Monday, 21 November 2011

Kazakhstan - The first scavenger hunt

November 3-10

Hello everyone!

I mentioned last time that we had signed up for a scavenger hunt. The essence of it is that, for four consecutive weeks in November, each of the eight teams entered are sent a list of five questions. The answers to these are located across the city of Astana, and are often found in the most remote areas. We have decided to sacrifice our Sundays in order to complete the challenges.

But why, you ask? Why ruin your Sundays and deprive yourself of much-needed sleep in order to hunt for the colour of a restaurant sign or the name of a factory in the freezing cold and biting winds? Let me tell you. The prizes are…lavish. I’ve been told the budget that the U.S. Embassy has put towards this as an event to foster community spirit, and from the mini-prizes we have seen we know that success will bring its rewards. Rumour has it the Sky Beach in the Khan Shatyr (a.k.a. the giant tent) has been rented out for our finale party. But almost as much as that, it is a chance to see the real Astana and scout out places we would never otherwise see.

Whether you are missing out by not seeing some of these places is another question entirely but, having sufficiently recovered from the rather alcohol-laden launch party on the Thursday, we wrapped up warm on the Sunday and were soon driving round in the snow. At this point I’ll introduce you to the team that will bring home the bacon – not to mention all of the other goodies – for our team:

Matt Smith – Team Captain

Jason Hung – Driver

No decent picture available. Silly man.

Claire McCarthy – Russian speaker

Hannah Woodhead – Beacon of optimism

Fiona Bell – umm…I’m going to say humour…

A car and fluent Russian speaker are indispensible to this hunt. Astana has a modest population but the city itself is sprawled through the steppe. Our first set of clues – all completed successfully – took us north of the train station and south to an apartment block containing a Chinese restaurant. It also took us to a boat on a lake. Luckily it hadn’t frozen, so we could still clamber aboard for the first of many photos. The banter is great fun, and it will be a very important part of our lives for the next month. Expect to hear more about it as November progresses.

I’m talking about this at length because nothing else has really happened. We are working hard as ever, and I am spending some of my nights training for a half-marathon in February in Dubai. I did manage to pick a lock in school, which some would say is impressive. Others would say that it shows that not everything is perfect in school…

We’ve spent our week preparing for our class assembly, to be held first thing on Monday morning. It’s strange the things I had forgotten about a British school. Assemblies are an important way of portraying a message, and ours is friendship. I remember how much fun it was to do a class assembly when I was the same age as my children, so I have drummed into them the value of making this as fun as possible.

I’ll report back next week. It could go terribly wrong, but my kids are superstars, so I’m sure all will be grand. Assuming we haven’t got ourselves lost on our scavenger hunt before then…

Love you all


Kazakhstan - The first Cycling World Cup

October 31-November 5

Hello everyone!

We’re back in school already! Half-term seemed to fly by quicker than a shot of vodka flowing down a Kazakh national’s neck. You could say quicker than Sir Chris Hoy on a cycling track…

More about that later. A little over a week after saying sayonara to the students of Haileybury Astana we were once again at the front of our classrooms teaching the future elite of the country about subjects ranging from Jolly Phonics to Victorian orphans. After the tumultuous week I had had I was actually looking forward to returning. Nothing like thirteen children simultaneously craving your attention to focus your mind!

I returned to school to find that my display boards had fallen down, but they could wait. Our return date was October 31st – Halloween. We had been under specific instructions not to host any extravagant event, but mine and a Year 3 class decided to combine to hold a small, spooky reading session in the final period of the day. What I hadn’t expected was to see my kids return from PE and change into full-blown, life-size costumes of cats and devils. It was a wonderful, scary sight. One of the mothers also brought in a large Halloween cake from her shop, which also went down well. Not to mention quickly.

We spent the first few days slotting back into our pre-break rhythm. Within the school (adults only) there is a cider brewing competition which my house have decided to have a go at. Without any of the necessary equipment, of course. We have tried our first batch…it tasted like wine. Room for improvement.

