Thursday, 14 October 2010

Kazakh road building

There has been an absolute spate of road building in town lately. You never know if a road will be open or closed from one day to the next. If roads are bring re-surfaced, then it is up to you to find your way round the problem. Fortunately, our awesome driver Baktiyar is pretty resourceful about these run-of-the-mill issues on the roads.

The other day, facing a blocked route onto the main road to school, he looked both ways (you can never break the rules if there are policemen about, but if there are none, then you can go for it), put his foot down, and raced the wrong way up a slip road to get onto Al Farabi Avenue, saving us about 20 minutes of traffic jam in the process. I am not a big fan of going the wrong way down a road, but I can also appreciate that there are times when a bit of lateral thinking can pay huge dividends.

Roads here are pretty good compared to lots of other developing world places, but there are a couple of things to look out for:
  • Half-metre deep storm trenches along the edge of new roads with no protective covers at all. If your car goes in one, it will take a crane to remove it
  • Large holes in roads, which may have been dug to fix a drain or to install a new cable system, will not be marked with a warning sign, but will probably have the branch of a nearby tree sticking up as the only hint of impending hazard. 
There has been a worryingly deep hole in a road near our house for months. It is on an unlit stretch of road which we drive along every day, and each morning, I have half expected to see some poor vodka-soaked unfortunate half in half out of the man-sized trap. Last week, a man hole cover was put on it. This small attention to detail (that after all this time, it had been on someone's to do list) made me feel incredibly hopeful and optimistic!

Here is a picture of our road last winter (shortly before my two companions both fell over on the ice):

Our road has been a very rough track since we arrived, getting worse after each winter and not really having any surfacing at all. However, as part of the recent road building frenzy, our road got done last week. It took just two days.

This is our road last week, we weren't sure if they were laying pipes to the building site, or sorting out our surfacing:

This is the top of our road last week as we set off on a walk:

And this is the lovely new road that we found when we came back from our walk!

Fancy, eh?

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Over-wrought mother of four

So it is happening. My prediction is coming true. Life is simply too hectic at the moment. As I always thought it would be with four kids.

There is no slack. The days are long, noisy and full. I am sure one day I will look back on all this time and wistfully wish the weeks could be so full, so unpredictable and so varied as they are now.

Husband thinks I am going mad, I think I am just blooming knackered. He sees me for 30 minutes in the morning as I try to make myself wake up and before the coffee has had time to work. Then again for about 30 minutes in the evening, when I cook his supper, tidy it up, comment on the various things that I have not had time to do during the day and then need to go to bed.

The blinking baby will not sleep through and it has been 7 months.  Agh!

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Altyn Emel continued, tourists to Kazakhstan be prepared!

Continuing on the theme of the wonderful tourist facilities in the Altyn Emel Park, you can see below photos of the spa and leisure complex at our guest house. Here is the outdoor sauna: 

The sauna being conveniently located adjacent to the plunge pool with well ventilated toilet and shower facilities:

This is our guest house, which, sarcasm aside, was pretty comfortable and clean. Although the woman in charge was a bit of a chancer, when we gently chased her on certain things, she came up with the goods in a fairly well-humoured way. As we finished our evening meal, we laughingly commented that we would probably see the same sweets and biscuits offered to us again for breakfast. And sure enough, not only were we served the same sweets and biscuits, but also the same dried bread, semi-dehydrated apple slices and crumbs on the table as the night before. But when we asked if we could have fresh bread for breakfast, she clocked us for being "kinds particular" and bustled off to replace all the old, stale stuff with fresh. I think if we hadn't asked, though, she would have just saved herself a trip to the market later!

And to compensate for the lack of luxury in our digs, we woke up in the most beautiful spot. one of our mates had brought a kite (turns out, he is an expert kite flyer) and so we wandered out onto the empty steppe in the low rays of the dawn sunshine to see a kite lazily dancing over the desert scrub - utterly peaceful except for the chattering of our excited kids, it was a pretty magical moment.

Dawn light on the steppe.

Here are some photos of the "Singing" sand dune, a 150m high barchan dune which remains in place, apparently, because it is surrounded on four sides by gaps in the neighbouring mountain ranges. Therefore, the winds tend to come fairly evenly from all directions resulting in the dune staying still, rather than migrating in any direction. 

Here is a small yurt tent at the guest house which I think must be reserved for special occasions since the pretty little door was firmly padlocked shut. The guys running the guests house live in the converted railway carriages behind in the trees.

Monday, 27 September 2010

The Ying and the Yang

I have just been to yet another glorious place in the extraordinary country that is Kazakhstan. This place is absolutely amazing in so many ways: one day you may find yourself exploring the stunning country, gazing upon, or hiking through, huge, panoramic unspoilt vistas of untold beauty; another day you will face rotten corruption and attitudes that can make you want to explode with frustration. This weekend's trip to Altyn Emel National Park was a pretty good example of both of these. 

This is a photo of the main attraction that we visited during our weekend: The White Mountains, piles of gypsum and other rocks (note to self, must buy encyclopedia of geology so can stop referring to mountains as lumpy or pointy, and small rocks by their colour alone!). You are hard-pressed to find a more geologically-dramatic landscape. To add to the drama, the mountains are approached by a track across 50 kilometres of a desert plain, ringed by slightly less spectacular hills, until you start to drive straight towards this huge range of noticeably white mounds of rock. But they are not just white! There are also very red rocks, and very black ones too (stop me if I am sounding too technical here ha ha ha).

This picture below was a fairly typical  back drop to the weekend.

I am sure you will agree that the natural wonders were pretty spectacular. However, with the Ying comes the Yang. To get to this spot takes some considerable effort and time, and being natural phenomena ourselves, the call of nature is also a factor. And if Ying here is the great scenery, then the Yangy bit of this trip relates to the tourist facilities. We are all used to them, but for faint-hearted Westerners straight off the plane or train, they might be a bit too much to handle!

