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.