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Wednesday, December 31, 2014


Aside from relaxing and having fun, one of our goals on this trip home was to take care of various medical and dental appointments.  I suspect we are not the only people who work abroad who do this.  An interesting aspect of our situation, though, is the lack of an obvious home base.  We have never owned a home, and we have no plans to return to the last place we lived (and had medical care) in the US.  We decided to use my home town, where we are spending the majority of our break, as a home base to take care of these sorts of things.

My parents were able to give us recommendations for doctors and dentists, and my mom helped me make appointments.  So far, so good.  The funny part was actually going to these appointments.  As anyone who has been to any sort of medical or dental appointment in the US knows, there is always a lot of paperwork to fill out.  One thing they always want is the patient's address.  So, I spent a number of paperwork-completing sessions feeling vaguely like a liar as I supplied my parents' address, a place where I have not actually lived for many years.  Giving our Kazakhstan address is likely to (a) ruin the day of whomever has to enter the information into the computer, and (b) lead us to have to explain multiple times why we live there.

Of course, after having written my parents' (US-based) address on one of the forms, the next question asked for the name and address of my employer.  Knowing how discordant this would appear, I gave the name of my Kazakhstan-based employer, and hoped to not have to give a lengthy explanation of our circumstances.

The same thing happened with our phone number, of course.  Giving our Kazakhstan mobile numbers seemed counterproductive, at best.  We have no US mobile numbers, so we gave my parents' home number.  Again, I felt like an impostor.

It's not too hard to remember the address of the house I grew up in and the phone number my parents have always had.  The most challenging question for an impostor like me was the pharmacy I would use for any prescriptions.  It took some effort on my part to remember that the pharmacy closest to my parents' house is no longer the Eckerd Drugs where I worked for several summers, but a Rite Aid.  I don't remember what year it became a Rite Aid, but I know it wasn't really all that recent.  Missing that question almost certainly would have uncovered my dishonest ways...

Monday, December 22, 2014

Hanging Out With The Fancy People

I'm happy to report that we made it home for the holidays!  After our last trip to the US, I decided that if we could successfully leave Kazakhstan, I would try not to complain about anything else that happened.  Amazingly, the trip went pretty well.

We flew through Abu Dhabi this time, and one thing that did happen is that our flight from Abu Dhabi to New York was delayed several hours.  This was somewhat of a problem since we had a connecting flight to catch in JFK.  By the time we discovered this, it was the middle of the night in Abu Dhabi and we had already make the rather long hike to our gate's general area.  So, we had to hike back where we came from and talk to the transfer desk.  To my pleasant surprise, someone had already booked us on a new flight out of New York.  An even greater surprise was that the person who was helping us actually felt sorry for us and wanted to make our stay in the Abu Dhabi airport more comfortable.  First, he called the airport hotel to see if we could crash there.  For some reason we couldn't--I think there was a minimum number of hours you needed to be stuck in the airport before getting a free hotel stay.  So, he called one of the lounges next.  They were willing to take us, but we had to wait until 1:30 AM.  We were very tired at this point, but also very curious about the lounge.

We did go at 1:30, and amazingly, they let us in.  I wanted to take pictures, in order to document this momentous occasion, but decided that obvious wealthy people tourism was the sort of thing that might get me thrown out, and once I went into the lounge, I didn't want to leave.  The lounge probably wouldn't have seemed that great anywhere except an airport, but most areas of airports are so uncomfortable.  There were couches in the lounge, which, sadly, other travelers had already claimed.  There was a free buffet, as well.  I usually try to avoid eating in the middle of the night, but I was hungry, and in no mood to turn down free food.  After sampling a wide range of offerings (some sort of sesame noodle dish, chicken and rice, fruit salad, stuffed grape leaves), Scott and I napped a little in some padded chairs.  I got the sense that some of the other people in the lounge were probably first-class and business-class travelers, but I got the sense that some others were probably people like us whose flights had been delayed.

