Aug 18 2006

A Little Later Than Intended

Category: Kazakh Driving,Kazakhstan,Personal,PicturesChrisM @ 3:12 am

OK, as promised, here is some more info, from Mum & John’s perspective.

This is basically a cut’n’paste job from an e-mail they sent to family and friends (with permission I hasten to add ;>)

“”For those of you ancient enough to Radio 4 be familiar with Alistair Cooke’s “Letter from America” this is likely to seem a pale comparison. Certainly less erudite and not as well crafted – but hopefully it will inform and maybe even amuse, though the political comment will be markedly absent!

This is Carol’s second visit to this amazing country and my first. As we flew in at night the lack of any settlements for hundreds of miles prior to landing in Astana was perplexing. It was hard to comprehend such vast tracts of land without population. Then Astana appears on the Kazakh Steppes resembling a modern Emirate city. Disney could not have bettered it! When Carol was here last she arrived through the back door, via the old capital of Almaty, then a twenty three hour train journey across a hot and dusty terrain. She made the trip for her son (Chris) & daughter in law’s (Irina) marriage. Jokingly she had said as she left to Irina’s father that he was to have a new airport built on her return. He did – and a pretty impressive airport to boot! It is so refreshing to see architecture which is not afraid to be adventurous, particularly in the teeth of such extreme weather conditions. Thankfully on this trip it has been kind to Carol & me, between 21°C & 30°C. The temperature can famously vary between -30°C in the winter to +40°C during the short summer months.

Being picked up by a chauffeur-driven 4×4 also helps to ease the system into Kazakh ideas on driving. In fact, if you wish to venture in our footprints, I would suggest ringing ahead to ask if Hertz have any ex-army tanks available. The new city has broad six to eight lane roads – with the odd pothole. That is where any similarity to European standards of driving ends. A neat trick by local dignitaries is to have the road totally cleared in advance of their rapid passage past their gracious public. They miss out on all the fun of coming to a major junction, where a variety of arbitrary U-turns is added by boy-racers and 4×4 drivers alike in order to test out your sphincter control. Amid this, add ramshackle buses from previous centuries, the odd Wallace & Gromit motorcycle & sidecar, and multi-trailered lorries with dubious breaking systems – and you have the prescription for the ultimate fun ride. Oh, by the way, taxi-drivers frown on you if you attempt to wear a seat-belt – just not macho enough! They don’t seem to work anyway. So much for the easy bit… now try crossing the road as a pedestrian. Chris has an interesting technique. He stares them in the eyes, daring them to hit him, and strides forth with the arrogance of Livingstone conquering new lands for Britain. I have tried the opposite approach, whimpering abjectly on the kerbside, looking as if I urgently need incontinence pads! This seemed to work at first, but once you have stepped off the kerb you are a toy in their arena, as cement lorries, rusty Toyota drivers, and a plethora of ex-soviet cast-off vehicles join in the fun of trying to bounce you off their bonnet. I think I prefer Chris’ approach… at least you go down “thinking of The Empire!”. §§§

The ordinary people of Astana themselves at first seem quite “stand-offish’, but in fact they are warm and generous, with a hospitality which comes from generations of having to share what little you have. Of course, as strangers we are stared at, they are not used to the concept of tourists here, even though they are themselves made up from an amalgam of many races due to centuries of invasion, counter-invasion and political expulsion. This is cool! – for the low-down on the facts and figures try visiting Chris’ blog (what the devil is a blog?). If you pop into ” www.chrismerriman.com (and click on the Kazakhstan link) ” he can take you straight into the CIA website to get all the statistics on Kazakhstan, and even have lots of facts & figures on mattresses and other obscure things! He is even promising to set up a blog for me §§§², so maybe there might even be some photos I can share as evidence to this diatribe.

Irina’s family must come in for some special mention. Her Mum & Dad have generously made us welcome, and fed us like kings. Valery, her dad, seems to have been responsible for building most of Astana – certainly some of the most creative architecture (Chris has now advised me to attach photos to this e-mail, so a couple of images are included), and his building company covers an area the size of France & Germany combined. Thanks for getting the sauna & the light switch in the kitchen completed for us Valery! Genya, (Irina’s Mum) is something in between a Structural Engineer & Architect, and she has played no mean part in the new Astana. I forgot to mention earlier on that this city has sprouted on the Steppes in the last five years, proof of which is in the way that building progresses 24/7, and construction traffic rolls past the apartment throughout the day & night. Imagine trying to sell that idea to British builders!

