Sadly I have come to the end of my Astana adventures. This summer we moved back to the UK and are starting up the next phase of our lives. I have so many good memories and attachments that I will be taking with me from Kazakhstan, it is still hard to say goodbye.
This morning as I went out to the balcony to sip my morning coffee I was startled by loud “Hu-ah!”‘s coming from the secondary school nearby. Although I am not much startled by the strange and unusual in Astana anymore, and I had mentioned to any and all that the new school playground looked like a police academy course, it was a bit surprising to find it had been taken over by the army. Today is a normal school day for the kids, as far as I can see, so the little ones get to play whilst camoed men run about screaming. Always interesting here…
One thing I am often asked about is what I eat here in Kazakhstan. To give a better picture of this I have decided to highlight aspects of my current diet to give a flavour (haha…ahem…) of my culinary experiences. In this first entry we will look at today’s Sunday brunch:
Leftover stuffing from dinner (I even found cranberries for this one!) mixed with very anemic-looking eggs, scrambled with a few dashes of Worcestershiresauce and on top of this lovely, crusty, yellow bread freshly made at the local supermarket and a satsuma on the side (the stores finally have the seedless ones in stock).
As mentioned, eggs are not quite like what we get at home but certainly seem fresh (as the chicken guano often found on the outsides will testify). Especially here, it pays to thoroughly wash things before use! The eggs are all locally produced however, unlike a wide selection of items in the market that have to be flown in as Astana is miles from just about anything that isn’t steppe.
The best thing about this meal is undeniably the bread. Here in Astana, we are positively spoilt for choice in this one area! The larger stores, such as our Ramstore in MEGA shopping mall around the corner, tend to have their own bakery and produce very fresh bread in huge varieties throughout the day. The result is the best crusty outside, soft inside, still warm bread I have had aside from when I was staying in France!
In warmer, more temperate times (October) we were able to make a weekend visit to Borovoye, the “Kazakh Switzerland”. Just 4 hours drive away from the capital on relatively good roads, Borovoye is becoming a bit like Astana’s Lake Tahoe. We stayed at an interesting place called Zhumbaktas Rest House located in the forest close to Borovoye.
Although the surroundings were beautiful in themselves, the staff seemed to take the structure of our stay very seriously. There were still definitive hangovers in attitudes from Soviet times. As an example of this, we were assigned to a dining table at the start of our stay and given a strict schedule of meals: 8am breakfast, 1pm lunch, 4pm snack/tea, 6pm dinner, 9pm late snack and 10pm disco… Needless to say we chose to respect but not entirely honor all of the Zhumbaktas ideals…
As you can see from above, if you are in a nature reserve, you must find wildlife (or wild-deadlife)! We didn’t see a single thing roaming free, but there were mounted heads galore and a few plastic creatures that seemed to reproduce around the fountain the longer we stayed. At night we could hear wolves which was exciting! The woods in the surrounding area were incredibly picturesque and made me think of “Peter and the Wolf” more than a few times!
In the afternoon we decided to try to row around Lake Borovoye and it was by far the best way to see the area. For about 1000 kzt (£5) four of us had a large boat to ourselves for an hour and took a leisurely look around on a sparklingly sunny fall day.
On the way back to the car, we noticed these strange rope courses in the trees that are apparently for children in the high tourist season. Needless to say, I hope they have all trained with a circus because there are no safety nets and a high looking level of challenge!
There was also a little market next to the parking and we had a quick gander. There were loads of fragrantly smoked fish for sale (I was tempted until I realised it would have to sit in the car for a whole day!) as well as this outstandingly vibrant orange drink that little old ladies insisted was very health with vitamins and I had to sample…It was very healthy tasting indeed… I did finally buy a tub of fresh honey as this is something everyone raves about from this area of Kazakhstan. It was very fragrant and golden flavoured!