This is the outside loo at the first attraction we went to see, a large barchan sand dune in another area of the park, of which I will post photos in another post. It doesn't look much, but in fact, it is a lot better than many of the loos I have visited in Central Asia. Crucially, it is well-aerated (this is VERY important), there were no errant-flight, dried poos in sight, and the hole in which to do your business is not so terrifyingly large that you fear for your life if you put a foot wrong (as you can see from the second photo here).

But disappointingly, the park rangers had forgotten to replace the loo roll on the day we were there! Goodness me, how sloppy! ha ha ha

Thursday, 23 September 2010

How to leave your two-year old on her own in the wrong school for four hours

The title of this post might make you raise an eyebrow, but I am ashamed to admit that I can now provide a detailed description of just how such a mistake can be made.

On Tuesday and Wednesday this week, the school of the two elder children was unexpectedly closed because the Medeu district water authority needed to connect the Olympic Ski Jump to the water mains. The Olympic Ski Jump is about 400 metres away from the school buildings. All the mothers of course panicked at the thought. We have all just been settling into our term-time routines after a stretching summer holiday and the thought of having them all back again mid-week when we have barely had time to let the cracks in our fingers heal from all the food preparation and tidying up of the summer holidays was hard to bear!

Tuesday was satisfactorily filled with play dates and two friends stayed over on dreaded "sleepover nights". On Wednesday morning, however, things started badly as husband had to take the car to the Kyrgyz border for a day of meetings in Bishkek which meant leaving at 5am and using the car all day long.

I had called my friend Wise Old Owl the night before, and arranged for her to give our two-year-old a lift to her new Russian-speaking play school in the morning which she has been attending for four days so far. Wise Old Owl took a drag on her fag and said, "Sure, no problem, but you might want to give me a call in the morning to remind me that I am picking you up because I am going to Salsa dance class tonight and I might be a bit tired in the morning."

With six children to feed for breakfast and pancakes and eggs being demanded, I was running late by 7.45am, which is a rather depressing thought any way you look at it! By 8.30am, when we were due to be picked up, I was still in my pyjamas and had just decided to listen to a bit of the previous day's Today programme to catch up on the news. I texted Wise Old Owl. Running Late. Don't need lift. Will get taxi later. 

Then Gulya the super nanny arrived. I managed to get a few more of the rabble into clothes and then asked her if she would mind walking the two-year-old down to the play school, leaving the pushchair there and getting a taxi back. I was going to meet a friend with the remaining older children, and together walk down the river to a playground which is conveniently located near the play school. I would then go and get the two-year-old and wheel her back in her push chair to the playground at 1 o'clock when she would be finished.

No problem.

Gulya went with the two-year-old and came back without her and without the pushchair. It fleetingly crossed my mind that she had been quite quick, but there were other things to do. Then we all had a very lovely, smooth morning with the sleep over friends working their magic and everyone having a lovely morning play in the garden. At around 11am another friend came to join the posse of our eldest daughter. And at noon, as planned, we set off to meet mates by the river and walk down to the cafe and playground for lunch while the baby stayed with the nanny at home.

All I then had to do was leave the five older children with my mate in the cafe, dash off to the playschool, get the two-year-old and dash back to the cafe where they would just be finishing their buffet lunch, and we would all go to the playground.

I got to the the play school at 1.10pm, frankly-speaking feeling pretty chuffed with myself that I was keeping it together with all these children to look after and everyone was having a ball.
"Oh, why didn't you come today?" the teacher asked me (in russian).
"Well," I explained, "My husband is down in his Bishkek office today so he took the car really early this morning which is why our nanny brought Connie in her pushchair. By the way, where is the pushchair? I can't find it out here,"
"I don't know," she said and we all went out to look for the missing pushchair, including opening the outside toilet block in case it had been put in there to keep it out of the rain, she said. I started to detect that something was wrong at this point, since the sun had been bursting out of the sky all morning and there hadn't been a cloud in the sky. I called Gulya to ask her where she had left the pushchair and she told us she had just left it outside the door. But there was no sign.

By this point, I was finding it quite weird that I hadn't seen the two-year-old who normally comes bouncing out of the school in a state of high excitement to be collected at the end of her session. Maybe she is settling in so well that she has just lain down and gone to sleep with the other guys in the class, I thought.
"Where's two-year-old? Is she sleeping?" I asked, innocently.
"No, she hasn't been here all day, that is what I said," said the teacher, looking at me.
"What????" I squeaked.
Rapidly dialling my mobile phone again, I re-called Gulya.
"Gulya, where is two-year-old?" I asked.
"She is at Playschool, the one on Al Farabi," she said.
"Well, I am standing at Playschool in Kompot where Two-Year-Old comes to school," I said.
"Oh no!!!!!" said Gulya (probably pooing her pants!), "I'll just go straight along and get her then. Assel (her daughter) is here. She can look after the baby."

I dashed back to the cafe where great mate was holding the fort with the other five kids, and told her what had happened while waiting for Gulya to call and tell me two-year-old had been safely retrieved. Great mate helped calm my nerves and watched as I ate about 5 slices of pizza in a state of nervous tension - doh! I hate stress eating! Then Gulya called to report that the Pigeon was in the Coop, so to speak, and she jumped in a taxi and brought her down to me.

The two-year-old was fine... happy to see me and to join her sisters and the considerably number of friends who had gathered to play together. Clearly, another day of not really knowing her way around, or who anyone is, had not made much difference to her.

"Did you go to a different place with Gulya this morning?" I asked her.
"Yes Mummy, I did go to a different place today. I think it was a shop." She told me, before racing off to join in the games.

