Deportation is a drag

In the Lonely Planet rundown of facts on Kazakhstan, it lists ‘oil, steppe, Borat’ as the key features of this Central Asian republic. I got a lot of Borat jokes when I mentioned to American friends that I would be visiting ‘his’ country. As I got closer, I started getting responses with a little more substance. Among the expat community in the Ukraine, for example, many people have been to Kazakhstan.

‘They’re great people over there,’ said an American diplomat I met, fresh off a two year tour in the country. ‘None of this Slavic tendency to depression, none of the southeast Asian urge to try and swindle you. Muslim hospitality, though they’re not terribly religious. You’ll have a ball.’

‘Almaty, the old capital, is as ugly as the Paris suburbs,’ said Guillaume, the French artist (see ‘Something there is that doesn’t love a mummy‘). ‘Great setting, with those gorgeous mountains in the south, but they’ve torn down all the pretty stuff and built horrendous apartment buildings.’

‘Almaty… great… clubs…’ mumbled a drunk English businessman.

I was going to Almaty to visit Emma, a classmate of mine from Harvard who is teaching at a university there. I loved the Ukraine but was definitely looking forward to a familiar face. Unfortunately, the border control had other plans for me. Despite the information on the Kazakh Embassy website and every guidebook and traveler forum I read that said you could get a transit visa at the border if you were staying less than five days, you cannot get a transit visa at the border even if you are staying less than five days. After 45 minutes in the country I was promptly deported back to Kiev.

I went to a pub near the Golden Gates, the historic point of entry into Kiev, with some people I’d met in my first few days in Kiev to wash away my frustration. We happened to run into the American diplomat who had raved about Kazakh hospitality and I told her about my experience.

‘Oh, I probably should have told you the border guards are total assholes,’ she said. ‘They turn away one out of every five Americans, I think just for fun. It was a total nightmare at the embassy. They would turn away dignitaries who had flown half way around the world.’

That might have been good to know, I thought, though I suppose it wouldn’t have made much of a difference. At least I was in good company.

‘Everyone else is great, though, really, you must go back,’ she said. I hope I will have another chance. The flight (with eventual destination of Istanbul) was the last one I booked with the money from my job in China at the beginning of the summer. It may be time for a reality check. But first there’s Istanbul.

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Pragmatic if not practical

‘Les filles sont fait pour fait l’amour,’ was the opening line (and refrain, and pretty much entire text) of French rocker Adanowsky’s set at the Moloko Music Festival, the culminating musical event of Kiev’s Gogol International Modern Art festival. The song seemed especially fitting here in the Ukraine, where women are as uncannily beautiful as their Muscovite cousins (see ‘The Moscow-New York Connection‘).

To the delight of almost every male expat, and the trepidation their female counterparts, there is a rich tradition of Ukrainian woman – expat man relationships, or so I gathered from the cover story of the Sept. 3 issue of ‘What’s On Kiev‘. The article blithely lays out the pros and cons for each party. Some highlights:

‘The delights’ Ukrainian women can offer the expat man:
– No matter how ugly, overweight, or out of shape you are, you can probably find yourself a young wife with a face you can’t believe and a supple body to die for!

‘The dark side’
– Don’t allow yourself to entertain the foolish thought that because your Ukrainian wife expects you to be the breadwinner, going off to work every day and earning fortunes (she will expect this, by the way), she’s going to be stuck at home being a housewife… she will expect you to hire a nanny, a cleaner, a cook and a maid.
– All Ukrainian women believe that men are bastards. They will fully expect you to be drunk all the time and to be unfaithful in equal amounts. She will treat you as if you are doing all this, even when you’re not, which will certainly drive you to drink, and probably drive you to being unfaithful, in the unlikely event you’re not already

‘The Good’ about expat men for Ukrainian women
– Chances are they can give you a better lifestyle than their local counterparts. Then again, an ex-pat in Kiev is never going to be worth what an oligarch’s worth, but if you’ve got no access there, a foreigner’s a good option.
– Most western men know it’s a bad thing to beat a woman, while statistics show that might not always be the case with Ukrainian men.

The Bad and the Ugly
– He’s going to be old. While that might not matter now, try and project into the future and calculate how old he will be when you’re his age. He may well be dead by then, but then again, that might not be such a bad thing. After all, you’ll have the passport and all his money.
– An expat will not be as generous with his money as his local equivalent. He will tell you it’s because he doesn’t have the fatalistic attitude to money Ukrainian men have and that he thinks of the future, but you know it’s just cause he’s a tight bastard and doesn’t appreciate how much it costs for you to look the way you do. He simply does not understand!