It was hard to leave, especially since the security procedures for flights to the US turned out to be pretty involved.  Our gate was blocked off, and it took a while before anyone was willing to tell us that we had to go to the end of the corridor for additional screening.  We had to stand in a long line and do the whole shoes off/liquid toiletries out of the bag routine.  They also made me get rid of my bottle of water.  Ordinarily, I just buy another one, but after going through security, we were routed through an area of the airport where there were no shops.  Sigh.  The food was pretty decent on the flight (both full meals had a vegetarian Indian food option!), but I felt like we were not offered nearly enough to drink, considering that the flight was about 14 hours long and that I didn't have my own bottle of water.  We made it, though, which is the important thing, and I had the fun of getting a glimpse of how people with an abundance of money travel internationally.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Astana These Days

We're leaving soon for the holidays (yay!) so I thought I'd write a post on some of the things that have happened around here lately.  I don't always get to post a lot on what I'm doing because, frankly, a lot of what I do involves work, and there is a lot about work that is best left unposted, in my opinion.

1.  Christmas decorations abound.  This surprised me, especially because Kazakhstan is a majority Muslim country.  Even more surprising was that I started seeing Christmas decorations right after Halloween, kind of like in the US.  Malls and shopping centers are big here, so I think commercialization plays a role, but I've also seen decorations outside of retail establishments.

Okay, this isn't a great picture, but maybe you can see some of the decorations.

2.  Winter has set in.  It's much colder here than I would like.  We haven't gotten any of the famed -40 F days yet, but we have gotten plenty of subzero temperatures with serious windchill.  So far, I think wind makes the biggest difference in my comfort.  If it's not too windy, I can layer enough clothing to make the walk to work less miserable.  When it is windy, all bets are off.  Windy and sunny might be the worst combination.  When it's sunny, the snow reflects the sunlight, making it hard to see.  However, when I put on sunglasses, they fog up almost immediately, also making it hard to see.  The snow tends to be pretty powdery, which is easier to walk in than wet, icy snow.  However, snow removal is pretty uneven, and in some cases, people cart away the bulk of the snow, but then leave a layer that becomes compacted and icy as it is walked over and driven over.  I haven't fallen yet, but I fear that yet is the operative word.

A truck carting away some snow.

3.  Our building now has the promised grocery store and restaurant.  We saw signs for both when we moved in in August, but I had really given up hope.  However, they both came, and at around the same time!  The grocery store doesn't have everything, but, honestly, neither do the larger supermarkets in town.  And with the above-mentioned cold and snow, I prefer to shop without leaving the building whenever possible.  Amazingly enough, they manage to keep a small selection of produce, so it's been surprisingly useful.  The restaurant is pretty good, too.  It doesn't rate as one of the best restaurants ever, but it's also not one of the worst.  With both of us working full-time, it's useful to not have to worry about cooking every single night, and we live in such an isolated area that other restaurants are rarely a realistic option.

4.  I've turned in final grades.  I am now dealing with the fallout of doing my job because not everyone is happy with his or her grades.  Some of the unhappy people are very whiny and pushy about their dissatisfaction.  Maybe the students I had last year were just an exceptionally mature group of people, but I never imagined getting this level of pushback.  Personally, the idea of challenging a professor on my grades never even occurred to me in college.  I think I viewed them as authority figures who deserved at least a display of respect (imagine that!).  I keep trying to remind myself that many of my students are terrific, but we all know that saying about bad apples...

And, that's about it!  I'm looking forward to some time with my family soon!

Saturday, December 13, 2014

This Gladdens My Pedestrian Heart

Check out this great video that Scott found today!  I've had my share of problems with drivers' understanding of the concept of a crosswalk, so I greatly enjoyed this.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Public Service Announcement

A picture is worth a thousand words
It's that hazardous time of year now.  The wonderful sign above, along with an email from an Entity That Shall Not Be Named advising us to avoid wearing stilettos on the ice, should ensure that we all have a safe winter free of falls!

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Out of the Music Loop

Scott and I went to the bazaar today, braving the cold and the snow.  It was easy enough to have reception in our building call a cab to take us there, but getting back turned out to be another matter entirely.  Gone were the usual swarms of taxi drivers outside the bazaar entrance.  Maybe the demand just becomes too high in the winter.

We started trudging towards the nearest major road with all of our stuff.  Scott suggested we try to find a Korean restaurant we'd gone to previously.  We found it, and enjoyed a good dinner.  We still had to get back home, however.

It took us a while to get anyone to stop for us.  Finally, a car with two young guys stopped and agreed to take us home.  It was a longish ride with the combined factors of actual distance, traffic, and snow on the road.  It was a pleasant ride, though.  The young guy in the passenger seat had learned some English in school and chatted with us, and his friend was a good driver in the snow.

