Ten Years Ago – Karatau, Kazakhstan

Wow, I still cannot believe that 10 years ago, I experienced my first Siberian winter as a volunteer with the US Peace Corps in Karatau, Kazakhstan. Boy what a difference 10 years make. Back in November, 1997, I was freezing to death in my room wondering when the city would turn on the hot water which would heat the furnace in my room. Right now in Saigon, Vietnam, I am sweating to death in my room with my air conditioner on. Oh, what memories.

November, 1, 1997, was the Karatau Lyceum’s (the school where I taught as a Peace Corps Volunteer) 30th 45th Birthday. Many of the Lyceum’s Alumnus had returned to celebrate with my my school. It was quite an interesting event. My school was just freshly repainted inside and out. The students worked hard preparing for the performances celebrating my school’s birthday. The morning was bright and warm in the mid to upper 70s. It felt like spring and I never thought Winter would come (something which I dreaded at the time).

Peace Corps Kazakhstan, Karatau, Kazakhtan

(My Kazakh students dressed out in traditional Kazakh dress for the Lyceum’s birthday celebrations)

Oddly enough, I had a tendency to watch the weather reports every morning on Khabar, the national television station for Kazakhstan but for some odd reason, I do not remember any of the weather reports from that day. I just knew it was hot outside. After going through the normal ceremonies outside the Lyceum during the morning, we all then headed to the Palace of Culture for the meal and other performances. It all started around 1 PM. It was fun, the food was excellent (sorry no pictures, this was before the days of affordable digital cameras).

At about 8 PM, I headed home with my Kazakh host family which included the School Director, Asan. When we walked outside, we were all shocked. It was freezing, already below freezing. I had never experienced a temperature change like this before in my life. I had been cold training as a US Marine during boot camp, but this was the coldest I ever been. I had no jacket, no gloves, nothing to keep me warm. None of us did. We pretty much sprinted back to our house which was roughly a 15 minute walk away.

The next day it snowed. It would be 5 months until the temperatures rose above freezing. Welcome to Kazakhstan but it got worse. Unfortunately for Karatau and the rest of southern Kazakhstan, winter actually arrived early.

Peace Corps Kazakhstan, Karatau, Kazakhtan

(The Karatau Lyceum newly repainted)

Peace Corps Kazakhstan, Karatau, Kazakhtan

(The Karatau Lyceum a couple days later with the arrival of Winter)

My town had not stocked up on it’s winter coal supplies yet. In short, I lived inside my room, next to a small heater inside my bed completely layered in clothes freezing. This time 10 years ago, I thought about quiting the US Peace Corps and head home back to the US. Luckily, another Peace Corps Volunteer from Taraz (a city about 100 kilometers from Karatau), Ruth Moss, arrived to check on my condition. She actually cheered me up enough that I ended up deciding to stay in Karatau. Within the week, we got our hot water. Within the month, I had acclimated to the harsh Kazakh winters.

Peace Corps Kazakhstan, Karatau, Kazakhtan

(The main road from Karatau to the highway)

Peace Corps Kazakhstan, Karatau, Kazakhtan

(This is how I kept warm during my first Kazakh Winter)

I miss those long winter months in Kazakhstan. Yeah it is nice and hot in Saigon but a beautiful cold winter mornings in Kazakhstan is what I dream of now 🙂

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