Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Techno hell and indecision

The white screen of death which I faced last week on my laptop has now been joined by my mobile phone. Obviously feeling left out, my Nokia handset has found a white screen in its armoury, and to give added umph to its strop, it has taken to randomly cutting out midway through a call, or refusing to function at all.

Our video recorder has had the same tape of the TellyTubbies stuck in it for more than three months. And since husband managed to unlock the DVD player so it does actually play things that aren't in Korean only (What a great day - the whole family jumped up into a sponstaneous dancing cheer - it had been three years after all!), we have had unrivalled access to a world of film. So I dare not touch this device these days for fear that my electronic kiss of death starts to affect this area of our life as well.

Faced with an electrical appliance not working, I will work my way through the possible causes. Plugged in? Yes. Properly assembled? Check. Have pressed 'On' button? Yes. But more often than not, the device will remain inoperable. Then another person will come along. It can be anyone, just NOT me. They will press the 'On' switch, and the device will roar into action, and that person will look at me, and usually say something like, "What's the problem?"


I have come to accept that I am a techno-spaz, but it can be annoying from time to time.

Today I will fly to London for a week. I will be without the kids and I must replace laptop and phone for new, working models. Should I get someone else to buy them on my behalf so that I don't pick up another 'Friday afternoon' job, like my last Macbook turned out to be? I wonder if I can trick my destiny by getting my sister to purchase them on my behalf.

But first I must agonize over my choice of machine. The question is whether to replace my broken laptop (apparently my model is prone to over-heating because Apple use an unsuitable plastic for the casing - thanks, Apple) with a more expensive Macbook Pro. Or whether to take the hump with Mac altogether (after having two hard drive failures in two years and being offered a paltry GBP54 in a discount coupon on the next purchase if I go Apple again from this generous company), and plump for a PC again.

I hate these decisions - since I know that I may well make the wrong one. I am a computer sales guy's dream - clueless, fairly uninformed, worried about choosing the wrong thing, but inclined to try to penny pinch when making large purchases, so he can usually sell me an old model if it is 5 pounds cheaper. I must remain strong and decisive and buy a proper machine at market rate!

Any suggestions what I should get? All advice gratefully received!

Monday, 28 September 2009

Another bad day in goat world

The animal welfare lot would not have enjoyed this day trip out. Last Thursday, I had been to watch the Kokpar (Kazakh horse polo played using a headless goat instead of a ball) with my friend. It sounds gruesome, but in fact the horsemanship was extraordinary, and the game itself quite compelling to watch, and so on Sunday we headed back with the children, husband and some friends to watch the final.

We found our friend Nurlan, a team manager who we had met on Thursday, looking very nervous as his team lined up for the grand final, which carried a cash prize. This was it for them. The game began and the pace was aboslutely furious compared to some of the games we had watched earlier in the week. At times, the whole team would crash over the side line and almost into the spectators - we realised why the chest-height, solid metal fence was around the ground.

There was a bigger crowd watching, and the commentary was fast and furious but unfortuantely entirely in Kazakh which is nothing like Russian and so we couldn't understand much.

Tied up behind the commentary box was a spare "ball" - a very dejected looking white goat which had obviously also been an onlooker as its friend, a grey goat, was beheaded and its head and lower legs thrown uncerenoniously into a storm gutter running the length of the ground. Between our group we had nine children, two of which had been inquisitive enough to find the extra goat head lurking in the drain and took great and gruesome delight in staring at it for a long time, rather than watching the game.

It sounds barbaric to use a dead goat in a game. But then you need to think how this sport has developed and why they do it. Horses are part of life in Central Asia, a vital part of survival in this harsh and inhospitable climate. It is so cold in winter that vast tracts are frozen solid for six months, and then boiling hot in summer. The ground is not fertile enough to support arable farming in the main, and so the land has been used over the millenia by nomadic farmers who kept sheep, goats and other livestock and moved from place to place according to the grazing or shelter opportunites. When you drive across the steppe here, you are always seeing flocks of animals being herded by a lone shepherd on horseback. When the Soviets collectivised farming and tried to introduce mass cultivation practices on the land, over a million Kazakhs starved to death - and that was this century.

Another little-known fact about Kazakhstan is that more wolves live here than in than Canada and you do not need to have a PhD in Aesops Fables to know that sheep and wolves do not mix. The skills of Kokpar are all related to shepherding. Being able to reach from your saddle while riding at speed, and scoop up a 25kg beast in one hand, is no mean feat. To then gallop along while holding an irregularly-shaped, hairy lump under your leg or arm, would be similarly challenging, I imagine. Yet these riders can do all this and much more, with complete ease. And I am certain that the riding skills developed in Kokpar were born from practising this art.

The goats are slaughtered cleanly, used for the game, and then I am not sure what happens to their smashed remains. But the spare goat is not killed until it is needed (only if the original goat has disintegrated).

