Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Kazakhstan – The first Victory Day

May 9

Hello everyone!

Kazakhstan is a proud and relatively new country, having only celebrated its 20th birthday last December. It wants to showcase its national culture to the world; one example is the rise of the Kazakh language. This is often to help the country recover from its time as the Kazakh SSR, when the Soviet Union used its land for projects as diverse as water irrigation, gulags and nuclear testing. There are few Soviet events that are openly celebrated here, but the 9th of May is one of them.

On the 9th of May, Germany surrendered and the Allies had won the war. You may see that as a typo – in Britain we are always taught that VE Day is on May 8th. Apparently, the reason that it is celebrated a day later in the former USSR is because of the delay in the message being relayed to Moscow.

Kazakh fun fact: Kazakh soldiers were among the first to reach Berlin in April 1945, and three of them helped to hoist the Red Flag over the final Nazi stronghold.

Either way, Victory Day is a big celebration in many of the 15 former Soviet republics, and Kazakhstan is no exception. It is yet another national holiday, which once again meant that we had time on our hands to explore the city which didn’t really exist when this celebration first occurred.

The weather matched the mood in Astana, the Sun searing down on smiling faces as crowds congregated eagerly close to Congress Hall. They were waiting for what turned out to be a concert of patriotic singing and dancing, the performers in which were all dressed perfectly in old Soviet uniforms. It was a shame that the main memory for us was one of the dancing soldiers slipping and falling. It was a nice show of pride and euphoria that must have matched the mood all those years ago.

Astana itself has been decorated for the occasion. The town had most definitely been painted red with posters and banners exclaiming and reminding of the importance of the day.

The events carried on into the dark night, which was illuminated with booming and ferocious fireworks. Car alarms were set off in copious numbers, such was the power of the soundwaves generated from each colourful explosion. It all added to an atmosphere of military might and power that is a stark reminder of this new country’s past.

Though this past may be chequered and often painful to learn about, there are plenty of times of celebration, and Victory Day is just another one.

Love you all


Friday, 11 May 2012

Kazakhstan - The first wild flamingos

May 6

Hello everyone!

After a three-day week in school – an occurrence that we could definitely get used to – the first weekend of May was upon us. Now that the snow has melted and temperatures are more than bearable, we want to get outside and explore Astana and its surrounding areas as much as possible before the inevitable and harsh winter forces us into retreat once again.

As mentioned previously, Kazakhstan is a rather large country which possesses an often desolate landscape known as the steppe. Whilst other cities such as Almaty have beautiful mountains and other appealing day trips within striking distance, Astana, the capital, sits in the middle of this barren wasteland. Consequently, there isn’t too much we can see without using a plane, as we had to do last weekend to get to Aktau.

There are a couple of options available to us. We went to the ‘Switzerland of Kazakhstan’, Borovoe, in September, and Malinovka is also close enough to see in a day trip. There is one other location of interest, and this is where we spent our Sunday.

Korgalzhyn Nature Reserve is a UNESCO World Heritage Site situated roughly 120km south-west of Astana. It is a protected area of wetlands that are vital for millions of migratory birds every year. 50million, actually. Kazakhstan, and this area in particular, is seen as one of the priority areas for wetland conservation in central Asia.

The ‘Pearl of Central Kazakhstan’ is based in the heart of the steppe. After a visit to a museum and lunch we had the opportunity to walk around this most deserted of locations. As you can expect, there isn’t too much to see. Aside from the occasional mound that housed important people that had died a long time ago, the landscape was as flat as a pancake.

Lunch was an interesting event in itself. For the first time since I moved to Kazakhstan, I had proper beshbarmak. Almost. It was beef instead of horse, but essentially the dish was the same – meat and potatoes on top of lasagne pasta layers, all in a clear broth. The dish is not made for an individual – it is comfortably sufficient to feed ten people, and placed as the centrepiece of the table. Heavy, hearty food, but absolutely delicious.

Kazakh fun fact #1: Beshbarmak is often served at celebrations such as weddings.

Whilst we were eating our feast we were entertained by some local music; firstly on the dombra, before a large man started belting out some popular Kazakh folk songs. We were sat with many of our friends from school who were born in this wonderful country, and they told us many fascinating stories about their homeland.

Kazakh fun fact #2: Stealing of women is, whilst not common, a disturbingly frequent occurrence in Kazakhstan.

