30 March 2013

Visit to Moscow

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. 

Snowy St Basil's MOscow
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.  

Kremlin walls
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.

Moscow GUM shopping Centre
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.  

Cosmonautics Museum Moscow
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.  

Moscow Tiger
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.  

Moscow Ismailov Market
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.

22 March 2013

Celebrating Nauruz at the Baiterek and Pyramid in Astana

Following the school celebrations and the start of the holiday we have been enjoying the Nauruz (New Year) celebrations around the city.  Yesterday we took a walk with friends along the Ishim River to have lunch at one of our favourite cafes.  After a few hours at home we then walked around the corner to the Baiterek to enjoy the light show that has been put on there for Nauruz.

Astana Baiterek
The Baiterek, Astana
The Baiterek is a national monument in the center of Nurzhol Boulevard – the axis of the new city.  It represents a poplar tree in which Samruk, a magic bird, laid an egg.  You enter the structure underground where there is a souvenir shop, a ticket booth and a small aquatic display.  Tickets are not expensive – 500 tenge (about £2) and children below the age of five go free.  Two fast lifts take visitors up into the egg at the top of the tree to floor 97m above ground level.  This number is significant because 1997 was the year Astana became the capital city of Kazakhstan.  The observation deck has a 360 degree view of Astana and is the best place for new visitors to come to get their bearings.  There is a café on this level which serves soft drinks, beer and ice-cream. We come up here regularly to enjoy a pre dinner drink and watch the sun go down behind the Khan Shatyr.  The staff here know us well and are always friendly and welcoming.  On this visit our children were given a bar of 'Kazakhstan' chocolate as a gift to celebrate the New Year.

'USSR' Russian Icecream at the Baiterek
A flight of steps bring visitors up to the top floor where there is a wooden sculpture commemorating the Congress of leaders of the World and Traditional Religions which is held in Astana on a regular basis.  Next to this there is a plaque with a handprint of President Nazarbaev – the first president of independent Kazakhstan.  Visitors are invited to put their hand into the handprint and make a wish. This is particularly busy in the summer months when tours of visitors from all over Kazakhstan come to see and enjoy the capital.

Visitors in the Baiterek
Visitors make a wish by placing their hand in the handprint of the President.
In the last week the park around the Baiterek has been surrounded by tall pillars with lights on top and along the side.  In the evening the Baiterek is lit up with the lights which change colour and pattern in time to music.  The show is a repeating loop of tracks and patterns.  I am not usually a fan of these types of shows because the music is typically over-loud and very intrusive but this was very well done indeed.

We arrived a little early so we decided to go up to the top of the Baiterek.  We let the children make a new year’s wish before going to the café to enjoy a drink while watching the sunset behind the Khan Shatyr.  When the show started we took the lift back down to enjoy the display. 

Baiterek Sunset
Astana Sunset
Baiterek Lightshow
Baiterek Lightshow
Baiterek Astana
Baiterek Lightshow

All last week we have not been able to drive in front of the Pyramid Palace , our usual route to school as the road has been closed off with preparations for the Nauruz fair.  A number of stages and Yurts had been constructed to house displays and produce from eight different regions of Kazakhstan – Akmola (our local region), Kostany, Almaty, North and South Kazakhstan, Pavlodar, Kyzlorda and Karaganda. 

Pyramid of Peace and Reconciliation Astana
The Pyramid and roads being prepared for the Nauruz fair.
We had arranged to meet up with some friends who live close by and walk over to the fair.  Unfortunately the weather took a turn for the worse today and it was bitterly cold (think midwinter levels of cold in most other places).  Everybody looked to have been caught out – all the Shubas  (furs) and down coats have been put away because of the recent warm spell and most people were wearing woollen spring/autumn coats.

Nauruz Fair Astana
Nauruz Fair -Astana
We stayed for a while to watch some wrestling – we were lucky enough to catch a bout in which one of the national team members was competing (it was very short and extremely decisive) but it was too cold to stay and watch the displays much longer as the children were starting to shiver and even the adults were getting numb fingers.  The fair itself was a little bit of a let down.  We were expecting artisanal products, beautifully arrayed but the regional tents held nothing more than could be bought in a supermarket, all piled rather inelegantly on the tables.  

