The Altai Mountains? Where the h#** is that? – Ust-Kamenogorsk, East Kazakhstan

The Altai Mountains? Where the h#** is that?
Ust-Kamenogorsk, East Kazakhstan, gateway to the Altai

I’m a lucky guy. I didn’t grasp that for quite some time. While living and working in Korea I stumbled on BootsnAll and it didn’t take long to figure out just how lucky I had been.

Ya’ see, it’s this way. I’ve been to a part of Asia that very few westerners have heard of. I’m betting that you might be one of ‘em. I’ve been to the Altai Mountains. Do a Google search and see what pops up. Lots of interesting stuff, with a few references to where I have been. I’m going back to a place near those mountains and I’m pumped!

So, you probably have an idea of where the Gobi desert is and you surely have heard of the Steppes of Central Asia. The Altai Mountains are right between ‘em!

My first experience there was with 5 students from the school where I was teaching in the state of Washington, good ‘ol U.S. of A. I was selected as the teacher/chaperone because I was the only one that applied. That was a shock… (the luck begins!)

To be honest, I applied because I saw a chance to get out of work for a few weeks (that, and one of my daughters had chosen to go.) I was not after a life altering experience, but that is exactly what it turned out to be.

Our destination? Gymnasium #38 in Ust-Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan. At least that’s what the Russian name for the city is. Now that native Kazak people dominate the government again (after decades of Russians in charge ended in the early 90’s) you will find it on some maps listed as “Oskemen”. The Kazak people have been asserting their native culture at the expense of many things Russian.

On old maps you may not find this city listed at all as, until the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was a “closed city”. Foreigners were not welcome as there were a number of things going on there which they (the Russians) just weren’t all that excited about letting us (anyone not Russian) know about.

Get out the map and take a peek. Ust-Kamenogorsk a city of about 400,000, about as far east as you can get on the Steppes before you start your climb into the mountains. It’s not all that far to Mongolia (also bordered by the Altai) and it’s pretty darn close to Russia. It’s a dozen hours or so south of Novosibirsk in Siberia, depending on the weather, time of day, the age and make of the car, the driver (and your personal experience with motion sickness…).

I did take the train on one of my trips there (I’ve now had 3, working on 4!) but it’s better I save that ‘absatively, posolutely’ incredible/amazing/enchanting/enlightening 20 hour trip for another attempt at writing.

Ust-Kamenogorsk is on the mighty Irtysh river which runs through the city on its way north across Siberia to the Arctic Ocean. The parts I saw reminded me of the upper Missouri River.

So, enough geography already (uhh… guess what I taught…) Let’s get back to the “lucky” part. My first taste of Kazakhstan was in the Almaty airport after about 30 hours of planes and airports to get there. It’s about 3 a.m. and neither I or my girls (all 5 students with me were of the female persuasion) was feeling very chipper. It didn’t help our mood much when the first people we see when leaving the plane were the two guys in military uniforms at the bottom of the stairs with machine guns slung over their shoulders.

At that instant, the thought that I might have made a major (life threatening) mistake coming on this trip flash through my brain. Being back home at my school with my students and my boring old life did seem preferable to what was unfolding before my bloodshot eyes. As I eyeballed my charges, I sensed I was not alone in my my “preferables”. I was most certainly not having the slightest “I am a lucky guy” feelings at this time.

It didn’t get much better when we entered the terminal to go through customs. At 3 a.m it’s dark (duh) The terminal is dark (and dreary). The customs guy didn’t smile (Glare? Yes. Smile? Not a chance). We survived his cold, stiff (dark) appearance, only to enter the main terminal and find a handful of local folks with body language that didn’t suggest they were all that glad to see us. Not a surprise to figure they may have felt the same about us as our body language was fairly screaming such logical stuff as “I’m tired”, I’m scared” and I don’t like it here” (AND… “I want to go home!”).

You know that old saying that says something about it’s “always darkest before the dawn”?, or something like that. Hey, it could not possibly have gotten a whole lot darker. No way…

So, we are huddle against one drab gray cement wall and these other folks are scattered around the room staying close to the other 3 drab gray walls, when one of the young ladies with me turned to me and said, “do you think I should offer them some cookies?” I turns out her grandma had baked her a big bag full of chocolate chip cookies for her travels to the other side of the world. She had pulled them out of her backpack and was holding the bag in front of me. My first thought was the logical one. “Absolutely not, you aren’t going anywhere near those people. They might eat YOU (and then me).”

It only took a moment or two of looking in to this sweet young 16-year-old’s eyes before it struck me that it may not be such a bad idea after all. The smile on her face lit up the the space between us (remember, it was dark…). Maybe the cookies could help take the chill out of the air (AND the people).

With some reservations, I told her it was okay and she trotted off like nothing was wrong, probably because she’s a sweet 16-year-old American kid who really didn’t think there was anything wrong. The problem was most likely mine. (Oh, to be 16 again!)

At this point, there were still a few tense moments as Kayla approached the first couple. They appeared to be a middle aged, asian (our first contact with Kazaks?), and most likely were married. Neither one was much over 5 feet tall so 5’6″ Kayla might have looked a bit intimidating to them. They were obviously a bit unnerved and seemed to shrink back to the wall as the distance be she and they (her and them?) dwindled.

