All too often, expats seem to feel they must return to the ‘home country’ whenever time for leave is available. This seems to us to miss the point of living this type of life, and so we have tried, as much as possible, to avoid this trap and use our time in Kazakhstan as a springboard for travel in this and surrounding countries.
|St Basil's in the snow.
We have just returned from spending five days in Moscow. Living as we do in an ex-soviet culture, it has been a fascinating experience to witness the similarities and differences between modern Russia and Kazakhstan. Moscow is a very interesting city and a great place for a city break as there is so much to see. We also have some friends there that we have not seen since University so it was a good chance to catch up. Surprisingly for such a highly populated city (12 million) is also quite easy to get around once you master the (quite frankly stunning) metro; my husband found it a great opportunity to hone his understanding of Cyrillic script in a hurry and even our son enjoyed reading the names of all the stations we went through.
|The Kremlin walls looking towards the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
We ended up in Moscow because I had to renew my passport. This is easier said than done because Ireland has no embassy in Kazakhstan. Luckily the Embassy staff in Moscow were happy to witness my application and send off a photocopy for renewal, letting me have my passport back so I could return to Kazakhstan while I wait for the new one. Terrific service and much appreciated.
|GUM, a high end shopping experience
Sadly when we arrived the weather was terrible, very cold and blowing a blizzard, but thanks to our experience of central Asian winters, we came equipped to handle this. It was highly atmospheric to view Red Square and St Basil’s in the blowing snow. We walked through the VVTs park to look at the remains of the Soviet exhibition pavilions (now filled with tiny kiosks selling seeds and gardening equipment) and the Vostok rocket on display there. We had to duck into a café to warm up, as even with all the cold weather gear we were finding it tough.
|The Cosmonautics Museum looming against a gray spring sky
Towards the end of the week the weather warmed up and we were able to enjoy the sunshine in Gorky Park and the superb Moscow Zoo. The zoo is old and limited in size because of its location but for all that it does a good job. It seems to have an impressive breeding programme, as well as the young polar bears we saw young Orangs and a baby Gorilla in evidence. Of course many of the animals were in their indoor enclosures, eschewing the cold snow for the warmth but for some the cold weather was heaven sent and we enjoyed seeing Polar Bear cubs swimming in their pool and the Bengal and Siberian tigers padding through the snow.
|Tiger padding through the snow, Moscow Zoo
I had been to Moscow before, in 1990, and it was quite something to see how things had changed. GUM was a dull, dreary, empty space, today it is transformed into a high end shopper’s paradise with sumptuous decorations. I had been very disappointed, on my earlier trip, not to be able to swim in the ‘Moscow’ swimming pool, there is no chance of that now as the sumptuous Church of Christ the Saviour has been rebuilt as faithful copy of the original built to commemorate the Patriotic War of 1812. The cathedral had been blown up in the 1930s and was to be replaced with the Palace of the Soviets. When that did not pan out the grounds were turned into the famous swimming pool. I was also surprised at the profusion of souvenir shops and stalls, they are, however, hideously overpriced, so we went to Ismailov Market as it is not only much better value but also very friendly and picturesque to boot.
|Ismailov Market Moscow
Many people were surprised that we had some Russian, and we got the impression most tourists struggle with this. What really hit home was the reaction of the locals to hearing the children speak and interact with them confidently in Russian. Even after less than two years, the fact that the kids study Russian and Kazakh at school and speak both languages regularly while out and about in Astana has led to a fluency which cannot be compared to a few hours of languages at a school in the UK. They are not shy at all, which delighted most of the people the kids met, we have learned to reign in our traditional northern European reserve and let the kids talk away. One woman we ran into was from Uzbekistan and was so overjoyed to hear the children speak Kazakh that she called all her colleagues over and encouraged the children to recite songs and poems and showered them with little gifts. The warmth that most Muscovites show to children is quite heart-warming; from leaping up to give them a seat on a rush-hour metro to sharing chocolates and food on trains, the connection garnered from travelling with children cannot be overestimated.