Yesterday's trip got off to a slow-ish start as the head count of people on the bus didn't jive with the count of circled names on the list of campaign participants. Finally, I grabbed the list and we did things the old-fashioned way: I called out people's names (stumbling over one or two) and eventually, the one person whose name was not circled was revealed. The delay itself was no big deal, but the air conditioner on the bus doesn't work unless the vehicle is moving, which is a big deal, because the bus wasn't going to move until the paperwork was right.
About the only living thing seemingly not affected by the heat is the ubiquitous dragonfly. Go outside at any time during this part of the year and they seem to be swarming. They appear unaffected by the heat, but then again, maybe I'd not pay much attention to the heat if I found myself in a 24-hour smörgåsbord featuring mosquitoes for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and between-meal snacks. They're also not much intimidated by humans, as witness this specimen, who stayed put for nearly 10 minutes, and left only because the wearer of the hat got inside the bus:
As we came to the main city checkpoint (Baikonur is, basically, surrounded by a high wall interrupted by two or three police checkpoints) I could see some changes had occurred in the vicinity of the town: the commuter rail station at Toretam, just ouside of town, had been renovated, and the commuter line checkpoint that sits on stilts next to the track at the city boundary had been repainted in navy blue.
As usual, the bus's first stop was across from the town market and we all agreed to meet back at the bus after about an hour, at 12:45 pm. I made my usual pilgrimage to the back of the market to seek salted mushrooms and chechel
, a string cheese that looks somewhat like a pigtail of hair, which gives this cheese its second name, kosichka
With those purchases in my rucksack, I asked about kombucha
). People knew what I was talking about, but couldn't direct me to anyone who sold it. Apparently, kombucha
is something you'll find only among the wares of individuals who show up on a casual basis to sell a few things off the top of a cardboard box or a sheet of outstretched plastic.
On the way back to the bus, I and one of my fellow interpreters - also named Alex - had just enough time to duck into the Vostok cafe for an ice cold Shymkentskoye
draft beer, which was pretty much the first beer I've had since starting the campaign. It was refreshing interlude, because it was well and truly hot out, although in counting one's blessings, the humidity was negligible.
On the short walk back to the bus, we spied a procession of campaigners trailing a cart that had emerged from the courtyard of the local bottled goods warehouse. I quickly unlimbered my camera and took a few shots "blind," without stopping to line up the frame or anything, as I was crossing a busy street and had one eye on approaching traffic. Here's the best image:
The beer was quickly stowed in the belly of the bus, we all boarded, and the vehicle drove off to a restaurant that had only been described to me as "The Yurta" (the name of the traditional "portable" residence of nomadic Kazakhs) for a specially ordered meal.
Although neither of us interpreters or our Khrunichev security escort (whose name, as it happens, was also Alex) had been part of the group that had reserved lunch at The Yurta, we were invited to participate in a meal of бешбармак (pronounced "besh bar MOCK"), a traditional Kazakh and Kyrgyz dish that translates as "five fingers" and consists of meat - whatever is available (beef, lamb, horse, and in the west of Kazakhstan, near the Aral Sea, fish from the sturgeon family) - on a bed of what amounts to homemade pasta squares. I found it tasty.
The meal also included an assortment of appetizers, a dish that reminded me a lot of pork fried rice, and a curious dish that - as I found out later - consisted of an assortment of organ meats (e.g., heart, liver, kidney, and lung) cooked with potatoes and onions. I found it particularly tasty, though I don't think I've ever eaten lung before.
Did I mention that I fell off the wagon yesterday, diet-wise?
After lunch, we wandered over toward the town's square, where a statue of Lenin still stands,
dominating the southern end. As we walked, I spied three Kazakh boys hauling a cart loaded with watermelon. They - or at least one of them - were pulling their wares through the neighborhood, making their presence known the traditional way, with cries roughly equivalent to "Watermelon! We've got your watermelon here!"
Our group finally ended up at a place called Ахтамар
("akh ta MAR," where the "kh" is an aspirated "h" sound), which, if memory serves, is a reference to an Armenian tale of star-crossed lovers (as well as the name of an island once the home of Armenian royalty).
The owner of the place is, not surprisingly, an Armenian. In addition, it so happened that both of the other Alexes knew him. After exchanging pleasantries, we three Alexes sat in the shade of some well-placed trees and drank some of the proprietor's hot green tea, and it turns out that this practice, which appears so counterintuitive to your typical Westerner (and particularly to your ice-cube gobbling American), does make the heat more bearable after a little while.
In the end, however, on the way to the bus, during a stop at a small grocery, I did revert to type and buy a (relatively) cold bottled rooibos tea before settling in for the drive home, during which I slept, mostly.
I retired early after our return, after a very light dinner, and slept right through until just before 7 am this morning. My assigned work doesn't start today until after lunch, and although there will doubtless be a Bastille Day celebration this evening, it will likely involve work for the interpretation staff. Speaking of July 14, it also occurs to me that this is the third Bastille Day in four years that I've spent in Baikonur. Go me.
On that note, it's time to go down and walk the treadmill, then come back, shower, police the area, and get ready for the rest of the day.