Sunday, September 21, 2014

Practical tips for living in Astana

It has taken So.Much.Work to figure out how to get around in our new home. It makes us realize how much our friends at Google have made our lives easier. But Google doesn't get us very far yet in Astana.

We are grateful for some resources put together by the Astana International Club, and discovered relatively recently this blog and this article with some helpful advice on living in Astana.  As more English speakers spend some time here it won't be long before the ins and outs of the city are well-chronicled in our native tongue.  Consider this our own contribution to the interwebs -- things we've figured out that people here seem to be happy when we share with them.

Tip #1: A smartphone will make your life easier.  They are easy to buy here (although not yet as ubiquitous as in Los Angeles) and there is a good selection of Android phones available at electronics stores. Since we've arrived it seems like iPhones are now for sale as well. Hardware prices are higher but carrier service is much less expensive than the cost in the US. None of the phone companies offer a monthly plan and as a result there are no contracts. Simply buy a SIM card from one of the carriers and put it in your phone.

You'll add credit to your phone for calls, text and data by visiting any one of the orange ATM-like terminals, QIWI is the most common brand name of these kiosks. Key in your phone number and feed cash into the terminal. You'll get a receipt for the transaction and almost immediately a text message indicating that your phone has been credited and your new balance. The machines charge a small commission every time you add money to a maximum of 150 tenge/transaction (about 80 cents).  (The red Kaspi Bank kiosks do not charge a commission.)  Menus are only in Russian, so you'll need someone to show you how to navigate it the first time.

QIWI kiosk
Get some help to navigate the menu the first time
 Tip #2:  Google Translate app for Android phones.  (Also available for iOS.) This is a life changer.  You can install a Russian keyboard that has good swipe recognition (yes, swiping in Russian).  If you have internet data (see tip #3) on your device, you can use this app for live translation.  We've had countless exchanges that consisted of us speaking into our Google Translate app, and showing the translation to the other party...who then speaks back to have the app translate it back for us.  The translations are not perfect, but you can usually get your point across.  Life changer!

Tip #3:  Mobile phone service - calling + data.  There are 4 mobile phone carriers in KZ. Only one of these, state-controlled Kazakhtelecom has a 4G LTE license (Commercial name: Altel). (At least one carrier claims to be ready to offer LTE but is unable to get licensed to offer it; reports are that all carriers may get LTE in a year or two.)  Activ, the company we use (for no other reason than it's where the line was shorter the day we were getting local numbers), has an English-language page and customer support and offers HSDPA+ service that provides speeds somewhere between standard 3G and 4G.  Activ and KCell have common ownership.  The other carrier is called Beeline.

Each carrier has its own code:  Activ's code is "778".  Calls to your own carrier's numbers are slightly cheaper than to other carriers, so it makes sense for everyone in your family to sign up with the same carrier.

At least for Activ you can turn a weekly or a monthly data plan on or off simply by texting a code  to the company.  As of May 2014, a weekly plan that works out to about 2 Gb of data/month is about $10/month (450 tenge/week for 512 Mb). [Fun fact: we've been spending about $25/month per phone for the same amount of calling/texting/data as we use at home].

Tip #4:  Making local calls.  Landline numbers have six digits, and cellphones have seven digits. Local numbers do not require a prefix or a city code.  Instead of "1" like in the US and Canada, you must dial "8" before all cellphone and long distance numbers. Here is what this all looks like:

Landline to a landline:  six digit number
Landline to a cellphone: 8 + 3-digit cellphone carrier code + seven digit number
Cellphone to a landline: 8 + city code (7172 in Astana) + six digit number
Cellphone to a cellphone: 8 + carrier code + seven digit number

For international callers, Kazakhstan still uses the same country code as Russia, +7.  (This is supposed to change by 2020.) So, on a mobile phone, you can also use +7 instead of "8" as identified above.

