Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A Little Dirty Laundry

Last night I loaded up our front load washing machine with clothes and detergent and started it up. Later I went to empty it but instead found the door locked and full of wet clothes with water above the bottom of the door. What? Is it broken like our brand new dishwasher? Did the power go out? Did I break it?  

Can you read this?
"без слива"/No Drain

After playing with the dial and buttons that are labeled in Russian and running through two more cycles, I still couldn't open the door -- or get the water to drain. The Russian-only owners manual was of no help. What to do? Too late to introduce myself (in Russian?) to the neighbors and ask for help. Aghhhhhhh! I need some clean clothes. 

Come morning I had some great suggestions from facebook friends but still couldn't get it open. Many thanks to everyone for their help. Finally, problem solved. My Russian speaking sister-in-law was key to getting us back into clean underwear. I had somehow set the machine for без слива (No Drain) (or in English speak "Rinse & Hold") and that's exactly what it did for all three cycles that I ran it. (Interestingly, I had helped her a few years ago in Shanghai (上海) translate her washing machine markings from Chinese into English.) Later and with great difficulty, I finally found an English language manual for a similar model washer on the LG Pakistan website. I'll be better prepared for my next laundry adventure.

Our now empty washing machine.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Our first visit to the notary

We mentioned earlier that there are a number of notaries around, which was probably a sign of what it takes to do business in Kazakhstan.  Sure enough, on our first day in country, where do we find ourselves but at the notary!

In addition to the suitcases we traveled with, we have an air freight shipment coming, but before it can be sent, we've had to provide several documents including copies of our passports, migration card & visas, letter of invitation to work in Kazakhstan and last, but not least, a power of attorney to the shipping agent to act as our representative. This last document is what required notarization.

In talking through the procedures with our local helpers, they were surprised to learn that notaries are somewhat hard to find in the USA.  "They're everywhere here," they say.

And sure enough, there is a notary in my office building. So Kevin & I head there first with our power of attorney in hand.  We are greeted by a young woman who takes the document, reads it thoroughly and then says no (actually "nyet" was what she said).  Just then, her colleague walks in, takes the document, reads it thoroughly and then says no, accompanied by head-shaking. We couldn't figure out through sign language why head-shaking was necessary but clearly it was a waste of time to linger. (We did note that both of these normal-sized women share one normal-sized desk. Cozy?!).

With the help of the English-speaking desk clerks in the lobby we learn that the onsite notary is out on maternity leave so no notarizing is going on.  (They couldn't help us understand how it was that two women are working full-time when the notary is gone but...)

As we had heard, there are notaries everywhere, so after fetching our coats we set off for a notary across the street.  Or try to.  We are stymied by a security buzzer.

Luckily a local Kazakh helps us get in and find the notary on the third floor. We follow her up the elevator and around the corner, and together we sit in the notary's "waiting room," chairs in the hallway.  We assume that she is also waiting for the notary, but after a few minutes, she gets a call on her cellphone and leaves.  We're still not clear if she was just helping us or had her own commission for the notary.

At last, our turn.  The notary is a middle-aged woman with manicured nails sitting behind a desk laden with old-fashioned lined registers in a windowless room.  "English?" we ask. She shakes her head no. But we pull out our document to be notarized.  She takes it, reviews it (it's in Russian), asks for our passports, starts typing away.  A few questions we can answer, but then we get stuck. We just don't understand what she's asking.  I (Robyn) have forgotten to bring my local cellphone so can't call a colleague for translation.  I'm afraid it's over and we'll have to leave, but the notary picks up her phone, talks and then hands it to me.

I hear: "Hello, this is Mohammed.  She asked me to ask you a few questions..."  Hurrah!

We confirm a few of the details, but simply do not know the Date of Birth of the shipping agent we are giving power of attorney to (really?  we have to know the date of birth?).

So, it's back to the office, a colleague to the rescue to get all the details we need.  Updated document in hand, it's back across the street for a final review.

The notary takes our document and produces her own. Sign here, sign here. and we get three stamps to make her version official.  Then we sign her register, one name on each line (I did it wrong and had to redo my signature).

