Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Bye Bye Big Beluga

Big Beluga is signing off for ever. We have moved to Moscow and I am going undercover on the blogosphere there. Email me if you want to know where I am going!

Nearly three years in mighty Kazakhstan and I must admit, I was very, very sorry to leave. We made some really great friends, hung out with a totally awesome crowd of interesting people, tough individuals, no one worrying about trivial things, everyone with their heads firmly screwed on and pretty much in touch with what is important in life.

I am so sad to have left the mountains with which I had a proper love affair. Every single time I ventured up the hills I had an amazing time, whether it was sun and snow, mist and rain, walking, skiing, driving off road. Every new corner that I turned gave another spectacular view, every animal or bird different. I miss the mountains every day.

I do not miss the corrupt police force: usually fat and quite ugly but of good humour, I did not enjoy the tedious process of paying police "fines" for non-offences. I must admit, they were never threatening, so in terms of cheerful corrupt officials, they probably come second only to the Thais (super smiley!).

I do not miss the corruption in general, although it did not impact enormously on me. However, it really upset me to leave our Kazakh friends, and people who cannot just up sticks and move somewhere else. To know that they would be staying and constantly having to deal with this kind of thing made me feel sad. Having to pay state officials for things that are, by law, their duty to provide really annoys me.

But on balance, I am thankful that our family had the opportunity to live in such a wonderfully adventurous place. To know that whenever we had free time, we could head out to the wilderness in our car was wildly liberating and exciting.

Bye Bye Big Beluga xxx

Monday, 7 March 2011

Worst meal in Kazakhstan and possibly the world

We had a leaving party on Saturday night which was a classic expat rite of passage. Tons of people, some good friends, some total strangers and quite a lot of booze. Leaving dos are ten-a-penny in our line of lifestyle, and if I were a more sensible and restrained kind of character, I would have probably taken it easy and paced myself. Not being such a character, I had much too much to drink and stayed up at least one hour later than is ever sensible with four children under 10 to look after the next day. But that done, Sunday dawned (literally!) and the hell that is a "hungover weekend day" began pretty darn early.

My husband never gets hangovers and had also been allowed a lie-in on account of having jet lag from Moscow, so he was in pretty good shape. I also largely got away with my behaviour of the previous night and was genuinely not feeling too bad during the morning, but as lunch time approached and we all started to get hungry, there wasn't really anything in the fridge that looked appetising, and so we decided to head to our local Japanese restaurant for a bento box lunch for six!

Planeta Sushi happens to be the closest restaurant to our house, because we live kind of in the business district. The restaurant is never brilliant, but during the week, it puts on a tolerable attempt and so we decided to give it a shot (anything really was better than staying at home).

Two hours later, I and the girls left the restaurant while my husband, using his recently, greatly-improved Russian language skills, enlightened the manager about why we had just suffered, and I quote, "The worst meal we have ever eaten in Kazakhstan, and indeed, possibly the world".

"Za chem? (why?)", asked the manager, surely as a result of training to ask this question in the face of negative feedback and not out of surprise, since I cannot believe that they have not had complaints before.

Husband then listed the various failings of the meal. What do you think? Should we have left a larger tip? ha ha ha

Arrived at the restaurant and were seated by a pleasant-looking waitress. We hung our own coats up.
Sat at a table which was not clean. Waitress brought a quite dirty baby chair for the one-year-old. But wiped it, so it was presentable.

Then we ordered two pots of tea, some water and two rolls of sushi, explaining that our kids were hungry so we needed that as soon as they could manage it, and we would order the rest of our meal later after we had time to look through the menu.

Then were informed that bento boxes (the entire reason for going there) are not served on Sundays.

The Jasmine and Green teas arrive in large metal "builders tea" pots with white tea cups, and not the Japaanese tea pots and china cups which change the taste and experience of the tea totally. We asked to have proper tea in the correct serving devices. They took the tea away, sat it on the counter for quite a long while and then transferred the now-stewed tea into the normal Japanese-style tea pots and re-served it to us at approximately 40 degrees below boiling point.

We ordered the rest of our meal.

It took one sushi chef in a restaurant with three other customers 40 minutes to make us two sushi rolls. The sushi came, and was actually quite good, although the wasabi was like green paste and not spicy at all.

It then took a further 40 minutes to bring the rest of our order. When it arrived, the steamed rice was cold and hard, the salad was rotten (black edges on the lettuce leaves, large areas of slime on all greenery), the noodle/eat rolls we had asked for were also cold. Miso soup - also cold but we were glad it was not served in a pasta bowl or metal tea pot. It came in the right black soup bowl.