The two playschools are run by the same person and our two-year-old happens to be registered at both buldings after I tried to do a couple of hours day care two years ago when we first arrived. So when Gulya had appeared in the morning with the little one, they had asked her if she was attending this playschool, and the nanny had said that she had just started and was attending half days from now on. They checked the paperwork and sure enough, her name was in the system. The staff thought that the owner had forgotten to tell them that there was a new little one coming back on a more permanent basis. The two-year-old had told the nanny that she didn't want to stay, but since she does that most mornings, this had largely done un-noticed and there she stayed. ha ha ha. She played, had lunch, and, according to the ladies who worked there, had a great time and is more than welcome to go back at any time.

Bit of a brain storm on the part of the super nanny, who had clearly only been half paying attention to where the child is going. But a huge relief that the two-year-old had not been really upset all morning.

However, we will have to wait and see how she feels when she is taken back to the original playschool tomorrow morning.

The Law of Three

The Law of Three (three things not working or broken in my house at any one time) is back with a vengeance. Even worse, the Unreliable and Incompetent Workmen Equilibrium (UaIWE) has kicked in as well. And as any seasoned housewife will know, when the Law of Three and the UaIWE are added together in an equation, multiplied by the number of children you have and then divided by the number of working days per week your husband is completely absent from home, the answer is:
Even more broken things!

The Unreliable and Incompetent Workmen turned up today (as usual, in totally unannounced fashion and at a time which was not convenient to me) to fix a few things that have been happening around the place, namely, two light switches not working so you have to climb up the stairs from the garage in the dark, water coming through the ceiling of the downstairs loo and lately the top right corner of the kitchen roof and tap in loo spraying water all over the floor (quite dangerous when you have a recently potty-trained two-year-old washing her hands like an obsessive compulsive nutter).

They came, and they fixed. Then they left. They fixed one light, but broke another and have to come back another day with a new switch. The tap now works, but the ceiling is still covered in mould and water coming down the walls. And on leaving, they appear to have broken our automatic gate opening device, so I will have to invite them back again.


Another rant about Telly

One of the most boring of all expat conversations at dinner parties is about which fecking cable TV company you use. This conversation follows the exact same pattern week-in/week-out. The smug techy person sitting at the table will have bought some massively expensive satellite system and imported it into the country in a way that mere mortals without connections could never possibly manage. The mac geek has started using his Apple TV to download anything and everything so he doesn't need to pay for TV "in-country" at all. The spoilt, over-paid executive working for a large corporation (usually oil, tobacco or booze) doesn't know what they have and have never bothered to ask because they have every channel in the world plus a NASA link to Martian TV and it all comes included in their "hardship package". And we have sat there for years and years listening to this conversation with a television that is not connected to the outside world at all, watching the same old collection of videos and DVDs over and over and over again!

So when the world cup came round and husband decided now was the time to buy a 42 inch plasma flat screen jobbie, we had to get it linked in to some kind of system. It took several days, a small bribe and various consultations with Alma TV to get connected, but we are now the proud possessors of two TV boxes (one in the living room and one in the guest room for when my dad comes to stay and has a nervous attack at the thought of no news for two weeks), a television table purchased from some friends who moved to Kuala Lumpur and an amazing choice of 93 channels.

And of the 93 channels we watch BBC World and CNN International. And most of the time, they get stuck in digital processing mode and don't work. But tonight, as Obama is regaling the UN with ideas to solve the Israeli Palestinian crisis on LIVE TV, both channels are showing that, and ALL the other channels have stopped working.

I rarely watch telly anyway, having rather got out of the habit with our numerous non-connected years in weird places. But on the one night that I want to see what's going on (husband has a business trip to Tajikistan and my contact with a journalist husband has relayed that things are really kicking off there in a nasty Al-Quaeda-type way) I cannot watch it on my two news channels of even attempt to understand it on the local news where the unrest will doubtless be covered.


Monday, 13 September 2010

My favourite shots of Kaz recently

No new places here, but still these easily-accessible parts of Kazakhstan are so stunningly beautiful that every time I go I suffer an almost religious sense of well-being. Practically deserted as well, which is lovely, not so much for the country which could be doing so well out of planned and managed wilderness tourism, but for us. Charyn Canyon was just us - I saw three other people leaving the car park as we settled in for lunch and a walk. The Kazakh Aul walk by Medeu ice rink - we passed one mushroom-collecting babushka and two Korean grannies out for a stroll. And some horses! It is just amazing.

Back from the abyss

Wow. June 23rd last post! That is a manic summer holiday with four children to look after for you. A brief summary of the summer follows. Of course, I have completely forgotten all my insight moments that I wished to record for my memory having not written anything down for ages. I have lost the hilarious sequences of events that happen almost daily with children of these ages and I am annoyed with myself for that. So I will try not to leave things for this long again and at least jot down the odd bit here and there.

Since 23.06, we have had a brilliant time. Flown to England. Taken the train with four kids and all our luggage from Dorset to Waterloo without losing a single bag. Done five days tourism in London then caught the Caledonian Sleeper to Inverness. Driven down Loch Ness, stopped for a wonderful piper and to throw raw potatoes into the loch (if you wonder why, watch the film "the Waterhorse" - our kids are convinced raw spuds are Nessie's fave snack), snaked through the glorious Perthshire countryside to the end of Loch Tay and stayed at the gorgeous Fortingall Hotel. Done a week of family and friends in Ayr including the Prestwick all-male golf club's annual cocktail party for which memorable event, birds are allowed in. Said goodbye to husband as he flew back to Kaz.

