Thursday, 20 November 2008

Busy Beluga Baby

Big Beluga has been quiet for a few days now, because she cannot quite seem to manage her time very well. We have been here 12 weeks, and now I find myself running the Almaty International Play Group, organising a large Black Tie Burns Supper for January (still no band to fly out from Scotland booked), trying to get the initial stages of a PTA done for the kids new school, still looking for a house, and somehow I have got myself roped into fully organising the Children's Corner at the AIWC Annual Charity Bazaar on Sunday. Whatever happens I am not going to volunteer to be a class mum, if we ever get to that stage...

Monday, 10 November 2008

And the journey down...

So having arrived at 12.30 on Saturday when the first snow flakes were beginning to fall, it then snowed hard all day and all night and was still snowing when we woke up on Sunday morning up at the Observatory. 

We had planned to stay for the morning and have lunch, then head home. But the snow was lying so thickly on top of everything that we actually wondered if we would get down the mountain at all. 

At breakfast, the jolly fat cook asked us casually if we were driving a jeep. Not strictly speaking a jeep, we said, but a Landcruiser car. "Is it four wheel drive?" she continued, and nodded sagely when we said it was. Then another lady from the kitchen came and asked us if we were still planning to stay for lunch, and we told her that we thought perhaps we ought to just get going through this snow. A look of great relief came over her face (I think perhaps they were also worried that they might have this odd British family to stay for a few days awaiting rescue), and she shot off to bring us the bill. Then she said, in a thick, rural, Kazakh/Russian accent "Go now, make haste, fare thee well, foreign travellers, ye know not what these mountains have in store for ye". But since our russian is patchy I just made that bit up!

Anyway, we took the hint and I packed up as quickly as I could, while husband pushed the 12 inches of snow off the bonnet, got the engine started and had a go to see if the car would actually move on that much snow, or just stay still with its wheels spinning. 

I suspect that there might have been a problem even starting the engine, as the temperature outside was minus 9 degrees on our thermometer, and so whether or not he and Oleg had to defrost the gas I am not sure. I do know that there was some kind of conversation between the two of them, because husband told me that Oleg had said the descent would most likely be "difficult". If that did happen, I suspect he did not tell me in order not to alarm me further. I was still under strict instructions not to whinge about being scared that we were all going to die, and so had to keep my mouth shut. 

So finally, we loaded up and started off at a stately 4km/hour through a landscape that was entirely different from the one we had arrived in the previous day. A total white out on all sides. Everything covered in a thick blanket of snow, but fortunately, the tracks of the last car to leave on Saturday night were still slightly visible and so we could follow the track. 

We drove at walking speed down the hill, not knowing if the car would slew off the road and down the large ravine to the right or left. The road was ridiculous. Those reading this who are hard-nut off-roaders, hats off to you, because you have to have nerves of steel to do some of this stuff (or disposable pants on! ha ha). 

Driving with the lake in our sights was marvellous, though. The sun was just beginning to break through the clouds, and the snow was falling lightly, the mountains were just pristine with the freshly fallen snow still dusting all the trees so it really looked like the top of a Christmas cake. Just beautiful, and we were really aware how lucky we were to be seeing this view, as not many people will be able to get up the track from now on. The lake was grey and still, silent and frozen, like a mysterious jewel in the middle of these vast, frozen inhospitable rocks. 

We were making our way with such care, but we knew that at any point the car could lose its footing and that if it started to slide, we would be in real trouble. To get down the mountain, you have to cross about seven or eight rickety bridges that take you over streams and rivers and criss-cross a huge water main which runs from the lake into the city of Almaty. Going over the first one of those was probably the most heart-in-the-mouth moment of the trip. we had to approach it from a difficult uphill angle, and then cross most of it with the road hidden from view by the upturned bonnet, so basically driving blind. But once we had negotiated that and a few other turns, we basically knew we would probably be fine, as long as husband concentrated really hard. 

After a few hundred more metres we stopped to let the girls have a pee, and then the girls and I walked behind the car, reducing the weight and making it much easier to handle. The sun had come out and the snow, mountains and scenery were truly breathtaking. It was dead quiet because the car was travelling so slowly, and surrounded by glittering snow and blue sky, even with a couple of eagles circling above us at one point, the whole morning was unforgettable. 

Can't wait to go back in Spring. 

Sunday, 9 November 2008

A night under the stars

Hot on the heels of the AIWC Ball, we had booked to go and stay the night in the Observatory at Big Almaty Lake on Saturday night. I should have packed the night before, but had not got round to it. This was a shame because despite having left the ball at a very middle-aged 12.30, I was feeling rank on Saturday morning (must have been the Cuba Libre cocktails...). We finally managed to sort ourselves out with a ridiculous amount of kit for one night (travel cot, baby back pack, all the ski wear etc - it mounts up!) and got on the road by about 11am.

There had been snow on the hills in the night and they were looking fabulous, ringed with low bands of cloud, the sky grey and the contrast between the dark foliage and the streaks of white snow were super dramatic. 

We had discussed with Baktiyar if we should put our snow wheels on the Landcruiser, but he reckoned that we would be OK since it wasn't that snowy yet. I was worried, having slid down the road at Chimbalak last week, that our enormous car would gently slide off the edge of a mountain ravine with all of us inside and we would plunge to our deaths in one of the many streams that you have to cross to get up to the Lake. I was under strict instructions from Husband not to fret or make tense comments as we drove up, and did my best. 

Actually, it was not a treacherous as I had imagined, so I was able to keep my nagging, uptight-wifely comments largely to myself, and we made it up to the Lake in an hour, which was not much longer than it had taken us the last time when there wasn't any snow.
The north-facing slopes were all white with snow, but all those south-facing were still clear and green. But even by the lake, and with just under a kilometer to go, we had still not written off the possibility of turning round if the track became too dodgy, and so we were delighted when we arrived at the Austin Powers style spy centre, or the Astrological Observatory. 