Total time: 2 hours
Total trips to the office: 3
Total stamps: 4
Total signatures: 6
Total cost: $12

It wasn't efficient but we got what we needed, and got news today that the shipment was greenlighted. We hope we'll get it before Christmas.

Ukrainian is NOT Russian -- but it's more similar than English

Suddenly I (Kevin) find myself needing to speak and understand Russian. It's no small thing as I've read (and my experience confirms) that less than 5% of the Kazakhstan population speaks English well. Some of the most basic tasks have become remarkably challenging without verbal communication. For example, try to tell the landlady that the new dishwasher has been foolishly connected to the cold rather than hot water line. (She ended up calling an electrician instead of a plumber.)

To avoid just this situation, I've gathered a number of materials to study Russian before leaving the US. Russian -- that's the obvious choice by the way. While Kazakh is the official language of Kazakhstan, only about 60% of the population speaks it. Russian is almost universally spoken, especially in the capital city Astana and it is considered a semi-official language by the government. The country's ties to the former Soviet Union die hard and there is apparently concern that a Kazakh-only Kazakhstan will result in the loss of the ethnic Russian population that includes a disproportionate number of the country's technical talent.

Now I just need to spend more time reading, memorizing and practicing some fundamental words and phrases. Robyn is convinced that I have a natural talent for this stuff, but I'm not so sure. Firstly, I have enough Mandarin crammed in my brain that I reflexively want to spit out Chinese when I'm surrounded by Asians that don't speak English. (That only worked once here when we had dinner at a Chinese restaurant.) And honestly, so far I haven't tried very hard.

All four of my grandparents grew up speaking Ukrainian, a language the linguists consider a close relative of Russian, and both my mom and dad spoke or heard enough of it as children to speak it with their parents or at home when they didn't want me or my siblings to know what they were talking about. When I was young, probably six years old, my grandmother started taking me to a Saturday Ukrainian school, perhaps with the idea that I would be fluent in no time. Well things didn't go quite as planned. I found myself stuck for hours with kids that spoke Ukrainian fluently and didn't want anything to do with the kid that only spoke English. I complained often and loud enough that my grandmother finally stopped taking me. The point is that while I don't speak Ukrainian, over my lifetime I've seen more than the average American does of the Cyrillic alphabet and heard the shch, rolled r's and guttural h sounds common to both of these Eastern Slavonic languages. And is that a blessing or a curse? Perhaps a little of each. I've found myself using the occasional Ukrainian word here because it was more likely to work than English and sometimes it has -- especially at the deli counter. ;-P  Other times the different pronunciation or stress in Russian for even similar words leaves me looking at blank stares. And of course, most of the time I just can't say anything.

That's my welcome to Kazakhstan. Robyn, let's start learning Russian.

Any advice from the Russian speakers out there? 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013


Some of you have asked for our mailing address to share some Christmas greetings, which has led us to try and find our mailing address...which has been harder to identify than expected!

We first asked our landlady where the mailbox is as she hadn't given a key, there's no mail slot in our door, and we haven't seen any mailboxes.  We were confused by her response: that a courier would leave a message at our door if we weren't home.  As we've asked other local contacts, we get the same kind of response: apparently Kazakhs don't really get snail mail. For important documents they use courier services (e.g., DHL, FedEx), and for everything else they just...don't get mail? 

We still find this hard to believe, but we can't find a mailbox in our building, nor have we seen signs of any mail delivery in the form of mailtrucks or mail carriers. We did walk past a lone, small KazPost mailbox on Sunday that looked like this, but it wasn't getting any business in the moments we observed it.

At the same time, we would love to get your cards and letters. So, we've been advised to have anything for either of us sent to my attention at my office address, which is:

Tetra Tech
29/1 Kunayev Street,
Diplomat Business Center, 12th Floor, Suite 14
Astana, Kazakhstan 010000

The Astana International Club advises laying out mailing addresses as follows - although I'm not sure it will make it out of other countries quickly if so labelled:

zip/post code
street, house number, and then 
the person's name.

We would love to get a letter from you if you want to try and send it by regular (US?) post...and we'd be interested to report on how long it takes for mail to arrive.  

Meanwhile, please accept our electronic wishes for a Merry Christmas & Season's Greetings to you!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Happy Kazakhstan Independence Day!

