Sunday, April 27, 2008

Feasts and Beasts

The past few days have been a whirlwind of activity, alternating between preparations for court and our increasingly busy social schedule.  Above is a picture of our night out with the Dickey's (sounds like a Disney film, eh?) Thursday, at the Uzbekistani restaurant that Amy mentioned in the prior post.  For us, this restaurant probably has the best ambiance we have experienced in Shymkent, and the food is very good as well.  Oh, and we fed 10 people for around $75 US.  Great deal!  You can't tell from this picture, but we are sitting in an upstairs 'loft', overlooking an outdoor courtyard.  We have several other pictures in the slideshow that provide a better perspective and also has the name of the restaurant for those that will be heading to Shymkent (it's in Kazakh).

On Friday we had a very good visit with Griffin.  His head is healing nicely, and he continues to show us his determination and spirit.  He’s now excited to show us how he can walk across the room with mommy holding one hand, and daddy the other.  He’s also started to display his soccer (or football skills over here…), by ‘kicking’ at one of the bouncy balls in the toy room.  While he still has a long way to go to catch up, it is very encouraging to see how much his confidence and endurance has improved over such a short time.  I can’t wait to get him home and see what he can do with the full support of his new family and friends!

Speaking of new friends, we had a special evening Friday night with our new Shymkent friends Jon-Paul and Yuliya, and their two lovely youngsters Brianna and Ryan.  We were treated to a traditional Kazakh feast at a local restaurant, with seating much like the Uzbek restaurant from the prior evening (comfy seating on pillows around the low table in a private room).  During the meal, we were able to sample a few Kazakh dishes new to us, both a gift of the horse (fermented mare’s milk) and, well… the horse itself!  Surprisingly, the horse meat was fairly tasty.  Had we not known it, we probably would have mistaken it found a good piece of beef, perhaps a bit saltier, but tender and good flavor.  I just hope that I didn’t just lose my rights to travel back into Kentucky… 

Regarding Kymys, the mare’s milk, however… Yuliya dear, since I know that you’ll likely read this, let’s start by saying that we loved your enthusiasm and we really wanted to like your favorite drink.  But I must admit I was a bit skeptical when you described the fermentation process as ‘you kinda start with letting the milk set out for a few weeks, then skim off the top…’.  Yea, ok.  Think happy thoughts.  It’s only a drink, and plenty of people survive and actually like this.  Yuliya doesn’t seem to suffer any permanent twitches or other obvious effects, so let’s have it.

The drink looks like milk, only watered down.  It has a slight alcohol odor (there is some alcohol that is a result of the fermentation process).  Amy and I try a sip, and realizing that our hosts are watching, and that we do not have a chaser of any sort to be found, we do our best not to completely give away the fact that this is not a fluid that should be consumed by humans.  Ever.  Under any circumstances.  Yuliya politely notices that we are not gulping down our toxic mixture (again, love you dear!), and mentions that it’s an acquired taste.  I’m thinking that it’s probably acquired over several generations.

Amy Here:

I’m sorry to interrupt but I have to add a few comments. Jesse is correct – the horse meat wasn’t that bad. In case you’re wondering, they boil the meat and serve it cold. It had a casing around the outside that Jon-Paul said to take off.  I refuse to believe it was horse intestines so I’ll ignore how or why the casing was there.  The meat was sliced thin and attached to congealed fat. Sort of yin-yang looking, they said it was ok if we didn’t want to eat the fat (nice of them).  It reminded me of a salty beef jerky. 

As for the mare’s milk… I wish I could explain the taste. It was terrible! It was so soar, so bitter, so bad.  I honestly can’t believe it’s not dangerous to your body.

The rest of the dinner is absolutely delicious, and we ended the night with coffee and great conversation at Jon-Paul and Yuliya’s house.  While the bureaucratic processes in this country can be difficult to navigate and are often dictated by payoffs and corruption, Amy and I have been constantly amazed by the hospitality of the individual folks in Kazakhstan.  Certainly Jon-Paul and Yuliya are in a league of their own in this regard, and have made our stay much more rewarding due to their generosity and friendship.  Thanks guys, it’s nice to know that we’ll always have friends in Shymkent!         