The Anti Fox-hunting lobby would be squealing with horror at such a sport, and would probably demand that a realistically-shaped imitation bean bag were used instead, but I think that this kind of concern is a long, long, long way off here.

Again, I am having problems formatting my posts on this borrowed PC, and today I have no option to upload my photo of the spare goat, so I will just hope for more success later.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Not a good day for goats

This morning was crystal clear, perfect blue sky, snow on the mountains, a chill in the air - the perfect weather to go and watch some outdoor sport, and luckily it fell on day two of the National Kazakh Kokpar championships which is held at a ground on the road to Bishkek. Kokpar is Kazakh polo. Teams have ten members, with four players from each side on the field at any time. The field is about 200 metres long and 100 metres wide, and marked with two large circles and two smaller ones. At either end, there are some built up "goals", like giant, flat, doughnuts, made of straw, I guess, and covered in a tarpauline.

The game begins with the "ball" - a headless goat, its legs also removed below the knees - being chucked into one of the larger white rings. A player from each team then enters the ring and they jostle and wrestle each other to try and pick up the goat. The horses lean right into each other, trying to push the on-target player away. The on-target player is trying not to be pushed away from the goat so he can get a chance to reach down and grab the dead beast. The horses are literally wrestling, I have never seen anything like it, they are really feisty and it is a real tussle to get the goat. They have two minutes to succeed, and if noone can manage, then another two players have a go.

Once someone has managed to grab the goat off the ground, they stick it under one leg, or hold it under an arm and gallop off as fast as they can away from their immediate opponent and towards their goal. The rest of their team members gallop along as fast as they can and try to block the opposition from coming in and pinching the carcass, or prevent them from making their way to the goal. Once they get around the circular goal stack, there is a massive blocking action from the defending team and the play can move backwards and forwards a lot. Sometimes the goat holder is so fast that he gets a break away score, hurling the goat into the centre of the ring and then riding back towards the commentary box, where he raises a hand triumphantly to claim a point. At the end of the game the teams do a canter past each other (riding towards each other in two columns) and touch hands.

It is an amazing spectacle - really physical, fast and exciting to watch, actually a very good spectator sport. The goat looks more like a fluffy sack than a dead animal, although by the end of a few games the "ball" was decidedly the worse for wear, having become more elongated and with traces of entrails hanging from its arse! Poor goat, it is not a noble way to go!

We met a guy who manages one of the teams and who was very keen to help us understand what was going on, which was brilliant. His name was Nurlan and he manages a team from the Almaty region which had jusy won its game in the tournament and so will play again tomorrow for a place in Sunday's final. He was filling us in on lots of details which were all very interesting.

"You may wonder why we use a goat?" he mused.

I almost snorted with laughter, thinking "Nah, mate, didn't even notice that you were using a headless, footless, farm animal instead of a ball!" but instead I merely nodded politely, and said, "Yes, we had wondered that."
"Well, the goat skin is thick. If we use a sheep it doesn't work. It...um... how do you say?"
"Falls apart?" I hazarded.

"Yes, it falls apart," he concluded.

I smiled, and admitted that actually, we were quite curious about the goat thing, because in England where I come from, people also play polo, but they tend to use long stick-like implements to knock a small ball around.
He smiled back and nodded, clearly thinking that English polo is only for poofs!

As well as the horses and games to watch, there were some classic people kicking about. I talked for a while to an ancient and grizzled old Dombra player. A dombra is a two stringed instrument which is the national instrument of Kazakhstan and which is a very fantastic instrument to hear being played, as they tend to play it incredibly quickly and it has a very pleasing deep resonant tone indeed. This old geezer claimed to be on very good terms with Vladimir Putin, Nursultan Nazarbayev and Dimitry Medyedev among others! And as well as the spectators, there are plenty of horsemen kicking around between games wearing enormous leather boots up to their knees, then jeans, a team top and some kind of funky Central Asian head wear on top. They all look a bit like you imagine Ghengis Khan's marauding horsemen might have looked as they streamed into a tiny settlement to raze it to the ground. I found it all extremely dramatic.

It was a Wow day today. A "Wow, I can't believe I am watching this" combined with "Blimey, I can't believe that I live here," and with a hint of "I wonder what everyone is doing in England," sort of day. And for my youngest daughter, who is nearly two and came along for the fresh air and the "horsies" it made a total change from her usual Thursday routine of Playgroup! She spent the whole of the journey to school later making horse noises and bouncing around in her car seat in a state of high excitement!

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Dead Goat Horse Polo

All the hikers were notified today that a Kokpar tournament is happening this week on the Bishkek road out of Almaty. Kokpar, in case you are wondering, is horse polo where the riders play for possesssion of a beheaded goat carcass, rather than the traditional ball and mallet which us lily-livered westerners would normally associate with the game.

