Archive for July, 2010

Photos of Borovoe lake country, could be Minnesota

My husband went to Borovoe on a three hour bus trip one way on the super highway out of Astana with other Kazaks, Kazakhstanis and Americans from Iowa.  Many people from Astana area make Borovoe an annual event because it is so flat and plain in the city, somehow it seems to negate the harshness of winter too. (We will always have Borovoe…)

This Borovoe area has trees, lakes, mountains for climbers, trails for hikers and areas for picnics and lodges to stay overnight. I wish I could have gone because it looked like fun, but I stayed home with too much work to do.  The photos he took could have been taken anywhere in Minnesota.  His photos of the lakes look pristine and peaceful. He wore a funny hat, the only one available to keep him sunburning on his head. You won’t find Cyrillic graffiti in Minnesota, however, take a close up look at the rocks in the one thumbnail photo.  Everyone seemed to have a great time in the fresh air and sunshine.  I hope to get to Borovoe eventually.

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“Paradigms Power Perception and Perceptions Power Emotions”

“Most emotions are responses to perception—what you think is true about a given situation.  If your perception is false, then your emotional response to it will be false too.  So check your perceptions, and beyond that check the truthfulness of your paradigms—what you believe. Just because you believe something firmly doesn’t make it true.  Be willing to reexamine what you believe.  The more you live in the truth, the more your emotions will help you see clearly…

I’m in a book discussion group and the above title and quote was taken from the chapter titled “Verbs and Other Freedoms.” Some heady stuff out of a bizarre, fictional account of a father wanting to come to terms with his young daughter’s murder. I sped read this book by William P. Young, “The Shack” published in 2007 when it first came out. The second time around, I’m reading it more leisurely and thoughtfully because I am discussing it with nine other ladies.

In our discussion last night, the context of this particular chapter brought up expectation vs. expectancy and also responsibility in relationships and rules.  Of course, I see things almost in a 3-D way (the latest fad in cartoons for movie goers). First, I perceive things from an American point of view, also where I have lived in other Asian or post-Soviet cultures but finally I am currently trying to absorb the Kazakh culture in Astana, Kazakhstan.  American + other Asian or Ukrainian cultures + Kazakhstan = 3D!!!

“Perplexed” is the main verb for me when living in Astana, I’ve used the highly descriptive word “flummoxed” before too.  Kazakhs have about 120 different nationalities living amongst them so that mix includes people from Germany, Korea, Turkey, Russia, Mongolia and other countries from the Soviet Union.

What happens when conflicting paradigms come in contact with one another?  Do the perceptions of differing parties compromise on their own and embrace the other or do they stiffen up by adhering to their own rules that are their culture’s norm?  Do some cultures seek truth in their paradigms?  Do the Kazakhs want truthfulness to be a part of their culture? Do they have some tried and true proverbs that speak to that issue about truth? I doubt it. Obviously, I have more questions than answers.

I don’t think anyone purposefully seeks after wrong thinking. To me, that would be like a person going after poison with self-destructive motives. Many people are sincerely convinced about their own perceived truths and what has been handed down to them from their elders.  Are they willing to reexamine what they have been taught in order to make a paradigm shift?  Wars are ignited when paradigms bang into each other, the hotheads can only think about killing the other person with supposed “wrong thinking.”

So how does one “live in the truth,” as the author William P. Young, suggests in this fictional account which is totally unrelated to Kazakhstan?  Yet in a way, I think there is much soul searching among most Kazakh and Kazakhstani people in this vast land.  This might be stretching it, but the murder of Kazakhstan’s reputation has happened, it was once a proud and prosperous land going back to the great conqueror Genghis Khan. Just as the father in this fictional thriller has to come to terms with murder and seeking vengeance, so too Kazakhstan has to resolve some age old issues.

I believe the younger Kazakh people in today’s 21st century generation are taking responsibility and want to have a global perspective.  They want to be in relationship with the rest of the world of the big global players but there are rules to go by in order to be counted in the game. However, at the same time the Central Asians are holding on to their cultural norms to respect their elders. Unfortunately, many of the older people in Kazakhstan haven’t made the paradigm shift into the globalized world we live in. We have a recipe for disaster and maybe no hope.  We talked about hope last night, that’s what keeps us moving forward. Will the Kazakhs be able to keep their forward momentum going?