Aside from chatting, we had an opportunity to listen to some of the music these guys liked, played from one of their phones.  I thought one song was very interesting and unlike anything I'd heard before.  The title was "My Ummah".  The song was mostly in English, with some Arabic, and was about Islam.  In the Middle East, I used to hear plenty of Quranic recordings in taxi cabs, but no songs about Islam that I recall, and certainly no songs with English lyrics about Islam.  I was fascinated.

With the powers of Google, I found out that the artist in question is Sami Yusuf, that he has been producing albums since 2003, and that the song I heard is from 2005.  Apparently, I should listen to new music more often!  Has anyone else had the experience of thinking they had stumbled upon something new and interesting, only to find out that it is now several years old?

Monday, December 1, 2014

A Few Reflections on the DC Trip

I lived in the DC area for about six years, so my relationship with the place is a little complicated.  On the one hand, I love all that DC has to offer, sometimes regret having left, and often scheme about how I can live there again.  On the other hand, I know very well from my own experience that unless you have the money to live within reasonable proximity to reliable mass transit and cultural attractions, the aggravations of urban living will often outweigh the benefits.  Personally, I was surprised and dismayed to find out exactly how much money would be needed.

Anyway, since I lived in the area for so long, I wasn't really up for taking pictures of all the usual attractions, although it was a treat to see the ones that we got to see.  I'm delighted to see the Washington Monument without all the post-earthquake scaffolding, for instance.

One thing that was new and that I deemed photo-worthy in my post-travel haze was our hotel for the first night.  As I mentioned in my previous post, we had all sorts of travel snafus.  This resulted in various hotel plans falling through--we were scheduled to spend the night in NY the day we arrived in DC, for instance.  We made a last minute hotel booking in DC, and ended up with what was billed as a boutique hotel.  I don't believe we had ever stayed in a boutique hotel before, so I was curious about what that would entail.  In the case of this particular hotel, it meant funky decor, a leopard print bathrobe, and Pez in the minbar.

I resisted eating from the minibar despite the unusual goodies inside.

I thought I'd provide a few lists pertaining to the trip, rather than run through all the details.

Best Foods Eaten

  • Oysters at Hank's Oyster Bar!
  • Cardamon gelato at Pitango Gelato
  • Breakfast from the Whole Foods breakfast bar
  • Indian food at Shangri-La in Bethesda
  • Kale salad at Nando's
  • Donuts at GBD
  • A large breakfast at Le Pain Quotidien, including a goat cheese and mushroom omelette, a green salad on the side, and bread with chocolate spread
Regrets and Disappointments
  • The top regret is definitely not getting to see any of our DC-area friends.  I think it was smart to not try to make plans under the circumstances (especially considering our travel difficulties), but there are some people I would have loved to have seen.
  • Not having time to go to Rockville for some of the wonderful Chinese food there.
  • Not having more time in DC in general for any number of things.
  • Finding that a Malaysian restaurant we had enjoyed for years had closed.
Non-Exhaustive List of Stuff Brought Back to Kazakhstan
  • Sugar-free peanut butter from Whole Foods!
  • Unsweetened cocoa powder and powdered sugar for flourless chocolate cookies I want to make.
  • Staplers with staples.  I spent nearly half an hour attempting to staple forty quizzes together recently, and decided I needed better office supplies than what I could find locally.
  • Folders.  See above.
  • Cough syrup
  • All kinds of chocolate--Ritter and Milka chocolate from the Frankfurt airport, an Endangered Species chocolate bar from Whole Foods, and chocolate-covered ginger from Trader Joe's.
  • Chamomile and white ginger pear teas.
  • Warm tights that are long enough for me.
  • Dried mango
We're looking forward to a longer trip to the US later this month!

Friday, November 28, 2014

Partial Success, Partial Fail

It's been quite a week.  In the span of this week, we flew to the US and back, and then went directly back to work.  Good thing I adjust to new time zones so quickly!

Our original plan was to fly to Washington, DC and spend the night there.  The next morning, we were to take Amtrak to New York so Scott could be the best man in a wedding.  We planned to spend the night there, then take Amtrak back to DC the following morning so that Scott could present at a conference.  We would then have a day free of obligations in DC, then get back on a plane to Kazakhstan the following evening.  It was going to be a tight timeframe under the best of circumstances.  (Special note to any DC-area friends who may be reading this:  We would love to see you next time we're in the area without such a tight schedule encumbering us!).

Anyone who has traveled anywhere on a plane recently probably knows where I'm going with this.

