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?