On the Thursday evening a team of five of us went to the U.S. Embassy. Before you ask what I did wrong to be summoned there, let me back up a couple of days. Some people around the school now see me as a ‘social coordinator’ who is able to locate and populate events in Astana with our school staff. The Deputy Headmaster forwarded me an email on the Tuesday morning from the U.S. Embassy inviting teams of five to be created for a scavenger hunt across the city. I’ll go into details next time. The deadline for the team creation was…Tuesday afternoon. Cue a scramble around school for those members of staff who spoke Russian (expats only, before you get cocky) and had a car. The slots were quickly filled up, our application sent, and two soirs later we were at the launch event in the Embassy. Which had a free bar…

Needless to say school was a chore the next day. We survived on fumes, but also with the knowledge that we were heading to an internationally presitigious event in the evening. If you hold cycling in such high regard…

Well the British cycling team did, as they sent a host of past and future Olympians to the first leg of the UCI Track Cycling World Cup. It was the first time Astana had played host – the other three legs are in Cali, Beijing and London. It contributes significantly towards the decision the bosses at Team GB have regarding who to choose for London 2012. A host of other countries also took part.

We visited on the Friday night and the Saturday night. The velodrome itself, which from the outside resembles a cycling helmet, is splendid. The food – chicken samsa with the bone protruding through the pastry?? – less so. But it was great fun, and we were a select few to be cheering on Team GB, which inevitably got us noticed. We were displayed on the screen a couple of times and, on the Saturday, were able to scream our hellos and best wishes to Ed Clancy and Sir Chris Hoy, he of quadruple Olympic gold fame. He blew a kiss at us as he left the arena. I say us – clearly he meant me.

We watched him win silver in the keirin – impressive as he seemed to be in fifth storming around the final bend. I’d never been to a cycling event before – they go very fast!! Due to scavenging in bitter winds and -13’C temperatures I didn’t get to go on the final day, Sunday. Events there resulted in my two housemates meeting all of the team and blagging Team GB tracksuits. They are girls, so I don’t know if I could have pulled that off anyway.

A great story for school on Monday, nonetheless. Just one of many to come out of our first week back after half-term…

Love you all


Thursday, 10 November 2011

Kazakhstan - The first true blue lake

October 25-26

Hello everyone!

The first day in Almaty had been somewhat gloomy and overcast. Contrary to this Monday weather, which seemed to be trying to dampen our travelling spirits, we had a terrific Tuesday and a wonderful Wednesday full of glorious sunshine. Consequently, we used these days to visit Almaty’s premier outdoor attractions – from the cable cars of the Kok Tobe to the stunning tranquillity of the Big Almaty Lake. This was the real Almaty.

I’ll start with the things we saw in the city itself. I previously mentioned that Almaty is situated in the shadow of some rolling hills and mountain ranges. It is possible to reach the summit of one of these hills, the one with the 372-metre-high Almaty TV tower, by taking a short cable car ride up to the top. The views are great, albeit there isn’t too much to see at the bottom, and the top is also blessed with amusement rides that wouldn’t seem out of place on a run-down British beach resort. As well as a mini-zoo, a fountain in the shape of an apple, and life-size Beatles statues. All very strange. Must be the thinner air.

It also had a ride called the Fast Coaster. This was a toboggan ride that went down the hill and, at one point, seemed as if it was going to propel you off the track and all the way down to Almaty. Exhilarating fun for 1000T, and a much more interesting way to see the city at the bottom than from your standard viewing point.

Aside from the Kok Tobe and visiting the Central Mosque, we didn’t spend much time within Almaty’s city limits. We didn’t even really see the mosque, as the call to prayer roared from the minarets just as we were stepping inside. The subsequent need for the toilet quickly evaporated from my brain when I walked into a washroom only to receive fifty pairs of piercing eyes glaring at me as I joined the queue. I could wait.

What couldn’t wait was the desire to explore the mountain ranges surrounding the city. Whereas Astana is plonked in the middle of the barren steppe, Almaty possesses some areas of stunning beauty. The first place we went to is called Medeu, which is situated a few kilometres south of one of Central Asia’s premier skiing resorts called Chimbulak.

Medeu is a nice area, but probably looks a lot more spectacular when there are leaves on the trees. Many of the trees fell after a nasty storm earlier this year, which gave it a haunting, eerie atmosphere. The ambience of the place, being outside of either tourism season, only heightened the strange mood. Though as we had hiked up well in excess of five hundred steps to get over the dam, we were a bit tired to notice anything out of the ordinary.

After descending and catching a bus back to town, we met my friend Alisher and he drove us up…and up…and up…

Over 2500m above ground level, actually. Our target was the Big Almaty Lake, a lagoon situated within the mountains that soars to over 4500m above sea level. It is an incredible sight. The water was a pure, royal blue, almost haunting to gaze upon such was its beauty. The mountains surrounding it tower over the lake. The colours were just so true, so pure. Nature at its finest.

