News Single

10.07.09 00:12 Age: 9 yrs

The Ministry of Misinformation

By: Roger

Borders, Borders, and more Borders

It was mixed feelings as we approached Jetisay, our last major town in Kazakhstan (if all went to plan, that is). There was apprehension, as we were not sure what this attempted border crossing would hold for us; there was anticipation, as we were moving rapidly into Uzbek territory now and this would give us another major cultural group to interact with and document; there was a sense of achievement, as there had been numerous times along the way where we had doubted we'd make it to this point in reasonable time; and of course, there was a touch of sadness that our journey through Kazakhstan was coming to a close.

We felt that our stop in Jetisay would be a smooth one, as we already had a place to stay (a lady had given us her details at the mosque out of town), and we already had a contact at the Akimat (another random man that had stopped us on the way to Jetisay) who was going to help us with the border crossing. Any other information regarding the local lifestyles that we could garner from the town, and thus record would be a bonus, and so in that regard, we felt the pressure ease off a little. After a few questions here and there with some locals on the street corners, and a chat with a security guard, we eventually found our way to our host's house.

Riding through the big double doors to their house, we were greeted by a 3 day old calf (they had 3 cows in the back garden) and a rowdy dog. Chai soon ensued along with the now obligatory arbus. As we head further south, and later into the summer, arbus (watermelon) has been popping up with chai and after meals. Whilst they were having their siesta (in the heat of the day, most people snooze for an hour or two), we visited the Akimat to try find the man who had given us his details on the way to Jetisay. We found his office without too much trouble, but unfortunately, the man had the day off. Instead, we were directed to another man's office and he confirmed for us that Gagarin border was open to us. However even after all this confirmation we still had our suspicions about the border, as we had time and time again learnt that you could be told one thing by one bureaucrat, and 10 different things by 10 other bureaucrats in the same building. And so following this, we headed over to the regional Akimat to meet with the head of Internal Affairs. After calling around to many different English speakers, including his daughter, an english speaker finally turned up at the office - named Scott. Luckily for us, he spoke enough Kazakh to get the message across, so we again confirmed that the Gagarin border would be no trouble for us.

After all of this we soon were taken under his wing, and made his own personal project, since he was very interested in our cultural research/documentation. He wanted to show us all the important cultural sites of the area, interview numerous people, and to also have us stay with him, so we organised to meet up with him a few days time to do this. After quick tour of a few places that were important to him, it was then back to our host's place for plov before bed.

That night, we arranged to meet Scott the next morning, where he'd take us out the fields to interview some of the workers and see how they lived(as most people in Jetisay lived like they did). Come next morning however, the head of internal affairs had decided that he would pick us up instead. He had decided to create a cultural schedule for us, to be immersed in the traditional cultures of the region, with him as our spokesman/chaperone and the experts of the various areas as our guides(which didn't sound so bad after all), all so we could be given could material to record on video.

He turned up with his daughter (whose English was rather good) and after a bit of fussing around we did a very quick tour of their traditional theatre (Jetisay's pride) and then to the Culture house where they put on a special concert (after much ringing/ordering around) for us to video. This was traditional Kazakh songs played by the finest musicians in the region, and then the grand finale.... This was a very rare, traditional, ancient, and extremely spectacular duel of poets - one on accordion and one on dombra, improvising. Each poet would improvise on their instrument whilst they sang a debate over certain topic (the topic of this dual was our journey from Australia), each trying to outdo, make a fool of and defeat their opponent by their lyrical and musical mastery. This was very exciting to see, as we had never seen anything like this before and not really practiced anymore, a rare tradition/ceremony, which is rapidly being lost.

After this it was finally time to meet up with Scott and his boss at the water management office of the regions and to interview them. Cultivation rates had been dropping in the region for many years now, with no explanation as to why. Thus there was rapidly increasing child labour occurring (and thus much less children going to school) and women being forced to work overtime (16 hour days, every day), along with many ill effects on their health due to poverty (protein deficiencies etc). Thus they were trying to increase production rates to reduce all this by lifting people out of poverty. Out to the fields where he showed us the demonstration plot of new farming techniques which they used to experiment and show other farmers about successful innovations.

