Saturday, June 25, 2011

Drinking Camel's Milk

Like many things I've experienced here in Kazakhstan, I didn’t even know it was happening until the last minute. One moment I was sitting in my room at seven in the evening, settling in to read The Hunger Games for the next three hours, and the next minute my host mother had stormed into my room announcing that we were going to see the camels in 10 minutes. I did the only reasonable thing I could do: I asked no questions, threw on a different pair of pants, grabbed my camera, and hurried into the living room to drink the obligatory cup of tea before we left.

That was when I got my explanation. Some distant friends in a nearby village own a herd of camels, and my host sister had run into the son at the store earlier that day. This had reminded my host mother that his family owes my family some favor from a long time ago, and she decided to cash in on that to give me and Michele, the other volunteer in my village, an interesting look at Kazakh culture. The bus left at 8pm, so I quickly called Michele, then trooped over to the bus stop with my sister, Aziza, and brother, Alisher.

A man was sitting in his car at the bus stop, which is at the top of a small hill, enjoying the view. Alisher chatted with him and asked if he didn't want to make some extra money and take us out to the village, but he declined. He did ask where we were from, motioning to Michele and I (even after two years I still stand out like a sore thumb!), and Alisher introduced us as relatives from America.

Eventually, another passenger came to the bus stop and told us that the bus had broken down and wouldn't be going today. So Alisher started bargaining with the man in the car in earnest. By “in earnest,” I don't mean that the process got any more heated or moved more quickly. Rather, it took a good 10 minutes for the two of them to come to a conclusion. First, Alisher asked the man how much money he wanted, and the man stated a ridiculous price. Alisher shook his head and then stood in silence for several minutes. Eventually, he offered to pay a little more than we would pay for the bus, but the man said he wasn't from around the area and just wanted to have a relaxing evening while on vacation. Several more minutes of silence ensued, all of us standing patiently around, then the man stated a price halfway in between. Alisher made one more plea for something slightly lower than the man's quote. After a minute or so of reflexion, he nodded and Alisher motioned us into the car.

The camels were totally worth the trip. The herd consisted of about five or seven full grown animals. The family who owned them was Kazakh, but they had lived in Uzbekistan for many years and brought their love of shubat, or fermented camel milk, back with them when they moved to northern Kazakhstan. The youngest babies are allowed to stay with their mothers, but after a certain age they are separated and put in a pen, from which they are only released three times a day when their mother is being milked. (This is an interesting contrast to horses, which have to be milked every two hours.) A person milks the camel from one side while the baby suckles on the other side, so it's important to milk a camel very fast so that you finish milking at the same time the baby finishes.

After watching a camel be milked, and petting the baby camels in the pen, we were invited inside to try some shubat. It's a thick, sour drink that is definitely an acquired taste, although I did manage to drink an entire cup. (Everyone else asked for seconds, though, even Michele, so I was still the “rude” guest.)

After the camels, our hosts took us on a tour of the nearby lake as the sun was setting. Finally, they fed us a full dinner before taking us home. I was in bed by midnight after another successful, completely unexpected Kazakhstani cultural experience.

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