30 November 2016

Expat Stopovers: Bishkek

There are so many places that you get to go to as an Expat that you might not otherwise decide to visit.  I would hazard a guess that not many people based outside of Central Asia would choose to go to Kyrgyzstan on holiday.  That is a real shame as it is a beautiful country with amazing alpine scenery and an interesting history.  It is also visa free for many nationalities.

Bishkek, Capital of Kyrgyzstan on a rather overcast day.
The capital, Bishkek, is only a short flight from Astana so a few years ago we decided it would be the perfect spot for a short break for Nauruz (Persian New Year) at the end of March.  I was 15 weeks pregnant at the time so  a short hop was ideal.  At that time Astana is usually still on the cold side although winter is loosening its grip.  Bishkek is quite a bit further south and very close to Almaty (the former capital and largest city of Kazakhstan) and has a much more temperate climate. The downside of this is that unlike Astana which is typically dry with wide blue skies, Bishkek can be overcast and wet.

Traces of the Soviet past are still in evidence.
Bishkek, unlike Astana, is a low rise city, all the better to enjoy the spectacular views of the surrounding mountains. It  is very typically Soviet in its design looking very like Karaganda and other similar cities (broad boulevards lined with apartment blocks).  The city is very green and there are ample small parks for children to play in or people to stroll through.

Parks and open spaces can be found all over the city.
Our rental apartment was about 45 minutes walk from the centre of town we decided to orient ourselves to the city with the short walk to Chuy Prospect, the central artery of the city.  After lunch (Bishkek has excellent restaurants at very good prices) we took in the main sites.  These are mostly clustered around Ala-Too Park and include the Krgyz White House (Parliament), the National Flag (much smaller than its equivalent in Astana) and many statues in typical Soviet style including a very large one of Lenin.  After that we went on  to the market.  This bazaar was refreshingly unpretentious, there were, of course, a few stalls selling national costumes, magnets and the like but many more selling pieces of tack for horses, plumbing equipment, babygrows and so on.  There were even doctors’ offices operating out of the market.

The Burana Minaret is a short drive out of the city

Now restored the tower was in a very poor state
when the Soviets took over the country.
Not all aspects of the restoration have been well done...

The inside climb is steep and narrow
The following day we hired a driver to take us out to the Burana Minaret about 80km from Bishkek.  This tower is all that is left of an old Krgyz city on the silk road.  The site is fairly open and, along with the tower it is possible to look around some old mausoleums and grave markers.  There is a small museum on site which gives details of renovations that have been undertaken since the 70s and information on the artefacts excavated in the area.  The babushka in charge was extremely friendly and more than happy to talk about the place and her experiences during her time there and the restoration work that has been carried out.  The tower has been repaired and can be climbed.  Miss EE was keen to get to the top and took Mr EE with her.  Master EE and I stayed at the viewing platform half way up and watched a Krgyz bridal couple on their photo tour come to have shots taken at this iconic site.  Unfortunately the bridal party started the climb in the narrow upper section of the Minaret before Master EE and I could take our turn.
Markers cover the ground surrounding the minaret

The complex is large and covers a lot of ground

It is a favourite spot on bridal photo tours
The city must have been impressive in its time.
The following day our friendly driver took us out along the old silk road (now a rather unromantic and poorly maintained highway)  towards lake Issyk-Kul.  One of the largest (10th)and deepest lakes in the world it is slightly saline and never freezes despite being exposed to some very cold temperatures.

The modern silk road...

In training to be a security guard
The lake was used a naval test site in Soviet years and a portion is still leased to Russia (and I think, India although I am not sure) for these purposes.  It was also a very popular Soviet tourist destination and the shores are dotted with old sanitoria.  There is excellent hiking and trekking in the area and had we not had the children with us we might have stayed the night in order to indulge in some mountain walks to view the famous petroglyps that abound in the local area.  Instead we went to the town of Cholpon Ata where we spent some time in the small museum which documents what life was like in the area from prehistoric to pre soviet times.  We bought some fruit, grown in the orchards that pepper the local area to keep us going on the way home and as a gift for the wife of our driver.