The rooms are really basic, beds and chairs only - no curtains or light shades - but clean and warm which is all you really need. There is a communal dining room and a large area with a table tennis table. 

We arrived and put our bags in our rooms then went for some fabulous Kazakh home cooking: massive bowls of chicken and vegetable soup, then spaghetti and sauce and bread and washed it all down with sweet drinks, and a large pot of tea. 

In the afternoon we went for a walk outside, and played in the snow. Having been relieved to arrive, we had both agreed that the journey down would be fine as long as we were lucky and there was a not a huge dump of snow during the night, so it was slightly alarming to find ourselves playing in a semi-whiteout of snow. The snow continued all night, so although the Observatory's taciturn general helper, Oleg, was happy to show us the huge telescope they have for star gazing, there was nothing to be seen at the end of it. We will go back after the winter, and hope for some clear skies then.  

All in all an adventurous and great day. Little did we suspect the fun we had in store on Sunday. 

Latino Nights

Friday saw the big day in the Almaty International Women's Club calendar with the ball at the Intercontinental hotel. The usual stalwarts of the committee were out in force, selling raffle tickets, enforcing networking opportunities and generally in state of nervous exhaustion. 

It was a fun night which began at some friends who have moved into an apartment just five floors below us in our block of flats for some bubbles. Then, with all of nine us in our best frocks and suits, we all piled into our car and Baktiyar drove us the half kilometer to the event.

The rest of the evening was classic expat piss up - lots and lots of booze, ropey food, some amazing sights on the dance floor - either from people dancing who think they are really good but should actually be put out of their misery, or from those poor souls who just have no rythmn at all and are just plain hilarious to see. Personally, being a pretty useless dancer myself, I really shouldn't criticise, but it always strikes me at these dos how a formal event is an odd format. A load of middle aged people sit down for dinner (as they usually would), but then get up and get sweaty, shaking their (perhaps formerly) funky selves in front of everyone. 

We left uncharacteristically early as husband was completely knackered after working four 16 hour days in a row (on the back of an overnight flight on Monday night back from Edinburgh), and was not for staying. I am delighted he dragged me away, because I had been knocking back the Cuba Libres at 11pm after eating a small plate of salad for my dinner, and would have been annihilated if he had not removed me from the chat, fun and boozing. 

Friday, 7 November 2008

Highs and lows

It has been an emotional week for this housewife! Starting on Monday with tears outside the state department store Tsum while buying a dress for the Women's Club Ball which was a bit of a surprise. This was not because I am too fat to be able to find anything to fit (which makes a pleasant change), but through sheer frustration at the lack of help and flexibility sometimes displayed here, which when compared to service and sales oriented-Asia can sometimes be trying. 

I had struck gold by finding a dress which was quite OK, and which fitted, in the first shop that I went to. But then, not trusting my instincts which told me to just buy it and be thankful that the whole business would take under 20 minutes, I went traipsing round Tsum to check out other alternatives. What a depressing place Tsum is: a collection of mish-mash-style boutiques offering over-priced goods in a horrible environment of stuffy little changing rooms, with sly-looking sales assistants ready to relieve you of large chunks of cash for your trouble.  The third floor offers an enormous selection of absolute crap - tourist souvenirs, real wolf-skin rugs (with heads still attached), skin shields, miniature yurts in every size, slippers and Russian dolls. I have no idea who buys this stuff. 

Anyway, eventually I went back to the first boutique to get my dress. Handed over my credit card which she would not take. Cash only or no sale. So I asked her if she could run it through the machine of a friend in the building (in Thailand and Korea they would never lose a sale through a technicality like this - you would be taken up some stairs, around the corner and a solution would be found immediately). NO. Cash only. I sighed in frustration. My husband was in Scotland with our one and only cash card and I was 5000 tenge short of the price in my purse. 

I resented paying the price for the dress anyway, shopping in an environment that actively made me feel worse than before I left the house, and the thought of drawing cash on my credit card which would make it even more costly really wrankled, so I left the shop and went downstairs onto the street to consider my options. 

Sitting on a cold bench, outside the run-down department store, with various central asian beggars constantly asking for money and a cloudy sky, I sobbed with irritation. What is the point of living in a place like this to try and earn some decent money, if you end up spending it all on ridiculously over-priced items simply because there is no decent competition in Almaty, I thought. 

But then I pulled myself together, stopped the sniveling (could not give the woman in the shop the satisfaction of seeing that I was not quite myself) and decided that rather than get huffy about drawing cash on the credit card and not buy the dress, therefore leaving myself a week to get stressed about finding something to wear to the wretched ball and probably ending up spending more somewhere else, that I should just be practically-minded, get the job done and move on. This is what I did, and in fact the dress is absolutely fine and wasn't even too expensive. Must be the hormones! 

So this was the start of the week, but lately things have been going much better. There have been several small triumphs in the organisation of the older kids schedules at school, a saxophone teacher has been identified for Beatriz, Sasha is getting the swimming lessons we wanted her to have, and Beatriz has got a slot in the tennis programme. I even managed to get bargain tennis raquets at Rubbish Ramstore (the supermarket which apparently switches its fridges off at night!!!), because the assistants were too lazy to check the real price and so charged me for one badminton set instead of two junior tennis raquets and a packet of balls - what a win. 

I think the emotional roller coaster is a combination of being unsettled, a little hormonal and the inevitable consequences of the big mental adjustment we have to make when we move from one place to another. Tonight is the social event of 2008 for Almaty expats: the "Latino nights"-themed ball at the Intercontinental. Lots of girls are massively excited about their dresses, nails and hair should be a nice evening and we will enjoy ourselves. Then tomorrow we will drive up the hill to Big Almaty Lake and stay in the Observatory overnight which should be beautiful, peaceful and amazing. 

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Let it snow let it snow let it snow

We are still without a permanent home, and the weather is getting colder and colder, the snow getting closer and closer to the town, creeping down the mountain sides every day. Our container of possessions (and all the ski socks) is still somewhere in China, due to arrive next week. But without a home to unpack it into, we are a bit stuck. 