Naturally, the article was the subject of many conversations among the expat community. I thought it was a joke. On the contrary, said nearly everyone I talked to, it’s spot on. Even the Ukrainians I talked to didn’t seem to take much umbrage with the fact that it painted their women as gold-diggers. ‘Of course women want to be taken care of,’ said one man. ‘My wife has told me she doesn’t want to do anything but play with our children all day. Of course it is my responsibility to provide for them.’ ‘It’s just the reality of life over here,’ one woman echoed. ‘And it’s so true, what they say: foreign men don’t understand how much it costs to look good. I used to date an American who said I should get a job if I wanted to spend $2000 a month on spa treatments. How ridiculous is that? I dumped him and started dating a Ukrainian man who owns a spa.’

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Everyone should have experience

The flight from Kiev to Almaty takes five hours, the same amount of time it takes to get from New York to London. This is because Kazakhstan is nearly the size of the continental United States, a fact that both baffles and amazes me. 

People have been crossing this land for thousands of years on various branches of the silk road, but relatively few have chosen to settle here. The names of the civilizations that have risen and fallen here evoke the Lord of the Rings: Scythians, Tatars, Zhungars, Huns, Mongols. Kazakh, from the Turkish word for ‘adventurer’ or ‘outlaw’, is a relatively recent term, appearing in the 15th century to describe a hodgepodge of ethnicities just starting to develop a collective national identity. I wondered what a Kazakh might look like: were they fair-haired and Germanic looking, like some of their eastern neighbors in Urumqi, China’s predominantly Muslim western province? Dark and Slavic, like their Russian neighbors to the north? Mongolian, with high cheekbones, tan skin, and Asian eyes?

The answer, as far as I could tell from the border, was all of the above. Customs was the farthest I got during my visit to Kazakhstan, having been told mistakenly that I could get a transit visa on arrival. 

The first customs official looked eerily like the proprietor of a guesthouse where I’d stayed in Mongolia; the one who refused my visa application was blonde and puffy, like he’d had bratwurst for breakfast. The one who spoke enough English to explain that, contrary to the information on the embassy’s website, I could not get a transit visa for my stay of less than five days, for reasons that remain unclear, was a friendly Slavic giant named Pavlov. 

He escorted me to a flight back to Kiev and handed my passport to the stewardess, mumbling a complicated sentence in which the only word I could understand was ‘deported’. I was surprised how much the word bothered me. Travel has always been easy for me, a fact I have grown to appreciate more and more after seeing people of different races subject to humiliating ‘random’ searches and non-American passports being examined skeptically. Noticing I was upset, Pavlov put his hand on my shoulder. ‘Don’t worry, you,’ he said. ‘It’s experience. Everyone should have experience. Good experience, bad experience. Come back soon.’

My flight to Kazakhstan had been overnight, and so I appreciated being able to see the country pass underneath me on the way back. Almaty, the old cultural capital, is in the southeast; Astana, the current capital, is closer to Russia in the northwest. Between them stretches a vast plateau of Mars-like bleakness. There are some mountains, though the biggest by far are in the southeast, spilling into neighboring Kyrgyzstan. The majority is inhospitable steppe land, occasionally punctured by lakes white with salt. The Soviets used vast swathes of northern Kazakhstan for nuclear testing, and in a twisted way you can almost see why. If anywhere on earth has to be sacrificed to atomic waste, here seems as good a place as any.

Less than an hour outside Almaty, we fly over a mountain with rings carved by the wind, like a giant terraced field. It is the only thing resembling human habitation I see in four hours, by which point we’re flying over Turkmenistan, the Caspian Sea, Russia, and finally the Ukraine.

I’m disappointed to have bungled my first experience of Central Asia. Whenever I mentioned I was going to Kazakhstan, people exclaimed how lucky I was to travel there while it was still relatively undiscovered. The people, they say, are incredibly friendly, a tradition born out of their nomadic heritage. ‘When you have only your herd and family for company, you begin to really like strangers,’ said a Ukrainian man I met on the train. Almaty, set against the backdrop of the Alatau mountains, is one of the more stunning cities in the world, according to an American diplomat I met in Kiev, and the nightlife rivals Moscow. Astana is quick becoming the Dubai of Central Asia, as foreign investment pours in to get a slice of Kazakhstan’s 35 billion barrels of oil (and, potentially, 65 billion more, if the government’s estimates are to be believed). 

