Sunday, 30 June 2013

Kazakhstan – The ultimate A to Z (I to M)

There were many more ups than downs in the two years that I spent in Kazakhstan, and the latest instalment of this blog will share one of my favourite days, as well as some other odd occurrences from the steppe…

I is for…Independence Day
Honourable mentions: Ishim

I’m not choosing this purely because it lands on my birthday. The 20th Kazakh Independence Day was one of my favourite experiences in Kazakhstan and, as with many of them, it was spontaneous in nature.

I received a text saying that some sort of event was happening in the large football arena. We squeezed ourselves onto a bus and huddled to keep warm in temperatures of -31’C. After reusing tickets to get all five of us into the stadium, we sat back and watched in awe as amazing performances continued to illuminate the arena. The finale, in which a bayterek inexplicably rose from the floor to become the centrepiece of the stadium, was staggering for its creativity and execution.

The temperature had dipped to -35’C, and it took us a while to get onto a bus to return us to the centre of the city. It was one of the coldest experiences I have ever encountered, but also one of the most spectacular days I spent in the steppe. It was a statement of intent from the country, and I was delighted to be able to witness it.

J is for…jail

One of the more memorable weeks for me was when my friend Carl came to visit. It was also one of the most eventful. After having significant problems with his visa, he somehow managed to persuade officials in Amsterdam airport that they had a computer error and that he should be going to Kazakhstan. I greeted him with a punch in the stomach for the stress he had caused, but was delighted that he had made it.

Once here, he made many friends, managed to come to the beach in the Khan Shatyr on a VIP list, had a mini-meltdown and sat outside in -30’C temperatures at 1am, went for a walk without correct shoes and got serious chills, and had such an amazing time that he decided to extend his stay. I loved his visit.

Carl also managed to do something that I simply did not accomplish during my two years here – he got arrested. You don’t want to experience everything a country has to offer. To make a long, very funny story a bit shorter, he was mistaken for an Uzbek terrorist by a police car, which consequently proceeded to pull over to talk to him. Upon quickly realising that he was not Uzbek, they asked to see his passport, which you are supposed to carry around at all times. Whoops…

Having missed the school bus, I received a phone call from Carl briefly explaining the situation. He was in a holding cell with lots of Uzbeks who had been rounded up. I then sprinted to the administration department and managed to get some help. After a short wait a ‘fixer’ arrived, and my HR manager and I got into his car. He then decided to drop off another member of the admin team, before picking up a friend and dropping him off somewhere else in the city. All the while, Carl is sat in a shabby, smelly room and being called ‘David Beckham’.

Two hours after the phone call, we arrived at the icy entrance of a small building with his passport in our hands. We were expecting to have to hand other things in order to ensure his complete release. However, our ‘fixer’ had a chat with the leading police officer, and all of our money stayed in our pockets. Maybe there isn’t any corruption here after all…

Lesson to any future visitors: carry your passport.

K is for…'Kaz Time'
Honourable mentions: Kumis, Khan Shatyr

If a table is booked with Kazakhs for 7pm, don’t arrive at 7pm. Don’t even arrive at 7.30pm. Similarly, don’t expect locals to arrive at a house party until at least an hour after it starts.

The tone sounds harsh, but it is a mere reflection on the society that doesn’t list punctuality as its number one target or characteristic. It suggests that the country is more relaxed than a place such as Germany, which has a stereotype for being very efficient and everything running on time.

Some institutions here adopt ‘Kazakh time’ to the point where they don’t even bother to offer times. The buses are an excellent example of this. Ironically, the one person who went against the ‘Kaz time’ grain was out landlady, who always arrived early to collect the rent. Nonetheless, ‘Kaz time’ is a part of life that you have to accept and adapt to whilst in country.

L is for…lanterns
Honourable mentions: lights, laghman

One of the stranger events that I witnessed in Astana was a sea of love lanterns illuminating the sky. Aside from the massive problem of health and safety associated with lighting these beacons in a crowded park full of trees and branches, it was a time when it seemed that the youth of the city came together in a display of happiness.

