can hear the wolves howling in despair already!)

• I wanted to make manti with pumpkin this time, but since it’s practically impossible to find fresh pumpkin when it’s not Halloween, I substituted a medium-sized butternut squash, cut into small dice. Mixed this with the meat and one large onion, also diced small, and salt & pepper.

The rest is the same. Place filling in the center of a wrapper, moisten the edges of the dough, fold over and pinch edges together. Steam for maybe 15 minutes, and serve. I did try greasing the steamer basket this time, but I don’t know that it made much difference -- they stick together if they don’t stick to the basket. Steaming fewer at a time would probably solve that, but it already takes 3 batches to get them all done.

Oh well. The don’t even look ‘authentic’, but this family of 3 devoured all 50 manti in one sitting; I’m counting it as a success. And the whole process was complete in just over an hour. A group assembly effort could probably get dinner ready and on the table in under an hour, making it possible to have manti any day of the week, not just on weekends.

Thanks are due to Kelly, a member of the Kazakhstan_Recipes Yahoo group for sharing this quick manti method.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Images of Kazakhstan

The Land is inside Me, a "creative documentary," is a montage of images from everyday Kazakhstan. From skiing in the Tien Shan mountains to worship at the Mausoleum of Khja Ahmed Yasavi in Turkestan, urban street singers and window cleaners to valenki-wearing horsemen herding sheep. The filmmaker, Jürg Da Vaz, is a Swiss artist who has made several other films in and about Kazakhstan. This one, from 2003, is just under 10 minutes long. Check out the mass manti (?) production at about 2:30 mins.

Last winter, Ben at posted an artist's view, a profile of Da Vaz and commentary on one of his longer films on Kazkhstan, Born to Move: Kazakhstan Unlimited. YouTube fans won't find these through casual surfing; Da Vaz has uploaded his films only to GoogleVideo and his own website.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Kazakh Cooking Experiment #2 - Lagman

A few weeks ago a friend asked if I could find information about some sort of Kazakh stew that a young KZ adoptee was missing but didn’t remember much about. The question was never answered entirely, but the two best possibilities seemed to be lagman and zharkoe. Lagman is a thickish soup with noodles, zharkoe is more stew-like.

And so, the recipe explorations began. Oh my, the variations seem endless. However, I had it on good authority (thank you, W & A) that neither lagman nor zharkoe have one proper way to make them (like a Mama's spaghetti sauce), but that lagman should have homemade noodles, small pieces of meat, tomatoes, pepper and paprika. What the heck -- it was the first day of spring!

A word to the wise -- don’t try this on a weeknight (I did), especially if you are making noodles without a pasta machine (I gave mine away after owning it for 10 years without using it once. Aargh). Dinnertime could be quite late (it was).

The recipe below is a combination of noodles from one site, the soup/stew from Please to the Table & , and personal preference. The page has pictures of the noodle-making process, which is very helpful. has pictures of many favorite Kazakh dishes, including lagman (recipes in Kazakh and Russian). My noodles were a bit chubbier than theirs, but delicious. And yes, it’s true! Homemade makes all the difference.

When Kazakhs celebrate Nauryz, presence of the number 7 is essential - it embodies seven days of the week – the time units of universal eternity. One traditional Nauryz dish includes seven different kinds of meat. Happy wolves! I used only chuck roast, but I accidentally ended up with seven different kinds of vegetable in this lagman. Could this be why we had great spring weather that week?

From “I remember this!” to “Can we have it for lunch tomorrow?”, this cook was pleased by the family’s verdict. We’ll have it again -- on a weekend, minus the red bell peppers, and possibly with the addition of some marjoram and/or mint.

All notes, variations and additions are welcome. Please comment!
After all, there’s here’s no one proper way to make lagman.


I'm giving the soup part first, because, if you're pressed for time, the most important part to make on serving day is the noodles. You can make the lagman "soup" the day before (flavours meld in the fridge overnight anyway). Reheat it to serve over the homemade noodles. Make sure there's plenty of broth -- add more if needed.

For maximum effect, play
Kazakhstani tunes (download here or here) in the kitchen while cooking :-)

1/4 c. olive oil
1 lb. chuck roast (or any meat you like), cut into small pieces or strips

2 onions, cut in half across the rings, then thinly sliced
1 Japanese eggplant, diced
3 or 4 carrots, sliced
2-3 large tomatoes (peeled, seeded & chopped - see end for tomato peeling info)
1 sweet red pepper, chopped
2 large potatoes, peeled & diced
3-4 cans beef broth (or 6-7 cups homemade beef stock if you have the time)
large dash paprika (1 Tbs., maybe more)
2 bay leaves
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbs. vinegar (apple cider, balsamic, or red wine)

In a large pot (at least 4 qt.) heat olive oil over medium heat until hazy. Add meat, cook until all sides are browned. Remove and set aside.