Said good bye to two of my kids and Mother-in-law with an experimental Leave-the-kids-with-Grannie week. Flown back to England with the two littlies, had a week of Dorset sunshine and beach (hard to beat in the UK, even if Christchurch's marketing strap line is "Christchurch - where time is pleasant" or as I prefer it, "Christchurch - where you come to die" to which my mother replied, "Well...."! ha ha). Welcomed back older kids and then said goodbye again as I jetted off to Moscow for a romantic weekend with hubby (and only one baby) in the Ritz there while over-worked Granny and Grandpa held the fort with the older three.

Great things in the UK: Pink! live in concert in Hyde Park with two older kids - great show, the Custard Cruiser (our ancient VW camper) - started EVERY time this summer - thanks to Dad for sorting out the points while we were away, fresh fish to eat, Southampton Airport, the Solent, my parents.

Come back to Kaz for a month of sunshine, paddling pools, garden time, bought a new sofa and turned our living room "grown up", had my sister to stay. And finally, last week, sent the larger kids back to school. Number 3 is going to start a Russian-speaking playgroup for mornings and I am going to enjoy having a bit of space and time and try to play a round of golf before the snow hits the course and it shuts for winter, sort out the large and now-unavoidable piles of paperwork that litter the house, do my photo albums (yeah, right) and lose two stone.

Great things in Kazakhstan: having tons of space in our nice house, great big garden bulging with fresh tomatoes, corn, peppers, aubergines, apples, plums, pears, basil, rocket, mint...... the gift trampoline from the Gilfillans (but still sorry they have left town), as much as I love Custard, being able to steer our car here with one finger is a pleasant and comfortable change, Baktiyar the driver - for coming back to work after your nasty intestinal bleeding spell in hospital and being OK - we were worried for a while there.

Autumn mornings have arrived, crisp and clear and thanks to last night's heavy snow fall up top, the outstandingly beautiful mountains that form the back drop to life here are once again snow-topped and magnificent. On a clear morning, driving the kids to school at 7.30am with the hills sparkling above us, it is hard not to feel good.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Birthday time and sleep deprivation

Our second daughter was seven yesterday. We had a party for her at home on Sunday and she got presents and a little bit of special attention yesterday and has since declared it the best birthday ever, and us the best parents anyone could ever imagine (she got a DS game boy machine thing, which she was not expecting at all) - children are so easily bought!

In time-honoured fashion, the preparations for our party had been well thought out, but then thwarted by a combination of things which conspired to make us not prepared in time, and the result was, as usual, we were running around like blue-arsed flies on Sunday morning getting ready. First of all, Saturday morning was speech day at school, so we all had to traipse in and listen to the head master and chairman of governors burbling on. None of the kids picked up any silverware or even paper certificates, so we headed out soon afterwards and went for lunch in our favourite Uzbek restaurant in town, Alasha. This is a great restaurant, all done out in Uzbek style and owned by three oligarchs who pretty much own everything in Kazakhstan, with turrets and little private rooms, embroidered dressing gowns to wear when it is chilly and you are sitting outside. They do a brilliant central asian dance show at night which is fantastic for taking visitors to (last night of mother-in-law's visit saw us there, with my husband buying her novelty vodka shots and both of them getting wellied) The food is good too. It was shut in preparation for a banquet. We went and tried out the competition, a restaurant called Samarkand which is also built in the Uzbek-style, and is owned by one of President Nazarbayev's son-in-laws. This place, I have to admit, does a pretty good shashlik as well, and the staff and service were also pretty good. But by the time we had had lunch, we were already running late.

On the way home we had to pick up some plastic tables and chairs from a friend's house. In the heat of the day and a generally rather tired mood, it took us an unbelievably long time to load these items into the back of our large car. Considering that neither of us had a hangover that day, to anyone watching us try to get these silly tables to fit in, it must have looked as though we had left our brains at home.

Popped home to pick up present for Number 3 daughter (aka the toddler) to take to her best friend's 3rd birthday party (we had forgotten it). At this point, I was supposed to be spending an hour and a half between 'lunch-after-speech-day' and 'going-to-the-party' making salads while toddler daughter had a nap and everyone else chilled out. But we had already used this time with the fecking tables and fannying around finding an open restaurant.

Straight out to the party which was much more fun than we expected and we stayed for longer than we should have done given the vast amount of prep work we still had to do. Thank GOD I had packed the party bags the day I went to the market and bought all the loot. As we drove to the party,  Number 3 daughter, who was the reason we were attending the party in the first place, got a high temperature and passed out in the car. She had to be carried in and be given calpol before falling asleep on a rather cool asian day bed covered in carpets and tapestries from all over the place.

So we got home at 7.30pm and had to get the three kids to bed, baby fed and we hadn't even started decorating the cake (I had baked the cakes at breakfast time, so at least one thing had been done!). Husband went out to buy last minute things, like ice and tooth picks. I settled down to making the cake. Since I had asked her what cake she wanted, rather than planting the seed of an easy idea in her head, she decided that she wanted a model of our house - quite a challenge, but not as bad as last year when she requested a cake of Big Almaty Lake and I found out on the morning of the party that we had no food dye.

11.30pm, cake was finished:

We both fell into bed exhausted, but toddler was ill and woke up every two or three hours crying and needing to be settled. Baby woke to be fed twice.

Party day arrived and we were exhausted. Tidied up the garden:

Put up some bunting:
Worked like nutters to get the place ready for our honoured guests who all turned up at 12.30. They left at 6pm, husband then received a business friend for two hours chatting and drinking tea and we put the kids to bed and tidied up again. Got to bed at 23.30 after wrapping birthday present for Number 2 daughter. The toddler (who had been properly sick all day long, but had soldiered on with the party in sore-throated silence) was only slightly asleep. Woke at 2.45 as a warm slick of sick hit me on the side of the face/hair line/into left ear. Changed bed sheets and settled toddler between us, baby woke up for feed, husband settled toddler. Altogether probably about 4 hours sleep in total.

