14 April 2014

Getting ready to move on from Astana

We are due to be leaving Astana in just a few short months.  I always find the time between finding out your next posting and actually moving to be somewhat surreal.  We found out about our prospective move to Miri, Sarawak in Malaysia in December last year - six months is a very long lead in but usual in my husband's profession. 

It means that life continues as normal but you know that the stress of the move and packing is going to hit you soon.  Our moves are complicated by the fact that employers expect us to sort out all our own shipping so I have been canvassing moving companies to make the necessary arrangements.  We also have the two dogs to transport and, to make life even more complicated I am expecting our third child and our move will come just around the time of my last week of flying without a certificate. 

All these complications aside, however, Astana has been one of the happiest, easiest postings of my life and I have been reminiscing on our three years in Astana and what I will miss when we go.

  • The Weather:  This may sound counter-intuitive - afterall who would miss the 80 degree temperature range, scorching summers and freezing winters.  I will, the seasonal variation is refreshing, the cold is not too bad to deal with (I am amazed at how we have learned to cope with -35) and I love the warmth.  I will miss the winters with their cold, crisp skies and beautiful pure white snowscapes.
  • The Shopping:  Again this sounds crazy - Astana is not known as a shopper's paradise and indeed it is anything but.  Clothes can be hard to buy and expensive when you find them - ditto everything else.  BUT, the last three years have seen such an increase in the produce available in the shops.  I know where to find what I need for the best value and how to cook with what is available.  I will have to learn this all over again at the next place.  Not that I am expecting Malaysia to be a challenge - by all accounts it is very very easy but I will have to get used to a different range of offerings.
  • Russian:  After three years here I have progressed from nothing to being able to make myself understood.  I can read and write with the help of a dictionary and have no problems getting what I want.  I can even manage my medical appointments without a translator if I need to (although it is easier and quicker when he is there).  Although I know people speak English in Malaysia I will be starting from scratch with the local languages.  What saddens me is that I know what happens with Expat languages, at least to me.  I reached the same level in my Turkish and Spanish.  I know that when I visit a country that spoke either of those languages I pick them up more quickly than before but, for the present, I have a very limited facility in either.  My vocab has completely contracted.  My brain seems to have room for English and Dutch  and my school German but only for one other language at a time.  As soon as I learned Spanish my Turkish disappeared.  Learning Russian destroyed my Spanish and so it goes on.  My wonderful mother was fluent in four languages (her rather lovely but linguistically intimidating family would play scrabble in all four simultaneously to improve their odds of getting a good word) and conversant in another three.  I just can't seem to keep a fourth language in mind unless I am exposed to it every day. 
  • The Architecture:  Astana is crazy - no two ways about it.  I will miss shopping in a giant tent or driving past a pyramid and huge dog's bowl on a daily basis.  I will also miss seeing what the next bonkers project to emerge from the foundations will be.
  • The Safety:  Astana is a wonderfully safe city - I can walk home from a friend's house, alone, in the middle of the night and be confident that I will be safe.  I can send the kids to the loo in the restaurant or shopping center on their own knowing that they will be ok on their own.  I would never do this in the UK or Europe. 
  •  Friends:  As with all postings we have made some very good friends both through work and socially.  Hopefully we will keep in touch and even manage to see each-other again sometime soon.
  •  Our Kid's School: our children will miss their teachers and their friends who have played such a formative part in their first years at school.  They are looking forward to the new adventure but are a little bit nervous - will the next school be as good as this one?  Of course it will be (Daddy will be the Headmaster after all) but I will miss the sense of security this first school has given them. 
  • Gypsy Cabs:  If I am without the car I just need to stick my hand out and someone will come along within two minutes to take me where I need to go.  Last summer in the UK, waiting for a bus I was tempted to try to flag down a car before remembering that it is just not the done (or safe) thing.  Some of the drivers who pick you up are taciturn but most are pleasingly garrulous - wanting to know all about where you come from and what you think of Astana.  The conversations I have had in cabs range from  the prosaic (talk of family life) to the predictable (Manchester United, Chelsea) to the interesting (life under the Soviets) to the down right unexpected (the Carolingian Empire).
  • Cherry Juice:  This is the only juice our little girl likes to drink, she has problems adjusting to orange and apple juice when visiting Europe and when she heard that it would probably not be available in Malaysia she cried for two hours.  I am trying to convince her of the merits of Mango or Watermelon juice. 