Yes, the older people have strong emotions one way or the other about believing that the Soviet Union was the best because there was a perceived stability. The post-Soviet undercurrents swirl around all of us who live in Kazakhstan depending on what happened in the past, what is currently happening with the world economy in peril and what will happen in the future.  Soul, spirit and whatever else makes up a person besides emotion and intellect is very important too.  That is why I’ll end with this quote that I love attributed to Arnold Bennett:

“There can be no knowledge without emotion. We may be aware of a truth, yet until we have felt its force, it is not ours. To the cognition of the brain must be added the experience of the soul.”

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If only David McCullough could write about Kazakhstan

I have read several of David McCullough’s historical books. He seems to be fair and honest in his appraisals of past presidents and other relevant U.S. historical events.  An author of his stature has won many prizes for his thoroughness to detail. He culls through diaries, letters, newspaper clippings, anything that can shed light on his main character whom he writes about. Seems some of his books know no boundaries. The book on “Truman” is 992 pages long.  Since I’ve seen the movie titled “Truman” portrayed by Gary Sinise and have been to President Harry Truman’s library in Independence, Missouri, “Truman” would be a laudable read for me this summer. (what’s left of it)

I know when I read “John Adams” and later listened again to the book on tape, the many letters that were saved from his wife Abigail and Adam’s response to her were strongly edited I’m sure.  What I do recall while reading McCullough’s book is that our founding father, John Adams, had a deep and purposeful faith in God. That is very clear in his letters to Abigail when he was in England on important, diplomatic business. Meanwhile, she managed to struggle to maintain the house and farm back in Massachusetts in his absence.  Abigail no doubt had servants while raising a family. It came through while reading McCullough’s book that the Adams were both opposed to slavery.  It would be 100 years later that that issue, which could have been nipped in the bud earlier with the founding of our nation, was “settled” with the Civil War.

If a McCullough-type author would rise up in Kazakhstan, what would he have to do to write an accurate report about the last 100 years? Or, let’s go back 200 years when the tsars of Russia had dominance over the steppes of Central Asia?  Would the author find honest reports?  How would they test the accuracy of the information from the sources that would no doubt be in Russian?  Would there be deliberate distortion of facts once the Soviets took over in writing the history books of the great and powerful Soviet Union, thus obliterating Kazakhstan’s past?

Would there have been adventure seekers from Europe or specifically U.S. or England who would have written letters or accounts in English of what they saw while going along the old Silk Road to the south?  Those accounts would hardly cover the diversity of the land from the Tian Shan mountains to the Caspian Sea and the Aral Sea in between with the vast steppes.

Was there a Max Penson type photographer who would have taken photos of the more recent past of Kazakhstan?  [Max Penson, at the bidding of the Soviets, went to Uzbekistan in the 1930s to take photos of the happy Uzbeks during forced industrialization.]  Penson got into trouble later by his authorities for exposing what was really happening to the land of Uzbekistan.

With oral history making a qualitative research comeback in ethnographic circles, are there stories that were courageously documented about what the Kazakh nomad went through when forced industrialization and collective farms replaced their livelihood of sheep and cattle herding?  My husband, back in the 1980s did what was called “The Soviet Interview Project” where he gathered info from former Soviets who had come to the U.S.  He was trying to find out more about Soviet agriculture.  All files have been lost from that project, were there any Kazakhs he interviewed in Russian during that time?

What can we learn about the Kazakh cultural values while we try to avoid imposing our western values on this group of people?  Sorry for all these questions that I bring up. What I try to do with my blog is to write in English the little bit that I learn about this fabulous country.  I am trying to give voice to the voiceless. Westerners are intrigued and some want to know more but others don’t even know what questions to ask to find out about this culture that has been tucked away and is perhaps the world’s best kept secret.

Let me put it another way.  What if I lived in a world that was reversed where everyone spoke Kazakh? It would be required that all people globally were to know how to speak in Kazakh, but our problem is that many of us only know English.  Perhaps we would not need a David McCullough type author after all because we would have stories handed down to us orally.  We would not need to go through the messiness of getting things written properly with good vocabulary and precise grammar.

As it is, westerners need something in writing about Kazakhstan that is true and accurate.  It would have to be written by a Kazakh who knows his/her own language and culture. McCullough writes superbly about U.S. history for his American audiences because he IS American.

Perhaps this is similar to when some people are gifted in doing music without reading the notes, it is just in them internally.  While others have been trained to read music so they can replicate what the composer intended.  If a musician has BOTH gifts of playing or singing by ear AND also reading the notes, now THAT is talent!!! Will the real Kazakh McCullough please stand up!!!

