Life in a Strange Pond
The City of Uralsk, Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan used to be as Russian as, well, Russia. However once upon a time (1219-1221)a warrior named Genghis Khan came from Mongolia to conquer the area. He did a good job by killing the men and having his soldiers ‘settle in’ with the women. Soon a new race and/or ethnicity was born. Though the Asian looks are dominant, there are still throwbacks to the past with blue-eyed Kazaks. According to the students here at the Teacher’s University, the city of Uralsk was founded in 1613 and Russia took it over about 1730. While historically a nomadic people, they eventually settled in the 1890s. Independence was regained in 1991.
The city is large but fairly easy to get around in. Everything is flat except the streets and sidewalks. The streets have potholes (and optional lanes) that could rival a VW Bug and the sidewalks change materials every other store. I inquired one day as to why. I was told that each building owner is responsible for the sidewalk – so if it is old with cobblestones , packed dirt, or new with cement – it is up to them to maintain. This makes for some visually unusual walks and ankle-breaking terrain.
Due to the city’s age, there are numerous older (ok - ancient) buildings and several newer ones. They seem to live harmoniously together and share one common trait: They are not afraid of color! Buildings and houses can be pink, salmon, turquoise, lime, yellow, cobalt, lavender, or any combination there of. The more decorated the house, the more Russian the inhabitants. The less decoration, good chance it’s Kazak. There are some buildings with what I call the ‘Communist Mentality’ – you know the ones – 8 stories, box-like, no architectural detail, and blah but they are few and far between. Why 8 stories you ask? Because anything over that requires an elevator. Quite a luxury here.
The living conditions here still take me by surprise. Many houses here are very small and have no running water. The owners cart old-fashioned milk cans to the street pump and home again. They use outhouses. Yet they have satellite dishes, cell phones, and spend money on clothes you would not believe (men & women). Dichotomy, thy name is Uralsk.
On the other hand, it is also common here for people to have more than one job. My taxi driver yesterday was also a policeman. One lawyer also works construction. Even with a college degree the earning potential is not like other industrialized nations. This does not seem to bother them as their work ethic is strong.
The people seem to live and work together well. If there are racial issues it is hidden pretty well. The Russian folks do not seem to extend themselves as a group as the Kazaks do. The Kazaks, while still reserved, seem curious about visitors and I have had some fun ‘conversations’ trying to answer questions with my mini translation dictionary and hand gestures (while hoping they are not offensive ). Some have had English in school and they enjoy the chance to try out their skills. They are quite charming and curious about the world beyond their borders.