Greetings from Boston! (and apologies for the late final post)
I miss Kazakhstan already, but it's great to be home. I had a safe trip back to MIT, although I almost lost my driver's license going through border control in Amsterdam, and then my flight was delayed 4 hours! It was a 21+ hour trip, and I occupied myself with The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, copious amounts of SuDoKu, The Right Stuff movie, and plenty of cat naps. I had a great homecoming at the airport from my best friend - he had coordinated with my mom and brought me some snacks I had missed (carrots and apples! I ate a raw carrot right in the airport terminal).
Now that I'm back, I'd like to share some interesting cultural notes I saw in Kazakhstan :)
Thank you all for following my adventures in Kazakhstan! I had an amazing time teaching, making new friends, seeing new sites, and learning about Kazakhstan! I would love to thank the folks at MIT who made this possible, Katya for organizing the program, and Maria for teaching me Russian since CPW and continuing to inspire me! Thank you also to the wonderful teachers and staff at FizMat - Yernur, Mereigul, Lazzat, Aidana, Alibek, Askhat, Anuar, Yerlan, Yerzhan, Gabit, Assel, and Sherkhan. You made me feel so welcome, and made my time in Kazakhstan a treasured memory! Thank you also to my awesome family and friends, for always supporting me and encouraging me to give it my all! (Please forgive me if I have left out someone!)
Do Svidaniya y Spasiba (Goodbye and Thank You),
...And just like that, my beautiful time in Kazakhstan has drawn to a close. I had a relaxing last day, full of lots of delicious food. Anuar and I grabbed brunch at Aura. I had lamb with puree, and we tried some fancy lemonade/juice. We made a stop at the school to print my boarding passes, and talked about some cool Russian TV shows. I think I might start watching some to improve my familiarity and comfort with the language. Anuar said he has been speaking English for about two years - as long as I have been learning Russian! I think his English is much better than my Russian, so my goal is to reach his level!
For dinner, we were invited to the home of an MIT alum in Kazakhstan, Alibek. He was classmates with Gabit (the principal), and both of them were former students of one of the current FizMat vice principals, Svetlana. We picked up Gabit and his family and Svetlana, and drove over to Alibek's place. There were so many small children! I felt right at home with the "organized chaos" and cozy apartment. I baby-talked in Russian to Gabit's baby, and he was really confused when I started speaking English! I really enjoyed seeing how Svetlana, Gabit, and Alibek all interacted. It was like they were all extended family gathering for a happy reunion. I've noticed a similar theme with the younger generation of teachers I've met - they all seem willing to reach out to their students and know them personally. With how hard the students work, I think it's a good way of engaging them and helping mentor and motivate the students.
Alibek's family had prepared a delicious dinner for us, all homemade and organic. Baursak, stuffed mushrooms, pastries with broccoli, and beshbarmak. I'm so happy I was able to enjoy the Kazakh national dish one final time before I left! While I had it in several restaurants in Almaty, I think the homemade version was my favorite :) For dessert, we had tea and "bird's milk" cake. We talked for a bit about MIT, politics, the winter Olympics, and everything in between. Then, I took a short 3 and a half hour nap before heading to the airport! I had to wake up at 2:30am, and Anuar very generously drove me to the airport at that obscene hour of the morning/evening. It was a tired and bittersweet goodbye, but hopefully not for forever!
One more post coming once I'm back in the States!
A final brunch at Aura. Loved the atmosphere of this happy little restaurant!
Astana International Airport, way-too-early-o'clock. It was a beautiful airport, but super small! There were two terminals - international and domestic. The international terminal only had 4 or 5 gates.
One final selfie outside the airport! The logo in the background is for the energy expo set to take place in a couple months. It's a huge deal!
