Living along the Silk Road
GHS grad studying border trade in Kazakhstan
Imagine living in a country that bridges East and West.
A place where colorful caravans stopped in bustling marketplaces to barter goods on their journey along the Silk Road.
Genghis Khan and his warriors invaded this land to unite the nomadic tribes of northeast Asia.Centuries later, Kazakhstan is a temporary home for 2006 Gothenburg High School Cobus Block who has been there since August.
Block describes the country, the last Soviet republic to declare independence in 1991, as a cultural melting pot.
“The people groups here have had a long history of contact with Europeans through the Greeks and the Russians, with East Asia through the Chinese and with the Middle East through the Persians,” Block explained. “The exchanges between so many very different cultures left Central Asia and Kazakhstan with a very rich heritage.”
Block, who graduated from the University of Wyoming earlier this year, is a Fulbright scholar with a research grant to study the trade relationship between Kazakhstan and China.
His research focuses particularly on border trade (small goods shuttled across the border by local merchants) and the role of minorities in both countries in facilitating that trade.
While a student in Wyoming, Block was in China from 2008-2010, the first year on a Chinese Ambassador’s Scholarship through the university to study Chinese language.
The second year, he enrolled in classes on political economy, first at Zhejiang University in China. He then studied modern Chinese literature at Beijing Normal University.
After returning to UW, Block finished a degree in international studies with minors in economics and Chinese.
While in Kazakhstan, Block has scholarship money for a one-year research project. To obtain the Fulbright grant, he designed his research project.
Currently, he lives in Almaty, the country’s largest financial center.
“The city itself reminds me a lot of Denver,” Block said. “It lies right next to the mountains and is almost always sunny and cool.”
Because he’s affiliated with KIMEP University, Block has access to their facilities.
“I am only just now actually starting to do real research,” he explained. “Before, I concentrated mainly on making contact with relevant people and studying Russian, which is the predominant trade language here.”
Block will continue to study Russian but hopes to soon switch his focus to hard research.
Because of Kazakhstan’s natural resource wealth, he said Almaty is not a very challenging city in which to live.
“A large number of foreigners live in Kazakhstan so I can find most comforts of home readily available,” Block said.
The scholar said he was surprised to see the diversity of people, especially in Almaty.
When Kazakhstan was a republic, he said the country was “safely in the heart of the Soviet Union” and was a dumping ground for all kinds of political exiles and minority groups the government might not trust.
So far, he’s met Kazakhstanis of Chinese, German, Korean and Greek decent. Russians are still the largest minority, he said, and their language is the most common along with Kazakh.
“Many other nationalities seem out of place here,” Block said.
In general, he said he enjoys living in Kazakhstan which doesn’t feel much different than home.
The weather is almost identical with hot summers and cold winters and most of the areas Block has seen resemble the panhandle of Nebraska or eastern Wyoming.
People are friendly in a genuine sort of way, Block said, and like to invite guests to dinner. Food, for the most part, is good and familiar except for horse meat and fermented mare’s milk.
“Those both take some getting used to,” he said.
Although Almaty is a small city, it still has more people than Block’s comfort zone.
“I’m not particularly fond of living in cities,” he said. “I am certainly out of place here and I do miss the feeling of home I get in Nebraska.”
As time goes on, Block said he’ll probably feel more homesick since “being away from home and family over Thanksgiving and Christmas is never easy.”
Block added he’s grateful for the education and upbringing he received in Gothenburg.
While he was a senior at GHS, he had a chance to travel to Israel for a couple of weeks which was supported by school administration and teachers.
“They helped me find ways to take my finals in advance and skip the last two weeks of school,” Block said, “That trip inspired me to see other places around the world and was only possible because GHS was willing to be flexible.”
Block is the son of John and Mary Lou Block.