Posts tagged Tian Shan mountains

“Vis Medicatrix Naturae” and Dr. “Eye-Bottoms” Daughter

Thankfully I’m feeling much better from last week’s episode with high blood pressure scare. I have since found out that many people on this side of the Tian Shan mountains are plagued with this ailment. Perhaps that is why Type A personalities need to be duly warned about not taking on more than they can handle, we need to be more relaxed like the native Kazakhs have learned to be in order to survive. The following is a short quote from C.S. Lewis about healing and medicine. Then I will write about Leila, the daughter of the “Eye-Bottoms” doctor or opthalmologist I met last week.

“There is a sense in which no doctor ever heals. The doctors themselves would be the first to admit this. The magic is not in the medicine but in the patient’s body – in the vis medicatrix naturae, the recuperative or self-corrective energy of Nature. What the treatment does is to stimulate Natural functions or to remove what hinders them. We speak for convenience of the doctor, or the dressing, healing a cut. But in another sense every cut heals itself; no cut can be healed in a corpse. That same mysterious force which we call gravitational when it steers the planets and biochemical when it heals a live body, is the efficient cause of all recoveries.” By C.S. Lewis, from Miracles, ch. 15

I met the 40 year old daughter of the kind doctor who I met last week when I went to the three clinics to check my high blood pressure. (See earlier blog) The good doctor had given me his daughter’s phone number at their home. Leila had just recently returned from the U.S. as of four months ago, last December after studying three years at community colleges and universities in Nevada and California. Her father is 72 years old and her mother is 71, Leila is an only child and she is single. She admitted that many of her friends are now divorced raising children on their own, so she feels fortunate. But she also feels a responsibility to take care of her aging parents once they are retired. There is no one else but her to do this duty.

I asked her about her father’s background and how he got involved with ophthalmology; she gave me an answer later after telling about his family and his growing up years. He was the youngest child in his family being born in 1936. His father, Leila’s grandfather, left the collective where he worked to fight in the Great Patriotic War in 1941; he was badly injured there and returned home to Aktobe only to die shortly thereafter. He had fought in western Russia or Ukraine somewhere but Leila was not sure where. She explained that her father didn’t talk much about his family or early childhood. He had older brothers and sister but some of them had died in their younger years, not from starvation but other childhood diseases. One of his older brothers had become an oncologist and perhaps there was a personal motivation on both brothers’ part to help those who are ailing, that’s why they became doctors.

Leila’s father attended medical school in Almaty and later went to Moscow for more training in ophthalmology. She remembers going up to Moscow with her folks as a young child in the mid 1970s and people seemed kind then. Many nationalities from different parts of the former USSR have left Moscow; it is mostly comprised of Russians. Her father was a good eye surgeon and went twice to China to do eye surgeries because the Chinese have many eye problems. About 12 years ago her father went to Xian (place of terra cotta soldiers) for one year and the second time, his wife, Leila’s mother went with him to another city in China. She loved it in China. [this is unusual because most Kazakhs try to keep a healthy distance from anything Chinese]

Leila admitted that while she was growing up she never heard that collectivization was a bad thing; all Kazakhs would agree the Great Patriotic War or WWII was very bad. However, it was only when she started reading from history books while studying at Kazakh State University in Almaty and later by reading Russian media that she found out there was another side to what Stalin brought to Kazakhstan with collectivization.

From Leila’s mother’s side of the family she was from the city and perhaps from a fairly wealthy part of society. She would have been unaware of what life was like in the countryside and what collectivization did to some Kazakh families back in the 1930s and 1940s. Collectivization was considered a “social experiment” and in some cases it benefited some people while it didn’t help others. Leila’s mother had a more tragic life where her mother had died before her father went off to fight in the Great Patriotic War. She was orphaned at a young age with only an older sister because her father, Leila’s grandfather died in the Great Patriotic War. The two girls were taken in by their grandparents who were already pensioners. Her mother is a chemist and Leila’s father and she were married when she was 24 in 1961. They have been married 48 years.

Leila has traveled widely and recommended that I should travel to Uzbekistan to see old artifacts of a life from antiquities. Almaty doesn’t show much of historical life from the Kazakh past, perhaps the city of Taras would be the best place or Turkistan. She also told me that Mongolia has had a lot of influence on the Kazakhs. She acknowledged that she doesn’t know her own Kazakh language very well.

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“The Lake Must Be Calm…”

The following quote is from today’s Streams in the Desert meditation:  “One of the blessings of the old time Sabbath was its calm, its restfulness, its holy peace.  There is a strange strength conceived in solitude.  Crows go in flocks and wolves in packs, but the lion and the eagle are solitaires.  Strength is not in bluster and noise.  Strength is in quietness.  The lake must be calm if the heavens are to be reflected on its surface.”


You can tell it is nearly the end of a busy and LONG semester.  My last four classes will be happening in the next two days. I have immensely enjoyed my hardworking students.  However, as an introvert, I need the break from all the cacophony of demands on my time.  We all need a break, a rest by a lake would be ideal but they are all frozen now.  This poem could apply to my tenure in Almaty, Kazakhstan, a city built up from the valley to the foot of the Tian Shan mountains.