Monday morning. Woo hoo! Birthday Day. This was a coffee-fuelled survival day. Birthday girl had a blast playing with her new toys. The rest of us staggered around taking down bunting and getting the house back to normal, which takes a while after 20 kids have rampaged around it for 6 hours!

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

A short moan about BBC World

We recently got our telly connected to some channels - it has only taken 22 months since arriving here. What prompted this flurry of technical activity? The World Cup, of course. Not only did husband arrange for some men to come and fit a cable TV connection, he also went out and spent a considerable sum of money on a brand new Sony Bravia flat screen TV to watch. The old tv went to the children's home and we all felt very lucky to have such a smart bit of kit on which to watch things.

There are some great upsides to this. We can now download BBC TV shows (like the current Dr Who series) and play it through our TV rather than on the lap top. For films, the picture and sound are light years better than they ever were on our 10-year old Phillips silver box.

BUT, and it is a big but, we are back to having BBC world as our main English-language news channel. May I just say that this is one of THE WORST channels ever. It only has about three stories running at a time, so you hear the same stuff over and over and over and OVER again. The weather, a pointless filler in my opinion, ignores vast tracts of the world entirely (China, Russia and all of middle earth where I live). They clearly signed a contract with the Indian Tourist Board for life... if I have to listen to another "Incredible India" tune I will slit my wrists (although thank goodness "Malaysia, Truly Asia" and the others are not shown in Central Asia!).

Frankly, I cynically wonder how they can call themselves a global news network when they can't be bothered, or perhaps just can't afford, to cover huge areas of the world where there are, actually, by the way, stories happening all the time. What about the Thailand unrest? The BBC took a massively-supportive stance against the Red Shirts (anti-govt) and in support of the Yellow shirt (pro-govt) supporters. Now that the troubles have slightly simmered down, there is zero coverage. Where are all the journos now? We met a BBC journalist last year after England played Kazakhstan in their World Cup qualifying match. He looked about 12 years old, and was staggering along the road with a bright yellow suitcase full of sound recording equipment that must have weighed almost his bodyweight. He asked some of our group for a few questions, and was then headed for the airport and on to somewhere else.

There is now an unfolding crisis in Kyrgyzstan, our neighbouring country, and where husband has to look after a branch of his organization. There was a revolution on April 7 already and now there seems to be some terrible stuff going on in Osh - people being shot, houses being burnt down, people being raped and other ghastly things. I know that the BBC has to be careful not to be too political, but there is a lot more going on there than is being reported at the moment. Saying that it is ethnic tension rather than quite scary global geopolitical manouverings is clearly not getting to the nub of the problem. Should they not be asking which super powers have interests in this region? What about the US air base in Manas from where they keep their afghan operations going? And do the Russians enjoy the US supporting a war from a spot in their own back yard? I don't think so. But then I am just a  housewife and not an academic expert in matters of international relations, so you should probably not take these comments too seriously.

Agh! I am left to reading news on the internet. Fortunately this seems to be being done by people who have graduated these days, and not just the gap year students doing work experience on the internet news pages like they used to.

On balance, it is much better having TV than not. And BBC World is still better than most of our available channels here. For the football World Cup, there are two channels which are authorized to show games. But because of the government's positive discrimination for all things Kazakh, the channels are forced to do half the commentary in Russian and half in Kazakh. Considering  that hardly anyone here speaks Kazakh to fluency, this seems a most strange thing to insist upon because it must really annoy even some very senior people in the country. And for someone like me, who can only understand a word every now and again in Russian, it makes for a zero-understanding situation.

Anyway, small frustrations really. Get a grip, woman!

Monday, 14 June 2010

Wild flowers in the hills

We went for a walk up in the hills this weekend. It was the first proper walk we have done since the back operation and the baby was born. And in fact, thinking about it, it is possibly the first hike I have done since about October last year which is kind of shocking. But then in November it was all about skiing, and January until now has been a medical write off.  So, anyway, it had been a long time and I can hardly express how happy I was to be back among the hills. This great sense of wellbeing was only enhanced by enjoying it in the company of my lovely family. The older kids were delighted to be going hiking - as soon as they had finished their breakfasts they sped upstairs to get on their kit, filled up their back packs with their jumpers and camelpack water carriers, cameras were given new batteries and before we knew it, they were lounging about waiting for us on the sofa - how often does that happen? We were moving quite slowly after trying valiantly to stay up until 3am to watch England play in the world cup. Net result of this effort was me asleep on the sofa with a sore neck and husband unconscious upstairs in the wrong bed having broken his six-week beer break with four beers that resulted in him feeling rancid for the duration of the hike. So we were both moving quite slowly to get out the door, and were in fact pretty happy with ourselves for leaving at 10.08 instead of the previously planned 8.30am.

One of the most amazing things about the mountains is not just their awe inspiring large-and-rocky-ness, but the tiny details that you notice when you are walking on them. These details are things that you never see if you are bumping over them in a 4WD truck. It is only when you are plodding along, looking at your feet because the going is tricky, that you see a lot of the floral treasures that abound here, such as the purple flower above.

I am not a botanist, and I have not yet found my wild flower book in Russian which I purchased at the last hiking pot luck lunch, so I cannot identify any of them yet. If truth be told, I will most likely not look them up until asked to do so!

Check out this one on the right! It looks like a "Space Cow Pat", then you think it might be a lichen, and in fact, it is quite fleshy, like a kind of non-prickly cactussy thing - weird. There are lots of them.

If I was a plant up there, I would probably adopt the 'space cow pat' look myself - stay low, get out of the wind, hunker down and just survive, but try to look a bit funky. It is blimming parky up there even now in late June. We left town and it was a comfortable 27 degrees outside. By the time we parked, the temperature had dropped, according to our in-car thermometer, to just 12 degrees. And with wind chill and more cloud, it can only have been about 8 or 9 degrees, much lower at night.

