Spoiler Alert:  No Baby In This Episode

The day started in Almaty with me having the wrong time by an hour. So I was downstairs and waiting an hour before Vitali showed up.  On the way to the sisters office, the song YMCA by the Village People came on the radio.  I looked over at the driver Vitali and started showing him the letters and the dance.  He laughed and started doing it too.  Of course, he had to take his hands off the wheel to do it but that was just minor inconvenience. We laughed pretty hard at that.  Some things transcend culture and obviously the YMCA song bridges that gap.  (I wonder about the Macarena….?)


At one point, we turned a corner, and there, straight ahead were the most gorgeous mountains.  It was absolutely stunning and then I remembered that Almaty is surrounded by mountains. I had stopped paying attention to other areas once I knew that I was going to Kokshetau.  It reminded me of my first time in Petra when the guide deliberately drew our attention downward until we turned a corner and then you look up and in all its glory is the Treasury.


I had my meeting with Gulzhan and I delivered the remaining bottles of Sparkling Cider to Gulbanu. Turns out it wasn’t a craving, but rather, a potential business opportunity that her husband is looking into. With the large population of people who don’t drink, sparkling cider could be a market boom.  But they don’t have it at all here in Kaz so they needed some bottles to test and try and replicate.  Anyway, in my meeting with Gulzhan, the most important bit of advice she gave me was “make sure to use the toilet in the Astana airport because there is nothing but open fields between Astana and Kokshetau.” 


The flight to Astana was uneventful and I was met by Oleg and Inna in Astana.  I followed Gulzhan’s above advice and then we headed out for our four hour drive to Kokshetau.  It was unclear whether or not I would get to meet Annabelle today. 


Previous families have written about the disorderly Kazakh traffic.  From their descriptions, I expected to find a traffic situation like Cairo or even (horror of horrors) Boston’s North End. I did not find that in either Almaty or Astana.  In general, people obeyed lights, stopped for pedestrians and drove reasonably.  Even on the long drive from Astana to Kokshetau, Oleg drove quite slowly.  It was the kind of drive that makes you wish for the Autobahn. For better or worse, the landscape really resembles western Nebraska.  Those of you who have traveled 80 will know what I mean. It’s the kind of road that in the US makes you long for radar detectors pointed forward and backward so you can soar along at 90. So it even more painful to creep along at 80 km/hour.  But then I realized there was a serious reason for his caution.  Every 20 miles or so, there was a police car with a cop pointing a very sophisticated radar detector.  Now, the police cars here are crap Ladas, and probably couldn’t catch up with a donkey in a head to head race. But those radar detectors look like they could detect movement on Mars; they are probably worth more than the cars themselves. And I immediately thought – I bet some donor nation gave these to Kaz as income generating project. 


Astana is an odd city. Inna said that people have told her it’s like Las Vegas, this monumental city that rises out of nothingness and then ends and returns to nothingness.  What I found strange was the architecture. It’s a city under construction, but the construction is incredibly futuristic. I actually felt like I was in a Spielberg movie set. 


I also realized I have spent way too long in countries where people are actively trying to kill Americans. On seeing the embassy in Almaty (a beautiful building) I immediately commented to vitali on the lack of setback from the street and absence of concrete barriers.  I had almost forgotten that we do actually have unbarricaded embassies in some places around the world.  Then in Astana, I saw a big black cloud of smoke billowing off in the distance. I asked Inna if a pipeline had been blown – since it looked exactly like the pipeline explosions I used to see in Iraq on a daily basis.  No, Inna assured me (looking at me oddly), it was just construction.


After four stultifying hours we arrived in Kokshetau and stopped by the regional Ministry of Education (MoE) to just “pick up a paper.” We got there just as the minister was heading out but when we arrived, he took off his coat, made his minions take their coats and proceeded to absolutely grill me.  Of course I was exhausted and very unprepared. He asked me if I believe in God, why wasn’t I married (echoes of my mother), who was going to take care of the baby when I was working, why did I pick Kaz, and what about all those American people killing Russian adopted babies……  Potential minefields everywhere, but I apparently managed to avoid any serious damage since he signed the document we needed for me to get in the door of the hospital.


At that point it was too late to meet Annabelle so Inna took me to a shop to buy some food for the evening and dropped me off in the apartment where I will stay for the duration. I intended to cook and unpack but sacked after shortly.  Tomorrow is the day…..