We don't see so many horses around Almaty (they would probably choke on the fumes from the Range Rovers and Landcruisers!) and I thought that Kokpar was one of these dying traditions: always on the tourist promotional videos but not actually part of the fabric of life here. But apparently not. Our hiking guide tells us that this is a matter of intense pride and competition, and that the sport is very much alive in Kazakhstan. I am sure it will be an unbelievable show of horsemanship.

I have never seen a game of polo involving horses, but I have twice been to the Kings Cup Elephant Polo tourmament which is held every year in Thailand and which is absolutely excellent fun to watch.

Since my mac has died, I will rely on friends to send me photos to post on the blog, but I am sure it will be an amazing day out. So tune in tomorrow night and hopefully I will be able to share an account of an extraordinary day.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Terminal Clicking in the Macosphere?

Seems the strange clicking sounds I heard earlier were the Mac equivalent to death throes. Many people I have told of my woes today (why I have to revert to Star Wars speak when doing techy stuff I do not know - Know it, I do not), and these people have told me that macs are prone to hard drive failure on account of their overheating.

In my whole, adult, computer-owning life (which extends to some quite extensive amount of time now), I have had one hard drive die on me (nine years ago in an ancient Compaq). Then after agonizing over the mac/pc switch for months I plumped for Mac and what has been my reward? Two hard drives dead in two years.

Rubbish. Big fat boooooooo. What is the keyboard equivalent of a big fat, spitty, raspberry being blown loudly and rudely at someone? HFHFHFHFPPPLUUURRRRRRRRRRRGHHHHHH! Something like that?

I feel indignant. And cheated. And stupid for joining the maccie crowds and not just plodding along with a normal lap top.

Such hassle, and now more expense. Agh!


Horror! I switched on my laptop yesterday to upload some glorious snaps of our rafting trip last Sunday and regale you with the account of our watery adventure, when the machine started ot make a weird clicking noise, like a minute dwarf was playing percussion inside the white case of my macbook.

And then the screen froze. And now I have the white screen of death whenever I switch on.

Two years of mac trauma, one hard drive already replaced, and now this. I am gutted. I will be borrowing a PC from my husband for the week, but for now there will be limited posts for a while as I sort this out.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Expatty day

Friday is probably our most expatty kind of day, especially as during the summer there are just so many blooming people around.

We are on a new regime now, drunk nanny Allia's daughter who used to clean for us has gone to seek a new home to push a mop around. We are trying out a lady called Nailya for the deep cleaning (bathrooms and bed changing etc) who is a neighbour of our new Super Nanny Gulya. New Super Nanny is awesome, a totally lovely person, incredibly enthusiastic, she wants the whole world to be a better place and is determined to do her bit to make sure her little corner is happy and organised and our house is a happier, shinier place as a result of having her here for a few hours every day.

Added to this, we have Baktiyar's brother Sasha in the garden, picking up the rotten apples and mowing the lawn, brushing the paths, and Baktiyar himself off cleaning the car and filling it with petrol for the weekend. It is mad. Four blooming people.

What am I doing? Well of course, have put on my best, high-heeled, pink fluffy slippers and satin dressing gown and I am lying on the sofa drinking a gin and tonic, smoking a cigarette and talking to my girl friends on the phone! ha ha ha Only joking! Still in my pyjamas, ready to unload the dishwsher, go out shopping, buy the food and drink for the weekend (10 people coming to lunch tomorrow) but with time to play a bit with Connie and write a quick blog!

Considering if we lived at home I would be lucky to have someone to clean the house once a week, I do feel mighty lucky to have plenty of help. But it also feels extremely strange to be so overwhelmed with personnel that I almost need an Human R esources diploma to cope! It is a weird, weird life!

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Kid chat

My children are 8, 6 and nearly 2. I dearly love them. But sometimes I feel battered.

Here is an example of why.

Kids arrive home from school, hungry and hyperactive.

"Mummy, can I use your computer? I need to look something up,"
"Yes, sure, but tea is nearly ready so you will need to stop when I serve it up,"
Sigh from child
"Alright, how do you spell Linguascope?"
"What is for tea?"
"Pumpkin soup and freshly baked bread - look - it has just come out of the machine, doesn't it smell delicious?"
"Ugh, I hate pumpkin soup,"
"Yeah, me too."
"If you make us eat that soup I am going to stab you, Mummy," says older child.
"Oh no, not stab me! Don't say that," I plead.
"I'll get the knife for you," says other child
"It's nice soup, and it is all there is I'm afraid. Put that knife back!"
"Tea's ready, sit up, girls"
"Ugh, this soup tastes like putting puke in my mouth."
"I don't care, eat it up or you can go straight to bed."

Harmonious, eh?

Tuesday, 15 September 2009


I was browsing through a few websites waiting for husband to arrive home and smelling my pumpkin soup getting colder by the minute ("I'll be home by seven" he said, it was by then 9pm). 'I'll just go and have a look at that Expat Mums blog I found the other day at www.expatmumsblog.com' I thought, and who should be the headline blog post? L'il old me, Big Beluga as featured on another blog site! Thrilled.