But with husband in the UK this weekend, empty suitcase in hand to collect my multiple internet shopping purchases, at least the kids will have winter wear when he gets back from his trip. And with this in mind, the girls and I drove up the hill to see what Chimbalak Ski Resort is like. 

It was raining all day in town, a really grey Sunday, and it was all I could do to muster the troops and get them dressed, wrapped and booted up and into the car. But at least, with Almaty being a small place and there being one road to the mountains, it is not hard to find your way around. We drove up Dostyk Avenue into the mist and rain that has been hanging around all weekend. The outside temperature dropped from 4 degrees at home to minus 2 when we stopped in falling snow, just past the ski lift start. It was so wet and cloudy that I couldn't really get a great idea about the place, but the kids were delighted to jump out of the car and cavort around in the white stuff for an hour or so. 

Then we went to the cafe (note the use of the singular) at the point where the piste ends and the lifts start for a cup of tea and to have a mooch around. There were people snow boarding and skiing and sledding, but it was such a wet day, it was not packed and the snow is still not deep - light enough for there to be the odd bush pocking out of the top of the snow at the bottom of the run! It was snowing steadily though, and in a couple of weeks there will be piles of it everywhere. Quite a contrast from desert-like Korea where the only snow is on man-made pistes, and the surrounding hills are tinder-dry with leaves and sticks of winter trees. 

We are all really looking forward to going back for some skiing action. 

Next weekend we are due to go back to Big Almaty Lake for a night at the astrological observatory and I think we will need the snow tires on the truck to get there. Today, I was turning on the road with not a big covering of snow, and the car started to slide sideways down the hill mid-turn which was a slightly unnerving moment. It is a very large car, and would definitely get up momentum pretty quickly if the gradient had been steeper. One of the advantages of having despatched Grannie back to Scotland last week - if she had been in the car she would have had a fit, but the kids didn't even notice that Mummy was slightly out of control, sliding down the mountain side, and were too busy tickling each other in the back. 

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Gynacologia? Gynacologia?

I think I am finally beginning to realise that when you plan something, you really do have to take into account the possible down sides as well as the much-more-fun up sides to a potential situation. When we were sussing out moving to Kazakhstan, one of the potential downsides that we considered was the lack of good, local hospital facilities and, especially, the lack of English-speaking facilities. So imagine my delight when eight weeks into my sojourn in this fabulous republic (I do actually really like it here, but my opinion on the hospital care has not improved since moving here), I found out I would have to go to hospital for a general anaesthetic.

In Seoul where English is not widely spoken, there was a choice of several hospitals which had international clinics with English-speaking assistants who would take you around to do all the tests you needed etc. Here we have the SOS clinic which is a kind of health insurer own clinic that helps you out in a crisis, has an English-speaking expat doctor and deals with all the paperwork for a price.

Last week I had to go and get checked for something, and at the same time I told him that I had recently discovered that I was (accidentally) pregnant. So he sent me for a scan at the clinic in the photo, and sadly at the scan, the doctors saw that there was no heart beat and that the baby had stopped developing at about 7 weeks. All a total disaster, and it also meant I had to go and have an operation to get it taken out. 

On a list of 1000 things I would rather never do in my life, going to a Kazakh hospital and having a general anaesthetic would probably have been quite high, but I was in the position that I had no choice really. I was booked to fly to Thailand on Wednesday and the doctor said that without getting rid of it before flying I would risk having a full-blown miscarriage on the plane because of the change in air pressure (I am skeptical about this myself, but don't know for sure, and didn't have time to check really).  So on Tuesday I went off to another clinic to get done. there had been a miscommunication about the time for us to arrive, and so shortly after getting to the clinic we were whisked into the car park to be transferred to the clinic for the op, not into our waiting car, but into the "fast" car, in other words, the SOS Ambulance with the flashing lights and sirens blaring in order to cross town in under 10 minutes. 

What a crazy way to get to a routine operation. We had to get Baktiyar our driver to follow us as he didn't know where the clinic was, and we could see him concentrating very hard as he chased the ambulance along the roads, past the speed cameras etc. He must have thought we were proper drama queens. 

We arrived at the clinic (still not completely built - what a surprise... this is kazakhstan after all) and were shown into the lobby and went for various checks: 
"Now what is it you have come for?" asked the first doctor
"I thought you might have been told that before I came in," I replied.

Various weird questions: 
"Do you have your good feet?" asked the translating doctor
"What?" I said
"Your good foot, Gail, she means which is your primary foot, the one you always step forward with first," said my husband.
"I have absolutely no idea, I am right-handed" I said. 
"No, your good foot, your house foot," said the doctor
"Oh, you mean my slippers," I realised. 

And then it was time to be led down the hall to the operating area, have my glasses taken away so everything was completely fuzzy, hear my husband protesting to be allowed to come with me, "but she can't speak Russian...", and have my clothes removed while standing in a busy corridor and be given my operating gown. 

After a wait of a few minutes, about four blue-gown-clad people came up to me and a pair of heavily made-up eyes fuzzily came into view, speaking Russian and peering at my over their face mask. 

"I only speak a tiny bit of Russian and I really don't understand you," I said in my crap Russian, to which she replied: "Gynacologia? Gynacologia?" and I nodded, thinking, "Bloody hell, they might give me a hysterectemy for all I know." 

I was led into what was obviously an operating theatre set up for some kind of gynacological procedure, arms strapped into the crucifix position, and freezing cold. Fortunately, just before a total panic attack kicked in, it was time for the anaesthetic to be administered. "Just knock me out," I thought, "Or I am going to completely freak out here."

Anyway, I did wake up, felt a bit rough, but seem to have lived relatively intact to prove that the Motto of "It Will Probably Be Alright" which I have adopted since deciding to move here is holding true, and long may that last. 