Tip #5:  Getting Around.  We have multiple ways of getting around the city, ranging from:
  • a professional driver for commuting and business meetings 
  • Eko Taxi has an app you can download and use to order a cab (some of the dispatchers speak English, too). 
  • gypsy cabs/street taxis - simply stand by the side of the road and put out your hand. Someone will stop and you can negotiate a price for a ride to anywhere (usually 500 tenge on the same side of the river, or 700-1000 to cross the river), 
  • catching a ride with friends, 
  • the city buses, 
  • renting bikes, and, 
  • our own two feet.
Of these options, it is usually the least stressful to take the city bus!  Just 90 tenge (50 cents) a ride, once you figure out the bus routes that will take you to your most common destination it is *so* nice to be able to get on and get off at your destination, without having to negotiate a price and give directions (follow the link on gypsy cabs above to see what we mean). The City of Astana has a free app in English that gives real-time information on bus location so you can see when the next bus will arrive. The Infobus app also provides the same information in a slightly more user-friendly format.

Tip #6: Yandex maps. We love our Google maps. But in Astana the Google maps show up in Kazakh. and let's be honest, the street numbers aren't always correct.  The Russian-language maps provided by Yandex are much more accurate and detailed. Once you've learned to read your Cyrillic alphabet, they are not hard to use. Download these to your smartphone and you'll be able to navigate.

Tip #7. Foursquare. Again, harking back to "home," we rely on community-rating apps like Yelp to help us as we consider new restaurants, services, salons, etc. We also rely on these to find places - as in, their address, telephone number, hours of operation. Sometimes even a photo of the front of the venue so you know what you're looking for. Foursquare has a wealth of information to help you out.  And if you speak English, please add your reviews/comments as well.

Tip #8. WhatsApp. This is used by Everyone to communicate. Business colleagues. Friends. Family. Classroom Parent-Teacher associations. Super easy to use. and almost universal here. We first heard about it from a local colleague who mentioned it's the only way he communicates with his VIP clients. And the second time was when we read that it was being acquired by Facebook. And now it is a very useful communication tool for friends, colleagues and family alike.

Any other Astana-dwellers reading this? Please share your own pro tips in the comments below.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

[UPDATED] Cold Shower

Written by Kevin
[Updated below]
Should have taken a shower, washed the dishes and started the laundry last night.

Did we miss the signs? Or were they posted in our lobby or elevator in Russian and/or Kazakh that we still can only barely read? We just learned that our entire neighborhood will be without hot water until Thursday. The next couple days are our turn in the annual, routine leak testing of Astana's centralized hot water mains. (That's right Americans, the government controls the hot water supply!) Luckily we're not in the district that also loses their electricity tomorrow. 

We've had very little trouble with electricity in Astana. It has been dependable and the only outage I can remember lasted less than a couple of minutes. Our water supply less so. First, notwithstanding the city's assurances, the potability of tap water is not definitive. Bottled water is sold everywhere. Most people we know drink bottled, distilled or filtered water. We use the latter method thanks to a unit under our counter that filters and stores water which is then distributed through a separate tap on our kitchen sink. A local friend inspecting our unit tells us it uses four filters. This is particularly useful for quick access to drinking water and for washing fresh produce. It's especially appreciated looking back on our original apartment where we used boiled or bottled water to wash our food. We do brush our teeth with tap water and so far have felt no ill effects. A handful of times we have had our water supply interrupted for up to a day. Often this was followed by the need to run the taps for several minutes before the water ran clear again. I've always found the water here has a different aroma than what I was used to in the United States although I don't know why. Perhaps a different disinfection chemical? 

Hot water is a big deal in Kazakhstan. Heating in this harsh winter climate is done through Soviet style centralized pipes (recently mostly buried) that distribute hot water to home and apartment radiators from a central boiler facility so summer leak testing is very important. This "district heating" system is seasonal and operates from approximately October through May. In fact, Astana boasts of burning one million tons of coal last winter to provide heating throughout the city. The efficiency of this system is questionable. Much heat is lost in the piping network because of leakages and lack of proper thermal insulation.¹  Moreover, the heating is often overwhelming and because it cannot be controlled by a thermostat or a valve, it is normal to open or crack windows during even the coldest winter weather to cool down overheated rooms. Heating based on this model is billed by the city based on the home's registered floor space in square meters. 
Above Ground District Heating Pipes
Separate hot water lines (also supplied by the city) provide year round hot tap water for bathing, washing, etc. As a renter whose landlord pays the water bill, this provides us with genuinely endless supplies of hot water and no incentive to conserve. And that hot tap water is what we are missing on this 61° F (16° C) mostly cloudy July day in Astana. 

