Sunday, June 27, 2010

A week with the Kazakhs

From Olgii

$1000 per family. What Kazakhstan is embarking upon is more akin to culture trade than people trade, but regardless, people have a price.

As we descended into the much-anticipated town of Olgii, we entered the capital of the Bayan-Olgii province in far western Mongolia. We were to discover here that the Mongolian we had diligently learnt over the last 6 weeks would cease to be useful.This enclave is 90% Kazakh (also the primary language), predominantly Muslim and allegedly neglected in public funding. We heard that those in Ulaanbaatar will jokingly ask their friends visiting this region when they are going to return to Mongolia.

Although superficially different - headscarves & skullcaps are common and the odd shaslik stall can be found - to us there were more similarities. The same brand of friendliness was evident throughout, the shops stocked the same combination of Russian, Korean & Turkish goods and cows wandered down the main street. I admit we may not have ventured far into the local cultural specialties - the eagle hunting, the dombra playing. For they say Bayan-Olgii is more Kazakh than Kazakhstan.

This aimag (province) is sheltered from Russia, China and Kazakhstan by the dramatic Altai mountain range. Owing to the movement of people over hundreds of years, the Kazakh tribes from what is now Western China settled in the Bayan-Olgii region. As the rest of the Kazakh tribes (in what is now Kazakhstan) became more and more Russified, the Bayan-Olgii Kazakhs were left to their own devices. The result is a breed of Kazakh with an apparently truer culture than the remainder of the mother-land and thus the President of Kazakhstan is attempting to draw them back with $1000 cheques.

Unfortunately, their background doesn’t attract the same respect in Kazakhstan, where those from Bayan-Olgii are seen as foreigners. So with a nomadic way of life readily available to them, a province of their own and a stunning Altai backdrop the most stay, or return later, in Bayan-Olgiiin: little Kazakhstan.

Our week in Olgii proved to be far more indulgent than expected. Ali’s birthday fell on our first day of rest (read: gluttonous crawling from meal to meal) and ended with the much-acclaimed Turkish restaurant ‘Pammukale’ where we ended up venturing for 6 out of 7 dinners. Long sessions with books, 3-in-1 coffee sachets, downloaded TV episodes, convienience store food and the odd beer were the flavor of the week.

From Olgii

An auspicious meeting with Laura in a supermarket saw us one night later in her one-room house diving into a rich, home-baked chocolate pie and gaining a fascinating insight into her two years living in Olgii. Laura is an American Peace Corps volunteer, not a foreign supermarket worker as Andrew fleetingly thought.

Between lengthy internet sessions where we planned out the next leg of our journey, we sullied the public bath house with our dirty cycling bodies, Andrew got a handsome haircut and we negotiated the international postage service. We also managed to procure beer on a Friday in this ‘soft’ Muslim community when lace curtain cover all the alcoholic beverages in the local stores (with Laura’s help…actually she bought it for us after we were knocked back).

However, arguably one of the more important goals we achieved (not trying to belittle sourcing beer on Friday) was arranging a ride for us and our bikes across the Russian border. It seems the Russians don’t allow push-bikes to be ridden across, they must be taken by vehicle.

So, on a hot Wednesday morning, a week after rolling into our Kazakh hideaway, our driver (who proved to be amazing) loaded our Surlys into his van and we jolted out of Olgii towards the land of borsch, blinis, beetroot and bloody red-tape. And, where we are going at least, Kazakhs.

Notes for travelers:
• We stayed at the Duman hotel. We negotiated a room with ensuite but no hot-water for 20000T a night. It was pleasant with warm staff.
• We used the internet café noted in the Lonely Planet. They let us connect our laptop. It was fast and cheap. Also in comparison to Ulaangom the other patrons were young kids playing computer games rather than boisterous male teenagers entangled in gaming culture.
• We ate most meals at Pammukale and two Mongolian restaurants, one opposite the beer garden the other opposite the museum.
• The public bath house is where the LP says it is. Showers are hot. You can be a haircut here.
• To send a parcel internationally you need to go to the post-office (big green building opposite the square), get a box, then go to customs (at SW corner of square) with packing-tape to get a signature, then back to post-office.
• Blue Wolf Café has ok, largish breakfasts. But not in keeping with the hype nor the price.
• You can buy most things the supermarkets….expect ground coffee (the real stuff).
• Along the street east of the Museum are lines of jeeps ready to take passengers to various destinations. The jeeps to Kosh-Agach (Russia) are on the market side at the westerly end. We paid 120000T for a large jeep to ourselves. During the week we were quoted 160-180 by other people. A single traveler will pay 15-20000T for a seat.
• The Russian border is closed at weekends, opening at 9am on weekdays.



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