Restored, Renewed, Rejuvenated

“Is this where we will sleep tonight?” I asked with an incredulous look.

An Russian looking man wearing military camouflage cap and T-shirt gestured us in Russian to put our backpacks onto an outdoor wooden platform in the middle of an large wooden yard.
“Is this where we will sleep tonight?” I asked again not understanding what he said because our “survival” Russian was only good for basic greeting and bargaining of prices.
The man smiled in a funny way and continued to speak in Russian and to gesture us to put our backpacks on the platform. Although he was more than a meter away from us, we could smell the vodka in his breath.

The campsite is located in a desert valley next to a natural water spring.
The campsite is located in a desert valley next to a natural water spring.

“This is going to be bad,” I warned myself. “The wooden platform is clean, has just enough space for our five sleeping bags, and has a light bulb hanging on the pole. But he is drunk and we will be “eaten” alive by all the mosquitoes tonight.”

This was our second “workaway” for our one year backpacking trip where for work in exchange for food and accommodation. Our first one was in Mongolia where we worked at a ger camp. We worked from 8AM to 10PM every day with no electricity, no running water, and sleeping in a cramped log cabin. This second “workaway” was a volunteering opportunity with an environmental local NGO in Kazakhstan which I found on the wwoofinternational.org website. We were in the middle of a vast desert 1.5 hours from the closest paved road. After our experience in Mongolia, we were prepared to face the same challenge, but we were not prepared to sleep outdoor on open ground!
We arrived at the camp at night and immediately began to cook dinner for ourselves.
We arrived at the camp at night and immediately began to cook dinner for ourselves.

After putting our backpacks on the platform, we quickly began to prepare  our own dinner on a portable gas stove inside an open wall outdoor wooden shack before it gets too dark. We were told that although the NGO would provide the food, we had to cook them ourselves. As we started cooking, the ethnic Russian man continued to speak to us in Russian with his comical smile, oblivious to the fact the we really didn’t understand what he was trying to say to us. We tried to use body gesture to communicate with him and to say our most common Russian phrase, “Ye ne pa-nee-ma-yu rooskee” (I don’t understand Russian), to him. But he never gave up.

Pasar, the ethnic Russian staff, turned out to have very friendly and helpful. Although we had trouble understanding Russian, he was always very patient and does not give up.
Pasar, the ethnic Russian staff, turned out to have very friendly and helpful. Although we had trouble understanding Russian, he was always very patient and does not give up.

“Dad, he is trying to talk to us. Listen to him. It is probably important,” Joani kept scolding me.

“I think he is drunk. I don’t think we need to pay that much attention,” I decided.
“Why are you so rude! It is just like when you don’t listen to us,” Joani refuted angrily.
After some awkward silence among our family members, I agreed to try to communicate again with the Russian man.
“Ye ne pa-nee-ma-yu rooskee,” I said to him again with some more body gesturing.
The Russian man started to use more body language as well. He lifted his arms and waved his hands around the arm pit area, looking as if he was imitating an agitated monkey. He also pointed to a place at the back of our outdoor kitchen.
“I think he is trying to tell you to go with him to the back…maybe that is where we can shower?” Olivia guessed.
“Okay, I will follow you,” I said in English while gesturing the best I could.
The bathroom was clean and spacious -- unexpected in such remote area.
The bathroom was clean and spacious — unexpected in such remote area.

We walked around the outdoor kitchen in a big loop and began to go up a gravel rock hill. It was already pitch dark by that time and my flashlight was in my backpack, so I used the screen light from my iPhone to make sure I don’t trip over the rocks. After 50 meters, a freshly built wooden shack appeared in front of me. The Russian man gestured for me to enter so I walked up the wooden stairway into the shack.

When I came back to the family at the kitchen, I couldn’t hide my excitement, “Wow..wow…wow…You won’t believe what I just saw…”
“Dad, what is it?” the children begged me.
“The Russian man brought me to a shack with toilets and showers.  I can’t believe what I saw! It’s no five-star hotel bathroom, but for this place, it is unbelievable!” I reported back excitedly.
By this time, the children already started to head to the shack to see for themselves.
“You are right. It is pretty amazing,” Olivia agreed happily.
The toilet is made to enable composing of the feces as fertilizer for future tree planting. It does not smell at all!
The toilet is made to enable composing of the feces as fertilizer for future tree planting. It does not smell at all!