In one walk, we saw purple, red, yellow, white, black, pale blue (the only ones I knew the name of I think, possibly forget-me-nots but couldn't tell you their real name), orange, pink, violet and creamy-coloured flowers in absolute abundance. We heard an eagle or a kite calling in the wind, and we marvelled at the misty mountain sides and huge piles of dirty snow that had still not melted. We walked as far as the 3100 m marker, had a picnic and then turned back to the car. It was a brilliant day. The toddler walked all the way up with a little encouragement, the baby behaved herself and the other kids (we had a friend of the oldest in tow) all mooched along very happily, chatting and making up great chants to keep themselves going:

Left! Left! I have no clean pants left!
Right! Right! My pants are rather tight!

Here are some more non-botanist flower photos.



And here are some more photos from that walk: 
First one, driving down the road again. Behind the row of pine trees is Chimbulak ski resort

Up near the dam (to prevent mud slides and avalanches picking up speed and hitting the city, apparently) some satisfyingly soviet graffiti - but very new...

The classic advert for a mountain car rescue service is the next one. If your 4WD has a puncture and you don't know how to fix it, do not fear, for a convertible full of scantily-clad prostitutes will come and change the tyre for you. Not, as you may expect, a stubbly-faced, cigarette-smoking, grumpy bastard who will take hours to arrive and charge you hundreds of dollars for the privilege!

Monday, 7 June 2010

Mother of four goes bonkers

It has been pointed out to me that I am not longer a travelling mother-of-three, but one of four, so I have amended my Big Beluga title strapline accordingly. I am still not completely remembering all the time that this is the case - when will this sink in, I wonder!

The other day, I was lying on the bed with the baby and toddler. The older two were crashing around downstairs making up a (yawn yawn) show. Our energetic toddler dashed off to do something important (dangle dolly over the stairs tied at the neck with a pair of ballet tights, or something like that) and I decided I would head down and make myself a nice milky coffee. So I gathered up the baby and rolled to upright, catching sight just behind me as I rolled of the baby on the bed, about to be completely squashed by my huge weight.

My brain did a double take and a sequence of thoughts ran through my head:  How can the baby be on the bed? I thought I had picked her up. In fact I am sure I did pick her up, since I am definitely holding a baby in my hands. Yes, I can feel that I am holding a baby in my hands. So where did that baby on the bed come from? If it is my baby, how could I have been so stupid to be about to roll on her, when I was sure that I had picked her up.  Where did it come from and whose is it?

Oh, phew, it is just another dolly.

Do you think I need to get away from all these kids (and dolls) for a few hours? ha ha ha

Here is a quiz picture: Baby or Dolly?

Jolly thief man

I don't know if you do Facebook and any of its time-passing games? Some of my friends are more than addicted to Farmville, a virtual farm where you can plant, harvest and profit from your efforts on a small holding. In my garden, I have real life farmville (minus the lonely lambs, pigs and horses that are prone to wandering into Farmville smallholdings) - gardening here is like gardening in the Garden of Eden. Everything grows! You merely have to look at a seed and mutter the word "soil" under your breath and the seeds will germinate almost over night and then grow into large, healthy plants in a few days.

I recently decided that the time had come to start growing something in our swimming pool (the previous tenants had the pool, which is the central feature of our garden, filled with soil to remove a water hazard for their small child - quite why the landlady let them do that rather than install a fence is beyond me). Since the "pool" is what you see when you look out of the window, it has to be looked after. Last year, we had plentiful crops of numerous vegetables. This year, I considered turfing it and installing a pagoda or tent with a swing in it, but since seedlings and hard labour are cheaper, we have gone for the vegetable option again. And actually, we don't need a swing, but having fresh produce for tea for several weeks of the year is fantastic.

Here is a picture of it from upstairs, with my seedlings safely planted.

So toddler and I headed off the Zelony bazaar once the back breaking work of clearing the weeds had been completed. I must admit that this year the weeds have been much easier to keep under control, partly because so many roots were removed last year, but also because our super nanny did an amazing job of tidying up the garden while we were all busy in the UK being sick and having babies etc.

At the green market you can buy seedlings ten for 100 tenge (= 70 US cents approx). We chatted to the charming seedling sellers and came home with aubergine, tomato, red pepper and cucumber seedlings to plant.

Then, since we were still at the market, I decided to go and stock up on a few items we needed including fruit. Toddler and I walked around eyeing the produce. I was having a pretty good Russian day, the words were flowing, the chats were good, I was learning new phrases and coming up with some half decent chat (I thought!). We identified the nicest looking pineapples on a stall and I started to buy the things we needed. Four kilos of oranges, two pineapples, eight bananas. All the while, I am keeping an eye on the the toddler who is playing around at my feet.

Half way through the transaction, a Tajik beggar lady came up with her babe in arms, asking for money which often happens at the market. I bought her and her kids 4 bananas and she wandered off. And all the while, I was bantering with the stall holder. "Don't you go giving me black bananas," I joked at him. "Oh perish the thought," he said in jocular fashion. "Can I just see the pineapple there?" I asked him and he let me inspect it.

Quickly everything was together in a bag and he totted it up. The total was much higher than I expected, so I said, "No, that can't be right, let's add it up again,". He got his calculator out and lo and behold, he had cleverly charged me exactly 2000 tenge more than he should have.
"Yes, 3800 tenge, that's what I said," he said, quick as a flash.
"No, you clearly told me 5800 tenge," I said, through narrowed eyes.

