Thursday, January 23, 2014

Rhythm and blues

It's hard to know yet what the normal pace of life is here...

Things seem to start later, end earlier and take longer than we're used to.  The sun in this season comes up after 9am, and sets after 5pm.

Children, even small ones, stay up until 11pm or midnight and sleep until 9am.

Morning rush hour is from 8:30 - 10 am; evening rush hour is from 6 - 7:30 pm. And there's a lunchtime rush hour from 1-3pm as a lot of people head home for lunch. During all of these periods local traffic slows to a crawl.  Everyone seems to take a full lunch hour -- if not two.

Meetings take place without much advance notice - call someone and if they're available then you head out immediately for a meeting.  Schedule it two weeks in advance and they will be called away when you show up at the original time.

Simple repairs take three weeks for parts to be delivered, but you can get water delivered the same day.

Are you carrying your foreign passport on your person? No? Watch out!

The common theme seems to be: rules and stamps.  (Remember the notaries?) People love to make up rules as to why something can't happen. You've followed all the instructions you were given?  Good. But you also need this one last document or hoop to jump through.   And every transaction or interaction demands a certification by stamp.  Attending a workshop? You need to show a stamped certificate of attendance to your boss on your return to the office. Purchasing office supplies?  Your receipt must be stamped for you to exit the store with your purchases.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Kazakh Style

The first time I arrived in Kazakhstan, I was struck by the well-dressed passengers waiting for luggage with me... designer bags, fur coats, nice boots.  As we live across the street from Astana's highest-end mall, the Keruen Centre, we continue to see the high end of Astana fashion and style. Our neighborhood shops include Tiffany, Frette, Hugo Boss, Dunhill, Mont Blanc and more.  Prices are high due to very high customs and import fees, so those who are shopping here are not worried about price - or would rather not fly all the way to Dubai or Moscow to obtain their luxury items.

One sign of wealth to me is the plethora of fur coats around - Kevin pointed out that even in the food court or at the movie theater many women are wearing fur coats. Even at KFC. By far the most common fur coat is mink, but there are many others.  Ethics aside, there are some really stunning fur coats around.  I don't know enough about fur to be able to say the type of animals keeping my new neighbors warm, but the less common range in color from white or very light, to gorgeous copper/mid-brown coats (maybe red fox?).

I had never seen fur vests like I've seen here as well - not the ones that are trendy recently, but long, exotic creations that are worn over formal wear - no street style pics to share, but more along these lines.

Italian designer Simonetta Ravizza poses during a photocall in Moscow October 21, 2010. REUTERS/Grigory Dukor

In terms of fashion influences, Moscow seems to be the style capital. Although the wealthy from Central Asia travel to Dubai to shop.  As Kazakhstan develops, there is an interest in nurturing and promoting local design and cultivating a local style.  For instance, a local television personality has opened a store featuring Central Asian designers,

At the other end of the spectrum, in my workplace, my local colleagues so far have worn basically the same thing every day, with a change or two of their shirts, but the same pants/jeans and tops. Although I can't say if this is typical, this has been true for all 3 Kazakhstani staff in my office including two men and one woman.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

For Your Consideration

Pretty much every day we run into what we affectionately call "business opportunities" to provide a good or service that could be of value here.

Are you an enterprising businessperson looking to expand into an exciting new market in Central Asia?  Here are some hot prospects: For Your Consideration!
  • Improved packaging materials.  Adhesive on cardboard boxes is strong but doesn't easily open.  We have yet to open a cardboard box (e.g., baking soda, table salt, aluminum foil) without having to rip off the entire top of the package.  Plastic wrap and aluminum foil are also flimsy compared to common US brands. 
  • Body Armor or elbow and wrist airbags for your winter coats. The winter streets and sidewalks of Astana are full of snow and ICE. This combined with the poor choice of highly polished marble steps and walkways surrounding most buildings and public plazas makes for very dangerous walking.  Friends at the local US Embassy tell us there are always a few employees with broken wrists every winter season. 
  • Plumbing supplies.  All pipes we've seen in residential construction are flimsy, pliable accordion plastic tubes. Bonus opportunity: plastic-pipe compatible Drano.
  • Ikea/Container Store/Bed Bath & Beyond or some store providing home-storage solutions.  There is a limited stock of Chinese manufactured products, but quantity and quality are low even though prices are high (one of the better options we've seen was a glass Pyrex brand dish with a rubber lid - $40 here, but seen online for $10). I showed two colleagues a picture of a stepladder online and neither one had ever seen anything like it.
  • Recycling.  While Kevin is delighted to not feel compelled to recycle or compost, I think there must be opportunity to reclaim some of the many glass and plastic bottles that are part of life (no one drinks the tap water; umm, vodka?).  OK, the economics for recycling programs are tight even in bigger markets, but surely there is some profit to be made. This concept doesn't seem to exist - I asked a colleague the first day if there was recycling and she said there was - but what she was talking about was getting bottled water delivery for the office and our apartment, which she then helped us to do. [Kevin: Two 5-gallon plastic bottles of water delivered to our home (of which the bottles are reused) costs us about $6.50. Not bad unless you figure in the $100 water bubbler we had to buy to get it all started. Hopefully we can sell it at only a slightly depreciated price when it is time to return to Los Angeles -- where Kevin drinks unfiltered tap water and Robyn doesn't.]
  • English-language tourism support.  With Astana's growing expat population and pursuit of economic development, this seems like a no-brainer... Yelp? A walking tour app that can be downloaded? an English-language tourist map with local sites?  English-language menus?
  • True-to-life menus - food stylists & photographers, take note! We have been to multiple restaurants and relied on photos to order something, only to be told that the image was downloaded from the internet. This is a big opportunity (see also: tourism support).
...and so many more.  Don't hesitate to contact us to express your interest in any of these exciting opportunities!

