Eastward ho! China beckons

The Chinese embassy has made it official now. My visa for a semester-long teaching gig at Tsinghua University in Beijing just popped in the front door. So it looks like a year’s preparation will pay off with a nearly four-month stay beginning Sept. 8.

I’m stoked.

The program, organized by the International Center for Journalists in Washington, D.C., and backed by my Dean, Gary Kebbel, and the far-sighted folks in the administration at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is thrilling. I get to teach two classes to budding Chinese journalists, grad students in the Global Business Journalism program at Tsinghua. They are keen to learn about business and economic coverage and about multi-media journalism.

For my part, I get to learn first-hand about the world’s second-biggest economy as it pushes even further into the global limelight. It will prove to be a fascinating, if paradoxical place, I expect. A “developing country” that is nearly 4,000 years old. The U.S.’s biggest creditor and yet a place with one of the lowest per capita incomes on the planet. A planned economy that seems to work, mostly anyway.

The university I’ll teach in is commonly ranked among the top three in the country. China’s current president, Hu Jintao, studied and taught at the 100-year-old school. Its journalism college, however, dates back to just 2002, as this technologically minded university — sometimes called the MIT of China — is still developing its humanities offerings. The ICFJ, led by China hand and former BusinessWeek colleague Joyce Barnathan, has been involved there since just 2007. I’m told the students at the Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication will include some of the brightest kids in China, the likely leaders in their organizations in the future. I’m hoping they will challenge me as much as I challenge them and that, in my small way, I can make some lasting impact that will affect they way they see – and influence – the world.

It’s a daunting prospect. Will they behave like American students – in good and bad ways? Will they question and argue, for instance (probably not, I’m told, since deference to the teacher is a Chinese cultural trait)? Can I teach them about the cut and thrust of good journalism? Will they understand American-style journalism at all, or have a wholly different notion of the mission of media? Just think about how much some major pubs in China get quoted here as, more or less, the voice of officialdom.

Then there are the personal issues. Will the government particularly care what I have to say in the classroom or on the Net? Will it pay attention in either place? There are so many academic visitors to China from the U.S. nowadays that keeping track could be impossible and pointless for folks in official ranks. The Chinese want what we have to offer, especially in areas such as business and economic journalism. They think it a crucial skill as their business communities grow and globalize, and they’re right about that.

I’m going, however, as much as a student as I am a teacher. I’ve always felt that missionaries were fundamentally arrogant, assuming that they were bringing the truth to the ignorant masses. I’m a bit contemptuous – though usually more amused — when they knock at my door. So I’ll pack a sense of humility along with my syllabi. Yes, I can teach my young charges some useful skills – just as I do back home in Nebraska – but I expect I’ll learn far more from them and their country. China, after all, does have a few years on us in the U.S. as a civilization.

I plan to keep a blog of my experiences. This opportunity will vastly enrich me as a teacher, not to mention how much it could broaden my worldview. The three-week trip colleague Bruce Thorson and I took to Kazakhstan with eight students last year was good preparation. It gave me a sense of how people in a developing place look on us in the West, and on how they look on life in general. I expect to get more than a glimmer of that in the coming semester and look forward to sharing that both here and in classes to come.

Stay tuned. Should be one heckuva trip.

Baby Steppes: Memories of Kazakhstan

I’ve not yet seen Paris, but how many seasoned travelers can boast of spending time in cafes in Almaty, Astana and Karaganda? Clearly, I’ve got a leg up on veteran globetrotters.

Our three-week stay in Kazakhstan, for an eight-student photojournalism trip, was nerve-wracking at times. Reservations and credit cards were foreign ideas in some hotels and cold-water walkup flats in crumbling Soviet apartment blocks were the norm. Being unable to read street signs or tell taxi drivers where you want to go (my Kazakh is as good as my Russian) was also unsettling. And long, dusty bus rides and rickety train rides through the barren steppe gave us far too much time for reading.

But then there was the magic of the place. There were, for instance, Almaty’s “random taxis,” where you stick out your hand and, voila, some guy happening by in an old Lada or somesuch with an invariably cracked windshield stops to whisk you away (with the help of hand-signals and mumbled Russian). There was the city’s Green Market, an immense bazaar where you can buy just about anything. There was Panfilov Park, a gorgeous island of green that commemorates 28 Almaty soldiers who died fighting Nazis (immense memorials, including an eternal flame that brides and grooms pose near on weekends).

Almaty, the financial center and biggest city in the country, is a pedestrian-friendly place of tony shops, nice parks and rising new apartment towers. A leafy, cool place that stretches downward from the snow-covered Tian Shan mountains, the city was great for a morning run. It’s a busy town. It is home to the Kazakhstan Stock Exchange (KASE), the most visible sign of the nascent capitalism that could – if managed well – turn the country into a substantial regional force.