Wrestling for Nauruz
Traditional wrestling match
We went back to our friend’s house to let the children thaw a little and enjoy a New Year’s lunch.  A little later we went to one of the malls to pick up some passport photographs (one of the lovely things about Astana is that nothing closes on public holidays).  It was very sweet to see that the mall had arranged for a traditional Nauruz swing to be put up for children to enjoy and that some people had a horse and pony outside for children to have rides.

Horse Rides for Nauruz
Children enjoy a Nauruz ride
Click on the picture for more posts on life in Kazakhstan.

Ersatz Expat

20 March 2013

Nauruz - A traditional Kazakh New Year Celebration

Nauruz is the Kazakh name for the month of March – it is also the name of the Kazakh New Year and spring festival.  This is a traditional festival now celebrated across central Asia.  During the Soviet years Nauruz was not celebrated but, since independence, Kazakhstan has returned to celebrating with gusto. 

Spring is, of course, a time of new beginnings and the start of a 'new year' indeed.  In years gone by the UK celebrated New Year on Lady Day, 25 March, the remnants of this tradition can be seen with the end of the tax year being 5 April (due to the days added during the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar). 

We are actually able to to celebrate it this year as our snow is melting and our temperatures are above zero.  Last year it was well below freezing and blowing a blizzard which meant that celebrations were rather muted.  Over recent days the city has been gearing up for the celebrations.  All the women’s day decorations have stayed up and have been joined by even more flowers and banners.  Yurts have sprung up at parks and cross roads around the city as a base for special events and a light display is showing on and around the Baiterek. 
Astana Baiterek at Nauruz
Nauruz displays around the city.
Yurt Astana
Traditional Yurt
Nauruz is celebrated on the equinox.  The children have time from school for Nauruz itself and the following week so the school celebrated the festival today.  They go to an English school, Haileybury Astana that runs the British Curriculum but has children of all nationalities in the classes.  They love their school, while most lessons are in English they also learn both Russian and Kazakh. Our son in particular is very proud of speaking Kazakh and practices every day; he takes it very seriously and will even correct our pronunciation, he has been looking forward to Nauruz for some time.

Nauruz display
School Children Celebrate Nauruz
This morning the children all came to school in national dress, beautifully embroidered coats and hats for the men and stunning frilly dresses and tall feathered hats for the girls.  The school’s Kazakh department put on a special assembly all about Nauruz.  There were games for the children and staff – a timed wordsearch in Kazakh, a test on the ingredients for a traditional Nauruz dish Nauruz Kozhe and a game of Kaz Kouuu.  Kaz Kouu is a traditional game played on horseback (as horses would not fit in the assembly hall it was done with pretend horses Monty Python style).  The game is a race between a man and a woman – if the man wins he gets a kiss, if the woman wins she gets to beat him!  This morning the women won.  The event finished with Bata – a blessing and Shashu – a shower of sweets which is, of course, the children’s favourite part.

Kazakh Traditional Display
Traditional Kazakh homeware
In the afternoon the school held a ‘Kazakh Princess’ competition which I was invited to judge.  I was a little apprehensive about judging a ‘beauty contest’ particularly one that involved girls only rather than a joint male/female event but it was rather fun, rather reminiscent of a may queen celebration.  The older girls of 11 and 12 competed in a number of categories including crafts (they had to make their own Kazakh Hat), music, taste tests and mental dexterity.  The girls had obviously worked hard to prepare for the day and showcase their skills in front of all the children and parents. 

One of the things we love about our expat life is being able to celebrate not just our own traditions but also enjoy learning about and celebrating the traditions of our host country.  Over the next few days we will enjoy the holiday as a family and have fun exploring all the special Nauruz events in Astana.  

Nauruz Kuttuh Bolsuhn!

Click on the picture for more posts on life in Kazakhstan.

Ersatz Expat

16 March 2013

The delicacies we leave behind

Everybody on the expat circuit has some delicacies from home that they pine for.  After writing about shopping in Kazakh supermarkets I started thinking about what I cannot live without.  I think, because I have moved around all my life I am both lucky and unlucky in this regard.  Most countries I have lived in have left me with some absolute 'must have' item that I miss when I leave.  This gives me more to miss but also means that I am used to doing without a lot of the things I love.