After an energetic night of card-playing and drinking with the crew and right before the 4 hour journey back to Astana-land, I took an calming walk around the woods outside of the guest house area. The route to the little lake nearby was stunning and made a dramatic change from forest to woods to lowland scrub and lakeside. Borovoye is certainly a place I will return to again!
From the Sitting Room to the Studio (my favorite bit)!
It has taken some time, but finally we have begun to settle here in Astana. Take a full tour of our new home!
More to come… Up next: My studio space!
Today we are one week in to our life here. We are getting into the swing of things but I suspect it will be easier when we get into our regular digs. Speaking of which, today I was able to inspect the progress in the flat. As suspected, we will now be scheduled to move in next Wednesday, not Monday. I appreciate all the work that is being done for us though, newly painted walls, new sofas and some curtain shopping next week are all being covered for us. Here’s a look at the current state of the flat:
We have a few cracks in the walls that have had to be filled and this apparently has taken some time to repair (Very typical for Astana). The older couple working on all of this together are very sweet and conscientious, if not the speediest 😉 I am told they have been working on it day and night! Anyhow, after the inspection and a look at some swatches for sofas (how house-wifey do I sound right now…) I decided to walk back to the hotel rather than use the offered driver (I think I am being too spoiled!). I took a lovely stroll along the riverside and through “Center Park”. It has been a lovely day that is sunny, not too hot with some breeze.
The park is quite large and lovely. I was mainly by myself for much of the stroll, with only a few amusement stall vendors and moms with kids out and about at this time. I could also see signs that Autumn is on the way, which I am told usually lasts only a day before Winter hits!
The park itself is a strange combo of amusement park and woodland. It seems to only come to life on weekends and the evening.
Sadly, after this tragedy struck as I managed to drop Mr T’s iPhone and shatter the screen 😦
Saiyaku!!! Sigh, sometimes life is so unfair!
*As I write this I am sitting in the Ramada Lobby surrounded with Russian businessmen and the tinkling piano tune of the “Forest Gump” theme, having just gulped down a coffee and accompanying dried fruit.*
It has been a whirlwind week getting used to the ex-pat and diplo scene here. Full credit to the Embassy Community Liason Officers, they have kept me going with various trips to Supermarkets, COSTCO-like stores, English-speaking Dentists, Doctors, the largest shopping tent in the world and many lunches/ dinners amongst staff and other ex-pats.
I am growing more confident in my Russian attempts and now feel I know the Embassy drivers well enough to ask how they are doing and to order food in restaurants.
Luckily for me, I have also been the beneficiary of many ex-pats wisdom out here, learning several lessons about Astana life:
Lesson #1: Astana is really 3 different cities. There is the Astana of the summer, a city in which everyone sits outside, enjoys taking strolls, joins in various outdoor free performances and a time in which you are spoilt for choice in the markets. There is also the Astana of the winter, a city that reaches -40 in which everyone either freezes outside or overheats inside, lives off of the stock that they have hopefully begun hoarding during the summer months, join in ice-skating, ice-sculptures and cross-country skiing or else stay in watching TV and the one time you might more safely eat sushi, if you can get it. Finally, there is the Astana of the nighttime, a place that becomes a mass of amazing neon, 70’s to 80’s space-age sculptural buildings out of “Logan’s Run” and “Blade-Runner”, filled with nightclubs and wacky theme restaurants.
#2 Food, as mentioned above, needs to be hoarded (as well as water in some cases) when the eating is good. Everything here is on limited time offer aside from Vodka, Whisky, Shashlik and Cigarettes. Expiry dates can be way out and it is wise to give all produce a squeeze no matter how good it looks (Mr T and I speak from experience as our current slightly-off bellies may testify). Also, there can be days in winter when water is shut off completely so it might be useful to keep a kettle handy in the bathroom.
