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Monday, September 29, 2014


Over the weekend, we made an overnight trip to Karaganda with one of our colleagues.  We had a great time, and we are so glad he suggested it

It took us about three hours by train to get to Karaganda, which is southeast of Astana.  Until Astana became the capital of Kazakhstan, Karaganda was the major city in this region of the country.  Interestingly, our colleague told us that Karaganda features in a Russian saying that refers to the middle of nowhere.  However, this is how the owners of the hotel where we stayed view it:

Look for the large, red letters here.
This was our first time on a train in Kazakhstan, and it was quite nice.  We had a compartment with two sets of narrow bunk beds and a table, so it was possible to nap comfortably or do work.  This picture isn't great, but it gives some idea:

Picture taken from the facing lower bunk

Karaganda had a much more established feel than Astana does.  Astana sometimes feels startlingly new, particularly with some of its more creative architecture.  One thing I particularly enjoyed was seeing more trees.  Some parts of Astana don't have very many trees, and a good number of the trees are pretty short.

Fall colors in Karaganda

We got in around dinner time on Saturday, so we strolled around the city a bit and went for some food. The next day, joined by our colleague's friend who was visiting and traveling around Kazakhstan, we visited the KarLag Museum in the nearby village of Dolinka.  This museum gives the history of the KarLag, a very large Stalin-era prison camp, that was situated in the region.  The museum was very informative, and even had some displays translated into English.  Our colleague speaks Russian and was able to fill a lot of the information gaps for us.  This is an era of history I know very little about, and I think this museum trip provided a good base of knowledge for me.  Photography was not allowed inside the museum, but I did take a picture of the building itself, which was the old KarLag hospital.

KarLag Museum

After visiting the KarLag Museum, we headed back to Karaganda, where we strolled around and got a bite to eat before our train back to Astana.  Here are a few more pictures of Karaganda itself:

I told my colleague's friend that my mom is from Alaska, so she pointed out this sign to me as we passed it.

Friday, September 26, 2014

A Surprisingly Productive Afternoon

We've had our share of odd setbacks this week.  I forget which day it was, but I found myself suddenly unable to unlock our apartment door with my key.  Apparently, I bent it very slightly (but enough to render it unusable) with my superhuman strength.  Then, on Wednesday, our water was randomly cut off for a few hours, making all sorts of things difficult.

We partially made up for all of this today, though.  I had made an appointment at the clinic we're supposed to go to here, mostly to get some blood work done, but also to have a chance to scope out the clinic.  Scott came along with me, since he doesn't teach today.  I would say we accomplished three separate things there alone--we found out where the clinic was (about a half hour cab ride from our apartment), I got my blood drawn, and I filled out a health information sheet at the clinic.

We were planning to meet some friends at a Georgian restaurant later on, so we decided to stay downtown and run some errands.  We walked from the clinic to Artyum Bazaar where we proceeded to get extra apartment keys made (to replace my old key), get Scott a haircut, and buy a few groceries.

When we were done with all of that, we figured we had enough time to walk to the restaurant from Artyum Bazaar.  We were marveling at our good fortune in taking care of so many errands and getting exercise to boot.  We had a lovely time at the restaurant--the food was good, and we were celebrating having recently been paid for the first time.

The one small setback we were left with in the end was that one of the keys we had made doesn't work.  The other one does, though, so it's a setback I can live with.  I was so glad to have an afternoon in which I accomplished so many things.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Searching for Time

Scott and I finally signed up for Russian lessons today.  There is a woman who arranges private lessons with people who are interested and comes to the university on a predetermined schedule.  Our class meets late Sunday morning and Thursday evening.  We'll have to study and do some homework in between sessions.

This is probably a necessary expenditure of time at this point.  Very little English is spoken here outside the university.  We need help completing all but the very simplest transactions around here.  Even trying to arrange fun activities is difficult.

But…we are not sure where we are going to find the time.

We had been optimistic about having more time for research here.  Really, though, we are finding that bureaucracy takes up most of the extra time we have.  Last week, none of my students could access the websites that accompany their textbooks.  This led to me testing the websites out in different locations to see if the problem was with the websites or the university (it was the university), contacting IT to see what the problem was and when it might be fixed (they did ultimately fix it, but they were quite vague on the schedule), and not being able to complete my lesson plans in my office because I needed to be able to reference said websites.

Also last week, the powers that be decided to stop providing free, but unreliable internet service in our apartments.  That would have been fine, except that they shut off their service before the paid service guys could come around and set everyone up.  This led to our not being able to work at home for several days, a lengthy email exchange between Scott and the manager of our building, and me having to rush home after teaching, only to sit around for an hour and a half, unable to work, waiting for the internet guy to arrive.

I would also be remiss to not mention the latest trip to customs.  I wrote here about our last trip there, which was lengthy and tiring, but at least resulted in the acquisition of more of our belongings.  Scott went again on Friday with a university employee.  They spent a couple of hours there, only to be told in the end that the computer system was down there, and that they'd have to come back again.