We are enjoying a four-day weekend to celebrate Kazakhstan's independence day, December 16th.

Kazakhstan has historically been populated by nomads, and had a few conquerors over the centuries, most notably Genghis Khan (in the 1200s) and later the Russians (mid 1800s).  In 1936, Kazakhstan become formally the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, part of the Soviet Union.  When the Soviet Union dissolved, Kazakhstan was the last of the former Soviet Republics to declare its independence, but it did so on December 16, 1991.

Today celebrations seem to include lots of sales at local stores.  And allegedly concerts.

Several websites describes holiday celebrations like this:
The president and government, accompanied by politicians and public figures, usually head festivities in the presidential palace, Ak Orda, in Astana, capital city of Kazakhstan. Kazakhs celebrate Independence Day by dressing in traditional clothes. The villages set up a yurt, a kind of elaborate tent used by the nomad Kazakhs. Meals are served in the yurt – a dish of horse meat called beshbarmak is very popular. Kazakhs take the opportunity of the day off to visit friends and family, bringing gifts like flowers or candies. It is usual to organize tournaments with traditional games like horse races surrounded by other amusing activities and popular games.
For us the only evidence of celebration we've seen so far is longer-than-usual traffic jams at the mall across the street.  Still hoping to see a parade. or a yurt.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The tree of life

Astana's icon is the "Baiterek," or the "tree of life."  Since the Baiterek looms over our apartment and my office, and Sunday was a sunny clear day, we made it our first sightseeing stop.

Conceived by Kazakhstan's president himself, this monument is the icon of the new capital.  Standing 97 meters high to represent the year in which Astana was named the capital (1997), the Baiterek represents a poplar tree holding a golden egg.  Can you see it now?

This depicts a Kazakh folk tale of a sacred bird, the Samruk, that lays a golden egg in the tree every night. But, the golden egg is really the sun, and this is what creates day and night, and thus life.

The star-chitect of the monument was Sir Norman Foster who's had a hand in a number of Astana's iconic buildings.  Opened in 2002, the Baiterek has three levels:

1. the underworld - you enter the monument through an underground entrance
2. the terrestrial - the pillar that you rise through to reach...
3.  the celestial - the golden glass ball at the top, that functions as an observatory.

Baiterek sits in the middle of a landscaped block smack dab in the middle of Astana's central axis.  We joined Kazakh tourists - mostly families and wedding parties - for a visit to the top.  For 500 tenge per person (about $3 each), we walked right up to the glassfront elevator, no waiting, and rode to the top - 86 meters, which is what, about 25 stories tall?

In the observatory there are again 3 levels.  On the highest level we watched all the locals pose for photos with:

1) the wooden globe...this was signed by 17 representatives of major world religions who participated in an international conference of religions Kazakhstan hosted in 2010 in its Palace of Peace and Reconciliation.

2) "Golden Handshake" - put your hand in the gold-covered handprint of Kazakhstan's president Nursultan Nazarbayev.  If you are a visiting dignitary they will play the national anthem for your handholding moment.  They did not play it for us :-).

For the first time we got a sense of the city's size and its master plan.  The new space-age city is on the Left Bank of the Ishim River (Russian: Иши́м; Kazakh: Esil), the older mostly Soviet-built city is on the Right Bank, with power plants smoking in the distance. 

The Baiterek sits in the middle of a 3 mile long narrow rectangular park in the new city, reminiscent of the National Mall in Washington, DC, with its icons being the Pyramid-shaped Palace of Peace & Reconciliation at one end, the White House called "Ak Orda", the Baiterek, the headquarters of the National Oil & Gas Company, and the Khan Shatyr, the world's largest tent.  Each of these is worthy of its own visit (and post) - stay tuned.  Despite the reflections, these pics hopefully give a sense of the scale of the city's park. 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Dressing for the cold

We've been here just a few days, but the weather has changed multiple times every day.

The night we arrived we had to walk through slush to get to the car - it was 5 degrees Celsius and the snow on the ground was melting to puddles of slush. But not salty slush! Due to Astana's high water table, there are concerns that road salt will contaminate the water and kill the new city's many young trees. Look for scattered sand or finely crushed stone to provide some friction between your footwear and the icy ground.

