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


1 comment:

  1. Oh, Matt it's so moving! Tears started into my eyes when I was reading it. Your article or review (whatever you call it) is excellent and realistic. I am glad that Kazakhstan and Kazakhstanis left such wonderful memories in your mind and heart. I enjoyed working with you and hope to see you in the future. Wish you achieve all your goals! Good luck and thanks for promoting KZ! )))