We sent the salad back as rubbish and asked for some hot rice to be brought. Meanwhile, we ate what we could. The noodle and meat rolls were the most bizarrely non-japanese tasting items ever encountered - kind of like soft bolognese and noodle spring rolls, but which, after being microwaved back to a heated state, looked like hot poos in condoms and were completely disgusting.

In the absence of hot rice appearing, we all ate what we could of the cold hard rice, asked for the bill and left.

It was such a long-winded and crap eating experience. We knew that complaining would make absolutely no difference to anything, and it was a timely reminder of some of the less appealing sides to living in a developing country that is so recently out of the grip of the soviet system. There is barely any competition for Japanese restaurants, and like so many concessions in the city of Almaty, the business owners don't seem to care about the quality of their chains once they are open and established. The staff are badly trained, poorly paid and lack any sense of good service (having never experienced it themselves, or been taught to provide it). How can you get things like tea and rice so wrong? They are so easy to do correctly!

Anyway, we cheered ourselves up with a trip to Marrone Rosso for a round of hot chocolates. What a beacon of excellence this cafe is in Almaty and how glad we are that Michael and Sigal have managed to open another Marrone Rosso cafe up at the newly-improved Chimbulak ski resort so we can enjoy perfect lattes and the greatest hot chocolates when we go there too.

My love affair with Chimbulak

Our local ski resort, the piste of which I can see when I wake up in the morning (once I have located my glasses), has had a massive upgrade this year as a result of hosting the Asian Winter Games in January. This six or seven nation championship saw approximately 25 contenders in every competition, and there must have been upwards of 200 million dollars spent on upgrading the infrastructure! Madness in some ways, quite amazing in others. The facilities are greatly improved, even though they never did manage to completely finish them in time for the games. And despite all the money being spent, they have still not quite decided whether to spell the resort as Chimbulak or Shymbulak so it will probably never feature successfully on any search engine. But who cares? For the lucky people who live at the foot of the slopes, the lifts are much, much faster.

I watched one session of the Asian Games ski jumping on the specially-constructed ski jumps for which they had to bulldoze a whole hill into a special shape. 

That was a wacky morning. And I also witnessed Kazakhstan take gold and silver in the men's super G downhill slalom race thingy (I am not as up on the technical terminology as my Norwegian friend) which was a very good Tuesday morning's activity indeed: by the end of the morning, the sight of the super-hotty men with their sculpted thighs clad in downhill lycra had reduced our group of middle-aged housewife spectators to the state of giggling school girls! 

And since the Games have finished, we have been able to use the brand new telecabine ski lift system to whisk us up to the top of the mountain on numerous occasions. It is so much better than last year, when we had to trek through mud and clamber under JCB diggers to get to the piste. But my days of housewife heaven (drop kids off at school, on the chair lift 30 minutes later for a morning's skiing) are now numbered. I am down to just 11 days left in Kazakhstan and then we are packing our bags and moving to Moscow for the forseeable future. 

I have truly relished every second I have spent on the slopes while kids were at school or being looked after my someone else. The freedom and sense of being alive I get from skiing here has been amazing. And as a mother of four, I truly savour every second I get to myself doing something as glorious as skiing under a bright blue sky on fabulous snow. So I will miss it for sure. But I will just need to find new things to do in the big, bad city of Moscow when I get there. 

Sadly today I cannot upload my photos because the internet speed is too slow, so I will have to refer you to here to see an old snap of my preferred Kazakh habitat! 

Friday, 25 February 2011

A long long break

Well, the fourth baby did it! Life became too full for a while there, and I just did not have the gumption to get on the internet in the evenings and record my thoughts, observations, frustrations and occasional outbursts in the blogosphere.

But Number Four will be one next week, and I finally feel as though I am getting back to normal energy levels at last. Thank god. I say that with a heavy cold, having been up till 2am with Number 3 coughing after a strenuous day of skiing at Shymbulak, so it can't be bad at all.

Full update will follow. In the meantime, I want to start using my blog for what I set it up for: to remember my time in Kazakhstan and the things that happen with the children all being so young. And on that note, I will record Number 1's question at supper the other day.

"Mummy, when will we start going on boring holidays?" she asked
"What do you mean, boring holidays?"I said. (We had just returned from a pretty awesome spring break in England, replete with about a zillion snow drops, the Camper started every time, superb, wild, windy beach days, classic landscapes, CBBC telly, treats from Waitrose.... heaven as far as I was concerned.)
"Oh you know, those holidays where you go to the same swimming pool every day for ages and ages and ages," she explained.

