Traveling to Central Asian gems: Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan

November 26, 2018

The opportunity to travel to Central Asia and learn about new cultures and languages while bringing back knowledge for the classroom seemed like any educator’s dream. We were part of a group of both college and high school educators from Arizona and New Mexico who participated in a Fulbright-Hays Seminar to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in June.

Not only did we have an intensive crash course in Russian, a language spoken in both countries, but we also were given extensive study materials on the history and culture of each country. While we communicated online, none of us knew the other participants. Added to the unfamiliarity of the region we were traveling to, was the strangeness of rooming with and being in the company of complete strangers for a month.

Both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are former Soviet-satellite countries; since gaining independence after the fall of the Soviet Union, they are essentially one-party systems. When we arrived early in the morning hours of June 2 at Astana Airport, in the capital of Kazakhstan, we were shocked at the modernity of the buildings. It looked to us like a combination of Las Vegas, Nev., and Dubai, United Arab Emirates. There even was neon on most of the buildings. The next two weeks were spent touring the capital, studying Russian, listening to lectures and returning to our dorms at Nazarbayev University in the evenings. Since the time difference was 12 hours, we were often exhausted by the time the day ended — which, by the way, was around 10 p.m., the same time darkness finally fell.

The cult of personality surrounding the first and only president of the country, Nursultan Nazarbayev, was one we’ll never forget. His name was on not only the university we were staying at and attending classes at, but on streets and various monuments throughout not only Astana, but also in other cities such as the former capital, Almaty. His palm print was embedded in bronze with the motto, “Choose and Be in Bliss” at Baiterek Tower.

The almost otherworldly aspects of Astana disappeared once we left for Uzbekistan. Tashkent, its capital, did not have the same brand-new feeling that Astana did. There were remnants of the old Soviet regime in many places we visited, including a subway system installed by the Soviets and a World War II memorial near our hotel. Most people there, although they spoke Russian, communicated in Uzbek.

One high-speed train ride later, we were in Samarkand, a stop on the Silk Road of Marco Polo. It was night and day different from anything we had ever seen, straight out of a fairy tale. Rising blue-tiled domes, towers and squares, which were built before America was even a colony, dazzled our eyes and imaginations. It was a vibrant place, with bazaars selling everything from meat and fruit to fresh bread and custom-made garments. The madrassas, once places of learning, now housed artisans and all manner of crafts, from seamstresses to rug-makers, who all called to us to come in and take a look.

We had one last destination on our Asian odyssey, Bukhara, sister city to Santa Fe, a direct stop for traders on the Silk Road, complete with trading domes from the 16th century that are still being used to barter for bargains.

One amazing thing happened along the way: We became a bonded unit, a kind of tribe of travelers, hunting for ideas for our classrooms. We laughed together, spent time exchanging stories and learned together about faraway places no one ever thought they would visit.

Renee Moody is an educator at Mora High School. Edgar Mauricio Vargas Blanco is assistant professor of Hispanic Linguistics at New Mexico Highlands University.

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