Lanterns were let off by couples, friends and families to create an aurora above the strange skyline. It was also a sign that the winter was finally over, and that warmer times were on their way.

M is for…McDonald’s
Honourable mentions: minus 40, music, Movember

People may find this a strange one. Those who have never been to Kazakhstan will be confused that a global brand has been chosen. Those who have lived in Kazakhstan will wonder why McDonald’s has been chosen. Why?

They’ll be confused because there is not a single McDonald’s in the entire country. Indeed, Hardee’s and Burger King have only opened in Kazakhstan within the last 12 months. It begs the question: is Kazakhstan becoming more westernised, or is it trying to restrict the influence of trans-national companies?

From what I can see, those who are living in Astana are increasingly tuning into the demands and luxuries associated with globalisation. Shopping centres have Debenhams, NEXT and United Colors of Benetton. Indeed, the centres themselves closely resemble American malls, with designated food courts offering a variety of tasteless food and KFC.

So why no golden arches? The biggest and busiest McDonald’s outside of the USA can be found in a Russian-speaking country, in Moscow. Rumours to explain their absence from the steppe range from President Nazarbayev not wanting them to sell burgers at the expense of Kazakh food, to the problems with finding a quality local supplier. Internet research suggests that the distances between the cities may also be a factor. As long as Kazakhstan still has shashlik, it won’t overly bother many in the country.

It does seem remarkable that, considering the money here, there are so few international fast food outlets. This will inevitably change as Astana evolves into a regional hub. Whether that will benefit the city or impinge upon the Kazakh culture is yet to be foretold. Whatever happens, the country is evolving, and it will be interesting to see what direction they take.

Love you all,


Friday, 28 June 2013

Kazakhstan – The ultimate A to Z (D to H)

Two years, hundreds of school days, dozens of nights out, tens of trips. A number of memories that cannot be measured. Let’s continue…

D is for…differences
Honourable mentions: Draft Bar
The opening line for the previous letter does indeed suggest the opposite of what I am about to discuss. However, the point I wanted to get across at the beginning of the letter ‘C’ was that Kazakhstan is not what people portray it as back home. Many here are happy that Sacha Baron Cohen chose to invent Borat in Kazakhstan, as it put their country on the map. However, the images from that film of throwing people down wells and love of animals is what many Brits think of if you say ‘Kazakhstan’. Of course it’s not like that. If they showed the normality, Borat wouldn’t have been nearly as popular as it turned out to be.

However, living here gives you an experience of a place that is often far removed from the streets of London, Manchester or Cardiff. There are cultural differences here that are not unique to Kazakhstan, but nonetheless make you think twice about what is right.

From the lack of queuing to the reluctance to go outside when the weather is cold (and I say that as what a British person would say is cold, not the perils of the Kazakh winter), things can be very different here. Things that you see, smell or hear can make the United Kingdom seem further away than ever. Walking through Cardiff Market you will find Welsh cakes and cheese. Walking through Astana’s city market, you have the chance to buy a sheep’s head. It’s just sat there, staring at you. Sheep’s head is apparently a delicacy. It’s one I avoided.

Wedding ceremonies are also very different. Two of my friends are getting married in October, and I am gutted that I can’t be at their weddings. That’s not a typo. They are having two weddings – one for the groom, one for the bride. Lucky if you can afford it. If you can’t afford two weddings, or even one, you can always steal your bride. This is one of my favourite Kazakh traditions (myths?). I have copied the description from an earlier blog.

The idea is that if a man is poor and likes a girl, he 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. It must be mentioned that the wedding I went to, with picture below, did not adhere to any of these stereotypes, and was very lovely.

Many British people, particularly women, might now be scared of going to Kazakhstan. However, they celebrate International Women’s Day, unlike the UK, and also celebrate Labour Day. Think of all those holidays!