Shall we boil water in our electric kettle for a bath? 

Update: This afternoon the following sign belatedly appeared in our elevator advising that due to hydraulic leak and pressure testing our hot water will be turned off from 7 am today until midnight on July 31.  That's 65 hours without hot water and with no advance notice. <sigh>

Saturday, July 5, 2014

[UPDATED] Peek-a-boo!

By Kevin

[Updated: To correct broken links] Take a look at our courtyard. We'd intended to set up a webcam months ago but after moving from our initial apartment we ended up with a nicer place to live with a less spectacular view. Nonetheless, there's no point in hiding the camera in a closet so it's now live with a view from our guest room overlooking half our apartment's large courtyard. While the view out of other windows is better, for practical reasons (WiFi, electrical outlets, cords, etc.) we have settled on this location. If we find a better way to show you a part of Astana we'll consider moving it.

(Link to a current still image in the sidebar)

Do you like the traffic pattern below us? Does Kazakh parking confuse you? How's the weather? Do you have a webcam to show us? What do you think? Leave your comments below.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Sidewalk (& Parking) Culture

by Kevin

The forecast for today is sunny with a high of 95° F (35° C). It's hard to remember that a few months ago it was -40° F (-40° C). With summer in full swing, the hours of daylight in Astana are many and people are outside making up for months of arctic winter hibernation. It's much faster and easier to walk around town now than in winter, not just due to the warmer weather but because you get to use the full width of a sidewalk that doesn't have to be shoveled of snow and because there's no danger of slipping on patches of ice.

Summer; however, doesn't solve all pedestrian challenges. In fact some things actually get worse. Kazakhstanis like the Chinese have a habit of spitting on the sidewalk. In a culture that eschews blowing your nose in public, one must dodge vile globs of spittle. Apparently these were not visible on the snow and ice. (No photos necessary.) Nicer weather also brings outdoor construction and repair work. Much of that creates new obstacles to avoid.

That's quite a trench and moms pushing strollers navigate this too. Cross at your own risk.  

Was this filled with snow in winter?

And not to be forgotten, Astana has a parking culture in which cars constantly block sidewalks and crosswalks.

Yes, that car is parked-in by cars blocking the driveway.

And then there are sidewalks that just don't connect to anything.

Parking regulations and even parking meters are reported to be coming to Astana before the end of this year. Will Astana pedestrians see improvements?

Saturday, June 7, 2014

[UPDATED] The other Kazakhstan, or a trip outside of Astana

by Robyn

We are urban dwellers. City people. and while I won't turn down a trip to a National Park, I'm not usually the one initiating those outings. And if like me, your tendency is to define "somewhere" as a metropolitan destination, Astana is in the middle of nowhere! Karaganda (population 465,000) is 3.5 hours by train (or longer in the winter).  Almaty, the closest legitimate city (1.5 million people), is 800 miles or an 1.5 hour flight away.

So, a combination of visa runs, settling in, and winter weather have meant that we have spent our time in Kazakhstan almost exclusively in Astana.  But! during the recent two week holiday period, a local friend invited us on a daytrip. Our first roadtrip!  Destination: Borovoe / Burabay.


A note:  most places now have Russian names and Kazakh names. This has added to our confusion and adds to the challenge of figuring things out.  It's usually easier for me to use the Russian names, although "Astana" is a Kazakh name.

Borovoe is the one destination within an easy distance of Astana that is being developed as a bonafide tourist destination.  

About 250 kilometers north northwest of Astana along a new, fast highway (tolls are rumored to be introduced in the next few years), Borovoe is a mountain resort with lakes, rocks, and a fair number of groomed trails. Winter sports focus on snow, and summer sports center on the water. 