Along with a colleague who was flying to the US for a conference, we headed to the Astana airport around 3 AM, after having pretty much stayed up that night.  Then, when it was close to time to board the flight, we got the dreaded announcement that our flight was cancelled.  No reason was given--it was just cancelled.

This set off hours of miserable circumstances, including having to collect stamped pieces of paper we had handed in upon going through passport control, standing in line for four hours waiting to see if we could be rebooked, and being accosted by a nutty stranger in the women's restroom (true story, by the way).  We were ultimately rebooked on an evening flight that was routed through Almaty initially.  That leg of the flight provided plenty of worries that are another story for another day.

We ultimately made it to the US more than 24 hours after we had originally planned, but couldn't make it to the wedding, which was so disappointing for us.  On the other hand, we did make it to the conference, which didn't seem like a sure thing while we were waiting in line for four hours to be rebooked.  So, at least we can claim a partial success.  I'm glad our next trip to the US will be longer than a few days so that airline shenanigans (probably) won't ruin too much.

Oh, and a public service announcement:  hold on to your boarding passes until you're completely done with your trip.  Our "rebooking" went so badly that not only was our trip back to Kazakhstan cancelled, but there was no record that we had actually traveled from Frankfurt to DC.  A very helpful agent assisted us in DC, but she needed the ticket numbers from our boarding passes as "proof" that we had flown from Frankfurt to DC in order to reissue us tickets for the way back.  There is a rather large part of me that wouldn't have been sorry to be have been stuck in DC for a while longer, but job responsibilities called, and in the end, it was probably better to get back here on schedule.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

At Least One Thing Is Easier Here

I've written about various difficulties living here, but I wanted to be fair and point out that at least one thing has proven to be easier in Kazakhstan than in the US:  replacing a watch battery!

I do remember a time when replacing a watch battery back home wasn't such a big deal.  I remember taking watches into drug stores and superstores and having the whole transaction completed in minutes, for not too much money.  At some point, the tide turned.  Were there some lawsuits over scratched watches that I just didn't know about at the time?  I remember my dismay the first time I tried to have a watch battery replaced in Target, only to be told that unless I purchased my watch there, they wouldn't help me.  I have had luck prying the backs off of some watches myself, but even then, I don't often find the correct replacement battery immediately.  I have had some success buying watch batteries from Amazon, but that means waiting for them to arrive, and I'm not very patient.

Anyway, when my watch battery died the other day, I thought replacing it might be easier here.  I've had watch batteries replaced in Syria and Turkey previously, and the process was quick and inexpensive.  I wrote in to a faculty forum to ask where I should go, and someone wrote in and recommended a shop in a local mall.  I'm glad I asked--this shop was small and tucked away near a set of restrooms.  I doubt I would have found it on my own.  Even with my extremely limited Russian,  I was able to communicate to the man working there what I needed.  About 3 minutes and 2000 tenge (or $11.05) later, I was on my way!  I am so happy when a simple errand turns out to be just that.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Another Post About Beads!

This post doesn't really have much to do with Kazakhstan, although it does feature a necklace that I completed in Kazakhstan.  As I believe I've mentioned elsewhere, it took quite a while for me to be reunited with all the beads I shipped over here.  I did bring the makings of a project to work on after this one because I knew I would want something to calm my nerves and keep me from fidgeting.  It took a while to complete this one because my job and various non-beady projects (like this blog!) keep me pretty busy, but here it is:

I have had those large, patterned rectangular beads in my stash for years, but it took me a long time to figure out how to use them.  I wanted to combine with with something else that looked bold, and eventually, I thought of a short strand of long, two-tone amethyst beads I purchased at a show years ago.  I ordinarily find stone chip beads difficult to work with, but in this case, I thought they would combine well with the somewhat irregular appearance of the long amethyst beads on the bottom strand of the necklace.  I made several beaded beads to complement the amethyst, some of which are two-holed beaded beads to keep the two strands of the necklace roughly parallel to each other.  I rounded this out with tiny Thai silver beads.

I actually finished this necklace once, but then had to take it apart and restring it because I accidentally made it too short the first time.  Oops.  I didn't want it to be a choker in the worst possible sense of the word!