#3 Transport is never much of a problem, so long as you are willing to negotiate. Here there is a prevalent culture of gipsy cabs. Locals usually will just put a hand out and wait for any car to pull over, barter over a price for a lift (300 tenge for locals, 500 tenge + for us foreigners) and head out. Although we have been warned off doing this officially, most people admit it is relatively safe, even for single females, and a heck of a lot cheaper than an official taxi will run. We heard a story of a Kazakh woman that moved to London to study and not being very city-smart at that time, put her hand out for a gypsy cab, only to hail one of the few other Kazakhs in London who stopped because they recognised a fellow countryman.
#4 Having exact change will be the bane of my life here. It appears in all transactions, the onus is on the customer to have correct change. Every time I have had to use larger bills of tenge to pay for things I have been asked “Don’t you have change?” and am expected to apologise. The hotel is actually the worst so far as I never get the correct amount of change back.
#5 Here you eat when your food comes and are thankful for it! Service is of a different standard and it is not unusual for dishes to take eons to arrive, especially if you are with a big party. If everyone waited for all to be served there would be no hot meals! This may explain the prevalence of “Business Lunch Buffets” here, which are quite good deals actually (usually about £6 for an all-you-can-eat). Conversely, the minute you clean a plate or put down your silverware, it will be whisked away before you can blink.
#6 Women are expected to drink with straws, even if they order a beer. No matter that a lady will drink faster and get drunk faster this way, it is unladylike to gulp. I keep making a mistake and forgetting, only to find a straw stuck halfway up a nostril.
These lessons will no doubt become very handy in the coming months, but I have also been learning about the expat community quirks along the way. It has been absolutely wonderful meeting so many new and welcoming people, but it is certainly a different form of socialising to London life. I was recently introduced to the “Astana International Club” at their fortnightly “Coffee Morning” for spouses of expats and while lovely people, each and every one, I couldn’t shake the feeling that there were aspects that were a bit old-fashioned. I’m not sure I will take to the Bridge afternoons and choral groups, but I suppose I should give everything a bit of a go. I suppose the fun in these things is what you make of them! I’m mainly a bit worried whenever I mention that I am trying to figure out what I will be doing here and various fellow ‘trailing spouses’ reply with, “Oh, so you are one of us.” I guess time will tell how true that is.
This morning we got up in time for the hotel breakfast down in the “Cafe Marco Polo”, a gigantic cream-colored room with massive marble buffet stands and pan-pipe covers of old favorites being played. Mr. T and I spotted only one other guest in the room and the waiting staff seemed extra attentive and bored in turns. The buffet itself had an extrordinary assortment of options. There was Borsch, a cold-cut section, a cheese-section, french toast, cereal, a patisserie section, Kazakh Manti (a meat-filled dumpling), various fruits, salads and a chef on hand to cook eggs. Between that, the huge empty room and the pan-piping, Mr. T and I felt completely mind-numbed by the end.
Later we met up with Mr. T’s predecessor, her lovely son and another Embassy driver. We took a quick tour of the area around us , finding the medical clinic, the Astana Supermarket (a lovely, old-fashioned place selling amazing looking cakes) and a stroll down by the river. From the river we really could see how the “old city” joins to the “new city”, although everything is really less than 20 years old.
We also got to see the local “beach” scene which seemed to consist of Katy Perry blasting out of some large speakers, men laying out in tiny speedos and kids swimming in green water. Sadly no mankinis spotted so far… There were also some people scuba diving, although we couldn’t quite figure out what for.
There was also the start of love-locks appearing on parts of this particular bridge which was quite sweet.
After this, we got to have a tour of the apartment we will be moving into at a later date which was exciting! All I can say is stay tuned for some pics of the most amazing light fixtures you will ever see! Here is just a taste of what we have in store for us.
We then set off for the Central Park for some shashlik (meat skewers). It was so good, but so much meat! I think this is something I will have to get used to here.