Spring is still low season so the sanitoria are left for the animals to enjoy,
a few months later and the beaches will be teeming with holiday makers

Just saline enough to prevent the lake from freezing in the winter
local livestock still find it potable.
On  the way home we stopped off to see the monument to Pyotr Semyonov Tian Shansky, a chair of the Russian Geological Society  and the man responsible for much of the initial exploration of the Tian Shan mountains, the surprisingly lovely monument is surrounded by a small park and shows the gentleman as a young man and explorer.

Pyotr Semyonov Tian Shansky
Miss EE came down with a horrible bout of tonsillitis running a very high temperature, she was so bad that the insurers said that had we been in Astana they would have wanted her in the clinic, as we were in Bishkek where they were not comfortable with the facilities on offer they gave us the option of driving to Almaty in KZ (just the other side of the mountains) or taking care of her ourselves and bringing her in for a check up on our return to Astana.  I have found that insurers tend to err on the side of caution by a massive degree and while she was clearly ill and in need of antibiotics we thought she would be able to wait 24 hours.  I always, always, travel with children’s medicine and this was the one and only time I could not find it.  Mr EE went out to find a 24 hour pharmacy.  There were plenty available but the one he went to operated on an intercom system  and as any expat or traveller knows a lack of face to face contact makes communication very difficult when you are not 100% fluent in a language.  Whether they did not have it or whether the intercom scrambled his accent too badly they did not give him ‘children’s paracetamol’ but ordinary tablets.  A quick call to the insurers told us how much to give per KG though and we were able to grind them up in some juice to give her some pain and fever relief

We enjoyed a tour of some of the other city centre sites while cafe
hopping for Miss EE.

We stayed in the apartment for as long as possible the next morning before dropping the bags and getting a taxi (for Miss EEs benefit) into town.  Once there we went straight to a pharmacy to get some children’s paracetamol  and ibuprofen syrups. We then spent some time in the rather fascinating museum devoted to the history of the Kyrgyz people, Mr EE and I taking turns to walk around  with Master EE while the other sat with Miss EE asleep in our laps.  Unsurprisingly a large portion of the museum was taken up with the history of Soviet rule.  I always find it interesting to look at things from a different perspective, to see how the people who lived (and prospered and suffered) under Soviet rule view it with the benefit of hindsight and compare it to the view we have from the west.  Museums such as this one are a wonderful resource.  Once we had exhausted all the museum had to offer we were at a loose end.  While there was much we would have wished to see in the City we could not really make poor Miss EE walk around any more than she needed to.  We therefore decided to engage in a sort of cafĂ© crawl, looking for places with comfortable sofas where she could sleep in between being dosed with medicine.  The crawl took us slowly but surely back to our bags and onwards by taxi to the airport, home and antibiotics.

Good To Know

The currency is the Som and the cost of goods is very cheap.  Be aware that most ATMs only take Visa, our Kazakh bank cards (Mastercard) were next to useless to get money out although we could use them to pay for goods by PIN.  Luckily our English bank cards are Visa supported and we were able to use those to take out money.  English is not widely spoken away from the main hotels so be prepared to communicate in Russian.

We hired a driver because it worked out cheaper than a car hire over a short period.  I understand self drive rentals are easily available.  Petrol was more expensive in Kyrgyzstan than Kazakhstan at the time of our visit, we were surprised at how expensive it was compared with goods like fresh food which was much cheaper than KZ.

We went in the early spring for two reasons, firstly we wanted to visit in a quiet season and secondly it was the time we had available to devote to a trip there.  The weather in spring is warm (15 degrees) but can be wet and overcast.  Winter will not be too cold (ie more alpine as opposed to Astana style cold) and summer is warm and sunny but busy.

For more posts on expat life please click on the photo below.

Ersatz Expat

3 November 2016

Travel At Home 10

Welcome back to Travel At Home. Wherever you are in the world there are probably so many wonderful and fascinating things to see.  If you are anything like my family it becomes all too easy to ignore the sites close to home, falling prey to the belief that they will 'always be there'.  Familiarity breeds contempt and we hanker after the exotic.  But the truth is that what is home for one person is exotic to many others.  As an expat family we get to be at home in a wide range of different places and we try to make sure that we make the most of any place we are living right now, getting out and exploring as much as possible.  

