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 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 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. 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 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 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?