Today was a blast - literally! Anuar and I finally finished the launch pad. The design called for a rubber stopper, the purpose of which is to seal against the nozzle (the lip of the bottle) so that the rocket can be pressurized without leaking air or water. This is probably the most critical part of the launch pad. However, we couldn't find the exact part we wanted, so we got creative! We tried making pillows out of rubber from an old bike tire, sealing with weather stripping for a door, kneaded erasers... Eventually, we found a system that worked using a sort of accordion-shaped rubber piece for plumbing, a circular eraser, and a kneaded eraser. We put the bike valve (to pressure the rocket) through the center of the circular eraser. We then fixed the circular eraser to the rubber thing and sealed it using the kneaded eraser, and compression! Finally, the rubber thing was shaped perfectly to seal against the nozzle on the other end. It wasn't a perfect system, but I was happy with our MacGyver-ed solution :)
I even used it as a teaching lesson for the kids. I told them that without some of my experiences with art, I would not have known about the kneaded eraser, and we may not have found as effective of a solution! The message was to take advantage of opportunities to learn new things, and always try thinking of a creative solution! Hooray for STEAM!
Only 3 students brought their rockets, but we launched them all at least once! Anuar and I had also made a pretty slick rocket, but it didn't fly as well as we wanted. I think it was an issue with not pressurizing the rocket enough, and the fins may have been a bit small. All the students had a great time watching and helping launch the rockets. It attracted quite a crowd! They were laughing and cheering, so hopefully they will continue to learn about rocketry after I leave. Anuar seems to have caught "the rocket bug," so they should have a great mentor.
After saying goodbye to the students, Anuar, Yerzhan and I grabbed some tea and cake at a canteen near the school. Then, Anuar and I went to a classical piano concert at the Astana Opera House. The building was absolutely exquisite! It was very ornate and beautifully lit. The concert was also amazing. First of all, the introduction of the pianist was given in Russian, but I was able to understand a fair portion of it :) I also had a seat where I could see the pianist, and I loved watching her play. She really got into the music, and her demeanor completely changed to match the mood of the music. Afterwards, we even got to meet her! She had studied in London, so I greeted her in English and she seemed pleasantly surprised.
Right outside the opera house was "Ice Town," a gigantic playground with ice slides, impressive larger-than-life ice sculptures, igloos, and a couple small ice pyramids. In true Astana style, the whole area was decorated with festive lights. After walking around for a bit, Anuar and I grabbed a simple dinner at a Turkish restaurant in the Khan Shatyr Mall (also conveniently right next door).
I only have one short day left in Kazakhstan before returning to MIT, and I'm excited to make the most of it!
I <3 Astana! A fun tourist picture outside of Khan Shatyr.
Outside of the Astana Opera House.
One of my favorite sculptures in Ice Town, a beautiful eagle! (The sculpture was taller than me!) I thought the lighting was super cool.
Standing under the entrance arch of Ice Town. Everything was made from blocks of ice!
Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like honey. Today was our last day teaching, but it feels like just yesterday I was stepping off the plane in Almaty!
In the morning, Anuar and I went to the Eurasian National University while Nikhil packed. We met briefly with the Dean of the physics department, and a faculty member of the aerospace engineering department. It's one of the few universities with a dedicated aerospace program, so it was neat to see what it was like! Their program is only about 5 years old, and they have some classroom space set up with lots of tools, like soldering stations, oscilloscopes, and computers. While a lot of their classes are theoretical, they are definitely starting to bring in more practical experiences for the students as well.
Back at school, Anuar and I set to work building our launch pad for the water bottle rockets (turns out, the school carpenter was only helping get the wooden platform, so I got to build things today!). It's not a perfect pad, but it will certainly get the job done. We finished all but assembling the pressurizing system (very high tech - a bike pump and sealing valve). Then we all meet in the canteen at the school for lunch. I had meatballs, puree, and borsch. Tasty!
The final class was a Jeopardy review game for the students, and their final presentations. They all did a great job, and I was proud to see how much they've learned in such a short time! In true aerospace fashion, however, we had to postpone our launch for technical difficulties. We didn't have a good material to seal the bottle while pressurizing it, so Anuar and I did some last minute shopping. We should be able to finish tomorrow morning, then hold a launch in the afternoon after the students finish classes. We grabbed dinner at a delicious Georgian restaurant at the Keruen Mall (I had chicken with a buttery sauce, fancy lemonade, and fresh cheesy bread). Then, I said goodbye to Nikhil. It was great teaching with him over IAP, and we'll catch up again in Boston!
The interior of the university. It was built years ago during the time of the Soviet Union, and the architecture style was very prominent!
