Friday, 29 June 2012

Ukraine – The first Euro 2012 match

 June 19-21

Hello everyone!

Ukraine has been suffering from a fever since we arrived. Not a bad ailment, though. Football fever! 

Kyiv will be hosting the final of Euro 2012 on July 1st, so interest in the city will be maintained long after Ukraine’s exit from the tournament. It means that the city can show off its many attractions to a wider audience, and persuade them that the Ukraine is a place worth visiting.

As aforementioned, the city has a distinctly European feel. With colourful cathedrals dotted along cobbled causeways, Kyiv has an aura of history and importance. It was one of the most important strongholds in Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries, until it was ransacked by the Mongols in 1240. Many of the buildings, whilst not nearly as old as this period, possess an identity that suggests there are many stories to be told from within their vibrant and well-preserved walls.

Of course, the Ukraine’s more recent history has not been quite so triumphant. The country was assimilated into the Soviet Union in 1921, and Kyiv became an important industrial city during the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945 – the USSR didn’t officially get involved straight away after signing the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Many sculptures adorn parts of the city showing the courage and bravery of the soldiers and workers who protected this land.

More recently, tragedy struck the country and affected the north of her landscape in 1986, when an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant sent powerful doses of radiation as far as Scandinavia. I would have liked to visit the site and the nearby town of Pirayat, and it is possible to go on a (rather expensive) tour, but not booking in time means that I contented myself with the museum that remembers the people who worked at the plant and prevented the explosion from being much, much worse. There is a poignant memorial in the middle of the museum, a simple wooden cot filled with stuffed toys, to the children of Chernobyl whose lives were changed before they had a chance to grow up. 

Though these memorials serve a timely reminder to the country’s past, Ukraine is moving forward and modernising at quite a pace. This can be seen in the various Western influences that proliferate the capital. From McDonald’s to Marks & Spencer, everyone now seems to want to be involved in Kyiv’s development into a major international city. 

Why you would buy a Big Mac here, however, is beyond me. One lasting Russian influence is the food. Borsch, the purple soup, is a national symbol of pride, as are vareniki. The latter are parcels of meat wrapped inside dough, though you can have fillings as diverse as cherry or cabbage. A chain of restaurants called Puzata Khata serves up some wonderful Ukrainian and international food in the style of a canteen for very cheap prices. We didn’t need three meals a day – instead, we ate here late in the afternoons and never needed food for the rest of the day.

On one such sunny day we headed to Kyiv’s flavour of the month – the fanzone. It was filling up nicely as we gently meandered through the crowds. The population were awash with blue and yellow. Not of Ukraine, however. Of Sweden. Stockholm seemed to have taken a vacation to the Ukraine for the football; tens of thousands of them waltzed along the streets. There were plenty of locals too, hoping for an upset victory over England. The possibility of this happening wasn’t that remote, resulting in a huge number of people descending on the fanzone to watch that game.

We weren’t there, though. Ukraine were playing in Donetsk, but at the same time that Swedish army of fans were marching to support their team against France in the Olympiiska stadium that will be the centre of the footballing universe in a couple of weeks. I was going too – tickets were available for e30, which is a steal for this quality of competition. Consequently we walked to this large bowl that can hold 70,000 screaming fans, situated brilliantly in the centre of the city to add to the atmosphere.

There were a few French fans there, but unfortunately for them it seemed like a home game for Sweden. I would love to be a footballer and see that many people vehemently cheering for me in a far-off land. The fans must have inspired their team, as Sweden produced a determined and impressive display to see off an off-colour Les Bleus 2-0.


Football fever has been one of many highlights of Kyiv. I have really enjoyed this city, even though it seems to have more steps and churches as the whole of Kazakhstan. We will take this optimism and good cheer now onto a five-hour train to stop two on our Eastern European excursion: Lviv. I don’t know how to say it either.

Love you all


Thursday, 28 June 2012

Ukraine – The first AK-47 experience

 June 18-19

Hello everyone!

School’s out for summer! Time for travelling. First stop – a country swamped with blue and yellow, in spite of its Orange Revolution in late 2004. Hello Ukraine!

