After collecting our luggage, we went through the glass doors and a crowd of taxi drivers trying to get our business. I looked around a bit, and found Emil, who had been our driver in 2004 when we adopted Melanie. We were loaded up and on our way in no time. As we drove through the dark streets, Emil pointed out that there was a police officer standing every 20 feet on the side of the road, around the clock. There was an international summit taking place in Kaz., and security was tight. The cops (who often looked like they were hardly 14 years old) were standing facing away from the street, as if to keep anyone from leaping out of the bushes and ambushing a passing car.
Our hotel, the Grand Eurasia, was a pretty decent place … brand new, apparently built with the help of the Chinese. All the instructions in the room were in Chinese. I noticed a small “appliance” on top of the wardrobe, curious … and I found a small remote control, which turned on the appliance, which was an AIR CONDITIONER a creature as rare as a unicorn in Kazakhstan!! I turned it down to the arctic frost setting, and we slept happily under our coverlets.
The next morning, Emil met us at 9:00 for our four hour drive to Taldy Korgan. We stopped at a grocery store to stock up on supplies, and then were off. As I wrote in my 2004 travelogue, the landscape quickly turned to flat, featureless grassland that went on for a couple of hours. It was mind numbing (and butt numbing for all the bumps we hit on the road). Just when we didn’t think our bodies could take any more beating, we hit rocky, craggy mountains which we wound around in for another hour or so. Then, over a rise in the road, Taldy came into view: a green oasis in the middle of the dusty brown mountains with curiously tall green trees in neat rows. (I remembered that the town of Taldy Korgan was named after these trees. Even David, with his masters’ degree in forestry couldn’t tell what kind of tree they were).
Emil took us right away to Aida’s mother’s apartment, where we had stayed back in 2004. I ran into the building and met Aida, where we hugged each other like long-lost sisters. Zhenya, her mother, had prepared borscht and a plethora of other delicious dishes. We sat in the sweltering apartment, where Zhenya and Aida’s sister toasted us with cognac, in between wiping their faces with a handkerchief. Somehow the heat didn’t seem as heavy after drinking a little alcohol. After we finished, we set out for the Baby House. I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone as we drove up the familiar drive. We met with the director, who offered us tea and cookies. (Hot tea! Do I have any sweat left in my body??) Through Aida, we talked about Karina (Melanie) and how she is doing. We gave her a photo album. She seemed pleased that we had come … I wanted so badly to see Melanie’s old room, but Madame kept saying the children were sleeping. It wasn’t until we discussed donating money towards a new lawn mower (“hay cutter” as they call it in Kaz!) that she suggested we visit Melanie’s group. Not that it was a bribe or anything, but she did seem a lot more eager to take me upstairs after that.
Up the blue staircase with the child-height railing we went. Through the windows I could see the playground that David and Quentin had helped build last summer. Through a door, and into the “Sparrow” room (as the group was called) we went. The children were sitting on their potties, having just woken up from their naps. All the little boys had their heads cleanly shaved, and there were several shiny little heads. I recognized two of the little ones who had been there with Melanie: Maddi (who we called Dumbo because of his ears, SHAME on us!) and Sukhail, the little “Uzbek boy” as the caregivers called him. They hadn’t changed much, other than being a taller. It was so sad to think of them still there. The caregivers were new to me … they seemed to be wondering what we were doing there.
We made a quick stop at Aida’s apartment … then back to Zhenya’s house for goodbyes. Aida was driving back to Almaty with us in her car, so we set out convoy-style. We hit a huge traffic jam as we passed by Kapshagai .. a large man-made reservoir which apparently is “the” weekend vacation spot in the area. Everyone and his brother was trying to get back to Almaty on a Sunday night. We rolled into the hotel after 11:00 and fell into our (air conditioned!) beds.
Early the next morning, I found Jim and the others in the hotel restaurant having breakfast. We made introductions … hello to Dave N., with whom David (my David) had traveled on the first playground trip back in 2003 .. his son Micah, and his business associate Rick. Also with them was Kate … a beautiful young Kazakh woman who works for Dave in California. Some of the other folks were staying in apartments, and we would hook up with them later in the morning. We made a quick stop at the Ramstore (big grocery store) for water and stuff for lunch, since Esik was pretty much off the beaten track, and there were no McDonalds’ there.