The toilet stall was spacious and clean, with the smell of fresh wood. It was the sit-down type and had dividers and door locks. Next to the toilets were two shower stalls, equally spacious, clean, and attractive. Across the toilets and showers were two immaculately cleaned hand-washing basin with running tap water. We felt like we were in heaven!

When the project manager, Yelena, who can speak English, from the NGO finally arrived at 11PM from the nearest town, she showed us where we should sleep. Contrary to our initial fear, we were shown inside a large lodge with two large spacious rooms with bunk beds, one room for man and one room for woman.
Joani really like the bunk bed she slept in at the camp, much better than our previous workaway location.
Joani really like the bunk bed she slept in at the camp, much better than our previous workaway location.

“I love the blankets,” Joani later showed me with the biggest smile I had ever seen. “The bed is made of nice wood. The mattress is nice and soft. There are all these layers for the bedding. I just love it!”

For four days and three nights, we volunteered at this project site. The ultimate objective of the project is to reforest this desolated area, but it will take many years of creating a system of lakes and ponds to change the climate of the area. In the past, this barren land was a forest, but due to grazing by domesticated sheep and hunting of wild animals, it is now just a dry desert with spring waters scattered in odd places. A Kazakh businessman bought 8,000 hectares of land for USD 160,000, bought an old hunting lodge built in 1969, and hired five staff to start this project 3 years ago. Last year, a dam was built after three months of intense work by 20 contract workers to create a three hectares size lake.
We visited the dam that was built to create a big lake at this conservatin area to change the climate of the desert.
We visited the dam that was built to create a big lake at this conservatin area to change the climate of the desert.

This year, two ponds were dug next to the hunting lodge as well. One pond was already filled to the top while the other is still being filled by the nearby spring water. The old hunting lodge was where we stayed while working here. While we were there, there were four staff, Yelena, the project manager, descendant of ethnic Tartar and Ukraine, and three other staff, Yeric, Pasha, and Muhammed who are descendants of ethnic Uighur, Russia, and Kazakh respectively. Kazakhstan has more than 120 different ethnic groups, partly due to Stalin’s inclination of sending potential “troublemaking” ethnic groups to Kazakhstan, far away from Moscow.

The 2nd pond was in the process of being filled. We helped to pave the inlet area to prevent erosion and loss of water.
The 2nd pond was in the process of being filled. We helped to pave the inlet area to prevent erosion and loss of water.

“Jonathan and Nathan, come,” Muhammed motioned us with the few English words he knew. We were shown inside the hunting lodge where Yeric and Pasha had already started to tear down an old brick stove used for cooking and heating the lodge.

“The old stove used sheep manure as the fuel. But now we do not allow sheep to destroy the ecosystem anymore so for better saving of wood, we need to rebuild the stove to use wood instead during the winter for heating,” explained Yeric.
“So what can we do?” I asked.
Nathan helped to tear down the old stove and to built a new one in time for the upcoming winter.
Nathan helped to tear down the old stove and to built a new one in time for the upcoming winter.

“Let’s get some clay first,” Yeric decided. So we followed him out of the lodge to a small hill 200 meters away. He tested few different locations until he found a spot with fine sandy dirt. Nathan and I used a stretcher-like device to carry the dirt into the complex ground. Yeric mixed the dirt with some water and we were amazed to see the transformation of the dry sandy dirt that turned into a muddy but smooth textured clay. After Nathan and I carried out all the torn down pieces of bricks and clay from the old stove, Yeric and Pasha started to rebuilt the stove using just bricks and wet clay that has a smaller cavity, more suitable for wood.

We helped to complete a wood-burning stove made with bricks and clay.
We helped to complete a wood-burning stove made with bricks and clay.

