Sunday, 30 August 2009

Big Cheese Mega Sonic Woof Woof

The pack of wild dogs living at the bottom of our garden, the subject of previous posts "the dog catchers cometh.." and others, seems to have moved on. 

Returning from our summer holidays armed with a Big Cheese Mega Sonic Woof Woof dog deterrent, an ultra high frequency motion activated animal detector sonic zapper thingy, I was confident that I was going to rid my life of the nuisance barking that has been a feature of most nights since we came to live in this house. 

But the Kazakh authorities, in their infinite wisdom, have decided to change our charming mountain babbling brook into a high speed, metal gabion blocks filled with rocks industrial channel. So, instead of barking in the morning, we have the crashing of lorry loads of rocks being tipped into the river bed. And while walking up the river, instead of little beaches that the kids can paddle in, there are now walls of rock lining the channel in dead straight lines. 

All this activity must have put the family of 12 dogs off their onions at our gaff, because they have moved on. They no longer inhabit the tunnel, and even more exciting, the stupid old do-gooder granny who has been chucking plastic bags of soggy bread for them to eat over the river and onto our land (made me quite proprietorial!) seems to have stopped even doing that. There remain two uneaten bags of mush, and not a pup to be seen. 

Of course, you still hear a lot of dogs barking at night - this is the middle of central Asia after all. But nothing like the din that we used to get, which honestly sounded like we were neighbours with Cruela DeVil after a particularly successful dognapping adventure. 

So the Big Cheese Mega Sonic Woof Woof is now posing as a high tech burglar alarm because it has a little red light that goes on if you walk across its 12m sensor range.  

Friday, 28 August 2009

Marrone Rosso gives Coffee Delia a run for its money

Great sandwiches, but what about the service?

Expectations have been high for the new coffee shop Marrone Rosso, since frankly the choice of coffee houses in town is sadly lacking. To date, every expatriate in Almaty has used Coffee Delia for its Wifi coffee space, groovy lounge music background and funky orange décor. Obviously, the Israeli coffee chain Aroma, the company behind this new venture, has decided that Almaty has a mature enough market for another of the same.

Unsurprisingly given the name, the colour scheme is dark brown and orange. With a central bar full of baristas, comfortable brown leather stools and a whole range of different table sizes, shapes and seating opportunities, the café has been cleverly designed as a great meeting place for all sorts of groups. Wifi access is in place, the menu looks good and the staff is young and friendly, and crucially, people smile at you.

So I ordered a beer from one of the waitresses passing by.

“Hi, I’d like a small Efes beer, please”

“Sorry, it is self-service,” she replied (smiling).

“What?” I asked, certain that the staff behind the bar have been pulling drinks for other customers. ‘Is she taking the piss?’ I wonder, ‘Going to see if the English girl will dive across the bar and drink her beer straight form the tap, such is the look of desperation in her eyes for some alcoholic refreshment (We crashed the car on the way to visiting this joint for the first time, and a cool ale was necessary).

Maybe she didn’t understand, I thought. “I’d like a small Efes beer, please” I repeated in my best Russian accent.

“No, you must first go to the cash desk,” she explained.

Frustrating. I was sitting with my lap top, working away. There were staff literally milling about with nothing to do. But I had to get up and go to the other side of the bar and order my drink.

I do so, and ask what do the waiters in the restaurant do, if they are not taking orders? They clean the tables, he tells me. “Will you bring me my drink?” I enquire. “No, you can pick it up at the bar,” he says. OK.

This joint is awash with Almaty’s young and trendies, talking on their i-phones (in Swarowski crystal holders), plugged into their Vaios and Macbooks, all keen for Almaty to leap from Kazakhstan into the hugely developed world beyond the frontiers of Central Asia. Most of them probably study in the States or Europe, are super international and buy all their clothes in Saks 5th Avenue or Harvey Nicks.

