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,


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