“I can’t believe how quickly the stove was taken down and rebuilt with just bricks and clay,” Nathan exclaimed. “Let’s learn how they build the stove so that we can build stoves when we do workaway at other countries.”

While we were helping with the building of the stove, Annie, Olivia, and Joani were asked by Yelena to go into the garden.
Yelena showed Annie the large garden that contained all kinds of vegetables for cooking.
Yelena showed Annie the large garden that contained all kinds of vegetables for cooking.

“Wow…this is amazing,” Annie yelled excitedly. “Look at all these different tomatoes. They are so red and so big! And there are also bell peppers, chili peppers, egg plants, squash, watermelon, potatoes, and…”

“The seeds of these plants are from different places like France, Ukraine, South America through an NGO in France that gave us seeds to cultivate them using permaculture,” Yelena explained. “Take whatever you need for cooking. This year, the rainfall was twice the amount from normal so the crop yield was amazing. You see these two watermelons? Someone must have accidentally spit out a seed here, and the watermelon plant just grew!”
“What is permaculture?” Annie asked.
“Permaculture stands for ‘Permanent Cultivation’. It is a method of cultivation such that the soil is improved with each planting and such that the compose of the soil happens directly where the crop growing,” Yelena explained. “We are still learning how to do it as the project just recently started. But it is a quite mature technic in the western Europe and Australia.”
Nathan and Yeric together digged up the potatoes for Annie to cook.
Nathan and Yeric together digged up the potatoes for Annie to cook.

We all started to help picking the vegetables. Nathan and Yeric also helped to dig up the potatoes to give to Annie for making french fries. Because of the abundance of vegetables, many of them were rotting on the ground.

“For those that are rotten, can you gather them and harvest the seeds for our planting next year?” Yelena asked the girls. “Many of the crops in Kazakstan that were given to the farmers from government and private companies are genetically engineered such that the seeds are can not be used for next year’s planting. In permaculture, the renewable seeds can be used continuously. That is why we want to promote permaculture to the local farmers here.”
Annie and the two girls learned how to collect seeds from the ripen tomatoes.
Annie and the two girls learned how to collect seeds from the ripen tomatoes.

Following Yelena’s step by step instructions, Olivia and Joani first separate the pulp containing the seeds and put them in a filter to separate the juicy pulp from the small seeds. Next, they placed the wet seeds on pieces of paper and Yelena helped to label the name of the different vegetable species on each paper. After drying under the shade, Olivia and Joani scraped the seeds off the paper on to a clean sheets which are folded into an envelope, labeled, and stacked together.

After taking out the seeds, the girls placed them on paper to dry.
After taking out the seeds, the girls placed them on paper to dry.
Each type of seed was counted, labeled, and stored in folded papers for next year's use.
Each type of seed was counted, labeled, and stored in folded papers for next year’s use.

“Do you know that 25 seeds can sell for 1-2 US dollars?” Yelena said happily. “You can gather more seed and bring back to China!”

Olivia said happily, “I really enjoyed seeding. I never thought about gathering seeds from vegetables, that there are so many different species of tomatoes, or picking up rotten ones for such purpose. Although I studied these concepts before, they did not really come alive until I did it on my own!”
Yelena continued, “Do you know that Almaty (the city we lived in while in Kazakstan) means ‘Father of Apple’? Scientists have concluded  through genetic that all the apple trees around the world originally came from this region of Central Asia!”
Annie gathered the vegetables straight off the vine and cooked in the kitchen for our meals.
Annie gathered the vegetables straight off the vine and cooked in the kitchen for our meals.

Annie on the other hand was busily picking tomatoes, bell peppers, chili pepper for making pasta sauce.

“I had never made pasta sauce so thick and flavorful. These organic tomatoes are so red and red peppers blend really well into the sauce because they are both vine-riped and not genetically modified,” Annie shared with great joy. “This is the first time on this one year trip that I cooked so much, from morning to night with no break in between. Although it was hard work, I really enjoy experimenting with all the different flavors from the food we had eaten along the way.”
Annie became the cook for our work camping. The staff and us enjoyed eating all the fresh food from the garden each meal.
Annie became the cook for our work camping. The staff and us enjoyed eating all the fresh food from the garden each meal.
Over meals, Yelena explained about the project to us.
Over meals, Yelena explained about the project to us.

