Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Kaz Post - honest or dishonest?

Well, it is now December 30 and there is no sign of any of our parcels from the UK. Granny has posted 11 separate items, all individually numbered so that we can check if everything has arrived. Quite apart from the pure expense of 11 parcels' worth of presents going missing, I am gutted that she has spent hours and hours of time, miles and miles of selotape and countless trips to the post office to send these things and NOT ONE has arrived. I am hopeful that they have just been delayed in the UK post (strike backlogs still perhaps?) and then arrived into Kazakh end-of-year, can't-be-arsed-to-do-my-job-properly-pass-the-vodka-dimitry apathy which is quite likely. But there is the overriding worry that some undeserving Kazakh postal or customs officer has stolen our things.

We are still hoping, and I think I will continue to hope until the kids go back to school on January 11th, then I will give up.

We have, so far, been one of the lucky families whose post has arrived - many people that we know here have had huge problems with their post. Our local Post Office clearly have a sorting box marked "random foreign people living nearby" as some items which have been addressed to our house have been delivered to my husband's office.

Last year, we were on holiday for Christmas, so the fact that all our presents didn't arrive until January didn't really matter. Everyone posted their things much earlier this year, so we were fully expecting things to arrive by the 25th. It was only because other Grannie brought a large suitcase of gifts with her when she came to visit in November that the kids had anything to open at all on Christmas Day this year - phewy.

Of course, if everything does not show up, then that will be the end of any gifts from anyone in the UK, forever - boo hoo.

No one will use a courier (I researched couriering our gifts for Christmas from John Lewis on Oxford Street, and for £135 of presents it was going to cost £185 to send! I could not bring myself to spend that money on shipping a load of plastic Sylvanian Families half way around the world.) - the only solution will be for husband to find a European conference in the third quarter of the year which he absolutely must attend, and fly business class via London where he can pick up things and bring them back. However, he has been very reluctant to offer his services as a courier, after I overstepped the mark once and ordered a flat-packed desk to be delivered to his hotel in London and made him carry it back to Korea! ha ha ha

Keep your fingers crossed for us...

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Further shots of Chimbulak

I know I am getting pretty boring about this, but you may like to see some more shots of my favourite place in winter in Kazakhstan. Such a beautiful spot. I can't stop taking pictures and also still can't believe (a year and a half on) that we live 25 mins drive from this place.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Favourite place in Kazakhstan in Winter

This is my favourite place in Kazakhstan in Winter - the valley you can see is where Chimbulak ski resort is. We took this photo yesterday, after spending seven hours with all the kids skiing and playing in the snow. The eldest two went with their dad and did their first attempt at skiing down the middle ridge of trees, through the powder snow and under branches - a massive step in their skiing ability. Even he said that he felt quite proud of their efforts, and he is not easily impressed. The youngest stayed with me at the bottom of the slopes and practiced walking about on her tiny little plastic strap on skis that I imported from Scotland.  At seven months pregnant, I have hung up my ski boots - not actually because I feel I cannot manage a gently glide down the slopes on a quiet day, but more because of the disapproving tutting that is emanating from everyone I know at the thought of a pregnant woman skiing.

We had a delicious lunch together, the sun shone, it was quite simply magnificent to look at and everyone felt great at the end of the day.

Festive fayre and Christmas Excess

Last year we weren't at home for Christmas and so I didn't have to prepare anything. This year, I am not sure why, I have literally taken it upon myself to prepare absolutely everything festive that I could possibly think about. I love cooking, and I really get a kick out of making delicious things for friends and family to eat, but I think I have slightly overdone it this year. The thought of even starting our Christmas cake (yet more dried fruit) is enough to make my stomach turn.

We have had mince pies in their hundreds (I specially brought back vegetarian suet from the UK in October and then proceeded to prepare about 8 kgs of the stuff because that was how much the suet made).

I am about to send the last 36 or so of these little beauties into husband's office as a New Year british delicacy that most people will not have tried in Kazakhstan.

Then we had the Christmas Cake - as yet unopened - which has been in the preparation since September. My Turkish friends all thought the idea of a cake you keep for 3 months before you eat it, utterly disgusting, but I am hoping I will be able to fob off a few slices at the New Year baby group coffees. Catch a few unwitting non-Brits, for whom the sight of a raisin for the first six months of any year is enough to have them running for the Alka Seltzer.

