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....