Add onions, eggplant and carrots to pot, and saute 7-8 minutes, or until soft. Add tomatoes and peppers, and continue to cook over medium heat for 10-15 minutes, until all ingredients are 'well colored' (whatever that means) or they look right to you.

Add potatoes, cook 5 minutes or so. Season with salt & pepper, cook for 2 minutes. Return meat to pot, stir to combine with vegetables, then add broth (3 cans or 5 cups). Cover, bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook for 45 minutes or so, until meat is tender. Taste & adjust seasoning. Add vinegar & garlic, remove bay leaves. Remove from heat, & let sit at least 10 minutes before serving, or, cool, place soup in refrigerator & reheat later. Add extra broth if too thick. Lagman should be more like soup and less like stew when served.


If you're making soup and noodles all in one day, begin with the noodles. Start the soup while the dough rests.

4 cups flour

1-1/2 tsp. salt
2 eggs
1/2 cup water (add more by Tbs if dough seems too dry)

To make the dough, stir together the flour and salt, then make a well in the center. Whisk together the water and eggs, then pour this into the center of the flour. Stir the dough until a thick mass is formed, then turn out onto a smooth surface and knead for about 10 minutes until the dough becomes smooth and pliable. Divide the dough into two pieces, then cover one of the pieces while you work with the other.

Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Roll out the dough to 1/4" thickness, then cut into thin strips. Boil the noodles for two minutes, then transfer them from the water to a colander. Rinse the noodles with cold water and allow them to drain while you prepare the soup.

To Serve

Place a handful (or so) of noodles in a serving bowl. Ladle soup over the noodles. Enjoy.


To peel tomatoes (a mother's wisdom) -- boil a pot of water and prepare a bowl of ice water. Place whole tomatoes in boiling water for maybe 30 seconds, then put tomatoes in ice water for a minute or so. It's amazing -- the peels practically slide right off the tomatoes. Then scoop out the seeds with your fingers, and chop, and you're good to go.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Cookbooks for a Cause,
Or, Hot Stoves for Warm Hands

Many of my Central Asian cooking adventures have started with a recipe from Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook, which covers all the republics of the USSR, not just Russia. One really nice thing about this cookbook, in addition to the recipes, is that almost every one has some sort of history or commentary preceding it, and there are longer sections on cooking in the varied Soviet regions (including Central Asia). Even if you never make a thing, you'll enjoy reading the book from cover to cover.

If you've ever considered buying your own copy of Please to the Table, here's an opportunity to help kids in Kazakhstan while cooking up some tasty Central Asian treats in your own kitchen. For every copy purchased through Mittens for Akkol, $10 goes to pay for shipping handknit woollies to an orphanage in northeastern KZ.

In the pre-Borat era, many (if not most) Americans who could find Kazakhstan on the map, or had even heard of it, were adoptive parents of KZ children. Because of the country’s adoption laws, hopeful parents are required to travel to Kazakhstan and spend at least two weeks of daily visits with a child in the orphanage, before petitioning the regional court to adopt. If the court approves, the child wins a loving family, but his friends are left behind. The majority will remain in state care until at 16 (or after 9th grade) they age out of the system and are on their own.

In 2003, a Cincinnati, Ohio couple adopted two teenagers, aged 12 & 14, from the orphanage in Akkol, a small town about an hour (on a good day) north of Astana. Akkol is unusual in that it cares for children ages from 3-16 years old (most regions have separate orphanages for pre-schoolers, aged 3-7, and school-aged children, aged 8+). In 2004, they travelled to Akkol again, to adopt their son’s 14-year-old best friend. Both times they lived in the orphanage during the visiting period, got to know the directors, the staff, and the children well, and developed the highest regard for the care and commitment the children receive (this is generally true throughout Kazakhstan; if you have to live in an orphanage, your odds are better in RK than in other post-Soviet countries).

How to do something meaningful for the 250 children remaining? As Astana area readers well know, this area is in the windiest, most miserably cold part of the Kazakh steppe. Mittens for Akkol was created to connect knitters to a need -- in the past couple of years, hundreds of pairs of handknit woolen mittens have made their way to the older kids at Akkol, and the project has expanded to socks, vests and other warm woollies. Knitters can join the Mittens for Akkol Yahoo!Group to find out how to participate. Cooks should click on over to the Helping Others: Mittens for Akkol fundraiser page for information on purchasing Please to the Table to help those mittens make the journey from the US to KZ.