There are so many other differences that I could mention, particularly with regards to health and safety, but I feel that I would lose your attention. Needless to say, it is all part of the experience, and accepting that things are a little bit different is often the first step to enjoying your time in a faraway land. If only they sold custard…

E is for…extremities
Honourable mentions: energy, English

Astana is a city of extremes. The obvious starting point is the climate, but there are more examples to highlight that the new capital hits both sides of a spectrum on a given issue.

The hottest day I experienced in Astana was the day after I returned to commence my second year as a teacher here. It was 39’C, around the 21st of August. Less than four months later, I flew out of Astana International Airport when the official temperature was -42’C. I can’t describe -42’C to you. It hurts just thinking about it.

Extremes are not limited to weather. The price of a local beer in a local bar can be 200T. A Guinness in O’Hara’s, the relatively new Irish bar, is 2450T. £11 for a drink. You can get manty, meat dumplings, for 80T each in a corner shop. Down the road in an outdoor restaurant it can cost maybe eight times as much. Of course, every city has these price differences, but they seem particularly large here.

Lifestyles are also markedly different. Accommodation ranges from lavish apartments to shacks which somehow survive the big freeze. The children who go to our school spend their weekends in shopping centres with their iPhones, get just about any present they ask for, and spend their holidays in Dubai or Mauritius. Compare this to the children who spend any spare change on books, and have to get their water from a communal pipe that freezes over in the winter.

This happens around the world. It is just one example of the extremities that you come across living in Astana.

F is for…flashmob
Honourable mentions: football, friends, five hundred Tenge haircuts

Not everything that we have done has been uniquely ‘Kaz’. International sporting events such as World Cup qualifiers, Davis Cup and the cycling World Championships have visited Astana during our time here. More internationally renowned fast food outlets, such as Burger King and Hardee’s, are opening. We have seen Russian ballet and Spanish opera singing.

The best example I can think of is possibly the most recent. On the ground floor of the most spectacular shopping centre in Central Asia, we performed a flash mob dance to the tune of ‘Waka Waka’ to commemorate Africa Week in Astana. It was crowded and chaotic, but fantastic fun to be a part of.

G is for…Guns and Roses

One interesting aspect of living in Astana is the distinct lack of expats who work and play in the capital. Though embassies are moving up here all of the time, many international workers are still based in Almaty. Furthermore, a significant number of the foreigners who currently call Astana ‘home’ are diplomats or VIPs who have families and have different social goals to us. It has allowed us access to many important events, such as memorials and embassy gatherings.

One place where you are more than likely to find an expat is in Guns and Roses, a bar on Respublika. It is a place that I rarely went to, for many reasons. Knowing that it is frequented by wealthy foreigners on a regular basis, the prices are relatively high. The service isn’t good, and they even have the cheek to sneak a charge on your bill if a band is playing. Whether you want to listen to a Beatles tribute band or not, you still have to pay for the privilege. But more than that, you often see the seedier side of Astana life there if you go on a weekend. It is a place I have avoided in my second year simply because I feel disgusted to be associated with the men who spend their nights leering at the local women with a view to paying them for a kick.

There is not much in terms of expat societies or clubs in Astana, and apparently the creation of our school greatly swelled the number of English-speaking expats in the city. Whilst it can be depressing to not be able to socialise with people other than your colleagues, as chat is inevitably drawn towards work, it can have a positive impact. I say this because it means that we spend more time with locals and putting our money into local establishments.

Ultimately, Guns will hold fond memories for me as one of the first nights I got to know many of my colleagues. However, I often felt uncomfortable in that bar, and it may speak volumes of my character that I would prefer to go to our cheap local bar down the road rather than spend time in the expat bar.

H is for…Haileybury Astana
Honourable mentions: hockey, Hannah

Though there are some very strong candidates for this letter, there was only going to be one winner: the reason I came here in the first place.