I sometimes find it difficult to live someplace where new beads aren't readily accessible.  When I get an idea, I want to start working on it right away, not start sourcing some material.  On the other hand, though, maybe being away from obvious sources of new beads will help me to use some of the beads I've been hoarding for years and test out some of the ideas I've had in the back of my mind for a long time.  It'll be an interesting experiment.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

What Does "Adventure" Mean, Anyway?

We decided to have a few people over for dinner the other day.  I had fun thinking about the menu, but creating said menu is more challenging here than it would be back home.  There are certain ingredients we never see anywhere, and some that we see only occasionally.  Thus, while I had an idea of what I might make, the final menu decision had to wait until the day before when we went to the supermarket.

The week before, we finally broke down and bought a food processor.  I didn't necessarily think it was a top of the line model, but thought that it might open up some culinary possibilities for however long we live here.  Then, when we went to the supermarket, I found some very pretty fresh basil.  It became clear that pesto had to be part of the meal--I love it, and back home, I used to make it nearly ever week during the summer.

Our food processor turned out to be a multi-part apparatus.  It has a handle with a cord that could attach to (a) a whisk attachment, (b) a hand-held blender attachment, or ( c) a traditional food processor attachment.  I first tried the whisk attachment to cream some butter and sugar for a cake.  It moved so fast that it almost sent the bowl flying.  I decided to cream the butter and sugar with a spoon, but thought that maybe the whisk attachment would be useful in other contexts, like beating egg whites.

Then, once the cake was in the oven, it was time to tackle the pesto.  I put my basil, garlic, walnuts, olive oil, and some salt in the food processor.  Then, I attached the handle attachment, and pressed the on button. It created a nearly deafening noise that I couldn't escape because the machine wouldn't run without my physically holding the button down.  After a minute or so of destroying my hearing, I checked my pesto's progress.  And….practically nothing had happened!  The basil leaves looked somewhat squashed and bruised, but not at all pesto-like.  This was to say nothing of the garlic and walnuts, which were practically unscathed.

I thought maybe I had overloaded the food processor, so I divided my ingredients into two batches and tried processing half of them at a time.  Nothing.  I put all of them into a bowl, and tried using the hand-held blender attachment to process them.  Nothing, and it also turned out that the hand-held blender attachment refused to attach securely to the handle.

Cursing a blue streak, I finally resorted to using kitchen shears to cut up the basil into small pieces, and broke the walnuts into somewhat smaller pieces.  I related our tale of woe to our guests when I warned them about our very rustic pesto.  One of them asked, "Oh, did your food processor explode?"  It turned out that their first food processor here did, shooting a flame into the air in the process.  So, maybe I should count myself as lucky that my food processor did nothing more than (severely) irritate me.

I was thinking about this experience, though, and in a way, I think it's emblematic of our larger experience here.  The word "adventure" comes up a lot in relation to what Scott and I are doing here.  I had always thought of adventure as having a positive connotation, and to be fair, we have had a lot of positive experiences that could be counted as adventure.  However, for every time something really cool and photo-worthy happens, there are many more instances of us just trying to live our lives and do our jobs in a country where we don't speak the language and often fail to anticipate the obstacles that magically appear in our paths.  If we manage to avoid disaster, we'll probably walk away from this experience with a sense of resourcefulness and a renewed appreciation for the relative ease of our lives back home.  In the meantime, though, there will be days when we long for the mundane.

Monday, November 3, 2014

R.I.P. Tom Magliozzi

Any other Car Talk fans reading this?  I was so sad to read this morning about Tom Magliozzi's death.

One of my colleagues and I were discussing this, and we concluded that one thing that was amazing about Car Talk was that people like us who aren't that interested in cars enjoyed listening to it and could follow what Tom and Ray were saying.

I have so many memories of Car Talk...listening to it while running errands with my family when I was a kid, sending away for their "Drive Now, Talk Later" bumper sticker when cell phones became popular, having it as a comforting constant when I moved around as an adult.

Tom, along with Ray, made the world a better place by helping people solve practical problems and bringing much-needed humor to what were sometimes very frustrating situations for the callers.

You can read Tom's obituary here and listen to some audio clips here.

Let's Talk About the Weather!

We've been having  very dense fog in Astana off and on for the past few days.  I wish I'd taken my camera when we were out and about on Sunday but, well, I didn't.  Here is a picture taken from our apartment window:

Compare it to this picture, taken from our apartment on a clear day:

Oh, yeah, and we had what I consider to be an unreasonable amount of snow last week.  I went to a Halloween party festooned with paper snowflakes, in an attempt to have costumes imitating life.  Fortunately, a good amount of it melted this week, but I realize that at a certain point, the snow will be here to stay for several months.  Shudder….