Cooking became Annie’s ‘volunteer’ work during the four days we were there. Every meal, all eight of us would sit with our legs crossed around the kitchen table and try out Annie’s garden fresh concoctions. She also made french fries from the potatoes that Nathan helped gather. We also got to try out Kazakhstan’s sweets, such as the havla, which are sunflower seeds grind to powder and puffed up with a particular type of plant root powder, resulting in a delightful breakfast treat that resembled seed foam candy.

Yelena surprisingly ate mostly just apple, whole tomato, or bell-pepper salad. We were puzzled until we found out that she was a rawaterian, which means that she is a vegetarian that only eats raw vegetables and fruit. She does not eat any cooked food, but she seemed to be energetic throughout the day.
Using the fresh tomatoes and green peppers, we had delicious salad and pasta.
Using the fresh tomatoes and green peppers, we had delicious salad and pasta.

“This is the first time I observed how a rawaterian functions,” Joani reflected. “It is scary and somewhat sad. I don’t know how she managed to survive. After seeing her for several meals eating whole tomatoes the way people eat apples, Joani decided to give it a try.

“You know I actually like eating whole tomatoes,” said Joani surprisedly especially since out of the five of us, she ate the least amount of vegetables. “It is not bad.”
When Annie brought out the watermelon we bought on the way, Yelena’s eyes lighted up and ate the most out of everyone at the table.
“I don’t understand how she was able to work along us without any starch. But it looks like watermelon is the best food for rawaterian in Kazahstan. Yelena seems to see it as a five-star meal,” Nathan said.
“Maybe it is because watermelons is red, just like the tomatoes!” Joani laughed.
Yelena showed us the composing from the toilet and how it works.
Yelena showed us the composing from the toilet and how it works.

Now that is was day time, we took a closer look at the “amazing” bathroom. Yelena led us to the back of the bathroom and opened a large wooden lid. Although it contained the feces from the toilet, to our amazement, there was no smell because it was filled with wood chips and saw dusts. Every time after we use the toilet, we also scattered some more wood chips on top of the compose.

“Yeric, spray some more water in here,” Yelena instructed the Uighur staff. “Remember to keep the compose at the right moisture, not too wet and not too dry.”

“What do you do with the compose? Do you put it in the vegetable garden?”

“We use it as fertilizers for the trees. We don’t put it in the garden because there might be bacteria which would not be safe for human consumption.”

This was the first time we had seen the "rocket shower" - we all took shower using it.
This was the first time we had seen the “rocket shower” – we all took shower using it.

Yelena then led us to the side of the bathroom that was adjacent to the showers. We saw a small room containing a large metal barrel with copper pipes coming in and out of the barrel. Under the barrel was a small chimney-like structure made of clay mixed with hay. A small fire was burning  right beneath the bottom of the chimney.

“We call this rocket shower,” Yelena explained seeing our puzzled but fascinated look. “There are insulations inside this barrel and copper pipes zigzagging inside it which contains the water for the shower. The heat from the chimney rises up through the barrel and heats up the water!”

“Wow…wow…,” all five us of exclaimed in unison.

“How much hot water can it heat up?”

“It can supply hot water for about ten showers!”

“Wow…wow…,” we all again let out in unison.

Swimming in the desert -- One of the eco-friendly pond had been completed allowing us to have a cool dip during the hot afternoon sun.
Swimming in the desert — One of the eco-friendly pond had been completed allowing us to have a cool dip during the hot afternoon sun.

After enjoying the yummy french fries that we had for lunch, we changed quickly into our swimsuits and jumped into the filled pond above the lodge complex. The water was cold but under the hot noon sun, it was just the right combination for a refreshing swim.

“Can you believe we are swimming in the middle of a desert?” I asked the children.

Joani and Olivia loved to play wth Subaka,the husky dog, whenever there was break.
Joani and Olivia loved to play wth Subaka,the husky dog, whenever there was break.