Almaty’s financiers could help enrich a population that, despite the rise of a middle class, is still relatively poor by western standards. At $1,322 yearly, Kazakhstan’s per capita income ranks it 94th globally, just below Tonga but well ahead of China, according to NationMaster.com. By contrast, each resident of No. 1-ranked Luxembourg boasts an income of $37,500. Some 1.26 million people live in Almaty and, income issues aside, it felt like most of them were shopping in the Green Market when we were.

Astana, for its part, is an enormous World’s Fair. The new capital city, which officially became the seat of Kazakhstan’s federal government in 1998, is much more of a car place (fancy cars predominate, too, for the status-minded Kazakhstanis). Giant buildings with stunning architecture are great to look at, but challenging to get to. It’s pretty, glitzy and new. In an odd way, it has a Washington-like feel, with monumental buildings and a feeling of power, but nowhere near as intimate as Almaty. If Almaty — population over 700,000 — were New York, Astana would be D.C.

Still, Astana has huge promise. From its spanking-new Eurasian National University, where we met with journalism instructors facing many of the same issues we do at UNL, to the wonderful new U.S. embassy, the place seems fresh and new. That freshness could help sweep away the old Soviet apartment blocks over time. Some of those five-story apartment blocks, with their steel doors, security locks, overgrown common areas and sewer smells, made South Bronx highrises seem palatial. One hopes most such places will disappear in Almaty and Karaganda, as well.

In some ways, Astana is a bold, optimistic statement. Just think about the religious nature of the place. A gleaming mosque, a stunning synagogue, Roman Catholic and Russian churches coexist, with representatives sometimes meeting in a huge glass pyramid built to celebrate the world’s religions. It all reflects the ebullient attitude of the country’s founding president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has kept power since Kazakhstan emerged from the Soviet Union in 1991. His long reign has been helped by the nation’s vast oil and mineral riches (despite sometimes questionable elections, he seems popular and the big question mark over Kazakhstan’s future is who will come next once the 70-year-old leader steps aside).

Then there’s Karaganda, the regional center where we spent our final week. There’s something tragic about the place, probably because it was shaped by the KarLag system, part of Russia’s Gulag internal-exile system. Many people in Karaganda, it seemed, had ancestors connected in some way to the KarlLag, as prisoners, exiles or guards. And folks there, even the Russians, still seem suspicious of Russian things – most notably, blaming rockets launched from the Baikonur space base for headaches, high blood pressure, joint pain and weather changes.

Outside of Karaganda, we visited the village of Dolinka, where barracks and other buildings from the KarLag remain. The place seemed desperately poor to Western eyes, but residents don’t seem to feel that way (and there were plenty of satellite dishes on ramshackle houses). Indeed, I’ll never forget the young Russian college student who was appalled at my suggestion that it was a poor town. Her friend lived there, she said, and didn’t think it poor at all. Poverty, it seems, is relative (though running water, heat and the chance to get an education would seem to be handy universal barometers).

Karaganda is a place where Peace Corps folks and missionaries are reaching out in earnest to the local population. Saving souls or helping people think well of America is certainly not a bad thing. Already, the public seems enamored of things American, as reflected by the constant stream of music videos in cafes and restaurants, as well shop names (U.S. Polo Assn. has an outlet there). College students in an English club, which is helped along by U.S. aid, were fascinated to hear us talk about the U.S. Western cultural elements dominate: I’ll never forget the boy in Dolinka, about 10, who strummed his crude homemade guitar and talked about Pink Floyd.

Perhaps my favorite memory of Karaganda will be the city’s sprawling downtown park. There’s a delightful amusement park, where we challenged our nerve on a rickety old Ferris Wheel that looked like it hadn’t been oiled since the fall of the Soviet Union. And one of the students, Megan Plouzek, and I got to run an impromptu marathon around the park (14 circuits approximated 26.2 miles, and I managed five while Megan logged about eight, covering more than 15 miles). The marathon was the brainchild of a local American former college athlete now working for a missionary group, and drew about 15 competitors.

Kazakhstan seems very much a country still emerging. Its economic system, dependent on natural resources, needs to diversify. Its educational system, despite such dubious features as college students occasionally paying teachers for grades, offers a way up for the people. Its government-funded foreign-study programs, which pay full-freight for students who qualify in exchange for five years work back in the country, represent a smart bet on the government’s part.

