Part 1 Norm’s History with Milk
When I was growing up in Rosetown, Saskatchewan, milk was a big part of prairie life. My mother Beulah pushed milk as a daily shot of protein in the Flach family household. She always maintained that milk kept me and my three siblings healthy.
In the 1950’s, every prairie town had a local dairy. I have fond memories of the milkman driving his horse drawn cart up Second Avenue every morning. The milkman would walk back and forth from house to house, delivering glass quart bottles of milk and pints of cream to each house, while the driverless horse slowly wended its way down the street.
Milk became less important in my diet as an adult. My parents, Art and Beulah, had trained me to drink my coffee black, so for many years my main source of milk was ice cream. Then Lory and started eating yogurt sometime in the 1990’s. At the same time Lory developed a taste for café latte. So milk slowly crept back into our life.
Part 2 Milk in Kazakhstan
In 2014, when Lory and I moved to Kazakhstan, milk was of primary importance to our psychological well being. It was required for our yogurt parfait breakfast, and for Lory’s morning latte. Always striving for perfection with both the yogurt and the latte, we constantly explored our options.
To this end, we had purchased top of the line yogurt makers and an espresso machine at Sulpak, the electronics store in Ardager Mall. In my role of the trailing spouse, I was primarily responsible for grocery shopping, and for supervising our cook, Sauvé. I also made the yogurt and prepared Lory’s lattes. So it was up to me to search diligently for just the right milk to use for those two projects.
Now you have to appreciate that in Kazakhstan your milk options are unlimited. You have camel milk (shubatt), horse milk (kumiss), goat milk (kefir), and occasionally cow milk (moloko). Kumiss, fermented horse milk, has served as a staple for the Central Asian warriors of the Steppe since the days of Genghis Kahn. Kumiss has an alcohol kick to it, so i couldn’t get it at the grocery store.
Finding cow milk in the grocery stores of Atyrau was not easy. I bought a lot of shubatt and kefir before I found a moloko to my taste. Prostokvashino Moloko 3.2% is a shelf-milk with a cat on the packaging box. In the corner of the carton, there is a tiny drawing of a cow in a very green rural setting, so I was pretty sure that this was indeed cow’s milk. Prostokvashino Moloko served us well until April of 2014. But that was before we met Nurgul’s cow.
Part 3 Nurgul
Nurgul was our housekeeper in our apartment in Ardager Residence. She not only cleaned our apartment six days a week, but also called in the Ardager maintenance staff any time there was a problem with the plumbing, electricity, a loose cupboard door or anything else that can go wrong in an apartment building. Whatever happened, Nurgul was on it!
Even though Nurgul’s English was more or less equivalent to my Russian, almost nil, we manage to share stories and enjoy a lot of laughs. Our communication involved guesswork, pantomime and paralinguistics. She jabbered in Russian and I in English. Nurgul is an extrovert who smiles all the time and is just delightful.
One day, I was talking to Nurgul about cleaning the balcony of our apartment when I noticed that she had bruises on her forearm. I asked her what happened, and she pantomimed milking a cow and getting kicked. She laughed as she re-enacted the scene. I pantomimed that Lory had milked cows on the farm when she was growing up.
Lory and I were surprised to learn that Nurgul’s family had cows because we had assumed she was a city girl. In our walks along the Ural River we often saw goat herders who bring their few goats down to the shore to graze, but there is nothing on the Atyrau landscape that resembles pasture, so where do you feed cows if you are living in Atyrau?
Nurgul is originally from Nur-Sultan (formerly named Astana), the capital of Kazakhstan. She moved to Atyrau to marry Nurlan, whose sister was a classmate of Nurgul in Astana. Nurgul, Nurlan and their daughter Mansur live with Nurlan’s parents, a very typical arrangement in Kazakhstan. They live on the outskirts of Atyrau in a rural setting. And that is how they can keep cows in the city.
Part 4 Saulé
Lory was particularly interested in Nurgul’s cows because she saw this as a potential source of fresh milk. To make this happen, we would enlist the help of our trusty translator, Saulé.
Saulé was our cook in Kazakhstan for three years. She is a wonderful cook. We heard about Saulé before we moved to Kazakhstan, and tried to hire her, but because we had a dog she had declined the offer. That was before she met Chandini.
