Sunday, 16 November 2008

The Amazing Race 13, Episode 8

Delhi (India) - Almaty (Kazakhstan)

Kazakhstan and the rest of the former USSR are hard (albeit rewarding) places for travel, as the racers find, but for very different reasons than India. This week in Almaty, (older pre-independence maps may show the Russified name "Alma Ata"), The Amazing Race 13 came down to a contest between Dan and Andrew the frat boys' troubles with the language barrier, and Terence the vegetarian's difficulty forcing himself to stomach a Kazakh feast of mutton.

I was in Almaty in 1992, just after independence, before Chevron arrived and the oil money started to come in -- and before Borat, the only thing any of the racers had heard about Kazakhstan. When I was there, tourists were a novelty, and a welcome sign of the opening up of a country formerly colonized by Russia and closed off by its overlords in Moscow from the world outside the USSR.

Today, Americans driving around Almaty are probably assumed to be oil workers -- rich partners of a dictatorship different from, but no better than, the Soviet one (and including many of the same people at the top), that is looting the country and keeping the oil wealth for itself and its cronies. As such, English-speaking foreigners are considered fair game for price gouging unless and until they can somehow dissociate themselves from local people's assumptions about who they are.

Getting beyond such a stereotype isn't easy, and may not be possible at all if you have no way to communicate who you really are. The presumption that any American on the street is a military contractor, CIA agent, oil worker, or some other sort of partner of the local elite -- a reasonable assumption in many countries where such people far outnumber American tourists -- can make travel more difficult, and potentially dangerous, than it might be in places where the US government is hated, but individual Americans are welcomed.

We had introductions to local people in Almaty and some other places in Russia and Ukraine, a couple of whom were professional interpreters. But elsewhere in the former USSR, or when we weren't with our friends, the language barrier was surprisingly high. There's more teaching and use of English today, but things have changed only a little: "It was definitely one of the toughest cities [on the route of The Amazing Race 13] to communicate, because there was not a lot of English," said Dan and Andrew this week.

In my experience, the places where it is most difficult to communicate have been places where most people are illiterate, so one can't resort to a phrasebook or have an English-speaker (at a hotel front desk, for example) write down your destination in the local language to show to taxi drivers or people on the street. That's my standard tactic in places where I can't read the local language, like China and the Arabic-speaking world.

Kazakhstan is still literate (the dismantling of Soviet public services has affected the quality of health care more than that of primary education), and the racers' clues included the names of the places they needed to go. Their problem was different: that neither any of the racers nor any of their drivers appeared to have any maps, and almost nobody on the streets spoke English.

In most of the world, English is the most common second language, and it is relatively unusual for college graduates not to have at least basic reading knowledge of written English -- enough, crucially, to be able to understand and translate a written address or the name of a landmark. It's different, though, in Kazakhstan: There is no ethnic or linguistic majority, and the link language between speakers of other local languages remains Russian, even after the breakup of the USSR. So most native speakers of Kazakh, Uighur, etc. learn Russian in school. On the other hand, ethnic Russians who wanted to stay in Kazakhstan after independence, and not be regarded as foreigners or colonialist bigots, have been under pressure to learn to speak at least some Kazakh. English is, at best, a third language for any of these first-language groups, despite recognition of its international importance and value.

Having been in other places where you can always find someone who speaks enough English to help with directions, Andrew and Dan erroneously conclude that, "These are horrible people -- no one wants to help". More likely they had no idea what the angry foreigners were shouting at them from their vehicle, although they would probably have tried to help if they had been approached with a smile. Notwithstanding the unprecedented global hegemony of English, there really are parts of the world where you can find a sizable crowd of educated, literate people on a the streets of a cosmopolitan big city, none of whom know any English. Be prepared!

The chances that people will be able to help you find your way if they have limited English (and perhaps only a reading, not speaking, knowledge of English) are often vastly improved by even a crude map. But availability of maps varies: Police states, in particular, often prohibit the production or public sale of detailed or accurate maps that might be used by domestic or foreign enemies of the state. And in some of these places where access to maps is highly restricted, few ordinary people have even rudimentary map-reading skills.

Soviet city and public transit maps (in Cyrillic, of course) used to be very good, and surprisingly easy to find. But post-Soviet cartographers have, understandably, been put to work on more profitable endeavors, like mapping the oil fields. Little of the oil money has trickled down, so there's much more money to be made importing luxury goods for the local kleptocracy than in local production of mass-market goods. Ordinary Almaty city-dwellers just aren't an attractive market, and a lack of up-to-date local maps is just one symptom of that problem. Almaty never had many tourists, the political capitol has moved to the new city of Astana, and these days most foreign visitors to Almaty are oil workers with private guides and/or local "minders", not independent travellers using public transit or trying to find their own way around town. If you can, get a map before you arrive: In a place with a severe language barrier, I often find a good map makes more difference than a poor guidebook.

The racers get little chance to enjoy Almaty, whose most obvious attraction may be the hiking trails into the mountains. Imagine a setting like Denver, where the steppe (plains) meets the mountains, but with peaks almost twice the height of the Colorado Front Range. We took a city bus to the edge of town, then spent a delightful day walking in the foothills near where the racers got their clues delivered by falconers in "Mongol" costumes.

Another joy of Kazakhstan, as of all of Central Asia, is the cuisine, which centers on the meat of the fat-tailed sheep (the tail fat is a delicacy for which they are bred) raised in those hills. To "fast forward" ahead, the racers have to eat a feast of boiled mutton. As a confirmed sheep-eater, I'd take that as a reward, not a challenge. My favorite Central Asian restaurant (the Uzbekistan in Hollywood) recently closed, and if anyone knows where in North America to find authentic "plov", especially of the Uighur variety, please let me know in the comments to this blog entry. But it's a lot to ask of of Terence, who hasn't eaten meat in 15 years. He "does the right thing" and tries, but fails and is eliminated at the end of the episode.

If you are served something you find revolting, keep in mind that if others are eating it, it probably isn't poisonous. You might find you like it! And if you can't or really don't want to eat some category of food, even inadvertently, plan ahead: Find someone (in the departure lounge or on the plane, if not earlier) to write down, "I can't eat kumquats", or meat, or milk, or whatever, in the local language(s) on a pocket-sized card. Keep it simple, and don't complicate things by trying to explain your reasons. Just say, "I can't" and people will assume it's an allergy, medical requirement, or religious proscription. Show people the card before you order a meal or buy food, and they will do their best to respect your needs.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 16 November 2008, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | TrackBack (0)
Comments

The only place I know to get plov in the U.S. is the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse in Boulder, Colorado. Which is worth going to for the architecture alone as it was built in Tajikistan and brought over to Boulder in pieces to be reassembled on the site.

As for travel in the former Soviet Union, reading Cyrillic can make things somewhat easier. But it's also worth remembering that there is little to no tradition of independent travel (even in Russia, due to the control Intourist used to keep over things), so it may well be worth hiring a guide. (And, of course, Cyrillic is of no use in some of the former Soviet states - Georgia and Armenia have their own alphabets.) On the plus side, outside of European Russia, there is a strong tradition of hospitality.

Posted by: Miriam Nadel, 24 November 2008, 20:16 ( 8:16 PM)
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