Thank you, ladies at Expat Mums Blog. I got a really nice buzz thinking that you enjoyed reading my ruminations enough to print them again. It reminded me of the good old days at the Evening Times newspaper in Glasgow when I was a trainee in the marketing department. When my "Tinned Spam" promotion was printed for the first time and I thought I had died and gone to heaven!

Budakofka Waterfall, trolls and pixies

Another hiking expedition this Monday, and with the sun bursting the sky, 21 people turned up to sample the delights of the Kazakh countryside. We walked through Budakofka national park which is just outside Almaty town. Drive up Dostyk Avenue towards Medeu and Chimbalak and turn left at the large blue sign which says Budakofka in Russian. Follow this road along until you come to the park gate where you have to pay a small fee to enter the park. Continue up this road until you see a large riding stables on the left hand side (you can tell it is a riding stables as there are horse heads in the pattern of the fences around the development (and often quite a lot of horses around as well! ha ha)), cross the little river and park. The track then heads obviously up the hill.

After a shortish hike up hill, we took a small footpath to the left and then followed it over a small river and started clambering up a load of large, easy-to-climb boulders which are actually a sort of rocky stream bed, all the way up to a pretty waterfall. One of our hike leaders told us that it is absolutely stunning in winter when it is frozen solid. And as an easy hike (it only takes an hour to get up to the waterfall) it is completely suitable for families with kids our age, so watch this space for some snaps in winter. On the way down, with everyone chatting together in little groups which was fun, we passed a load of grazing horses in the photos below. These shots are so typical of time in the hills around here and I still find the landscapes magical. I feel that if only you could climb past the next mountain you would find a land of elves, pixies and trolls!

But it turns out that there are plenty of trolls around these parts, it is just that the trolls around here are the gossips of the expat circuit, who should really know better than to say some of the things they say! Big Beluga can obviously divulge no more, suffice it to say that her eyes have been opened recently to the capacity of some people here to spread absolute nonsense about other people here. Rumours which are based on nothing but their own sick imaginations and, occasionally, even dreams! Amazing! And pretty scary.

Fortunately though, I think that on balance there are enough happy pixies and good fairies around to keep our mountainous kingdom a mostly harmonious one (boo to the trolls...).

Monday, 14 September 2009

Spaghetti Bolognese and cupcakes

We decided to take a proactive stance on the subject of eldest daughters "lost" friends at school. On Tuesday, she hastily copied out an invitation to five girls in her year to come back to our house on Friday afternoon for a play after school and delivered them to her classmates.

And Friday saw a flurry of activity as new super-nanny and I prepared the house for this important event! The house was scrubbed (we even cleaned the sofa!), we visited five supermarkets looking for icing sugar for cupcakes (there was none...), raspberry icing-less buns were nonetheless prepared. And a chocolate and banana loaf for those who don't like raspberries.  I made bolognese sauce and pesto in case anyone was a vegetarian, roses were picked and arranged from the garden, and juice and tea was prepared for the girls' refreshment. 

I think they had a good time. Five girls is a lot to entertain for three hours, and my daughter took it all in her stride, invented lots of games and looked after her mates. They watched a little TV, but when I pointed out to her that one of the the five probably couldn't understand the english in the film, my daughter encouraged them all to stop and go back into the garden for some more hide and seek. There were no arguments to speak of, and it was really nice to see her with a small crowd of girls for a change. 

Seeing her running around with her mates was great. Our lifestyle means that we have to put up with losing friends regularly, but we can also make new friends quite quickly. It is brutal and upsetting at times, but by putting in enough effort, we can make the best of a difficult situation. I think the main thing for us as parents, is to be aware that from time to time the kids need a helping hand to manage their social life. But also that they have to get on with it themselves, be friendly and welcoming to their classmates, and learn to look after their guests.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Internet drama and cold sweats

I woke up this morning and the big red russian screen on my computer said "Niet (no)". 

"You cannot have internet today, for you have a DEBT!"

"We have not sent you a bill, but neither have you pro-actively contacted our company and requested a bill. So we have cut you off. Spaceba and Das Vidanya (thank you and good bye)."

Everything is running pretty smoothly at the moment in Big Beluga's life. Smoothly enough that I am mentally in the "brace" position, ready for something to go wrong. Losing my internet connection really, really bothers me. I have remembered pain from the dark days of the three months last year that I was off line. 

However, I can relax. Husband's secretary has been on the blower and as is often the way in Kazakhstan, by paying a big wad of cash to someone and receiving a small bit of paper ripped off the bottom of a computer print out as a receipt, the problem will be solved by this evening! 

