Letters from Kazakhstan
|Editor's Note: Lis Wilson of Houghton -- who is
teaching and studying Russian in Karaganda, Kazakhstan -- wrote to members
of the Keweenaw Nordic Ski Club last December, when local cross-country
skiers were still waiting for the Keweenaw snow to fall. Here is her
December letter, followed by a second letter written to Keweenaw Now.
We regret the delay in publishing these.
From December 16, 2001, letter to Keweenaw Nordic Ski Club members:
If you guys are really desperate, you can come ski here in Kazakhstan! We've
got snow :) It's not fresh snow, but it would probably beat going back and
forth on the patch of snow on Mt. Ripley! I can also offer open-air ice
skating, thanks to some majorly leaking water pipes in the neighborhood. The
kids have been ice skating along the roads for weeks. Us older kids without ice
skates just run and slide (always intentionally of course) :)
|Lis Wilson poses in front of a Russian Orthodox
Church at sunset on Christmas Eve, 2001. The church is in
the the southeast (Yugovostok) section of Karaganda,
Kazakhstan, where Lis is living while teaching English and
studying Russian. (Photo courtesy and © 2002 Lis Wilson)
The topography here lends itself naturally to the open-style technique of
skate skiing. This is a really good place to hone your technique for the flat
land sprints at the end of big races -- good prep for the end of the Great Bear
chase :) Yep, I'm in the middle of steppe-land. There's even a Russian word for
people who live in the steppe. I'm a stepnoi :) Anyhow, if you come here
to ski, you would definitely not have to do laps around short loops. In fact,
you could probably go for 100s of Ks without having to turn to the right or
left. If you wanted to stay closer to town, you could ski on top of the water
reservoir. It's frozen. The only thing you'd have to contend with there are the
ice fishermen with their big saws -- and watch out for holes!
Oh yes, another close-to-town option is the new downhill ski slope that was
supposed to open this week. They've been working overtime trying to get this
project up and running. It sort of reminds me of a kid building a
sandcastle in the sandbox with big oversized trucks and diggers. I walked to the
top of one of the hills last week and was shocked by the view. It was very
similar to the view at the top of a mountain. When you get to the top of the
mountain the sky feels really big and the land below that's hilly looks like a
plain -- everything in muted colors. Who would've thought a five-minute hike up
this "ski hill" could replicated a mountain view that takes 12 plus
hours to achieve?!
... It's fun being on the email list hearing about the UP ski scene even
though I'm out of range. I do hope you all get snow soon though!
Miss you all! Lis Wilson
(p.s. If you didn't know, I'm over here in Central Asia teaching
conversational English at a university this school year. Originally I was in
Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, but got moved/evacuated in October when things were heating
up south of us. So now I'm here where it's far from hot -- in every sense of the
(p.p.s. Oh, don't forget to pack your own skis when you come visit. I haven't
seen any good ski packages at the local ski shops -- Wait, I don't think there
are any ski shops here...hummmm)
January update: Everyone says it's been very unusual winter. The snow
had almost all melted by the end of December. New Year's Eve it was really
treacherous because of the ice. The ice covered everything -- the roads, fields,
trails, steps, sidewalks -- CRAZY! This past Friday evening, we got
approximately three inches of snow though, so that makes it A LOT easier to get
around. One of my American friends is up to eight falls on the ice so far. I'm
proud (?) to say I haven't fallen since Christmas.
January 18 Letter to Keweenaw Now:
I have lived in a Russian speaking society nearly four months. Even though
it's my job to speak English, most of the people around me don't understand it.
I had no real formal Russian language study before coming here. When I first
came to Central Asia, I was tired just adjusting to being in a new place, so
didn't put effort into studying. But now that I'm rested and healthy, I've begun
my studies in earnest.
Do you remember the first book you ever read? I will always remember the
first book I read in Russian. Actually, it's a work in progress. I'm still
perfecting the pronunciation. There are so many sounds and movements my mouth
never made before this week. After one of my English classes today, some of my
students asked me how my Russian was coming. They huddled around me like parents
as I read my storybook in a four-year old child's halting voice. The story is of
a peasant farmer who tricks a big brown bear named Misha into planting and
harvesting crops. The bear always gets the bad end of the deal. Poor bear!
I am fortunate to have more cheerleaders than most language-learners have.
From the other teachers at school to the lady who sells me sugar at the corner
grocery store. I sometimes even enlist the help of fellow-passengers on the
city's public transportation.
On the way to work today, I was sitting next to some guys who I think were
speaking Uzbek. They looked Uzbek from the quick glace I took of them. Even
though one of them had his arm around me for about fifteen minutes, I never
looked him in the eye. Public transportation is awkward sometimes. As I listened
to these guys speaking, I had this strange feeling about how it may be here in
Central Asia in another 30 years. Central Asia is only ten years old. Just like
I'm re-learning to speak, they are re-learning how to be an independent people.
All this to say that I had misgivings about studying my new words in Russian as
I sat in the marshutka. Is Russian really becoming obsolete here?
Yesterday, on the way to work, I sat behind a drunk woman who was ranting,
raving, sobbing and laughing in Russian. As I listened to her, I was thinking
about how I'm becoming more and more responsible for my actions toward people
because I'm understanding more and more of what they're saying. The burden of
knowledge and the bliss of ignorance. For me, ignorance is often frustration, so
I will continue to study.
As I learn more about my environment and how it "works" I feel like
I'm becoming less and less American each day. No doubt that I will always be
branded as an American the rest of my life; but as my heart settles in more to
this life, it is more and more difficult for me to picture life in the United
States. I truly miss my friends and family in the U.S. and long to see them
again -- but my life is changing. Just as the wrinkles are beginning to set in
my forehead and around my eyes, I ponder the aging effect this life is having on
|Editor's Note: Lis Wilson is teaching
conversational English at a technical university in Karaganda, Kazakhstan,
through Educational Services International - ESI. She will be teaching in
Kazakhstan until the end of May 2002. Readers can write to her via email
To learn more about ESI's overseas
programs see the Educational Services International
Learn more about the author of this guest column, Lis
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