By George Gladney
In the past decade I have traveled extensively in Eastern Europe, doing lectures mostly on freedom of speech and press at universities and journalists’ unions. This travel off the beaten track has been richly rewarding, taking me to many unusual places that for most of my life I was forbidden to visit because of policies of the old Soviet Union. But the most unusual (and alien) place I visited was the former Soviet satellite of Kazakhstan, where I spent seven weeks this spring teaching two courses at al-Farabi Kazakh National University in the country’s largest city, Almaty (1.5 million population).
When I first learned I would be going to Kazakhstan, I must confess, I had to look on a world map to see where it is located. I was amazed to learn that Kazakhstan is the world’s ninth largest country. “How did I miss that?” I wondered. It sits imposingly under the concave belly of Russia, sandwiched between the Caspian Sea and China. Kazakhstan is by far the largest of the “stans” countries. Immediately below its southern border is Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, and below that the other stans. Almaty, 12 time zones from Laramie, is located in the extreme southeastern corner of the country.
When I arrived in Almaty on March 17, the first thing that caught my eye was the awesome mountain range rising from the edge of the city. More impressive and more vast than the Tetons, these mountains (known as Tian Shan) separate Kazakhstan from China, whose border is about 200 miles from Almaty.
The people at the university put me right to work teaching two courses (Mass Media & Society, an undergraduate class, and Research Methods , a course for graduate students). This put me in the classroom four hours every day. Oddly, I was told not to assign students any projects or papers, administer any tests, or assign any grades. At the end of the term students would receive from me a certificate bearing my name and the name of the University of Wyoming, attesting to fact that students had completed the certificate course. The graduate course was officially referred to as a “consultation.”
My visit to the university was made possible by a cooperative agreement calling for exchange of journalism faculty and students between the two universities. COJO Professor Michael Brown helped establish the ties between COJO and KazNU (the nickname for the national university) during a two-week stretch in February 2012. During his visit he became the first UW faculty member to teach a course at KazNU. I became the first to do a full term (seven weeks) of teaching. Askhat Yerkinbay, who finished his master’s degree with COJO this summer, was instrumental in helping establish the school ties and preparing me for my visit.
The first Kazakh students to visit UW came in the summer of 2012, and several others are scheduled to visit in summer 2013. If you got a chance to meet these students, what probably will impressed you is the fact that they look and behave much like the typical UW student, except that Kazakh students are more fashion-conscious. All of my students spoke English, but to varying degrees of proficiency (from very poor to good). Generally they are intellectually alive and curious. They were especially curious to get to know an American professor and his ways of teaching.
Kazakhstan is a Muslim country, but I saw little evidence of the people’s religiosity. Occasionally I would hear a public call to prayer from a mosque, but there was no bowing to Mecca and only a few women wore burkas. The country has a healthy mix of ethnic groups, and there are few tensions among the groups. Kazakhs are proud of their high degree of tolerance for people different from themselves. Eighty-four percent of the population speaks Russian but most people, especially in the south, speak Kazakh as well. The government encourages learning of English.
Almaty suffers from serious air pollution that produces a haze that makes it nearly impossible most days to clearly see the snow-capped peaks. It is a prosperous cosmopolitan city with much ongoing construction. It is dotted with glass skyscrapers, and late-model cars fill the busy streets. Drivers are extremely discourteous and in a hurry, but many of them will stop to pick up strangers at curbsides if they extend their right arm at a 45-degree angle. It’s amazing how easy it is to get around the city by hitchhiking in this way.
Almaty was the country’s capital until 1997, when the capital was moved to Astana, a city far to the north that is located on the vast, flat grasslands (steppe) that fill most of the country. A highlight of my visit was a 12-hour overnight ride to Astana on a fast, Spanish-built train. The city is handsomely laid out and features extraordinary government buildings designed by some famous international architects.
What really made the difference in making my visit a success were the students. They would work in teams of two or three to take me to all sorts of places—restaurants, museums, parks, malls, stage performances, picnics in the foothills of the mountains, and the like. I was there during the month-long celebration of Kazakh New Year’s, which included many festive occasions featuring a glut of Kazakh food. Two food items took me out of my comfort zone—warmed, fermented camel’s milk and horsemeat (served as roast over thick noodles or as sausage served cold). Actually the horsemeat wasn’t bad, the roast reminding me or roast beef and sausage reminding me of cold ham.I believe it is important for us to get out of our comfort zones now and then and to learn that there is a big, wide world out there. Following Francis Bacon’s advice (“Travel broadenth the man”), I always urge my students to pursue opportunities to travel abroad. I strongly recommend that if they get the opportunity, UW students should jump at the chance to participate in a student exchange