Friday, 5 July 2013

Kazakhstan – The ultimate A to Z (T to Z)

The final entry, with some very difficult letters!

T is for…taxis
Honourable mentions: teaching, triathlon

Some people would say that each time you got into one of these, you were possibly taking your last step on land. Others would argue that you were entering a world of wacky people, cheap service and speedy arrivals at your destination. I am talking about gypsy taxis.

Normal taxis actually do subscribe to a lot of the description above. Gypsy cabs, however, are by far the easiest way to get around a city. They are also phenomenally cheap – it is £8 to be driven to the airport, irrespective of how many people are going. You hear of occasions when a taxi driver may not be the nicest fella you could meet, but that very rarely happened to me. On the whole, I met lovely people who are always keen to help.

The odd thing for a new visitor is how you find one of these taxis, for they are not really taxis at all. Essentially, you stick out our arm on a road and wait for someone to pull in. In Astana, you rarely wait longer than two minutes for this to happen. You then explain where you’re going, agree on a price, and hop in. Though it may not seem like too many tenge to a foreigner, that extra money can go a long way for one of the drivers who may have been heading in your intended direction anyway.

Sure, there are no seatbelts in the back, and the drivers often seem to not be aware of the basic rules of driving. True, many of the cars you get into feel like they are going to combust as they rattle along the roads. But you meet fantastic and crazy people who are always up for a chat, even if you have no idea what they are saying. Gypsy taxis are definitely in my top five of things I will miss from Kazakhstan.

U is for…unemployment
Honourable mentions: unique

Unemployment doesn’t seem to exist in Astana. I have read that the official unemployment rate is just over 5%. Unofficially, it has been suggested that these figures may have been massaged. My opinion on the matter is that the government are very good at finding work for someone.

Hardly a day will pass in winter without seeing a poor man scraping and hacking ice off the pavements. Yet I imagine these same citizens are the people seen in the summer who have the thankless task of trying to make flowers grow near the Bayterek.

The menial jobs such as this are important for Astana’s future. Yet as more people migrate to the bright lights in the big city, more jobs will be required. Failure to react to the incoming wave will result in real unemployment, which is the cause of many problems in a society.

V is for…vodka

It is the national tipple of choice, though not as commonly drunk as I expected upon arriving. It is used for toasting, but many Kazakhs drink local beers of varying quality.

One interesting aspect of ordering spirits such as vodka is that you order them in grams, rather than millilitres. You also wouldn’t order single measures – the liquid is brought out in a small canister.

It keeps you warm, but you have to be careful what brand you choose. If you don’t spend much money, you don’t get good vodka. I bought some for a friend who put it in the freezer, as you normally do…but it did actually freeze. I also don’t recommend that you drink too much, either. Terrible headaches ensue…

W is for…winter
Honourable mentions: water

One of the more obvious choices, and not always associated with negativity. Though the howling wind and icy pavements can make it a depressing place to live in the winter, there is still opportunity to have fun in the snow in Astana.

From cross-country skiing to racing through ice mazes, via going to other, more mountainous parts of the country to ski, there are numerous activities for you to try that you cannot do at home.

Winter is also associated with New Year and, for us at least, Christmas. The idea of a ‘white Christmas’ is often fanciful in the UK, but is a fact of life here. I find it quite funny now that England shuts down even at the prospect of snow, yet other countries that I’ve lived in get submerged with snow and their routine is unaffected.

This most modern city can also look enchanting at times when caressed with a fluffy, white blanket. I did try to spend time outside as much as possible, but there are times when it is simply too cold. Having to get fully wrapped up in proper coats, long johns, hats, scarves and gloves, and that’s even before having to put on the heavy duty winter boots, can take well in excess of five minutes. It needs to be done for each and every trip, even ‘quickly’ popping to the shop. That can get very annoying.

It is a fact of life that you will have a tough time in the winter. However, if you keep your spirits up, you can certainly enjoy yourself in -40’C.

X is for… Xenodocheionology

Well it’s not the easiest letter! As you can tell, I have decided to broaden my vocabulary by typing ‘interesting words beginning with x’ into Google. I actually came across xenodocheionology, which does link quite nicely to Kazakhstan. Stick with me…

Xenodocheionology means a love of hotels. Kazakhstan certainly has this as, unless you have inside knowledge and a basic command of Russian, this is your only option when travelling around the country. Hotels are also extortionately expensive for some very average rooms.

In order to attract more tourists, Kazakhstan will need to adapt so that its love of hotels stretches to youth hostels. However, I did allude to the fact that there are alternatives. One is CouchSurfing, through which we have hosted four sets of very different people. The other is to rent a property. This is done through a website called Krysha ( It has served me very well during my time here, and would highly recommend it as a way of moving around Kazakhstan.

Y is for…yurts
Honourable mentions: energy, English

Fun to eat in, strange to sleep in, the traditional Kazakh homestead is an integral part of the country’s history and bizarre enough to be utilised in its future as a tourist idea.

Z is for…zhaksy
Honourable mentions: zany, zhok

This final letter would be difficult in most countries. The Kazakh language, however, seems to possess an extraordinary amount of words or names that start with the first or last letters of the Roman alphabet that they don’t as yet use. Word on the grapevine is that they will convert to it in the future. The changing of all of the road signs will keep more people employed at least.

I could have learnt more Kazakh when here. I have used one of the few words that I know here to sign off, as it offers my most basic feeling of Kazakhstan. Zhak-sy is Kazakh for ‘good’. I have no idea how to say it, but I would expand that to be very good. I have had a fantastic time learning about this country and experiencing its many delights (and experiencing a few that I’d rather forget, like kumis). The country is on the rise, and I look forward to returning in the future and seeing if I actually recognise any of Astana! 

Love you all


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