But I believe the country will make a mark globally over time. Already a regional powerhouse in Central Asia, it could ride its oil wealth and strategic location between China and Russia to great things. I suspect Americans will hear much more about the place in coming years, and it makes me feel like we got a ground-floor view. Paris can wait.

Test Case: Capitalism’s Rise in Kazakhstan

Nineteen years after breaking free of the collapsed Soviet Union, Kazakhstan remains one of capitalism’s last frontiers. From its nascent stock exchange in the financial and commercial center of Almaty to the sprawling Abu Dhabi-like construction and institution-building under way in the capital city of Astana, the country continues to seek its footing economically. Its mixture of private enterprise and state direction, together with a benevolent strongman’s rule, would make the place a fascinating laboratory for an economist.

There’s no question that Kazakhstan is the economic powerhouse of Central Asia, the richest of the “stans” and the most politically stable. Its oil wealth in the Caspian Sea has already been staked out by China, Russia and the Western countries, especially the U.S. They covet its huge fields of reserves as strategically vital alternatives to Mideastern suppliers. About as big as Western Europe and far less populated, the country also boasts hefty supplies of uranium and just about every other mineral developed societies need.

And yet, it has a long way to go to be a fully formed modern capitalist state. For one thing, many residents still  live in crumbling Soviet-era concrete apartment blocks that can stink of sewage, and feature dark cement staircases with missing windows and poorly planned and maintained common areas. Our apartments in gleaming, modern Astana would be low-end by South Bronx standards. Lines of trash bins next to playgrounds invite vermin hard by spots where kids play. The play area, surrounded by our five-story apartment buildings, is a vivid demonstration of the tragedy of the commons – overgrown and decaying with apparently no one to maintain it or at least to maintain it well. Similar buildings linger in Almaty, as in this photo of one sprawling tower block. (Click on it to see detail).

But in Astana people live in Soviet-era blocks, spread across the old area of the city, because the apartments were given to them free in the Soviet days. Even now, many can’t afford the stunning new buildings still under construction in the newer parts of the city. That housing is being privately developed and sold. Instead, people borrow to buy pricey cars – Mercedes-Benzes, Lexuses, Range Rovers and others dominate the jammed roads here. One of our guides says Kazakh people like to “show off” and they often go deeply into debt to drive glitzy cars. They also crave glitzy western brand names, as Gucci stores in Almaty suggest.

Certainly, people will occupy those shiny new buildings over time, though. The country is developing a solid middle class of well-schooled professionals, managers and state bureaucrats who will take to the new residences once their resources allow it. If nothing else, supply and demand will drop the prices of the new condos, one would think. The construction, driven by a real estate bubble that popped a couple years ago, still lumbers along, albeit at a slower rate.

It’s hard to imagine, much less portray, the extent of new development, particularly in Astana. The city was rechristened as the nation’s capital only in 1997 by President Nazarbaev, and it has risen into a Disneyland-like sprawl of some of the most ingenious and playful architecture in the world. In the new city centre, as it is called, a glass and steel pyramid rises near towering office buildings shot through with arches and sporting clever overhangs or minarets. Bright pastels reflect the sun. Even amid the slowdown, building cranes still dominate the skyline behind billboards that hawk the luxury living promised by the novel structures. It’s as if the whole place is a World’s Fair.

We visited the Eurasian National University on Thursday. The gorgeous facilities, housing a museum that showcases ancient artifacts of the region’s earliest days and paintings of warrior heroes of old, are part of a university created by the president to train future leaders, many in the ways of the West. The president also set up a national scholarship program that sends young students to study abroad, so long as they return to help modernize Kazakhstan. Leaders in the journalism school at the university asked us if we could host students at UNL and develop an educational collaboration – something that I am sure our folks would be keen to do.

Our meeting was almost like an affair of state. We all gathered on one side of a table of microphones and the J School faculty gathered on the other. My name was printed on a card, as was that of the J School director opposite me. A small Kazakhstan flag stood before him on the table, and a small American flag stood before me. The session began with rather formal speeches of welcome, all run through a translator from the U.S. Embassy. (The embassy is a stunning new building, corner of America behind some tight security. Very welcoming folks there, too).

Soon enough at the J School, we got down to finding common ground. Since my colleague, Bruce Thorson, and I and the Kazakh faculty were all about the same age, we bemoaned the lack of reading by our Internet-driven students and fretted over the future of print. I got the feeling, however, that preparing students to deliver Net-ready material is not on their agenda here – yet. A meeting with a newspaper editor later confirmed this, as he complained of declining readership but also said he hoped the Net wouldn’t usurp print journalism until he was ready to retire. He, too, is ahem, of a certain age.