The next day it was a preview of January... blowing snow and 42 mph winds! Astana's record low recorded temperature is -59 degrees Fahrenheit!

Temperatures have otherwise varied from -2 degrees Fahrenheit to the high 30s (hardly L.A. weather, but it has felt warmer).

We are still learning how the locals dress for the cold.  Our apartment looks over a pretty busy street and as we're on the 5th floor we can see people walking down the sidewalk or waiting at the bus shelter any time we are about to head out.

The most common coat for men seems to be a black or blue down parka with a fur-trimmed hood.  For women it's a black down insulated knee-length coat with a belt and some fur trim.

Lots of boots - dressy, Uggs, and snow boots.

Many people wear gloves if it gets below 30 degrees. But the one thing that's universal is hats!  Everyone is wearing a hat at every temperature so far. And many of them are fabulous, frothy fur confections.

For men, it's variations of the ushanka.

For women, it's the Cossack hat. A round pillbox.

We still have to figure out what goes on the feet...there is serious ice out there!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

You've got mail

We intend to provide updates a few times a week, but if you've been following us to date you'll see that can be erratic.  Should you want any updates pushed to you, you can follow our blog by submitting your email address in the right column on the homepage of our blog. Then watch for an email and click the link in it to activate your subscription.

Thanks for following along...and we would love to hear from you as well.

Any Kazakhstan questions you'd like us to blog about?

Monday, December 9, 2013


We made it.

A red-eye from L.A., Thanksgiving week in Rochester, a whirlwind stop in DC for training, a layover in Frankfurt.  We reached Astana just after midnight the morning of Thursday, December 4 with five suitcases, 4 carry-ons, 3 laptops, and one winter coat. (One misdirected suitcase unfortunately sat in a UPS hub somewhere in Virginia and we are today still anxiously awaiting its delivery.)

Astana's airport is new and with room to grow. This means it's still small.  This also means we made it through customs, collected our bags and were on the well-lit road to our new home within 30 minutes of touching down.  (The same process in L.A. could easily take 2 hours!). Our driver, Sasha, met us at the airport with "Saint Ilya," a giant with a minivan who lugged our heaviest suitcase (*exactly* 70 lbs!) like it was a small sack of potatoes.  Swoosh, whoosh. In the cars. Swoosh, whoosh. To our new apartment. Swoosh, whoosh. Up to the fifth floor. Swoosh. Bags inside. Whoosh. Sasha is saying "goodbye."  And we are left to our own devices.

We find ourselves parched and exhausted from the long trip in an overheated apartment covered with a fine layer of dust from the recent renovations and without any running water.  A quick tour later and we have found four sets of spigots in the apartment but can't  figure which ones control the taps. No bottled water with us.  No stores open. Too late to call Sasha. No help available from the hotel I stayed at previously (except for offering their last available room for $582 until noon checkout).

Not a life or death situation but in the moment, all we wanted was a hot shower, a cool drink, and a rest. You've been there, right?

And then the heavens opened and angels started singing as we noticed a small hotel sign in the courtyard of our complex.  We walked over intending to book a room if they had one.  No vacancy, but we were happy to find some bottled water for sale.  With the thought of some fresh water to brush our teeth enough to get us through the night, we headed back home to settle in until morning.

And since then we've been doing just that...settling in, which has largely consisted of cleaning that fine layer of dust from our new place.  It will take a bit to make this apartment our own, but we look forward to doing just that.

When would you like to come visit?

Monday, November 18, 2013

A visit to the US Embassy

Everything in Astana is sparkly and new. Including the US Embassy.

The U.S. Embassy, Astana, Kazakhstan

While much of Astana is under construction, the Embassy seems to be at the edge of the current new city, although not far from the Kazakh White House.  And, a bit of a fortress.

When you arrive, the entrance is slightly set back from the street.  There's a (bulletproof) glass window in the driveway through which you show your passport to a security guard behind a window to make sure you're on the list to gain access to the building.  Then you get admission to the security building where you enter, take off all your metal objects (but not shoes) and go through metal detectors, just like in an airport...but here you have to surrender any cellphone, camera and/or laptop, leaving it with the security guards. They'll put it in a locker and give you the key. The guards then call your escort, who walks down from the Embassy building and takes you to your destination, probably back to the Embassy building itself.  Once in the Embassy proper you again have to show your badge to a Marine behind a bullet-proof window who will then buzz you into the main part of the building.