Yes, that’s right. Apparently if you like a girl, you can kidnap her and take her to a different town. If he has her under lock and key for long enough, she becomes his. Surely the woman can escape? They could, but the men allow lots of old women to lie on the floor in front of the door. A young girl is not allowed to step over an older woman out of respect, thus is stuck. It can be used for good, however – some poor men ‘steal’ their true love and take them away. As a result, they can elope together and live happily ever after.

One of the main attractions of Korgalzhyn at this time of year is the potential to see flamingos in the wild. There are many species of bird that move north through this region in early May, including eagles and hawks, but the reason for our attendance was to hopefully see some long-necked, vividly pink animals gracefully waltzing through the lakes of the nature reserve.

It was thus unfortunate that we were told in the museum that there were no flamingos within the grounds of this vast nature reserve, and that we would be disappointed if we spent our time looking for them. We would instead have to be content with the paintings of our elegant feathered friend.

Alas, they were wrong. We were trudging along the quiet, flat steppe towards one of Korgalzhyn’s bigger lakes containing a game of swans. Someone peered through their binoculars and spotted an animal that was not particularly white and swan-like. Its long, bendy neck was moving serenely in and out of the water. We had found the flamingos!

We later found that we were lucky – a group after us had not been able to locate the birds, and had gone home disappointed. We, on the other hand, went home more than satisfied with a day out in nature. Korgalzhyn Nature Reserve was a welcome break from the concrete jungle of the city, and is an easy enough and enjoyable day trip from Astana.

Love you all


Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Kazakhstan – The first dip in the Caspian Sea (extra video)

Here is an extra video of me swimming in the sea...enjoy! I'm not sure if I did...

Kazakhstan – The first dip in the Caspian Sea

Kazakhstan – The first dip in the Caspian Sea

April 28-May 1

Kazakhstan is a country that isn’t particularly easy to locate on a map. One reason for this is that it doesn’t have an Ocean along its long borders. The country is the biggest landlocked country in the world, which means that a trip to the seaside is rendered impossible.

It should be impossible. However, the west of this massive land mass is flanked by the Caspian Sea. It is the largest inland body of water in the world, and the northeast of it is bounded by Kazakhstan. The basin also contains a lot of oil – recent estimates value the oil reserves in the Caspian at over $12trillion.

Consequently, some major development is taking place in cities on the western coast of Kazakhstan. The biggest of these is called Aktau, and we took advantage of a long weekend to investigate and relax on the beach.

The latter objective was difficult to accomplish. It does have sandy beaches – the only problem is that there are lots of other materials in and on the beach, such numerous shards of glass. Luckily, there are several flat, low-lying rocks adjacent to the water which were perfect for the four of us to lounge on.

 The gentle lapping of the waves onto the rocks was a peaceful sound. On one of the days it was interrupted by a group of young boys deciding to madly divebomb into the water right next to us. They were clearly trying to impress the girls in our group, but they were cute and some had wonderful smiles which could radiate across any sea.

One of the boys was larger than most and was trying to push the other lads into the chilly waters, but we managed to persuade him that he also needed to jump in. needless to say, he immediately regretted that as he was soon stood shivering on the side. All good-natured fun.

These boys weren’t the only people to brave the sea. We even saw a man snorkelling, although the fact that he was wearing a full diving suit was a clue about the temperature. We had sworn to ourselves that we would enter the water at some stage during our long weekend. This seemed unlikely after the first day, when we merely dipped our feet into the Caspian and found that they turned numb.

Nevertheless we were determined to achieve our goal. Before the kids were busy goading themselves into jumping in we had managed to dunk ourselves into a small lagoon. On the Monday, we finally managed to swim in the Caspian. Less of a swim and more of a thrash, admittedly, but mission was accomplished.

I could talk about sunbathing and ten seconds of swimming at length as we didn’t do too much else. Aktau is a town that is in the embryonic stages of development. There are a couple of statues – the one of a MiG plane overlooking the beach is spectacular – but aside from that there isn’t too much to see. We enjoyed our evenings, and spent the final night watching the sun set on the beach.

 We came out here with the intention of recharging our batteries before taking on the final six weeks of the school year. We have definitely achieved that goal. Aktau has what most of Kazakhstan simply cannot offer – sun, sand and (a very cold) sea.

Love you all