Of special mention must also come Babushka, Irina’s Grandmother, who is more than willing to tell you tales of the hardship of war, but still has a dry sense of humour. Despite her years she takes an active and commanding interest in the large garden which provides copious amounts of home grown vegetables. She does seem rather obsessed with everyone not sitting in drafts (which may cause a plethora of illnesses) or sitting on cold surfaces (which is a sure-fire way of getting haemorrhoids, apparently!). My thanks to Eynak the guard dog for not eating me! Spellings of names are approximate since the Russian version is beyond my comprehension. Our alphabet may not be set in tablets of stone, but theirs is set in a Cyrillic !

A word of warning though. It is the tradition to make many toasts during a meal involving gulping back your shot of vodka or cognac. THEY CHEAT! Sometimes they don’t drink the whole thing. Of course, there was me trying to keep up and represent Wales honourably, but ending having to be assisted from the proceedings. At least this was treated as not too unusual an occurrence, and no great issue was made of it in the following days. My special thanks to Carol & Irina for their tolerance and care. On the subject of food & drink though – it is pretty cool to have caviar on the table at breakfast time! I’m not sure we will be able to keep up this standard at home. One of the things I tried, in an Uzbekistan themed restaurant, was a traditional dish of horse’s milk. A bit salty but quite refreshing. Why was I the only one drinking it though? Horse meat is quite palatable though. I really don’t know why we are so prejudiced against it in the UK? (My apologies to my vegetarian daughter!)

I must not forget to mention Chris & Irina’s beautiful & stylish apartment, and in particular the bath/shower enclosure, which resembles a nuclear decontamination chamber in Houston. I lost count at thirty different water jets, which attack from devious angles. Even though Chris gave us a comprehensive guide to the controls, we still ended up jumping around, in an attempt to avoid being squirted at in the nether regions, or turning on the radio or phone. We have come a long way from a bucket with holes in the bottom.

Coming to the end of this epistle now. The next two days are going to be spent picking up some souvenirs – some curly-toed slippers for me. That is something we should warn our future visitors about…one of the eminently sensible traditions here is that everybody changes into a pair of slippers upon entering the house. Be warned! In our new home we have decided that this should be the practice. For those of you who are not aware – and my apologies for not being in touch with some people for quite a while, life has been rather frenetic – we have moved into our new home in Clydach, and hopefully the builders will have completed their work on the house in Swansea, so we can get that on the market soon.

For your info – the new address is;- Removed… if you need the info, leave a comment and I’ll pass your request on

…and the home phone number (ex-directory) is see note above

You are all more than welcome to visit. We decided against a house warming party as our daily lives are busy enough, and thought that a steady stream of friends is a better way of catching up.

Hoping that we can make it back through Heathrow with one or two bottles of liquid! We hope that you will be in contact soon.

Now I think I need to let Carol have a say!

Well, after all that, what is left to say? (A good excuse for my laziness). It’s been lovely to visit Chris and Ira and to feel welcomed back by people who already regard themselves as friends and family. Suffice it to say that Wales and all things Waleski (yes, Welsh really is Waleski) have been strongly promoted. Apart from having to get back to the grind, it will be good to get back home and resume sorting things out in the new house in Clydach and the old one in Swansea……but it will be even better to have friends and family visit us. The house is dead easy to find – even I managed it on my own first time around!

Back home Thursday 17th August pm.

Hope to see you soon. Take care

p.s. Just a quick post script following a day of amazing food in two restaurants,as we lurch our way to bed. special thanks to Oleg who superbly acted as our guide. with special thanks for trying to translate the menu. We are still trying to work out “Lambs Pluck wrapped in stomach reticulum with spices”, and ‘Savouri Georgian style sausage from cut lamb with spices & pomegranates granules”. Oleg, your Welsh was truly amazing!!! You will certainly be welcome in our home any time you can make it. A Kazakh speaking Welsh in the local pub should be worth seeing. J.””

That’s it, hope it helps some people who may be considering coming over. Or in ChrisD’s case, he can read it, then forget every line and ask me to re-send it in Messenger |-P

§§§ I promised myself I wouldn’t editorialise their e-mail, but I couldn’t resist at this point. I don’t cross the road with a British-Empire swagger. Outwardly, I maintain a confident-looking appearance, else the drivers ‘sense’ the fear and try to capitalise upon it – namely by making you stand still or sprint to a different lane whilst they drive full speed AT you… I decided it was better this way, as screaming and playing hide’n’seek with the cars tends to lead to un-predicatable results :>

§§§² We set this up the night before he left, please visit www.johnkavanagh.tk to check it out (if the link is down, please also try http://johnkavanagh.wordpress.com). Please note John is a professional photographer, so some pictures may be un-suitable for minors. (Is there any phrase more likely than that to get people to look at the site?)

Below are a few of the many photos John took on his stay here. Click the thumbnails for a larger version…

Another shot out the window.BusChris & MumOne of the President's residences
Baterak TowerGoing up in the towerTop of the towerIra's Office #2