Apr 23 2007

Kazakhstan – NOT Borat Land

Category: Kazakhstan,PersonalChrisM @ 6:46 pm

I wrote the original version of these articles when I first started this blog, last year.
Since then, some friends have asked what Kazakhstan is like, which makes me think they’ve not been delving into the older posts here.
Since originally writing it, I updated a few areas, mainly converting the currencies quoted from UK pounds sterling into US dollars, as I wanted to submit it as an article.
Anyway for those readers who came to this blog after I originally wrote it, here is the updated version…

I have written this article to help people who want to learn more about Kazakhstan. Whilst the film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan was funny, it did not paint anything like an accurate picture of this country. Some people want to learn more about Kazakhstan purely for their own education, others may be thinking of taking a vacation here. I moved to from Britain to Kazakhstan in April 2006, to Astana, where my wife’s parents live. Since then, I’ve learnt a lot, and seen many of my mis-conceptions blown away.

Things that may grab your attention whilst you’re over here:

Men nearly always shake hands upon meeting one another, even more so if it is the first time you’ve met. Women don’t. If they are family, there may be a peck on the cheek, or a quick embrace. This area is still a little fuzzy to me, so I just stand back and accept whatever comes my way :>

If someone thinks you look a little different to the accepted norm for a Russian or Kazakh person, they will simply stare at you. This shouldn’t be taken as an insult (or an invitation to get to know one another ;>). It is just if they want to get a good look, they won’t be subtle. People have different coping mechanisms for this behavioural trait. Some avert their eyes, others pretend not to notice. Still others will decide to turn it into a juvenile game. Whoever breaks the stare first loses, and you can keep a tally through the whole day you are out. Once you are up at the end of a day (18-3 for example), you can assume you’re no longer feeling like such a wimpy foreigner. Ummm, or so my friends tell me ;>

Whilst we may all joke about British manners and overly polite social standards, standing in line for something over here is an experience you’re not likely to forget very quickly. You’ll also be likely to quickly re-appraise your understanding of the term ‘line’ or ‘queue’. People will have no shame, nor should you, about pushing their way to the front of what could have been a perfectly civil and organized wait for the bus/ticket desk/shop assistant/train. I still draw the line at elderly/young people, other than that, its every queue jumper for themselves, ultimately. (This does tend to mean most elderly/young people get served/on the bus before me, but I have this thing against trampling over brittle bones/people smaller than me.)

Upon arrival/exiting the country, be it 8.30pm, 3.45am or 3pm, you’ll likely find yourselves being greeted with a small (OK, more likely a table laden with more stuff than you’d normally see for a ‘light’ meal) snack and some drinks, to celebrate your arrival/time in the country, if you are staying with people, rather than a hotel. You might not feel exactly like wolfing the whole lot down, but if you take your time, with the food and the drink, you should do fine. DON’T feel obliged to down shots of Cognac/Vodka each toast. Unless that’s your adjusting mechanism to the flights & time difference ;>

Bureaucracy – if you are on holiday, rather than emigrating, coming into and out of the country is the most likely area you’ll possibly encounter any problems. To be fair, we’ve not been stopped in a couple of years, but if they decide you look like a likely person to have violated a rule, there isn’t a great deal you can do about it. Coming into the country, they can decide not to let you in at all, and worse, leaving the country, they are only too well aware that you need to be available to get on a plane pretty soon.

Once you arrive in the country, you will need to register your presence, within 3 or 4 business days. There is nothing to worry about regarding this procedure; it is just so they can know who is officially registered where. Whilst this country is a lot ‘freer’ than it may have seemed to Westerners 15 or 20 years ago, you will have to remember that the approach taken by the government over here to maintain control of the population is not how we view ‘best practice’ in the West. Tough luck, their country, their rules, which, all in all, seems fair, if the roles were reversed, we’d not expect people to complain too excessively about our customs/social rules/laws.

