Thursday, 5 July 2018

Kazakhstan – Change EXPOsed

June 25-July 5

Hello everyone!

One thing I feel that I am quite good at is keeping in touch with people after leaving a country I have worked in, and I try my best to return to see friends and pupils. Being next door in Russia, I never would have had a better chance to visit Astana once again.

Wales reunited in Astana!

Astana has many happy memories for me

I have already gone back to Prague and Korea, being able to return to them very soon after leaving those respective places. Kazakhstan was a bit trickier; it’s been five years since I left and wasn’t a part of the world I had been close to since.

Surprising my Korean co-teacher, Kim Byeong-Gi, in 2011

My main reason for returning to Astana, Kazakhstan’s fascinating capital and my home for two years between 2011 and 2013, was to visit friends. At the same time, I thought it would be interesting to see how much this city, which has transformed since it became capital in 1998, has changed in my absence.

There is a push to change the spelling of the country's name, as
you can see from the TV channel name in the top right corner

A new bridge has been added across the Esil River
That change is noticeable as soon as you land at the airport, which now has a fancy, modern international section. Added to this are the official taxis – it used to be a group of men who spoke no English hounding you.

The domestic terminal is still under the blue dome and
very much the same as before

Many, including me after this initial trip, use apps such as Yandex Taxi

The strange skyline rising from the steppe had stirred memories on the flight in from Yekaterinburg but there were many new buildings to see on the drive north to the city.

Astana now has a 'Space Centre', which makes sense as many
space missions use the Baikonur Cosmodrome based in Kazakhstan

Many new buildings show off the creative architecture
which the city is known for

The familiar sights of the Bayterek and Khan Shatyr still dominate the centre of the city’s ‘left bank’. One which was in the planning phase when I left, the Abu Dhabi Tower, is under construction and will soar high above when finished. I was told it’s looked like the picture below for quite a while, however…

The Bayterek shows a myth about a tree which
connects the upper, middle and lower worlds 

The Abu Dhabi Tower

Other buildings which have cropped up include the opera theatre (which was finished a week or two before I left) and some rather fancy hotels around the Bayterek, arguably Astana's main monument.

Astana's gleaming white opera theatre

The tall building in the middle is the Ritz-Carlton hotel

One fascinating addition to the city is a network of cycle lanes, which were being laid out whilst I was in Astana. A fantastic idea in summer but I’m not sure about their practicality in the -40°C in winter…

Perhaps they will become cross-country
skiing lanes from November to March?

Astana also now has a bike rental scheme

They are part of a drive to help the city become ‘greener’. Solar panels are now omnipresent. The main driver of this change in a country which is alleged to sit on the world’s third-largest oil and gas reserves is an event which happened in 2017.

Solar panels on top of a bus stop

Critics have described the EXPO building as the 'Death Star'
Last year Astana hosted the World EXPO, a global event which involves vast swathes of the world. The theme for Astana’s event was sustainable energy, a notion which many saw as ironic (and still do when you witness the light displays which adorn Astana’s wacky buildings each night). Though the international pavilions have long left the steppe, the main EXPO site is still present in the south of the city. Its major structure is in the shape of a massive orb.

Between 5 and 6 million people are said to have visited the EXPO
whilst it ran in its full glory last year

The 'Nur Alem' sphere is 100 metres tall

The exhibition itself was great, if a little above my level of intellect at times. Most floors focus on one form of renewable energy, such as wind, solar and biomass.

Part of the biomass section, which contains seeds in the floor

You can walk through different levels of wind -
this is my hair in gale force 7

It’s probably not above the intelligence of the children I used to teach here. My first Year 6 class have now just finished Year 12 and are 17 years old. I had the pleasure of catching up with some of them even though the school year at Haileybury Astana has finished.

This is what it looked like in 2011 and the
building itself hasn't changed at all

The inside of the quad - a running track has been added
but otherwise it is the same 

School itself doesn’t seem to have changed much – they even have photos of some of the original teachers in one section of the quad! The main changes have occurred simply because the school has grown to cater for secondary students.

Hannah still looms large in Haileybury Astana

The IB Lounge for the older students

Astana itself seems to be becoming more international and cosmopolitan. The city now has many signs in English (I found it intriguing that many people seem to speak Kazakh as a first language now more than Russian). Hilariously, there is a hop-on, hop-off bus. World-renowned fast food chains have arrived (I can no longer say that Kazakhstan doesn’t have a single McDonald’s). Interestingly, it’s become cheaper to visit now as the government devalued the currency in 2015, meaning items and services are essentially half the price of what they were when I lived in Astana.

