Monday, 17 September 2012

Kazakhstan – The first Irish invasion

September 7-13

Hello everyone! 

Just when we thought we had settled back into the school routine, we discovered that the country had been invaded. This is the tale of the arrival of a collection of funny-talking, funny-walking, heavy-drinking men and woman from an island far, far away.


Kazakhstan has had a history of being invaded or ruled by other tribes and nations. From the times of Ghengis Khan and his Mongols, who conquered the area in the 13th Century, through to the Soviet rule throughout the vast majority of the last hundred years, this vast terrain has often had to listen to the voices of others shout and sing their way through her lands. More recently, they have had border issues with China, the latest of which resulted in the discovery of a dozen or so dead Kazakh border guards in the east of the country. Though Astana itself is on the whole very safe, other parts of the country unfortunately have more serious problems with defending their country.


This latest invasion, however, was readily accepted and even welcomed by the citizens of Astana, particularly those who own pubs and bars. The reason? The Irish were coming to town.

The main sporting roads lead to Rio de Janeiro over the next few years. Before the next Olympic Games in 2016 is the small matter of the FIFA football World Cup. Qualifying for the 2014 extravaganza began for European teams on September 7th. In spite of its geographical proximity, Kazakhstan is classed as a European football nation, so has the privilege of playing some of the continent’s superpowers.



I wouldn’t call Ireland a major footballing power, particularly after what we witnessed, but it was nonetheless a fixture that interested us as British expats in Astana. More so when the tickets were a quite frankly ludicrous 1000T, or £4. The Irish fans we met told us that they would have to pay 10 times that figure to watch the return match in Dublin.


The travelling supporters are certainly not as stupid as the pub owners of Astana may think, either. A new Irish bar has recently opened, which we searched for as a natural place to go before the football match. We realised why the Irish fans had avoided it when we noticed that a Guinness cost 2450T. £11. For one pint of the black stuff. We found them in a bar less than 200m away that sold good beer for one fifth of the price. As you would expect, they were a lot of fun to be around.


The game itself started at 10pm local time in order to satisfy European TV viewers who care enough about the beautiful game to watch two technically poor footballing nations. Initially it was a rather turgid affair that was living up nicely to the 0-0 prediction suggested by a few football pundits. That was until the hero of the hour, Captain Fantastic, whose name of blah rolls off the tongue, soared highest to glance a header into the rippling net. It is the first goal that I have seen Kazakhstan score, and the crowd went wild.


It is also the only goal by Kazakhstan that I have seen. They defended heroically in the second half, against some admittedly woeful Irish attempts at attacking, and held out until the 89th minute, when a penalty broke local hearts. This was then made much, much worse when the visiting side somehow concocted a winner a minute later, in the final minute of the match. The whole crowd was depressed. The Kazakhs had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory; the Irish had been appalling against a team ranked 116 nations below them.



We celebrated in true Irish style, swapping tales over beers and consoling our Kazakh friends. The Irish were very sympathetic towards their defeated opponents, and also fascinating characters – one had only missed one home match in 43 years…because he had suffered a heart attack. He asked if he could have an ambulance to take him to the game, and was livid when they refused. Their commitment to the Irish cause is unwavering and very special.



A lovely weekend was spent enjoying the sunshine on the Ishim river and relaxing outdoors. This year we are aware of the harsh winter that is in front of us, so know that we need to spend every possible hour outside until the cold begins to bite.



So Ireland had a lucky escape, and flew back to Kazakhstan with three points but their egos very much bruised. The Kazakh team did their nation proud – hopefully they can get a more positive result when Austria visit the Astana Arena next month. On a personal note, it was nice to see more English speakers braving the unknown to come and enjoy Kazakhstan. The fans we spoke to were unanimous in their praise for and surprise with Astana, and will perhaps encourage more people to come and visit European football’s most easterly outpost.


Love you all


Sunday, 16 September 2012

Kazakhstan – The first few weeks back in the Steppe

August 18-September 7


Hello everyone!


After an eventful summer full of joy, happiness and pride, a return to the reality of working life was in order. As you may remember, I work in a British school in Kazakhstan’s capital city, Astana, and we are about to commence our second year.



I return to the world’s largest landlocked country with a great deal of British pride bursting from my very being. The United Kingdom has had an incredible and unique summer of success, and the people of the island have never seemingly been so publicly proud of the flag and their country.



From the Olympics to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations, the country has been brushed with strokes of elation. I wasn’t lucky enough to get to the main events in London, but was more than content with being in the crowd for two Olympic football matches in Cardiff.



It is common knowledge that the Great British team (we can stop with the corporate ‘Team GB’ moniker now, surely?) has unparalleled success in their home Olympics.



What is perhaps less known is that the country I work and live also achieved their best medal return. Kazakhstan, with stellar performances from the likes of Alexandr Vinokourov, Olga Rypakova and Ilya Ilyin contributing to a tally of 7 golds and 13 medals. The parade for the medallists was a lavish ceremony in Astana, which I unfortunately just missed.



The city itself doesn’t seem to have changed spectacularly since we left in the summer. In defence of the capital, we have only been away for nine weeks, but judging from the speed of some of the construction that took place last year I was half-expecting a brand new, shiny building to have appeared from the floor of the dusty steppe.



School opened on September 1st. Before that time we reminded ourselves of the various pleasures that this city possesses when basked in scorching sunshine. As reality slowly bites and the mountain of work slowly builds, opportunities for new adventures may become scarce. In the meantime, I can content myself with looking forward to (maybe) competing in the next Olympics in Rio. Well, that’s my justification for buying a table tennis table…




It is very nice to be back in this most intriguing and fascinating country, and to have a purpose once more. There is plenty to pique our interest in what promises to be a Super September, so stay tuned!



Love you all