On December 23rd I casually mentioned to husband that I was planning to make a sherry trifle instead of a traditional Christmas pud and he looked at me as though I had said I was going to sell our youngest child to pay for presents, in total shock. "What?" he choked, "You make a million mince pies which I don't even especially like, but you are not going to make my favourite part of Christmas lunch - the pud?". So I got out the recipe book again and prepared Christmas Pud a la Kazakhstan - with grated cold butter instead of suet (had used all mine in the bloody mince pies), and another kilo or so of the amazingly good dried fruit we get here in the market.

Apart from going out for a Christmas Eve drinks party and forgetting that said Pudding was still only on hour 6 of the cooking process and nearly burning the house down, we managed to come back in time to switch it off and on Christmas day, it very satisfactorily burnt purple flames with brandy long enough for two little girls to run upstairs, find their newly acquired cameras and rush back down to take a photo of the glowing pudding. Here is a picture of the pud with a Tawny port trifle, sherry not being available at the moment in Almaty.

As for the turkey, our main dish of the festive period, we ordered a fresh one from the Turkey lady at Zelony Bazaar. On Christmas Eve, four-ish kilos of large bird arrived in a plastic bag looking like it had been clubbed to death, such was the concavity of its chest space. I made a pork, apple and pistachio stuffing for this, and once this had been inserted, it began to resemble an overbred, Katie Price-breasted bird, as we would expect at home. Sage and onion up the bum, a few packs of bacon and it was all looking quite promising on the bird front. I wasn't sure how it would taste - maybe a bit stringy? But it was a fab turkey, delicious, tasty and tender.

And finally, because I had been worried that the Turkey might be a, well, turkey, I ordered a smoked ham just to make up the meat section of our lunch. They could not guarantee the size when I ordered it, so I explained it was for five adults and six children. And also on Christmas Eve, a 5kg (that is nearly 11lbs!) ham arrived from the butchers shop. Covered it in mustard and honey breadcrumbs a la Barbara, and baked that down the road at my friend's house. Actually, it was the most delicious thing on the table, but we have a lot left.... 

It has been a delicious and gorgeously-smelling feast of Christmas. Once the ham is gone, we will all live on soup for the rest of the holidays I think. 

I forgot to mention the quantity of chocolate that has made its way into the house: 

3 x Raxat Christmas pudding-shaped round boxes (Raxat is the chocolate factory here)
1 x Happy New Year large gift box of chocolates from Raxat
1 x large gift box of Mint thins
1 x large box of choco truffles
2 x large boxes of Cadbury's celebrations
1 x large tube of Dutch chocolate dragees
1 x multipack of Dutch chocolate dragees in different flavours
3 x Terry's Chocolate oranges (total result - we will hide these from the children and eat ourselves!)
6 bags of chocolate coins from father christmas
3 x Cadbury's celebration novelty champagne bottles full of chocolates
3 x large bars Raxat chocolate - will save for choco mousses later in the year (maybe September, when we feel like eating again!)

How obscene is that?? I am going to hold a chocolate amnesty for the kids who had stashed the stuff in various baskets and boxes all over the house and send some of it to the office for husband to share with his colleagues over New Year, or we will end up looking like Roald Dahl's Augustus Gloop family, suffering from diabetes and sporting blackened stumps for teeth. 


Sunday, 20 December 2009

Oh Christmas Tree, oh christmas tree, how lovely are thy branches tra la la

Last year we moved house on December 11th, mother in law arrived for a month-long stay on December 15th and we went on holiday to the Philippines on December 17th. Our christmas tree was a shambolic plastic affair that I happen to own courtesy of a friend who sold Xmas decorations, and who had lost a section of one of her display trees. Rather than throw it away, she gave it to me to use as I saw fit, and for a couple of years, that stumpy-at-the-bottom, narrow-at-the-top deformed sad tree constituted our festive foliage. But since we will be at home this year, husband and I decided to stump up and get a real one this year.

On the same outing that I purchased some (probably-illegally-cut) logs, I had spotted a place called FssYay Dlyah Sadoo (Everything for the Garden) and I remembered the road. We headed out there last weekend with the express purpose of bringing back a good, big, real, pine-smelling tree.