My Israeli friends who live in Korea told me that anything to do with Aroma coffee is always delicious and they do amazing sandwiches. Seems this is their thing. So why not just make it easy for your customers to order from you, instead of making them queue up to order and pay, then get up again to collect their tucker? Apparently, I was told, this is the franchise, the way that all the Aroma cafes operate. I think it is a shame that in a country where a finance graduate may get paid less than $500 a month as an intern in an international company, that a café charging $4 for a single coffee cannot adapt to the local environment, give a few more waiters a job, and make it more comfortable for customers. But such is life, I guess you can’t have it all!

However, once you have mustered the strength to order your meal at Marrone Rosso, what you can get is one really awesome sandwich.

We ordered the grilled vegetable sandwich (grilled pepper, grilled zucchini, Bulgarian cheese, arugula and herbs dressing). Quite the most delicious sandwich I have eaten in years and this alone will keep me coming back here probably several times a week. We also sampled a Marrone Rosso house salad (tomato, cucumber, Bulgarian cheese, onion, red onion, cherry tomato, olives and dressing). The salad was fabulous and fresh with a totally delicious super-freshly-prepared herby dressing.

The sandwich used warm wholegrain bread with caraway seeds, and the salad was served with two slices of delicious whole meal bread, also freshly baked. The bread really is second to none in Almaty. We have been here a year now and I have not tasted bread like it anywhere else.

Later we ordered the apple strudel (none left that night), but cinnamon rolls and a delicious short bread filled with a caramel filling were both excellent, and it was good to have a freshly baked cinnamon roll at 10pm at night.

Marrone Rosso’s baking is truly excellent. We are still to try their coffee, since we both ordered the fresh fruit juice (and an Efes!) that night. But based on the fare sampled on visit #1, the coffee will also be fantastic. Really high quality food and drink in a happy, busy environment. Hurray! 

Keep Calm and Carry On

So, not being able to buy the camping equipment you so desperately need instantly is hardly going to shorten ones life. Admittedly it is frustrating from time to time, but there are so many other compensatory factors to living the life I do, that I shouldn't complain at the unsurprising difficulty in acquiring basic items like cocoa powder, contact lenses, fresh coffee or decent bread (go get a breadmaker because apart from Marrone Rosso cafe there isn't any in town). 

And when I have mornings like these, I simply go home, and get out my EESK (English Expat Survival Kit), pictured below. Nothing as restorative as a freshly brewed pot of builders tea, drunk out of my newly acquired summer present-to-myself mug: 

Stock issues

The curse of Tsum, the department store which has reduced me to tears before now, seems to affect the whole block in which it is located. 

Planning a one night camping trip to the wilds with friends this weekend, I set off at 10am today to buy a gas canister for our lantern, a tarpauline and poles to give shade and some camping chairs. Possibly, even, I dared to imagine, I might buy a plug into the car cool box for the beers. 

Walking into the town's largest camp store Robinson, 50 metres down the road from Tsum, which oddly enough has two large suits of armour standing at the front door, I make my way inside. 

By means of my poor russian, a pen and paper and much talking, the shop assistants and I manage to ascertain that they: 
1. Sell lanterns but there no gas canisters for sale in the whole of Almaty until September
2. It will be almost impossible to find fuel for our trangia cookers (Swedish made, used all over the world) here. They do not even understand the concept of liquid non-gas fuel, but suggest I use petrol instead. 
3. Do not sell tarpaulins to give shade. They do have a ground sheet which we could perhaps string up. They sell poles, but not the little pointy bits that allow you to use them through a metal eyelet - totally useless poles. 
4. Do not have chairs in stock. 
5. They do sell rope - well done!!

I can feel the familiar rage rising but keep my cool, although I cannot help myself from asking what is the point of having about 20 different lanterns for sale if you do not sell the fuel to make them give light? What is the point? Agh! This is still very  post-soviet, and people are so used to products not always being available that they can hardly understand the question. They do not expect to have all the necessary components for anything easily available to them. 