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Fear of Flying

I don't know about anyone else, but I get a little nervous when my husband goes on business trips. It is a totally irrational fear but it makes me feel further away from good old Blighty than anything else. Apart from being diagnosed with some horrendous disease, the second most scary thing I can really think of is being widowed. Agh! Just the absolute pits. Even writing this down makes me nervous, in case I am tempting fate. I have no idea what I would do if the worst happened, but it is unlikely that I would remain in Almaty with three kids and no gainful employment. 

And I suppose if he were just nipping over to Paris or Brussels I wouldn't bat an eye, but he texts me from the airport to say: "On my way, Check out AN24 to see plane on net. Love G". Husband was off to Dushanbe which, you would be forgiven for not knowing, is the capital city of Tajikistan. 

I looked it up. The first line on Google was:

Antonov An-24 - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

 - 3:50am
RTÉ News, Ireland (2007-06-24). "Angkor Wat tourists in plane crash". 

Followed by: 

AN-24 plane crashes in Russia's North - BarentsObserver

According to a spokesman for the Northwestern regional center of the Russian Emergencies Ministry, an An-24 plane with some 50 people on board today crashed ...


Anyway, then I saw a photo of the AN24, not so bad. Quite a large prop plane, so I stop worrying so much. 

And he has done his research. Tajikistan Air does not have an adequate safety record, so he will fly with SCAT (click on the link, you will see it is reassuring!) and then make a huge trip back via Istanbul with Turkish Air to Almaty, so that he does not have to wait the full seven days for the return SCAT flight. No complaints about Turkish Air, although they did crash in Amsterdam last year but at least they can keep their website working, if not their planes. 

He has arrived intact I am glad to report, staying at the Hotel Tajikistan where he inflicted a friction burn on his arm by turning over on the cheap sheets of his bed in his sleep! The Hotel Tajikistan is an aspirational place, judging by their website which proudly proclaims: 

The hotel Tajikistan – is a magnificent eight-storied building, the windows of which command a lovely breathtaking view on the city. The restaurants and Bars, Beauty – Palour, Fitness Centre and a specious SPA centre “ESPA”, including a swimming – pool, saunas, steam – rooms, that is a list of opportunity for a good rest, which is to some extent still incomplete.

They also offer a "regularly retiled personal bar" (terrible when your bar has not been recently tiled!). 

I dread to think how difficult it is to run a hotel in Dushanbe. I suppose the fact that the website is half in English is better than nothing. Lonely Planet offers the following tip "English may be spoken in the reassuring lobby but everything else here is 100% Soviet and horribly overpriced. " but even LP does not manage to publish the website address correctly and it is an English-language organisation, so I should not be too critical. 

Monday, 7 September 2009

Heart ache at school

My eldest daughter came home from school today in a foul mood. She was playing horrid games with her sisters, until I told her that if she couldn't play nicely, that she could go upstairs and leave the garden for a while. She stomped off in a fury, but later, when the two little ones were happily engaged on the swings together, I coaxed her into the kitchen and asked her what on earth was the matter. 

To start with, true to form, she admitted nothing. But then it all came out. Her favourite 'girl' friend in class has moved house to Astana. You may think it is strange that we did not already know this, but bear in mind that at the beginning of last year, she started in her school which was brand new, and went into a class of 22 children of whom only three other boys spoke fluent English, the rest of the class all spoke Russian and many of them were already friends from before. She was the only girl who did not speak Russian. Over the course of the year, she became firm friends with the English-speaking boys, and good friends with some of the girls but not to the extent of more than going to each others birthday parties along with everyone else, even though break times they played together a lot. Even though I tried to encourage it, she did not feel confident enough to ask them over for a play at her house and I didn't force it. 

However, all summer she has been talking about this one friend, who she really liked, and who she was really looking forward to seeing again after the school holiday. And when she came back to school, the girl's name was up on the cupboard but she was absent and so my daughter just assumed she was coming back to school late. But the name has since been taken down and her teacher told them today that she was not coming back. 

And eldest daughter is gutted. I am gutted for her. She is so good and has made such a good effort in fitting in to her school, getting on with everything without complaining and in very good humour. Having her sobbing on my lap (she is quite big now and doesn't do that very often) made my heart ache for her. Any suggestions what to do? I asked if she wanted to invite some of the remaining girls around for tea and a play, and she may like to do that, so perhaps I will organise for next week. 

Monday hiking resumes/ Joy to the world tra la la

This morning, the hiking club reconvened after a long summer break. We drove up to Chimbalak ski resort in the mist and rain, which then became sleet, and then turned into a full-on snow storm and all piled out next to the smelly farm at the top of the track. The smelly farm's little yurt tent outside was all covered in snow and looked very 'Lonely Planet does Central Asia'. 

We walked down towards the absolute torrent that is the stream there at the moment, crossed on the metal footbridge and then walked back down the valley, not a single uphill burn of the legs required. This was a brilliant walk for all the unfit summer thighs, wobbling away under our plastic trousers - sorry, not a nice image! 