Later that evening, we met up with some other British ex-pats at this most amazing Soviet-themed bar called “Epoch” to watch a Newcastle-Arsenal football game (Brits can never be far from their football). Inside the bar were many rooms for patrons including a room that appeared to have a Soviet gulag theme. Out on the dancefloor were several gents doing amazing old-country-ish quickstepping to impress the girls. It was weird. I only had one beer, but I think the surroundings alone were enough to make me feel intoxicated. Before we knew it the time was 1am and I think Mr. T and I were very ready to walk back to the hotel and rest our massively confused heads.
After a chaotic scramble to extract ourselves from London (and stressful mobile phone contracts along the way), we arrived at Heathrow and headed directly to the BA lounge. Never was I so happy to have splurged on travel as we were both incredibly frazzled by that time. The flights themselves went very smoothly, with an interesting plane ride on Air Astana from Frankfurt. Although the cabin in business class was rather too loud with the drone of the engines, we experienced these amazing remote chairs that turned into beds by sinking toward the floor and underneath the chair in front, kinda like the Dark Knight’s batmobile cockpit. This was just the first taste of what awaited us in Astana.
Arriving at 6am in the morning (strangely all flights appear to arrive either super early or late in the day here) we stumbled along toward immigration, only to find we somehow ended up in the VIP immigration arrival area and got shuffled through very quickly as I think the staff didn’t want to be bothered with explaining our mistake (lucky us). Mr. T’s lovely predecessor was there to greet us with an Embassy driver and let us know she had gotten us upgraded to the Astana Ramada Plaza Hotel. This was to be our home for the next week as she moved out of her old flat and everything was refurbished as it hadn’t been updated for a decade. Upon arrival at the Ramada, we were struck by the amazing, empty marble halls that surrounded us, greened up by the occasional faux palm tree or silk fuschia flower. The room was similarly styled with marble topped desks and bathrooms, but plastic slat ceilings over the tub. This seems to be the way things are here in general, trying oh so hard to impress and not quite achieving the perfect illusion of luxury that is being strived for. Not that I’m complaining! We get a Ferrero Roche on our pillow every day and access to a pool complete with saunas and turkish baths! Having backpacked most places in my recent history, this is pretty swank.
After a good long nap, Mr. T and I decided to get ourselves up and have a wander around the city. It was a wonderfully warm day and the scenery looked to be full of promise!
View from our Hotel floor
The first direction we wandered took us along the road you can see below. This entire road appeared to have been taken up and new pipes being laid for miles (we were later told these were pipes for the central heating in the city). Pedestrians just picked their way through the site as best they could, no health and safety here!
We next wandered to the big Congress Square. Here we met with two teams driving on the Mongol Rally and both from Bristol, oddly enough. The Mongol Rally is a car rally that begins in the UK and ends in Ulan Bator, Mongolia. The rally is done in cars that are particularly unsuited to the task (under 1200 cc engines). From the sound of things, they were lucky to make it this far! Good luck to “Cider Me Up Genghis” and “The Sign Up” teams! The Congress Square contained the city hall of Astana, an expensive yet bazaar-like shopping mall with random desks of official-looking guards sitting around, various ornate fountains and this super-happy-fun train for the kiddies that just seemed to move very slowly in circles around part of the square.
You can just make out the Mongol Rally vans in the top left, under the big towery thing…
Nearby all of this was one of the many city parks. We noticed that Astana seems to be a very family friendly town, with parks, bouncy castles and playgrounds dotted everywhere. It made a nice change to see kids running about and playing freely!
You know Mr. T had to walk all the way down and around the side of the fountain, even though it was slippery marble and lethal…
In front of the “Friendship of Peoples” monument…
After this, we were thankfully able to change money at a very good rate on Respublika Avenue (who knew?) using our very limited Russian. As evening began to fall, we made our way back to the hotel to order some room service. Luckily we get our meals reimbursed as we are unable to move into our flat in the foreseeable future. So for now, we have a home with room service!
The sunset from our room window…
The city begins to light up…
Waiting for our club sandwiches to arrive…