Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Kazakhstan – The first Astana model

October 20-28

Hello everyone!

After a few weeks of working hard and not doing anything particularly noteworthy, we have reached our first holiday of the school year. British schools have a week’s rest towards the end of October, and thankfully we also receive this privilege. Many people choose to leave Kazakhstan to get some final warm rays in the Middle East. I, however, opted to have a ‘staycation’, and chose to explore more of this country’s capital.


As I’ve mentioned before, Astana is one of the newer capital cities in the world. It was a provincial town with little going for it before President Nazarbayev elected to move the capital here from Almaty. The transition was completed in 1997, and the city has become a modern-day project in city-building. It is rare for a major city to be able to build itself up from scratch.


Astana has subsequently become home to many interesting buildings. One of the latest buildings, the Hazrat Sultan Mosque, opened in July. When I arrived a little over a year ago even the foundations didn’t seem to exist. The speed at which the building shot up was incredible. It is mind-boggling that builders continue to construct this city in temperatures that plummet to -40’C.

 The building unfortunately caught fire in the winter, which put back the full completion of the mosque, bankrolled by Saudi Arabian investors, until July. The mosque was opened to commemorate the 14th anniversary of the switch from Almaty to Astana.


Kazakh fun fact: The Hazrat Sultan Mosque is now the largest mosque in Central Asia.


I have read that he mosque is big enough to take 5,000 worshippers and is roughly the size of 18 football pitches. The inside of it, as with many mosques, is spacious and elegantly decorated. Its centrepiece is a pretty fountain just inside the main entrance of this jasmine-tinted place of worship.


The mosque is the latest lavish building to have been constructed in Astana, and will definitely not be the last. Indeed, one of the creations designed and completed in 2008 is a scale model of what Astana hopes to look like in 2030, by which time the powers that be believe they will be living in a major international city.


The model is in the Palace of Independence, a building that resembles an upturned shopping trolley. After waiting a rather long time for somebody to enter the ticket office, we were escorted past a fascinating picture before moving up to see the model on the second floor. The picture, as you can see below, is a painting of President Nazarbayev at the opening of Ak Orda, his palace of work. On one side of the canvas are world leaders who were present at the ceremony; on the other side are leaders who, for whatever reason, did not attend. See how many you can name, and if you know which side was in the room in 2006!



The model itself is an incredible achievement – it is the second biggest city model in the world, with only an equivalent in New York City being larger. Our tour guide, a wonderful man called Yerlan, showed us the grand ideas that it is hoped will come to fruition. Some, such as the Khan Shatyr, have already happened. We were told that others, such as the crazy spaceship towers, will not happen. However, if the money keeps flowing into the capital city, then I imagine most of the funky designs will end up shimmering on the steppe skyline…


It speaks volumes of the speed and spontaneous creativity of this city that many new buildings, such as an opera house and music hall that resembles a clay pot, were not on the model. Neither, interestingly, is our school…


We were also treated to an art gallery and a bizarre 4D movie involving a snake climbing up a tree and spitting at us. That part of the film was referring to the legend behind the Bayterek, but the snake was somewhat off-putting. The movie also ended by being in the eye of the President, which was a little bit strange. Nonetheless, the Palace of Independence was a fascinating building that showcases the present and potential and Kazakhstan, and it has been a lovely week exploring her capital before the cold sets in.


Love you all


Saturday, 27 October 2012

Kazakhstan – The first meeting with a tennis legend

October 3

Hello everyone!

Being in a rather remote country has its drawbacks, but it also has many benefits. One such example waltzed into our school in early October. It’s not every day that a living sporting legend is introduced to you when you’re supposed to be planning an English lesson.







The picture above is of a woman who, in her pomp in the late 1990s, was known as the ‘Swiss Miss’. Tennis fans will immediately recognise the lady to be Martina Hingis, a serial Grand Slam winner and the youngest ever woman to be the number one ladies’ tennis player on the planet.



The reason she came to the school is due to people who know people who know people; a reason that is way over my head. I do, however, highly doubt that Martina Hingis would come to a school if I was teaching in, say, Cardiff. Our remote location means that we are one of very few schools who would be able to attract such a celebrity to come and visit us, even if that visit is for only an hour.


 After quickly educating my children about her, we all formed a guard of honour as Miss Hingis arrived. She gave a quick speech, toured the school and met many people, myself included. We had been warned in advance that we would not get pictures with her due to her tight schedule, but it spoke volumes of the woman that she stayed significantly longer than she was supposed to, resulting in her being late to visit the Prime Minister of the country.


 It is commonly-stated that world-famous celebrities and sports stars may not fully appreciate their respective fan bases, but Martina Hingis struck me as a genuine, friendly woman with a fantastic smile. I am very appreciative of the fact that our school managed to persuade her to come and visit. A lovely woman, and a lovely midweek surprise in school.