Travel at Home is the linky for people who want to write about their home (or host) location and all the places that don't make it into a guide book (but really should).  You don't have to be an expat to participate, just someone with a passion for their local area.  The link will be open for a week so there is plenty of time to add your post (or posts).  If you notice that something does not work as it should or you think I could improve something please do let me know.

Last month we travelled around Africa, Europe and the Middle East.  My favourite post was Eco Gites of Lenault on the commemorations of the Battle of Hastings from the Norman Perspective.  Visit the website to see more on the fascinating history of Normandy, I know I would love to book a stay there.

There are just a few rules:
  • Share your post - it can be a new post or an old one you want to share with a new audience.
  • You can write about anywhere you have a strong connection, home country, current host or former host.
  • Add the link up button and code to your post so that people can navigate back easily
  • Comment on some of the other posts on the link up (the more the merrier)
  • Tweet/share your link.  If you include me (@ErsatzExpat) in your tweet I will retweet.
  • Add your post to the Travel At Home Pinterest Board contact me via Pinterest and I will add you to the board.
  • Spread the word - the more the merrier and everyone is welcome.

Monthly link ups will go in the main feed but will then be linked to a tab (see above) for reference.  Thank you in advance for linking up and participating in this venture.  I look forward to enjoying some vicarious visits in the next few days.   

Ersatz Expat

Monasteries in Mardin

My Travel at Home piece for this week is a retrospective, dating back to our time in Turkey.  For various reasons we were not always able to drive far from Diyarbakir but when we did manage to do some exploration it was always a memorableexperience.  In August 1995, to take my mind away from my impending A Level results and whether they would be enough to allow me to start university that October (they were fine) some family friends, one of whom, a lawyer, I did work experience with during my holidays, joined us on a drive down to the town of Mardin on the Turkish/Syrian border.
View across the border into Syria beyond.
Mardin is an old town, there has been a settlement there since the Bronze Age.  It is also very beautiful, watch the  spectacularly enjoyable film Ek Tha Tiger (a Bollywood James Bond type film but so much better than the Hollywood versions) and you will see the town featured in the opening sequence.  It has a commanding presence on the hillside and the plains of Syria stretch out below.  Back in 1995 Syria was peaceful, 20 years on things are very different.  Mardin became Christian during the Roman period and was a seat of a Bishopric (it is still a titular Catholic See).  Following the Ottoman conquest the region became Muslim but given the tolerance of the Ottomans for ‘people of the book’, Christians were allowed to continue to practice their religion.  Mardin became a centre for various Christian sects including Armenian Catholics, Syriacs and Chaldeans, the churches nestled in amongst the mosques of the town.

The Saffron Monastery on the outskirts of town.

There was still a small but devout Catholic community at the time of our visit and the churches were open to visit.  We stopped at the Catholic Church of Meryemana (Mary), similar to most Catholic churches it fascinated our Turkish friends who wanted to know about the forms of worship and meanings behind the decorations and took the opportunity to quiz a member of our party who had grown up Catholic.

The monastery gets its colloquial name from the yellow colour of the walls.
From there we went on to the real object of our visit, the Syriac Monastery of Daryo d-Mor Hananyo also known as the Monastery of St. Ananias or the Saffron Monastery. Like the town it lies near, the Saffron Monastery has had a long history.  The site was originally home to a Temple dedicated to a Sun God (the remains of which can still be seen in an underground vault).  The Romans turned it into a citadel and when they left in the 490s this citadel became a monastery. The monastery has been rebuilt several times and even abandoned for periods in the intervening centuries but the dedication to Mor Hananyo is in memory of a Bishop who carried out renovations in the 8th Century.  In the 12th Century the Monastery became the seat of the Syriac Orthodox Church.  The seat moved to Damascus in the 30s but much of the official regalia is still held by the Monastery and several Patriarchs are buried there.