Borovoe is the most common name for the area, which includes Lake Schuchinsk and Lake Borovoe, and a few small communities stretching along their shores, with smaller lakes in the near vicinity.  At a higher altitude than the Steppe, there are birch and pine forests, it's being marketed as "the Switzerland of Kazakhstan.". (It is a lovely place, but definitely not Switzerland.)   Accommodations range from the swish ($500+/night) to the rustic, and it seems that parking is a problem everywhere.

Daytrippers! Photo credit: Robyn
But I'm getting ahead of myself.  There's a lot of Kazakhstan between Astana and Borovoe!

Days are long at this time of year, and we took advantage, setting off with Sasha & Natasha, and Yegor & Aliya at 7am. Winding our way out of Astana, in just 15 minutes we were beyond our usual destinations, showing me how small our world has shrunk in the winter months.  

And Astana itself is bigger than I'd realized.  The older city has a residential core and gives way to industrial outskirts, finishing in municipal complexes, perhaps showing where the city expects to grow to in just a few years' time.  There are no big roads, not by Los Angeles standards at least, until we hit the highway which doesn't have a link to the central city.

And it doesn't take long until we see The Steppe. Wide, open spaces. Grasslands.  (Looks a lot like Nebraska to me.)  

Our driver is a chain smoker which meant we stopped about every hour or less for a break, at rest areas, service stations or the like.  Fine by me. 

Rest Area WC

About 9am our stop coincided with something that sounds like "butter bread"... a breakfast of savory open-face sandwiches of sausage and cheese, sliced cucumbers, and tea, of course.  (There's always tea).

No running water?
As we turn off the new road to head up to the lake, we stop for water in a village. and we immediately realize how little of Kazakhstan we've seen. And why Kazakhstan is considered a developing country.  

Far different from the space age architecture of Kazakhstan, this village is a step back in time.  The older homes are wood with detail and decoration, and "modern updates" of tin fences and the odd satellite dish. The newer homes are Soviet-era concrete block construction, making the dilapidated wooden homes seem like a row of quaint Victorians. 

Main street
Our water stop is on a half-paved road at a pump in the middle of the street. I presume there is running water in many of the homes, but Yegor tells me that his parents only got indoor plumbing two years ago, so maybe not?  The locals have seen it all before and we don't linger, but head up the road to the lake. 

Sasha and Natasha have been visiting the area for 20 years, and know lovely places to take us. 

First stop: at the throne of Ablay Khan.  A distant descendant of Genghis Khan, he was the leader who united the tribes of what is today northern Kazakhstan.  His ancient throne lies in a small valley ringed by rock formations, and marked by a white column with a golden eagle on top.  

Surrounded by a hedgehog-shaped hill (Do you see it?)

Up a small path is a sacred rock. If you circle it 7 times and throw a coin, Your Wish Will Come True. 

None of our friends know what these new markers are meant to represent.

Heritage marker
 Subsequent stops are hikes along rock walls, through pine forest, birch forests, on the lakeshore, at a local market, or for views of the famous rock formations.

The ladies. Natasha, Robyn, Aliya

lovestruck graffiti is universal

Make a wish by tying a ribbon on the tree
Kevin among the spruce

Smoked fish for sale

Farmer's market with produce for sale from Russia

Still a little snow on May 1

On the shores of Lake Schuchinsk
We had to laugh - there are multiple legends about the rock formations at one end of Lake Borovoe...they are three sisters, they are an old woman, they are a prince turned into a crocodile, they are a mystery, they are...apparently Kazakh people love their legends.

Pick a legend
Our last two stops were for good eats!  First, for shashlik at their favorite Turkish place, and last, as their family tradition, for blini, before making the journey back to Astana.

"Shashlik" - although we didn't have it here, I just liked the sign
We didn't eat her shashlik either

Blinis (and of course more tea)

Cafe Petrovich
Just a day, but a glimpse of the rest of the country...newly motivated to explore some more!  Our future plans include trains, planes and automobiles to see more of the country. 

By the way, wherever we go, we will not forget to bring our mosquito repellant - those insects are HUGE here.