I weighed up the situation. The guy was clearly trying to rob me, but it was bloody hot and I was quite ready to go back to the car with my heavy bag of stuff and the toddler. I could just tell him to stuff his sale, walk away and go and buy it from somewhere else, but really I couldn't be arsed, and I had already made it perfectly clear that I knew his game and had more or less made sure my produce was decent. So in the end, I gave him a long stare, I paid him and we headed off.

Getting home, I found that the tosser had sent me off with practically liquid bananas, two rotten pineapples and some half decent oranges which we were able to use for juice.

My nanny asked me in despair, "Why do you buy your stuff at the Green Market? You know that they sell you all the crap and over-charge you. It is like throwing your money in the bin,".
"I know," I sighed. "But, you know, I do live here, and I think I should be able to buy things at the market and for them to be alright. It is not as if I am some stupid tourist, and I can speak a bit of Russian now. I told him not to give me black bananas!"
She shook her head.
"And," I continued, "What a stupid man he was. I told him I didn't want rubbish fruit and he has sold me a load of crap. So I won't be going there again. If he had sold me good stuff I would have bought from him again. How dum is that? I have four children and our grocery purchases add up to probably tons of produce each month!"

She looked at me, also thinking 'How dum are you?' and said, slowly, to make sure that I fully understood what she was saying, "But Big Beluga, if the man was smart, he would not be selling pineapples in Zelony Bazaar, now would he?"

Here is a picture of the jolly thief man on the fruit stall. May his pineapples go bad, and may his apricots give him diarrhoea!

Saturday, 5 June 2010


Well, after a wait of a few days, during which I must admit I have slightly sweated, I got a message back from one of the girls who had been concerned about my blog posting, and it seems I am in the clear. She agreed with me that my original post had been nothing more than a call to action for people to support the AIWC, and a general comment on the apathetic approach of our small foreign group to fill the gaps in the committee of the Almaty International Women's Group.

It has surprised me how strongly I was worried about the negative reaction to my (self-published) opinions (see my previous post) - and it has really made me think about whether or not to even continue blogging. I definitely did not want to piss these people off. I also wondered why I should leave myself open to criticism  when I could just keep my opinions to myself and be a quiet little lamb. But that is not really my nature, and I think I will keep blogging for the time being, since I find it such a cathartic exercise, and since I only started blogging in order to keep a record of my odd life, I don't want to get knocked off course by one wobble. Having a blog to add to is the first time ever that I have kept a diary for more than a month. And I have never been one for secret diaries. I am a pretty open person, and find that having things out in the open is usually the best way.

But I do remain slightly perturbed. I don't quite get how things work here. There seem to be some overly influential girls in this small group - people who genuinely try to influence opinion for or against certain individuals. If you are in the "against" bracket, I think that they can make life quite difficult. And, added to this, there seems to be a misguided belief among some of the Almaty ladies that everyone actually cares about this supposed "hierarchy". Even worse, with a kind of top dog set up, there is a sort of competitive housewife-ing going on here! Where some women are actually genuinely concerned about who has invited who to which dinner party and who has had lunch with who in a week. Absolutely bonkers, I hope you will agree.  In the grand scheme of things, it is utterly pathetic, and it may just be that I have been a new girl for too many years and paranoia has now irredeemably set in! It may also be that some people should remember that life is short, and there are more important things to worry about.

For now, though, I will go to bed and get some sleep.


Seems like my blogging is going to get me into trouble. I recently wrote a pretty strong piece about people behaving badly in Almaty, since I had been to about three social events in a row where I had come home at the end of the night feeling slightly depressed at the attitudes of a few people who would rather criticise others and spread rumours, than big things up in the name of a happy life abroad.

One of the main threads of my argument was based around the recent troubles of the Almaty International Women's Group. This organisation, which is central to the lives of many who live here, certainly when they first arrive, has had problems with presidents moving on more quickly than they expected, and has been begging its members to step up and fill the several positions on the committee that it needs (any large organisation has to have a full committee and cannot function properly without one, since there is too much work that needs to be done properly. If a position remains vacant for too long, then the detail in that role gets lost and nothing happens except the absolute basics, and eventually this can cause things to grind to a halt).

Quite a few of the positions on the AIWC board have been empty for months now, and this is bad for the image of the group - people wonder why these positions remain empty for so long and may assume that it is not a happy committee to join, and it makes the organisation look less healthy. I know many oif the ladies on the AIWC board, and so I am sure that this would not be the case. So why then, do these positions remain empty for so long when there are plenty of people around to fill them? What it says about the people living here is perhaps that they are so independent that they do not feel they need an organisation like the AIWC. Or perhaps they feel that the group doesn't offer them enough for their own personal situations. Or maybe they just can't be bothered to help out, and are waiting for others to step up to the mark. Maybe there is simply not the depth of people here to support a group of this size (I think the membership varies from about 200-350) - I don't know. My mother runs a 100-strong patchwork group in Dorset, and she finds exactly the same thing happens there too! Seems to be something to do with groups of women in general!!

My post was really a rant about the lack of drive and enthusiasm from within the expatriate community for keeping this organisation going. I want it to be better supported.

I do have some opinions about these groups that others will not agree with. My personal opinion is that Women's Clubs world wide are lacking in some ways: they tend not to really adapt to the changing demographics and needs of expatriate workers which nowadays tend to include many younger secondees and many more male trailing spouses. As a member of Seoul International Women's Club, I was really disappointed when a general vote to include men in the club failed to pass the motion. But even with their shortcomings, and slow reactions to changing demographics,  I do recognise that these clubs form a vital life line for many hundreds of people who live away from home and it saddens me to see one in relatively bad shape.