I head to Limpopo, the classiest of Almaty's outdoor stores but with limited stock also, and find a really nice guy who agrees that the Trangia looks like an excellent piece of kit, but that of course, in Kazakhstan nothing like that is available. He agrees that it is frustrating not to be able to get the right kit. As a keen climber he has to make do with what he can find. But he is able to tell me what is probably the russian term for methylated spirits, the fuel required by Trangia cookers. I will set Baktiyar the driver to the test of finding and buying a litre of purple fuel and see what he can find this afternoon. 

My friend calls and our camping trip is cancelled as her husband has to work all weekend. 

So picnic at Big Almaty Lake instead. Fine. 

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

A mother's lot

Feeling quite the Nigella Lawson yesterday, I knocked up a couple of banana and chocolate chip loaves after lunch, and the house was full of the wafting aroma of delicious baking. Warm, moist banana loaf was ready for the children and I had a totally clear conscience as I left in the evening for a supper meeting leaving the children with our new nanny to have their tea and be put to bed. 

Arriving home later, I walked into my bedroom to see a little note on my pillow. The girls are wont to leave loving messages from time to time, "Ah, sweet," I thought, as I walked towards the note. There was something resting on the paper, some egg shell, maybe they found a nest or something interesting in the garden I thought. Then I read it. 


Never mind "I found some egg shell in the lovingly-prepared, fabulously delicious, freshly baked loaf that you kindly prepared for me this afternoon". Looks like my eldest daughter will be an "outraged from Tunbridge Wells" kind of letter writer in later life! 

Monday, 24 August 2009

Big Beluga on the Radio!

Big Beluga Baby is all of a twitter today because she was interviewed on BBC Radio 5 Live this morning. You can hear this here if you click on listen again for Monday 24th August. Kids were thrilled to hear Mummy on the radio as we always listen to some radio at breakfast time. If you do go to this link, then scroll along to about 2.45 hours thru the programme to find the section I am in. It is questions to expats all over the world.

Considering that the show I was on (BBC Five Live's Up all Night) was being played at 3.35am in the UK I think I am safe from instant fame in my homeland. It is also unlikely that the Kazakh secret service were tuning into Five Live (unless they had been listening to victorious England in the last Ashes Test Match, fallen asleep and woken four hours later to hear some over-excited expat  housewife describing their country as "like the wild west on cocaine"), so I am probably safe from expulsion on the grounds of criticizing the regime, which, for the avoidance of doubt, I was not!

So how did the Beluga get invited to speak? Persuaded by my friend Emily Expat (not her real name!) whose friend works for the beeb and had asked her to do it. Emily Expat was too aware of her own propensity to say outrageous things and so she had passed it on - or perhaps she had been worried that the show might air after a Sunday night session in Line Brew pub and she might have really shocked everyone then. 

Friday, 21 August 2009

Fermented Bread Soup

To mark my husband's 100th Russian lesson, and as a small reward her for her immense patience in the face of incredible repetition rates, we decided to treat our Russian teacher to dinner. 

Her favourite Russian restaurant in Almaty is called Namedin (I will try to add the Russian script later) and it is at 44 Furmanova Street, on the corner with Makataeva Street (tel: 8 727 273 8494 - no website). 

Despite the huge investment in lessons, neither husband nor I are exactly fantastic at Russian, but we had all agreed in advance that we would do the meal without using English. This could have been a recipe for one of the dullest evenings on record, but in fact, we were all able to entertain each other with lots of stories and had a really good time. 

The food was Russki, and the most notable dish was a course of chilled summer soup.  The base of the soup is a liquid of water in which bread has fermented, which gives the soup a tangy flavour and makes it distinctly fizzy. Within the whiteish, watery stock, there float hundreds of minutely chopped sticks of cucumber and a good smattering of dill, small pieces of cooked beef into which you add a couple of dollops of sour cream. 

We tried it, husband almost gagged but was able to cover this up! I didn't mind the strange fizziness, and the tangy chilliness was quite refreshing, but it definitely goes against the grain as someone from food-sell-by-date-obsessed England to eat anything apart from blue cheese that has a hint of change-through-time about it.