The Syriac Orthodox Church claims descent from some of the earliest Christian communities.  It has a large presence in countries such as India and Sweden but very few still in Mardin.  Some are still in residence, however, and it remains a working monastery.  One of the residents was happy to take us round and talk to us about the history of the Monastery which amongst other things had housed the first printing press in Turkey. The monastery was clearly in need of some renovation which, I understand, has now taken place.  It was, nevertheless beautiful and impressive, the Church of the Monastery in particular which at the time of our visit was dark, atmospheric and impossible to photograph.   After our tour we were invited to enjoy the grounds and picnic in the groves of Apricot Trees, a peaceful and beautiful place.

Looking back at the photographs I realise that we only have 11 or 12 to mark our day there and very few are good quality.  We did not get any pictures of the spectacular interiors of the Churches we visited, film was expensive to buy and even more to develop.  How different to today when we would have 30 or 40 each on our telephones, taking a chance on whether or not they would come out.  The place is, however, deeply ingrained in my memory, perhaps more so than if I had been able to photograph everything we saw.

Jimmy, our Nigerian rescue dog came everywhere with us and
enjoyed his picnic.
Posted as part of the Travel At Home Blog Link Up, click on the link to see posts from other bloggers.

Ersatz Expat

26 October 2016

How to Learn Arabic In Jeddah

Some expat postings are easy in terms of languages, some are more challenging.  In four of my postings  I have been lucky to speak a language that is either the national language or extremely widely spoken.  Others have required me to learn to communicate in another tongue. 

I tend to approach languages by getting an introductory ‘teach yourself’ book or app and then, when I have enough basic information, just start to converse.  In Venezuela my parents gave me a language book to read then told me I had ‘volunteered’ to translate to and from Spanish  for the English, German and Dutch children at company summer camp.  It was a real ‘in at the deep end’ moment but it did work, by the end of the week I had some basic facility in the language, albeit with a very strong local accent!  In fact I have always made the best progress in a language when living somewhere where people do not speak English (nowhere else really speaks Dutch!) as it forces me to learn.  I adopt a pragmatic approach.  I don’t need to speak a language perfectly but I do need to be able to communicate.  Once I can do that I can start to improve and find that people are generally happy to help.  One fruit stall holder at a market in Astana used to reward me with a piece of fruit if I had improved since she had last seen me.

Arabic has not been so easy to learn, partly because on a day to day basis most people we come in contact with speak perfect English.  Colleagues, all parents at school and most residents of our compound do, most shop keepers, Expat or Saudi, do too.  I have tried to learn using apps but the dialect here is very different to the language used in them and because of the way the letters of the alphabet change depending on their position in a word it has been almost impossible for me to self teach.
Confusing is not the word!
I was over the moon, therefore, when I found a language course offered by a local institute (The Jeddah Cultural Exchange Centre).  The course is broken into parts and I was able to register for the beginners’ sessions.  The aim of these was to gain familiarity with the alphabet and learn some basic vocabulary.  The course was quite intensive, three nights a week for four weeks.  The course was taught in English which was perfect for me although I have a huge amount of respect for the pupils for whom English is a second language!  Our teacher, a Syrian lady now living in Jeddah, started by teaching us the 28 letters of the Arabic alphabet and how to recognise them, not just as a stand-alone letter but when we saw them at the beginning, middle and end of a word.

I thought Cyrillic, with its multiple letters for Y, was challenging but for someone used to the Latin Alphabet Arabic is a whole new level of difficult.  There are 4 or 5  different forms of the letter T, some are distinct but others are impossible for my ear to distinguish from each other, the two Ks are equally confusing.  The 2 (or 3) Ds are, at least distinct (in written if not in spoken form) as are the three forms of S, the two As and the two different H’s.  Yet more letters do double duty.  The Y can stand for Y or E and the W for W and O.  There are even more letters that are only used at the ends of words.  Short vowels (A, I and U)  are modifiers used above or below the word to change the pronunciation of a letter ie Ba, Bi, Bu, but these are not typically written so you just have to ‘know’ which vowel is used where.  A lot of the letters look suspiciously similar when written; a misplaced dot can mean the difference between a J and a K or a Z and an R and whether or not a loop is coloured in can change a GH to an F. 