Some things are more difficult to get than others.  My favorite food is a gammon roast - not easy to find in some places.   Pork Products can be difficult to source in the Middle East and expensive when you do find them, I did find gammon here in Astana but when I cooked it it turned out to be ordinary pork - quite pleasant but not what I was looking for.    But then you always miss what you cannot have: in Nigeria we could get a most amazing array of local fruits but we could not get apples.  Every time I came home for the holidays I would bring a bag of them with me.  My mother would slice and freeze these.  I don’t recall that we ever used these in baking or fruit salads but single slices would be taken from the freezer as a special treat on difficult days.

When I was very young my favourite treat, on visiting my relatives in Ireland, was to eat a Creme Egg.  This is a deliciously disgusting Easter confection popular in the UK and Ireland consisting of low cocoa chocolate and creamy fondant.  Even today I have to limit myself to just one as they are incredibly addictive.  I have found a recipe for homemade eggs but they are even more lethal than the processed version.  100% sugar!

Ontbijtkoek from the Netherlands, a real favourite with me but
I have to make my own if I want to eat it.
My current 'must haves' are the things I go and buy straight away as soon as I return to a certain country.  In the UK it is a gammon roast and Aussie Mega shampoo, in the Netherlands a Krokett and Ontbijtkoek with a trip to the pharmacy for some Henna Plus hair balm.  When I am in Turkey I stock up on Lokum, Apple Tea and Mavi jeans (to my mind the most comfortable jeans in the world).  I have not been back to Nigeria or Venezuela since we moved away but were I to return I would make a beeline for a can of Limca (a sour lemon fizzy drink which comes, originally, from India) and churros respectively.  My husband really misses red Leicester cheese (a typical English cheese that is excellent on sandwiches) and pickles/chutneys.  I sometimes make a batch at home to use on sandwiches although perhaps not as often as I should.  We were thinking about what we will miss when we leave Astana - my husband will miss the very tasty shashlik (grilled kabab style meat) and I will miss pelmeni, a ground meat dumpling wrapped in thin dough.

Many of my British friends love Marmite (I cannot stand the stuff and was almost ill the one and only time I ate it), this is difficult to buy outside of the UK, other items my British friends seem to miss are Cadbury's chocolate and biscuits such as Bourbons and Custard Creams.  Rather inexplicably plain black tea seems to be on the list, although it is easily found just about everywhere in the world.  My English relatives joke that I just cannot understand how important the right tea is, an English tea company even exploited this habit by using it as the joke in an advertising campaign they were running - quite funny but oh so true. My Dutch friends have similar difficulties finding delicacies from home. 

Good old fashioned English scones are another yummy delicacy we
have to make at home.
As the world becomes smaller and supply chains easier to manage it becomes easier for supermarkets to devote sections to expatriates.  Many British supermarkets have a Polish Section for Polish expatriates living and working in the UK who want a taste of home.  Most large British towns have an oriental supermarket and online retailers will ship anywhere in the world.  I have a catalogue that lists all sorts of delicacies that can be delivered anywhere in the world but this ends up being very expensive so we tend to live on what we can get in the local supermarkets without hankering too much for what we can't.  I do, however, stockpile a little, when I first arrived in Astana I could not find muscovado sugar, it is easy enough to make a substitute but when I found it in stock one day I bought four kilogrammes.  I have not seen it since so it was a good call.    

Every now and then, however, it is great to have a treat or to lift the spirits so I stuff the empty corners of my suitcases with treats and keep one or two packets of biscuits stashed away at the back of a cupboard.  We all need to feel a connection with home from time to time whether it is apples in Nigeria, custard creams in Astana or Ontbijtkoek (Breakfast Cake), Kroketten or  Hagelslag (Chocolate sprinkles for sandwiches) just about anywhere outside of the Netherlands.

Added to the Expat Life Blog Link - where all the best posts on expat life are to be found

Expat Life with a Double Buggy

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

Ersatz Expat

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

Ersatz Expat

13 March 2013

Shopping in Kazakh Supermarkets

Earlier this week I was speaking with a new arrival here in Astana.  He was telling me how confusing he found the supermarkets and how long it had taken him to get everything he wanted.  This started me thinking about how I get around things like shopping when I come to a new posting.