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“World Class” Universities in Kazakhstan

If you do a quick google search with the keywords of “world class universities” or “ranking international universities,” you are bound to find out some interesting information.  Of course, I’m all about Kazakhstan!!!  Therefore, I learned where my former university in Almaty fit in with the other 12,000 universities listed from around the world.

This “westernized” university in Almaty was constantly promoted as being “world class” to the point where I hated hearing those two words put together in reference to where I used to teach.  Indeed, it has much going for it, it has an excellent library, state of the art classrooms with the latest in technology, and some brand new buildings.  Yes, the Kazakh and Kazakhstani students are great too.  Those students who work hard because they know education is the key to their future and the future of Kazakhstan.

However, looking at how this university compared to some of the others in the rest of Kazakhstan shows that it does not compare well with the world’s universities. It shouldn’t be called a “world class” university because it is too young to tell yet.  Existing (and surviving) for only 15 years hardly makes it able to compete with other solid institutions that have been around for 100s of years!!!  Please be very careful with the overuse of “world class” as an adjective!!!

As you can see in the table below that I got from this link, Karaganda State Technical came out on top in the Kazakhstan rankings out of 12,000 universities worldwide.  Why would Karaganda have such a strong presence, if you look at the other Kazakh universities listed?  Perhaps because it is where many of the intellectuals from all over the former Soviet Union were exiled to the KARLAG, similar to the gulag of Siberia.  These smart people were castoffs to this area of Kazakhstan that was at one point about the size of Texas or even bigger.  Maybe between hard labor and trying to survive they set up schools in their prison cells or at least their children knew that education was the way out and thus highly prized.

Karaganda has a long tradition of having good universities because many good scientists and engineers from Russia were perhaps spurned for doing “good science.” Regrettably there exists “bad science” which goes on at our American top universities these days.  For now, see some of the listings of reputable universities in Kazakhstan which shows the student population, visibility, “rich files” and ranking of scholars.

5433 Karaganda State Technical University 3,888 9,988 3,331 2,575
6043 Kazakhstan Institute of Management Economics and Strategic Research 5,198 8,191 4,853 4,535
6541 University of International Business 7,013 7,883 4,168 5,950
6830 Kazakh National Pedagogical University 5,000 9,286 6,743 4,389
7219 Kazakh Academy of Transport and Communication 10,917 3,736 15,209 10,216
7421 East Kazakhastan State Technical University 3,618 11,707 5,102 4,490
7616 South Kazakhstan State University 6,826 6,849 11,192 8,570
7645 Karaganda State University 3,236 10,742 8,393 5,253
7891 Eurasian National University 7,940 8,857 6,985 6,102
8145 Innovative Eurasian University 4,753 11,288 6,044 5,643
8594 Kazakh National Technical University 5,639 8,716 11,302 10,216
9132 Al-Farabi Kazakh National University * 4,044 14,039 6,642 3,966
9292 East Kazakhastan State University 3,697 12,082 8,117 8,570
9588 International Kazakh Turkish University 2,695 12,682 12,866 6,836
9606 Kazakh-British Technical University 9,013 8,314 14,737 10,216

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Kazakhstan’s Team Astana and Tour de France

I know NOTHING about Tour de France, only that Lance Armstrong has won it many times.  What was it 7 times?  These guys pedal their bikes over rough terrain for 90 hours over the course of a week or two. Okay, I admit it, I don’t follow Wimbledon or the World Cup either.  Too much else to do. You see, I’d rather bike than watch other people bike or run after a ball or play tennis.

It certainly has been a good year in sports for Spain what with the World Cup and all. But I think this has to be put in the context of where Kazakhstan fits in with all the hoopla. I didn’t know about Alberto Contador, the Spaniard, who rode with Team Astana. Next time maybe it might be a Kazakh or Kazakhstani that could stand on the winner’s platform for Tour de France.

My American colleague at work, who is a great biking fan (means that he does his own pedaling around Astana whenever he can) informed me with the following:

“It is all over but the champagne ride to Paris.  Team Astana rider Alberto Contador has won the Tour de France by less than one minute and one of the five closest margins in tour history.  Tomorrow is only a ceremonial ride with no real competitive riding, except for the sprinters at the end of the race.  We should feel proud that Team Astana has won. It is the only team in the race so closely associated with a country and, as we know, a team that the President of Kazakhstan has shown a direct interest.  All Kazakhstanis should feel proud.

And let us not forget Vinokuorov. He was the highest placed KZ rider and won a stage on his own.  He has demonstrated that he is a top cyclist, placing well in the rankings and assisting Contador in his victory. I am sure that we will hear more of him in the future.”

