Saturday, 24 September 2011

Kazakhstan - The first samsa

September 3-11

Hello everyone!

One of the numerous things I was curious about before arriving in Kazakhstan was the level of English used throughout the country. We teach through the medium of English in our school, with the obvious exceptions of Kazakh and Russian. Of course I can only give a judgment from the cosmopolitan capital city for now, but I do have an idea of how much English is used.

Kazakhstan fun fact: In his address to the nation in 2011, President Nazarbayev stated that, “by 2020 20% of the population should speak English freely”.

Not much, is the answer. This makes it surprising when someone is capable of speaking to me in my native language. One example was on a Saturday walk around the Keruen shopping centre when Justine and I were approached by two teenage boys asking where we were from. We decided to use them as a resource to try and find cheap restaurants in our area. It was particularly cute when one of them called his mum to ask on our behalf.

Exploring a culture’s food is a fundamental experience of living or travelling in another country, and Kazakhstan is no different. I tried a new food the following Saturday – samsa. It is a rather large triangle of flaky pastry with a filling inside, normally served warm and pretty cheap at 80KZT. Sound familiar?

Yes, it’s basically a Greggs pasty. Is this where they got their original ideas from? Perhaps. Mine has meat inside – unlike our famed pasty company, they don’t do specifics here. Similarly to Greggs, however, the meat content percentage probably wasn’t overly high.

I was eating this after walking around the Right Bank of Astana. Shortly before my samsa I had come across some local markets, one particular beast soaring five floors high into the clear blue sky. The Russian word for market is рынок, pronounced rih-NOK.

I didn’t explore beyond the ground floor, but that itself was fascinating. Sheep heads and bodies side by side, sausages of intestines and chunky slabs of meat lining the aisles. I like this part of town – it seems more local, and subsequently more cultural and real.

It wouldn’t be a weekend without having some night-time fun, of course, and we spent the night at a housewarming on the Right Bank near the river. The cheap cheap vodka tastes…well…cheap. It offends your senses even more when mixed with Mirinda, a luminous green fizzy apple drink. That combination offends all the senses, actually.


We had our first full week of school this week. It has been very tiring, stressful and intensely rewarding. I won’t use this blog to talk about school too much, but if anything particularly wonderful crops up then I’m sure I will let you know. We did have our first Science experiment, and Drama turned out to be a lot of fun.

Life is chaotic and fulfilling out here, and the weather is still absolutely gorgeous. There isn’t anything I really miss from the UK – custard will be on the way soon, I’m sure – but if I were to ever miss a steak bake from Greggs, I know that there is a Kazakh variant that is much cheaper and tastes exactly the same. I’ll leave you to judge for yourselves if that is a good thing or not.

Love you all


Thursday, 22 September 2011

Kazakhstan - The first trip up the Bayterek

September 2

Hello everyone!

As you will have seen from some of the pictures, Astana is a city on the move and the home of some spectacular architectural feats. One of the main sights in this wonderful city is called the Bayterek, also known as the ‘Tree of Life’. It was about time we entered it.

The Bayterek is a 105m tall monument that epitomises the elevation of the status of this city. It was built at a similar time to the decision to move the capital city here from Almaty. The structure consists of a narrow cylindrical shaft surrounded by white lattice girders which widen toward the top. The top itself contains a golden sphere, which contains an observation deck. The lattice is illuminated in a variety of colours at night, making it seem even more spectacular.

The legend behind this monument is very intriguing. A mythical bird, Samruk, lays a golden egg containing the secrets of human desires and happiness in a tall poplar tree, beyond the reach of the humans. This legend, however, is shattered by the lift that takes you 97m into the sky, and into the egg, to the observation deck of what we have dubbed the ‘World Cup’. Find me another building that looks more like the Jules Rimet trophy and I’ll give you a house point.

Kazakhstan fun fact: A handprint of President Nazarbayev’s hand is in the observation deck, and the Kazakh national anthem plays when you place your palm within his. (Well, it’s supposed to – obviously the speakers weren’t working when we tried…)

Rising into the golden egg at night renders photography of the remarkable buildings below rather difficult due to the reflective element within the orb. Still, the views are incredible. On one side there is Ak Orba, the residence of the President. In the opposite direction, following the Nurzhol Bulvar, is the Khan Shatyr. Most of the other wonderful creations are visible from the centrepiece of the Left Bank, and the symbol of Astana’s meteoric rise.

Before going up the Bayterek we had fuelled ourselves with some local cuisine from a cheap food chain called Arman. We have sampled a few of the local delights. There is a dish called laghman, which is a relatively spicy soup with thick noodles and some random meat. Very cheap, filling and tasty. Another Kazakh food we have tried recently is manti –a tremendously satisfying large dumpling filled with meat and pumpkin.

Both of these meals seem more acquitted to the winter season than the golden sunshine we are living through. Temperatures are often in excess of 30’C: something I really didn’t expect to witness in Kazakhstan. It makes walking around school in a suit that much more fun.

Aah yes, school. First impressions? The kids seem great. Some struggle with English: others are fantastic. They all seem very well-behaved and eager to learn. It is all a bit chaotic in the school, but that is to be expected in the opening days and weeks. The school seems on the rise, just like the golden ball from the imperious Bayterek.