Sunday, 19 October 2008

The World's Worst Toilet

I remember a conversation I once had with some friends about the worst toilets in the world. I think the winning entry at the time was one suggested by Matt who had worked in Somalia for a while. They had shit-filled holes in the ground inside metal boxes for privacy, where the cockroaches were so big, they used to throw in a load of petrol and then a match before entering the pit. 

I have racked up some pretty revolting toilets in my time: one in Brazil that was so disgusting that my friend urinated in the sink instead of the toilet as even hovering was too traumatic for her; a spray-shitted squatty in a government building in Hong Kong into which I had to go to the loo while looking after an 11 month old, walking Beatriz and not let her touch anything; the one on the top of the Great Wall of China where you squatted above a hole in a concrete floor that looked down approximately 1800 feet of rock face to the bottom of the gorge below and which, apart from the icy wind whistling up the shoot, was actually not so bad, but also not so environmentally friendly for this world-heritage site. 

Anyway, I have discovered a new contender for worst toilet in the world. Take note, that if you are ever crossing the border from Kyrgyzstan to Kazakhstan, DO NOT use the public convenience on the Kyrgyz side. Husband said he had used the Gents on a previous trip and it was the worst men's toilet he had ever been in. But since they had a box charging women for the privilege of using it, I figured that the lady's would be better (they usually are). The kids and I entered, armed with our small roll of paper (20 tenge each), eyeing the concrete squats that just had a fairly large hole into a massive pit of excrement. The hole between the foot rests was big enough that one could feasibly lose ones balance and, in exceptionally unlucky circumstances, fall in (and with Sasha the wobbler, this kind of thing is always possible...) - total Horror. 

We don't have a  problem with squats, they don't have to be neat and tidy. We can do our business in the most basic places, but this room was honestly like a hell on earth. A place so terrible that you imagine the Black Hole of Calcutta might have smelt like this, or the bottom deck of a slave ship, or some other godawful situation. THE SMELL. I have not taken a photograph of this place, mainly because I left the place retching uncontrollably and did not want to go back in, and also because a photograph could NEVER capture the stench of this awful, awful little room. The girls were laughing their heads off. Sasha didnt even need to go, she had just come along and bought her loo roll for the expedition! They had never seen me react in this way to a loo before. 

It must have been the way the building was built, lack of ventilation or something, but I have never been in such a honking place. It was impossible to breathe in there without your stomach rising. I was desperate to go, and so had to go outside, take a deep breath and rush back in without breathing. The kids were looking through the door giggling as I struggled to finish without having to breathe in again and possibly puke on the floor. 

And that was my last impression of Kyrgyzstan! 

What to do in Bishkek?

There is really not a lot to do in Bishkek! There are not really any old monuments or anything to visit, the museums and art galleries are written up in our guide book as dusty, lacking in light (there is no electricity in Bishkek for six hours a day) and bizarre rather than interesting. And we were feeling a bit exhausted to be honest, so had a slow start to our day in this place. 
It took us over an hour to change money, failing at several ATMs only to then find that our trusty RBS had not failed us, once again blocking our account for removing cash in Central Asia.It is becoming a tedious fact of life here that getting hold of cash is a nightmare. 

We had decided to go and explore the largest of Bishkek's bazaars for a couple of hours, a place called Doldoi market. It is 7kms from the centre of the town, and is a huge pile of shipping containers (like Baraholka market in Almaty) which have been made into shops. Actually, once we got inside, we were all feeling like mooching around and had a good few hours buying winter boots for the kids, eating meat pies called Samsa and trying on a variety of fur hats. 

The hotel had warned us that this place was run by mafia and extremely dangerous which was of course a load of absolute nonsense. It is obviously where everyone in Bishkek goes to buy pretty much everything, and was completely fine. We saw some amazing things for sale: tall felt hats, piles of wool, huge central asian women with their heads wrapped in brightly-coloured scarves, gold-teeth ad infinitum and managed to survive without being mugged, robbed or kidnapped! 

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

We are just back from a weekend in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, a small, mountainous country bordering Kazakhstan. It is only a 3 hour drive from Almaty to Bishkek and since husband was working down there and already had a room in the big Hyatt there, we drove down on Friday afternoon. 

Baktiyar, our driver, hates Bishkek. He hates going there, can't stand the Kyrgyz people, thinks that Bishkek is a dump and could not comprehend why on earth we would want to go there at all. 

But we always like to visit new places and since it is close by and we had not been really outside Almaty, we decided to go and have a look. Driving out of Almaty we passed wide expanses of flat grassy land leading to snow-topped mountains on the left hand side, and on the right, just stretching away for what we know is absolutely thousands of kilometres, a big expanse of flatness. There are heaps and heaps of new homes being built, even quite a long way from the city. An awful lot of them have the look of have-a-go-hero about them and are still unfinished, sitting in the middle of kind of wasteland ground with their new blue or red corregated roofs shining in the sun . 

After a while we started driving across a semi-desert landscape, still with these terrific mountains down the left hand side. Then we drove through rolling grassland with flocks of sheep being herded by people on horse back, and it was all very atmospheric and steppe-like (except for the Disney film of Robin Hood blaring on the portable DVD player in the back with the kids). We drove through a mini-gorge/canyon area where the road twisted and turned through rocky valleys, half expecting a mujahadeen to pop his head out from behind a stone, but instead finding goat herders and the odd cow wandering along the road. 

After three hours, we arrived at the border. Baktiyar drove the car through and we all got out and went through the two passport points: one to leave Kazakhstan and one to enter Kyrgyzstan. To actually cross the border, you have to cross a torrent of a river on a rickety old bridge where half the railings are missing (worrying if you have Sasha, one of the most accident prone people on the planet, with you.). Making it into a new country was exciting, and we all took our photo in front of the Kyrgyz Flag, then the kids went for a pee behind a pile of rubble and off we headed to Bishkek, which stretches almost to the border. 

"Here, Bishkek!" said Baktiyar, and laughed in his usual, slightly hysterical way, as we drove along a dusty road, lined with tiny tumbledown cottages. 