It was enough to give me a headache, gradually, however, things started to make sense.  I have started to be able to read simple words (I was over the moon to read Balsamic on the vinegar bottle and Cocoa on the cocoa tin).  The course has been a success because it does not concentrate on the written form of the language to the exclusion of everything else (a common aspect of language courses here).  Our teacher has also worked hard to make sure that we are able to communicate.  The other day I clarified a measurement  length of an Abaya in Arabic and I felt ridiculously pleased.  The lady in the shop did too and gave me a huge grin. 

The course has a secondary benefit as well and that is the chance to get to know other people in Jeddah.  Participants registered on the course are from all over the world, India, South Africa, UK, Philippines, Turkey, US and Malaysia.  We have all come to Jeddah for very different reasons but it is lovely to get to know each other. 

There is a long way to go, building vocabulary (and retaining it) is challenging because I do not have to use the language every day.  I have registered for the second level course to try to keep the momentum in my studies.

For more posts on life in Saudi please click on the photo below

Ersatz Expat

13 October 2016

Revisiting Past (Expat) Lives: A Wrenching Echo or a Beautiful Swansong

Some postings are ones that you get to return to again and again, even after you leave.  Others you expect, for one reason or another never to see again.  Warri (Nigeria) and Maracaibo (Venezuela) are hardly tourist destinations to bring the family to for example.

Nigeria was beautiful but not the easiest posting to return to.
My many postings fall into a variety of those two categories.  I go back to the town we lived in when we were last in the UK an awful lot because, by a complete co-incidence, we ended up living 5 minutes from where my parents had bought a house many years before and where they chose to retire.  These days, going back to visit my father and step-mother is strange, I was a local councillor there for 6 years so relatively well known to a number of people through my party and through campaigning.  I often run into old colleagues of my husbands or old pupils of his.  It is home (the children and I stayed there for a significant part of the 4 months we were waiting for Saudi visas), and yet it is not.  My mother loved the town, she was not English but it was where she chose to settle and live out her days.  This town was the place she returned to every year from around 1992 when my parents bought the house and we spent most of our short half term holidays there from around that time to leaving school, it is more home to me than any other place on earth ... and yet....  I see her ghost everywhere I walk and it is incredibly painful; harder now to go back than it was to live there after her death.  I love seeing my father and my step-mother and the children adore their visits there but I find it very, very sad.  I wonder if people who have lived in the same place all their life have a similar response post bereavement, do they suddenly want to move away or is it just my complete and utter lack of true ties to any place? 

Our beautiful old home town in England
I had a similar feeling when, following a visit to my Uncle and Aunt in their home town in the Netherlands, I drove to show Mr EE and the older children the place where Oma & Opa had lived.  I spent a lot of time with them as a child, living with them for long periods and often visiting them for short holidays when I was first in boarding school.  I was ok in the town, it was rather fun to walk in my old steps, but when we went to the building their flat had been in I broke down, racked with sobs.  I still don’t really know why (I don’t have the same reaction when I see my other grandparents’ house in Dublin or when I wander around Den Haag, the town where I was born and where I lived 4 times in my life), perhaps it was a realisation that a place that had been so pivotal, so important to me, now has no connection to me at all other than an ageing uncle and aunt. The ripples my life had made on the surface of the Assen pond have almost disappeared for ever.

Revisiting past pleasures in Ipoh
Other than that, by and large when I leave a posting I leave, I put it to bed in my mind and look forward to the next one.  I rarely hanker after the life that has been. I have been back to some of the other countries I have lived but never to my old homes (except on Google Maps) or even cities until last month.  When I had to rush back to Malaysia to see our very sick dog I ended up in our old town.  It was a strange visit because it has not been long since we were there, Ipoh was our home until December last year.  In between seeing to the dogs I revisited old hunting grounds, traces of our life there were everywhere.  My hair needed colouring so I went to my old hairdresser, I was still on record.  On the two evenings I was there I ate at two of our favourite restaurants.  I was welcomed back to both by name and asked if I wanted ‘my usual’, when I parked at the mall (I treated myself to a cinema trip, something we can’t do in Saudi) the mark made when our power steering fluid suffered a catastrophic leak in August last year could still be seen in our favoured spot.

Our old home had the most amazing view.

