“I do not know where the urge to tell stories comes from. All I know is that it was in me from the time I could compose my first sentence.” – Wilbur Smith, On Leopard Rock
As a child growing up in America, I heard stories about Johnny Appleseed, a pioneering folk hero who introduced apple trees into new parts of the young country. Until moving halfway around the world to the Central Asian country of Kazakhstan, though, I never really thought about where apples first came from.
In 2007, I was living in Karaganda, a relatively young city founded during the Soviet labor camp era of the 1930s. This town is on the main railway line connecting Kazakhstan’s two major cities, Astana and Almaty. Astana is newer and the political capital, while Almaty is older and the country’s business center. Almaty, also known as Alma-Ata in the Kazakh language, literally translates as “father of apples.” One day while visiting Almaty, I learned that wild apple forests are still prevalent on the surrounding mountain slopes. Furthermore, many believe that the different apples we enjoy eating today have their original roots in Kazakhstan. I would soon have the opportunity to test this theory.
I was returning to Karaganda from Almaty on the overnight Talgo train, a special high-speed service used mostly by business travelers that also features a restaurant car. Feeling hungry and not yet ready for bed, my wife and I made our way to the dining car and joined a table where two men sat enjoying their evening meal.
As night spilled across the steppe, one of the men sat quietly eating his bowl of borscht. The other one, though, wanted to talk. Our Russian-language skills were minimal at the time, so this talkative type tried the few English words he knew, mainly “no problem” and “friend.” Running out of things to say, we noticed a beautifully arranged plate of apples on the table covered in plastic wrap. They looked tasty. Wondering to myself if these could be some of the legendary apples from Kazakhstan, I gently pointed toward them.
It was then that our newfound dinner friend began gesticulating wildly and loudly repeating his favorite phrase, “NOOOOO problem!” He ripped off the shrink-wrap, handed us each a big red apple, and then began to explain their many virtues. As we crunched and munched these tasty fruits, our tablemate lectured us enthusiastically about how these were by far the best apples in the world. With a shake of the head and wave of the hand, he seemed to dismiss all other apples as second-rate. We had to agree. They were really good.
After finishing our meal, the man insisted that we take the remaining apples with us to enjoy later. We each popped an apple in our pocket and ambled back to our sleeping car, satisfied with the knowledge that we had sampled an original slice of Kazakhstan culture. Little did we know!
The next morning, after detraining and returning home, we began unpacking. I casually tossed one of the apples on the kitchen table. As it rolled over, something surprisingly caught my eye that I had not noticed before – a small red, white and blue sticker that read, “Product of USA!”
So, apples ARE from Kazakhstan – sometimes.