And stay tuned to this site for the next installment of Kazakh Cooking Experiments: Lagman for Nauryz (from a Please to the Table recipe, of course).

Monday, March 19, 2007

A Soundtrack for Your Nauryz Party
(March 21,2007)

First I discovered Project Playlist and started playing with adding tracks from Kazakhstan. Then I made myself a CD mix of Kazakhstani music just for the fun of it. And then, might as well package it up to share. So, just in time for Nauryz 2007 . . .

The complete playlist includes 20 good, banal (but good for dancing), and "on principle" tracks (as in, SuperStar KZ winner Almas Kishkenbayev), mostly sung in Kazakh. Of course there are a couple of energetic dance sets, plus traditional dombra and qobyz pieces, a sampling of contemporary pop, and the new (2006) National Anthem.

Hear some of the tracks below. If you want more (including Adai, by contemporary dombra dude Aselbek Ensepov), download the .zip file (70-something MB) here. EDIT - link updated 2/19/08)

Nauryz Kuttuh Bolsyn!

The Kazakh Aul of the U.S. has an informative 3-page Nauryz article (PDF) here.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Musicola: Between Almaty and Moscow

Since exploring the nifty online jukebox of KZ music, I’ve been listening to Musicola, a smooth jazz-influenced pop duo from Almaty. Since their first single & album (Girl in a White Dress / Dyevochka v platitsye byelom) debuted in 1996, Musicola has stayed on pop charts in the CIS; I realized that one of my favorite songs on a Moscow-produced “greatest hits of the year” CDs is a Musicola track. In 2005, they released a Kazakh-language album Arman Zholdar (Road of Dreams); other albums are in Russian.

Musicola is Karina Abdullina, 32, vocalist and songwriter, and Bulat Sazdykov, 51, arranger and guitarist. Karina was born in Almaty into a family of professional musicians, and began singing at age four. Her mother, Olga Lviv is a classical pianist, her father, an operatic baritone. Karina’s grandfather and his twin brother, Rishat and Muslim Abdullin, were stars in the Soviet classical constellation of the 1940s-1970s. Karina’s family name is pronounced “ab-DOOL-in-a.”

Bulat Sazdykov is originally from Karaganda. His family wanted him to be a doctor, but at 14 he took a course in jazz guitar, and has been a musician ever since (even during his obligatory two years in the military). Before Musicola he was in successful bands in the 1980s, worked as a session musician for top artists in Moscow, and now is also a producer for young musicians in his own studio. In the “small world” category, Gulnara met Bulat in Almaty a few years ago; they have friends in common.

It's practically impossible to buy
Musicola in the US, and I've even had a hard time finding their music on Russian sites (which all got shut down in February anyway) . Most of their CDs/albums are out of print. But never fear! The band's official website has downloadable MP3s of all the albums, with lyrics (in Russian). Listen to Dyevochka, Won't Forget You (great dance tune) or Arman Zholdar, and see if the jazzy, haunting melodies don't follow you around (in a good way).

If you've been captured by the Musicola sound, right here on News from the Caravan, you can download the 2006 Best of Musicola CD (71 MB zip file) for your very own. (EDIT - link updated 2/19/2008) It's all freely available on the band's website, but I've packaged the lyrics (I can't predict whether the Cyrillic will display properly, though), artwork and all 18 songs together. Enjoy!

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Cheerfully Heretical Borshch

First, the heresy -- there’s no meat in this soup (except for the broth, which only counts if you’re a vegetarian), and it's not chunky. I’ve been told more than once that proper borshch has to have meat; the more the better. Given the joke about the Kazakhs ranking second only to wolves as the world’s biggest meat eaters, I can forgive the funny face Gulnara made when I told her how I make it. But I’ve been making it like this for years, the family recognized it right away, and it’s cheap and delicious. What’s not to like?

The cheerful part? The gorgeous ruby claret color, which turns to a creamy raspberry after swirling the required dollop of sour cream. If it ain’t got beets, it’s just cabbage soup.

As it turns out, my recipe isn’t all that different from her Moscow mother’s “frugal vegetarian recipe” described by Anya von Bremzen in Please to the Table and The Greatest Dishes! (I love cookbooks with commentary as interesting as the recipes). And, again because I like it this way, I whiz it all in the food processor before serving for a smoother texture. A thick slice of dark pumpernickel (hold the caraway) and you’ve got a wonderful winter meal.