So, at this point, I don't know what to think.  Stay tuned--will we learn any Russian, or will our attempts be subsumed in teaching/meetings/customs visits/internet woes?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Things to Come

When I woke up this morning and checked the weather on my phone, it showed that it was snowing in Astana.  I looked out the window, and it was true.  It was light snow mixed with rain, but still, it was snow in September.

I am very afraid of what the winter will bring.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Ereymentau Trip

We finally got to leave Astana today!  Not that there is necessarily anything wrong with Astana, but there are only so many shopping mall trips you can make.  Plus, we live on a dusty construction site that isn't even near those.

We signed up for a day trip to Ereymentau, which was about 2 hours northeast of Astana.  We headed out relatively early in the morning, and stopped at a small restaurant near Buyratau National Park.  The food was great, and Scott and I were talking later about how it wouldn't have been out of place in a trendy breakfast restaurant in the US.  We had fried eggs sprinkled with scallions and parsley, sausage, some sort of interesting pickled cabbage, and blinis with jam and clotted cream on the side.  The trip over also gave me a chance to reflect how uneven development is in this country.  The roads outside of the capital were in very bad repair.  Also, the restroom at the restaurant where we ate was literally a hole in the ground in a small shed outside.  Not an outhouse (where one might sit down), and not a  Middle Eastern style toilet (where the pit is in the floor, but accompanied by plumbing), but an actual pit in the dirt.

On today's trip, we saw ancient burial mounds, ancient Turkic worship statues called "balbal", Zhalshoky Mountain, and various animals.  We saw lots of steppe marmots.  Unfortunately, I couldn't get a picture of any of them.  I saw all of them from our minibus, but could never find any when I was out walking around.

After hiking and seeing archaeological remains, we had a picnic lunch.  A Kazakhstani family was picnicking near us, and invited us over for tea.  They had been drinking kumis, and were cheerful and friendly.  Maybe a little too friendly (or at least a little too physical) with some of us, but it was still a good time.

All in all, we wish we could do something like this every week or two.  It was good to get far away from work and see something completely different.


Flock of geese near the park

Hiking to Zhalshoky Mountain

Rock formations

More rock formations

Flowers on the mountain

Some sort of lichen?

More rock formations

Balbal and burial mound

Friday, September 12, 2014

Shadow Patterns

Our building randomly lost power last night.  I haven't heard any reasons why.  I tend to think of power outages following severe storms, but maybe that is due to growing up in the southeastern US.  Given some of our other electrical issues, though, maybe I shouldn't be surprised.

There was a fair amount of light outside from street lights and crane lights, so we opened the curtains so that we could see enough around our apartment to get ready for bed.  There is interesting metalwork in geometric designs outside our windows which created terrific shadow patterns on our walls.  The picture I have doesn't really do it justice, but I wanted to post this anyway so I could remember it.

Oh, yeah, the power came back around midnight, when we were startled awake by all the lights coming back on.  :)

I hope this looks like more than just a black rectangle!

Friday, September 5, 2014

False Alarm

I'm not sure what happened, but I actually wrote this on Thursday.  I'm going to blame technology, and just go ahead and post it now, along with the tale of our fun trip to customs.

Last night, we went to sleep on the late side.  One of our colleagues has instituted Wednesday evening gatherings in one of the common areas of our building.  We stayed fairly late, and then had dinner fairly late before going to bed.

Sometime close to midnight (I failed to look at my watch to see the exact time this happened), at the point when I was finally drifting off to sleep, we were jolted out of bed by an alarm.  It was a loud sound similar to a siren, punctuated by instructions in Russian, then English.  The English instructions said that there was an emergency, and we needed to evacuate the building immediately.

Scott was organized enough to actually throw on some real clothes.  I threw a bathrobe on over my pajamas, put on my flip-flops, and grabbed a blazer (the first jacket I found) to put on outside.  I also managed to grab my phone, purse, and a pair of somewhat sturdier shoes to take with me.  We live on the tenth floor, and I knew it would take some time to get out of the building, and not knowing what was going on, I didn't want to take any chances.

It was quite a scene in the lobby and outside.  Various colleagues (some still in their jammies, like me), their children, and their pets were all gathered around in small groups, speculating on what had happened.  It became clear pretty quickly that the situation was not immediately life-threatening, but no one was anxious to go back inside until we knew for sure (and until they turned the alarm off).

Anyway, after all that hullabaloo, rumor has it that someone was cooking and set off the smoke alarm.  I'm trying to withhold judgement before learning all the facts, but this raises two questions in my mind:
1) What on earth is wrong with cold cereal as a midnight snack?
2)  If you are cooking at midnight, wouldn't that be an ideal time to watch what you're doing and try really hard to not set off the smoke alarm?

On the one hand, I guess I'm glad to know that our building has a functioning alarm system.  On the other hand....aaargh!

More Stuff...

