Monday, 1 July 2013

Kazakhstan – The ultimate A to Z (N to S)

N is for...Nazarbayev
 Honourable mentions: nature

It would be foolish to talk at length about Kazakhstan without discussing the country’s leader. Cult hero? Dictator? Probably a combination of the two is a more realistic assessment. 

Nursultan Nazarbayev is an immensely popular figure here. When he came to the school on its inaugural day, the excitement amongst staff and children was palpable. His face adorns many posters around the city, and his words are printed across the city. Under his leadership, Kazakhstan has emerged from being one of the poorest Soviet states to having one of the fastest-growing economies in Eurasia. Resources have been managed carefully and exploited to help build the new capital, though it is commonly accepted that many pockets have been lined during the process. Whether he is as popular in the countryside, where money doesn’t seem to go as frequently, is not something I know. 

On balance, I believe that Nazarbayev does a very good job for Kazakhstan. The rumour is that the president has cancer, and may not have long left. This is where one of the country’s future problems may lie. There is no obvious successor. His political party, Nur Otan, is in reality the entity that legitimises his authoritarian rule. What will happen if he doesn’t wake up one day? History would point to a power struggle, unrest and a dip in economic and political performance. Kazakhstan is on an inexorable rise, and cannot afford to let that happen. What President Nazarbayev has done is made people proud to be Kazakh, and that is not a bad thing to have achieved.

O is for…Olympians
Honourable mentions: ostentatious

Though in a far-flung corner of the globe, there were times when it felt as if we were living in Little London in 2012. A combination of the Diamond Jubilee and the build up to the Olympics made us very proud to be flying the Union Jack and sharing stories of Britain with our children.

We had the pleasure of meeting some of the Kazakh swimming team in the April before London 2012, and the boxer Serik Sapiyev soon after his victory in the welterweight category. What struck me was how personable they seemed. The swimmers were more than happy to pose for photographs, and even willing to take part in a relay race. Serik Sapiyev took his time walking around the school and shook many hands, and even posed in fighting mode with the smallest children in the school.

It’s not every day you meet someone famous or someone that is simply the very best at the skill that they do. I can’t imagine that the British athletes, as nice as they seem to be, were able to get around too many schools or clubs due to various commitments. Another tick in the box for living in Kazakhstan – if someone famous is around, you’re more likely to meet them!

P is for…partying
Honourable mentions: pool bar, propaganda

We did a lot of it. From house parties to dingy bars, from embassy bashes to school benefits, we have had plenty of fun with much drinking and dancing. The pictures can tell the story for me.

Q is for…quotes
Honourable mentions: Quizzes

Our headmaster has a reputation for using a set list of phrases to end emails or conversations. From the ‘magic dust’ of the school’s beginning to reaching the ‘final furlong’, we could always rely on him to pick up our spirits and keep us working until the final day. He is a very personable and good-hearted man, and was great to work under.

R is for…running
Honourable mentions: Russian, reports

Those who know me will know that I enjoy running. It is obviously difficult to run outdoors in Kazakhstan for six months of the year. However, there are plenty of gyms with plenty of treadmills that can try to satisfy the hunger to run. I also established an alternative running club in school – a time trial whereby a child runs each week and their score is recorded and displayed. It was great fun and the children, particularly the younger ones, were really keen. It was also nice to be so involved with the P.E. department at school.

My own running was limited to a half-marathon in the UAE which I trained for relentlessly in the wintry steppe, and a few 10k races. One infamously turned out to be 11.1k, because the local organisers didn’t understand the instructions and sent us down a route purely for half-marathon runners.

Two other races, in May, were organised by the American school. Those races were lots of fun, particularly the first year when I was accompanied around the course by a young boy on a bike who seemed to want to say a word for each step I was taking. The gold medal also melted during the day and fused with its ribbon, and had to be put in the fridge in order to rescue it. I’m definitely looking forward to being able to run outside more regularly in my next posting!

S is for…scavenger hunt
Honourable mentions: shashlik, sports

Astana may be a relatively small capital city, but it still possesses a population double that of my home town, and it is growing all the time. The first opportunity I had to really go deeper than the spectacular surface that the capital possesses was when we signed up to a scavenger hunt organised by the U.S. Embassy. It ran during the month of November, and forced us to keep exploring as the temperature really began to plummet to unfathomable depths.

The hunt took us far and wide, flung across all corners of the steppe. Tasks ranged from finding a cowboy bar to stating what shopping was in the basket of a supermarket’s logo, all done in icy winds and deep snow. Of course, you need to keep your spirits high when tasked with arduous journeys in arctic conditions, and our team Well Hung passed this test with flying colours.

One of my favourite memories of these adventures was when we were instructed to head to an automobile market outside of town to find out the name of a sign. We were in the process of taking a photo as proof when a couple of large men with golden teeth approached, no doubt to tell us off. Quite the opposite occurred – they wanted to be in a jumping picture with us. Wonderful stuff, and the whole adventure was a great chance for us to meet more local people and see a completely different world to the one we were living in.

As a reward, we got to spend a very exclusive night at the Sky Beach in the Khan Shatyr. The beach that normally closes at 10pm hosted our party until well after midnight. We came 2nd, losing on a tie-break, but I definitely think that our team came 1st for having fun!

Fun has been the order of the day for the last two years. The next blog will cover the final letters of my A-Z about Kazakhstan.

Love you all


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