Nyura’s Cheerfully Heretical Borshch
8-10 servings

1 large onion, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 large potato, peeled & chopped into chunks
1 smallish head of green cabbage (about 4 cups chopped)
1 - 1 1/2 lbs. beets, peeled & shredded (about 4+ cups)
2 14 oz. cans chicken or beef broth
3 c. water
2 tbs. apple cider vinegar
1 tsp.dried dill, or 1 tbs. chopped fresh dill
2 tsp. salt or to taste
Sour cream (NOT optional)

Heat a couple of tablespoons of cooking oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. Saute the onion, carrot, potato & cabbage 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally Add remaining ingredients beets through salt, cover & heat to boiling. Turn the heat down and simmer a while (until you feel like it’s done, 20-40 minutes), stirring occasionally. Cool somewhat, then whiz in the food processor in batches. Return to pot and heat through. Or better yet, put in the refrigerator for a day, then reheat and serve.

Sour cream container goes on the table with a spoon, for each person to plop and swirl into his or her own bowl. Mmmm-mmmm-good.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Serzhan Bashirov in America

Arts professor and master silversmith Serzhan Bashirov, whose work inspired the start of this blog, is in the United States this month. He exhibited his work at the Pueblo Gem & Mineral Show in Tucson, and is now in town visiting Gulnara and exploring local galleries. Handmade jewelry from Kazakhstan is rarely found outside Central Asia because not enough is made for large-scale export.The opportunity to see an artist's collection here in the US is a rare treat.

On Saturday Gulnara hosted a private reception to showcase Serzhan's work. Yes, I came away with a pair of modest but beautiful silver earrings, with Serzhan's signature spiral motif. But what really struck me is how the photographs just don't do justice to his work. The bone incorporated into several pieces is brighter and creamier than the pictures show, and the silverwork is both sturdier and finer. He also had many newer pieces not shown in the store; one large filigree pendant, with green and blue gemstones, is just stunning.

Serzhan is currently Professor of Applied Arts at the State University of Almaty. He has been working metal by hand for most of his life, beginning as a child watching his father work in their home workshop. In his studio now, Serzhan works alone, using the old simple tools employed for generations by Kazakh craftsmen. His contemporary jewelry is firmly rooted in historic Kazakh traditions, often using signs of the four elements -- sun, fire, water, & earth.

Fire and the sun are both enduring, radiant, pure and life sustaining for the artist; the cross and spiral are their symbols. A spiral symbolizes eternal life and spiritual growth; Serzhan's spiral is always clockwise, following the sun's movement. Ancient Kazakhs went round their yurts only with the path of the sun; otherwise, chaos.

A cross with four equal points represents the 4 directions: south, west, east, north. The four elements enclosed by a circle represent the sun. Other motifs often found into Serzhan's work are the ram's horns (richness & fertility), and the shanyrak (the crown of a yurt, and symbolic center of the family).

Serzhan is married and has 2 daughters. His hobby is collecting
antique rugs. In 2004 Serzhan's "Umai" silver jewelry was the first from Kazakhstan to be awarded a UNESCO Seal of Excellence; in December 2006 he won the award again for a silver bracelet. His art is in museum collections in Astana, Moscow and Warsaw. Serzhan showcases his art at a gallery/shop in a yurta in downtown Almaty.

More information on Serzhan and his work:
West-East Dialogues
Bio at Karavan-Art
Review of Gallery Opening ("interestingly" translated)
Artist Info at the Tumar Art Group site (Kyrgystan)
Photo of a piece shown in Tucscon
Description of a 2005 joint Navajo-Kazakh exhibit in Almaty

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Explore Kazakh Music Online

Somebody somewhere has created this nifty little Shockwave Flash jukebox, loaded with 32 random selections of Kazakh music. Some of it is more traditional, some of it is contemporary pop. I'm not quite sure who the author of the site it; clues make me think it might be a project of a Kazakh-language student (learning Kazakh is on the to-do list for my next lifetime) In any case, check it out (click on the image for the link).

Below are links to more, including music videos on YouTube, articles and mp3 files. Explore!

Monday, January 22, 2007

Kazakh Cooking Experiment #1 : Manti

It seems that few of the dishes that I consider to be traditionally Kazakh aren’t also claimed as national dishes of other Central Asian peoples; the only one I can think of is beshbarmak. Something about the other ‘Stans has grabbed global imagination more so than Kazakhstan has -- there's plenty on oil, politics, and adoption, but comparatively little depth of research and information available on Kazakh culture, as opposed to the music, history and lore of Uzbekistan, for instance.