Kazakh fun fact: The Big Almaty Lake is less than 30km from the Kyrgyzstan border, and freezes over in winter.

We spent a reasonable amount of time circling part of the lake and scaling the smaller snow-kissed hills around it. This was the first snow I had seen in Kazakhstan – I’m sure the appeal will evaporate as it falls constantly for the next few months, but as of today it was a pleasant and joyous thing to see.

I’m a big admirer of Almaty. A comparison between here and Astana is difficult to comprehend, let alone articulate. The way I’ve described it to people up north is this: I love living in Astana, but after visiting Almaty for a short trip I had the impression I could live there and be just as happy. If the roles were reversed and I had just seen Astana for a couple of days before flying to a home of Almaty, I’m not sure if I could say the same thing.

Almaty has a natural aspect that, however money is thrown at the place, cannot be replicated in Astana. Simply because it has been a major city for much, much longer, it has a history and a community spirit that cannot be bought. Astana will develop one, and I will be part of it, but it has been really nice to see a different, more original side to Kazakhstan during my time in the ‘City of Apples’.

Love you all


Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Kazakhstan - The first war memorial

October 24-25

Kazakhstan is home to approximately 16 million people. Astana, the capital, houses around 650,000 of these people, yet is not the biggest city in the country. The most populated city is in the south of the country and is the former capital of Kazakhstan – Almaty.

Many people who work in Haileybury Astana are either from or have at some point lived in Almaty. All of these people have been saying how different and wonderful the place is, so I figured it was time to see what the fuss was all about. A ninety-minute flight in the early morning from Astana drops you into the south of the country, and into a parallel universe.

Well, not quite, but it is very different. Astana has been built for the 21st century; Almaty is a relic of the Soviet era, highlighted by us seeing some disused weaponry in a park. Astana is very man-made; Almaty is very natural. It also seems a lot more crowded than its northern neighbour. Once we found the apartment we had rented we decided to drop our bags and explore the local neighbourhood.

Almaty is positioned at the foot of a large mountain range known as the Tien Shan. As a result, the whole city is on a slope. It is also on an earthquake fault line, which will at some point in the future lead to disaster. For now though, it makes walking north significantly more pleasurable than heading south. Luckily for us we were based in the south of the city, so ambled along past various statues and buildings – as well as the new metro which doesn’t look as if it has ever opened – before ending up at Panfilov Park.

This tranquil area of the city is the location of the Zenkov Cathedral – a small church that looks like it has been plucked straight from Alice in Wonderland or Willy Wonka’s brain. It is over a hundred years old, very colourful and, incredibly, built entirely of wood. The interior doesn’t do justice to the unique design and colour scheme of the outside, but it is still a very interesting piece of architecture. Not that they do normal buildings anywhere in Kazakhstan, it seems.

Also within the green confines of this park is a war memorial consisting of many angry soldiers bursting out of a large granite rock.

Kazakhstan fun fact: There are fifteen soldiers in this monument, with each one representing one of the fifteen Soviet republics. All of them are bursting out of a map of the USSR.

There are other commemorations in this area paying tribute to those who laid down their lives for the Soviet cause. Like I said before, Almaty has much more of a Soviet influence than Astana.

Before we had observed these monuments – as well as people consummating their marriages next to the nearby eternal flame – we had walked across to the Green Market, also known as the Zelyony Bazaar. I was hopeful shopping would be cheaper in Almaty than Astana, but should also know by now to check what days markets are closed. Diary fail.

We did go to the bazaar the following morning. It is situated next to a chocolate factory that possesses a formidably favourable odour. Wikitravel claims that tours of this place are available, but we couldn’t find them. In the meantime we ambled through the narrow strips of the bazaar selling various clothes and items of stationary (as well as a Frisbee which we had never been able to find in Astana) before heading into the main building which houses the food.

There seems to be a relatively strong Korean influence in Almaty, and this was highlighted by us finding kimbap and kimchi within seconds of entering the open space of the food market. It was nice to be given free samples of food that I have truly missed. We then chatted – well, as much as I can do in Russian – with a man who sold us a big bag of delectable dried apricots before seeing the normal stuff in a Kazakh market. Animal feet and brains and the like.

Almaty as a city seems a very nice place. We have another two days of exploring to do, but am so far very impressed with what I have seen thus far.

Love you all