Love you all


Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Kazakhstan – The first Matt dance

Kazakhstan – The first Matt dance

September 22-30

Hello everyone!

This is a short update about how we are keeping on moving in our second year in the Kazakh steppe. Whether taken in a literal or metaphorical sense, both I and this country always seem to be on the move.

 A few of us took part in a race in late September. Due to the extreme climate in Astana, there is a limited window for running events to occur in. Autumn is the best time, and we entered ourselves into a 10km race close to our house, which looped around the Ishim River. The special guests at this race were the Kazakhstan Olympic boxing team, who all had rather stern countenances.



 Well, it was supposed to be a 10km. Due to a rather bad mix-up, everyone was sent to do an extra 1.1km that the half-marathon runners were supposed to do at the end of their loop. Not to be deterred, we all proceeded to set new personal bests for 11.1km (though we are very sure that the extra part was closer to 2km than 1km). The results are on this website



The reason we missed this event last year was because we had left Astana to immerse ourselves in nature. We really enjoyed our trip to Borovoe last year, so the following weekend we moved out of the city to return to the ‘Switzerland of Kazakhstan’.



It was significantly colder than last year, rendering my ambition of swimming in the lake as foolish and unlikely to happen. I did feel obliged to briefly brave the chilly waters for one seemingly random reason...



In one of the first assemblies of our school year, our Headmaster showed a Youtube video to our children. Simply put, it was a man called Matt who would do a dance in front of a camera in places all over the world. We found it quite funny, so opted to make our own Borovoe edition…


We had a wonderful, albeit cold, weekend away from the city. It is always nice to spend time in nature when we live in a bit of a concrete jungle. Whether it is sitting in a steaming banya or trying to climb to the top of the highest rocks, Borovoe has a way of making us forget about school and keep on moving forward. A great place to dance any problems away!




Love you all


Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Kazakhstan – The first Davis Cup match

September 14-16

Hello everyone!

The latest episode of Super September on round 2 of the Astana adventure comes from yet another new shiny sporting stadium in the capital. The venue this time was the National Tennis Centre, a small but intimate stadium where Kazakhstan’s tennis stars show off their skills to their adoring public.



All twenty of them. It was surprising for many reasons that few locals came to watch Kazakhstan’s Davis Cup tennis match over the course of the weekend. One is the fact that Kazakhstan, ranked 8th in the world, are one of the better teams in men’s tennis. Their team included a player, Mikhail Kukushkin, who has previously played impressively against Federer at Wimbledon, and others who have graced the world’s top 50.



 Another is the fact that tickets for this match, in the highest tier of international tennis called the World Group (Britain aren’t there), were available for 500T. Just over £2. Try finding those prices for a match in New York, Buenos Aires or Gijon. Tennis is also said to be Kazakhstan’s more favoured sports, so to find so many empty seats on the two days of action we saw was somewhat disheartening.

On the Friday, the first day of action, we swelled the crowd significantly by bringing our elder children with us on a school trip. Though some were apathetic to the incredible quality of tennis on show, others were captivated by Kazakhstan’s attempts to overcome their regional rival, Uzbekistan, and stay in the elite group of tennis nations.

The lack of a large attendance figure should not detract from the efforts of some fans to generate an intimidating atmosphere. One small collection of Kazakh fans played deafeningly loud percussion and brass music inbetween points, to a point where the umpire had to tell them to be quiet. One serve from the top-ranked Uzbek player, Istomin, got stuck in the net and was called ‘fault’ by the umpire. The trombonist calmly stood up and blared out a ‘wha-whar’ sound.



The match we watched was a five-set epic, which our brave Kazakh competitor lost to a man ranked almost 200 places above him. We missed the other Kazakh player level up the tie due to school commitments. The players took some much-needed rest, and we decided to also take a breather from working life at a flat warming party.



A Davis Cup tie is played over three days, however, so there was much more action to see. We watched the doubles match on the Saturday, where Kazakhstan were roared on to a convincing victory by a slighter larger crowd. The only barrier to the straightforward win was the fact that the lights failed at the end of the second set. The fact that the players went off whilst sunlight was bursting through the translucent roof, as well as the electric sound system blaring music, was a ‘we’re in Kazakhstan’ moment for us. The win gave them the upper hand in the overall tie, and they wrapped up a 3-1 victory on the final day.

Kazakhstan is an emerging sporting nation, as their recent Olympic display highlighted, and tennis is one of their more successful sports. I hope more people come next time when they host Austria in February, as it was tennis of a very high quality. We’ve been very lucky to witness some top-drawer sporting action so far in Astana, and I hope that more comes our way as winter approaches.


Love you all