Re. CDs/DVDs vs. portable hard drive. I’ve read around, and people have less difficulty taking hard drives out of the country than lots of discs, apparently. I couldn’t find any info on importing. Personally, I’ve never had a problem in either direction. There is apparently a rule, on your way out of the country, that if Customs discover discs in your luggage, they must have been previously inspected and sealed by a dept. elsewhere in Astana. You’ll need to do this four or five days before the flight. Some people stock up on cheap Software, Music and other media, though don’t forget your home country may not allow you to keep these items if they search your luggage on your return.

When in the country, you will see some people walking around in army camo fatigues, most of these people are manual labourers, who use them as hard-wearing clothes to work in. If, however, you see a group of 2-6 young men wandering in ‘urban’ colour camos (blue/purple), these are some sort of street patrollers. No idea on their legal/military/civilian status, I just make sure I’m not littering/jay-walking when I see them around :>

Then you have the regular police force, who you will see in cars (often using their PA systems as public education systems (’Drivers! Do not park here’ or ‘Move out the way NOW’)), on foot, or in little kiosks at key strategic civic points. The worst you can expect from them is a request to see your ID and/or passport.

There is also a traffic police force, who occasionally turn off the traffic lights, and get out their little wands to manually direct the traffic. Unless you intend to drive over here (don’t forget to apply for an International Driving License in the UK, if so), you can safely ignore them. Finally, you’ll occasionally see the Army guys marching round in unison, but they seem to stay off the streets for the majority of the time.

“So how much money should I bring?”
Well, not sure on total, but if I give you an idea of how much stuff costs here, you’ll be better informed to guess a holiday total I suppose… (All prices are approximate and sampled in Early 2007)

20 fags (Parliament) – $1.50
20 fags (Marlboro) – $1.00
20 fags (Russian smokable stuff) – $0.40

Bottle of coke in a shop – $0.50
Bottle of vodka in a shop – $1.60 to $8, depending on the brand (from drinkable to nice & smooth), whilst you can pay more, what’s the point?
Bottle of beer in a shop – $0.45 to $1.60 (Russian to European brands)

In a restaurant/cafe, fags, coke and beer maybe double the price, or there abouts, vodka costs approximately $4 for 200ml

PC Games/Applications/MP3 collections – $4 to $10, depending on the amount of discs in the box, and how obvious the copy is! Music CDs – About the same as American prices, normally

Taxi ride (real taxi) – $3 to $6 pounds for a 15 minute ride Taxi ride (flagging down a random car off the street) – haggle on the price, normally around 30% to 60% cheaper than a real taxi

Meal in a cafe (salad, meat dish, french fries, coke, vodka) – Between $8 and $15 per person, depending on the type of place you go to

Meal in a restaurant (same menu as above) – Between $12 and $30 pounds tops, per person. Again, you can spend more if you go high class

Obviously, if you want to get drunk, rather than merely relaxed, add more money for the extra vodka/soft drink/beer in the prices quoted above

Entrance fee to a club – $5 to $20 – basically, the more ‘exclusive’ an activity or brand is, the higher the price soars, prices for drinks in clubs are a little higher than elsewhere.

Kazakhstan is next door to China, so disposable electronic trinkets, that might last 5 years, or 5 days, are to be found in plenty of shops. If you want any ‘Kazakh’ souvenirs – cultural stuff, definitely bring along a little bit extra cash.

Re. Money – bring at least 100 euros or a little more in dollars, the rest is up to you – there are ATMs over here (don’t forget to budget for bank’s commission/charges for this service), and there are at least two places that we know of that will exchange English pounds sterling for Kazakh Tenge, and all currency exchanges obviously accept dollars.

I hope some of the above will give you an idea of what you can expect from Kazakhstan. If you want to read more, or ask a question, please feel free to visit my blog at http://www.chrismerriman.com

Chris Merriman is a Brit now living in Astana, Kazakhstan. You can read his blog at www.ChrisMerriman.com

So, any questions, or suggested corrections, do let me know, or if you’d prefer you can always e-mail me. See the Contacts page for applicable details.

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