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My Travel Writing Scholarship 2011 entry - Journey in an Unknown Culture

WORLDWIDE | Monday, 14 February 2011 | Views [117] | Scholarship Entry

I decide to travel to Kazakhstan mainly because I am nearby. Just across the border from Urumqi, China; and my Chinese visa running worryingly low on days. I have to choose between trekking all the way back across the Middle Kingdom or taking the conveniently timed bus to Almaty.

On the bus to Almaty, my Russian is no more substantial than aydin, dva, tri, chytiri. One, two, three, four. I joke with our Chinese driver, but my only recourse to the questions of my Kazakh neighbors is to shrug and look perplexed. At the border stop twelve hours later, I finally learn how to say “I don’t understand.”

“? ?? ???????.”

In Almaty. A kind British Couchsurfer and his Kazakh girlfriend, Alyah, try to teach me the basics of navigating Kazakhstan. Linguistically, I am still confused. Culturally-minded, I write their tips in my journal and glance at them at every unsure moment.

1. Family is the most important thing.

At a homestay near Almaty, the English-speaking mother of the family interprets as the children hit me with the standard barrage of questions. What is your name? Where are you from? How long will you stay in Kazakhstan? The father looks on, unimpressed. As I hike to the nearby Russian Orthodox monastery, the family dog accompanies me. I call him Dog, having been given no other name. Only the eldest daughter remembers my name, and the younger two address me much the same as I address Dog.

2. Who you know is more important than what you know.

My sixth day in Kazakhstan, and I’ve missed the government’s five day foreigner deadline to register and pay a traveler tax. Alyah’s cousin’s friend’s aunt worked for the Immigration Bureau, and only just retired. The five of us (Alyah, Cousin, Friend, Aunt, and I) take Cousin’s car to get me sorted out. Five hours and three offices later, my paperwork is in order. What about that tax? I buy Alyah lunch as a small way of saying thanks. I never do remember the rest of their names.

3. The Kazakh dream is to get rich, get married, have lots of children, and own a thousand sheep.

In Aralsk’s train station, a local kid becomes a local friend as we pass a phrasebook back and forth. He seems as puzzled about why I’ve come to see the Aral Sea as I am about why he says he never wants to leave Aralsk. One day soon, I am later told, the Aral Sea will come back to Aralsk harbor. Then the fishing families will become rich again, providing fish to all of Asia like they did before the Sea retreated. I never do see sheep in Aralsk, or many fish. The kid must still be focusing on the first part of the dream, but I accept this prediction with more grains than even the supersalinated Aral Sea can provide.

Except for the sheep, in the end is this really any different than the American dream?

Tags: #2011Writing, Travel Writing Scholarship 2011

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