Friday, 20 January 2012

Kazakhstan – The first ice slide


January 3-10

Hello everyone!

After an early Monday morning flight, we had returned safely to our home city of Astana. I would say that our adventure had ended, but that would be false – this place constantly surprises us, in good ways and bad. One particularly pleasant surprise was to return to see the river still frozen, but with some interesting additions…




The boulevard alongside the river is the starting point for numerous man-made ice slides which descend onto – not into – the Ishim. Going into the river would surely be fatal – though judging from the small dipping pools cut further up the frozen waterway, some people test this theory out – so some kind people have cleared the snow to leave an icy path at the bottom to slide along.




We watched some children giggle and chuckle their way down the slopes and decided that we needed to release our inner child. It is great fun – and much better on a small plastic bendy sledge, purchasable for 200T from an old man at the top of the slide. Cardboard is good, but the one time we used our green plastic seats we reached the end of the track and crashed into the small wall of packed snow.




video

 It was nice to have a few days in Astana to relax and prepare for the new school term. It wasn’t that cold – we were told that it reached peaks of -6 whilst we were away – so we were able to be productive and have fun in the snow. We explored the area around our flat to find many ice sculptures, ranging from the bizarre sight of an icy Winnie the Pooh to the incredible sculpture of a Kazakh warrior.





Most of the staff returned from their winter break on the weekend before school, and we all met up at the Radisson Hotel for their Sunday brunch. 5,000T – a little over £20 – for all you can eat and all you can drink. A very nice way to spend a Sunday.




That was my last drop of alcohol for quite a long time. Training for the RAK half-marathon is now going to consume my life outside of school. Consequently, these blogs will decrease in number over the next six weeks or so. However, I will endeavour to unearth new discoveries in Astana to share with you all. Unless I spend all of that time sliding…




Love you all

Matt

Monday, 16 January 2012

Kazakhstan - The first Kazakh New Year


December 29-January 2

Hello everyone!

After travelling around the eastern edge of Europe over the Christmas period, we decided to spend New Year a bit closer to home. Home, of course, is Kazakhstan thesedays, and we flew from Georgia (the country, not the state) to the biggest city in the biggest landlocked country in the world – Almaty.





I had seen most of the sights of the ‘City of Apples’ in October, but Justine had not been here before, so we traversed a similar route to the one I took on my previous trip. It was slightly different due to the slight dusting of snow, but at -5’C wasn’t particularly cold.




Kazakh fun fact: Kazakhs celebrate FOUR New Years – Western, Russian Orthodox, Old Kazakh and ‘other’ Old Kazakh, called Nauryz. The last of these is in March. Any excuse for a party!


New Year celebrations – and New Year trees – were very much prevalent when we arrived two days before the big event itself was to take place. We visited an expat bar which was hosting various competitions, ranging from random Kazakh dancers to wearing very strange hairdos. A friend of a friend came second, winning a large apple shisha for our table. I happily engaged with this whilst Justine chatted to some girls we had unwittingly befriended by me almost decapitating one with a stray pool shot earlier in the evening.





As for New Year’s Eve, we had a problem. Most Kazakhs spend the moment of movement from old year to new with their families. This meant that, although we know many people who were in Almaty, we weren’t sure who we could spend it with. Luckily Chris, a friend who runs his own language school in Astana, was around and able to direct us to a relatively cheap bar that he was going to be frequenting. 2,000KZT – or about £9 – seemed perfectly reasonable compared to the 22,000KZT being demanded by the place we had been the previous night.





Our night involved…get ready…two bottles of fake champagne…


…drinking backgammon…

…a bottle of red wine…

…a meal in an expat bar that we managed to get for half-price thanks to a sympathetic waiter…

…two long island iced teas…

…a five course meal split between two…


…another bottle of red…

…a toast with the President of Kazakhstan from his house in Astana…


…an unknown amount of vodka and cokes…

…a man with a snake around his neck…


…a potential fight with a large Kazakh man who suggested I was gay…

…an unknown amount of beers…

…pretty dancers in Santa costumes…


…a toast with the President of Russia…

…conversation with two Englishmen in Almaty for 24 hours…

…a giant cake from which I stole one-third of the middle tier…


…and an unknown time of leaving which has been worked out as between 5am and 6.30am.