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Photos of Bolashak Competitors and Astana Pipes

This photo, taken outside of the Diplomat Hotel in Astana, Kazakhstan shows nervous anticipation of students waiting to be interviewed for the Bolashak Scholarship. What do young people competing for the prestigious Bolashak (means “future” in Kazkah) program have to do with pipes in Astana? Read to the end to find out.  Hundreds of Kazakh and Kazakhstani students have succeeded (since 1993 when this program first started) to go either to the U.S. or U.K. to study for their B.A. or masters degrees.  Once completed, the students are required to return to Kazakhstan to use their skills for five years for the benefit of their motherland.  

By Decree of the President of Kazakhstan on November 9, 1993 he said:

“In Kazakhstan’s transition toward a market economy and the expansion of international contacts, there is an acute need for cadres with advanced western education, and so, it is now necessary to send the most qualified youth to study in leading educational institutions in foreign countries”.

Seems most everyone in the country readily admits that their educational system needs improvement except those who are “tenured” or deeply entrenched educators trained during the Soviet system.  No intentional dig meant by the last sentence but there are many teachers, through no fault of their own, who are not in the 21st century yet. Their “digital native” students are. This is true worldwide, not just in Kazakhstan.  However, the vision continues with Kazakhstan’s president when he said in a speech April 2000 at a Eurasia Economic Summit in Almaty:

“Our common agenda must begin with education. First and foremost, we must transform our population which is already educated and motivated into a work force for the future: 21st century training for the 21st century jobs The battle for the future will be determined not by armies but by education, not by tanks but by technology, not by cannons but by computers. It is vital that we insure that Central Asia is on the right side of history in all respects politically, economically and technologically”.

The question is asked about whether this Bolashak Scholar program will continue with the beginning of the new university starting in mid-September in Astana. It takes a LOT of money to fund these Bolashak scholars, but it will take even MORE money to bring about 50 western teachers to Astana to teach in subjects that require highly technical skills.  Reformation of the Kazakh educational system will maybe look like some of these pipes that you see in Astana.  I believe it is because there is such a high water table, Astana sits on marshy land where the pipes cannot go underground.

So too with educating the future of Kazakhstan, there will appear to be awkward “unteachable” moments that are like these above ground pipes.  However, there are reasons for what the Kazakhs and Kazakhstani people do, we as westerners sometimes cannot fathom it.  For instance, there are many Bolashak scholars who come back as managers but they are too young to “manage” those older people who are already secure in their jobs.  More managers or senior managers is NOT the answer to getting an economically viable democracy jumpstarted in Kazakhstan.  What is necessary is creative and “outside the box” thinking, more entrepreneurs are needed who take risks and manage their own money, not someone else’s.

What do the Kazakhs hope to “catch” (better to have caught one’s education rather than be taught at)? I would hope they would envision a land of freedom, of grace, of risktaking so that others can extend the same.  Otherwise, it has been reported that the Bolashak program has been compromised by rich parents having their child’s way paid to get into the program so they can be considered “scholars.”  The very corruption that should be drummed out of these young people, the future of the country of Kazakhstan, continues to be perpetuated!!!

So to answer what Astana pipes have to do with Bolashak scholars. I believe that there will be many interesting twists and turns that necessarily have to happen in the future if Kazakhstan is to be taken seriously as possessing an advanced educational system. Rating systems with different universities from around the globe show Kazakhstan’s more formidable university systems rank in the lower thousands. (like 3,000 or worse!)   Some of these Bolashak scholars go overseas ill prepared for the rigors of university coursework. But they are doing the best they can with what they have. We can only look forward to the future for positive results. Just like these wires that go in all directions throughout the city of Astana and the rest of Kazakhstan.

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Photos and an American economist’s perspective on Astana

The following photos and text are to my husband’s credit.  He has a Ph.D. in economics from University of Wisconsin in Madison. Everything he sees, wherever he goes is from an economist’s point of view.  Much to speculate and know about when it comes to the city of Astana, a “new” city that keeps being built since ten years ago when it was “birthed” by the president of Kazakhstan.

The construction has to happen in this narrow window of time while the weather is good because it can get so bitterly cold in the winter.  And yet, the construction workers keep working year round no matter how cold.  (many of them are NOT Kazakh but from other nearby countries who need work, they aren’t paid that much or so I’m told).  Enjoy seeing Astana through an economist’s eyes:

Locals call the old town on right bank of the river, “Tselinograd” (Virgin Lands Town) and the Left Bank where the government is being reestablished as “Astana” (“Capital”)  People expect that at some point the capital’s name will be changed to the president’s name.  Astana and he share the same birthday, July 6.