The Embassy is part of a good-sized compound with a large circular driveway dividing several buildings within its fenced area.  At the other end of a grassy field we could see the Ambassador's residence, some Marine barracks, and a few other small buildings in addition to the ones described above.

The guards are local Kazakhs, but there are lots of Americans around including some doing maintenance. We talked to them as they were coming in and out of the security building, apparently checking wiring and lighting.

The Embassy itself is bright and shiny and looks brand-new, although it was built in 2006.  We met our local contact and his team, and then asked about the American community in Astana.  There is a Community Liaison who produces weekly publications of varying details about events, activities and news of interest to Americans. We saw flyers for an upcoming happy hour and holiday events in and around the Embassy, and it sounds like when the weather is nice there are outdoor parties on the Embassy grounds as well.

When leaving the building, we retraced our steps with our escort - but noticed there are dozens of cherry trees on the grounds.  While these are currently bearing frozen fruit, it gives a sense of how beautiful it will be in milder temperatures.

Have you ever visited a US Embassy abroad?

Friday, November 15, 2013

Doing business in Kazakhstan

As an indicator of what it will be like to do business here, I've now learned the word in Russian for notary. нотариус Why? Because there are more notaries per square inch than there are Starbucks in Seattle. You cannot believe how many notaries there are!

Allegedly documents need not only signatures but they also need to be stamped - and each company, no matter how large or small -- is issued *one* stamp.  

There is automation, but much more in the way of manual processing of information.  I heard from the national government today that companies give them information in a paper format that gets sent to their office in Almaty where it is then transcribed by a human.  (I guess we can still do this for our federal income taxes, but how tedious!)  Or another example: when I was checking in for my flight from Almaty to Astana, I had to pay for a second bag...which required me to take my boarding pass to another counter, pay for the baggage in cash, get a handwritten note on my boarding pass that I'd paid, and then return to the original counter to get my passport back and my bags tagged.  

Also different from in the US: when employees are hired they negotiate their net pay only.  Employers pay all of the taxes and benefits for each employee directly to the government.  It seems that people do not generally know what their gross salary is, only the net.  

Meetings are scheduled by cellphone and/or text message.  Maybe we will find out this is different after time in-country, but it doesn't seem like voicemail is common - you either get a live person or you send a text message.

Would you prefer to never have to check your voicemail? It could be nice...

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Where to go?

So, half the fun in moving is the chance to explore a new corner of the world.  Kazakhstan is so far from anywhere we know or have been... the closest either Kevin or I have been to Kazakhstan is a 5-6 hour flight away (New Delhi, Abu Dhabi, Beijing).  Admittedly Astana is far from anything else (hello, 600 miles to the next big city and former Kazakh capital, Almaty), and with a new job vacation time is scarcer than we've become accustomed to...so it is time to revive the long weekend.  There are a handful of driveable destinations from Astana, but for the most part we will be flying places.

For safety reasons, we are only supposed to fly on international carriers (British Airways, KLM and Lufthansa are the only ones that fly to Kazakhstan) or Air Astana.  And the domestic airline is the only one with regional flights...so we have signed up for their frequent flyer program, and let's see where they may take us. Air Astana has direct flights from the capital to

Baku, Azerbaijan
Tashkent, Uzbekistan
Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
Urumqi, China
Novosibirsk, Russia

as well as a few cities you might have actually heard of:  Istanbul, Abu Dhabi, Kiev, Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Frankfurt.

It does seem like Americans need a visa to visit most of the countries in this part of the world (Azerbaijan, China, Russia, Uzbekistan).  But not Kyrgyzstan. So maybe that will be our first destination.  Kyrgyzstan is supposed to be a good place to buy carpets and felt crafts.  But we don't need visas to go to Ukraine, either. And my sister, Amy, is living in Oman...

Where should we go first?