It is really a run down little town,the little hutslining the road, all of which you can see through glimpses between them, have long gardens out back full of cultivated vegetables and fruit. It is perhaps an availability thing, but turquoise blue is the colour of choice for painting anything in this part of the world. Houses are fenced in with wooden fences, painted turquoise, with white diamonds in a line along the front. Wooden houses are painted anything within the spectrum of light blue to greeny, darkish blue, some with interesting upstairs balcony features that include stars, circular windows, or ornate finishing around the roof - everything painted blue, green or turquoise. 

We arrived at the Hyatt which is a massive modern building next to the town theatre and with full on "make the americans feel safe" security (a man with a mirror on a stick to check under your car, and a tank-stopping metal plate that comes out of the ground to stop cars entering the grounds). Right next to the drive is a pleasant area of grass and trees that a 4WD of evil intent could just drive through, if they did not want to do the courtesy stop for the mirror treatment, but at least the security is in place. 

And apparently, Kyrgyzstan has a fairly fiery history with power alternating between the two main tribes in this area, one from the South and one from the North. Three years ago there was a revolution when one lot grabbed power from the other lot (lots of well-researched historical info on this blog!), and the story goes that the angry mob in the street were fully intent on burning the Hyatt down. The hotel had to fence itself in, and it was only because there was a really heavy rain shower which then turned into snow that this did not happen. The protestors found their revolutionary zeal deserted them as they got colder and wetter, and in the end went home for a bowl of plov (a kind of long-cooked rice and raisin dish of the area)! Rumour has it that there is a revolution brewing again, with a newly- and openly-formed opposition party setting up shop in town. Just hope that husband is not there when it happens, although the hotel is only about 10kms form the border, and hopefully, with the car, he could make a quick break for the border and get out. 

The Rule of The Three Things Being Broken

When we lived in Brazil, we found that despite all our best efforts to keep our house going, there always seemed to be at least three separate items which needed repairs, new bits, or some kind of sorting out. In the end, we decided it must be one of those rules of life (Sod's and Murphy's being the other two that spring to mind): the Rule of The Three Things Being Broken. It seems to apply to certain places only. In Thailand where the national catch phrase is Mai Pen Rai (which roughly translated means, Oh, never mind (or don't bother even trying to sort that out mate, because it ain't never going to happen)) and where you might expect the Rule of Three to apply, it seems to relate more to the time it takes to sort things out. Problems that you would normally expect to be fixed within a week take three weeks. More complicated issues (like our plumbing) are obviously destined to be sorted out in decades, and not days!

In Almaty, we are back to the straightforward Rule of Three. So we had the water heater and the dishwasher and the internet one week. Then we fixed the dishwasher, so the TV stopped working for a couple of days. As I write, and of course by even writing this down, I am dooming myself to interminable fixing issues for months to come, but there are actually no mechanical issues to deal with  so perhaps we are in for a good spell. 

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Big trip to Big Almaty Lake

We are just back from a great day out, testing the Landcruiser's off road abilities and making our way to the Big Almaty Lake, a breathtakingly beautiful spot of turquoise water, snowy mountains, frosty slopes and wonderful clambering about on rocks.


After a short walk and picnic lunch, Husband decided to follow the example of some very hardy outdoorsy-looking people and jump into the turquoise water for a dip. They had got down to
 their speedoes and were half way across the lake. He stripped down to his pants, pranced about on the edge of the turquiose water, jumped in, almost had a heart attack, and with what looked like very primal instinct kicking in, ran as fast as he could out of the water, charged about flapping his arms for a while making a strange gasping noise and put his clothes back on. A few minutes later the hardy locals swam back to shore at a leisurely pace, calmly dried themselves off and got back into their shorts and T-shirts (we were all wearing our gor-tex hiking jackets). 

Then we drove a little further up the track to the Tian Shan Astronomical Observatory where you can stay in slightly basic Soviet rooms, but see the stars at night through a giant telescope. The whole place looks like something out of a James Bond set, hidden away in the mountains in Kazakhstan, slightly crumbling and next to this amazing lake. We will try to go back at night before the winter really sets in. 

It was brilliant. We finished the day with some mouthwateringly-good Shashlik kebabs at a well-known Georgian restaurant on the road back into Almaty. 

Friday, 10 October 2008

Boo hiss the evil landlady

So our nice, easy-to-work-with landlady has done the dirty, inserted a clause in the rental contract giving her the right to raise our rent arbitarily, and we have had to walk away from the whole deal. Gutted. 

And even worse, I now have to start house hunting again. I spent the morning with a new realtor looking at rank photos of rank houses, some of which I have already seen in real life and know that they actually look better in the pictures! 

We have now been here 7 weeks or so, and in the meantime, the other 70 families who have just arrived have been beavering away finding their ideal homes. So there really is a load of absolute dross left. 

However, there is absolutely no point in getting down about this tedious situation, and I know I am not alone in facing my challenges here. Yesterday, I met a girl who had her first baby here last year, and was telling how to take blood samples in the local hospital, they just shave the end of your finger off with a razor blade. Ouch. Apparently, in the no-expense-spared Kazakh hospital system, the urine sample containers they used were the cut-off bottoms of Tassay mineral water bottles!! 

On a less painful note, my friend L has hired a car and a driver called Victor to get around. Victor is young and keen but has no idea where anything is and speaks only Russian. She, I think, would rather drive herself but has not got a car. Victor comes with his own ancient BMW which has started recently to smell strongly of petrol. 
"Don't you think he should get that fixed?" L asked me, 
"I mean, aren't exhaust fumes supposed to be worse for you than cigarettes? What is the point of living out of town in the mountains if I have to sniff Victor's petrol fumes for an hour a day" she said, exasperated. 
On numerous occasions she and Victor have driven around for hours trying to find things like The Hyatt hotel (one of two large international hotels in what is, let's face it, a pretty small town). Yesterday, while driving into town,  Victor was playing some positively pornographic rap music that "made Eminem sound like a priest" and which quite put friend L off the "quality novel" she was reading. 