It is well to live in the valley sweet,
Where the work of the world is done,
Where the reapers sing in the fields of wheat,
As they toil till the set of sun.

But beyond the meadows, the hills I see
Where the noises of traffic cease,
And I follow a Voice that calleth to me
From the hilltop regions of peace.

Aye, to live is sweet in the valley fair,
And to toil till the set of sun;
But my spirit yearns for the hilltop’s air
When the day and its work are done.
For a Presence breathes o’er the silent hills,
And its sweetness is living yet;
The same deep calm all the hillside fills,
As breathed over Olivet.”

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Build Up Astana and THEY Will Come

 Astana, the NEW capital of Kazakhstan, brand spanking new! Ten years ago President Nursultan Nazarbayev had the vision to build up this small frontier town into a megapolis of half million people. He probably had “Field of Dream” visions of constructing skyscrapers. Surely the big players in investment would come and fill the palatial buildings. That remains to be seen and the building projects continue in different stages of completion.

I was surprised how huge Astana has become from Akmola, what it was known as 15 years ago. We are staying in the old part of the city where it has the typical Soviet style of architecture. We visited the ball on top of the tower, Baiterek, that faces ALL directions, toward the president’s palace to the east, the airport where Ken’s cousin Jack flies into is to the south (makes sense, closest to Almaty as the crow flies). The better part of Astana is to the north and to the west are the flat plains. What is missing are the mountains and I wonder how Nazarbayev copes with the lack of mountains though one would think that it would make construction much easier if everything is on level ground.

Riding the Spanish train that went east first and then north we had in our coupee a Russian gentleman whose business is with Astana’s drinking water. He said that the water table is quite high in Astana as it was built on a swamp. Rivers dissect the city into Left bank and right bank or Old City, reminded me a little bit of Kyiv and also a tinge of San Antonio, TX. There are no basements in any of the buildings as a consequence. I’m wondering how the architects deal with sinking of land due to abundance of swamp water. At least they don’t have to consider earthquakes which are known to happen in Almaty along the Tian Shan mountains. Too much for me to ponder on as an English teacher. I just hope the buildings being built will be filled but not too full that they start sinking into the saturated land.

We also had as our traveling companion on the fast train to Astana a woman by the name of Zhibek (silk) as in Zhibek Zholy which we all know means Silk Road. She is in her late twenties and her English was very good. She told me stories of her family being from a wealthy tribe on her mother’s side. As is typical in Kazakh families, the oldest son inherited everything. However, when communism clamped down on kulaks, they evenly distributed the wealth to the youngest son and hid the gold and silver. Consequently, the oldest brother was sent off to Siberia while the youngest one who appeared poor, stayed behind. As in many other stories I’ve learned, they buried the silver and gold to find it again for later use.

As it turns out, Zhibek’s grandmother was taken care of by the younger brother in Kazakhstan. She told of how her grandmother’s younger sister when they returned from Siberia to Kazakhstan was put on the shelf in the train. They had no food to feed the baby or themselves. Their thought was, if the baby is still alive by the time they get back to Kazakhstan, okay, she would live. This same little girl when she was 2-3 years old was deathly afraid of sheep, she had never seen them before in Siberia. She would scream and carry on whenever they got close to her. As discipline, the mother tied the little girl to the sheep so that she would not be afraid of the sheep any longer.

For Kazakhs of the past, breeding and raising sheep used to be their livelihood and to have fits about sheep was considered unnatural. What was also very unnatural was to have the collectivization project come through their sheep-herding steppes and have the soil upturned to plant vast fields of grain. Zhibek’s mother remembers seeing her grandfather crying when their sacred family burial plot was plowed under. Their ancestors memories were desecrated with the grain growing above their withered remains. Since Zhibek’s family had been a wealthy one in the past, they had had their own place to bury the dead. However, with collectivization Zhibek’s great grandfather saw that being erased as well as his future dwelling place for his old bones. Thus, the tears.

So, to put together these sad stories from the past with that of what I witnessed of Astana the glittering new capital, was a bit disjointing. Reading Christopher Robbins’ book In Search of Kazakshtan and the chapter titled “Howling of Wolves” concerns Nazarbayev’s sad past, similar to Zhibek’s family. How do the Kazakhs regain what has been lost of their heritage with its tribal values of honor and respect for the old while keeping pace with what is going on in the globalized world swirling around them? I guess they can look to China as an example of achieving much the same thing. No, China is too real a threat as is Russia. Thus, the reason for Nazarbayev wanting the capital to be moved from southern Kazakhstan in Almaty to the north.

I was surprised, as was Robbins, about the Kazakhs not appreciating Solzhenitsen and his contributions to the literary world about how difficult life was in the gulags. I should not be surprised because the Ukrainians react the same way to Solzhenitzen, he was a thorough going Russian nationalist to the exclusion of all other ethnic groups. As it turns out, Kazakhstan had many death camps, especially around Karaganda. Tomorrow I hope to have a student take me to one of the places Robbins mentions in his book, in Ajir, about 50 kilometers from Astana. Ajir was the place where the wives of the “Enemies of the People” were taken, guilty by association and sadly worked to the bone. Why do I want to see such a depressing place? Out of curiosity I suppose but also because not much is known about this by a majority of westerners, to our shame.

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