Monday, January 6, 2014


What is KCCMP?  No, not an acronym of a former Soviet Republic, but it is the acronym for what has brought us here to Kazakhstan.

I (Robyn) am helping to launch a new Kazakhstan climate change mitigation program (KCCMP). This is a three-year program funded by the U.S. international development agency to do three things:  1) support the government of Kazakhstan in implementing their new trading scheme for greenhouse gas emissions, 2) help the business community in Kazakhstan be able to comply with the new green economy regulations, and 3) develop training programs to dramatically increase the number of energy efficiency experts.

Kazakhstan has two measures intended to help improve their economic & environmental performance.  The first is a Law on Energy Savings that sets energy efficiency standards.  The current energy generation fleet  is mostly Soviet-era coal-fired power plants now coming to the end of their designed life and there are regular power shortages in the south (not often in the north where we are as most of the power is generated here).  The second is a Green Economy Concept intended to promote sustainable economic development through a variety of measures, but including a carbon market. Part of our work is to help companies be able to successfully meet the reporting and performance requirements of these two laws that include some overlapping obligations.

A number of donors are providing support in Kazakhstan including the German government, the World Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the Asian Development Bank, as well as the Norwegian Government. My new program is the largest to date, and thus part of our role is to coordinate the support of the various donors.

The program director is called the Chief of Party, and I am the Deputy Chief of Party.  We have a relatively small team - we will be eight people when we are fully staffed.  Currently there are six of us including the Chief of Party, me, a local economist, an energy efficiency expert, the office manager and our driver.  In addition, we will also have a number of experts who will spend several months each year working on the project including energy efficiency experts & trainers, economists & policy analysts, and carbon market specialists.

I'll share more as our work progresses. At this point I'm trying to get a handle on a new company, a new country & culture, a new language, and a new client with very specific requirements.  This involves reading the local laws, talking to local companies and service providers who are trying to comply with the regulations, talking to other donors, learning from my colleagues, my counterparts in the government here, and generally getting a sense of what my top priorities should be.  I've signed a one-year contract, although it seems like there's flexibility should we want to stay longer; we will see how it goes.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Hello from Kyrgyzstan

That is not a typo.  Today we are in Kyrgyzstan, just a short flight from our new home in Kazakhstan.

As it's worked out, Kevin and I have come to Kazakhstan with different visas.  While we both have multiple-entry visas, his permits stays of 90 days and mine only 30 days.  As we approach the end of our first 30 days here (that went fast), it's time to head out of the country in search of my own 90 day visa.  Where to go?

While this is one of my favorite games to play, in this case we narrowed the list pretty quickly to locations that: 1) won't be closed for Orthodox Christmas on Jan.7, 2) are a direct flight from Astana, and 3) we don't need a visa to travel to. This left us with two easy options: Abu Dhabi or Bishkek.

While the UAE with its sun and sea is tempting, for a variety of reasons we'll save Abu Dhabi/Dubai for 90 days from now (when we'll be desperate to shed our warm coats!), and we are heading to Kyrgyzstan (current temperature 41 degrees F; current temp in Astana is 12 F).

Mountains, mountains!

Kyrgyzstan (pronounced: Keer - gheez - stan) is a country that didn't really exist before the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Because of the nomadic populations until modern time, today's boundaries, like in so many countries, don't accurately reflect the ethnic makeup of its citizens and there have been some ethnic conflicts as recently as in 2010. However, over time, what is today Kyrgyzstan has been the historic home of the ethnic Kyrgyz, who are related to the Kazakhs. Their language is similar, their religion is the same, and the Kazakhs seem to feel some affinity for them.

