Kazakhstan, to borrow Neville Chamberlain's ill-famed phrase, is "a far away country about which we know little"*. This is one reason why 'Borat' was allowed to make such a savage mockery of it, and escape any meaningful charges of racism or xenophobia (the other reason being that Sacha Baron-Cohen is himself a member of an ethnic minority, so it must be 'kosher' - poppycock). Personally i wasn't tempted to see the film, as Baron-Cohen's first incarnation, Ali "Is it because I is c**p?" G had ushered in a new 'dying away' of British comedy, which remained more or less in the doldrums until the National Theatre of Brent's magnificent skit "How i done the Bed" was aired on Radio 4 last summer. As Alexi Sayle put it in a recent retrospective; "A great deal has changed since i invented alternative comedy".
Anyway, just over a week ago i arrived here in Astana, Kazakhstan's capital of the last ten years or so. Registration of my passport was more of a rigmarole than i'd anticipated, but late on Tuesday afternoon i finally set off, heading North in the direction of an extraordinary place called Ozyornoje, the national Shrine of Our Lady in Kazakhstan. That evening and overnight however - would you believe it? - i came down with a heavy cold. Having spent the night in a derelict house, on Wednesday i didn't get far before deciding to take the next available transport back to the city. This turned out to be a mini-bus, on which i got into conversation with a guy the same age as me, Volodya, who offered to put me up(!) in his house in a village some way outside the city. So i ended up staying there in great rustic simplicity but also comfort, resting and recuperating until Friday morning, when i set off along the railway towards Shortandy (don't try this at home). The thing was though, i was only about 70% recovered, and too weak to cover the whole 35 km, so in the early evening it was great to be offered a lift by some guys doing work on the line. They had a kind of soviet equivalent of a jeep, and the young guy at the wheel clearly relished taking us along a very rudimentary and bumpy track; the nearest thing i've ever experienced to rally driving.
I was shown to the Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception, where i'd been told the community might give me a welcome (they turned out to be the same Order of St. Vincent De Paul as are in Kharkov, Ukraine), arriving just in time for Mass. I know it's a cliche - but i can't tell you how nice they were! Having put me up on a great sofa bed, in the morning i was brought really tremendous bowl of porridge - my very favourite. "World Porridge Day" is a Mary's Meals initiative, due to be celebrated, worldwide, on the 10th of October. They've teamed up with the organisers of the World Porridge Making Championship in Carrbridge, in the Scottish Highlands, part of the reason being that many of the school meals which Mary's Meals provide consist of a sort of "souped-up" porridge; see "GoldenSpurtle.com/WorldPorridgeDay".
I've come back to Astana because tomorrow, Inshallah, i hope to make enquiries about applying for a new Russian visa. So i haven't reached Ozyornoje yet, but hope to say more about it in another post.
The sisters at Shortandy are also of the same order as St. Catherine Laboure, whose famous 'Miraculous Medals' bear the following inscription;
"O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to Thee."
*used in reference to Czechoslovakia after the Munich conference of 1938.