No Bull About It
I’ve spent the last two weeks down south for the second part of PST (pre-service training). This is the first time they’ve split it up so that, instead of doing a full 11 weeks starting in March, we had nine weeks of PST, went to site, and had this two-week refresher just before school started. I liked it, because it gave us a good review for language and lessons at just the right time, although the transition from light summer schedules to 10-hour days again was tough. All 50+ of us volunteers gathered here in one hotel for sessions during the day and catching up during the evenings. We got to go out a few times, namely to places that served American food (like cheeseburgers!) and Pizza Hut! Delicious.
However, we don’t get many days off here. The only day we had off was Sunday (not even a half-day on Saturday!), and we made the most of that time by taking a hike. There’s a nearby mountain (how tall does it have to be to be considered a mountain? Also, is there a standard snow line for mountains, or does it depend on sea level?) called Kok Tobe. It was really close to the place we were staying, so we decided to simply walk in the direction of the mountain. This is our typical strategy, although I’m thinking we should find a new one (like maybe one that involves a compass? a map? or, you know, my handheld gps?), because the last time we went hiking it took us two hours to reach the mountain and this time . . . well, we were wandering around for a bit before we found the way, only with a little help, of course.
We took a few wrong turns as we were trying to gauge which road would lead us closest to the mountain base, and ended up in an area that seemed to be a dead end. However, right when we were scratching our heads and wondering what our next move would be, a man popped out of his fence and, knowing exactly what we crazy foreigners were looking for, pointed toward a tiny, hidden, grassy path and said something like, “That way!” He spoke Kazakh, which I don’t understand beyond “hello,” “goodbye,” and “I don’t understand Kazakh!”, but thankfully two others in our group did. Emily was even able to comprehend that he said, “Say hello to the mountain and ask how it is,” which I found quite poetic. From now on, every time I go hiking, I will say hello to the mountain.
Once we set out upon the grassy path (never would have found it on our own), we dipped down into a valley, crossed a little stream, and climbed another hill, where we spotted a hen and her chicks hiding in a bush and then came out into a family’s driveway. I’m sure they’re used to weird Americans trying to get to the mountain by now. After traipsing our way through a few more streets, we finally made it . . . to the highway. Yes, we had to cross the highway to get to the mountain. Here is (hopefully) a visual:
So it didn’t take us two hours to reach the mountain this time, but our adventure was only beginning! We found a path pretty easily, but it wound around the mountain instead of straight up. Because we were so close to the city, we had a great view of the landscape. I have a bad habit of having to stop every ten vertical feet to take more pictures of pretty much the exact same view, but in this case, the view was pretty great. The city is very interesting, because it’s just so spread out. I’m not sure of the exact limits, but the buildings seem to go on for miles. So much different than where I live, where it’s just steppe and grass as far as you can see.
Then we ran into a shepherd and his flock! I imagine this is not too unusual, but we were pretty excited (at least I was), and then we saw what the shepherd also had with him – a bull. A young one, to be sure, but a bull nonetheless. They were a little ways above us, but we wanted to go up the path toward them. And then the bull started straight down toward us, and we got locked into a stare down. The shepherd didn’t really help, because he herded his sheep down so we were blocked on two sides by them, one side by the way we’d come, and the fourth side by the tumbling-down slope of the mountain. This is one of those awkward moments about life here where you understand that you need to do something, but don’t quite know what exactly to do. But then the shepherd waved us by and we were able to squeeze by him and his sheep. Um, maybe I’m not such a big fan of sheep after all.
At the top of the mountain is a tourist boardwalk area, with restaurants, a kids’ park, a little zoo, souvenir booths, and even a statue of the Beatles! However, apparently most people don’t reach the boardwalk by walking to it. There are buses and even a gondola ride for that. Only crazy people like us try to hike to it, which is why, when we got to the top, we ran into a rollercoaster. This would’ve been fine if it had just been a rollercoaster and we could’ve followed it to the sidewalk, but there was a fence around it that blocked our way to the boardwalk. We followed the fence (which featured a cow skull?) the wrong way and ended up in a valley extremely far away from where we wanted to be. The fence ended because the brush on the hill was so thick that no one could climb up. So we had to retrace our steps and go the other way, which led us to the back of the boardwalk, and we ended up popping up through the woods and onto the sidewalk. Yes, there were a few stares. But we finally got there and the view from the top was pretty grand.