We ordered a huge meal: 
potato breads with beetroot and aubergine salads
a plate of assorted cold meats (tongue, roast beef, chicken, pork sausage)
the cold soup (say no more)
main course: Pork cutlets with a rich sauce of sour cream and smoked sausage, noodles and pancakes stuffed with potatoes and onions
fruit platter, chilled melon and an apple stuffed pancake baked in custard. 

This is what we ate based on our original conversation that it would be a good idea to order some nice, light, summery dishes!  Going back for some winter food may take a certain amount of building up to... like a 10 day fast.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Slumdog Toilets

I have finally watched the film Slumdog Millionaire. What a fantastic story - so optimistic and romantic, beautifully filmed and with an amazing sound track. Top film. 

My comment today is that other people who have seen the film scoffed at my earlier description of the horrors of the toilets at the border between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan (19 October 08, The World's Worst Toilet blog). They told me, "Wait until you see Slumdog Millionaire, that is definitely the worst toilet in the world," but I have to argue that they were wrong. 

The toilet on the Kyrgyz side of the Kazakh/Kyrgyz border is a place that noone should ever go. I have seen some very bad loos (notably the Hong Kong Driving License office toilet, very bad, poo everywhere,  and I remember a really bad toilet between Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo where it was so rank my friend could not bring herself to use the bowl and admitted later that she had peed in the hand basin). And also some very good ones (all in Japan - amazing place to do your business). 

As my husband pointed out, the fact that the number one tip for tourists entering Kyrgyzstan at this particular border crossing (a country keen to exploit its fabulous natural wonders as an eco-tourist hub) is to avoid at all costs entering the first lavatory you see, shows that they still have a long way to go!

Below are two pictures of quite a good toilet near the Ille River in Kazakhstan. The amazing thing about the picture on the right was that after taking this snap I dropped the camera and watched in despair as it plummeted towards the dark hole of doom. Then miraculously, it bounced just on the right-hand foot plate and onto the safety of the wooden surround. A not-too-deep breath of relief later and I picked up my precious Olympus - I would never have been as desperate as Jamal to get it back (to understand this, you must watch the film...).


Samarkand, the Uzbekistan trip rolls on...

We were met at the station by a new driver (there are definitely some huge advantages to booking a tour in this country - not having to faff about arguing with taxi drivers about ridiculous fares every time you want to go anywhere is definitely one of them) and he drove us to our hotel, the Hotel Malika (not the hotel that pops up when you click on Samarkand, but a new one in the same group, very close to the Registan which is the main tourist attraction). It was a perfectly pleasant 3 star hotel, really clean with a good breakfast, and had obviously already attracted a loyal following from local tour operators because of its consistency of service and the good, functioning, pleasantly decorated rooms. 

One of the biggest headaches in running any business in this part of the world is achieving consistency of standards, and also in getting buildings to actually function. It sounds so basic, but then you see how places are built here and you start to realise why every building is riven with huge faults and that it is only a matter of time before they go wrong. 

Basically, all buildings are put together using a collection of impoverished labourers from the cheapest, nearest pool of labour, so in Kazakhstan there are a lot of Turkish and Uzbek workers, in Russia it is a standing joke that the Tajiks do this stuff (and that they are hopeless at it - see Nasha Russia - the Russian version of the BBC comedy programme Little Britain which has an hilarious skit about two Tajik decorators and their horrible Russian boss who just despairs of their incompetence and lack of language skills. I could not find any clips of these characters, but you can get the gist of the programme if you see some of the video clips on this site, they really show the gross side of Russia). I guess in Uzbekistan it is also a real mixture of where people come from. 

Anyway, these labourers appear at a site, a huge hole is dug for foundations, they all set up camp either on the plot itself, or if there is no space, on a nearby bit of waste ground like a bunch of gypsies, and there they live and work using hand tools and sweat until they get the job done. 

You never see any power tools, or accurate-looking instruments being used. I think they judge a lot of straight lines by eye, rather than using spirit levels. Work tends to be done very quickly, land is not given time to settle before construction begins even if it has been recently leveled,  so almost as soon as a building is finished, bits start falling down, or off the side/roof etc. And this is absolutely normal. 