And on the bright side for now, the marvelous Alia (picture below) continues to be brilliant and our driver man Baktiyar (I love that name) remains a legend. 

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Russki shopping lists

Having a nanny who speaks not a word of English is certainly not boring! Alia is proving to be a great buddy to have around - cheerful, chatty, a bit scatty but also affectionate, playful and pleasant. So far so good. She is also, thank goodness, a patient woman (must be something to do with having lived in soviet times), since it can be unbelievably drawn out having to communicate with each other with a total lack of common language. I don't think that on taking this job, she expected to have to use her reading glasses so much, as we pass the dictionary back and forth, trying to work out what the other wants to say!

Yesterday, while I was having a Russian lesson and the baby was sleeping, she went to the Green Market to buy some fruit and veggies. So before she left we sat down to make a list: I was armed with the Almaty International Women's Group's emergency food shopping translation list (laminated so you can keep it in your handbag), she with a pen and paper. We concocted a list and off she went. 

When I got back from the school run, there she was with her spoils and some unusual and un-ordered items. One of these was a bundle of asparagus which Alia found utterly baffling. "What is this?" she asked, picking it up and gnawing at one of the spears, "What do you do with it? Is it a herb?" I think she asked. It then transpired that the reason she was so intrigued about this vegetable was that it had cost me 30USD!! She was amazed that I had wanted to buy this (I hadn't!) I still don't know what it is called in Russian, it is not on the AIWC list, and neither, I believe, was it on Alia's list. I think I managed to explain that really if anything costs more than 10USD that we could live without it and she needn't buy it, we would wait until it was in season. 

Then we continued, I had a few things to explain to her, and so we laboured on with the dictionary, gesticulation and the odd word in Russian. At one point I looked up "Not easy" and explained that I realised that this communication was tortured, but that I was sure it would get easier with time. She nodded emphatically and then spent an age looking up a word herself (she has not taken the sticker off her reading glasses which says, in quite large writing, +2.5 , and which I am sure is making it hard for her to focus on the tiny print of my pocket dictionary). I spent the time sending a couple of long texts to friends, and then eventually she slapped the book down on the table, pointed at the identified word and pronounced: "Gail...... capable!". 

I am glad that she has the faith that my Russian will get there. Perhaps I should spend more time learning my vocabulary and less time writing this blog! 

Monday, 6 October 2008

From Glorious to Gopping Heights

It has been a good day: my first outing with the Almaty International Women's Association hiking group (not the same as the invitation-only ladies walking ensemble) for a bracing stroll through stunning scenery only 20 minutes drive from town. 

We were a mixed bunch of me and my mate L, American group coordinator ("only because everyone else left"...), French lady who knew this route, a Venezuelan lady, two guys from Zimbabwe and a Swedish man, some more french ladies, a Dane and a Romanian. And we all got along very nicely, using our multiple languages to fill in the gaps when someone could not quite remember the word they were searching for in a story. 

We set off in a convoy of 4WD cars, two or three hikers to a vehicle, and drove out of Almaty on the excellent road up to Chimbalak, the nearest ski resort to town. Passing the Medeu ice rink (the world's largest outdoor ice rink) on the way, we soon pulled onto a short, rough track and stopped. We were next to a tiny small holding, and there was a track leading into the magical landscape. It is spectacular, and it was very exciting for me, after all these weeks of looking at the mountains, to be finally walking on them.

We began with a short, sharp ascent, but then moved onto a nice smooth and steady uphill stretch with a stream running down one side, and wide expanses of scenery in front of us (an area known locally as The Sound of Music). Pottering along at a nice gentle pace, we stopped from time to time for water or take a group photo and let people get their breath. After crossing a stream, we came to a small but pretty waterfall, where there was enough bouncy moss to make a million Christmas wreaths. It misted over while we were eating our sandwiches and we quickly got cold, the temperature must have differed by about 10 degrees in under a minute when the sun vanished. 

Two and a half hours of pretty scenery, nice exercise and interesting chat, and we were all back with our entourage of cars and drivers, ready for the quick drive back into the city and the afternoon school run. 

As we drove in, we passed the end of the road for a house that we recently viewed. We had a bad phone call on Friday when our estate agent phoned to say that the landlady on the house for which we have been trying to sign a contract for nearly a month, has decided to include a clause giving her the right to raise our rent more or less when she wants (we had already agreed with her in person that she would fix the rent for a certain time period). We are not really prepared to accept this, since we are already agreeing to pay her a whopping amount of money every month, and don't really want her to raise our rent in a year's time, for us to either pay, or suffer the inconvenience of moving again. 

So we had started to re-consider some of the places we had previously viewed. One of which is this place, now christened Gopping Heights (because it is genuinely one of the most outrageously unattractive dwellings you have ever seen) but which we have not written off because despite its aesthetic, and let's face it, quality drawbacks, it does still fulfill many of our criteria for a house: large, big garden, view of mountains, enough bedrooms, roof etc etc! 

I had described it to L before we went, and I wanted her opinion on it. She later told me that she thought I had been exaggerating about its lack of looks before we arrived, but soon realized that I had been pretty straight. The question now is if we can embrace its vulgarity in an "ironic" way, and "make it work for us"... I think Gopping Heights may be a step too far. 

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Cultural delights

This weekend we have taken advantage of the cultural delights on offer in the republic of Kazakhstan, a country where music is thought to remove evil from a man's heart (if played on the traditional instrument, the Qobyz). We bought tickets to the opera Madame Butterfly for Saturday night (husband and youngest daughter had a dinner/theatre date night together) and the ballet Sleeping Beauty on Sunday (for me and the two older daughters). Total cost for all our stalls tickets was less than $50. 

I have just returned from my first trip to the  Kazakh National Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet named after Abai, and the performance of Sleeping Beauty was excellent. The theatre is delightful, a really charming place that is simple but not austere, well run but not stuffy and as a result is popular and full. 