On a whim I went back to our old home.  We lived in a gated development with some beautiful park land and the guard, remembering me, waved me through with a big smile.  Our old house was occupied by a new family but I parked nearby and walked around the running track where we had walked the dogs every day (the plan had been to scatter Bessie’s ashes there if she had had to be put down).  The fish, the monkeys, the monitor lizards were all still there.  Sadly there is a lot of development going on at the theme park across the lake and I can see that we were lucky in our time there.  Unlike the feelings of sadness I have when visiting my old home in the Netherlands or the UK I felt a feeling of closure that I have never sought and had not expected to want or need. Our ripples are still there, though fading fast, they will be gone before long but, unlike Assen, I feel no sense of sadness about that.

We were happy to leave Ipoh, it had only ever been a temporary posting and had we remained in Malaysia we would have been in KL by now but we left with a short turn round, with Mr EE being asked to start his new job very quickly (6 months notice is more normal in education).  Whenever we relocate we try to spend as much time as possible fixing memories of our posting, memories that will last us a life time.  We do our favourite things and make the most of our remaining time there.  In Ipoh the time we had to do this was very short.  The little swansong visit was, in many ways, the perfect way to put that posting to bed.  

Have you ever returned to a previous posting?  How did it make you feel?

For more posts on Expat Life please click the photo below.

Ersatz Expat

Posted to the Expat Family Linky hosted by Seychelles Mama

Seychelles Mama

6 October 2016

Jeddah Corniche

Jeddah is a coastal city and, as such, has an extensive waterfront.  The corniche is divided up into a number of discrete sections, all slightly different in character and all equally charming and enjoyable.  One of our favourite parts is the Middle Corniche Park.  This is quite some way from our home and can take up to half an hour to get there but it is worth it. 

Enjoying the scenery at the Corniche Park
Nestled at the end of Falastin (Palestine) street, this park is home to some quite tracts of grass, a walk way, some play grounds, sculpture and views over the King Fahd fountain.  We like to go down towards evening time, aiming to get to the park about 15 minutes before sunset prayers.  This gives us time to get a bottle of water or an ice cream from a snack vendor before they close up.

There are plenty of vendors selling treats for children
and picnic essentials like cushions and carpets.
As non Muslims we are, of course, not required to do anything other than not disturb those at their devotions.  All shops close down by law and restaurants close their doors to new customers.  In the park roll out carpets are available for those who wish to pray.  We tend to take the opportunity to walk quietly through the park, enjoying the scenery and the sunset.  The gardens are well maintained and full of sculptures although to my untutored eye they do not  appear to be the best quality.

The park is quiet during prayer time
But full of life at other times.
As prayers come to an end families break out picnics and barbeques on the lawns, children cycle or roller-skate down the path, married couples stroll hand in hand and hopeful young men cast their fishing lines.  In the cooler weather you see people out for a run, men in their sports wear and sometimes even the odd woman in her abaya (although given the difficulty of running in one women tend more towards power walking).

The park is a pleasant place for a romantic stroll

Strange sculptures abound

We are not even sure what these are!
Sunsets in Jeddah are often less than spectacular; we don’t get enough cloud cover for the really striking skies that I loved in Brighton, another seaside town I called home for many years.  Nevertheless it is the best time to enjoy the spectacle that is the King Fahd fountain.  Built in the 1980s it is the tallest fountain in the world, shooting seawater up to around 300m high.  It is so imposing that can be seen from the aircraft as they come in to land at the airport and it can be seen at the other end of town (if you are high enough).

Children play in the many well equipped parks

People gather to enjoy convivial evenings
This section of the corniche is only a few kilometres long so once we have walked to the end and back we just have time to nip into a restaurant on Falastin before they close the doors for the night time prayers.

Sunset is the best time to enjoy views of the fountain
It dominates this part of town

This park is, for us, a perfect example of how life here is like and yet unlike anywhere else.  People enjoy the seafront in seaside towns around the world.  Watching children eat cotton candy and learn to roller-skate on promenades (as I did in Brighton all those years ago) and seeing couples stroll and families barbeque it could be the seaside in Miri, the riverside in Astana; and yet… it is quintessentially Arabia.

Posted as part of the Travel at Home Blog Link Up

Ersatz Expat

For more posts on life as an Expat in Saudi Arabia please click on the photo below

Ersatz Expat