I could easily do an A-Z just on Haileybury. It has been an overwhelmingly positive experience for me. I have learnt so much and thoroughly enjoyed the opportunities afforded to me. How else could I have met Martina Hingis, Serik Sapiyev or Amat, an 89-year-old veteran of Stalingrad? Where else could I have become the Helga Hufflepuff of a school by being the leader of a House? When else would I have had the opportunity to introduce and lead various quizzes and events that involve children and adults of all age ranges?

The children have been wonderful. The vast majority are very respectful, eager to learn and a delight to teach. Our Headmaster, also leaving, has often talked about a ‘magic dust’ that sweeps the school, and it reflects the excellence of the pupils that we have taught.

There are too many memories to mention: I could write a book and not have enough room. All I feel the need to say is a big thank you to Haileybury Astana for giving me two of the best years of my professional life.

Love you all


Thursday, 27 June 2013

Kazakhstan – The ultimate A to Z (A-C)

 After two years, my time has come to leave Kazakhstan. I am currently sat on a plane bound for London, trying to summarise in my head exactly what has happened since I first took the plunge to move to Central Asia in August 2011. Within my first 24 hours I locked myself out of my apartment. In my final 24 hours I sat in a bar listening to an African drum and bagpipes in attempted harmony. I cannot begin to list all that has happened in between.

I don’t feel that I can write a simple verdict on my time here. Too much has happened, too many complexities have emerged. As a result, I wanted to think of a different way of summing up my Astana adventure.

What will happen over the next few blogs is something directly taken from an expat family that we got to know in our first year here. When it was their time to leave, we went to their house for a small gathering. They decided to do a very humorous A to Z of Kazakhstan from their perspective. Whilst thinking of how I can turn my thoughts into text, this idea returned to me. Consequently, I have decided to take my own stab at it.

Of course, two years result in many experiences, feelings and memories. Some letters have more options than others, and some choices have been particularly difficult. At this point I will add my disclaimer; the views aired below are mine and mine alone. They may lead to differences of opinion with people who have been to Kazakhstan and have a different outlook on life to me. I am entitled to our own opinions, and so are you. If we all agreed about everything we would live in a very boring world.

Alas, I digress. From the top…

A is for…Astana
Honourable mentions: Almaty, adventure, ambition, Ali Baba

Let’s start with the capital, and my home for the last two years. One of the newest capital cities, and one that possesses enormous ambition backed by petrodollars. A place that has people migrating to it all the time from Kazakhstan and beyond. A region that wants to become an Asian hub in the near future. A work in progress.

Astana has changed immeasurably since the transfer of power was formalised in 1998. Construction is constant, with wacky architecture continuing to rise from the steppe. All of this falls under the umbrella of the 2030 project, by which time the Kazakh capital hopes to be an important region of global significance. 

On the surface, the progress is certainly visible. Constant maintenance projects are aiming to help Astana cope with a population surge that will surely continue over the next decade. New international franchises are opening outlets on a daily basis. New cutting-edge buildings showcase the technology and money that is being poured into the city. There isn’t much to do in comparison to other major capitals, but it needs to be remembered that Astana is a small capital city, and that this can also have benefits. Would we have been able to go to the cycling World Cup and see Chris Hoy for free in any other capital city? I highly doubt it. When the snow disappears, it is a pleasant and pretty city, though the lack of natural landscape features can be a bit depressing.

Living in Astana has been fun. You can live very cheaply and have a good time, or you can garner a lavish lifestyle for yourself. Prices do seem to be rising though, so the government have to be mindful that they don’t price the locals out of living here or make them resort to crime. The difference in living standards if you venture beyond the train station is otherworldly. I’ll never forget seeing a frozen outdoor water pipe and wondering how people survive.

The main question Astana needs to ask itself is this: what does it want to be? Does it want to imitate Abu Dhabi and Dubai? Does it want to retain the links to the old Soviet bloc? Does it want to style itself on uniqueness in terms of architecture, location and climate? 