The hop-on, hop-off bus - not many passengers

When I lived here, it was about 240T to £1

It was lovely to see and catch up with so many great friends which I made during my two years living in Astana. I was particularly touched that the children who I taught in that first year who still live in the capital (most have moved on) were keen to see me and catch up. They’re young adults now and it made me proud to see them grown up.

Gulshat is one of many friends I made at Haileybury
Astana who I have kept in touch with

I also met up with Alisher in Almaty

As for Astana, it is still dominated by the same things as when I lived there: same president, same wild weather, same wacky architecture. But things are changing quickly in very different ways, with the introduction of more international brands and renewable technologies. I have no doubt this city will continue to transform. I wonder what it will look like in another five years…

Love you all,


Sunday, 1 July 2018

Russia – Monuments to Tsars and Keyboards

June 24-25

Hello everyone!

My long train ride dropped me in the eastern – well, relatively eastern, though still nowhere near Russia’s eastern coastline – city of Yekaterinburg (the city's name can be spelt with a Y or without), Russia’s fourth largest city and one which has been the host of some interesting and important events in history.

Japanese fans in costume outside the Ekaterinburg Arena

It was here, for example, that the final royal family of Russia was executed. Tsar Nicholas II was removed from being Russia’s leader in 1917 but this wasn’t enough for the communist government which took control later in the year. Nicholas’ family were imprisoned in a house in this city, over 2,000 kilometres from their previous home in the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, in 1918.

Tsar Nicholas II was leader from 1894 until 1917

Large family photos can be seen outside the Church of Spilled Blood 

The Romanov family, as well as some other sympathisers, were assassinated in the middle of July in 1918. Initially the new government denied the execution of the other family members and their remains were only discovered in 1989. The rather long-winded Church-on-the-Blood in the name of All Saints Shone Forth in the Land of Russia (and breathe) was built on the site of the murders in 2003 as a memorial.

The church was consecrated in June 2003

Someone got into trouble two years ago for
playing Pokemon Go inside the church

As well as this dark moment of Russian history, Yekaterinburg also seems to be home to a bit of wealth. Skyscrapers and futuristic buildings are rising from the banks of the Iset River.

The Iset Tower is 212 metres tall

A view of modern Yekaterinburg 

One of the stranger buildings is their stadium, which is hosting four World Cup group matches. Stadia used in the FIFA tournament have to have a minimum capacity, which the Ekaterinburg Arena didn’t meet. Until they did this…

The FIFA picture of the stadium, which was opened in 1957

The arena is also a protected landmark so the main part of it had to be preserved

What you see at each end are stands which soar to 45 metres tall…outside the walls of the arena. These stands are temporary and will be removed after the tournament has finished, allowing the local team to play in a smaller arena which costs less to maintain.

The lower tier of the temporary stand

Safe enough?

One of the main concerns was that the view at the top of the stand would be blocked. Luckily for me, I was just over halfway up one of these wedges and had a great view of a very entertaining match between Senegal and Japan.

A great view of an entertaining game

The game finished 2-2

Though being relatively far from other World Cup venues, football fever is noticeable in Yekaterinburg. I also noticed that not a single Russian cheered when England scored their goals against Panama. Maybe the political tension is still in the undercurrent…

Locals were desperate to have photos with fans from Senegal,
which I found very interesting given the media
focus on racism before the tournament

After almost two weeks of daily football matches to watch,
tiredness can be expected
This tired young man had plenty of nicer places to sleep than a coffee shop. Yekaterinburg is a pretty city with plenty of parks and fountains.

Fountains in the Plotnika area of Yekaterinburg

There are quite a few green parks in the city

If he had stayed awake, he could have seen one of the stranger monuments I’ve seen – the QWERTY monument. A monument to…a computer keyboard. Children saw them less as a monument and more of a playground.

The monument was made in 2005

It has both Latin and Cyrillic characters

As the sun set on my final night in Russia, I watched the fountains dance and people mill about, enjoying their summer. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time in the world’s largest country and hope that the warmth and openness I’ve experienced during the World Cup stays long after the football departs. Whatever your view on the politics of the country, the vast majority of its citizens are wonderful and I’ve cherished sharing their country with them.

Yekaterinburg in the late evening - very similar to the next
place I'm visiting...

до свидания Россия!

Love you all,