Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Kazakhstan - The first Nauryz

March 17-21

Hello everyone!

March is a month full of special occasions for Kazakh people. Quickly following on from International Women’s Day is the third New Year celebration I have had since I moved to the steppe last August. We are on our Spring break a little bit before most schools back in Britain thanks to the celebration of Nauryz – Kazakh New Year.

I’ll talk about that later, but it has been a busy time for all of us. The school hosted its first ever Athletic Day on March 17th. This was the culmination of the time trials that I had established earlier in the term. The success of these was so palpable that we decided to hire a sports complex – complete with actual track, as opposed to hurtling dangerously down the corridor next to the dining hall – and hold races for all age groups.

The more eagle-eyed of you may have noticed that that date of this event was a Saturday – a non-school day. In spite of this, the vast majority of the children and staff were present for the event. I had a rather important role as the starter of each of the races. For children seven and above, that meant I got to try something new – fire a gun.

It’s fair to say that it isn’t a gun that James Bond would be content with. The instructions were entirely in Mandarin, with no pictures to help us assemble the small weapon. It worked on an irregular basis, and was soon put to one side. Why? Well, I may have fired the gun high above my head, only for the entire cartridge to explode and ricochet at pace into my hand. I still have a small mark. Best to stick to the whistle after that.

Saturday was a busy day. We also witnessed and thoroughly enjoyed a concert in the Shabyt concert hall, the outside of which seems to resemble a giant blue dog bowl. Our school’s choir performed a brilliant requiem, and one of our children played a wonderful set on the piano. It was wonderful…for the hour that I saw. I had other places to be…

Those of you who are as wise as owls – can you tell we’ve been doing animal poetry in school? – will know that this day was the finale of the Six Nations rugby championships. The one which Wales only needed one more win in to complete the Grand Slam, a clean sweep of victories in the tournament. I dashed off to a bar to ensure that the Wales-France game was being shown, then subsequently found that Al-Jazeera had changed the broadcasting channel. The wonders of the internet allowed me to revel in a fifth successive Welsh triumph, and a third GS in a mere eight years. Time to celebrate, but how?

Well, those who are hawk-eyed will have also noticed that the date of this event coincides with a rather notorious and happy national holiday for one particularly green nation. Combining this with the newly-accumulated knowledge of the location of an Irish bar that sells (incorrectly-poured) Guinness meant that we could celebrate St. Paddy’s, Wales’ rugby superiority (only me for that part) and the success of our Athletic Day in the way that Ireland’s patron saint would have wished.

We had two days left of school after that weekend, which were dominated by the build-up to Nauryz. We were treated to a delightful theatre show and some musical performances in school, and a special Kazakh lunch. Some of the teachers were also involved in the Kazakh games played in the afternoon. No beshbarmak, though – I still need to eat that properly.

Kazakh fun fact: Nauryz is celebrated across Central Asia, and is a symbol of spring renewal, fertility and friendship.

This short video was made by our Kazakh department, and will help you to visualise some of the reasons for and activities undertaken for Nauryz.

I’m now back in the motherland for a couple of weeks to remember that grass can actually be green, and that everything in Britain is relatively expensive. The dream is to return to Kazakhstan to see Astana drenched in sunshine with not a drop of snow in sight. Dream big, kids. More realistically, I do genuinely hope that the temperature will be in positive figures when I come back to continue my Astana adventure.

Happy Nauryz!
Наурыз мерекесіне арналған!

Love you all


Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Kazakhstan – The first Women’s Day celebration

March 8

Hello everyone!

March 8 is a very important day in Kazakhstan. It is when one half of the population pay their respects to the other half. It’s a holiday that isn’t recognised or celebrated in the U.K., but I can imagine that roughly 50% of the population would very much like this occasion to be marked domestically. It is International Women's Day!

Kazakh fun fact: International Women’s Day is celebrated by buying flowers, and are particularly busy in the days before March 8.

The Russian word for women is женщина, pronounced ZHEN-shi-na. It is normally a national holiday in Kazakhstan, creating a long weekend. This results, however, in people returning to work on a Sunday, which was not on our agenda. We thus opted to work on the Thursday and have a long weekend starting on Friday.

We celebrated in school with an Assembly and then a staff party at the end of the day, in which we treated the females to an alternative, funnier version of Enrique Iglesias’ classic ‘Hero’, and also sung a famous Russian song. Well, the Russian speakers sang, and the rest of us sang the chorus. All good fun.

I live with three girls, and hints had been dropped in the days leading up to the day that I should honour them in some way. I went out the night before – we were silly enough to not book a table in advance, which we will remember next year – and on my return bought presents for the trio. They were awoken with a rose each and a bottle of (fake) champagne. They seemed to approve.

I spent most of my day sending some lovely limericks to some of the ladies in school. Examples include:

There once was a lady called Claire,
One day she bumped into a bear!
He was struck by her beauty
And exclaimed ‘What a cutie!’
As her fingers drew through her smooth hair.


There’s a beauty who’s called Caroline,
With whom I will drink lots of wine,
She goes to the gym
Which I think is quite dim
As her legs are quite simply divine!

As for our long weekend, we spent much of it eating. Chinese, Georgian, Yorkshire puddings – to suggest that we pigged out would be…spot on. We also spent time doing the usual of drinking and generally enjoying ourselves.

What we definitely did do was toast the women around us. After all, the reason we had a long weekend was to celebrate them. Don’t be too jealous at home!

Love you all


Saturday, 10 March 2012

Kazakhstan - The first cross-country skiing

February 22-March 4

Hello everyone!