There are also, of course,  things I will not miss....
  • Draughty Windows:  There is no getting away from the fact that Astana is both cold and windy for much of the year.  Our flat is double aspect north/south facing and has gigantic rooms that are difficult to heat even with the famously efficient Kazakh central heating.  Most of our friends have to open their windows in the winter to cool down - we don't.  We had the windows re-sealed before the last winter but it made no difference - our Northern windows face towards Siberia with no other buildings to shield us.  By about December we can see the curtains moving in the breeze and have to duct tape the windows for the remainder of the winter. 
  • The Wind: The Buran can make both summer and winter miserable.  In the summer the wind will bring dust storms that coat everything in a fine dust and scratches at your eyes.  In the winter the wind cuts like a knife and can easily add a wind chill of 10-15 degrees.  If it carries snow visibility drops to nearly nothing.  Astana's beautiful broad boulevards offer little respite - they seem only to channel the wind to greater force. 
  • Our Car: Cars do not seem to depreciate in the same way here in Kazakhstan as they do elsewhere with the result that a second hand car is very expensive.  Most of our friends get grace and favour cars from employers or simply rely on gypsy cabs.  With two children still in car seats the mostly seatbeltless cabs are not a viable option except in extremis.  To make matters even more complex most cars for sale here are automatics and we prefer to drive a manual.  For the price of a nearly new Toyota in the UK we settled for a 1998 Nissan Pathfinder with broken transmission and bald tyres.  A little bit of care and attention later and we have a car that will  get us from A-B quite comfortably if not in the style of our friends with their Land Cruisers and Lexus.  On the up side we get to drive ourselves and are not a the mercy of a driver (I dislike being driven and prefer to be in control).  I understand that I can get a long term rental in Malaysia relatively easily and my Husband will have a grace and favour car.  The first time we have ever had a car each. 
  • Bureaucracy:  Kazakhstan's post Soviet bureaucracy is complex and confusing.  The requirements for any one thing can change from time to time and you can find yourself queuing for a piece of paper that one department wants you to have while another will swear blind it is not necessary.  Mind you the Netherlands is no picnic and, when I started work in the UK it took me 6 months to get a 'National Insurance' number to enable my employers to attribute my tax so Kazakhstan is not alone. 
  • Isolation:  Astana is a vibrant city that grows by the month so there are always people around.  It is, however, in the middle of nowhere.  Our nearest large towns are 3 hours drive away and the roads are often shut due to high winds causing drifting snow in the winter.  Trains usually run but are slow and crowded and expensive.  If trains are expensive flights are ruinous - it can cost $100 one way to Almaty and there are very few direct international flights from Astana.  Our family of four can be looking at $2000 minimum spend just to get away for a holiday, fine as a once off but not every holiday.  This breeds a very strong sense of isolation and cabin fever particularly in the winter. 
  • High Cost of Living:  Because we are so isolated transport costs are high.  Add import costs and everything becomes very very expensive.  When we arrived we went to the local Ikea to order bookshelves.  A set of shelves that would have cost GBP20 in the UK worked out at almost GBP80 here.  Fresh fruit and vegetables are not expensive in the summer but become pricey in the winter. 
  • Medical Care: Most of our local friends prefer to travel to Almaty for medical treatment.  Astana's hospitals do not have the best reputation.  The National Mother and Child hospital is decent enough and diagnostic services seem fine but our GP clinic/Insurers have us travel abroad for anything more serious.  I had to be medevaced out last year for a relatively simple 10 minute operation.
  • Pork: Although Kazakhstan is a secular state the majority of the population are Muslim.  Pork is available but hard to find and expensive when you get it.  I love Pork and miss it terribly, that said I understand it is even less available in Malaysia.
When all is said and done, however much we will miss Astana we are looking forward to the next stage of the adventure. 

