“Is this where we will sleep tonight?” I asked with an incredulous look.
“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.”
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.
“Dad, he is trying to talk to us. Listen to him. It is probably important,” Joani kept scolding me.
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.
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!
“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!”
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.
“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.
“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.
“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.”
“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…”
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.
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.
“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!”
Annie on the other hand was busily picking tomatoes, bell peppers, chili pepper for making pasta sauce.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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…”
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?”