Apart from a wildly
 expensive trip to see the Mary Poppins show in London's West End last summer, we have hardly been to the theatre in recent years, mainly because of where we have been living. In Thailand, there is little on. In Seoul, you have to book within about 30 seconds of the tickets going on sale or they are sold out (and given that most of the publicity is in Korean, you have a slim chance of even hearing about it in time), and if you do get there in time, you have to spend about $100 per person. 

The Abai Theatre is just six blocks down the road from where we live at the moment and we just got home in under 10 minutes at the end of the performance, having parked outside the front door. Yippee! 

I vow to thee my country...

We have been here 5 weeks and I guess the culture shock is beginning to bite. Even after all these different places, and knowing that it is going to happen, I never anticipate the effects of Culture Shock. 

So last week we had a few issues at home in our temporary apartment (which is very comfortable, there is no "camping" happening here!): our hot water was off (as previously detailed), our dishwasher had broken down, we received news that after our entire household which was safely packed up in Seoul at the end of August has still not left the Korean Peninsula (ie it will still be at least 8 weeks before we see it again, and this includes all our winter clothes), husband has been working until 10pm every night and most of the weekend, following a week of being away in Moscow. I was feeling like a single mum in Almaty: a place which I really don't know and have no mates. 

OK, it isn't all misery. I have started to find some great potential friends and hosted a successful first babygroup meeting, forced myself to go to a International Women's Group coffee morning and met a lovely German lady, we have seen real progress with the kids' Russian language (having 10 lessons a week is beginning to pay off), and even my Russian is starting to sink in. But this darn culture shock....

So we were having breakfast and B started to hum the English hymn I Vow To Thee My Country.

"Have you been singing that at school?" I asked. 
"Yes, we sing it nearly every day. That, or the Haileybury Song," she replied. 

So I went on to YouTube and found a version sung by a huge congregation and we all listened, and it took me right back to being at school (you can also listen at . And normally associations with school just make me remember the terrible insecurity of being a teenager which is something I am very happy to have left behind, but this time I remembered only the beauty of the buildings, the cloisters, the dew on the rugby field and the damp cobwebs on bushes that you passed on the early-morning walk to breakfast in my Devon boarding school. And also the tremendous sense of friendship, belonging and fun that we had there. And the music of this great british hymn took me back to going to chapel every day (not in the sense of a religious re-awakening (!) but cameraderie. And I also remembered the day that a guy called Noel threw up from a hangover onto a guy called Dwarf's neck during morning service (or the other way round I can't remember) which in itself was disgusting and hilarious, but also saw the lid lifted by the school authorities on an outrageous alcohol distribution and consumption system in place at the school for the Saturday night socials and resulted in mass gatings for all sixth formers, several suspensions and I think, an alcohol amnesty for a while. All great British stuff.)

Anyway, this swarm of memories made me fill up with emotion and tears and I started snivelling into my cafetiere as I filled it with boiling water. A pitiful scene really, standing in my dressing gown, looking out at the hills of Kazakhstan, I vow to thee my country playing on the computer, in tears... feeling for all the world like I needed to cry out "I want to go HOME". 

Husband started to look a bit worried when he heard me sniffing back the tears, and I am glad to report that I am now completely over the whole ridiculous business. But it is strange what can bring on the water works. Seems that a good blub is all that is required to get the culture shock out the way. That, and a good tune by Holst!!

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Precious things

There is not much I crave from home. I can nearly always find an alternative, or something local that I like just as much. But there is no substitute for Marmite on toast. And there is no Marmite to be had in Almaty. Recently, a friend of mine who was in London for the Madonna concert, carried a pot of Marmite from London to Surrey to Kent, then on to Paris and back here for me. So imagine our disappointment when B was getting it out of the cupboard for an after-school snack, and there was a sickening crunch of glass and gloop hitting the stone tiles of the kitchen floor.  We tried to scoop out the central bits, but it was full of glass and ended up having to tip it into the bin. Sob sob. 

Monday, 29 September 2008

Mains Hot Water

While we were looking for a house to rent, there were lots of warnings from various people about the multiple pitfalls to be aware of when renting property in Kazakhstan. One of the most important things to have, apparently, is a generator since the power supply can be patchy. 
Another is the water supply, and whether or not you have a functional boiler, since much of the hot water is mains supplied - so the city has some gigantic boiling pot somewhere and then pumps hot water around the streets! This seems amazing to me, and could surely only happen in a place with so much oil and gas (in Turkmenistan, which borders Kazakhstan I think, there are these things called Gas Craters which are just huge burning holes of natural gas on fire in the ground, so they are obviously not too bothered about saving energy). Amazing to think of hot water being pumped around Almaty in the winter when the temperature can reach 30 degrees below zero.

We are living in a fairly swanky pad in the middle of town, with marble bathroom, high ceilings, chandeliers (Yes, I know this does not = swanky!!) and all pretty good quality finishings. But we have mains hot water. 

And all the estate agents who kept saying that it was the best system and so reliable, and blah blah blah were all just telling bare-faced lies, because it turns out that the hot water supply is rubbish! Completely unreliable. And we have a water heater but it is not plumbed in. So the other day, husband came home after a real red eye from Moscow (take off 1.30am, land 5.30 in Almaty - nice!) and had to have a baltic spray of icy water. Even worse (although not for him) was the other day when all the water went off for a couple of hours, and when it came back in, it honestly looked like the kind of muddy torrents you see on TV pouring out of the bottom of a landslide in the Philippines. After the mudslide effect, the bath, loo and sink were all reddy-brown covered in sediment. Ugh.

Here are two photos of the attractive solution to the hot water problem in our bathroom: 

So then I started to ask around. Did people use tap water to cook in? Was it OK for pasta etc? The first person I discussed this with said she preferred to use bottled water since she had heard that some of the water mains were still made of lead. Surely this cannot be true??? A second person, a kazakh from upcountry, said that there was no way he would use the tap water to cook in and had I seen the colour of the water after the recent cut in supply? 

