Monday, July 3, 2017

An American in Aktobe

Like many Americans, my introduction to the glorious nation of Kazakhstan came by way of the film Borat. And like many of my compatriots, I didn’t realize how wildly inaccurate a portrait of Kazakhstan the film painted. Even living with a Kazakh-raised Russian in Moscow didn’t dispel all of my misconceived notions. Dima knows the words to his country’s fake national anthem, and he’s been known to belt them out with pride.1 But when I found out I’d be spending two weeks in Aktobe, one of Kazakhstan’s lesser-known cities, it was Dima I went to for details. His review of Aktobe wasn’t exactly glowing:

Dima: It’s a normal city, a metallurgical city. It’s at the southern end of the Ural Mountains, the oldest part of the Ural Mountains. There are many rare minerals. Magnesium, lead—
Liz: Really? That’s what you have to say about Aktobe?
Dima: Yeah, because there’s nothing else there.

Views of Aktobe from an amusement park ride

I feared Dima was right after my first day there. A two-mile walk took me from one side of Aktobe to the other, and all I passed were a few shops and restaurants, an abundance of notaries (the Soviet love of documents dies hard), and not a whole lot else. Aktobe reminded me of Siberia with its wide, dusty streets and big, spread-out buildings—it was Russia without the Russians. Or at least that’s what I thought until I saw Kazakhstan through the eyes of my students, the other teachers at my school, and the strangers who stopped me in the street.

The world’s ninth-largest country is a confluence of cultures. Kazakhstan started out as a nomadic culture (its name means “land of the wanderers”), and was later influenced by Mongol and Russian invaders. Since the end of Soviet rule in 1991, Kazakhstan has had only one leader, but the president has ambitious plans to position his country among the top global economies by 2050. The country may be unknown or thought to be provincial in the West, but it felt full of promise to me. The students I taught were trilingual in Kazakh, Russian, and English, and their charter school boasted everything from a robotics lab to a climbing wall. The kids were smart, curious, and driven, and took pride in sharing their culture with me. In turn, I did my best to answer their questions about America, and tried not to mangle the pronunciation of their names too badly.

Over the course of my two weeks in Aktobe, I heard traditional Kazakh music, tried (and failed) to perform their national dance, shopped at the bazaar, and spoke to a crowd of fifty at the American Corner, a US government-sponsored center at the local library. I even tried the country’s national dish, beshbarmak, whose primary ingredient is horse meat. Yes, for the first time since the Spanish Pig Slaughter of 2011, I ate meat. With my hands. And it only took two shots of Kazakh vodka to prepare myself.

Beshbarmak means “five fingers,” because it's traditionally eaten with your hands

Throughout my trip, I sent photos back to Dima and Liz in San Francisco. Dima may have thought Aktobe was the armpit of Central Asia a few months ago, but when I returned to Moscow on Saturday, it seems he’d been converted: “This is so cool. I wish I could travel to Kazakhstan.”

If my time in Aktobe’s got Dima yearning for a visit to Kazakhstan, then I can only imagine how jealous he’ll be when I eventually make it to Astana or Almaty. I’ve got a taste for horse meat now, and you can’t satisfy that craving in America.

1 “Kazakhstan greatest country in the world! All other countries are run by little girls!”


  1. Hahahaha, I love this. I'll share it with Dima, too. Glad you had fun and shared your experience with us while you were there. We got a lot of laughs out of it!

  2. Hahahaha, I love this. I'll share it with Dima, too. Glad you had fun and shared your experience with us while you were there. We got a lot of laughs out of it!

  3. What a cool post! :) Thanks for sharing the story of your time in Aktobe. I'm really curious to see where Kazakhstan is in 10-15 years with the President planning such big things...

    By the way, were you in Moscow for that big storm recently? Or where you still in Aktobe?


    1. I missed most of it, but it delayed my flight back to Russia. We're still waiting for summer to arrive in Moscow. Any day now :)