I find that I get used to whatever is available in my last home and fall into a way of shopping and eating that works well with what is available in the shops there.  My basic shop in the UK is subtly different to one I would do in the Netherlands for example.  Moving to a new country presents a challenge – not everything I want will be available and I have not yet got my head around the cost of living.  Add to that not speaking the language and even naming something can be interesting. 

Kazakhstan threw up a new challenge for me – it is the first time I have lived somewhere with a different alphabet.  For various reasons I did not have time to learn much Russian before I came out so the Cyrillic alphabet was very strange to me.  Adding to the confusion is the fact that there are two languages spoken here – Russian and Kazakh.  Kazakh is written in modified Cyrillic so until you can tell the difference you are not even sure which language you are reading. 

My usual trick when I go somewhere new is to prepare a basic shopping list with translations so I can get at least the staples into the house.  This time we were taken to the supermarket straight after waking up on our first day.  It was a very kind and well meant offer but unfortunately it also meant that I had no time to prepare a list or even to grab a dictionary from the suitcase.  

Supermarkets here are well stocked with everything we could need so  I was just about ok - meat is meat, juice is juice wherever you are in the world.  I was a little apprehensive about buying horsemeat by mistake but it turns out that it is quite distinctive and most meat is labeled with pictures of the relevant animal.

The real confusion started when I came to the dairy section of the supermarket.  Kazakh supermarkets have a bewildering dairy offering.  Most comes in a range of fat percentages - you don't buy semi skimmed milk you buy 2.5% milk.  The milk that comes in cartons tends to be longlife and fairly unpleasant, you can buy it fresh but it comes in bags to decant into a jug rather than in a carton.  In the UK you can buy one type of sour cream - here the supermarkets stock at least 3 different types.  

Smetana - Kazakhstan
Sour cream - it comes in more variants than you could possibly imagine.
Milk in comes in bags rather than cartons
I spent a good 5 minutes trying to make head or tail of this confusion but I was not very successful.  My first error was to mistake Kumiss (Кумыс) for Milk (Молоко) just because it comes in milk cartons. Kumiss is a sort of fermented milk/yogurt perfect for making yogurt based doughs but it is an acquired taste and the children were not at all pleased to find it on their cereal. It was a stupid mistake because  Молоко looks so like milk but I was tired and on autopilot.  I have since heard from a number of people that they made the same mistake.    Still this is part of a long tradition of family mistakes - when we moved to Norway my mother misread a label and bought whale meat instead of beef. 

Kefir in Kazakh supermarkets
Kefir is not milk - and it is not a pleasant mistake to make
Strangely enough for a long time it was almost impossible to buy natural yogurt.  All the yogurt available came pre-flavoured, fine if you want to eat it, not so good for cooking.  Kumiss is a good substitute but in recent months live culture natural yogurt has been in all the shops.

There are some other strange differences to get used to.  Tomato ketchup and mayonnaise are very popular but it took me some time to find them.  I was looking for jars but here in Kazakhstan it is sold in squeezy pouches, they are actually much easier to use and store and it will be quite a change to go back to using jars when we move.

MAyonnaise from a kazakh supermarket
Butter was also a difficult staple to locate - I looked in all the chiller cabinets but finally had to give in and ask for help.  It is stored in the freezer section rather than in the refrigerators.  Another slight annoyance is that it tends to come in 200g blocks instead of 250g.  I never weigh butter - I measure it by eye and it took me a little while to adjust.  Eggs are  found in packs of 10 rather than 12 and are kept in the refrigerators, my housekeeper thinks I am very strange for keeping my eggs out on the counter rather than in the fridge.

It can be difficult to explain how to find items, a few months ago I was back in Europe and my husband called me from the supermaket asking me what the washing liquid looked like.  We had run out but he could not tell what bottles held the washing liquid and what bottles held the fabric softener.  I had managed to work this out when we arrived because I recognised a brand name otherwise it would have been a process of trial and error.  In the end he plumped for a washing powder instead just to be certain he was getting the right  product.

Before I worked out the brand names and labels I made a number of mistakes buying tomato puree instead of passata.  The puree is sold in jars here instead of tubes. This has another long pedigree in our family.  Years ago we bought what we thought was tomato puree from a Nigerian supermarket.  The name 'Tomapep' should have given it away - it was a hot sauce rather than a puree - we all had a bit of a shock when we ate our food that evening.