Yesterday, some of the students and I went to a stunning mosque with a helpful guide who counted herself as a far-too-unobservant Muslim. Men and women prayed together in the mosque, unlike the more traditional mosque we visited in Almaty. I was able to sit with the group as an imam led prayers. And, to the dismay and disgust of our hostess, some women walked in sporting short skirts. Islam light seems to prevail here.

Afterward, we went to the Lubavitch-run synagogue, Beit Rachel. The shul is in a beautiful building that features a gleaming Star of David on its roof, much like churches showcase crosses – and far more showy than most shuls in America. Nonetheless, it is fenced off, unlike mosques, and has a security guard in a booth at the entrance. Much as religious tolerance is the rule here, Jews have reason to be cautious, it seems. There is also a large Catholic church in town. At Beit Rachel, young Israelis urged me to lay tefillin, which I did. We all had imposed on them a bit, with a local TV crew running all about the building filming us as we did our photojournalism there.

On Saturday, I went to services where, sadly, there were just a yeshiva boker who spoke only Hebrew, a couple other guys who spoke Russian and one delightful fellow from Baku, who spoke English. I’m told more people come when the rabbi is in town, but he’s in Israel at the moment. Still, it was fun talking with the Azeri fellow and it was a delight to eat cholent, the first meat I’ve (knowingly) had in a few weeks. We had a pleasant time all around and got an Amidah or two in.

Further on the religious front, a group of us on Friday also visited a pyramid where all the world’s religions are celebrated. Conferences there periodically draw global religious leaders to talk about their differences and similarities. It’s part of the president’s vision for a harmonious world. I’m told the Pope is among major world religious leaders who have stopped by.

Religiously and financially, there’s a sense of freshness and newness about the country. It’s as if it is still discovering itself and its role in the world, even as it celebrates its ancient history. It also needs to carefully walk lines, balancing Russia, China and the U.S., as well as keep religious and ethnic differences from becoming problems. It is enjoying — but must be cautious about — the billions of dollars, renminbi and rubles that have poured into place in the last 15 years or so. Its institutions are hard-put to keep pace.

Perhaps the best example is the Kazakhstan Stock Exchange. Set up two days after the country’s currency, the Tenge, was introduced in 1993, KASE is the home bourse for 121 companies. Like markets the world over, these outfits have been roller-coasting in recent years. After soaring past $96 billion in 2008, the market capitalization of the exchange members plunged to about $25 billion last year before recovering to about $64 billion now. The volatility reflects how interlinked Kazakhstan’s economy is with the world’s. The market is still comparatively small and, though heavily electronic, maintains a cubicle-filled trading floor, as the photo here by Sarah Tenorio shows.

As one might expect, oil and mining companies dominate the exchange. But banking and finance is important, too. And all these outfits rise and fall based on global conditions. The finance sector here went into free fall, with lots of bank defaults, because banks here had borrowed heavily from global banks. Real estate, which boomed in U.S. fashion, collapsed amid overextension, leaving Almaty with lots of unfinished buildings. Luxury homes in a neighborhood called Luxor near the KASE offices were going for $4 million in 2008 and they have since fallen by half that.

Still, Kazakhstan’s mineral wealth should sustain the country as long as the world continues to need oil, uranium and other crucial materials. What’s more, the nation’s leaders are keen to diversify the economy to avoid overdependence on such resources. Tourism, for instance, is an area they would much like to expand. If they can improve their hotels and tourist infrastructure, there’s no reason they can’t make a go of it.

Over time, this country’s development will be fascinating to watch.

Kazakhstan: Divine Thoughts

Religion seems to be a modest affair here in Kazakhstan, tolerated if not exactly encouraged. Almaty features a stunning Russian Orthodox Church, interestingly located in the heart of a park dedicated to World War II soldiers. The park, filled with oversized monuments including an eternal flame, seems very Soviet in style. And so, it’s perhaps fitting that the Russian Orthodox Church is there. It’s as if it’s making a statement about the centrality of all things Russian, whether in history or culture.

It was intriguing to spend some time in the church yesterday. Women, and a few men, would come into the ornate church, kiss icons, light candles and make elaborate signs of the cross on themselves. Most of the visitors were older folks, most looking more Russian than Kazakh. I suppose they were praying for relatives and friends and they found something helpful in visiting the icon-filled space. Perhaps the bevy of images of saints and of Jesus and the place’s general solemnity was comforting. Most seemed in need of something, an understandable thing, of course.

The other day, a group of us visited a mosque not far from the church. It was quite different. For one thing, we saw only one woman in the place and she wasn’t praying. Men, instead, were the supplicants and many were fairly young. There were no icons, only a wall with elaborate swirls and writing at the front. There were no chairs, only carpet for prayer (silent, but an active affair, with much standing, kneeling and prostrating). Sarah Tenorio, who took the photo below, and Elizabeth Gamez were allowed in and, as a mark of liberality here, were not required to cover their hair. We later learned that the mosque was built since Kazakhstan declared independence from Russia.