Click on the picture for more posts on the challenges of expat life.

Ersatz Expat

9 comments:

  1. A wonderful summing up! You are spot on with so many things. xxxx

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  2. Ditto to Wendy's comment! A lovely read and made me feel not so bad about living here, unlike yeterday!! :)

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    1. Thanks JoH - Astana really is lovely but one of the great things about Expat life is that we can appreciate the beauty of our home countries. The down side to that is - sometimes we miss it all the more.

      Glad I helped cheer you up!

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  3. Congratulations on your new adventure! I am moving to Astana this summer, and your blog has been an invaluable and entertaining resource. I'm planning to move with my two cats from Canada, and I was wondering if you would have the time to post about air travel with pets or reliable shipping companies? Any information you would have would be amazing. I'm not sure who else to ask about cold-weather cargo travel, or reputable international shipping companies! In any case, thank you so much for blogging. Your entries have been encouraging and inspirational! Best, Tiffany

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    1. Dear Tiffany

      Thanks for your lovely comment. Good luck with your move. I would contact a range of local companies for a quote - even if they don't have an office in Astana they should have a correspondent relationship with an agent here who will arrange for clearance and delivery to your home. Globalink, DHL and Move One are the big companies here (we are using Move One for our move to Miri).

      Re the cats contact your local ministry concerning an export licence - they may have the details of what you need for import to Astana - DEFRA in the UK were very helpful in this regard as they had all the import forms to hand. We had to fill them out with the vet and fax them to Astana - I am not sure they arrived as the number was out of date and I was petrified that the dog would not be allowed in but she was in baggage reclaim before we were through passports. If your local equivalent to DEFRA do not have the import forms I may still have copies in my email - just let me know if you need them. Alternatively you could employ a pet agent to deal with the shipping for you - I know Move One can provide this service although it is more expensive than doing it yourself.

      Good luck and do shout if I can get you any other information.

      EE

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  4. Hello,

    We aim to move to Astana next december. I am just worry about the school.
    Is the international school good?
    Is the admission easy ? are there enough teachers?
    How children will learn english? We are french.
    Do they learn russian also?

    But also, is it easy for a woman to find a job?

    Thanks a lot for your experience and your kindness.
    Best regards
    Claire

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    1. Dear Claire

      Good luck with the move. My husband was the Deputy Head at Haileybury, a sister school to a British Independent school, our children went there and were very happy. They had an excellent education while they were there and were achieving above their peer group in UK schools. Our children learned Russian and Kazakh but their main lessons were in English. Our son, 7, can read and write Russian pretty well. There is an American School, QSI, a Turkish School, Nuroda and an international School (Miras). Depending on the age of your children Funny School is an international Preschool that educates in Russian/English or Kazakh/English up to the age of 6. I would contact all the schools to see which one suits you best. Depending on the age of your kids Haileybury may be oversubscribed so best to contact them early. I am biased but feel it is the best school in Astana, they also teach French.

      I had no problems finding work in my time in Astana, in schools I also did some political/public speaking. Other than the public speaking the work did not fit my professional background very well and were definitely jobs rather than career progression. I interviewed for and was offered a job with one of the embassys but the pay/terms were not enticing. There is work if you are willing to look for it - the better your Russian the more work will be available to you. Many trailing spouses give language lessons.

      I hope that helps and good luck with your move.

      EE

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    2. Thanks a lot! You are very helpful.
      It's very kind of you.
      I wish you good luck also.
      Claire

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