But anyway, I totally digress. In Samarkand the main thing to visit is the Registan. A huge development of mosque buildings, minarets and domes which rather dominates the city. It is not a working mosque - the population, although something like 90% muslim, is only approximately 15% practising, and so there are a few mosques in and around town which are still genuine places of worship, but the Registan is purely there these days for its architectural and decorative merit. 

And a very good photo opportunity it makes too!  The stunning blue domes, wonderful and intricate patterned tile work that covers the monuments are all really attractive and impressive to view. 

Adventures in Uzbekistan Part 4

Our second day in Uzbekistan saw us embark on my favourite part of our trip: the express train journey from Tashkent to Samarkand.

I find train travel especially relaxing. We have lived in all sorts of wacky places and travelled as extensively as time and money has allowed. All of us, including the children, have made our journeys in some extremely dodgy vehicles, with or without seat belts, some I suspect without even a working fan belt, probably just some auntie's old stockings. I remember a driver doing an spectacular, controlled 75 meter skid while we were travelling at speed, and in the dark, back to Delhi from the Taj Mahal, our first born child asleep in the most flimsy, ineffective Indian car seat that I have ever seen, because there was a large concrete block in the middle lane of the motorway. In the middle lane! How can that not get moved out of the way?? And another time as we bounced along the wooden tracks of rural Cambodia, seeing my second daughter lolling asleep in her car seat (we had taken our own, the Indian lesson being well-learnt) with the car seat rolling according to the lurching of the minibus in an almost impossible, gravity-defying arc for every pothole that we crossed since the seat belt was basically a piece of farming twine to tie around the waist of the passenger. 

So we are used to long car journeys in very old cars on roads where most drivers have bought their licenses, and there is no knowing when you will meet a cow, donkey, crashed fruit van, or just a great, big, car-sized hole. It is never very relaxing. 

Trains, on the other hand, hardly ever crash. OK, when they do it is pretty awful, but the stats definitely stack up in favour of rail over road, and so I was really looking forward to experiencing rail Uzbek-style. 


We made our way to the impressive central train station in Tashkent and found our platform where the train (called the "Sharq") was already waiting. We had some reserved seats, found our carriage and bundled ourselves on. Where train journeys can take up to a week as they can in this part of the world (from Tashkent to Moscow is several days long), you are given heaps of room on your seat. The trains have a real old world charm about them, given that they feature their original fittings and were obviously made in the days before quick fit plastic seating and easy-replace modern trappings were invented. Every carriage has leather seats, wooden tables and the carriage sides are panelled in wood. Even the toilets were no worse than I have seen on some South West train services out of London Waterloo. 


Not that the trains are immaculate, Orient Express-style bastions of comfort and style. Many of the windows are permanently misted up with condensation between the double glazing, some even slosh an inch of water between the panes; the television sets (yes, television sets - the Uzbeks were obviously streets ahead of Mr Branson in their understanding of in-flight entertainment) are about 80% functional, although the whole train compartment must listen to the sound track to the film showing, usually the tale of a pair of Central Asian young lovers caught in the middle of some terrible strife between rival families... very dramatic stuff! But overall, the experience is very comfortable. 


The train chugs along at about 40mph, the perfect speed to view the passing countryside and within about four hours you arrive in the wonderful station at Samarkand, the ancient town that was a major centre on the Silk Route and which is such a relatively remote place that arriving here gives a real frisson of travel excitement. Even the name, Samarkand, I think, sounds like some ancient wizard, or a mystical land of dragons.