Then we went exploring a bit. I took a picture with a cutout of the snow leopard. We browsed the wares. At the far end of the boardwalk, we stopped at a restaurant overlooking the city. We didn’t want to have a full meal, but after perusing the menu, we agreed that the prospect of milkshakes had won us all over. So we dined on milkshakes (with water as an afterthought) and listened to a sweet 90s mix while the rest of the patrons ordered full-blown, delicious-looking meals and endured our overenthusiastic singing to No Doubt and the Backstreet Boys.
There are actually two sides of the path, so on the way back, we hit the zoo, which was mostly birds, but they also had some goats and an adorable llama, who rolled around in the dirt to scratch his back. You could buy some feed for the animals, and a few kids fed the llama cookies. Adorable, I’m telling you. Then we stopped at the Beatles monument, which features the band members sitting on and standing around a bench. I have no idea how popular the Beatles are here, but this statue was like a photo shoot set. One family was like, “Okay, the daughters, now this daughter by herself, now that one . . .” That, combined with the fact that there’s no concept of waiting in lines in this country, lengthened our wait just a tad.
Well, if we had thought getting up the mountain was difficult, we assumed getting down would be much easier, since we could theoretically follow the same path. Theoretically. But days off can never be that easy. We took a wrong turn on the way down and follow a path alongside the length of the mountain which some of us thought we recognized (Okay, I admit, that was my bad! But to be fair, there was a pipe that I actually did recognize. It must just have been a different section of it). It took us past a tree that had board seats nailed into it, for nut picking, is our best guess. Emily climbed up there to test it out, but it wasn’t sturdy enough to sit on. We continued past it until we got to a house, which was impossible to pass because of the landscape (hill on one side, valley on the other), and finally realized we were on the wrong path, so we had to turn back.
We got back to the fork and took the only other path down we could see, but that wasn’t the right one either. Turns out we had missed the real path earlier, but we only figured that out once we were down the mountain and could see clearly. We were following a pipe line, which was maybe not a good idea, because this new path, though, was steep. Like, ‘your toes will feel crushed by the end because of how your feet are tilted’ kind of steep. Not only steep, but the tall grass was slippery, making the way down perilous. But we made it, and not too far from where we started, so I count that a victory, especially given our typical modes of navigation. All in all, the day was very enjoyable. It felt great to stretch our legs and get some exercise on our only day off.
That evening, we decided to go out for dinner (well, second dinner. We were hungry! And Justin’s appetite resembles a hobbit’s). We’d heard about an English place called The Shakespeare Pub, which turned out to be pretty great, if a little expensive. The atmosphere was pleasant, the staff (and customers!) spoke English, and customer service even popped up. I don’t think any of us knew what to do when the owner stepped outside to ask us how our meals were. Josh and I got Special Shakespeare Burgers. I have no idea why they were called that, but they had barbeque sauce, bacon, and pineapple on them. Yum. Maybe that’s the business for me – going to different countries and opening Edith Wharton-themed restaurants. House of Mirth burger, anyone?
Just a few more tidbits. I’ve been back for a week, and things have been relatively uneventful. The 22-hour train ride passes pretty quickly when there are eleven other volunteers on the train to help you pass the time. A few of us played some hands of Durak (meaning, ‘fool’), which is a local card game. I lost all three hands! Luckily, no one has taken to calling me ‘fool’ yet.
School starts on September 1st, which means not a lot of free time left! (Or maybe none at all if I don’t get around to posting this soon.) However, just to give you an example of how we feel our free time, Josh spent Thursday night dolling out riddles and word games via text. And I at least took the challenges very seriously.
I started the Insanity workout program! It’s brutal, and my calves have never hurt so much in my life, but Shaun T is an excellent motivator. I think I’m going to turn him into my personal motivation coach, haha. Emily, Cat, and I have decided to become workout buds, so I plan on taking advantage of their optimism on those days when my butt needs to be kicked into gear. Also, the Kazakh teacher who lives in my building is finally back from vacation. She’s already asked me to go running! Oh no.
It’s August, and it’s freezing already. They told us the winters would be horrendous; they just didn’t tell us that winter would be so long. Apparently there are only two seasons in this place – a very short summer and a very long winter. It’s not exceptionally cold temperature-wise, maybe in the mid-50s, but the chill is certainly in the air, and the fear is in all the volunteers’ eyes.
That’s all for now. Hope all is well back home!
What I’m Reading: Finished The Hollow Hills. Loved it. I just love Mary Stewart’s style so much. It’s so . . . earthy, I think is the best word. Working on George R.R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords, the third Song of Ice and Fire book. I’m also rereading Our Mutual Friends. The best thing about rereading Dickens is that you get to skip the boring bits. :P
Song of the Blog Post: “Turning Tables” by Adele, because a friend and I watched a Glee episode in which Gwenyth Paltrow sang it, and I love it now.