With a small population, just 5 million, the territory is almost entirely mountainous. Sandwiched between Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China, Kyrgyzstan is if not the poorest, close to the poorest country in the region.  Lacking Kazakhstan's oil, Uzbekistan's agriculture, Tajikistan's warmer climate, or China's size, they are struggling to develop. In addition to seeking investment for their minerals (gold, uranium) they are working to develop their tourism industry beyond serving as a shopping & weekend destination for the wealthier citizens of Almaty, just a 3-4 hour drive when the mountain passes are not closed for winter weather.

All of the travel sites describe the amazing outdoor recreation opportunities - hiking, trekking, horseback riding, beautiful lakes and mountain scenery.

The climate, while still cold, is much more temperate than Astana.  And, there's a US military facility adjacent to (operating?) the international airport that serves Bishkek.  Which makes it not totally surprising that there's a Mexican Cantina in Bishkek.  It's only been 6 weeks, but we are ready for some (perhaps-not-quite-authentic-but-still-comfort-food) tacos.

We anticipate needing at least a week waiting for my visa, so expect to get a pretty good sense of Bishkek and, weather permitting, more of Kyrgyzstan.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Follow the Bouncing Suitcase

Our route to Kazakhstan involved two stops after leaving Los Angeles.  Thus, we shipped some of our excess baggage - items we'd need on arrival - straight to Washington DC from where we would check it on the plane with us.  Unfortunately, due to the holiday, one of our suitcases didn't make it to DC in time to travel on with us (in retrospect, perhaps it was lucky that three of the cases did make it to DC in time).

Below, in reverse chronological order (pardon the formatting), is the path it took via first,UPS and later DHL, before being delivered to our doorstep on Christmas afternoon, our "Christmas miracle."

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Merry Christmas Happy New Year Merry Christmas!

As the calendar approached December 25, our thoughts turned to stockings, trees and the traditions that we love at this time of year.  A white Christmas in Astana was guaranteed, *just in case* you were wondering.  There was absolutely no doubt about that!

But, December 25 was just another business day in Kazakhstan.  For the two-thirds of the country that are Muslim, Christmas has no religious significance.  For the quarter of the population that might celebrate Christmas, they follow the Russian Orthodox holiday calendar, which celebrates Christmas on January 7.  and thus December 25 is just a date a few days before the holidays start.

I haven't really known why the different dates are celebrated other than a vague sense that it related to different calendars. With the help of my friends at Google, I learned that this is in fact true:  we Westerners switched to the Gregorian Calendar (in 1582!), but the Russian Orthodox church prefers to keep using the same Julian Calendar it's been using for over a 1000 years.  There are 13 days difference between them - hence Christmas on December 25 in the West and January 7 in the East.  

I also learned that Orthodox Christmas celebrations start with a 40-day Lent during which practicing Christians do not eat any meat. Lent ends with the first star in the night sky on January 6, symbolizing the birth of Jesus Christ...and the start of the Christmas dinner, which may or may not be followed by attending a Christmas Eve church service. 

After the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Bolsheviks banned Christmas, and many of the Christmas traditions morphed into New Year traditions, and during the secular Soviet era this played out across the Union, including here in Kazakhstan.  Thus today, New Year's is by far the bigger event, celebrated with customs that we know as Christmas traditions - getting an evergreen tree, exchanging gifts, spending time and enjoying meal with family, exchanging holiday greetings.  But, while his picture is around, I haven't heard that Santa makes any house calls on New Year's Eve.  He will probably still be resting up from gifting to the Western world just a few days before, right?

Blending the Christmas and New Year traditions of the West, we can attest that New Year's is also celebrated with fireworks at midnight!  Lots of families around our building set off their own fireworks - we witnessed over an hour of everything from Roman candles to the more impressive bursts well above the rooftops just from our 5th floor windows. 

Fireworks for sale
Photo: Happy New Year from Kazakhstan! The locals are not ceding any fireworks titles to the Chinese tonight.
As seen from our window - not bad for a home-grown display!

We did celebrate on December 25, helped by the arrival of our air freight (containing Christmas decorations, presents and all of our cooking & baking gear) just 2 days earlier, and then our final suitcase showed up at last on December 25 proper, a Christmas miracle :-). We spent Christmas Eve with some fellow Americans, and hosted my colleagues for an American-style Christmas Day dinner.

Our "Charlie Brown" Christmas tree

Although we are far, our hearts and thoughts are with you, our family and friends, and we wish you all a wonderful holiday season and wonderful new year whatever day you may celebrate.  Merry Christmas from Kazakhstan, and our sincere wishes that 2014 will be a wonderful year in all of our lives.