Answering Questions in Kazakhstan

After the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, the grasslands of Kazakhstan felt like another world. Snow and stone were remote memories, replaced by a deep vista of rolling hills and stretched plains painted with Van Gogh brushstrokes of dry yellow grasses baking in the June sun.

Kyrgyzstan across the border, grass still green on the lower plains

Even if the AC had worked in the shared minivan, no way it could have kept up. You could have baked bread on the backseat, and a barber would have needed asbestos gloves to cut my hair. So squint your eyes against the hairdryer wind, breathe deep and slow, and let it melt all memory of cold out of your bones. In such a sere and endless land, life as a nomad would have been precarious. No wonder hospitality was so important here, it was literally life or death.

The empty grasslands eventually gave way to homes and convenience stores, and I arrived in Almaty without cash, cell signal, or shared language. The screenshot map suggested my room was a 45 min walk. An hour later I dropped my bag on the bed, shucked a sweat-soaked shirt, and found heaven itself in the cold water shower.

The view from my room

Uncontaminated by old sweat or preconceptions, I went to explore my first Kazakh city. Traffic bustled with an acceptable level of chaos, and the buildings showed thick-walled solidity with a surprising degree of ornamentation that spoke of Soviet experimentation within delineated parameters. The aggressive sun was held back by an almost continuous cover of shade trees overhead, and cafes reminiscent of Paris sipped and steeped on various corners. My mental map was quickly filled with restaurants I wanted to try. Children played barefoot in the fountains and I thought to myself “I could live here.”

Grander buildings made Communist assertions with their tall pillars, but several now bustled with the business of universities. Outside one of these I found kids holding up signs. I can’t read Cyrillic very well, much less Kazakh, but I figured out what they said even before I found the one written in English. “Free hugs!”

Someone told me it was a courthouse before, it’s a university now, and where I met the youngsters

Real life is better than youtube, and getting a hug is always a good thing, so I happily accepted a youthful lad’s embrace. Then his friend’s. They asked where I was from. Excited by my answer, they called over their fellows, and soon I was surrounded by an energetic hum. What did I think of Almaty? Of Kazakhstan? Were students here the same as where I was from? Was I really traveling alone? How old did I think they were? What did I study? And then the one that left me wishing I had more time to consider an answer.

What would I like to tell the young people of Kazakhstan?

I said something about not being seduced into opposition, that adversaries cannot get as much done as allies, and that where I am from, too many bright young people are seduced by the appeal of appearing tough. I thanked them for the warmth of their welcome, lauded their generosity of spirit, and said it was a much better way to live than in cages of fear and suspicion. That life was tough, but we don’t need to make it harder, and hugs will always help.

We took a group photo. Then a video, my participation prompting joyous shouts of their volunteer group’s name. Another round of hugs before we all waved goodbye, then walkways through the flowerbeds took me to one of those cafes. Sipping a tasty brew, I wondered what else I could have said in that moment of attention and contact. Could I have taken the wind out of someone’s propaganda? Added a plank to the bridges between cultures? Helped one of them avoid a mistake?

What would you have said? Or what would you like to have heard at their age?