Needless to say the rest of our time in Almaty was tiring and hungover-fuelled. Tip for you all: never go on a cable car with a hangover that ends up lasting two days. Ever. Even if the view from the top of the Kok Tobe is worth it. This is the picture of me going up in October, as I was unwilling to pose this time round…





We did do one new thing in Almaty. On December 1, 2011, Kazakhstan’s first ever metro was opened here. We rode for a short while. It’s not like your standard metro, in that each of the six stations (more to follow) are intricately decorated with decorations linked to the name of the stop. The stop for the Green Market, for example, has designs of places famous for markets, such as Egypt and India. Bit more fun – not to mention clean – than the Tube in London, that’s for sure. It should be really, considering it took 23 years to construct…





It was a very interesting New Year. It was memorable, even though I don’t remember significant parts of it. We signed off 2011 in style, and I am immensely looking forward to the adventures that 2012 will bring!!





с Новым годом!!
Happy New Year!

Love you all

Matt

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Georgia – The first Stalin museum


December 27


Hello everyone!


In my previous blog I mentioned that we had been based in the capital of Georgia, Tbilisi, for the best part of a week. In reality, there isn’t really enough in the city to occupy and stimulate you for that period of time, so we decided to research potential day trips in the surrounding region.  After learning that the Kakheti wine region is as yet not set up for tourism in the way that many other wine regions are in the world, we learned of a museum that was a 90-minute bus ride away. We thus travelled to the small town of Gori, where one of Georgia’s most famous – or infamous – exports grew up.


Other famous people born in Georgia include Katie Melua, the British singer-songwriter, and Temuri Ketsbaia, the slightly crazy footballer. But one name jumps out from the list. For those of you who don’t know, Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili was actually born in Georgia. Who, you ask? Well, he’s more commonly known to us as Joseph Stalin – leader of the USSR, a key figure in the instigation of the Cold War, and murderer of millions. One of the most despised men of the 20th century.


Except here, in Gori, he’s not. He’s actually…revered. Well, to an extent. Though a statue was removed in 2010, he has a street and a square named after him, and there is also an entire museum dedicated to his life. The Cold War, the beginning of which heavily involved Stalin, is one of my favourite periods of history, so I was particularly keen on seeing this strangest of dedications.






The drive to Gori was eventful enough, mainly because the taxi driver decided to try breaking all speed records on our journey. Highlights – or the peaks of my heart rate – included weaving inbetween two cars and an industrial digger within what can’t have been more than 100 metres, and overtaking a police car. Which had its lights on chasing someone else. Brilliant.


The museum was wonderful for its eccentricity. All signs and captions inside are in Russian, so unless you are a proficient reader of the language you need to have an English-speaking guide. Tania thought we were rather funny with our quirkiness, and my inquisitive nature – for example, when looking at gifts given to Stalin by world leaders, where the British gift was (clearly there wasn’t going to be one forthcoming, not after Churchill’s ‘Iron Curtain’ speech) – must have a rare occurrence for her. Other presents include a pen and an image made entirely of tobacco leaves. Good job on being creative, Romania.






Being a museum, it’s pretty educational, but some of the things we learnt were fascinating. For example, Stalin was exiled to Siberia seven – SEVEN – times before rising up to the forefront of the Communist Party. I was more concerned that he managed to escape five – FIVE – times, and pardoned for the others. Security not exactly watertight in Siberia, though it is a rather large area.




Another intriguing one, which isn’t noticeable until you know, is that Stalin’s left arm is shorter than his right – the product of an accident during his childhood. The majority of the museum, however, is more what you would expect – plenty of paintings and busts portraying an important figure, and materials from his childhood.






Some of the items from his childhood are larger than others, and you won’t find a bigger example than the house that Stalin grew up in. It’s safe to say that he lived in grander estates in his later years. Another fascinating item that is confined within the grounds of the museum is Stalin’s personal train. It is the one that took him to the Yalta Conference in 1945, and is apparently bulletproof. Whilst the chassis could be, I would be willing to bet an AK47 round or two could crack a few of the windows.







Contrary to the adoration suggested thus far, the museum is willing to accept that Stalin sent millions of people to their deaths. I’m not sure that the fact that they accept this but still appreciate him is actually scarier than an outright denial of his heinous crimes. Hundreds of thousands of Georgians lost their lives under Stalin’s leadership of the USSR – not just through fighting to save them from the Nazi invasion, but also through numerous purges and murders. The museum also briefly touches on more recent attacks directed by Moscow, when Russian tanks rolled into Georgia during the South Ossetian War of 2008. The town of Gori was affected, and our guide had to flee to Tbilisi for 20 days.





Gori is not just about Stalin – it also has a crumbling and very windy fortress – but the only reason that this remote Georgian town is on the map is because of a man who was voted as TIME magazine’s ‘Man of the Year’ in 1943. Did it change my opinion of Stalin? Not at all. Nevertheless, it was a fascinating experience to learn more about the life of someone so infamous by visiting his hometown.








Love you all


Matt