Our super-high-tech water bottle rocket launch pad. Made from scraps of wood and metal lying around the school. The mechanism is designed to hold the rocket sealed while it is pressurized with air. Pulling the string releases the hold-down mechanism, and the pressure in the water bottle ejects the water at a high velocity - woosh!
Checking the stability of a rocket using a swing test. This one passed!
Today started with a yummy breakfast of kasha and tea at school. Anuar and I quickly stopped by the post office (I have been trying to get to a post office since Almaty!). Luckily, it wasn't very crowded or I think we would have been there forever! They have a "take a number" system that gave me nightmares of the DMV! The stamps were all very pretty, and they didn't come with an adhesive back; the attendant had to dab them with a glue before using them. We went back to school and picked out a nice spot in the school's backyard for our water bottle rocket launch tomorrow - far away from roofs, cars, and windows! We had lunch at the school, and I tried Kazakh French toast. It was very tasty, and served without syrup.
Class today was largely independent work for the students to finish their presentations and water bottle rockets. I'm excited to see their presentations tomorrow, and help launch some rockets! (I'm missing Rocket Team, I need to punch a hole in the sky :) )
For dinner, Anuar, Nikhil and I went to Capitol, the delicious Turkish restaurant just around the block from the school/our apartment. We tried a mix of kebabs and some Turkish "pizza" (diced meat and spices baked on pita bread with a very light layer of cheese). Our server was so sweet, and brought us a couple small desserts for free (they were like tiny donuts dipped in chocolate).
For the evening, we picked up Ainara (another teacher) and sang karaoke! We sang an awesome mix of American, Russian, and Kazakh songs. I was able to sing along to a couple of my favorite Russian songs. (I'm generally not the biggest fan of pop music, but I really like Russian pop because the lyrics are simple enough for me to understand real-time.) I also showed them some American classics they didn't know, like Bohemian Rhapsody and Don't Stop Believin'. All in all, it was a lot of fun!
The students hard at work on rockets and presentations!
Nikhil caught a typo on the menu at karaoke! The top line is Russian, and says Gorachi Zakusky, or Hot Snacks. They were definitely not serving "Hot Snakes!" We ended up getting some lemonade (very popular here, like tea) and ice cream (morozhenoe, in Russian).
A fun night at karaoke! We had a room to the four of us, so no one had to suffer our singing :) Lyrics were on the TV, and there was an iPad to choose Russian, Kazakh, and American songs.
Today was a very relaxed day. Anuar took me to a hardware store this morning to buy parts for the water bottle rocket launcher. It had a large selection of household things (doors, toilets, faucets) and a smaller selection of hardware and tools. There was almost no lumber to speak of, which was kind of strange compared to a Home Depot! (in spite of our valiant shopping spree, I think some workers at school will be helping assemble the launcher because of the limited time I have left here...)
We met Nikhil and some other teachers for lunch at the school, then taught class 2 - 5 as usual. Today, I talked to the kids about presentations, and they had some time to work on their projects and start building their water bottle rockets!
After class, we had dinner with Anuar and Gabit, the school principal. We ate at Beijing Palace, a hotel right across the road with a revolving restaurant on the top floor. It was such a beautiful view! We even saw Fizmat from the air :) It took about 2 hours to make a full rotation. We ordered several dishes and ate family-style, including duck, fried eggplant, ox, beef, spicy seafood soup, and of course hot tea!
I have been very proud of myself the past couple days for talking more with my students in Russian. When I talk with teachers around the school in Russian, they also seem pretty impressed with my pronunciation - I'm glad to hear that I'm on the right track :) Anuar is great at helping me with new vocabulary and phrasing things correctly. I can't wait to see what tomorrow holds!
A delicious dinner at Beijing Palace with great company!
Just one snippet of the view from the restaurant - Moskva (Moscow) Tower.
Today was full of learning! I started the day with a tour of Nazarbayev University with Anuar and Yerlan. The main building of the campus was absolutely beautiful - it was like a massive atrium inside that reminded me of the Gaylord Opryland Hotels (one is in Nashville, TN and the other is by the National Harbor). We met two astrophysicists who research black holes, gravitational collapse, supernova, and all sorts of mind-blowing physics. I enjoyed talking with them about their experiences and how they conducted research. I learned a lot about black holes in particular, and am feeling inspired to learn more on my own! They are very complex, and there was a lot of physics that I didn't completely understand in the conversation.