Monday, 17 August 2009

Adventures in Uzbekistan Part 3

I had expected the trip to Tashkent to involve:
1. Short early morning flight to 70kms from Tashkent
2. One hour taxi ride to Tashkent hotel (plus extra time at border a possibility)

What we had actually experienced was:
1. Massive queue to get to plane at 6.30am in Almaty airport
2. Short flight to Shymkent in Southern Kazakhstan
3. Three and a half hour mar
athon taxi ride in non-air conditioned old audi
4. Two and a half hour customs clearance, bureaucratic palava
5. Long walk along the donkey track into Uzbekistan (not actually that long, but worth including as it was quite extraordinary)
5. Two hour drive in nice new Toyota van to hotel in Tashkent

By the time we got to the Hotel Poytaht in Tashkent we were all, frankly, buggered. So to be met by a grizzled old guide wearing one of those war reporter-type camouflage flak jacket waistcoat things was quite distressing. He was keen to take us to a restaurant for lunch. 

"Listen, mate" I told him, in my patchy Russian, "I have been around the block a bit, and if you take us to some tourist, crappy, overpriced restaurant I am going to be very disappointed. Please take us to a good local joint for a normal meal,"
"Of course, of course, no problem, we go to eat by the river," he assured me. 
"This restaurant you recommend, what kind of food does it serve?" I asked
"Oh, Uzbek food and International food," he said. 
The alarm bells were ringing. The term "International food", in my experience of trying to find some authentic local cuisine, means that you are actually heading for the place least likely in a city to be serving the real McCoy. 
"You know, we really don't want to eat international food," I told him, "My parents, they have travelled a lot. They will not get sick if they eat in a local restaurant. I really hope that you are not taking us to a tourist trap," I said, hoping that my requests did not fall on deaf ears. 

They did. We drove up to a more-or-less empty beer garden with tired, old waitresses in beer-sponsored aprons serving rank, badly-cooked shashlik (meat kebabs) that had been stored in an ancient old fridge full of food and flies outside (I saw this because I was running around with the baby, but most bus loads of tourists would be unaware this small detail), some luke warm noodles in a weak soup and the ubiquitous central asian round bread (not freshly baked as you would expect from a really good establishment). 

Considering that none of us really wanted to be on a tour with anyone, preferring the thought of an afternoon relaxing by the pool, followed by a small foray into town to find some supper and a beer later, the ambience was lacking. Added to which, the guide had produced our bill for the tour which was 25% higher than I had agreed before travelling to Uzbekistan, so I had to spend most of the time on the phone to the organiser explaining that it is not normal to include a one-year-old child as a full-fare paying adult in a tour bill. 

"But you did not tell me she is baby," he argued.
"I think I did, and I also think I faxed you the photo page of her passport at least twice, so you might have noticed," I replied.  (My daughter's passport was issued when she was 10 days old as we had to make an emergency flight home to see a dying relative, so there really is no doubt that she is extremely small).

Anyway, we came to an agreement in the end, with the organiser pleading with me, 
"But I make no profit for this tour".
"Yeah, right," I thought. 
What I actually said was, "I am so sorry about that, but thank you so much for sorting this out." 

After the guide had taken us to see a memorial to a large earthquake, I broke it to him that we were not really up for a full city tour, and it might be better if we all got some rest now. Realising that this meant he got the rest of the day off, he immediately cheered up and we went a very direct route back to the hotel. 

On the way, I asked him what the main industry in Uzbekistan was. 
"Cotton," he said. 
"Really, I didn't know that," I said. 
"Yes, cotton is our biggest export. But now is problem," he explained, "Some countries, they do not want to buy our cotton, because they say we use child labour. For picking," he explained. 
"Oh dear, that is a problem," I said. "But do people use child labour to pick cotton in Uzbekistan," I asked.
"Of course we do," he said, "All our workers are in Russia. If we do not use the children, we cannot pick the crop." 

The minibus became quieter and we drove the streets of Tashkent back to our hotel in peace and tranquility, the baby asleep on my lap. 

Picture: My father listening politely to our guide 

Saturday, 15 August 2009


I can't believe I didn't get round to putting the poppy photos on my blog. 
Late April, at Ille River which is about one hours drive from town, a group of us went for a barbecue by the river and a gawp at the millions and millions of flowers.
When I flew back into town from London in May, the steppe was still smeared with red from the fields of poppies still in bloom. It really looked amazing, like some Mars dust had been sprinkled from above. 


