When I signed up for a six months in Almaty, Kazakhstan, I knew it would be an adventure, but no one could have told me how much of an adventure it would be, and how utterly life changing I would find every moment. I made some of my best friends, made tremendous gains with my Russian language abilities, and learned that the world while being dramatically different, can somehow still be a familiar place.
Kazakhstan is a unique and beautiful place in the world. The excursions we took, official and unofficial, took us to Turkestan to see Muslim holy sites on the edge of the Uzbek desert, the planned capital city in Astana, the beautiful mountains and lakes outside Almaty, the Kazakh “Grand Canyon” and a funky little beach town, Aktau. I rode a camel and a motorcycle for the first time, and got lost at least once a week. Each place opened my eyes to how people lived, and helped me understand Kazakh, post-Soviet space, and current Eurasian geopolitics.
The friends and family that I had in Kazakhstan helped make Almaty a home away from home for me. Although their traditions and practices were different, we talked politics, religion, and history, as I do at home. My host sisters and I loved going to the movies and going shopping together. I learned how to be a good “Kazashka” from helping clean the family apartment from top to bottom to preparing Kazakh dishes and serving them for parties.
The food in Kazakhstan is different; Americans are often told the “horror stories” of Kazakh food: they eat horse, sheep heads, and drink fermented horse milk known as kumis. All of that is true, and none of it is as bad as it seems; I actually enjoyed the kumis I had! My favorite dish was plov (rice and meat cooked a very particular way—a must try). I got very used to drinking tea almost all the time and I miss the very fresh and natural fruits and vegetables that my host family would buy from the bazaar.
Academically, American Councils did an incredible job setting us up and interfacing with KazNU in Almaty. We had wonderful instructors who genuinely cared about our wellbeing as well as our education, and worked to ensure that our time in Kazakhstan would be wonderful and memorable. While their Soviet teaching style that predicated memorization over creation wasn’t always helpful, as we moved more towards advanced essay writing and reading more difficult topics, my Russian significantly improved. Moreover, speaking Russian all the time significantly improved my abilities to hold a conversation on anything from finding the nearest ATM to debating American politics with my host dad.
American Councils offers a very comprehensive and helpful Russian language program, that I would absolutely recommend for anyone looking to study abroad. The staff does an excellent job keeping students safe, as well as interfacing with Kazakh bureaucracy. They are kind, caring, and helpful. The teachers are absolutely the best Russian teachers I’ve ever had, and have made a huge difference in my education. My family and friends sold me on Kazakhstan forever—I can’t wait to find my way back!