In the winter it can be difficult to get fresh vegetables, our local supermarket has a particularly limited selection but the bazaar is pretty good even in the depths of the cold.  Herbs are like gold dust and very expensive during the colder months so I freeze them in the autumn and then use them as necessary.  I also keep a pot of windowsill herbs for basil and rocket because I like them very fresh.

My favorite aspect of shopping in Kazakhstan is the wide range of juice available.  In most places we have lived (other than Turkey) the range of juice tends to be limited but here we can enjoy Sea Buckthorn, Rasberry, Cherry, Rosehip, Peach, Apricot and many many others.

Juice comes in lots of flavours
Click on the picture for more posts on life in Kazakhstan.

Ersatz Expat

8 March 2013

Celebrating International Women's Day in Kazakhstan

Today Kazakhstan celebrates International Women’s Day.  I had not heard of this as a celebration before we came out here but it is a huge institution here with the day a designated public holiday.  The day is a combination of mother’s day and Valentine’s day but it celebrates women of all ages.

Women’s day has been celebrated since 1909 when the idea had it’s genesis in the US and it became an International day the following year after the proposal was tabled at an International Conference of Working Women.  Russia celebrated the day since 1913 and it became a popular holiday in the Soviet Union.  Today  it is an bank holiday in many countries. While it was originally a vehicle to highlight the specific problems faced by women it has morphed into a day of celebration.

The day is now an opportunity for men to show appreciation to all the women in their lives.  Because 8 March is a day off work my children’s school celebrated on 7 March.  They had various events for the day including a very sweet concert and dance display with the smallest Nursery and Reception children.  The children brought gifts in for their female teachers, these range from small tokens to quite elaborate gifts.  My husband and I had spent some time hunting out suitable presents for our children’s teachers and for his assistants.   After school the staff had a small celebration where the men put on an entertainment for the women.  It was rather amusing to watch the video – something along the lines of a Perfect Day 97 it must have taken quite some work as all the men in the school were involved, even my Husband who rarely sings.  In the evening we went to a Women’s day party at a friend’s house. 

Women's day flowers
Flowers received by one teacher at our children's school
Across the city a lot of work is put into Women’s day.  Street decorations and special flower lights are put up in the weeks leading up to the day itself and pop up stalls appear selling flowers or providing gift wrapping services and one of the big malls, the Khan Shatyr, arranged a ‘Super Mother’ contest in the main hall.
It is probably the busiest day of the year for florists shops and you see boxes and boxes of flowers being delivered from all over the world.  My local shop seeps to have a preference for flowers from Ecuador.

Astana Street Decorations
Special flower lights adorn the city.
It was so cold I could not get my fingers to focus the camera!
Special Decorations Celebrate Women's Day
Special displays are placed around the city.
Because flowers have to be imported they are very expensive and single flowers prove a very popular gift.  One florists I walked past was selling some beautiful basket arrangements – when I looked at the price tag they were retailing for Tg35,000 or about $220.  Plants are also expensive to buy, usually costing double the price of a similar plant in Europe but at least they last longer than flowers and so are quite popular as gifts.  I did laugh when I overheard one man, he had obviously decided that flowers were a mugs game and wanted to buy a plant.  He was not quite sure he had made the right decision, however, and was asking everybody in the shop if they thought the plant was pretty and wondering whether ‘she’ would like it.  I desperately wanted to tell him that ‘she’ would be very lucky to get the plant because so much thought had gone into it but my Russian is not up to that.  I just told him it was beautiful.

All the way from Ecuador to the snows of Kazakhstan
Boxes of flowers flown in from Ecuador.  There were 5 times as many round the corner.
The authorities also celebrate Women’s day.  Awards and medals are given to mothers of large families and special concerts are staged across the city.  Elderly residents are often especially celebrated.  One story that particularly stuck with me was that of a lady called Nurzhamilya Kurdybaeva who celebrated her 100th birthday on 8 March.

Click on the picture for more posts on life in Kazakhstan.

Ersatz Expat

7 March 2013

Coping with Snow and Cold in Astana

Coping with snow is big business in Astana as the city lives at temperatures below freezing from November through to March.  Of course the cold brings some advantages because other than the very start and end of winter when the temperature can get warm enough to bring some melt water to the streets we do not have problems with freeze-thaw.  Astana is typically very dry so we do not get too much snow, this year we have had much more than usual making the job of clearing much more difficult but the city has kept functioning. 

