November 26 - December 3
The temperature is plunging to new depths here in Astana. The last thing you would expect to do when the thermometer is closer to -50’C than to 0’C is to go to the beach. But that is exactly what we did this weekend.
We’ll get to that, though. Plenty of other activities have happened this week, in addition to the ever-eventful school week. It was the birthday of one of the Year 6 Teaching Assistants the previous weekend, so we decided to take them out for dinner to a local restaurant. When we arrived, we were told that there was ‘no gas’, and that food wouldn’t be available for at least an hour. Vodka, however, was available…
By the time our food had arrived, a few bottles of the clear liquid had come and gone. It’s a good way to keep warm in the ever-colder city of Astana.
Kazakh fun fact: When Kazakhstan used to be part of the Soviet Union, outdoor vodka stalls and vending machines were very popular. In the winter, people would come to the machine and get a glass of vodka. Once finished with it, they would return the glass into the snow, which was so cold that it acted as a disinfectant on the glass. It could thus be recycled and used again and again. The reason that it doesn’t happen anymore is because the glass would now be stolen. Apparently.
It is cold enough to drive away any aspect of tourism but Carl, being an exception as ever, decided to extend his stay. I received a phone call from a random Kazakh number on the Thursday evening when I was working late in school. It went a little something like this…
Carl: Matt, it’s Carl.
Matt: How are you?
Carl: Not great, mate. I’m in a police station.
Carl: Yeah, the police have taken me in and I don’t know where I am. Can you get me out?
Cue a frantic run around the school – the only reason I was still there was because my swimming lesson overran and I missed the bus – to find a Russian speaker to help me. Two hours later and we were rescuing the poor boy from a small, dingy station by bringing his passport. Tip: If you ever come to Kazakhstan, always carry your passport. He didn’t, and was lucky that we were able to help.
Still, it gives him a good story for when he leaves. He has plenty of them, and Friday will definitely be one of them. We headed from school to the Canadian Ambassador’s house for the inaugural ‘Canada Club’, a meeting where it’s acceptable to love Kraft Dinner and say ‘oot’. It was very nice actually, and I got to see a few expatriates who I hadn’t seen in a while. From their cheap beer and whisky we went into the Khan Shatyr for dinner – KFC seems to be the only American fast food, I’m yet to see a McDonald’s – before heading on to the main event of the evening.
As you will know from reading previous editions, I was involved in a scavenger hunt over the previous month. This hunt took us to many remote parts of Astana that I will never see again, but was necessary in order to try and win the competition. The final ceremony was taking place at the Sky Beach of the Khan Shatyr. It normally costs 6,000T (over $40) to enter the indoor beach and spa but, as esteemed scavengers, we had free entry to the party.
Kazakh fun fact: The sand from the beach is imported from a combination of the Caspian Sea and the Maldives.
It is bizarre to be stood on a beach in the middle of the night when it is close to -30’C outside. It is almost stranger to look up when stood on the sand to see a translucent roof over your head. As there weren’t too many people around – it was a private party – it was a very different experience to what I’m assuming is the norm here, that being children screaming and running around whilst parents try to get some quiet time.
Quiet time is possible, though. Amongst the facilities are a set of beds. Actual beds, though admittedly the plastic covering would prevent me from sleeping there for a significant period of time. There are also swimming pools, water slides and a wave pool. I’ll definitely come back for a day at some point with a book and appreciate being able to wear flip flops again.
As for the reason that we were here…we came second in the scavenger hunt, losing on a tiebreak. Still, it was a herculean effort from Team Well-Hung, and as we posed with our ‘Steppe in Time’ trophy we knew that we had had some great times over the past month. As we slipped away at 3am into the brisk wintry Astana air, we also slipped back into reality, having spent the night in the most surreal of locations.
Love you all