We also got to tour the Science and Technology faculty building (a building within the main building...) and saw some cool robotics and physics labs. We visited a new building on campus. The university is currently working on expanding the buildings and connecting everything with skywalks so the students don't freeze between classes in the winter! The school was also set up for a ceremony for the winter sports olympiad. President Nazarbayev himself will be at the ceremony this week, so there were students practicing and preparing. We met with a student (also a Jiu Jitsu champion from previous sports olympiads), and she was very sweet to show us the dorms at NU. The building was so beautiful and well lit- the rooms were around the perimeter, and the center was open from the ground floor up to the top (13 or 14 floors total, I think), with a huge skylight! Then, we grabbed lunch at a Turkish restaurant on campus. I tried airan, which is an incredibly sour milk/yogurt drink.
We went to the school, and I taught a lesson about designing a poster. The students worked on their own; then I showed them the Bernoulli experiment with the water. They picked up the concepts very quickly, and I showed them how Bernoulli helps an airfoil produce lift. I'm excited for the last few days of class, because we will be doing a water bottle rocket competition!
After class, Yerlan and Sherkhan (another teacher) took Nikhil and I to dinner at Uzbechka, an Uzbek restaurant. I had manti, a delicious dish very similar to dumplings stuffed with meat and served with onions. After dinner, I ended the evening with another interview for the summer. I think it went pretty well :)
Inside the NU main building. Palm trees, in the middle of the second coldest capital city on Earth! Each of the buildings on the side walls are different faculties/departments.
Me, Yerlan, and Anuar enjoying the warmth of NU!
Inside of the student dormitory building. I thought the skylight was so pretty!
Wow, I cannot believe that classes are already halfway over in Astana. It feels like we just got here yesterday!
Today after breakfast, Yerlan took Nikhil and I to see Khan Shatyr, a beautiful mall in Astana. The name translates to King's Tent, and it is very appropriate. The mall is literally a tent! It was also designed to resemble a traditional Kazakh headpiece. The building doesn't look very big from the outside, but inside it is huge! There are four stories of shops, restaurants, an amusement park, and an indoor beach! The structure of each floor is only around the perimeter of the tent, so that the center area is clear from the ground floor straight to the peak. The tent material is translucent, so the inside was beautifully lit with natural lights. At night, you can see the lights shining from inside the tent.
We walked around for a bit. Nikhil and Yerlan went on a drop tower ride, but I was too nervous to go! We went to the top floor where the amusement park was, and rode a monorail around the perimeter of the mall. The view was beautiful! We also rode a log flume and drove bumper cars.
We ate lunch in the school cafeteria as usual, then taught class. Today, my lessons focused on planning schedules and budgets for experiments. I pulled in some examples from Rocket Team, and the kids were so surprised to see how expensive our competition Rocket usually is! I also taught them some basic thermodynamics, and reviewed the Ideal Gas Law. We then used this to learn about rocket engines :)
After class, Yerlan and Anuar challenged us to ping pong. I practiced a lot, and improved substantially over the course of an hour, but still not enough to win! I played against a couple of the students, and we spoke some in Russian while we played. Anuar took Nikhil and I to dinner back at Khan Shatyr. I had a delicious dish from Turkmenistan (rice, veggies, and beef, almost like stir fry). I was convinced to ride the drop tower, which turned out rather fun (despite my instinct against free falling!) I also got some supplies for making posters with my students tomorrow - I'm excited to see how they turn out!
Khan Shatyr! Like a TARDIS, it seemed bigger on the inside to me.
The central support structure of Khan Shatyr, with the drop tower in the middle. I thought it was architecturally very beautiful, and interesting from an engineering perspective!
The view standing in front of Khan Shatyr looking towards the center of the city. You can see the Bayterek Tower centered in the arch, and behind it (very faintly) is President Nazarbayev's palace. Bayterek is equidistant from Khan Shatyr and the palace.