Astana in Winter
Astana is beautiful in the winter
All that said the snow, even heavy snow, really does not affect daily life at all.  When we were living in the UK a single fall of was usually enough to keep everybody indoors.  Having grown up in Norway it tends not to faze me but our neighbours would marvel that I was ‘brave’ enough to drive to town following a 5cm snowfall.  Here life goes on, even in the extreme cold or after a very heavy, sudden snowfall. 

The reason life is able to go on so well here is that  Astana has a huge team responsible for clearing the roads and some wonderful pieces of machinery to help them along (794 specialist units and 227 units for courtyard clearance and snow removal according to the city authorities).  The snowploughs go out in convoys of about 7 or 8 staggered one behind the other to make sure that a whole road of multiple lanes can be cleared in one go.  They drive around the city on a continuous cycle.  The snow that has been pushed to the side of the road is then collected either by a combination of an excavator and snow truck or with one of the amazing snow elevators that shovels the snow up onto a conveyor belt and into a snow truck.  

Clearing Snow in Astana
Snow Conveyors waiting for the snow trucks to start loading

Excavating Snow in Astana
Keeping the Park Paths Clear of Snow
It is a very well run operation and quite a pleasure to watch, particularly the conveyors which have moving 'mandibles' at the front to push the snow onto the conveyor belt.  The car park for the park opposite our house is used as a rest stop for the ploughs and snow trucks over the winter so we can watch them come and go.

Winter in Astana
Snow builds up on the sides of the roads
Clearing snow from roads in Astana
Which is then collected by specialist equipment and sent to landfill
All the roads are kept open although to what extent depends on the part of the city – our children’s school is out in a newly developing area.  It is serviced by broad avenues but as there is still very little accommodation out there the ploughs clear only 2 of the 4 lanes of the road, enough to keep the roads open.  We did have one morning, following a very heavy snowfall, where we drove in before the ploughs had been through but they came through about two hours later.   Even the airport is kept clear.  I have flown out of Astana despite heavy snowfall and low visibility that would shut many others.  It is not unknown for people to be grounded in Europe while the airport in Astana continues working safely in much worse conditions.  The biggest problem for the aircraft is the lack of hangar facilities.  Flights that land and then return don’t suffer because they spend very little time on the ground but flights that originate in Astana can be delayed in very cold weather because it takes so long to warm them. 

Astana Road in snow
Road out to school just before the ploughs clear the open lanes.
The lamp posts on the right show the right edge of the road
As well as having snow to deal with over the winter Astana suffers from very low temperatures - it is the second coldest capital in the world..  We have had a very warm winter - mostly above -20 but just before Christmas we had temperatures below -40 for some days. Last winter we had much colder weather for a much longer period of time.  The quid-pro-quo being that we had less snow.

When we first arrived in Astana it was the middle of summer and beautifully warm at +30.  I struggled to imagine how the city would cope over the winter.  From about October the fountains are drained and covered and the flower beds dug up.  The malls which have wide open doors in the warmer months start to change their entrances.  Most seem to have an 'airlock' system of sequential doors.  You go in one side, say the left and enter an outer hall, walk to the right and go in to the next hall, there can be up to 3 or 4 zigzags in some buildings depending on how cold it is. Once inside it is very warm and every mall, attraction and restaurant will have a fully staffed and efficient garderobe for outdoor clothes.

Underground parking is very popular in the winter because of the strain the cold places on the car battery and engine block.  Most cars have automatic starters which people activate before they start getting their outdoor clothes on so that the car warms up for them. If a car is not in a garage this has to be done every few hours to make sure that it stays healthy.  Our starter is broken so we try to park indoors as much as possible.  Entering and leaving the underground parking is done through a series of garage doors to retain the heat and I have noticed that hospital ambulance bays have a similar system.  

The last week or so the temperatures have been creeping up and there is an unmistakable feeling of spring in the air.  The snow is starting to look rotten and the other day I noticed the tiniest of buds on the trees, despite a temperature of -22.  The following day the thermometer was reading +1 and we had rain for the first time in months. Unfortunately this means that the pavements and roads have become very treacherous because the temperatures soon plummet again giving sheet ice with no traction at all. 

