Written by Ciaràn Lavalle
It was hard to believe but we were at the end of our time in Shaulder. We were so busy living for the day and enjoying ourselves that the end came creeping up behind us to drag us back to reality. Part of me was hoping time would slow down (as if we were getting close to orbiting a black hole) so we could appear to have longer to enjoy our time there. While a more rational part of me was looking forward to getting back to reality. In the last few days in Shaulder we were winding up our work, the UCLQ students were helping us to finish the reconstruction of the pottery vessels we were working on and packing them for travel to Almaty at a later date. During this time we also undertook a number of interviews with both Assem and the UCLQ students to attempt at making a number of podcasts for the new generation of HWB social media. They are very much a work in progress as Miriam and I are new to this medium from the creative side of them.
After our visit to the river, it was suggested that we go to the local swimming pool in Shaulder, not something I expected to find in such a small town but as always I was game for any new adventure. We, of course, did not know what to expect but were no doubt all building some creative images in our heads and my imagination was not let down. It was hidden in Shaulder’s suburbia. Eventually we were led to the pool, past an empty one that had seen better days. The pool itself was a small square hole in the ground full of dark, green murky water which was alive with the splashes and screams of children, teenagers and adults alike. We of course looked like an alien species walking into the patio area beside the pool which seemed to fascinate the boisterous local patrons.
The owners started the night off with large Steiner of unknown beer which we gleefully imbibed. They didn’t seem to even ask us if we wanted a refill for the rest of the night, they just kept bringing them until we had to ask them to stop. As we waited for the first beer and our shashlik to arrive (and we were not long after another lovely filling evening meal by Yamila, but she ordered the food there so we did not complain) the owner seemed to be explaining how he kept the pool warm. There was a long pipe running from the grass into the pool expelling boiling hot water. After a few beers we had enough Dutch courage in us, or at least I did, to enter the pool. It was temporarily empty so we decided to dip our toes. It was nice and warm and for a while it was quite enjoyable. But a moment of clarity from our banter I started to notice that we could not see our feet and there were many unknown things floating around. I decided that I had done my duty and left the water to the braver at heart. We spent the rest of the night in another patio area drinking, eating strange cheese balls and singing loudly between the banter. When we got back to the camp we sat and enjoyed each other’s company until we were too tired to do so and got ready for our penultimate night in the south.
The next day was a busy one finishing off our packing: work materials and personal belongings alike. We then settled into preparing for our last night in town. Yamila and her extended family arrived in the afternoon and started to prepare a mountain of chicken pieces in her own special shashlik marinade to cook over a special BBQ, all too common in this region, her nephew was the undeniable chief of on that day. Miriam and I got our hands dirty and helped to construct these delicious meat on metal skewers. We were given a master class on the right and wrong ways of doing this, and soon built a mountain of metal and chicken to be transported to the BBQ chief to do his wizardry. As we prepared for the BBQ, Max arrived and brought with him a large speaker and a DJ kit to which a laptop was attached so as to provide the entertainment for the night. This was an unexpected surprise but one we were happy to provide the media for. We all pulled out our iPods, phones and media devices ready to play the role of DJ. But first we brought the tables out from the dining room and with the use of all the chairs at our disposal, and the wheelbarrows which also make exceptional chairs, we all gathered around like a large extended family to dine. The Archaeological Expertise team had unexpectedly decided to record the whole event. This may prove unflattering for the majority of us when they watch it in the future as we were all attempting to cut some serious groves on our make shift dance floor in the centre of the compounds courtyard. We danced until the early morning, but it was time to call it a night as we had to be up at 6 to make the 1.5 hour journey to Shymkent for our morning flight back to Almaty.