After this, it was then off to see Shubat (camels milk, which is slightly fermented) making at another Man's house, of course followed by another big chai, before heading off to the bazaar to pick up a few peaches. All along the head of Internal Affairs had been our chaperone, now he wanted to be our host! The man insisted we stay at his house some 20 km out of town where he lived with his family in a small village. It Turned out that he used to be Akim(Mayor) of that village for 14 years before taking up his current position in Jetisay. That night, we ate Galoupshi (stuffed capsicums) for dinner, before us being shown the wife in laws traditional Betashar (literally, opening of the veil) dress which she kindly wore and paraded around. This is used in a traditional wedding ceremony, where a Musician sings to entice the bride to remove her vail and show her face (often the Grooms friends had not even seen the bride before), and is a tradition going back since anyone can remember.

Early the next morning we headed back out to the fields, where we interviewed some of the female workers about their lifestyle, the children, and their dreams for the future. This was very interesting, to get a woman's perspective on life in rural Kazakhstan captured on video. These workers are the people most likely to be impoverished, exploited, and thus have their children treated the same in a vicious poverty cycle. Ironically, on our way back we were ambushed and interviewed by the regional TV news station.

With the time on our Uzbekistan visa ticking away, we decided that we would leave that day for the border. That evening, we went straight to the Gagarin border, that we had been assured was open to us by many many people in many high up places. We arrived there at about 5 pm, as we had been told it would close at 7 pm and wanted to leave lots of time if anything went wrong. When we arrived after a few hours riding, there were many people there at the border milling about so we were abit worried that we would have to sit in the queue for many hours. Luckily (being guests to the country) they ushered us through to the post where the guards took one look at our passports and said - "no you cannot cross here, it is for Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan citizens only". We were shocked, what were we to do, as we had been told by so many officials that this border was open, and then next border that was open was some 10 days ride (which we wouldn't make in time for our visa restrictions)?

However after much discussion, they gave us clear directions as to how to get to the closest border, on the bitonka. It was only some 60km away so not very far(though on a 450kg quike it is!), however we were again quite suspicious about if it was really open to us, as all along we had never ever been told about the existence of this border crossing. But being the only alternative, we had to give it a shot. Thus we began the ride back to Jetisay and then took another road out for a few km's as directed by the border guards at the post. However it was getting late now, and we had to look for somewhere to camp. Unfortunately there were just constant farmers fields and no steppe to camp on so we just had to keep riding until we found a side street off the main road which lead us to a small secluded village.

Riding past a few houses (with small farms attached), some ladies that were sorting onions at the front of their house called us in. They were outgoing and confident which was unusual for the area (where normally they are very shy, do not speak, and have to be given permission by the men to do so) and most were Uzbek. We went in and immediately clicked with them. With al ot of the men away (this was a big family) it was a nice change, socialising with the women. One of the ladies was cooking dinner on her dung fired stove (Plov, the traditional Uzbek dish of rice, meat/fat(ranging from 100% meat, to 100% fat, to 50/50), and carrots for us, so we waited with our mouths watering after the such a long (stressful) day.

The best part of the meal however was that everything came from their huge vege garden, tomatoes the size of small pumpkins, and the sweetest apricots (their little girl climbed to the roof of the house to pick fresh apricots for us) we had tasted so far. Being such a novelty to the locals (as usual) all the neighbours came to meet us(it was a tiny village in the middle of nowhere, surviving as they were right next to the canal), and thus joined in for the big feast that night before bed.

In the morning(since they knew we were due to depart then) there was much dancing so say goodbye, Uzbek traditional music was played very loudly and everyone gave a demo of their dance, from the old grandpa, to the 4 year old boy! We were even taught to dance in a traditional Uzbek style (though we are not very good at it, even the grandmas and grandpa's looked more fluid than us!)T his was also followed by a traditional dress catwalk which we found very interesting. As this was our first real closeup of Uzbek's living in Kazakhstan in a border area. After this, we parted with many gifts of bread and lollies and humongous tomatoes and cucumbers and apricots!

After this, we swiftly rode the remaining 7 or so km to the border post and entered Uzbekistan (5/7/2009).