 We continued our adventures on Saturday by traveling to Turkistan (not to confuse with the country Turkmenistan), to visit a mausoleum dating to the late 14th century.  The mausoleum (see slide show) was named for the first great Turkic Muslim holy man, Kozha Akhmed Yasaui.  Turkistan is a region of Kazakhstan, so we didn’t actually leave the country, but it was a 2-2 ½ hour jostling ride by car through the countryside and several small villages.  It’s about 90 miles from Shymkent.

The trip provided us an excellent opportunity to witness how people live in Kazakhstan outside the ‘big city’.   The first thing that hits you is the physical beauty of Kazakhstan’s rolling hills and steppes.  And since much of the land is not well developed outside the city, it’s obvious that the basic landscape has not changed much in the past several thousand years.  In many places farmers still herd sheep, cattle, and goats while riding donkeys.  However, in other areas, we noticed some technology (circa 1960-70’s) in the form of tractors, old trucks, and basic farm equipment.  Life is certainly much different in the villages than in the city, and a world away from what is typical in the States.

One of the highlights of our trip was during a stop to a camel farm.  Our driver, Kostria, felt the camel and I had the same teeth, and that his picture below was proof.   I believe my childhood orthodontist may take offense, but I do see his point.

For those that haven’t had the joy of spending quality time with these creatures, they are intimidating.  They’re bigger than you think, they smell very bad, and they have an attitude.  Our friend here was particularly cantankerous, and started our visit with an immediate ‘Urrggnnnhhhh’.  Can’t do it justice in written format, so you’ll just have to ask Amy and she’ll recreate the sound for you.  Let me just tell you, it wasn’t ‘Hello’, and it wasn’t welcoming.

Amy wanted nothing to do with this creature, which you will notice by the one picture (in the slideshow) with her stiff-arming the thing from as far away as possible.  By the end of our brief visit, Mrs. Camel was tired of the picture-happy Americans, and started to become more aggressive.  The farmer motioned that we would be fine, but I’ll bet that he was secretly hoping that I’d get a chunk of my hide removed by the inch long teeth housed in mouth of my surly new friend.  The last picture taken shows the camel’s head as it was swinging toward me.  Fortunately, you can’t see the panicked look on my face as I realized there was nowhere to hide from the freakishly flexible neck on this beast.  If it wanted to extract a pound of my flesh, it could have without a problem.  I escaped unharmed, and without being spat upon.     

Amy here again:

Excuse the interruption again… look in the dictionary next to the words “Good Sport” and you better see a picture of my smiling face. Remember the night before I ate horse meat and drank poison, got little sleep and had to be up early for the drive to Turkistan. 2 ½ hours one way, Jesse said it is a jostling ride… jostling my butt.  My neck is still sore from the ride there and back: think bobble head doll.  It was 90 degrees that day and in the mausoleum, an official asked me to cover my head and provided me with a large napkin thing. I refuse to call it a scarf. God (or should I say Allah) knows how many other woman had worn it before me.  Interesting place.

I’m happy to be back on the road to the hotel, but the boys want to stop at the camel farm.  Can you imagine pulling up to a house/hut in the middle of nowhere asking if the silly Americans can see your camels?  The old farmer must think we’re nuts!  I, being the good sport, get out of the car and start towards the camel. As I’m walking toward them I see the farmer has just loosely tied the front legs of the camel.  (Made me think of walking up to a dog as someone is putting a mussel on it.)  I’m surprised at its size, as it’s much bigger than I imagined. The creature is making this really loud  ‘Urrggnnnhhhh’ sound.  All signs are blinking “stay away”.  I give into peer pressure and get close enough to touch the camel. Clouds of dirt come off as I touch her and she really stinks. I’m done… get the picture as proof and I’ll meet you in the car. Call me a city girl; actually just call me a girl from Ohio where we have dogs, not camels.

Then Kostria encourages Jesse to give the camel a big hug.  I stop my retreat to the car and turn to witness this trick. As Jesse reaches up to hug it, the camel starts moaning and coughing and then turns his head and neck toward him.  I think it was preparing to spit on him. Ahhh, the look on Jesse’s face was truly priceless. It scared him to death – he couldn’t get away fast enough. The four of us (Zhenia, Kostria, old farmer and I) are cracking up laughing. Made the whole trip worth it!

On an educational note: what do they do with camels?  They drink the milk, sheer them for warm wool, use them for transportation, and eventually eat them. (Jesse here – I would have paid to participate in the eating part… particularly with this angry beast.)