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Almaty, Part 4

We had almost a full day in Almaty that day because our train didn't leave for Astana until the early evening.  We decided to make that our museum day.  After a leisurely breakfast, we headed for the Central State Museum.

The Central State Museum had interesting collections of all sorts of stuff.  The exhibits started with fossils, and ended with relics from the fairly recent past.  Unfortunately, photography was not allowed.  Also unfortunately, there was very little English signage aside from "Don't touch, please!" so I had to fill in the gaps with my own imagination.

One of my favorite exhibits was the one with traditional dress and jewelry.  The jewelry tended to be large, heavy looking, and ornate.  There were what appeared to be rings with two shanks.  I loved the concept, although it seems that wearing one would somewhat limit hand motion.  I also enjoyed an exhibit of gifts given to President Nazarbayev by foreign dignitaries.  I was entertained to see that Yasser Arafat had included a keffiyeh as part of his gift on a visit.

We had the somewhat unfortunate luck of competing for viewing space with a loud group of teenagers who appeared to be at the museum as part of a school trip.  One of them decided to demonstrate his English proficiency by going up to one of our friends and unloading a string of swear words and a racial epithet.  I hope these were not words that were included in his school's English curriculum.

We had Chinese food for lunch, and then headed to the Museum of Kazakh Musical Instruments.  In addition to the obvious large collection of traditional instruments, there was a great exhibit with a large interactive screen where you could pick as few or as many instruments as you wanted to hear what they sounded like separately and together.

Museum of Kazakh Musical Instruments

We walked around Panfilov Park some more and looked at the WWII monument.

At that point, it was about time to think about heading to the train station.  We went to a bakery to buy some snacks to take with us, since nobody was so impressed with the dining car cuisine that they felt the need to eat it again.

Once we got to the train station, we noticed a lot of people selling large apples.  Our tour guide had told us about those the day before, so we were very curious.  Unfortunately, they only wanted to sell large buckets full.  While we were pondering the idea of hauling an awkward amount of large apples to Astana, our Russian teacher appeared!  It was fun to see her unexpectedly, and it also turned out that she wanted some apples.  She talked to the apple vendor for us and we ended up splitting a bucket of apples between her, our friends with whom we traveled, and us.

The train ride back wasn't terribly restful, but all of us felt that we slept better on the way back to Astana than we did on the trip down.  Maybe the trip to Almaty accustomed us to motion and odd noises while we were sleeping?  Before trying our luck actually sleeping, we played card games and battle ship.  I'm amazed that we managed not to lose any of the pegs from the battle ship game!

Our final impression was that Almaty was a much more livable city than Astana.  Part of this had to do with location, of course.  Our hotel in Almaty was fairly centrally located, and we were able to walk to cafes, restaurants, and sites.  We would probably enjoy Astana more if we lived downtown, rather than on an isolated compound.  The other issue, of course, is that Astana is still a young capital and a work in progress.  I've heard from people who have been here longer that Astana's amenities have increased over the years.  (Astana will never have mountains, however!).  Here are a couple final Almaty pictures:

My thoughts exactly!  Let's pretend that I captured the entire "y" at the end of Almaty, and did not capture a stranger who was also taking a photo.

A very elaborate doorway to a store with assorted imported stuff from France.

I remember the Hard Rock Cafe t-shirts my classmates used to wear in the '80's.  I had no idea the chain was in Almaty, too.  We did not go in.

An entertaining artful rendition of Astana which we saw in Almaty.  It seemed pretty inaccurate to us, aside form the Bayterek Tower.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Almaty, Part 3

For our third day in Almaty, we had a tour scheduled for the afternoon.  In the morning, we decided to visit Green Market, a bazaar in Almaty.  This bazaar had multiple levels, and indoor and outdoor components.  There were sections with clothing and housewares, but we decided we were most interested in the food.

The food section was absolutely full of stuff I would have purchased if I lived in Almaty, but that I thought would be difficult to transport back to Astana.  Of particular interest to me were all sorts of pickled vegetables and long, uncut sushi rolls.  A rather large part of me wanted to buy one of the sushi rolls and eat it burrito-style, but maybe it was a better idea to not risk that.  I also saw some interesting looking berries (currants, maybe?) that I didn't think would last the trip home.