Though Kazakhstan has a border with Europe, it is a world away from being back on the Continent. The capital, Kyiv (Kiev), has been our first port of call on this latest adventure, and has pleasantly surprised due to its European charm. I expected quite a strong Russian influence from the Soviet era to be still lingering over this large city, but its cobbled streets, green parks and rickety trams are very reminiscent of many central European bastions.

Many more people are in the Ukraine and paying attention to it than usual due to the country’s co-hosting of the Euro 2012 football championships along with Poland. The influx of visitors should help to bring tourists to this part of the world and experience a fairly unique cultural clash between past and present.

The first day in the searing heat was spent doing what you arguably shouldn’t do in sweltering temperatures – wandering aimlessly. It allowed us to develop a feel for and learn about the largest city in Southeastern Europe. The main thing that I learnt is that it is a very hilly city and that, after months in the flat steppe of Kazakhstan, I was very much unprepared for walking with an incline. Gruelling.

What made our walk easier were some of the sights that we saw. Kyiv seems to be a bastion of religion, for you can find a chapel or cathedral on just about every corner. One of the largest and most famous is St. Sophia’ Cathedral, a green-topped complex that is incredibly almost 1000 years old. You can climb the tower – take your time – presents you with a view over the city.

The following day we headed slightly outside of the city to a farm. Within that farm is a barn. Within that barn are some of the most powerful instruments I have ever held.

We had booked ourselves onto a shooting trip. The trip seemed brief, but the maxim clearly states that, ‘time flies when you’re having fun’. I have to say that it is difficult to top the thrill of firing a sleek, strong AK-47. Mr. Kaleshnikov should be proud of his work.

We fired two different weapons. The AK-47 was much easier to control than the smaller pistol, mainly due to the former having a laser sight on it. The recoil, though light, is breathtaking on both weapons. We were allowed to keep the target sheets and some bullets as souvenirs. I am at pains to point out that, though at a farm, we did not shoot at animals. RSPCA readers need not respond.

So, our time in Ukraine started with a bang! We have blast-off in Kiev! We are gunning for more adventures! Any more cheesy pistol-related punchlines will make most people reach for their own weapon of choice. Yet it has been an absorbing and exhilarating first 24 hours in the Ukraine. The day was to only get more fun – after all, there is a football tournament on show here…

Love you all


Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Kazakhstan – The first diamond jubilee

June 14-17

Hello everyone!

Our school has a favourable connection with the British Embassy. This owes in part to the fact that there aren’t many other Brits around to converse with, but we have made friends with many of them over the past year. They held a party to celebrate an anniversary related to a figure the vast majority of people from the United Kingdom love and cherish. Long live the Queen!

Kazakh fun fact: Kazakhstan – United Kingdom relations were formally established on 19 January 1992, with the UK opening an embassy in Almaty in October that year.

We were invited to the Radisson Hotel to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. This month she marked 60 years on the throne and, even though we were thousands of miles away, we rejoiced in typical British style – with Pimms, curry and fish & chips. Delightful.

It was a busy week socially once again due to football commitments. Even though Euro2012 is in countries which are closer to us than other European nations, the timing of kick-offs is linked to Central European Time. This results in the late matches starting at 12.45am in Astana. Committed, die-hard England fans will watch their team at whatever time they can, and I joined a group of them here to watch a thrilling comeback to defeat Sweden.

This was on a Friday night. Normally we could have had the next day to recover, but Saturday was in fact our final day of school for the year. Finishing school on June 16 – can’t complain. Consequently that lack of sleep after the football was exacerbated in what turned out to be a mildly emotional Speech Day and Prizegiving ceremony in the school. A couple of my children hugged me and refused to let go of me as I won’t be their main teacher next year. Ego boost…

We signed off formally with a Summer Ball. Smart dress, great food, copious amounts of wine and champagne, a wonderful band and a night that ended with my playing DJ on the school stage – a fantastic way to sign off. And a bad head the next day.

It is now time to rest, recover and recharge for the next ten weeks or so before returning for chapter two of the Astana adventure. It’s also a great opportunity to travel, much like the Queen does. Much is happening in the world…particularly in my next destination…

Love you all