I feel like today was a delightful series of meals, snacks, and tea with wonderful people :) Nikhil, Arezu, Rita and I started off the day with brunch at the cutest restaurant, called Aura. The interior design was so well done - there were plants, some waterfalls, books, and antiques. We wanted to sit at a booth with a big fish tank, but it was reserved. We still got to take a picture with it anyway! I tried a rabbit dish, and really enjoyed it. The rabbit actually reminded me a lot of chicken.
There had been another Toastmasters meeting that day, so we met up with Yerzhan, his wife Damira, and some of the club members for a snack at a cafe called Coffee Boom. Again, it was so well decorated inside! The cafe used a fabric pattern on all of their chairs with an orange parrot, and I really appreciated it. I wasn't too hungry, so I just got some bliny with tvorog (crepes and cottage cheese), and a frappucino. Little did I know, the frappucino was huge! It was actually the first coffee-type drink I've had since coming to Kazakhstan (I usually drink tea or water), it was very good. We talked for a bit after we ate. I like spending time with the Toastmasters members; they are all very smart and motivated people, and we have fun conversations discussing Kazakhstan and America, especially university life.
Afterwards, Yerzhan and Damira invited us to their apartment for tea. We waited for a couple other teachers there before heading to a bowling alley to go bowling with some students from Nikhil's class. Much to our chagrin, the entire bowling alley had been rented out by someone else by the time we got there! The bowling alley was at the bottom of a hotel, along with a large room for table tennis, and a trampoline/bouncing area. So, we decided to go bouncing instead! It was a lot of fun!
We said goodnight to the students, and went to dinner at Mega Mall with some of the teachers. A couple of the teachers preferred Karuan Mall, but I thought Mega was cool because it had a really neat waterfall from the third floor! I got a traditional Russian dish of meat, potatoes, and vegetables from a shop called Izbushka (little wooden cottage).
After dinner, Anuar (one of the teachers) took Arezu and I to the riverside to play in the snow, and slide down the ice slides again. It was very windy, and we each had a face full of snow at one point or another, but it was such a blast! A great end to the weekend :)
Brunch at Aura with the fish tank! Nikhil and I later compared the restaurant to a classy Rainforest Cafe.
Bouncing! Not quite like flying, but pretty close :)
The waterfall at Mega Mall (it was much brighter than the poor picture quality shows...)
Today was so much fun! I started with a warm breakfast at the school, then Nikhil, Arezu (one of the girls from Almaty), and I joined Yerzhan, for a meeting of the Astana Toastmasters Club. Toastmasters is an international group that promotes confident public speaking and leadership through experiential meetings. They meet weekly for about 2 hours, and some people give prepared speeches, while others answer "table top" questions. The speeches are evaluated and given constructive criticism. The Astana club conducts meetings and speeches in English, and I really enjoyed hearing the enthusiastic speeches given by the members! They were all excellent. The club also had a guest speaker - John Register, a retired athlete on the U.S. Paralympic Swimming Team. He had a very inspiring story, with a great sense of humor!
After the meeting, we joined the club members for lunch at the Sunday Cafe, near Keruan Mall. I had some delicious green tea, strawberry lemonade, and chicken stuffed with mozzarella, basil, and peppers. I loved the conversation with the Toastmasters members. I had worn my favorite NASA shirt, and they were all so excited to hear about the space program, and some of my previous internship experiences in the industry. They also got a kick out of my Remove Before Flight tag collection! One of the members, a university student name Assel, mentioned she loved ice skating. So, after running a couple errands at Keruan, she showed Arezu and I a beautiful indoor ice rink called Alau. It was huge - two hockey fields encircled by a large skating ring, and we were able to skate in all three areas! I had fun talking and listening to the Russian and Kazakh music in the rink.
After skating, we went back to Keruan Mall for our fanciest dinner yet - KFC! It's very popular in Kazakhstan, so Arezu and I wanted to try it to compare it to American KFC. It was much cheaper, but it tasted about the same as American KFC. I'm excited for more adventures tomorrow!
The Alau ice rink - a delightful example of Astana's modern architecture.
I am a junior studying AeroAstro at MIT. I love rockets, airplanes, birds, and anything that flies! In my free time, I enjoy crocheting, solving sudoku puzzles, and reading. I have been learning Russian for about two years, and I'm so excited to visit Kazakhstan and learn about the beautiful country and culture!