We selected our tree (not the blue spruce which was coming in at a cool 1000 USD), forked out a not unsubstantial amount of money for it, plus extra for delivery (could not get it in the back of the car with three kids and granny in tow) and followed it home. Here it is, on the back of the van.

And only 6 hours, 800 fairy lights and all our decorations later, here is the finished thing:

We're pretty happy with it! This really kicked off our festive season, and I followed the tree up with the mass production of enough mincemeat to make about 5000 mince pies, multiple visits to Santa (five to date), Christmas concerts at school and the wrapping of half the European wine lake as presents for teachers.

All I have to do now is find a turkey.

Fire! Fire!

On Sunday night, husband and I were woken by a strange popping sound which sounded like it was coming from the garden.

"What's that?" he murmured.
"Sounds like firecrackers. Do you think someone is in the garden?"
"Sounds like rocks being thrown in the river," he said.

Being woken up is nothing special. I honestly cannot remember the last unbroken night's sleep I had, there are such a large number of interruptions possible every night:

1. There are often fireworks here, so we are quite used to being woken up.
2. The constantly expanding pack of wild dogs which still live under our garden wall are now quite unbelievably loud at all times of day and night (I am moving back to murderous thoughts on this subject and think I will tackle this issue in the spring).
3. Our three children seem to be on a permanent cold and flu cycle this winter and consequently one of them wakes up every night. The larger ones wander into our room to be met with a short and firm, "Have a drink of water and go back to your own bed'" from us. The little one simple wails "Mummy, mummy, mummy," incessantly until either she falls asleep again, or one of us goes and gives her a cuddle.
4. New baby is now kicking hard enough to wake me up roughly every 30 minutes through the night!

This popping sound was a new phenomenon though, and when husband got up to go to the loo he suddenly said, "Bloody hell, FIRE!".

The photo is the view from our bed. I am not sure if you can tell from this mobile phone snap, but these flames were rising at least 20 feet into the dark night sky.

It was obviously someone's house on fire, very close to our own. Husband grabbed his jeans and headed off to see if anyone needed any help. He came back 45 minutes later reporting that they had woken the people in the next door house by banging on the windows (they had all still been asleep which is quite amazing considering the noise), and that the police were there. There were also five fire engines which had eventually turned up, but because of the three inches of compacted, sheet ice on the road, only two had been able to get access up the lane. And it had then taken fire agents at least 30 minutes to locate the fire hydrant which is in front of our house (we did not know this - it is disguised as a normal drain cover, completely unlabelled, and is most likely covered in snow for most of the winter - and obviously neither did they!).

It was awful to think of these poor people, their entire house being burnt to a crisp in the middle of winter and only a matter of days before New Year and its celebrations. We still don't know if anyone died in the blaze. The house that burnt down was one of the ramshackle little wooden cottages that still exist among the newer (not necessarily any more fire resistant) houses that have been recently constructed.

Husband came back to bed, snuggled under our lovely duvet and said: "This is why we could never leave the kids alone in Kazakhstan". He is dead right and of course we already knew this. It is a random place Kazakhstan. You never quite know what is going to happen, and how things will be dealt with.

Friends here almost set their huge house on fire with their patio heater recently. It took over an hour for the fire services to arrive, during which time they had melted their roof, blown up their barbecue, destroyed both patio heaters and burnt a significant hole in the floor of their pool house, before seeking refuge a long way from the flames in case of further explosions.

Other developing world fire stories that I remember include seeing a fire engine screaming down the road in Sao Paulo very fast, responding to a call out.  It went shooting through a traffic junction, but didn't take into account the variable camber of the road, and with all the bouncing around, every single roll of coiled hose fell off the roof and they had to stop and pick them all up.

And the most awful of all was in Bangkok where the road next to our nanny's road caught on fire and there was a huge fire that destroyed an entire slum located behind the US embassy in Sathorn district. We later found out that all the American embassy workers who parked their cars in the back streets of this part of Bangkok had been pre-warned that it might not be a good idea to park on the roads next to the slum. And even worse, the blackened limits of the fire were all in straight lines around a large rectangular plot of land. Lo and behold, the area which had previously housed around 5,000 people was soon redeveloped to build a five-star condominium and the poor people from that area set up new homes under canvass in a new plot of land next to a 6-lane road. Evil!