Despite the picture that Sacha Baron Cohen paints, Kazakhstan is the most economically advanced country in the region, and by most accounts the stablest. Nursultan Nazarbayev has been ‘democratically’ elected to head the government since 1989, though not a single election has been declared fair by foreign observers. Growing resentment over the fact that 16% of the country still lives below the poverty line, despite annual growth of around 10% a year, could change that, but for the moment he has a firm grip on power. His ability to forge a multiethnic government with close ties to both western governments and his Russian and Chinese neighbors shows he is a politician of no little importance.

In the end, my deportation was little more than a few hours of hassle and a chance to catch up on some reading. Sympathetic airline personnel didn’t charge me for the flight and I got to spend a few extra days in Kiev, a city I am beginning to love. Kazakhstan is not going anywhere. ‘Come back,’ Pavlov had said as he waved me on to my flight. It won’t be long, I hope, before I have the chance.
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Something there is that doesn’t love a mummy

I have been thwarted nearly every time I have tried to see dead bodies this summer. I saw one, towards the beginning, at the Changsha Provincial Museum in China, a mummy of some ancient queen. She was lying there as hundreds of tourists were pushing each other – seriously pushing, elbowing too – to get a glimpse of her. Normally Chinese people give me more personal space than they give each other. I call it the sphere of fear (my personal space). But everyone was looking at the mummy, so they didn’t notice I wasn’t Chinese, and I was bumped around like the rest. Eventually I wormed my way in and looked into the gaping maw of this poor ancient dead woman. It’s morbid, by definition, but absolutely fascinating. I was not looking at a vase or a plate or a piece of jewelry but a person who had used all these things, had thought, lived and breathed a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. We each define art and history in our own way. Call me twisted – I’ll call you crazy for thinking Mark Rothko is worth a second glance (looking at you, Hilary).

When we got to Beijing, then, it was only obvious that we should go and see Mao, who lies mummified in a tomb in Tiananmen Square. Well, it was only obvious to me. Gretchen and Jeanne had no interest in the pilgrimage and made me feel kind of creepy about wanting to. You’d think I’d have grown out of feeling subject to peer pressure. Nope.

Then we got to Moscow. Lenin’s body lies in Red Square, in a completely anachronistic Soviet block (har har) among the fanciful old imperial buildings. You used to have to wait for hours to be able to see him, but the queues have died down in recent years and it only takes about 45 minutes. Again, the rest of my party wasn’t interested, but I talked about it with an American ex-soldier who I met in my hostel. Somehow our wires crossed and he went without me; I figured I’d go the next day but apparently Mr Lenin does not accept visitors on Mondays.

Here in Kiev there’s an impressive collection of mummies of monks underneath the Kievo-Pecherskya Lavra Monastery. It sounds like dead body Mecca: an underground crypt, still lit by candles, with the remains of these venerated holy men an arm’s reach from the corridor (not that I’d want to touch them, I’m not thatcreepy). I visited the monastery with Olivier, part of the cultural attache of the French embassy, who was giving a tour to a visiting French artist named Guillaume Reynard and his friend Florence.
I’d forgotten how bitchy French women can be. I’m not talking about my host, Laure, who is a total angel: how else could you describe someone who agreed to host me in her apartment for free after one email exchange over Florence is cast of a different mold. We spoke in French, which I learned in high school and improved when I lived in France from 2004-2005. Not far into our visit, she turned to Olivier and said ‘She speaks French like a retarded Parisian’ – then turned and gave me a saccharine smile. ‘Her French, it’s not bad,’ chided Olivier, ‘and she can understand everything so far as I can tell.’ Florence didn’t offer an apology.

Just before the gates to the monastery, Florence declared that she was crevée (exhausted) and so we paused for a café before going in. We toured the grounds of the upper monastery, which was stunning in the decaying afternoon light. Much of the cathedral had been reduced to rubble by either the Nazis or the Soviets, noone’s really sure. It’s been rebuilt in fine form, with only one pocked golden dome (furthest left, above) showing the legacy of the tough twentieth century. It was all well and good, I thought, but where were the mummies?

‘Oh, I’m afraid we don’t have time because we stopped for café,’ said Olivier. ‘It closes in fifteen minutes.’