And today a few of the students are visiting the Mormon church services here. This place is far more low-key, based in the bottom floor of a nondescript apartment tower block far from downtown. There are few signs even noting its existence and, true to Mormon style, no crucifixes (they prefer to focus on the risen Christ, I was told by one of the missionaries there). The group, about 130 or so folks including a number of young Americans who incongruously call themselves “elder” or “sister,” is keen to sign up more members here.

We’ve been told that the authorities here are not fond of such small churches. They tolerate Islam, perhaps because it’s such a big part of the culture of Kazakhs, and they seem to value Russian Orthodoxy, perhaps for the statement it makes about the importance of things Russian. But recently there was a campaign against a Hare Krishna group from Russia that set up a compound outside town. We were told the place is being bulldozed after some legal action, since a local developer wanted the land. One could imagine that other small groups keep their profiles low to avoid similar troubles.

My guess would be that religion has not taken as powerful a hold here as in some other Central Asian spots because of economics and decades of official atheism under the Russians. On the economic front, if the system meets basic needs and provides a bit more for the people they may not feel as keen a need for something transcendent. Kazakhstan has developed a substantial middle class, it seems, and it’s not surprising that religion would be a light affair with many of those folks. Further, one imagines that students in Russian-controlled schools were discouraged from zealous practice and religious leaders were relegated to largely ceremonial roles.

The big question, though, is whether Kazakhstan can hold firm against the Islamic tide that grips others not far from here. Muslim groups in China, Uzbekistan and even parts of Kyrgyzstan have grown quite assertive, worrying both the local systems and folks in Moscow and Washington. Russia has had huge problems with Islamic terrorists, who seem to regard it as poorly as they do the West. Will affluence, if it comes, lead to Saudi-style revivalism, where the sons of the rich look for meaning following fiery imams and even the likes of Bin Laden? Or, will downturns in the economy, if they come, lead people to extremism? With the Kazakh president here expected to pass the baton in a few years, and the economy suffering from some real-estate induced trouble lately, all sorts of things could bubble to the surface unless the transition is handled well. It all bears watching.

Kazakhstan — Underexposed by Design

Fearlessness is helpful in a journalist. For photojournalists – especially those working abroad – it is mandatory. This is becoming clearer every day here in Kazakhstan, a place where cameras seem as welcome as American robber-barons would have been in Moscow in 1917.

Our photojournalism students are having their mettle tested here. Repeatedly, as they try to shoot in seemingly public places, they are waved off. Scary-looking security guards pop out of buildings, flailing their arms and jabbering away in Russian or Kazakh to tell them “no pictures.” The other day, as all eight students and I approached an indoor market area, a guard radioed to a colleague perched on a rooftop high above us. Roofman formed X signs with his arms to make it clear that no snapping was allowed. And all we wanted was lunch!

Fortunately, the students are rising to the challenge. They are using friendly smiles, charm and a certain fearlessness to disarm reluctant subjects and persuade them they mean no harm. Yesterday, as Patrick Breen was shooting fortune-tellers near the Green Market he managed to stave off some character who was accusing him and Elizabeth Gamez of being from the FBI and somehow helping foment a Kyrgyzstan-style revolt. They also persuaded a fortune-teller to let Patrick photograph her (in a scarf above) even though many of her colleagues protested the attention. (Patrick’s fortune looks bright, by the way, she told him).

People do usually welcome our students once they understand what they’re up to. With the help of one of our guides, Travis Beck got one of the photos attached here at a “family home,” a kind of orphanage located in Talgar, 20 kilometers east of Almaty. Director Eskozhina Tuyak, smiling over the bread, was happy to tell him about the place – called “Nur,” Kazakh for sunlight – which houses some 66 college students, some married couples and others. Some 110 people aged 4-25 live at the place, which Tuyak started in 1998 by selling her personal apartment. She worked in the state’s ministry of education for 43 years.

This is a country of many contradictions. On the one hand, people could not be more hospitable. Our waitress in an Internet coffeeshop, for instance, went out of her way yesterday to help us get a ride to our next appointments, visits to the Internews press-advocacy group and the Kazakh Stock Exchange. And folks there, similarly gracious, helped us get back on an exchange bus. We wander about at will, with no one holding us back or shadowing us. Travis was also able to photograph a group of children at play, below.