As I've mentioned previously on this blog, we shipped a fair amount of stuff over here.  We weren't really sure how that was going to turn out, and honestly, we still aren't.  We were encouraged when we first arrived because a few of our boxes were already here.  We hadn't seen any new boxes recently, though.

We had known for a little while that we needed to pay a small customs duty on some of our stuff.  I'm not completely sure why--I think that too many boxes (or, more precisely, too many kilos) arrived in one day under Scott's name.  A staff member at the university had been talking about taking us to the customs office to take care of this, and yesterday, we finally went.

First of all, bless this particular staff member for accompanying us.  The transaction was long, tedious, and involved way more words than "hello", "yes", "no", and "thank you", so I'm not sure we could have done this on our own.

Anyway, here is a rough rundown of yesterday afternoon:

1. Sometime after 1 PM:  Leave the university by car with staff member, having been warned that this might take a while.

2.  Around 1:40 PM:  Arrive at customs office.  Learn that the entire office has just started a one hour lunch break.

3.  Around 1:45 PM:  Go to Artyum Bazaar, which is relatively nearby.  Explore and buy some fruit.

4.  Around 2:30 PM:  Return to customs office.  Let university staff member do the talking, and stand in the background.  Learn that the customs office requires even more photocopies of Scott's passport than the staff member with him.  Watch Scott and university staff member go to make more copies.  More standing around.  I eventually sign two documents I can't read.  More standing around.  Scott signs three document he can't read.

5.  Around 4 PM:  Go to post office with stack of paperwork to pick up five boxes.  Follow a weird maze of hallways to get to the office in question, being careful not to trip on uneven stairs and clutter in the hallway.  University staff member hands over paperwork to post office employee.  Walk together to some room that contains many, many boxes addressed to us--far more than the five we came to pick up.  Learn that we can pick up only the five specific boxes we signed for, because post office is still waiting for clearance from customs to release the rest of them.

6.  Sometime after 5PM:  Finally return to university with the five boxes we were allowed to take with us.  Reflect that we will almost certainly have to repeat this same process, possibly more than once, to retrieve the rest of the boxes.  Drown our sorrows in packaged cookies from vending machine.

And....that was yesterday afternoon.  I'm hoping that today will at least be different, maybe even better.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Bazaar Trip

Finding food in Astana is somewhat of a gamble, between the things that aren't available, and the things that are available, but are mysteries to me due to being labeled in Russian.  There are the usual suspects that are hard to find (peanut butter), and then the more surprising ones (leafy greens other than cabbage).  The trouble is that no matter how challenging the grocery situation seems now, it will almost certainly be much worse in the winter, when there will be little to nothing in the way of local produce, and when it will be so cold that nobody will want to go looking for food, anyway.

Because of the impending food situation, a number of people have started making use of their large freezers to store some of the local produce that is currently available.  On Saturday, we went to Artyum Bazaar with our neighbors so we could get a head start on winter.

We started out by taking a bus.  That almost exhausted us all for the rest of the outing.  The bazaar isn't really that far away, but the bus took us on some sort of extended tour.  The ride out there took an hour and fifteen minutes in the end (it took about fifteen minutes to get back in a taxi!).  We're considering taking taxis both ways when we go back in the future.

Anyway, by the time we got out there, we were all pretty hungry.  Scott and I had noticed a really yummy aroma coming from a small restaurant near the bazaar last time we were there, so we decided to have lunch there.  None of us have great Russian skills at this point, so I'm not entirely sure I could reorder what we ate, but it was quite good.  We each had some sort of dish with beef, peppers, and onions.  And they served them on plates shaped like cows!

After lunch, we went to the bazaar itself.  We were planning to cook things to freeze, so we bought what seemed like a heavy and cumbersome amount of food--two kilos each of tomatoes and eggplants, a kilo of walnuts, a kilo of peppers, a kilo of plums, and a kilo each of strawberries and raspberries, among other things.  It is amazing how everything cooks down, though, and how much smaller the quantities seem now.  So far, with our bounty, we have made (1) enough eggplant pasta sauce to last for about four dinners, (2) enough marinara sauce to last for about three dinners, (3) whole roasted peppers to freeze and stuff later, (4) frozen plum halves, (5) frozen raspberries and strawberries, and (6) berries cooked with a bit of sugar to make a sort of sauce or topping.

The berries we cooked with sugar were the ones that became mushy while were were transporting them.  I figured that was a reasonable way to salvage those.  Out of the ones that didn't become mushy, we also ate a lot out of hand.  I don't think I have ever purchased raspberries in such quantity in the US.  And the strawberries were great--small, sweet ones, not the large, watery ones that we sometimes find in supermarkets back home.

We'll almost certainly go back for more produce a few times before the cold sets in.  I don't expect to be able to eat food I've cooked and frozen every night throughout the winter, but even getting something like nice pasta sauce once a week or so should be a morale booster when its tens of degrees below zero outside.