Adventures in Uzbekistan part 2

To get into Uzbekistan is not straightforward, as you might expect from this fairly murky regime. To obtain a visa, you must get a letter of invitation to visit the country from someone inside the country, which is tricky if you have never been there before to get to know anyone to ask you back. So you need to use a tour agency to invite you, and they make a formal request at some border office inside Uzbekistan. This office issues them with a unique visa application number which is then sent to you and you go and find the Uzbek embassy near you and wait until they deign to provide you with your visa, relieving you of US$55 for your time wasted. I say deign, because the Uzbek visa office in Almaty takes a very slap dash approach to its opening hours. Officially open from 2pm to 4.30pm every day, they may not actually open until nearer 3pm. There is no queue system, and the range of random applicants for visas are admitted seemingly in the order of the size of the bribe they have paid to the doorman to get in. 

We had all obtained our visas, but Dimitriy, our tour contact person, had informed us that the border closest to Shymkent was "not working" and advised to go to another crossing point called Yallama. He did not advise us that this crossing was 300kms instead of 70kms away from the airport, and it was only after we had been travelling at great speed in the ancient audi taxi that I asked the driver how much further it was and he told me it would be about another 200kms. The thought of flying on Tuesday morning direct to Tashkent began to seem, retrospectively, like not a bad idea at all, but too late for that. Our early morning start was taking its toll, and although along the route we did see camels grazing (a first for me in Kazakhstan), and we may have passed many other interesting sights, but we would not be able to relate these since we were all lolling our heads in states of total unconsciousness. It was hard not to all fall asleep at the same time, and at one point, we had to discuss who thought they could manage to stay awake for the next 30 minutes, so that we were not all out of it at the same time. The three of us falling asleep at the same time in an unknown place with an unknown taxi driver, on our way to somewhere that none of us actually knew where it was (and it was not marked on our map) somehow did not seem like good travel practice! 

And then after a long, long time of driving as fast as he could along a straight road through miles of more-or-less nothingness, the taxi driver stopped in a tiny town, took our stuff out and drove off. 

The border town is an absolute dump. My parents and I have done dodgy borders before, the most notable being the Thailand/Cambodian entry/exit point of Poi Pet which is another Border Hole of the Ultimate Order. This was a backwater of a place, full of puddles, potholes, assorted livestock, a few loitering locals and the official crossing point to our destination. I began to pray that Sergei, our contact, was indeed waiting on the other side. I had told Dimitry that we were coming from Shymkent by taxi after landing at 8.30am and he had told me Sergei would be at the border at 11am. We did not get there until 1pm, so I thought that perhaps Sergie might have given up and buggered off by now. He was not answering his phone. I did not tell my parents this. 
A very slow and tedious passage through customs was made slightly more interesting only by the chance meeting of a load of England football fans on their way into Kazakhstan. Initially I thought perhaps they might be hooligans trying to get into Kazakhstan at a small remote border crossing (possibly without internet connectivity), avoiding Interpol and entering illegally. But it turned out that they were an apparently respectable lot, who were taking the chance to experience a Central Asian cultural tour before going to watch the world qualifying football match the following Saturday. They did tell us that their next destination was Bishkek, and we later heard that an England fan had been shot in the knee in Bishkek after refusing to stop singing football songs in a bar when being repeatedly asked to be quiet by the locals, the only bit of trouble that any of us heard off, and frankly, he had obviously asked for it, so perhaps they did have alter-egos after all, we will never know. 

After two hours we finally emerged into Uzbekistan. Leaving the border crossing, we had a 500m walk along a donkey track lined with huge transport lorries waiting to cross into Kazakhstan. The drivers all had the look of people who wait at borders often and for very long times indeed, and it was no surprise to pass a guard post at the end of the track and see the guards playing poker, presumably safe in the knowledge that none of the guys outside were going anywhere until they had had their documents stamped. 