Monday, November 11, 2013

"Ethnic" food

Our favorite dumpling house has just opened a third location in the Los Angeles metro area.  In its honor, Kevin sent me a link to an article by LA Times food writer Jonathan Gold's favorite dumplings (鼎泰豐的小籠包).  Makes me hungry just thinking about it!  In Los Angeles we are so used to having a spectrum of food options... we regularly enjoy regional Chinese, regional Mexican, Thai, Vietnamese, Armenian.  Not a month goes by that we don't savor at least these cuisines, in addition to what we cook ourselves and our comfort foods (pizza, pasta, BBQ, In-N-Out Burger).  And, there are plenty of times we simply want Korean. or Indian. or...you get the idea. So, how will we fare in Kazakhstan?

In Astana, there seems to be a number of legitimate restaurants with atmosphere, service, high quality ingredients and preparation...but they cater to the business crowd, or rather, the expense account crowd.  It is not cheap to eat out here.  From what I've seen so far entrees are $20-30, and appetizers are $12-18.  Not Michelin star restaurant prices, but expensive for the level of the restaurant.

To date I've seen a handful of larger, experiential restaurants - with live music, performers, almost theme-park like decorations.  For instance, I visited a Ukrainian restaurant, Melnitsa, that has a lit windmill on its exterior and a small courtyard with pens for animals and plots for vegetable growing. Inside the very large restaurant there is a barn, a bridge and stream and stenciled flowers.  It's sweet, but there's a lot going on!

At the same time, there is allegedly a pretty large Chinese community, so we are in search of local restaurants. But, the go-to "ethnic" food seems to be Uzbeki!

Most of the Central Asian peoples have historically been nomads...except the Uzbeks.  As they stayed in place they planted crops (i.e., vegetables), harvested wheat and rice, and developed a stronger culture of craft-making (pottery and carpets).  And, they have a number of classic dishes.

Shashlik - grilled meat cooked on skewers. AKA kebabs.
Plav - what I would call "rice pilaf". Flavored rice served with chunks of meat (beef, veal or lamb) and vegetables, onions.
Non - sesame bread that kind of looks like a bagel.
Cucumber salad with olives, tomatoes, parsley
Manti - dumplings with beef and onions inside, served with a thin tomato sauce (think marinara)

Sure, sounds familiar... not so different than Greek/Armenian/Lebanese food, right? So far it seems to be equally delicious.

However, the local touch is to offer the above with horse meat!  We'll let you know when we try it.

Taking bets: does horse meat taste like chicken?

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Store or ship?

As part of our relocation package we are entitled to excess baggage we carry on the plane, an air shipment of up to 450 lbs, as well as a sea shipment and/or storage of our personal effects of up to 18,000 lbs.  We will have a furnished apartment, so think we can move with just suitcases and a small air shipment, and then we'll leave the rest in storage in Los Angeles.  Also, sea shipments can take literally months to arrive, which seems sillly as we're planning to go for a year. But it's not yet clear what we should do.

What are we taking with us?

Kazakhs dress more formally than Angelenos, so we need 4 seasons of business and casual attire, as well as formal wear for the occasional event.  Winter sportswear and gear. Workout clothes. and bathing suits for the saunas and Astana's indoor beach. (Kevin: Ice skates seem like a smart item to pack too.)

Personal electronics - we'll go with ebooks and cloud-based music for the time being.  Adapters for our dual voltage equipment.

Our favorite cooking items - spices, knives, and utensils that are not standard in furnished apartments. Maybe essential pots. and we can't leave home without at least one good cookbook.

Not clear if we'll want to take bedding. and towels. and serving dishes.

We are advised that we can find everything we might want or need in Kazakhstan - big malls, big grocery stores. But, it's quite a bit more expensive than at home.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Moving halfway around the world

I like to think that we live a relatively simple life. And in some ways, it's true. Nevertheless, it's a major process to move halfway around the world!  Here are some of the things we are learning in our relocation process:

