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.