Love you all


Monday, 19 September 2011

Kazakhstan - The first boating trips

September 1-3

Hello everyone!

Our first day of school ended early. The sun was blazing down on Astana, making the buildings shimmer. Time to explore. Time to rock the boat.

This blog is about two boat rides we took within days of one another. The first was on that Wednesday afternoon after the first day of school, and the second was just after the sun set on our first school week, on a Friday evening. Two very different experiences on the same stretch of the Ishim River.

Kazakhstan fun fact: Astana is neatly split down the middle by the Ishim River (also known as the Esil River), with the vast majority of the futuristic buildings on the Left Bank and the Old Town on the Right Bank.

We had spotted rowing boats moored on the side of the river on a previous excursion, so decided to see if they were available at our leisure and for our pleasure. They indeed were, and were very cheap – 1000KZT for half an hour. A wonderful way to relax, you would think. Especially with Enrique Iglesias - sorry, Alisher - rowing our boat for us.

Except that some of us decided to use the oars for an alternative purpose – splashing other boats. Great fun in the Central Asian sun: mainly because we didn’t get that wet. Afterwards we found a bar that serves beer for 220KZT – less than one of your British pounds. We’ll be back.

We’ll be back for the boats, too. At least until the river freezes over, something we have been warned to expect. The Russian word for boat is лодка, lod-ka.

Whilst manoeuvring the rowing boats around the small designated area, we spotted a larger boat docked on the bend in the river. We subsequently found out that this boat travelled serenely towards the Palace of Peace & Accord (the pyramid near the military march) and back, and did so many times, day and night. We decided that this would be a perfect way to start our weekend, so arranged a large group of teachers and assistants to hop aboard.

We were proved right, especially when we found out that we could take our own alcohol on board. Even though they had their own bar on the boat. 700KZT for a forty minute cruise along the Ishim. The change in light as we moved with the slight current was particularly spectacular.

We ended this night in a karaoke club. Bit different from Korea – we were in a large function room which had a stage at one end and a giant screen high up at the other, with several tables inbetween. 100% score on Wonderwall, naturally, but my rendition of Sex Bomb will probably bar me from joining the school choir anytime soon.

It is good to see that we will keep playing just as hard as we are working. It is imperative that we take advantage of this wonderful weather before the cold, soulless grip of winter tears social opportunity and exploration from our numb hands. We are having a fantastic time in Kazakhstan and, just like the Ishim River, long may it continue to move along serenely and smoothly.

Love you all


Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Kazakhstan - The first Presidential visit

August 31

 Hello everyone!

The official opening of our school was held on Wednesday, August 31. An exciting day for teachers, students, parents – everyone, really. Yet it was overshadowed by a very special visitor to our new school. Nursultan Nazarbayev – President of the Republic of Kazakhstan – decided to pop in.

We had been expecting this. We had two schedules for our first day at school, depending on whether the President would arrive. Throughout our preparation delegations sent by Nazarbayev inspected the school. We were constantly told, however, of the sage of the President seeing our affiliate school in Almaty. He was due to arrive on the first day of school there, in August 2008; he arrived in mid-December at 5.15pm, after all the children had left for the day. We were, however, informed in our briefing on Wednesday morning that he would definitely be coming to school.

President Nazarbayev has been running the country since 1989. Elections here are seen by external administrators as a foregone conclusion – he won 95.5% of the vote in this year’s election. Nonetheless, he is extremely popular for the prosperity, investment and hope he has brought to Kazakhstan. It is investment from one of his ministries that helped establish a school in Astana.

Fun fact: It was President Nazarbayev who wanted to move the capital city to Astana from Almaty.

The first day was a meet-and-greet session where we could introduce ourselves to the students and allow them to be part of the explosion of excitement. This was encapsulated in the releasing of hundreds of balloons from the school quad – a symbol of hope.

Before this was an assembly to welcome the new children, the vast majority looking very smart in their blazers, to the school. Music was played and speeches were made. Oh, and our Headmaster who speaks little Russian tried his hand at doing his whole speech in…Russian. A top effort, and most of the children understood him. A great leader of our team.

After the assembly and the balloons we entertained the children and explained some of the school rules to them, all the while waiting for the call from elsewhere that the President was on his way. Years 5 and 6 were to perform a song for the President in our drama studio. In keeping with the theme of the President being an affable man, they were to sing ‘For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow’. President in Russian is Президент – pre-zee-DENT.

Words and dance moves were learned, and no sooner had we finished practicing were we standing silently in line waiting for the President and his entourage to swing round the corner to see our show. Not literally swing – the guy is 71. But in he came, watched, clapped…and left. No handshake or ‘hello’. But he is a busy man, and had a lot more to see. Kazakh TV crews followed him around the school as he surveyed the newest school in his country.

So enough about Nazarbayev for now. The first day of school was nerve-wracking, exciting, incredible. Not just for us, but for the children as well. They got to see their big new classrooms and meet their new classmates of the next school year. But it was also exhausting, in spite of the children leaving before 1pm. So much energy and emotion was poured into this day by all involved, making it a tremendous success.

This site was steppe less than two years ago. Now it is the base for (hopefully) of the finest educational institutions in Central Asia. Vivalat Haileyburia, as our song proudly proclaims. The first day has come and gone – now it’s time for the really hard work to start.

Love you all