Sunday, 26 May 2013

Kazakhstan – The first flashmob

May 25-June 9

Hello everyone!

I am now into my final month of living in Kazakhstan, and now trying to think of anything Kazakh and crazy that I haven’t yet experienced. Two things that possibly would not be on a list such as this would be participating in a flash mob and eating in a restaurant that is situated next to a plane. Both, however, have now been sampled, and my life is better for it.


I’m sure you are aware that a flash mob is a mass participation dance that is ‘unannounced’ to those watching it. Though it may seem unscheduled to the unknowing eye, it takes much preparation and planning. We were invited to take part by our friend Ala, who was organising the flash mob as part of Africa Week in Astana.


After spending a bit of time learning the dance, and teaching it to our school children, the big day arrived. It was a big venue – the Khan Shatyr, Astana’s most spectacular shopping mall. Surrounded by a large number of children from school, we nervously waited in the crowd for our moment whilst other drummers and acts were performing. This included a strange local breakdancing troupe who looked a bit out of place in an African event.

Soon enough, Shakira’s song started to play over the deafening speaker system, and we seized our opportunity. The video is below.



It was an uplifting and wonderful experience to have so many people dancing in as much harmony as is possible in such a small space. Everyone was happy, which ultimately dancing should be about.

The origin of the other new, bizarre experience is in the depths of our first winter in Astana. During that particularly harsh November, I was part of a scavenging team in a competition organised by the U.S. Embassy. One of our tasks was to locate a place in Astana where a boat was sat next to a plane on a pond. We duly found it, and discovered that this was actually a restaurant…when it wasn’t covered with snow. We thus made a pledge to return one day.

It has taken a while, but we finally accomplished this mission on a recent Wednesday. It is quite a surreal place to wine and dine. In typical Kazakh fashion, they only stocked one of the numerous beers on the menu – the most expensive one. Nonetheless, it was a lovely evening.


I believe that the final couple of weeks will be spent returning to favourite haunts, rather than hunting for new places. However, it has been nice to realise that there are still new and peculiar experiences to be had in Astana, even after almost two years of living and dancing on the steppe.

Love you all


Sunday, 19 May 2013

Kazakhstan – The first paintball

May 18

Hello everyone!

Paintballing on the steppe – not much protection…


Kazakhstan has a proud military history. The army parade through the city each Constitution Day in August, and the country celebrates Victory Day, the defeat of Nazi Germany, each May. Though the country also has a history of denuclearisation, their people are proud of their army defending their country.

The people also like to have fun, and I would certainly class paintball in that category. This was my first experience of the paint-splattering pistol game, but I had a vision in my head of what it would be like. Trees to hide behind, trenches to take cover in, stations for snipers both high and low. A place where it would be very difficult to be spotted by your enemy.

Of course, there is one flaw in this plan: this is Kazakhstan. Things are done a little bit differently here. We arrived at the site to find a small building, with the ruins of another adjacent to it. It soon became clear that the latter building was the main part of the paintball arena, save for a few tyres dotted around its crumbled walls.

 My thoughts immediately took me 70 years back in time to the Battle of Stalingrad, and how soldiers approaching the city knew that they might never leave. The place had an aura of no man’s land about it, particularly with a strong wind blazing a trail across the steppe. That made attempting to shoot accurately a pointless activity.

Once we were suited up and had had the instructions translated by our colleagues, we divided up and started to fire. The lack of protection resulted in fairly frantic games of great fun.

It seemed to me that our local staff were handy with their handguns. One of the teachers told me later that she used to get shooting practise when she was at school. It gives you some idea of the relationship between Kazakhs and their weapons. Maybe our school should introduce a new activity next year…

 A very ‘Kaz’ day – often bizarre, overwhelmingly brilliant. I just hope a real gun doesn’t get fired at me before the end of the school year!


Love you all


Saturday, 11 May 2013

Kazakhstan – The first five-star yurt

May 11

 Hello everyone!

 The main reason that we flew down south was to explore the Kazakh countryside and spend time outside of the city. To make our experience a bit more traditional, we decided to stay in a yurt. Not your usual yurt, however. If glamorous camping is called ‘glamping’, then this was definitely a ‘glurting’ experience. I might have to patent that before it catches on.

Before explaining why glurting is a must-do, I should probably tell you what a yurt actually is, and the symbols and meanings that make them so special to Kazakhs.
Yurts have been used extensively across Central Asia for centuries. They were created by nomads with the aim being to have sturdy yet portable accommodation for several people within a tribe. The frame is a wooden lattice which is covered by a heat-retaining material, often the hide of an animal. This is called the kerege. The interior is often decorated with vibrant, colourful carpets which also keep the inside warm: vital in winter.


The yurt is joined at the top with what is called the shanyrak: the crown. Legend has it that the shanyrak would remain intact, passed from father to son upon the father's death, even though the yurt itself would often be repaired and rebuilt. A family's length of heritage could also be measured by the accumulation of stains on the shanyrak from decades of smoke passing through it. The status of the shanyrak has not diminished either, even as Kazakhstan has modernised. Its place in memory is permanent due to its prominent position on the national coat of arms.

That would be a traditional Kazakh yurt. Alas, times have changed, and the number of people who still use yurts as their primary accommodation has waned. My burning desire to stay in a yurt thus took us to the Aul Resort, approximately 35km from the centre of Almaty.


 This was not your back-in-the-day, how-the-Kazakhs-used-to-do-it yurt experience. From the TV and hot shower inside the yurt, to the swimming pool outside, this place had much to give it a 5-star rating. There was a price to match, but the size of each yurt meant that it would become more reasonable if a group all stayed together.