UPDATED: Borovoe is north northwest of Astana. 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

You gotta have faith

by Robyn and Kevin

I'm sitting on our couch, laptop open at 6:44pm on a Monday, listening to some sounds of the city through open windows. Car alarms. Children playing on the playground in the courtyard. and today, when the wind is blowing in the right direction, the call to prayer.

To me, it remains a novelty to hear the call to prayer. It's only when I'm home at the right time of day with the windows open and the wind blowing the right way, usually a mellow chant carried by an evening breeze.

Urban Kazakhstan seems to be pretty secular, but Kazakhs are traditionally Muslim. Now that we're past the season of coats and hoods, we are noticing more signs of religious observance, mostly in the form of women wearing headscarves. In the city it's a small percentage (maybe 2-3%) and tends to be older women, but I suspect it's a higher proportion in villages.  Of our acquaintances and friends here, none have discussed attending religious services or personal faith with us, although my Kazakh colleagues seem to expect that major life events, particularly weddings will be held at the mosque.

I think 95% of the mosques I have visited in my life have been in the company of our dear friend, Diane ... including the mosques of Kazakhstan. Thanks to Diane I have learned that many mosques, including Astana's, are open to the public. When entering the prayer areas, you'll remove your shoes and women will have to cover their head and/or body depending on the mosque.  Diane and I spent a weekend in Almaty in January and caught the end of the late afternoon prayer at a large mosque near Panfilov Park where we were warmly welcomed by the women, and even given some books on Islam.

Astana has two showcase mosques near the national mall in the middle of the city.  At one end the Nur-Astana Mosque, is a gift of the Emir of Qatar. At the other, a stone's throw from the White House (and ironically showcased in our photos from the military parade on Defending the Fatherland Day) is the Hazret Sultan Mosque.

Nur-Astana Mosque

Hazret Sultan Mosque
(Fun fact: the Hazret Sultan Mosque has a surprisingly tasty and reasonably priced restaurant. No, you can't get pork.)

There is also a much smaller mosque down the street from us.

Our Neighborhood (Chubary) Mosque
Other faiths are represented in Astana as well. We sometimes pass by the Assumption (Russian Orthodox) Cathedral, and the Beit Rachel Synagogue.

Assumption Cathedral

Cathedral of Our Mother of Perpetual Help (Catholic)

Beit Rachel Synagogue
There is a small group of members of our own Christian faith here, and services are regularly held in a rented space in a three-story commercial building.  Proselytizing in Kazakhstan is not allowed except by individuals who receive government permits to preach. There are currently four full-time young volunteers working in Astana (2 men and 2 women) who are part of a group based in Novosibirsk, Russia, as well as a retired couple working on humanitarian projects.  The local community consists of about a dozen natives, and a rotating group of expats, typically families either working for the US government or at a local university. This group is so small it is not an official congregation, rather a sub-unit affiliated with a congregation in Almaty, 800 miles away.

Some have recently questioned the government's comfort with religious beliefs outside of the main sanctioned religions. A US government official has even raised the matter in relation to a law that took effect about two years ago requiring all religions to re-register with the Kazakh government.

Have you ever attended worship services in a foreign country? 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Ladies and Gentlemen...

by Robyn

Part of the fun of living abroad are the opportunities that sometimes arise simply because "you're not from around here."  One friend hosted a radio program when she was one of just two foreigners living in a third-tier Chinese city. Another became a regular on a morning TV program in Japan. One time in Korea, my travel companions were interviewed for the nightly news for their thoughts on the kimchi festival we attended that day (slow day in news?). And over the course of the years I've been wined and dined or upgraded (and yes, downgraded, too) simply for being a foreigner.

The latest in our personal chronicle of Expat Adventures came about this week.  A friend's husband is very involved with the local classical music scene, and through this connection we helped review some of the translations of promotional materials for a new competition for young pianists, the Astana Piano Passion (alas, we were not asked to comment on the competition name!). 