The snow was falling thick and fast, and we scrambled along the valley over bracken, under fallen trees, ducking beneath branches and slipping all over the place until we reached another metal bridge with a drop of about 100 feet below it, that we needed to cross to get back to the cars. It was a good no-messing group of girls (unfortunately none of the guys came today), and even though some people were crapping themselves with vertigo and the quite real fear of crossing an untested metal bridge over a raging stream in the snow in Kazakhstan (we could not see the condition of the bridge for the snow cover), everyone managed to pull themselves together and make their way across. I think it was a classic case of (very genteel) mob rule, for I am quite sure that some of the gathered would never have made it, were it not for the general consensus that it would probably be alright. 

We made our way back home, soaking wet and freezing cold (my aged fake North Face jacket is officially no longer waterproof) to thaw out in hot showers. And now, two hours later, the sky is glorious blue and the mountains are magnificently white and clearly towering over the city in all their majesty. What a brilliant day. 

It sounds rather over the top, but the hiking in Kazakhstan has been one of the most uplifting things I have ever done. Quite honestly, the scenery year round is breathtakingly beautiful and changes weekly.  I love the fact that I am able to walk through it in good health, in the company of interesting pleasant people, feeling so alive and lucky to be doing what I am doing. I love seeing eagles soaring overhead. I adore walking past silent mountain streams in the winter because they are frozen solid and milky white, or skipping across them in summer as they race over the rocks beneath making happy, rushing, babbling brook noises. And I love doing this on my own, without my family, just me. I take my husband and kids to the places I find with the hiking club at weekends, but Mondays is my time and I truly savour every second of it. 

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Moloko Coco

Today I am going to admit to a rather shabby bit of assumption on my part, and I record it so that I can shame myself into not behaving like this again! Only too often, I hear people complaining about things here, when quite often I am certain that if they spoke the language they would find that 70% of their worries would just melt away. And so I was quite cross with myself when I found that I had been doing the same thing. 

I was in my favourite supermarket Ramstore picking up a few things for a camping trip. I have mentioned this store before. Usually my complaints are about things like staff watching as I simultaneously try to control three children next to the sweetie stand (there are no child seats in the trolley so one older kid has to look after baby in her stroller), then letting me unload my entire trolley onto the belt before they tell me that the payment machine is not working, and I need to move to another check out. 

I needed to buy coconut milk, but it had disappeared and been replaced with glace cherries. 
"Right," I thought, "I am going to ask a member of staff where it has gone,"
"Excuse me, there used to be coconut milk here, where has it gone?" I enquired of a Ramstore employee. 
"In the chilled aisle, near the eggs," she muttered in surly fashion. 
"No, not milk," I said, "Coconut milk, it is in a tin, used to be here, you know," I pressed on, certain that she had misunderstood. 
"Try the next aisle then," she said, and sent me off to the tea and coffee aisle.
"I will not stand for this," I thought to myself, and bustled back to confront her again.
"That is the tea and coffee aisle, there is no coconut milk in that aisle," I wittered on. 
She was obviously thinking 'Oh go away you annoying woman,' but said, "Well, maybe we don't have it any more. I don't know where it is."
"So who can you ask to find out?" I persisted
"Try the information desk," she said disappearing off, and I went home without coconut milk. 

Later I was chatting to a friend at home who is a keen asian cook, so I told her that coconut milk seemed to have disappeared. The she spotted my tins of Heinz Baked Beans which they have started to stock ("Oooh, where did you get those?") but I was explaining to her that I would rather have coconut milk than baked beans any day. 

"Oh, they still have coconut milk, but it is in the fridges. Near the eggs!" She told me. 

Serves me right for not listening, eh?

Thursday, 3 September 2009

I don't Monday

Continuing my rant about policemen all over the city of Almaty who stop, hassle and then extort cash from drivers for no reason whatsoever I would like to share with you some advice I was given by Wise Old Owl, a long-time expatriate who has coped in regimes worse than this one before now and is utterly inured to coruption. 

"When you're stopped," she said, taking a break in her sentence to inhale deeply from a menthol cigarette, "Just say 'Ya-Nee-Pon-Ee-Je-Nick'. It's easy."
She is as cool as a cucumber, I suspect, in most situations and facing the local constabulary would be a walk in the park. I was new to town and did not know any Russian at this point, so she explained:
"You see, the police will think you are trying very hard to speak Russian but you are completely crap at it. 'Pon-Ee-Je-Nick' means Monday. But 'Pon-Ee-My-Oh' means I understand. So you say 'I don't Monday' and it sounds like you are trying to say 'I don't understand' but you can't even get that right," she chortled. 
"Works every time!"
"Brilliant!" I thought, "I will give it a try."