On the other hand, it’s a place where security concerns loom large, often pointlessly so. The hostility to cameras, for example, is widespread. Signs in restaurants bar photography. People in cafes gesture “no” with their hands and shake their heads when our students point cameras at them. No photographs are permitted, we were told, during trading hours at the stock exchange – only shots of the empty trading floor after hours.

Theft is not uncommon, we’re told. Don’t hand your cameras over to anyone to shoot your picture because they’ll take a flier with your gear. And yet, the common way of getting around is taking what our kids call “random cabs,” standing in the street and holding your hand low until some random person picks you up and you negotiate a ride around the city – always under 500 tengey (about $3.25). It’s common for women to accept such rides well into the evenings, and we took a couple random cabs yesterday.

It’s as if there’s a blend of Central Asian tribal hospitality and Soviet-style state paranoia. Since the country was a part of the USSR until the early 1990s and remains heavily Russified, worries about security and a need for control seem to be woven into the cultural DNA. Why does our nearby indoor supermarket have three guards, one stationed near the entrance and two just outside the cash register area, even as one or two more stand sentry at the mall entrance? Why do buildings under construction need guards in their lobbies? Why do police cruise the streets at night, pulling people over for U turns on deserted stretches of road or checking IDs? And why is Google’s eblogger seemingly jammed?

Certainly, security worries are a big part of the American experience, especially since 9/11. Think about how guards now roam with abandon across all areas of American life and security has become a huge industry, going far beyond the airports. New Yorkers are considering putting virtually every street under surveillance. And plenty of American institutions, such as corporations and government bodies, bar press photography on their premises unless it’s under tight control. Here, though, it’s security on steroids, whether justified or not, and without the newest technology.

Another thing that has struck us is the lack of homeless people. This plague, rife in American and European cities alike, seems not to be an issue here in Almaty. We have seen none. Partly, we’re told, this is because people are family oriented here and take care of their own. Partly it may be because mentally incompetent people are confined by the state, as they once were in the U.S. There are a few scattered beggars – see Patrick’s photo of one unfortunate footless man – but no bedrolls in the parks or people pushing grocery carts. Poverty is an issue, to be sure, but its human face in the city seems less obvious.

So I must admire our student photographers. They are managing through these challenges, finding fresh ways to show life in this fascinating society. Our work, of course, should be helpful to the place, as we tell readers about how ordinary Kazakhs go about their days – whether they run apple orchards and brokerage operations or pray in the mosque or, as in Patrick’s photo below, play with pigeons.

As they rove around, cameras in hand, the students are surmounting all sorts of obstacles. Language difficulties, transportation challenges and persuasion of reluctant sources. It all demands a bit of nerve, and they are summoning it in spades.

Kazakhstan — Day One!

Call it a Kazakh stew (or borscht maybe?) Our opening day yesterday in Kazakhstan was marked by Third World confusion, a string of encounters with police and a short struggle with sleep in an overcrowded apartment I’ve taken to calling our Pink Palace. This was followed by a plunge into a sprawling open-air bazaar (see Travis Beck’s pix right and below and Patrick Breen’s fabulous goat head pix at the bottom of this post), visits to an ill-maintained cathedral-like mosque and a discreet Mormon church, and finally dinner with some really intriguing folks. All this in under 20 hours.

The beginning was anything but auspicious. Shortly after midnight, we all got off a wonderful Lufthansa flight where crisp, cheerful attendants plied us with free wine and spoiled us with us damp towels after surprisingly good meals. (Those efficient Germans have it all over the folks at United). Outside the gate, our hosts met us, bleary-eyed but excited after we’d been in the air or in terminals for over 24 hours straight. (This included a few hours at O’Hare and a couple more in Frankfurt’s airport, which is an overblown Ikea, decorated in bright colors and naked industrial ceilings and equipped with odd little smoking booths). After our endless time “Up in the Air,” we were like kids who badly needed naps but were jumpy from too much sugar.

Then the confusion began. Our hosts – remarkably accommodating and genuinely nice folks who all are Kazakh members of a Mormon church here – didn’t know exactly where our four apartments were. So we set out to find them and the police adventures began. First, our three-car convoy was stopped when we came upon a minor car accident and one of our drivers had to sign papers agreeing to be a witness. Then we were pulled over when another driver made an illegal U turn and was ticketed for it, a 45-minute ordeal. Finally, in two separate groups, we were quizzed on foot outside the apartments and had to produce our documents for curious police who wear really odd up-tilting oversized caps. It all felt very Soviet.