So now Connie drinks the bath water I am not only concerned that she might have already peed in it, but also that she might be giving herself dysentery. 


Alia and her daughter

We are staying in an apartment which gets cleaned by a lady twice a week. After a few days of being here, and with piles of ironing literally taking over the house (like a kind of monster plague from Dr Who), I managed to ask the cleaning lady if she would stay on for a couple of hours and do the ironing when she finished. She agreed, and the first day, stayed for four hours and finished all my ironing for me which was a legendary help. 

Anyway, she wasn't scared off, has continued to come and we are getting into a reasonable routine. 

Last Tuesday during my Russian lesson, she asked the Mighty Alla (my Russian teacher who is truly mighty) if I was looking for some help, since I seemed to be doing everything without a nanny and she might have a friend etc and I said that I was indeed looking for some help, listed everything I needed doing and asked her if "her friend" might be interested. It turns out she wants to work, and also has a daughter who is looking for work as well, the idea being that they can kind of share the work between them, including evening babysitting. 

So today she has arrived with her daughter Goolia (Julia) who looks alright and has a one-year-old boy and a four-year-old daughter. They are doing their best to communicate with me, and Allia played with a whinging Connie for the whole of my Russian lesson which was much better than last week when Connnie sat on my lap and ate my paper for most of the lesson. I am also doing my utmost to communicate with them, but I am sure there is a LOT being lost in translation, so on Thursday I need to get husband and possibly an interpreter to come and make sure that everyone understands everything and all parties are happy. 

We really can barely communicate and had an excruciating late afternoon. She was still here when I got back from school with the kids, when I thought she would have gone home. And I was beginning to think I would quite like her to go away now, but I couldn't tell her that she had finished. So we resorted to the dictionary: "Today. Finish. Thank you very much." I said. She then grabbed the dictionary and after an extraordinary length of time said "Sank you", garbled a bit more Russian at me which I took to mean that it would obviously get easier than this with time, and left. I think she is coming back tomorrow morning at 10am but I am not sure! 

Having not really had any nanny help since June, Connie's nose is well out of joint not being looked after by Mummy for 40 minutes, but this Mummy is more than ready to leave her in someone else's capable hands for a few hours! 

And so tonight it seems we have hired a nanny. 

My Markets

It is a strange thing to say, but moving to Kazakhstan has felt like moving home in some ways, or certainly, back to Europe. I guess we have been too long in the wilds of leaving NE Asia and had got so used to Seoul and all its special and unique things. When we first went to live there, there were regularly sights and events that I witnessed which made me stop and gawp: people exercising by walking backwards up hills; small, poochy dogs with their ears dyed purple to match their fluffy booties and things like that. Moving to the Stan, it all feels much more Western and normal. 

But I was sad to leave the Far East and worried that there would not be the markets and things that make life so much fun over there. 

Having been shown around Ramstore, the Turkish-owned supermarket chain here
 (complete with cheese counter, deli section and noone shouting at you in the aisles to buy
 their newly-in smoked, dried, squid chews) I thought that life was moving back towards the boring old Tesco run. Actually, you can buy almost everything in places like Ramstore, but the veggies and fruit are rank and old and of a VERY limited range. 

But not to worry, because there is the fantastic Zelony Bazaar in town which is a fabulous fresh market (actually, fresh and more or less everything else). Here there are piles of Tajikistan apricots and peaches, pails of luscious creamy yoghurt and sour cream, fresh bread on trays that is still warm when you buy it, pickles and salads and Russian-style Kimbap (like a Sushi roll, but with smoked salmon, egg and cucumber inside), sheeps heads, horse dick sausages, cow guts and pig brains...what else could you ask for! ha ha

I've been to Zelony many times already. The fruit sellers are fascinated
 with the baby, they laugh and chatter and grab her to kiss her with their hairy upper lips and mouths full of gold teeth. She is fed goodness knows what samples by stall holders who all want to feed her up, treat her to something tasty and special. When I went with the girls after school one day, we all
 ate cheesy Samsa (like a puff pastry roll turnover) for lunch, followed by Apple Samsa dusted with icing sugar and crispy as a crisp thing. I thought Connie had eaten hers but later found that she had been using it as a cushion in her pushchair. 

Everything here seems to taste better than normal and a visit to the bazaar is a sensory overload experience - the raspberries burst in your mouth like sweeties, the cream and yoghurt are beautiful to look at as the milky-skinned women stir their vats and ladle great scoops of it it into plastic bags for you to take home, ancient old crones sell mountain honey, their faces so wrinkled and aged that you feel they have lived in this region for 1000 years. I like it. 

I have also visited Baraholka market, a long-roadside market where you can buy kitchen stuff, carpets, fur coats, plastic boxes, DVD players, nail accessories and the most enormous range of sheep skin car seat covers I have ever seen in my life - I suspect you can find almost anything here if you spend enough time looking. Baraholka is massive and I have not yet explored it properly. Large sections of it are made up of shipping containers converted into shops and it does not have the charm of Bangkok's mighty Chatuchak - king of all markets in my opinion, but will have to do for the time being. 

Almighty Almaty, the first 10 days

So 10 days into life in Almaty I have finally managed to start my new blog...

Ten mental days of finding our feet, looking for a house, smiling for Britain (just as well I stocked up on my duty free facial moisturiser as it feels as if my face is about to crack), meeting the small and quite intimidating expat crowd in town and keeping the kids happy as they also try to fit into their new school classes of 95% Kazakh students who are yet to learn a word of English. 

I have been interviewed by several of the in-crowd and am waiting to see if I have passed the test to be admitted to the Almaty ladies morning walking group. 

Actually, they look like a good fun, sassy bunch, but we are all long-term expats and so there is no pissing around. It is a serious case of proving ones mettle and trying to show that I am not a freaky, needy, desperate loser that noone wants hanging around for a few years....