Oh! those kind of holidays! Well, we will have to see what we can do.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Kazakh road building

There has been an absolute spate of road building in town lately. You never know if a road will be open or closed from one day to the next. If roads are bring re-surfaced, then it is up to you to find your way round the problem. Fortunately, our awesome driver Baktiyar is pretty resourceful about these run-of-the-mill issues on the roads.

The other day, facing a blocked route onto the main road to school, he looked both ways (you can never break the rules if there are policemen about, but if there are none, then you can go for it), put his foot down, and raced the wrong way up a slip road to get onto Al Farabi Avenue, saving us about 20 minutes of traffic jam in the process. I am not a big fan of going the wrong way down a road, but I can also appreciate that there are times when a bit of lateral thinking can pay huge dividends.

Roads here are pretty good compared to lots of other developing world places, but there are a couple of things to look out for:
  • Half-metre deep storm trenches along the edge of new roads with no protective covers at all. If your car goes in one, it will take a crane to remove it
  • Large holes in roads, which may have been dug to fix a drain or to install a new cable system, will not be marked with a warning sign, but will probably have the branch of a nearby tree sticking up as the only hint of impending hazard. 
There has been a worryingly deep hole in a road near our house for months. It is on an unlit stretch of road which we drive along every day, and each morning, I have half expected to see some poor vodka-soaked unfortunate half in half out of the man-sized trap. Last week, a man hole cover was put on it. This small attention to detail (that after all this time, it had been on someone's to do list) made me feel incredibly hopeful and optimistic!

Here is a picture of our road last winter (shortly before my two companions both fell over on the ice):

Our road has been a very rough track since we arrived, getting worse after each winter and not really having any surfacing at all. However, as part of the recent road building frenzy, our road got done last week. It took just two days.

This is our road last week, we weren't sure if they were laying pipes to the building site, or sorting out our surfacing:

This is the top of our road last week as we set off on a walk:

And this is the lovely new road that we found when we came back from our walk!

Fancy, eh?

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Over-wrought mother of four

So it is happening. My prediction is coming true. Life is simply too hectic at the moment. As I always thought it would be with four kids.

There is no slack. The days are long, noisy and full. I am sure one day I will look back on all this time and wistfully wish the weeks could be so full, so unpredictable and so varied as they are now.

Husband thinks I am going mad, I think I am just blooming knackered. He sees me for 30 minutes in the morning as I try to make myself wake up and before the coffee has had time to work. Then again for about 30 minutes in the evening, when I cook his supper, tidy it up, comment on the various things that I have not had time to do during the day and then need to go to bed.

The blinking baby will not sleep through and it has been 7 months.  Agh!

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Altyn Emel continued, tourists to Kazakhstan be prepared!

Continuing on the theme of the wonderful tourist facilities in the Altyn Emel Park, you can see below photos of the spa and leisure complex at our guest house. Here is the outdoor sauna: 


The sauna being conveniently located adjacent to the plunge pool with well ventilated toilet and shower facilities:

This is our guest house, which, sarcasm aside, was pretty comfortable and clean. Although the woman in charge was a bit of a chancer, when we gently chased her on certain things, she came up with the goods in a fairly well-humoured way. As we finished our evening meal, we laughingly commented that we would probably see the same sweets and biscuits offered to us again for breakfast. And sure enough, not only were we served the same sweets and biscuits, but also the same dried bread, semi-dehydrated apple slices and crumbs on the table as the night before. But when we asked if we could have fresh bread for breakfast, she clocked us for being "kinds particular" and bustled off to replace all the old, stale stuff with fresh. I think if we hadn't asked, though, she would have just saved herself a trip to the market later!


And to compensate for the lack of luxury in our digs, we woke up in the most beautiful spot. one of our mates had brought a kite (turns out, he is an expert kite flyer) and so we wandered out onto the empty steppe in the low rays of the dawn sunshine to see a kite lazily dancing over the desert scrub - utterly peaceful except for the chattering of our excited kids, it was a pretty magical moment.


Dawn light on the steppe.

Here are some photos of the "Singing" sand dune, a 150m high barchan dune which remains in place, apparently, because it is surrounded on four sides by gaps in the neighbouring mountain ranges. Therefore, the winds tend to come fairly evenly from all directions resulting in the dune staying still, rather than migrating in any direction. 




Here is a small yurt tent at the guest house which I think must be reserved for special occasions since the pretty little door was firmly padlocked shut. The guys running the guests house live in the converted railway carriages behind in the trees.