The Akimat – the city authorities have been making a concerted effort to clear away as much of the snow as possible before the melt sets in proper in order to minimise the effects of flooding.  Although snow is cleared from the parks and pavements and sent to landfill throughout the winter the process really steps up in March.  I read on the city website that over 4 million cubic meters has been removed from the city to landfill this winter.  We can now see hedgerows and benches in the parks that were hidden for the past months, another sign that winter is drawing to a close and Astana has started its annual metamorphosis from a snow city to a garden city.

Melting Ice in Astana
The thaw creates problems on the roads
As much snow and ice as possible is removed before the melt
Click on the picture for more posts on life in Kazakhstan.

Ersatz Expat

4 March 2013

Kazakh Wedding Traditions

Our Son’s teacher married his Kazakh fiancée over the weekend and we were invited to the wedding.  One of the more noticeable Kazakh wedding traditions is the tour of the city’s sites and attractions taken by most newlyweds. One lovely tradition is for happy couples to pose for snaps in front of various buildings around the city.  In the warmer months we see many wedding parties, bridal cars and horse drawn carriages making a tour of the sites.  This is a tradition not just in Astana but all over Kazakhstan, when we visited the lakes in Borovoye, a nature reserve to the north of Astana we saw bridal parties row out to the 'sphinx' rock in the middle of the lake.

Despite the high profile of weddings in the city, we had not been to a Kazakh wedding before so it gave us the opportunity not just to celebrate with them but also to learn more about Kazakh wedding customs.  The actual registration is usually a small, private affair, followed a wedding reception for friends and family which we were invited to.

Bridge Gets Photo Taken in Astana
A Bridal Party having photo taken

Kazakh Bride getting photo taken
An intrepid bride takes a boat out onto the lake in Borovoye (to the North of Astana)
Before the party, we headed out to one of the larger malls to find a present.  This was an exercise in patience because the shop could not find the barcode to scan the item and initially refused to sell it to us.  After some gentle persuasion, we tracked down the code and box and headed off with the gift, but the next hurdle was getting it wrapped.  It is not easy to buy wrapping paper here; most people tend to use gift bags for presents instead.  After a search, we thought we had struck gold when we discovered  a florists that sold paper and even provided a wrapping service, but it was not quite what we thought.  Rather unfortunately, the wrapping station was being manned by a trainee – half an hour, four sheets of paper, meters of ribbon, two different types of double sided tape, some ordinary tape and a hot glue gun later we finally had a wrapped present.  It was somewhat reminiscent of the present wrapping scene from the film ‘Love Actually’ but with much less panache and capability.

Present finally wrapped
Half an hour and the present is finally wrapped
Luckily for us start times are flexible here so we were more than on time for the start of the reception which was being held at a local Indian Restaurant.  After the bride and groom arrived they sat at a table at the head of the room with the Best Man and the Bridesmaid.  We all took our places at two tables lining either side of the room while the master of ceremonies welcomed everyone to the reception.  While food was being served  the family members – grandparents, parents and siblings were invited to give speeches followed by the groom’s headmaster and my husband (he is the deputy headmaster of the school).  Some spoke and others gave a song or performed a piece of music, the bridesmaid had her job cut out as she had to translate all the speeches from Russian to English or vice-versa.  After the formal speeches were concluded the microphone was handed over to the floor and all the guests took turns to give a speech or a special song for the couple.

Every now and then the guests and the wedding couple were invited up to the dance floor and, when there was a lull in proceedings the MC called some couples up to the floor for party games with prizes for the competitors.   Couples had to race across the room standing only on two pieces of paper, my husband was called out for a throw the ball competition and three couples had to ‘dance off’ to various different styles of music.  It created a wonderful atmosphere, it was probably the most inclusive wedding I have ever been to - even the babies and children were part of the celebrations.   A little later the cake was brought out and the bride and groom cut it together.  The bride then served a piece of cake to the groom’s parents while the groom brought some to the bride’s parents after which they fed a piece of the cake to each other.  By this time it was getting rather late and we decided to make our way home but the party was in full swing and looked as though it would be going on for many hours to come.

Click on the picture for more posts on life in Kazakhstan.

Ersatz Expat