Ultimately, the main problem Astana has is one that it cannot really cure: the weather. Given a choice of living in Astana or Dubai, 90 out of 100 would probably choose the latter, with the remainder choosing Kazakhstan due to ease of alcohol consumption rather than the culture. 

In my heart I feel that Almaty is probably a nicer place to live, but I’ve enjoyed living in Astana. I will keep a keen eye on the city’s development.

B is for…beshbarmak
Honourable mentions: baursaki, buildings, babushka’s, Borovoe

Food, glorious food. Every culture prides themselves on the cuisine they have consumed and mastered over hundreds of years, and Kazakhs are no different. Other cuisines are beginning to firmly establish themselves in the main cities, particularly Italian, but there is still an enormous sense of pride and history attached to the national dishes of the world’s biggest landlocked country.

One of my favourite meals here was when the Kazakh teachers from school invited a few of us over to eat beshbarmak. It took three of the most of an afternoon and early evening to prepare and cook the feast of lasagne pasta layers, horse sausages, potatoes, onions and various cuts of meat. ‘Bes’ is the number five in Kazakh, and the whole word translates as ‘five fingers’. The reason is simple: that is how you eat beshbarmak. 

The care and love that is put into the meticulous process results in a delicious communal meal that will put a smile on your face…once you’ve eschewed the image of Black Beauty from your brain. Before you criticise the carnivorous attitude of Kazakhs due to them eating horses, just remember that many cultures refuse to eat pork products. So whilst you turn your nose up at eating horse sausage, many others would turn their back on you for eating bacon. Think of that, and learn to accept and embrace the differences in cultures. If you don’t, you miss out on great opportunities such as beshbarmak.

C is for…craziness
Honourable mentions: construction, climate, CouchSurfing

Life in Kazakhstan is not actually as different from the UK as people might think. However, it has a habit of throwing you a massive curveball just when you feel settled in the country. There are too many examples to list, so I will just give you a small list to highlight the times when you just have to step back and say, “Only in Kazakhstan”…

-          - The city has a habit of shutting off important things such as water and electricity. They switched off the electrical grid near the school. For five days. You have to earn your money as a teacher at that point.When the water was turned back on in our flat, it often came out a lovely colour...of filth.


-          - Having to buy food in a sparsely populated bar on a Friday night, otherwise you will not be allowed to stay. This can get very annoying.
-          - The lack of ‘Cola light’. One time a girl asked for this, then got frustrated and asked for a Sprite. A regular Coca-Cola came to the table.
-          - Kazakhstan played Germany in a football match in Astana. It kicked off at midnight. Even the match we watched started at 10pm.

-          - In March this year our school population was decimated to less than two-thirds of its normal volume. Why? Well, parents were whisking their kids off for holidays during term time, of course! Then they ask why their child hasn’t got an A…
-          - Too many examples for school, but the demolition of a large Year 3 yurt without consulting anyone because it looked messy was one of the craziest.
-          - Our local Kazakh restaurant rarely ever had…Kazakh food. There was actually one time when the gas had been switched off, so the only things they could give us were salad and alcohol. Dangerous combination…

-          - In 2012, the weather flipped from winter to summer in a very short space of time. It was above 20’C towards the end of April. However, children were still wrapped up in puffer jackets, hats and gloves. Apparently this is because of an old Soviet tradition that winter clothes are worn until May 1, irrespective of the temperature.
-          - The Bayterek – Astana’s main tourist attraction – being closed for much of what would be its most popular month, June, to renovate.

-          - The driving – though I’ll come to that later.

Crazy can make life a nightmare, but it can also make life lots of fun. I will paraphrase one of my Headmaster’s favourite sayings here: You don’t have to be mad to live here, but it certainly helps!

The madness of this blog will continue over the next few days, as I work my way through the alphabet to try to explain my feelings about Kazakhstan from living there for the past two years.

Love you all,