Sunday, May 3, 2015

Kazakhstan - Astana

Oct. 21, 2014 Clear but cold day (below freezing point)

Dear Colleagues:

I am waiting in an airport again, this time, Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. In 1997, the first (and the only so far) president of the country after independence (1991) from USSR decided to move the capital from Almaty to Astana, a central north place in Kazakhstan, typical great steppe environment with vast flat grass land. For some reason, people (maybe just the president himself) did not want to have their city spread out on this empty land, instead, they built skyscrapers. So, Astana is a new city full of modern buildings. It must have been an ideal place for architects to fulfill their dreams. In fact, several internationally famous architects came to have designed buildings here, including British Norman Foster, Japanese Kisho Kurokawa, and Italian Manfredo Nicoletti.   

Here I truly had an adventure for I have not hired a tour guide, and the local hotel does not even have its own business card or a simple map to orient their customers. So every day I take two slips of paper with me when I go out: a slip with my destination name and address, and one with the hotel name and address. I showed the slip to people at bus stations to direct me. People are very friendly, hospitable, and helpful, although we do not understand each other’s languages. Russian is still a major language, but Kazakh is the national language now, and most people do speak Kazakh. My very few Uyghur vocabularies help a little. Uyghur, a Turkic language spoken in Xinjiang (Northwest of China), Uzbekistan (actually it is very close to Uzbek language), and Kazakhstan, shares a lot of vocabularies with other Turkic languages. I learned some words (I have regretted so much that I did not learn enough) in Xinjiang where I grew up. So at least, I can find right food for myself for a real meal. Over all, the food here is not as good as that in Uzbekistan. There are fewer varieties on the menus and fewer restaurants available. I have to take a bus for about 15 minutes to a restaurant for supper.
Compared to Uzbekistan, tourism has just started to develop. People here do not have the concept of tourism, and things are not convenient yet, except money exchange. You can change your USD in any bank or withdraw Tenge (Kazakhstan currency) from any ATM machine. ATMs are everywhere. It is pity that I just get familiar with the city and won’t get lost anymore, I am leaving.

Kazakhstan does not have many ancient ruins or old busy towns as Uzbekistan does. If one goes as tourist, one might not find many interesting places to go. But for me, I found what I have been looking for. In the National Museum, I found amazing artifacts right for my research project. Unfortunately at first that photography was not allowed even I offered to pay a fee. Eventually I had to ask Fulbright office in the US Embassy to get a special permission for me. So they wrote an official letter for me to take to the museum. That’s when the magic happened! I spent 5-6 hours there to photograph several thousand small golden pieces from 8th -4th century BCE time. These artifacts are exactly the stuff I have been looking for to compare with a special group of textiles (the designs and iconography) I have been studying. That was the happiest day of this trip so far!

I was invited by the director of archaeological institute in Astana to give a lecture at the National University of Kazakhstan. There I gave a presentation on my research related to the artifacts discovered in Kazakhstan, and received unexpected enthusiastic responses. I was overwhelmed.

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