We did buy plenty of spices.  We were on this trip before receiving the remainder of the stuff we had shipped, and I was beginning to lose hope of getting ahold of the spices I had shipped.  We bought curry powder, sumac, saffron, cardamom, and dried chili peppers.  We also bought cape gooseberries, a fruit I came to love in Egypt, and have only seen once in the US, at a farmer's market.  One thing I regret not buying was something that looked like large, red cape gooseberries.  I didn't buy them because I wasn't sure what they were, but I've discovered a lot of interesting fruits over the years by buying things I didn't know about.  Oh well.  Here are a couple of pictures of the bazaar--I didn't want to go crazy taking pictures there because I thought that might be sort of annoying to the locals.

We bought an assortment of food from street stands for lunch in the hotel (stuffed fried breads, dumplings, the rice dish plov), and got ready for our tour.

Our English-speaking guide showed up at the hotel with a driver and a van.  Our plan was to go to Big Almaty Lake and the Sunkar falcon farm, with a somewhat larger, late lunch somewhere along the way.  Quickly, I could see that we were leaving the city and heading into the mountains.

The mountain roads were narrow and full of switchbacks.  I thought they were most appropriate for one vehicle at a time, but naturally, there were times when we encountered other vehicles heading back down the mountain, at which point both had to proceed carefully.  In addition, there were some very large icy patches in some areas.  Kudos to our driver for getting us there and back in one piece!  The scenery was spectacular.

Scott, our friends with whom we traveled, and the tour guide all walked to the edge of the lake.  I gave up at a certain point because it was a steep path and I think my knees have aged about twice as fast as the rest of me.  I decided to continue enjoying the view from where I was.

Soon, it was time to head back down the mountain.  Again, I worried about the icy patches, but the driver's skills were up to the challenge.  We even saw some interesting scenery on the way back down.  I don't remember the story behind the yurts, but they were interesting, even if not inhabited by actual nomads.  Then we stopped at a cafe and had a delicious meal including grilled meats and soup.  Then we went to the Sunkar falcon farm.

Truthfully, I don't know too much about the Sunkar falcon farm.  I know that they have a variety of birds of prey, that the birds they have were born in captivity, and that the birds are trained to hunt using traditional techniques.  I don't know if they are breeding additional birds in captivity, precisely where the existing birds were born, or whether they ever actually get to hunt.  It was interesting to see the birds and the show they put on, though.

Some of the birds lived in large cages, and some were in the open, kept on tethers so they couldn't fly too far.

We all walked around for a while to check out the birds, and then we saw the show.  For the show, trainers showed how the birds could be used to assist in hunting.  The trainers showed birds at various levels of accomplishment, and rewarded each of them with a chick for their efforts.  It was an amazing show, but at times, these birds with their extremely sharp talons swooped a little too close to my head for comfort.  I spent a lot of time ducking.  The show started with this amazingly beautiful owl, who initially landed about two feet away from me on the bench, and started squawking discontentedly while looking right at me.  I was too nervous to take a picture when he was so close, but here are a couple pictures of him in action.

The show then progressed with other birds, each one pretty fierce.

We then headed back to town, had a light dinner, and tried to get a good night's sleep.  The next day would be our last day in Almaty, and we would face another night on the train to go back to Astana.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Yet More Stuff! (And a Spicy Disaster)

Ladies and gentlemen, I interrupt my series of posts on our trip to Almaty to make an important announcement:  We have been reunited with the remainder of the stuff we shipped over here!

This was a long time coming.  After our initial trip to the customs office back in September, Scott made two additional trips without me (my schedule requires me to be physically present on campus more often than his schedule does).  Both of those trips were fruitless.  If I remember correctly, the computers at the customs office stopped working while he was on the first of those trips, and some magical piece of paperwork was missing on the second trip.

Anyway, one of the university staff members organized a trip last Friday morning for us and several other people who were still awaiting shipments.  We all spent several hours there, signing forms most of us couldn't read and dashing to the office next door to make photocopies of documents.  Most of us had to pay customs fees.  Scott and I had to pay quite exorbitant fees.  I won't ruin anyone's day by saying how much, but it was far more than I ever expected to spend to get ahold of my used stuff which I had already spent money purchasing in the first place.

The staff member in question was unable to procure a vehicle large enough to get our stuff the same day.  I felt very uneasy.  It was one thing to never get the stuff I shipped, but to not get it after paying hefty customs duties was quite another.