Normally I would be volunteering myself for a position to help out - previously I have edited a magazine for one group in Seoul, been on the fundraising committee of another group and regularly contributed to a magazine in Bangkok. I have helped out with fund-raising bazaars, run play groups, organised dances and balls and generally been pretty active in getting things going for the expatriate community in all of the places that I have lived. In Kaz, my husband and I organise a Charity Burns Supper once a year (we started this because no one had done it the year before we arrived), but apart from that, I have been pregnant for 11 months, had a miscarriage and a fourth baby, with a husband whose working day averages about 14 hours and I simply do not have the time available to become a committed member of the organising group at the moment.

Well, it seems my rant was too strong for some and I am now under scrutiny from some key members of the community, one of whom read my blog after coming across it on the internet and forwarded it to other friends with the line "With friends like these, who needs enemies"! Oh dear. I have sent a defensive, explanatory email back to these ladies which I hope will do the job, and have removed my post lest any other readers feel that my original message was not on the course.

Time will only tell if I have managed to salvage things, or maybe I will be blacklisted for ever! Yikes...

(If you are interested to read the original rant, send me a comment and I will post it back to you. If you have enough nonsense in your life already, don't bother ha ha ha)

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Browsing Baraholka

After living in Thailand and Korea for 5 years, I found coming to middle earth a very disappointing experience for shopping. Although I had a wonderful time last year when I was in London for a whole week without any children or husband and was able to spend 5 days on Oxford Street, stocking up on everything that we needed and buying myself some threads for the pregnancy, this is not normally something that would fill my heart with glee. Although there is an amazing choice in the UK, and shops are stunningly beautiful, they are also horrendously good at hoovering money from your wallet. I find myself shocked at the prices of things: necklaces retailing for GBP18 in London which you could buy in India for 50 US cents.

Call me a total pikey, but I would rather root around in a market and find what I need without the bag or the "experience" and spend a fifth of the rrp. From time to time, going to a posh shop to buy a lovely few things and traipsing home with lovely bags is great, but fortunately for my husband and our bank balance, this is not my preference. And while I live in such out of the way places, I am pretty much determined to make the most of the markets.

Living in Hong Kong, then Bangkok and then Seoul, I became a massive fan of Asian markets and was forever popping off to Chatuchak weekend market in Bangkok, nipping up to China Town on the river ferry, wrapping up warmly and whizzing round to Namdaemun in Seoul for various bits and bobs. In all these cities, you can visit the amazing department stores that will stock everything you could ever need and millions of itemsyou will never "need" but might one day buy! But it is only by going to the Asian markets that you get to hunt out excellent bits and bobs and see some amazing faces, practice your language skills and usually spend much less.

Sometimes, you find some real treasures that have leaked into the markets from factories which are producing for the West. In Thailand, I found Le Creuset table ware for pennies – I bought hundreds of pounds worth of Le Creuset which had found its way out the back of the factory in Thailand and was being sold for a few baht at Chatuchak. In Seoul, at Dongdaemun market, I stocked up on Mark Jacobs scarves and hats in wool/silk mix for a few dollars.

Coming to Kazakhstan, being very close to China and on the ancient trading route of the Silk Road, I thought that I would be in Bazaar central. The first time I went to Baraholka, the large out-of-town bazaar that lies to the North of Almaty, I was interested to see that people were selling things out of shipping containers. The market is basically a ramshackle collection of hundreds of shipping containers piled up along a road in big fields. It is not a looker and was quite charmless, I thought!

On closer inspection, the market, which stretches along side a road heading out of the town, is organized into vague sections, each named with promising titles, 'Europe' being one (although, don’t be fooled, there is nothing European-made in here). There are a couple of places selling mainly carpets, a large sections selling kitchen and glass ware, other sections offer tools, everything for a car, fishing rods, ropes and other attachments, plastic buckets in any size and other household useful items.

People are pretty friendly and occasionally you will find something you really need there, you just need to look. I have recently started going more often because the shops in Almaty are so haphazard in their stocking and supplies, and have an infuriating habit of displaying items which are their last in stock and then refusing to sell them to you. At least in Baraholka they would sell you their grannie if she was sitting there and had her hearing aid out.

Yesterday I took a friend to buy an umbrella shade for her balcony. It was a rainy day and Baraholka was very wet. Ancient green army trucks lurched through puddles at angles that make the obvious welding on their body work look as if it will rip apart at any second. Huge Volvo trucks with 40’ containers clipped on the back slowly lumbered through impossibly small lanes behind the market, their corners pushing against the apple trees that sprout over the top of the neighbouring cottage gardens.

Our driver Baktiyar really hates going to Baraholka. Clearly he has to go there a lot to buy anything for his home and family, and compared to the convenience of going to a European high street or shopping mall, this place is way down the list. The traffic to get along the market strip is horrendous because so many people are parking, reversing into the road, blocking the traffic, or crossing the road with huge bundles of cotton, or plastic, or clothes or fruit and veg. While in most places I have lived, the parking at markets is organized to an extraordinary degree, with guys in self-made parking jackets guiding you into tiny spaces for your car and taking their two dollars, at Baraholka the parking guys just take the two dollars but don’t actually organize it very well.

Baraholka is a great place to practice my Russian language and even though the vocabulary can be limited to shopping terms, when picking your way through a market with a baby in a baby carrier, there are always conversations that stray from the usual chat. And as usual, with each visit you find a new place selling something that youhave nto seen there before. Either there is new stock in, or you just happen to notice things that you have not seen before, or you wander down a new alley that you have not previously explored. I love the randomness of markets, and find I have a reasonable memory for where things are so that I can go back to them – my mind picks out odd landmarks – a coil of rope here, a scary-looking Chinese doll there, a corner where a legless beggar usually sits -  and I can usually get back to where I wanted to go. Yesterday, I found a Chinese super market which also sells industrial cooking equipment which is perfect as a new source of rice noodles and bulk-buy chopsticks!