The golden minaret building was built for something else and then the Ministry of Agriculture got it. It is on the corner of Auezova and Kenesary. The lighting was interesting as sun broke through the clouds.

One photo shows the Caterpillar heavy shovel, and the various other “yellow” pieces of equipment from China, Japan, South Korea. These are painted yellow, I think to take part of Cat’s brand.  Caterpillar is one of the great American industrial export companies.

Of course a lot is going on.  Streets are being repaved, but the main thing that might need explaining is the burying of those great big pipes that lay on the ground here. This is a very cold country, and those pipes are the distribution pipes from the TETS or electrical plants that cogenerate hot water that is pumped around the city to heat the buildings.

I understand that Scandanavia has this kind of communal heating.  If there were natural gas piped up here and distributed by small pipes to the apartments, there would be no need for this.  If they could go the electrical route. Kazakhstan has a lot of natural gas, but it is somewhere else.

These plants use coal, of which there is a lot here in Astana area, too. The fact that they heat with hot water that is generated from the electrical plants, means that the electrical plants, burning coal, have to be near the cities, or in the cities, which contributes to the air pollution. (to be continued)

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Photos of horses and “Mighty Horsemen” in Kazakhstan

I already have my Kazakhstan 2011 calendar which is already out in July of 2010!  Published by Eagilik Public Fund in Astana, Kazakhstan, you can find out more about the 12 photos they featured for each month.  (ask about how to get your own copy of it by emailing The front of this calendar has a horseman on the steppes of Kazakhstan.

The following information is taken from this calendar, I’m not sure who their source is, but I think it is Martin YK Lee who also took the photos for the calendar.

“Kazakhs have traditionally been, and still are, excellent horsemen.  It is said that in the past, Kazakh children learned to ride before they walked.  Historians believe that horses were first domesticated 5,500 years ago by the Botai people in Northern Kazakhstan.  Between the 6th and 2nd BC, the Sakas (believed to be one of the ancestors of the Kazakhs) inhabited the lands of today’s Central and South Asia.  The Sakas were outstanding horsemen, and were the first to master horseback archery while riding at full tilt.

Today horses are still an important part of Kazakh life.  Horses are used as working animals, especially in the countryside.  Fermented mare’s milk (koumiss) is a popular local drink, and is also believed to have medicinal properties.  Horse meat is a local delicacy, and is an ingredient in several national dishes.

Horses are also used for sport and entertainment.  One traditional sport is Kokpar, an intense game played on horseback in which two teams of players compete to carry a headless goat carcass into a goal.  Serious players train intensively for years, and playing well also requires specially trained horses that know to stop still when a rider is thrown or to gallop forcefully when their rides gets hold of the calf…”

These three photos were taken by me in different locations but the theme of horses runs strong here in Kazakhstan though you will not see them in the cities of Almaty or Astana.  That’s where cars are king of the road. The last photo is of a bride being chased down by the groom.

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More Kazakhstan Photos and Minnesota Wheat Field

I thought some photos from around Kazakhstan would suit my “reading” audience for today.  I like taking photos of billboards and the happy man carrying packages is an advert about grain I believe.  I took this photo when I was recruiting students in Kostanay area this past spring. The next one was taken in the grain fields my grandpa used to plow and plant and harvest in northwestern Minnesota.  My husband knows a lot about the grain harvesting in Kazakhstan when it was a republic of the Soviet Union.    Before the Soviet Union gave directives from Moscow about what to plant where, the Kazakhs were considered good horsemen, still are.  Thus the photo of the horse and rider in the steppes of KZ. Finally I have a photo of a statue in Independence Hall in Astana which shows a girl holding up the top of a yurt.  It has some very special significance. I wish I knew more about it. This circular piece in the flag for Kyrgyzstan, so it is very relevant to nomadic life of old.

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Photos of my workplace colleagues in Astana

I’ve written myself out lately so my fallback is to show either buildings, places, people, paintings or statues. Today I’ll show people I work with at the new university. They are honing their English skills and I enjoy adult learners!  As their English teacher, I try to figure out what their greatest needs are in order to communicate better with foreigners who know English.  Look at the last photo to see what some of them do to clown around with me. We like to laugh, they like to joke.  I learn from them about their country, their families, their work. I like my Kazakh colleagues, they are fun!!!

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