Well, today, this staff member told us he had a van and driver for us to go to the post office to get our stuff.  We were supposed to bring our forms from the customs office and our passports.  We brought along our Kazakhstani tax numbers for good measure.  I don't understand why, but people often want to see them in contexts in which they seem irrelevant.

The trip got off to a pretty unpromising start.  We were told to wait in front of the university at 2 PM.  Several phone calls later, the van actually pulled up at around 3 PM.  Then, once we got to the post office, we weren't completely sure where to go.  Finally, we walked in to the warehouse-y section, and saw a pallet with our boxes!  An employee saw us, and directed us the paperwork signing room.  I was convinced then that we'd be hit up for more fees or that we'd be sent away due to not having some specific form.  To my very pleasant surprise, the employee we talked to quickly and efficiently photocopied the customs forms we brought.  Then, she took us back out the pallet of packages, and with a couple other employees, helped us to maneuver it to the van outside.

I couldn't believe our good fortune!  I was halfway afraid we'd get into a car accident on the way home because getting our stuff with so little hassle seemed too good to be true.  Despite my worries, we made it back, and the driver even helped us haul our boxes into the lobby of our apartment building.

We're still unpacking the boxes.  Our apartment looks like a scene of destruction now.

Piles of disreputable looking boxes

The boxes were in pretty rough shape.  Some of them had been through two stateside moves already, but they will definitely have to be retired at this point.  In terms of the contents, it's been a mixed bag.  Some of Scott's books are heavily damaged, but not in ways that you would expect.  One of his books looked like someone would have had to actually open the box and purposely damage it (and who knows, maybe that happened along the way).  So far, some of my casualties have been spilled beads, broken glass on a picture frame, and a spicy disaster.

I had shipped my spices in a plastic cabinet with pull-out drawers.  I thought they were wedged in pretty tightly and would be pretty safe, but somehow, some of the lids of my spices unscrewed themselves in transit, scattering fragrant seeds and powders all over the plastic cabinet and all over the beads I packed in the same box.  A good number of the spices were salvageable, but the ones that weren't certainly made a mess.

Opening my spice cabinet…yikes!

Cleaning out the spilled spices

Messes aside, we're glad to have the stuff.  Nonetheless, if we had to do this over again, we would cough up the money for a larger storage unit and ship far less stuff.  Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but if anyone reading this is contemplating an international move, take whatever cautionary tale you want from this.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Almaty, Part 2

After a good night's sleep in a nice bed in a hotel room (as opposed to a moving train), we spent our second day in Almaty exploring mostly on foot.  We live on something that resembles a compound in Astana, so one of the things we were really looking forward to was being able to just walk around, go into cafes that interested us, and visit parks.  Almaty did not disappoint, and our hotel was quite centrally located for walking.  Here are some of the highlights we hit:

The former parliament building, from Almaty's days as Kazakhstan's capital:

Lots of beautiful trees:

Women's war memorial.  I believe the woman on the left was a sniper, and the woman on the right was a machine gunner during World War II:

Almaty's version of Bayterek Tower:

Zenkov's Cathedral, which was designed in 1904, and is one of few buildings to survive the 1911 earthquake in Almaty.  It is made entirely out of wood, even the nails:

A gathering of people and pigeons:

The Central Mosque, which I failed to photograph in its entirety.  I had forgotten to bring a scarf, but a woman selling souvenirs in a kiosk outside loaned me a (very sheer) one to wear inside.  Interestingly, a woman who looked like a local even went in without any head covering at all.

Gorky Park.  There were lots of statues, games, and rides here:

We also had Korean food for lunch that day (yum!).  In the late afternoon, we headed to a hotel where a tour office was located to finalize an activity for the next day; a tour to Big Almaty Lake and the Sunkar falcon farm.  Because this hotel was far from Gorky Park, where we were at the time, we decided to take a taxi.  I think this may have been the scariest taxi ride any of us had had in Kazakhstan up until that point.  To make matters worse, the driver was playing really odd music.  The lyrics were in English, but they weren't songs I remember ever hearing before (nor are they songs I ever want to hear again).  Has anyone else had the misfortune to hear a song that may be called "Shooby Dooby Love"?  Ugh.  I'm thankful to say that we emerged unscathed and lived to hear other, better songs.

Aside from that particular brush with death, it was a great day.  I loved having that day to just wander around, especially since the next day was more structured.