  • Visas.  All US passport holders need a visa to go to Kazakhstan.  Depending on the state you live in visas must be processed at the embassy in Washington DC or at the consulate in New York City.
  • Phone.  We will stay connected by Skype.  We'd love to "skype" with you if you're a user.  We are also using Skype for phone service:  We've purchased a subscription through which we can call any US or Canadian number for $3/month, and we've purchased a Los Angeles phone number for $3/month so you can call us - and leave a voicemail if we don't pickup.  (How long will it be before we start getting calls from telemarketers? Note from Kevin: "It's already started.") We won't post the full number here (323) 473-XXXX, but private message one of us for our new digits. And check the right column of the blog for the current time in Astana before you call!
  • Cellphones.  T-Mobile will let us keep our numbers by switching to a pre-paid plan - and they've just started global data service, although Kazakhstan is not one of the 100+ countries it works in.  So you can still find us when we're home or someplace where we have good Wi-Fi. Buying a Kazakh SIM card? We're still looking into that. 
  • Banking.  We will have to set up a local bank account, but we will use XE.com to transfer money from our US accounts to our local accounts for day-to-day expenses.  XE will even let you set up an alert and automatically exchange money when the rate hits a favorable level.
  • Internet.  Kazakhstan doesn't seem to block sites like many countries in the region do, but we are used to our Netflix, Hulu and Pandora, which one can't access overseas.  So, we will be using Strong VPN for regular access to our preferred online content.
  • Mail.  Not totally sure how much we will need this, but we have a new address with a mail forwarding service for essential documents and online shopping should we need it. 
  • Our house.  We have hired a property management company to help us rent and manage the property while we're away.  They charge a fee of a little more than a half month's rent to find and investigate tenants, and then a modest portion of the monthly rent to manage the property.  (Let us know if you know anyone who is looking for a cute bungalow in Northeast LA).
  • Taxes.  We've found a CPA who specializes in US taxpayers living abroad.  If you are overseas for more than 330 days in a 12-month period, there are some tax advantages.  He tells us (not surprisingly) that the IRS is merciless if you fall even a day short of that period.
Thanks to friends who have shared these tips... we are sure we're forgetting something, but having these services available should make it easier to stay connected while we're far away.

Only 6551 miles away -- if there were non-stop flights from Los Angeles to Astana. 

In reality, this is the shortest way to get there. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Looking for housing

I (Robyn) am in Astana for a kick-off to the project. This also means I have the opportunity to look for housing (as opposed to having housing found for us).

The process seems to be similar to what we're used to in the US.  I was shown twelve apartments by two different realtors, all of which are individually-owned units in large apartment buildings.

I looked at 1 or 2 bedroom apartments, plus a living room and kitchen. Apartments are described as a "4 room apartment," rather than by the number of bedrooms - and 1 bedrooms or no bedroom apartments are the most common; 2 bedrooms or larger units are unusual.   We have a housing allowance that works out to about $1500/month, and we will need to pay our own utilities in addition to that.  We are not sure if we will need a car or not, but parking seems to be included almost everywhere.

The housing has all been in large, multi-story buildings.  The smallest building I entered today was 10 stories.  Size-wise, the square footage feels comparable to US standards and some of the apartments are quite large by any standard.  Considering everything was about the same price point there was a huge range in quality, amenities and size.  I would guess that the smallest apartment I saw was about 750 ft2, and the largest about 2000 ft2.

Many apartments had sun porches - covered, unheated spaces with big windows that in practice seem to be mostly used for storage or drying clothes.  Kitchens are in the European style with appliances and storage smaller than US standards, and I suspect that when you move in you have to bring your own kitchen as well.  I was somewhat surprised to see electric stoves everywhere, and was told that gas stoves are perceived to not be safe - and that only electric stoves are allowed in buildings taller than 8 stories.  There are clothes washers but no dryers.  This has been my experience while living in Europe and Kevin's while living in Taiwan although he was surprised to learn this was the case here.

Everything has been well-heated, even overheated.  We will not be cold indoors!  Apartments have come with a variety of heated floors, heated towel racks, saunas in the unit.  I didn't see any wall-to-wall carpet, but Every.Single.Room has an area rug. And Every.Single.Window is covered with sheers - it was hard to get a clear look out the window!

