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,