What joy to finally see the sign "East Line Tour" and meet the jolly Sergei, who had faithfully been waiting for us for nearly 5 hours! 

Adventures in Uzbekistan part 1

We first moved abroad to Brazil 12 years ago (agh! how did that happen?). Our first foreign adventure, we were so young and keen in those days, you just could not stop us getting involved in local culture. But even now, not much has changed on the enthusiasm stakes - we still love finding new things, seeing new places. The children have worn me down and I can no longer be relied upon to provide up to date information about local bars, but husband makes sure his own personal research is well up to date in that area! When the first set of relatives came to visit, we had worked out an hour-by-hour itinerary for their trip to ensure that they did not miss a single element of what we considered to be the "ultimate and essential Sao Paulo/Rio de Janeiro and other parts of Brazil tour". I think that this had been partly prepared to help us get over our fear of having parents to stay for two weeks solid, after a pretty harmonious 18 months of living 8000 km apart. Whatever the reason, everyone saw and did a lot in their time in the South American paradise that is Brazil, and left with the certainty that they could not have done more. 

Our visitor itineraries took on a mythic status, and we politely accepted the ridicule from various members of our families about our penchant for spreadsheets and lack of attention to sleeping time allowances, but still we showed no mercy. And to be honest, we allow ourselves little slack when visiting somewhere new, the only exception being when we visited Beijing when I was eight-months pregnant, and I was allowed to rest in the afternoon after climbing the Great Wall of China (but only so that I did not go into premature labour and spoil the holiday!).

So it was no surprise for my recently-retired parents to find that less than 24 hours after their over night, economy class flight from Heathrow to Almaty, and with a day in the Kazakh national park and a shashlik lunch under their belts, we were heading back to the airport at 5.50am to catch a 7.30am flight to Shymkent in Southern Kazakhstan for the start of their mini-tour to Uzbekistan. And to their credit, despite the fact that they could actually hardly open their eyes, they took it in good stead. Adventurers to the fore!

The dreadful flight time is normal in this part of the world. Almaty must be almost the bottom of the list for preferred landing slots, and wherever you go, or land, one part of the journey will be at a hellish hour (the Moscow to Almaty flight is a businessman's favourite leaving at 1am and arriving at 4.30 am). We were flying to Shymkent, 70kms from the capital of Uzbekistan, Tashkent, because this early-morning Air Astana flight time was actually more convenient than waiting until Tuesday morning for the Uzbekistan Air direct flight to the city. 

Shymkent is about 1000 kms from Almaty, south towards the fertile plains that produce most of the fruits and veggies that we eat here all the time. It is a large industrial town, with an apparently lively night life which we were not going to sample, traveling as we were with two grandparents and a one-year-old baby. So we landed, found a taxi and set off for our border crossing in an ancient old audi car. Here are pictures of Shymkent Airport at 8.30 and a 'Spot the British waiting for their luggage competition' (Clue: they are not on the right or the left).

Juggling in the land of stan

So the Allia boozing disaster was finalized and that left me with no nanny. This, in itself, is not such a problem since I am not holding down a full time job, or anything like that. But when you have people to help out you can make plans in advance without considering that you might have to sack them out of the blue for being a vodka snaffler, and  we were expecting my parents to arrive on Saturday night from the UK, followed by an early morning flight with myself and the baby to Uzbekistan on Monday morning. 

I had planned to leave the two other children under the supervision of the nanny and the driver, who would pick them up from school, feed them, put them to bed and then wait for my unreliable husband to return from work (which could be any time from 7pm to 1am depending on his work load). 

So a series of frantic phone calls later, I had called in numerous favours from friends, and had a complicated plan for the week ahead with tea being provided in five different houses, driver primed to pick up kids, take them here and there, go and get stand in babysitter (Rosa, another gold-toothed Kazakh lady who has baby sat for us on weekends before) who would come home, help them bathe then husband would arrive home and she could go home. It was slightly risky, but if noone forgot that they had said they would feed them, then I figured it would probably work out OK. 

And actually, it did.