Saulé learned to cook many Thai recipes from Lory’s cookbooks. Over the years when we took trips to Thailand, Saulé would request that we bring her Thai spices because her family learned to love Thai food!
Saulé, Nurgul and I were a team. Saulé’s English is very good, so through her I told Nurgul that we would like to buy six liters of her milk per week. Nurgul was thrilled! Lory was thrilled! And a most satisfactory business deal was soon to be up and running.
Part 5 Natalya and Assel
A short time after we had been using Nurgul’s milk for yogurt and lattes, Lory suggested we pay a visit to meet Nurgul’s cows. Nurgul was surprised and perhaps a little nervous about the idea. Because she lives with her husband’s parents, she would first have to seek her family’s approval for the visit.
The following week, we were granted permission to visit. Through Saulé, Nurgul expressed concern about her in-laws discomfort with the lack of a common language. It would be much better if we could bring a Russian or Kazakh speaker with us to act as translator.
Our first thought was to ask Natalya, Lory’s personal assistant at the school, to come with us on the visit. One of Natalya’s many roles as Lory’s PA is to translate Russian correspondence to English and vice versa. Natalya is an ethnically Russian Kazakh. Because Kazakhstan was a Soviet Republic for almost a century, Russia has been the official language, so many Russian Kazakhs do not speak the Kazakh language. Enter Assel, who speaks Kazakh and Russian.
Assel is Natalya’s assistant at the school. We have a great personal relationship with both Natalya and Assel. Both of them have taken a turn at babysitting our dog Chandini when we went on holidays. They were also indispensable for helping us with special shopping and repair missions throughout the city.
When Lory initially talked to Natalya about the visit, she noticed that Assel was pretty excited about the concept. Lory said, “Would you like to join us, Assel?” Assel enthusiastically nodded yes! With Natalya and Assel coming with us to visit the cows, the common language issue was put to rest.
Part 6 Setting the Date
A couple of weeks later, we found a free Saturday evening for our adventure. Lory asked Saulé what time we should come. Nurgul said, “What do you mean?” Lory asked, “Well what time do you milk the cows?” Nurgul gave us the “stupid question” look and said, “When the cows come home.” It hadn’t occurred to us that the cows had complete control over the time span of their daily grazing.
We finally ascertained that the cows would show up at approximately 7:00 pm, so we decided that we would leave for her house about 6:00. Nurgul offered to have us for dinner, but we did not want to be any trouble to the family, so we declined her generous invitation.
Part 7 Getting There
The drive to Nurgul’s house was interesting. The four of us, Natalya, Assel, Lory and I, plus our dog Chandini, took a Chevron/TCO taxi from Ardager Residence. We crossed the Ural River and drove through the Asian side of Atyrau heading east. (1)
The road took us to the outskirts of the city passing a confluence of railway tracks. We were thankful that Natalya and Assel were with us because the driver stopped three times for Natalya to phone Nurgul to check on directions.
We were almost on the barren steppe at the third stop. We turned around and backtracked for a kilometer or two before turning right on a dirt road that took us into a rural housing area. As we approached the house, Natalya identified the Atyrau City Oil Refinery in visual distance ahead.
Part 6. We Arrive!
Nurgul was standing at the side of the road and signaled us to turn in to their yard. Their home is on a small farmyard, with no houses across the road from them. They have built a small corral for the cows, and have a barn that is dug into the earth, similar to the Doukhobor Dugout Houses of the early Twentieth Century in Saskatchewan. (2)
We were greeted by their vigilant guard dog that did relax enough for Lory to pet him. The cows had already returned from the field across the road, where they wander to find grass. The grass on the steppe is sparse to say the least, so they must travel quite a distance. There is no fencing on the steppe, but the cows always come home. In fact, when they return at night their udders are so full they can’t wait to be milked.
Nurgul was very proud to give us a demonstration of her milking ritual. It was wonderful to see her in her home setting and to meet her family. For Lory, the farm girl, it was a special treat.
Nurgul was a significant part of our life in Kazakhstan.
(1) Atyrau is situated on the Europe-Asia border, separated by the Ural River. Half the city is in Europe and half in Asia.
(2) This makes good since the Russian Doukhobors migrated to Canada from Georgia, a neighbor of Kazakhstan.