This contest seems to be a pretty well-funded initiative, consistent with impressive levels of spending in support of the arts locally. Astana regularly brings in world-class musicians for performances to grace the stages of its arts venues include both the neo-classical Opera House and the Manfredi Nicoletti-designed National Concert Hall, the former dripping with gold leaf, crystal chandeliers and marble floors, the latter with Steinway grand pianos and state-of-the-art acoustics.

Inside the Opera House
Opera House foyer

Kazakhstan National Concert Hall

Kazakhstan National Concert Hall foyer
Under the Artistic Direction of Denis Matsuev, a pretty big deal in the classical music world and in the Russian-speaking world (Fun Fact #1: he played during the Olympics closing ceremonies at the Sochi Games; Fun Fact #2: he's played at the Hollywood Bowl), in its first year it drew mostly a regional (i.e., Russian-speaking) crowd. Now in its second year, the contestants and jury members included those from Europe, Korea, Japan, China, in addition to Georgia, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine...and of course, Kazakhstan.

Denis Matsuev Plays Sochi Winter Olympics Closing Ceremony
Denis Matsuev in Sochi
Taking place over a week, the competition consisted of opening and closing showcase concerts, live semi-final rounds, master classes and social activities for the contestants, and a final round of competitions. Prizes include cash for contestants - and in a nice touch, their teachers, as well as scholarships to music summer camps and festivals, in addition to all expense-paid trips to Astana for the event itself.  Much of the program was livestreamed on the internet.  Altogether it's a pretty impressive effort.

In addition to a glamorous Kazakh & Russian-speaking hostess, they also wanted an English-speaking host. And none other than the silver-toned Kevin got the job. 
Kevin on stage announcing at the Kazakhstan National Concert Hall
For all of the competition rounds, Kevin found himself introducing the jury, the contestants and their programs - which was harder than it sounds. Try your hand at some of the contestant names:

Sanzharali Nurlanaliuly Kopbayev 
Gleb-Joseph Sergeevich Romanchukevich 
Sanzhar Mukhtarovich Zulруkharov 

And, for the musicians out there, try your hand at some of the contestant's pieces.  The 10-17 year old pianists were required to choose a piece by a Kazakhstani composer.  Bonus: sheet music is available for free download.

I was able to attend a number of the events as well, and wander between backstage with Kevin the front of the stage to watch the musicians.  We certainly saw our share of Tiger Moms - those prodigies are not all self-created!, and sweet the tiny Japanese pianist who came out on stage in her fancy floor-length gown but before she could play she got under the piano to install her own pedal booster... and then got back down to disassemble and take it with her after playing her pieces.  

But our favorite musician, both backstage and from the audience, was the gracious and talented Alexandru-Cadmiel Boţac, from Romania.  You may want to remember his name. 
Alexandru-Cadmiel Boţac
Backstage, Kevin noted that he was the calmest and friendliest of all the musicians. (He also spoke English very well, which made it possible to chat with him), and while his mother was with him, we only learned who she was on the final day of competition. No Tiger Mom there.  And from an audience-member perspective, I'm certainly not an expert, but it was clear to me that his performances were compelling - more controlled in dynamics, strong technique, and really, the most sophisticated of the contestants. The audience and orchestra gave him a standing ovation for his final round performance and wouldn't stop until he played an encore, one of his own compositions.  I won't be surprised to hear of him going far.

We attended the Closing Concert as "civilians" and enjoyed seeing the kids we've been watching all week receive their awards.  Alas, due to a doozy of a cold I passed on the Gala, and Kevin, always the gentleman, escorted me home as well.  We were sad to miss the final opportunity to celebrate with our favorite prodigies.

In case you are now so interested that you want to know more, the final concert is posted on YouTube, featuring performances by all the first prize winners, Denis Matsuev, and the Astana Symphony. There are probably worse ways to spend two hours, but not sure that it merits a full screening. For a flavor of the announcers you just have to go a few minutes in... as Kevin doesn't speak Kazakh he wasn't eligible to do this event, but he's already been asked to host again next year if we're still in Astana.

And if you know any talented young pianists, tell them to start preparing.  The next competition will take place at the same time next year.

Piano prodigies. and 10 year old boys.