Husband was away in Europe one weekend and so I took to the roads for the first time by myself. I had not driven for weeks and weeks anywhere, and had not tried out the new car at all. The whole unpleasant afternoon (forced upon me by a total lack of anything to eat in our temporary apartment) was one of heightened-experience for me, never having been behind the wheel of a 4.2 litre automatic V8 engine before (they go very fast very quickly, by the way) and not having clocked up many miles in Almaty at all. 

Making my way slowly around a corner (yes, I was on the correct side of the road), a policeman started waving his little red traffic wand at me, and trying to catch my eye. 
"Bugger that," I thought, and put my foot down avoiding catching his eye. 

"Mummy, that policeman wanted you to stop," came First Child's observation from the back of the car.
"Yes, darling, I know," I said through semi-gritted teeth, "But I haven't done anything wrong and so I just pretended I didn't see him. He probably just wants me to give him some money."
"But Mummy," she continued. "It's easy, you just have to tell him that you don't Monday!"

Police harassment

I am officially getting a bee in my bonnet about Kazakh police and their traffic control measures. Husband was stopped three times in under an hour last Sunday. Admittedly, we had lost our front bumper in an unfortunate traffic incident - more of that on another rant. But we still had our license plate attached  (yellow for foreigners, instead of white for locals, making us all the more easy to pick out of the flow). Considering that I have seen Ladas here literally tied together with string and still on the road, the fact that our Landcruiser was looking a little less pretty than normal does not seem due cause to be stopping him every 100 metres down the road. 

They don't have to have an excuse to pull you over, they just wave the red wand while eye-balling you, and you must stop.  

There are numerous, onerous bits of notarised paperwork that you must carry around in your car here to be legal on the road. We have a folder with each piece of paper in a plastic wallet in the glove compartment. These documents are meticulously checked every month by our driver to make sure they are valid, in date, fully notarised. Baktiyar (driver) studies the new issues of the highway code intensely for weeks after it comes out. He stops sleeping in the car while waiting around, and can be found poring over the booklet until he knows every fine, offense and new legislation that has come in since the last pamphlet was published. These usually include a lot of  rules that are so silly that sometimes you don't believe them at first. Like the new rule that when you are driving out of the city limits (from inside of the city) even if it is midday and the sun is cracking the sky, you must switch on your headlights. If you do not, the fine is 6000 tenge (40 US dollars). Probably it is 6278 tenge - all the fines are bizarre numbers as if a bored policeman has allowed his 2 year-old-son to type the numbers in randomly while sitting on his lap in his smoke-filled, peeling-paint-walled office. Why do you have to put your lights on? Has the Union of Car Head Lamp Manufacturers been having dinner with the chief of police again? 

Some people believe that by feigning a lack of Russian-language skills they will escape the fine. This does not work all the time, and some policemen speak English, so you can't really get away with that. A friend of mine babbles away in Spanish (definitely less common and they don't know what to do with her, so she has been safe so far). I once just pretended that I hadn't noticed a policeman waving me over and drove off, but someone later told me that they can fire their guns after you if you do that, so I don't do that anymore. 

With 100 lessons under his belt, husband has now decided that he will speak as much Russian as he can and see if he can argue his way out of a fine. So first time he was stopped last weekend, he argued that he wasn't due to pay a fine, the car was road worthy: it had been checked and certified road worthy, and his head of HR had checked for him with the police so there was no need for a fine. He called said HR head but she did not pick up, policeman took pity and let him go. At the second policeman, my husband told him he had just paid a fine to the first policeman who had stopped him five minutes previously, and didn't he just think that would be too unfair (even for a corrupt official) to do it again? He was let off. The third little piggy was not so kind and fined him for not carrying the original of his driving license (a new regulation which we did not know) and "fined" him 2000 tenge (only 15 dollars, but annoying for not really doing anything wrong - we had a notarised colour copy of the scabby little bit of paper that is our UK driving license in the car). So frustrating. 

We were stopped AGAIN the following morning on the way to school - Baktiyar was driving at about 65km/h in a 60 limit. No fine that time, but honestly, all the other cars on the road were going at the same speed. Yellow plates. Agh! 

We had a friend here who used to drive an Audi 4WD OffRoad - a snazzy, fast car. He paid so many fines for speeding that eventually he drove everywhere on cruise control. Then he bought a Lada Niva as a second car/run around (this is a kind of 4WD soviet mini-jeep, much beloved of locals and actually pretty cool I think) and still got stopped, but found that the standard fine went down from 5000 tenge to 2000! 

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Expatriata! Ruminations on coffee morning etiquette

Blimey! What a day. After a whole summer of absence, ladies from all over the world are back in Almaty. Today was the Almaty International Women's Club coffee morning at the Intercontinental Hotel (great hotel but = can of diet coke, only 9 dollars! ha ha). The coffees provide a chance for people to catch up and for new girls to meet a few people then mill about alone for a while wishing that they did not have to go through this version of personal hell, but hopefully knowing that this feeling doesn't last forever. Coffee mornings leave me baffled. I don't understand why women do them. Does anyone? What about the men who have to go to these events? The amazing bunch of male trailing spouses who find themselves in a form of Girls World, but not in the way that they may have fantasized about when younger!  Why do we women do it to ourselves and how do you put up with it? 