Some sort of divine providence witnessed my pain at missing yet another opportunity to see dead bodies, and so gave me a second chance. My trip to Kazakhstan did not pan out as planned (more on that soon) so I have another three days to revisit the Lavra and improve my unimpressive body count.

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A Country to be Proud Of

(Originally published in the Greenwich Citizen)

I liked the Ukraine from the moment I arrived. I flew in from Stockholm, where a sandwich in the airport costs $20. In Kiev, that same $20 will cover the forty-five minute taxi ride into the city and a beer once you get there.

I don’t usually take taxis, no matter how cheap they are: if public transit is a tenth of the price, which it usually is, anything else seems indulgent. I also don’t make a habit of getting a beer on arrival, but my plane arrived late and I was scheduled to meet my couchsurfing host, Laure, at a pub at 9pm., which I described in greater detail in my previous column, is an online social networking site for travelers of both the armchair and literal variety. It connects budget travelers, or ‘surfers’, with people who are willing to let them sleep on a spare couch, bed, or section of floor for free. Laure is a thirty-something French diplomat who lives in the posh embassy district just north of Kiev’s historic center. When she wasn’t dispensing visas to hopeful emigrants, she took me to embassy parties and tacked me on to a private city tour the embassy had arranged for a visiting French artist. Fortune can be so kind when you go looking for it.

I didn’t know what to expect of Kiev. I certainly wasn’t expecting to find gorgeous white sand beaches in the middle of the city. Their appeal is lessened by the fact that the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown happened a hundred kilometers upstream. Radiation poisoning isn’t really my thing, so I skipped the beach and hit the usual tourist sights. Kiev’s cathedrals are magnificent orthodox confections, with starry domes and darkly glittering icons in their candlelit interiors. The state museums are average, but Ukraine’s oligarchs have a long and faithful history of sharing their acquisitions with the public in sumptuous townhouses: the exhibition of rock star artist Damien Hirst’s skeletons in billionaire Viktor Pinchuk’s icy modernist gallery was only the coolest of the bunch. A few miles down the road, an international modern art festival was intellectually stimulating during the day and a raging new music party every night. On the street, funky folk art rises next to gorgeous eighteenth century mansions. Ubiquitous kiosks sell the two things essential to Slavic well-being: chocolate and vodka. Hundreds of meters under ground, the subway stations drip with mosaics and chandeliers, like medieval grottoes masquerading as bomb shelters.

Kiev’s wealth seemed strange for a country that suffered under Stalin, famine, and the Nazis. I had a hunch I wasn’t getting the full story, so I bought a ticket on a 10-hour train ride west to Lviv, near the border with Poland. Against Laure’s advice, I traveled fourth class, which meant a seat on a bench in an open carriage. I was surprised to find the carriage mostly empty. A few old men hovered near the bathroom – a puzzling choice, as it reeked of stale sewage – and a shirtless man sat on the bench opposite me eating a neon green bell pepper. He said something in Ukrainian, inhaled deeply, and gave me a wry smile.

‘Do you speak English?’ I asked in Russian. The two languages are similar enough that people fluent in either one are able to understand each other. Ukrainian is slightly softer: heard from a distance, it can sound like French. I don’t speak any Ukrainian but have picked up a little Russian.

‘Why yes!’ he said, excitedly. ‘I think. I have learned it but I have never spoken to a born English speaker.’

I told him his English was excellent, and asked what he had been saying in Ukrainian.

‘Oh. I was saying: the toilet, the national smell of Ukraine.’ And he laughed.

Ukrainian humor confuses me. You can’t call it black humor, because it’s depressing rather than ironic. I suppose, when your country was arguably the worst-suffering industrialized nation of the 20th century, a twisted sense of humor comes naturally.

The shirtless man and I spent the rest of the train ride discussing movies, music, and systems of governance. There are so many problems with the Ukrainian state, he said: corruption, flawed educational systems, vanishing social safety net. He still loves his country, though.

‘I hate my country, but we can change.’ The way, he thinks, is to raise a new generation that does not expect the state to take care of everything, like his does. I brought out my US Passport to show him a quote I’d found inspiring, written on the last page of the visas section:

‘Every generation has the obligation to free men’s minds for a look at new worlds… to look out from a higher plateau than the last generation.’ – Ellison S. Onizuka

He smiled again, this time ruefully. ‘You have made me depressed,’ he said. ‘Sometimes I think it will be easy to change and to make good Ukraine’s potential. But we would never have that writing in our passport. I never want to be American, but sometimes I admire you.’

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