The next morning was a cloudy one, the weather was clear, the mind was less so. But we enjoyed our last Yamila breakfast and prepared for the journey, making sure we had all with us for the first stage of our journey home. We made our teary farewells and boarded the bus. It was sad to be leaving but we were all too tired to dwell on it long. The journey was a blur of half sleep before we arrived at the airport. Once there, we did not have long to wait before we were boarding. The flight was yet another one were sleep was never far and before we knew it we were winging down towards the mountains caressing the sprawling city of Almaty. We were met at the arrival hall by our old friend Madjer who arrived to bring us to our hotel, the famous Hotel Otrar, in the city centre. The hotel is the focus of a famous travel book, Apples are from Almaty by Christopher Robbins, which was making the rounds within the team. The book saw the writer staying at the very same hotel. We were all pretty tired and we made plans with Madjer to get together later in the afternoon to go for dinner. We all quickly left our stuff in the hotel before meeting up again to go out for dinner. We separated out into two groups, some destined for KFC, whereas the rest of us decided to find something for a little local fare. We found a greasy spoon in the local Market and enjoyed a mezze of local dishes. After a lazy afternoon we had a walk around the city with Madjer and eventually found our way to a beautiful ornate restaurant were we ordered Kazakhstan national dish, Beshkarmak, (pasta and lamb chops) and a selection of local salads. We were all really knackered from over eating and the lack of sleep over the previous week so we were not prepared for another busy night. After a drink at a local pub with Madjer and Dina, we were soon back in the hotel and to our beds in preparation for a busy day of sightseeing the next morning.
My roommate Giles and I woke early in the morning and visited the hotels dining room for breakfast. The dining room itself is an interesting room, shaped like an enormous yurt with fascinating murals of what must have been historical events. Madjer and Dina picked us up for the hotel and we made our way to a large shopping centre to buy ourselves a packed lunch for our trip into the mountains. The team were loving the selection available at the supermarket, as the shops in Shaulder were limited in their selection. After an excited peruse through the isles to see what was on offer we finally had our picnic supplies bagged and we were back on the road. Madjer and Dina shared driving duties and seemed to be in a constant competition with each other in being the lead car. Dina was the ultimate winner due to her newer car. The drive through the mountains were as stunning as they looked from a distance. The further along the road we got the steeper and twisty it became. At one stage, we passed a section of road where the sides of the cliff face appeared to have been victim of numerous landslides with boulders of staggering sizes littering the edges of the road. We reached a large reservoir, which feeds the city of Almaty, at the base of a number of high peaks. The reservoir, we were told, is fed by a glacier within the mountain range.
There many stones boulders visible across the landscape to back up this interesting nugget of information. We descended from the small car park area towards the water, but we were warned that the area was under guard by a number of heavily armed personal. Thankfully, we were not confronted by such a contingent, regardless of how close we got to waters edge, but we did catch a glimpse of them on our downward journey to the picnic area. As we were returning to the car, we were set upon by an interesting Russian man by the name of Alexander who claimed to be Polish. After a period of time attempting to leave him to the water and amazing view, a number of the team were treated to a number of hugs from Alexander. We soon escaped and were sitting down by three concrete bears for lunch.
After lunch we returned to the hotel to prepare for our visit to the Hamam, a large local bath house a few streets from the hotel. We were all looking forward to this visit and we had one and a half hours to enjoy our time in it. There were three different steam rooms: Turkish, Finnish and Russian. The Russian sauna was an intense experience where the men were wearing a strange felt hat and smacking themselves with a bunch of leaves. It was difficult to catch your breath, it felt so hot so the buckets of cold water outside the doors were a welcome relief. At the cool pool there were many stares in our direction, especially at Giles and his long wild hair. To say we stood out would have been an understatement but it was a great experience. After a brief walk around the central market before it closed we washed and got ready for our last night in the country. We met Madjer and Dina who took us to a nice Chinese restaurant where we enjoyed some familiar dishes and some new ones. We spent the rest of the evening walking around some of the city, including a small art gallery that focused on ceramic. We finished the evening in the hotel bar where we spent our last few hours together as a team as we were all leaving at different times in the morning. We all made our goodbyes and as always with these projects, it was sad to see everyone for the last time, having lived in each other’s pockets for a month.
We had a 3.30am start with a taxi picking us up at 4 am to take us to the airport. Having only a few hours’ sleep we were very tired and this was going to be the start of over 24 hours of travel, which included a car journey, 2 flights, a train and a bus. We were all going in separate directions, with only Giles, Miriam and myself making the journey to London. It was a subdued journey and we were all ready for our own beds that night. Once we arrived in London Heathrow we were all in a rush to get our trains and buses so we made our quick goodbyes and went our separate ways to sleep all weekend.
As this is the end of the first season UCL and HWB have worked in Kazakhstan, it was another great experience where we met amazing people and enjoyed memorable adventures. We can only hope that the project will continue for another season next year and HWB will be able to return to continue to work with the great people and the wonderful museums of Kazakhstan.