And, ah, the apartments. The first was in a crumbling Soviet-era concrete tower block where the elevator didn’t work, leaving us to walk up nine floors of unlighted steps and broken floor tiles. Thank G-d for flashlights and cell phone lights. A second place was too far away from the others. The final two were decent, though oddly appointed (the Pink Palace, in the “Deluxe” tower, features textured tinted swirls on the ceiling, dotted with little spotlights, and an inner support wall that rises to the ceiling in 10-foot high S curves. Kinda Vegas-y, but we now call it home). It has a wonderful East-facing window that overlooks a hilly stretch of the city.

After shuttling from one apartment to the next in the pre-dawn hours, we decided to change plans. We dumped the idea of four places for the 10 of us – four girls in one, four boys in the other and Bruce and me in one each. Instead, we squeezed into two one-bedroom places. Two of the boys and I share a living room and two of the girls have the bedroom in the Pink Palace. Same for Bruce.

It’s actually worked out fine. As Elizabeth Gamez, Sarah Tenorio and Patrick Breen and I all chatted chummily last night, it occurred to me I’d feel mighty lonely in an apartment by myself. That would be especially true if it was a lot further than just down the hall away from the others. The only downside is we need to be discreet as we stumble around the lone bathroom at shower and bedtime.

Our body clocks are totally screwed up, understandably since we’re 11 hours earlier here than Lincoln. We are literally on the other side of the globe. We got set up in the final apartments shortly before sunrise and some of us managed just about three hours of sleep, if that, before our hosts arrived at noon to take out us on the town. Nonetheless, our visits to the street market and mosque went well. We stopped, too, for lunch in an odd place where they served a deceptively appealing pink lemonade-looking drink that turned out to be an oozy paste made with potatoes. Uck! Pastries were tasty, though.

Dinner was fascinating at the Edom restaurant. Our 10 were matched by 10 or local and expat folks, including a saucy and pleasant BBC reporter, an Uzbek, I think, and her British Al Jazeera stringer hub, a former UNL exchange student and two girlfriends who work for an agency that helps poor kids, a couple Internews gents who work to liberalize media laws here, our driver-translators, a journalism instructor here who hails from Washington state and a few other folks who had some good story-idea advice for us. Talk of politics, disabled-rights activists and the revolution in nearby Kyrgyzstan dominated my end of the very long table.
Some of the folks seemed to like making connections with one another almost as much as with us.

Almaty is exotic, to be sure. In places it resembles photos I’ve seen of Ho Chi Minh City with stretches of odd-looking shack-like houses hemmed in by high sheet-steel fences. In other places, top-flight stores offer pricey designer-name brands but the shops are often garishly lighted with a lot of neon. Signs with racy images of girls pitch perfume and such in English, Russian and Kazakh. The place is an odd admixture of Russian culture (the Russians have dominated here since the early 1900s at least) and American influences, with a touch of local flavor. Internet addresses pop up on billboard ads, showing how small the world is becoming.

Clearly, there is a lot of money here. Fancy new buildings are replacing the tumbling-down Soviet concrete piles that still sprawl three or four stories up on many of the streets. Indeed, a big real-estate bubble here, fueled by easy lending and high oil prices, has gone bust. Our Pink Palace, luxurious by Kazakh standards, isn’t even finished, but people are living in it and renting out places to the likes of us. And the streets are jammed with Mercedes-Benzes, Peugeots and BMWs, along with beaten-up old Soviet cars. We’re told people who can’t afford to buy houses buy status cars instead.

There are lots of trees, lots of Soviet monuments (visionaries gazing into the revolutionary future) and flags marking the recent 65th anniversary of the end of World War II. The war-end celebration, last weekend, was a big deal here, since Kazakhstan contributed lots of soldiers and industrial might to quash the Germans. It also seems to give people a chance to salute the pervasive Soviet influence, which independence has apparently not diminished much. Red Stars and hammer-and-sickle symbols are dotting the city.

The place is heavily Muslim with a dash of Russian Orthodox. Islam here, the Sunni variety, is on the light side, though. When we visited the mosque, the folks there made accommodations for us – Sarah and Elizabeth didn’t have scarves, but they still were let in and allowed to take photographs. First, like everyone we had to go to washing areas in an outbuilding where we were told to use little stalls to wash our ears and tushes, then to another outbuilding where men sat in front of faucets to wash their hands and feet and, if needed, clear their noses. Then we went into the mosque, removed our shoes and were allowed to shoot pictures. Travis Beck and Patrick both shot a fellow outside who complained that they were stealing part of his soul, and then he demanded $10 (which he didn’t get).

Inside, scattered guys prayed. Their style: touching the ears, kneeling, prostrating themselves and then getting up again to repeat the standing, kneeling and prostrating – all that before a giant greenish mural with prayers on it. Overhead, a giant chandelier hung from the high ceiling and the beautiful carpets graced the floor, but otherwise mosques are surprisingly empty places, with no chairs and a curious staircase-structure next to the big mural in the front for the imam to lead group prayers.