“This place is a land of many surprises,” Joani laughed. “Instead of doing a lot of work like Mongolia, here is more relaxing. I slept at least 10 to 11 hours here each day. There are running water, a nice garden, and two dogs and a cat to play with. I can’t believe we have a pool as well! The only thing I didn’t like were the  mosquitoes but mosquitoes love me. Guess how many bites I have bites on this leg?”

“I can tell you right now,” Olivia said with a twinkle in her eyes. “This is the 10th time Joani brought up this topic.”

“You know that tourists also come to this place,” I continued. “But not only can we enjoy the same but also not have to pay for food or for room. It is an incredible blessing.”

After our swim, we each took turn to experience the hot “rocket shower” for ourselves!

“You know, with all the minerals in the spring water, you don’t even need soap for washing hair,” Mohammed shared with a chuckle.

Nathan and I organized and carry heavy wood and planks to the storage area for future use, while having fun sharing about the Su and Li family clans..
Nathan and I organized and carry heavy wood and planks to the storage area for future use, while having fun sharing about the Su and Li family clans..

The next morning, Nathan and I were given the assignment of sorting and carrying a large pile of logs and wood planks into a storage container. It took us the entire morning but time passed by quickly because Nathan decided that it was time to know in great detail on every single relative for 4 generations from my Su and Li family clans, including their spouses. I must have covered the names and stories of more than 60 relatives!

“How do you do that?” Joani cried out in disbelief. “The patience!”

I looked at Joani and gave her a big smile.

“Never mind,” Joani responded quickly realizing that I was implying she was the one that trained my patience.

Nathan helped to gathered stones for paving the pond which will be used to change the micro-climate of the area.
Nathan helped to gathered stones for paving the pond which will be used to change the micro-climate of the area.

On the last day, we helped to pave the inlet water channel of the empty pond with rocks to prevent erosion and quicken the filling of the pond. We even had time to take a fun panoramic ride on the back of the truck to the see the damed lake, which is also part of changing the ecosystem for this project.

“I now realized that reforestation is a long term project with many steps in between. It takes a life time of investments,” Nathan concluded after seeing all these preparation work first hand.

The desert sunset rays pierced through the clouds and desert trees as we took in the scenery.
The desert sunset rays pierced through the clouds and desert trees as we took in the scenery.

Olivia recalled dreamily, “Living there, I felt like I was in a ‘happy, happy’ movie scene where the sun was shining, the dogs were jumping, and the characters were floating from place to place happily doing their work! The four staff there joked with each other, had fun together, laughed at least five times a day. Their personalities just clicked so well with each other.”

Indeed, our short 11 days in Kazakhstan felt like a fairy tale of ‘happily ever after’. It was both restful and rejuvenating. In Almaty, we experienced the best Korean food and great company while living seven days with Korean relatives of a friend. It was our longest stay in one place on the trip.

We enjoyed unbelievable Korean food while staying in Almaty.
We enjoyed unbelievable Korean food while staying in Almaty.

Learning and hearing Russian for more than a month in Central Asia changed us more than we had expected. We jumped up and down when we heard and understood TV characters in a Korean drama speaking Russian in one of the scene. Before coming to Central Asia, we wouldn’t even know what language was spoken. While transiting in UAE airport, we heard Russian from one of the passenger and felt as if we were hearing our own language. Strangely, when we heard English spoken by another tourist, it was like “oh, boring…”

The staff at the camp worked so well togetherwith each other. Behind us was the hunting lodge that we stayed in.
The staff at the camp worked so well togetherwith each other. Behind us was the hunting lodge that we stayed in.

While volunteering at the desert camp, although we didn’t do anything earth shattering, the simple acts of living in a eco-conscience environment and doing something everyday to contribute to it, made the whole concept of restoration and renewal more tangible and alive in our mind.

“I want to come back to Kazakhstan again and see the completion of the project,” Nathan declared. “Wouldn’t it be great to say I was a part of this?”

We took a 4x4 truck on a dirt path to reach the work site in the middle of a desert.
We took a 4×4 truck on a dirt path to reach the work site in the middle of a desert.

 

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