My hypothesis is that three factors are in play here -- 1) Kazakh culture was nomadic and orally transmitted (the old “moving target” research problem, with no ancient texts or libraries to consult); 2) most of the Kazakh territory is north of the traditional Silk Road routes, not directly involved in the cultural exchanges related to trade of that time, and mostly overlooked in contemporary “Silk Road revival” events; and 3) fully one-fourth of the ethnic Kazakh population died of starvation in the middle of the 20th century, thanks to poorly executed Soviet agricultural collectivization programs. With them perished a quarter of the cultural memory of the people.

All this to say that when I went to make manti this evening, the recipe (in Please to the Table, p. 409) is titled “Uzbek Steamed Lamb Dumplings.” (I’ve also seem them described as Turkish, Tatar, and Caucasian.) This was a pretty successful attempt, more or less resembling the manti the kids and I remember eating in KZ, so I’ll pass what I did and what I Iearned.

Since I don’t like lamb (neither does Gulnara, so I don’t feel terribly inauthentic here), I substituted ground beef. It works just as well. You need some sort of steamer basket arrangement -- I used the fan-folding veggie steamer basket in a soup/dutch oven pot. It cooked about 9-10 at a time.

Making manti wasn’t as hard as I thought, so it will definitely get a second go. Gulnara spent New Year’s Eve with other KZ friends who were making manti, and that Yuri is some kind of cook! Next time I hope to benefit from from his expertise.

(makes 24; takes about an hour to get at least 1 batch ready to eat)

Whiz 2 cups unbleached flour and 1/2 tsp salt in the bowl of a food processor. With the motor running, add 2 egg yolks and 1 TBS. oil through the feed tube, then pour in approx. 1/2 cup water in a slow steady stream, until the dough clumps up around the blade. Plop the dough ball onto a floured surface (I use the Formica-topped counter cutout from when I got a got a new sink as my breadboard) and knead until smooth ( a couple of minutes at most). Cover with a smooth dishcloth and let rest for 30 minutes.

Meat Filling
Mix 1 to 1.5 lb.. very coarsely ground meat (hand chopped lamb is specified, ground sirloin worked for me) with 2 finely chopped onions, 1/3 cup stock (lamb or beef), black pepper & salt to taste. The recipe also calls for cilantro, but it just seems too “southern” (remember the cumin in the Uzbek plov?) and I didn’t remember it anyway, so I left it out.

On the floured surface with a floured rolling pin, roll 1/2 the dough into a thin sheet about 1/16” thick (I think I got close). Cut 4” rounds with a cookie cutter (if you have one. I don’t do rolled dough, and haven’t used my rolling pin in years until I started these Central Asian/Caucasus cooking experiments. I used the 3.5” top to an old peanut butter jar for size, and finished the job with a knife). Cut as many as possible (I got 8 the first try) then roll out the dough scraps again and make as many more as you can. Then do it all over again with the other half of the dough. If you go thin enough, you will get 24.

Get your steaming contraption ready, with 1-2 inches of water or as high as the basket will allow (you’ll need enough to last for 15-20 minutes of steaming). I didn’t grease the steamer basket, and the manti survived, but I think it would have worked better had I followed the recipe and greased it somehow. A few did stick enough to tear.

Mound 1-2 TBS. of the filling in the middle of each dough round (the recipe says to top each mound with a piece of butter, but I couldn’t do it. The fat thing, you know. Maybe next time). Then pull the sides up to the top, dip your fingers into cold water and pinch the sides together together. I made a puffy arch of a dumpling, like a big gyoza or a little pasty (or fried peach pie) instead of the more rounded peak in the pictures, because they look like that in my (possibly faulty) memory. The wet fingers help the dough edges stick to each other better, and not stick to your fingers at all.

When the water is boiling, place as many manti in the basket as will fit without touching (or take your chances on them sticking together. They still taste good). Steam for at least 15 minutes, maybe 20, depending on how big you made them. If you’re lucky enough to have a multilevel steaming contraption, switch the levels halfway for even cooking.

Then eat! The cookbook recommends serving with a yogurt-garlic sauce (sounds ‘southern’ again), but these got gobbled up plain and seconds were demanded (and gotten), so sauce is definitely optional.

I've heard of, but not yet eaten, a variation with pumpkin filling. That's next on the "to try" list.