On our way back, fortune-tellers spun their tales to individual clients in a wide park-like median strip not far from the big market area. Fascinating place, Almaty. It has the feel of what I imagine New Delhi to be like, with thriving market areas, too many people and cars going every which way. It’ll be a grand spot to spend the next four or five days.

Kazakhstan: The Tale Begins

So today, the adventure begins. We head off to Kazakhstan. E-tickets in hand, bags packed, passports in our secret waistband pouches (designed to never leave our bodies to stave off pickpockets and such). This will be a once-in-a-lifetime trip for eight high-energy journalism students from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, a colleague here and me.

But what a headache getting to this point. First there was that nasty business in Kyrgyzstan. Even though we had read up on the country, listed stories we planned to tell and developed contacts for them, mapped out a detailed travel plan, etc., the folks there decided to go and have a revolution. It’s that “hopey, changey thing,” I guess, since the economy there was in the Dumpster and corruption reigned. Bottom line for us: fascinating stories there, sure, but it’s a no-go on safety grounds.

So, we’re going next door. We’ll pop in on a country akin in size to Western Europe, a place of forbidding desolation on the steppe and remarkable beauty, in places such as the Red Canyon of the Charyn River. Ah, doesn’t that sound like something out of a fantasy! Just check out the image of Lake Kaindy on the top of this post. Much of the country, in fact, sounds like something out of “Lord of the Rings.” One imagines traveling the countryside like Hobbits on a crucial mission. Certainly, Kazakhstan sounds nothing like the place Sacha Baron Cohen satirized in “Borat,” an image Kazakhs are understandably keen to erase.

We’ve moved fast to get up to the speed on the country. Replicating our Kyrgyzstan research, we’ve reached out to contacts in the last couple weeks, developed tentative story lines and done our best to nail down an itinerary. There will be much to tell: unlike Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan is relatively well-off, enriched by natural resources including oil and uranium. It has modern cities in Almaty, the financial capital hard by China, and in Astana, the political capital, more centrally located. Urban wealth and rural poverty should make for intriguing contrasts.

There’s also a ton of history there that influences the place today. As a longtime Soviet Union member, until independence in the early 1990s, the place was a favorite dumping ground for Stalin. The remnants of Gulags endure not far from Astana and Russian survivors of the exile camps and their descendants still live in the area. A bit further from Astana is Semey, a place where the Russians tested nuclear weapons, leaving a population that to this day exhibits the genetic problems and deformities spawned by radioactive contamination. It’s the reason Kazakhstan has renounced nuclear weapons, selling its uranium for peaceful uses, it says.

Politically, the country is run by a former Soviet Kazakh leader who remains remarkably popular. Nursultan Nazarbayev, we’re told, has brought economic stability and a general level of comfort that has some folks calling Almaty the Singapore of Central Asia. While not as free a place as many countries in the West – with restrictions on the press and little political debate– it is nonetheless a thriving state-directed capitalist economy that seems to do right by most of its citizens. It has a stock exchange that I’m hoping to visit in Almaty and its capital, Astana, rose Brasilia-like by design at the instigation of the national leader.

Religiously, it sounds like a fascinating place, too. As far as I can tell, the people follow a modernized version of Islam. We intend to visit Saudi-funded mosques to test this theory. I suspect the radicalism that infects other stans, notably Uzbekistan, is missing from Kazakhstan. It sounds something like Turkey.

We’re not as well-prepared as I’d like to be, though, given the short prep time we’ve had, we’re better off than we might be. We have apartments reserved in Almaty, have made contacts there and in other cities we intend to visit and have a general itinerary. But we will make a lot of decisions on the fly, based on the guidance of folks we meet. Essentially, we will ask where the most intriguing stories are and pursue them. This will be a journalism of discovery.

My colleague, Bruce Thorson, is nonplussed by the lack of a detailed roadmap. His experience in South Africa and Kosovo, on prior reporting trips, involved thorough preparation and then the need to toss it all out once on the ground. As in wars, battle plans prove useless once the fracas begins. We’ll meet folks in Almaty and Astana, he says, who will lead us where the news is. And, indeed, we both have reached out to a good number of folks who are amenable to helping.

So, unless the volcano in Iceland gets in the way – a lingering cloud, ahem, on our route through Germany — we’re off shortly to Omaha, Chicago, Frankfurt and Almaty. We leave in the early afternoon today and arrive a bit after midnight Almaty time on Wednesday. United and Lufthansa will carry us literally half-way round the world from Nebraska. Should be a great ride.