Ever since I moved abroad 11 years ago, and attended my first coffee morning at the Swedish Church in Santo Amaro in Sao Paulo, I have not especially enjoyed these events. In Brazil, the new girls had to wear a sticker and then stand in front of all existing members (sitting facing them in a semi-circle of chairs) and introduce themselves. I am a reasonably confident person, and I found this slightly nervewracking aged 25 in my first foreign country, so gabbled my way through a personal description in under 100 words, went bright red and sat down. For those less sure of themselves, and specially if English was their second or third language, it was nothing short of torture! 

But this kind of gathering seems to be the way that women abroad feel that they should network en masse. Of course it is useful to get everyone together once in a while, and it is a useful forum to spreading information among the community. And I cannot really think of a better way to do it (apart from the obvious option of At Night and in a Pub), but somehow, I always leave these things feeling that there must be a less painful way.

We all arrive and walk in, looking around for a familiar face. Of course, when you are new you know no one so you just have to balls it out. There is a membership table where you can fill in a form with the name of your spouse and his company and any other details of your new life that you have managed to cobble together since getting off a plane at 2.30am with three kids two days before hand, and going to stay in a hotel (if you can remember your own email address you are doing quite well). You just need to hope that the person on membership duty is a human kind of person and at least chats to you for a bit or shows you a friendly face. Fortunately, here in Almaty, the committee are pretty friendly, but it is not always so. And then it is introduce-yourself-to-anyone time, or go-home-without-meeting-anyone time, up to you! Sink or swim and off you go. 

So I think part of the reason that the first coffee of the post-summer year is so grim is because it always reminds you of your first coffee in that particular place. 

And the second reason is because some people are constantly dissatisfied in this kind of expat life, never settle or really make good mates and find it all very difficult. And at a coffee morning, if you get stuck with one of these you can be in real trouble. They will constantly start a new sentence, or seemingly fail to take breath, so that you can feel your face cracking as your smile begins to waver, you are unable to escape or change the subject, and you are listening to an endless list of complaints about how difficult such-and-such is (this will usually be from a range of subjects including, but not limited to,: a) finding a maid, driver, nanny, school or house b) medical issues, very personal details from someone you hardly know or c) some kind of comment negatively bashing the country in which they are living, like complaining about a lack of spoken english in rural China).

On the occasion that you find someone who you are quite excited to meet, who seems to be on your wavelength and with whom you think you may have things in common, then the chances of being able to have a conversation without being interrupted are practically zero. So you have to get in quick, swap a few titbits and phone numbers and move on in about two minutes. It is like a bizarre form of speed dating. 

And now PIzza Hut

I don't really think of Almaty as a difficult place to live on the whole, but then from time to time we all get very excited about a new service, or shop that has come to town and it makes me recognise the paucity of things here, that in the west we take utterly for granted. 

My recent Marrone Rosso post gave you an insight into the dearth of decent coffee shops. And it is the same for pizza and any kind of food by delivery.  When you order an Indian from the Indian they often don't have a driver to deliver, or he forgets to bring half your food. Most places you have to pick up yourself, I guess because the roads are so treacherous in the winter that there is no tradition of motorbike delivery boys like you get in loads of other places. 

Maybe I am missing a wealth of knowledge about take away and home delivery food? If this is the case, I would truly welcome some advice and comments on places in Almaty that do home delivery from people who are living here? Anyone? Anyone? Feel free to comment! My domestic talents do not always stretch to the creation of utterly wholesome offerings for my family (let's just say we eat a lot of eggs and/or breakfast cereal these days!). And sometimes it is really nice to order in... 

A friend recently bemoaned the lack of consistency even in fast food recently when she said,
"Well, you think when you first come here that it is all hunky dory, because everything looks alright, and really developed. In fact, we just laughed that this place was considered a hardship post by my husband's company. But then after a while you realize it is not quite what it seems. I mean, take McBurger for example. It is a burger shop. It only sells burgers and chips. But you can only buy what you want about one in four times that you visit - what is the story there?" she wailed, after a summer in Almaty on her own with her kids. 

She is not the only one to complain, and when Pizza Hut opened on the corner of Furmanova and Abai streets in June, there was a collective whoop of delight from many expats. And after the ceremonial opening yesterday of the new astroturf football pitch at the kids school, a few of us took our offspring for a slap up pizza lunch in "the Hut". 

Exciting. The waiter got our long and complicated order completely right first time! Wow, very unusual. He then served us our food in the order that we had requested (even rarer, the starters came before the main courses) and everything arrived that we had asked for. This is practically unheard of here. I was very impressed. The picture is of our smiling waiter. They don't yet deliver, or have a take away menu, but this will apparently happen in the future.