I looked at all furnished apartments.  There's definitely no Pottery Barn in Kazakhstan.  The local taste runs much more into huge overstuffed, tufted, carved furniture...to me it's the 1980's shoulder pads of furniture.  While Kevin and I have different taste in furniture, the local taste is definitely not to either of our choice.  Having said that, some furnishings were easier to imagine living with than others (hello, overstuffed purple tufted sofa with matching armchairs? Please no abstract dot brown and orange patterns on the 1980s-style sectional!!!).

Apartment in Triumph Astana
Could you live here? Neither could we.

Most of the construction has gone up in the last 8 years. These are all relatively new furnishings, just not to US taste!

Of the twelve places I saw there were three contenders, but one clear cut winner. I finally found a place today, on the third day of looking, that I think we will be happy to call home.

Want to see if for yourself? Come visit! We will have plenty of room, and will be close to Astana's iconic Baiterek monument (which will be the subject of a future post-stay tuned!).

Interestingly, every landlord except one has requested that the monthly rent be paid in cash. (I hear that many government employees received a free apartment/condo as an incentive to move here to Astana, and that many of the places I've seen are likely from that apartment stock.)

Also, to buy a 2 bedroom apartment the going price is about $500,000 which seems really high given how few people live here and how much land and space there is.  Perhaps it's due to the cost of transporting the building materials?

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Astana or bust

Kazakhstan has only a few cities.  The largest, Almaty, is located in the south, close to the Kyrgyz and Chinese borders.  Our new home will be in Astana, the capital, which is 600 miles north of Almaty.  (In fact, Astana means "capital" in Kazakh).

Astana is really a brand-new city, in the vein of Dubai, Shenzhen or other cities in China.  On December 10, 1997, the President announced that the capital was moving here from Almaty, and it took a while to get going. All of the buildings and most of the construction has taken place in the last 8 years.  National Geographic published an interesting (and beautifully-photographed!) article on Astana in February 2012.

Why Astana?  The official reasons are that Almaty lies in an earthquake zone and that it's grown so much that it has no room to expand...and Astana is in the center of the country, not one corner.  However, the unofficial theory is that it establishes a solid Kazakh presence in a part of the country that borders Russia and is populated by a large percentage of ethnic Russians, thus avoiding a potential land grab.  And it's farther away from China for the same reasons. and it's in the middle of nowhere so there is plenty of room to grow. And, it probably didn't hurt that many of the old-guard administrators from the Soviet days weren't keen to leave their homes and lives in the more temperate and developed Almaty... so it's the young and ambitious who made the move north. It also creates an opportunity for Kazakhstan's president, Nursultan Nasarbayev, to leave a legacy.  There are rumors that he wouldn't mind a national call to have the generically-named "Capital" renamed in his honor one day.

Astana has also been known as Akmola. and Aqmola. and for many of the Soviet years as Tseleninograd - which is why the airport code today is "TSE" (which you'll need to know when you book your flight here).

Monday, November 4, 2013

Starting an adventure

We are headed to Kazakhstan for a year.  To a new job, a new city, a new climate.  Yes, really, Kazakhstan!

Borat aside, here are some quick facts:

Kazakhstan is big.  Really big.  It's got the same landmass as all of Western Europe.  But a population of just less than 17 million.  A lot of wide, open spaces.

Kazakhstan is rich. Or at least becoming rich.  They've got oil, gas, gold, copper, lots of minerals. and 5 billionaires already.

Kazakhstan is, for the most part, cold.  It's just south of Siberia, west of Mongolia, with long winters and hot, humid summers.  and wind, lots of wind.

Kazakhstan is populated by Kazakhs. and Russians. and lots of peoples from the former Soviet Union - ethnic Ukrainians, Germans and more.  The national language is Russian, but increasingly the Kazakhs are reasserting their culture, and their language along with it.

Kazakhstan is part of the old silk road, lots of historic trading routes across its plains. and it's the most developed country in Central Asia.  Its neighbors include Russia, China, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and it's not far as the crow flies from Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan.

Kazakhstan is where all astronauts/cosmonauts (and the 2014 Olympic torch) launch into space via Russian Soyuz rockets.  American astronauts included.

And, Kazakhstan is where the first apples come from.  Genetic biologists have traced the genome of our apples today to apples that grow on the mountains close to Almaty, Kazakhstan's largest city (whose historic name Alma-Ata means "father of apples").

Are you ready to come visit?