Understand here that we had not heard a word of English for quite some time, except from ourselves, and I had my doubts whether there was anyone with hundreds of miles that understood English. Of course, that was silly. We’d been promised us a driver who would take us to our hotel who spoke English. They just didn’t happen to be at the airport when we arrived…like they’d promised… No fun in that, for sure. “Lucky?” Yeah right… We’ll be damned lucky if we get out of here alive.

Kayla marched right up to the couple and asked them in English if they would like a cookie. Quite logically, as she spoke she held up the plastic bag for them to see what she had. At first, they were doing pretty decent statue imitations.

Then the man flinched. My guess is he got a whiff. You surely can imagine what chocolate chip cookies smell like, especially after they’d spent the better part of two days in a sealed bag. I think that’s what got him.

The man craned his neck slightly as leaned just a tiny bit forward to get a better look (and whiff?) of what’s in the bag. He hesitated still as Kayla moved the bag closer to his face, but didn’t recoil. She repeated her offer and then, seemed to do just the right thing. She reached in the bag herself and pulled out a cookie. It startled the man enough that he drew back, but not enough for him to completely withdraw.

He watched her as she put the cookie to her lips and took a bite. Of course, she did a bit of overacting by letting out “mmmmmmm!” that could be heard all the way back into the customs area. (Yes, whe was in the drama club at school and always had a large part). Then she smiled at the man and moved the bag towards him again. This time, after a glance at the statue next to him, he leaned forward so he could look right down in the bag. He looked up at Kayla’s smiling, munching, cookie crumbed face and decided to try one for himself.

He reached in the bag and carefully pulled out a cookie. One more glance at his wife, who seemed a teeny-weeny bit less stiff, looked back once again at Kayla’s face (with those twinkling eyes above that glorious smile). He put his cookie close to his lips AND took a sniff. Having evidently come to the conclusion it was not poison, took a small bite of his cookie. His eyebrows rose and he stood a little taller. His tastebuds were telling a story that was being translated to a universal language on his face which was immediately understood by everyone in the room.

Can’t recall the name of that movie where it’s all in black and white until these two teenage kids (brother and sister) end up getting sucked through their T.V. to this city and teach those 1900’s type folks what life is about… Hmmm…Don Knotts? Oh! Pleasantville! Is that it? Anyway… That’s what it was like. Kayla was the bright colors in this black gray and white place in which we now found ourselves.

Upon getting his first taste of that cookie (probably the first chocolate chip cookie in his entire life) the little man smiled. His face lit up and I couda’ swore the shadows in the room began to lift ever so slightly.

With hand gestures and words we did not know, but still understood, he encouraged his wife to take a cookie, and she did. You could tell it wasn’t her first choice of things to do. But she did it anyway as he seemed to be insisting.

She took a bite and the room grew a little clearer as the dark shadows on her face disappeared. She didn’t produce a full blown smile, but she surely grinned, if only just a little. Guess she liked the cookie too! There was more smiling, more munching, some bowing mixed between utterances that must have been stuff like, “thank you” or “tasty”, “sweet”, “interesting”.

I glanced around the room (I could see a little better now because it wasn’t quite so dark, ya’ know) and the looks now from the others in the room seemed to have transformed from “serious” to more of a “curious” appearance. The statues were now obviously alive since they now were whispering to each other as their eyes went from Kayla, to us, to their whispering partner and back to Kayla.

Encouraged by her initial success, she moved to the next group. 3-4 people who looked much like the first couple but reacted quite differently then those first two, as they did not appear to tense up when she approached. Guess it is kinda’ hard to be tense when you are busy being curious.

It took Kayla only a moment to greet these folks and make her offer. Slight hesitance gave little suspense as what was going to happen next seemed inevitable. The chill in the room continued to dissipate as each one in turn took a cookie, put it to their lips and took a small bite. The “Mmmmm” chorus was certainly music to the ears of a handful of tired, scared Americans.

Soon the room was full of smiles, and there was a lot of bowing and utterances that could not be interpreted as anything but positive. Soon, there was not a dour face in the room. Not the Kazak faces or American faces either. Leave it to a 16-year-old All-American girl to figure out how to melt the ice.

It was still dark outside, but not any longer in the terminal.

About then, the driver showed, help us say our “thank you’s and our “good-bye’s to our new friends and took us to our hotel. The driver got lost. Turns out he had just arrived from one of the other “Stans” and had just started on the job. Not too many places to stop and ask for directions at 4 a.m., so we just wandered around the city for an hour until we accidentally (luckily?) found the hotel.

I felt very fortunate to have gotten myself and my girls out of there in one piece. 2 days down, 17 to go. Maybe it was my good luck to make this trip after all. Little did I know how much more luck would come my way as we moved on from Almaty to Ust-Kamenogorsk.

We were still a one hour plane ride (on Air Kazakhstan, now defunct) from our final destination, but that plane didn’t leave until mid day.

My name ain’t Dorothy, and I don’t have a dog named Toh-Toh, but many times over that next 2 weeks I coulda’ made a darn good case that I was on the road to OZ… More than once, I felt that I would be lucky if I EVER get home. Well… I did.

Next time I write, I’ll have to dig out some pictures as words alone cannot possibly explain clearly (and believably) what I experienced. I do know that after my trip(s) to Kazakhstan, I will never be the same.

Traveler Article


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