Sitting outside our yurt, we had a breathtaking view of the rolling hills with ominous mountains lurking behind. Other Kazakh items, such as a swing and a pretty tea set, added to the relaxed ambience of the resort.

 The remoteness of the camp can be highlighted by the fact that we had to walk close to two kilometres in order to find a shop. Any shop. This does have its advantages, however. We were able to roam freely through the fields of bemused farmers who were tending to their livestock. Our nostrils buzzed with the contradictory smells of fresh manure and flowers. A fresh breeze occasionally whipped through to cool us down as we scaled the hills. Essentially, it felt like the British countryside.


So, to the big question of sleeping in a yurt. It’s…very comfortable, cosy and ostentatiously cool. Snug as a bug in a rug.

It’s clearly not a real yurt experience. Did it have to be? No. Was it worth it? Absolutely. A very relaxing stay and a worthwhile activity in verdant countryside such as this. Definitely a box worth ticking off whilst staying in Kazakhstan.


Love you all,


Friday, 10 May 2013

Kazakhstan – The first grand canyon

May 9-10

Hello everyone!

After a long, arduous winter, Kazakhstan is now basking in the warmth and brightness of spring. Buds are finally spurting from their branches. Flowers are blooming in the parks. Astana’s river, previously a frozen mass on which one could walk and talk, is now host to a raft of plastic pedalos.


However, the relatively new capital of Kazakhstan is very much lacking when it comes to natural scenery. The trees are planted by the hands of government workers. The tranquillity of the central park is interrupted by shabby sweet stalls and run-down rides. Even the river itself has been heavily dammed and manufactured to weave a certain route through Astana. Though the plans for this city are ambitious, they often result in taller, shinier and crazier buildings.


Looking beyond the concrete jungle of Astana, a different picture develops. Kazakhstan possesses an enormous amount of land, and within its borders are places of stunning beauty. The beauty of Borovoe is a few hours to the north, and that is where residents in the capital get their fresh air and forget about urban life. Even Almaty, where we went for this long weekend, has colourful trees lining each avenue, and you can always see the Tian Shan mountain range looming to the south of the country’s largest city. Shortly after landing we scaled one of these peaks to hike around Chimbulak, Kazakhstan’s premier ski resort. The fact that there was still snow to be found helps to indicate how high we were.


Yet there is more nature to be found. As you venture further away from cities and civilisation, you seemingly transport yourself back in time to the golden age of this country: when it was part of the Silk Road. Rolling green hills are interspersed with various flora and fauna. Streams meander gently along shining pebbles. It is easy to imagine a nomadic tribe wandering along the flat landscape, with animals and caravans in tow.


This all may seem serene, but Kazakhstan holds some spectacular scenery as well. One of its more extraordinary features is Charyn Canyon, a mighty gully approximately 200km drive east of Almaty.


Getting there from base involved flying to Almaty, before getting a more local form of transport east to the canyon. This adventure was all about perseverance. We had organised the trip through a company called EIRC, and were due to collect tickets when we landed on Thursday afternoon. Unfortunately, Thursday was Victory Day – a national holiday – so the phones rang and rang.


Friday morning rolled around, warm sunshine having replaced the thunderous rain of the previous day. We decided to pay a visit to their offices to enquire about the trip we were booked on…to find this.


It seemed that the company had chosen this weekend to renovate their workplace. Without telling us. This bad news then initiated a mad scramble around Almaty, involving five taxis, phone calls to people in Astana, and the enquiry of renting a car to go to somewhere we didn’t know how to get to.


Two hours after leaving the flat we had rented, we could be found bartering with drivers near the bus station, with an elderly man called Roma eventually answering our prayers and setting off in his clapped-out car. A car which, by some miracle, survived the journey to and from Charyn. Each shudder over a pothole (you can see how deep they were below) had us expecting a puncture, and only the loud music from his stereo could drown out the mysterious squeaking noise emanating from the rear of the vehicle.


That was when we were actually travelling on road. After about 3 hours, during which time the landscape transformed immeasurably, our suffering carriage veered left onto a dusty gravel track. There was no sign post, or no indication that the canyon was close. There is no way we would have known to go this way if we had been driving ourselves, rendering any notion of renting our own car as irrelevant. Roma, who may have been regretting taking on the challenge at this juncture, bumped and bobbled the car along the winding path, often having to jerk her back into first gear and toss us around in the back seats.


Suddenly, out of nowhere, a dip in the relief of the land appeared in the distance. A significant dip. In front of us lay a canyon that has existed for over 300,000 years.


The ‘Grand Canyon of Kazakhstan’, as some have taken to calling it, has a series of rock formations balanced precariously over its precipice. The dusty, reddish colour seems to add to an atmosphere of a place belonging to a previous era, when nomads would have led their horses along this frontier in search of…well, anything really.


As well as peering over the edge, you can also walk through stroll within the gorge. Many of the walls that loom large to the sides are not as stable as they appear on first glance, and some of the isolated rocks are prone to crumbling at the slightest touch. It makes it all the more remarkable that this place has survived the effect of the winds blustering across the steppe, and how they in turn must have shaped this most breathtaking piece of Kazakh land.


If the Kazakh government want tourists to enter the country, they might want to improve the professionalism of the tour companies – not all tourists would persevere like we had to. They could also do no worse than to champion their natural beauty. You can build an innumerable number of wacky towers in the capital, but just as many people would be very content with experiencing the magnificent – and real – scenery that the countryside has to offer. The Tian Shan mountain range and Charyn Canyon would be great places to start.


Love you all,