Back to school, and back to icy roads. The temperature has risen to the point where we feel we are through the worst of this harshest of winters, and we have brought the feel-good factor back from the U.A.E. to the place dubbed ‘the Dubai of the Steppe’.

Being in the cold and snow allows us to do different activities to those we enjoyed in the desert. One such undertaking is cross-country skiing, and I tried this for the first time soon after returning to Kazakhstan. It is a cheap and relatively accessible activity. Downhill skiing is not an option in this part of the country, due to the flatness of the land, but cross-country skiing is a popular Kazakh pastime.

Kazakh fun fact: Kazakh skier Vladimir Smirnov won seven medals in total in the 1988, 1994 and 1998 Winter Olympics, including gold in the 50 km competition in 1994.

There is a small cross-country track in a park near to our flat, so we ventured across one Saturday afternoon to test out our skiing abilities. Ski in Russian is лыжах, pronounced LY-zhuh. The track is flattened and slightly bumpy snow, but also has smoother grooves which your skis fit snugly into. Being in the latter allows you to build up a degree of confidence before attempting to master the main route.

We had been told before skiing on a rather mild Astana afternoon that it is a challenge for both your arms and your legs. I can now validate that theory. The use of your arms, in particular the shoulders, is vital in order to generate any speed when cross-country skiing. Ultimately, this resulted in us all going rather slowly and then moaning afterwards.

It was, however, a pleasant way to spend part of our weekend. The highlight was descending from the top of a small bridge, giving you a feeling that you are actually skiing, as opposed to walking with horizontal stilts. The lowlight was getting up that bridge. Difficult.

Due to tightening purse strings post-Emirati excursion, as well as having the usually heavy workload, we haven’t done too much else of note recently. We have found a new bar that actually shows rugby, which has allowed me to revel in Wales’ latest successes. Being the solitary Welshman in the school meant that I had to rely on local support, but it was a still a nice occasion.

The weather is now getting warmer. We have to now state that a temperature is ‘minus’, unlike in December and January when we could just shout out ‘25’ or ‘30’ and know that it unfortunately was not flip-flop weather. Consequently, wintry adventures such as cross-country skiing are coming to a close, but there will be plenty to keep us occupied as the heat rises. Soon…

Love you all


Saturday, 3 March 2012

U.A.E. – The first seven-Star hotel

February 17-18

Hello everyone!

Our final two days in the U.A.E. were very, very different. One couldn’t have been more challenging and intense; the other was spent in a water park. Such is the diversity of life here.

Friday and Saturday is the weekend in Dubai, owing to the former being the Muslim day of prayer. We woke up at 4am on the first day of the weekend, though not a prayer from a minaret was to be heard. Instead it was the shrill noise from our alarm clocks telling to us to get up and onto a bus. We were off to our third Emirate – Ras Al Khaimah. Why? To run a half-marathon, naturally.

It is one of the less developed Emirates, and possessed an atmosphere that suggested it had been left behind by its bigger, brasher neighbours. The race started at 7am due to the potentially fatal heat that could land later in the morning. It was a relatively flat track, but we had a few issues with wind. The main one was that we had to run into it for what seemed like quite a long time. I won’t have an ego and say that that was because I was running so quickly, though I was very happy with my time of just outside 1 hour 35 minutes. 151st overall in a race of over 1600 half-marathon competitors is more than enough to keep me happy.

My reward for completing the race was my first drink in 39 days (not that I was counting…). A sly sip of vodka and coke at roughly 9.30am resulted in me lying flat on my back feeling nauseous for the next twenty minutes. I blame it on the race itself. Protein was vital to aid recovery, and came in the form of two meals from McDonald’s and one from KFC. Just for me. Pure gluttony.

The rest of Friday was naturally a write-off. It could have been a permanent write-off for all of us when our bus decided to veer across numerous lanes of traffic in a vicious sandstorm. We were woken up by being hurtled into the seats in front of us. Apparently our driver hadn’t seen our exit off the highway, spotted it at the last minute…and then decided he could make it across.

We spent our Friday evening at a barbecue on the fourth floor of one of the many high buildings that dominate this city. We ventured up to the top floor, which had a view of the sea, the sand…and a golf course. I may or may not have then ended up being removed from a bar on the beach for falling asleep on a rather comfortable mattress…

This area of the city is close to the Palm Islands, and we returned there the following morning to gaze in wonder at a place often referred to as ‘the world’s only seven-star hotel’. To call the Burj al-Arab – known amongst us as the sailboat –a luxurious hotel would probably be a gross understatement. I say probably because we weren’t allowed inside. Still, it is stunning to look at.

From here we drove a short distance to the artificial palm islands. The creation of the Palm Jumeirah began in June 2001, and consists of a tree trunk, a crown with 16 fronds, and a surrounding crescent island. Its pride and joy is another lavish hotel: Atlantis.

As well as a hotel, it has many other fun things to enjoy. We spent our afternoon revelling in the joys of wearing not very much outside in a water park, capturing every last ray of sumptuous sunshine before it was time to leave. Aside from sprinting for a bus that then decided to remain stationary for an hour, and cheekily sneaking into first-class for five minutes on our plane and subsequently being removed, our arrival back to the chill of Astana was straightforward.

Dubai is a very strange, extravagant yet wonderful place. It seems to have an innate desire to show off its recently-discovered riches and to attract the elite of society to come and play on its golden sands. It’s not normally a place I would come for a holiday, but has been very enjoyable and relaxing. Aside from 1 hour, 35 minutes and 32 seconds of it, at least…

Love you all