Sunday, May 25, 2014

You gotta have faith

by Robyn and Kevin

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

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

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

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

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

Nur-Astana Mosque

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

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

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

Assumption Cathedral

Cathedral of Our Mother of Perpetual Help (Catholic)

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

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

Have you ever attended worship services in a foreign country? 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Ladies and Gentlemen...

by Robyn

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

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

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

Inside the Opera House
Opera House foyer

Kazakhstan National Concert Hall

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

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

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

Sanzharali Nurlanaliuly Kopbayev 
Gleb-Joseph Sergeevich Romanchukevich 
Sanzhar Mukhtarovich Zulруkharov 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Piano prodigies. and 10 year old boys.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

[UPDATED] I Love a Parade

[Updated below with a link to a news story on the parade.]
written by Kevin

We're in the middle of a three day holiday in Kazakhstan. (Didn't we just have two holidays last week?) Yesterday was Defender of the Fatherland Day, a new official holiday celebrated here on May 7 for only the second year. Tomorrow is Victory Day. Today, I guess, is just a holiday to connect the two so we're on a road trip with colleagues to get out of Astana and see a national park. More on that later.

Robyn and I made sure to find our way to the big military parade yesterday. With many roads closed and buses to the parade route filled beyond capacity, we walked the two miles there. We were not alone. With lots of sunshine and a breeze, it was a great day for a walk -- and a parade. 

We searched for a good location to watch the parade but really had no idea what would be best. First we tried one site next to the US Embassy but we felt claustrophobic with the crowds and it was hard to see much of the road. After a walk to a spot a block away, we found ourselves closer to a review stand and with a slightly raised ledge to stand on. It turned out to be a much better if not ideal view. We even saw Kazakhstan's President (for Life) zoom by us before his car stopped and he got out to wave to the crowd and jump in a convertible complete with a standing platform so he could continue waving. (Sorry, but I was too slow on the shutter to catch him with my camera.) The Khazret Sultan Mosque was the background for most of what we saw. There was lots of military hardware on display. Soldiers, trucks, tanks, anti-aircraft guns, missiles and jets. (Some would say it was ALL of the country's military hardware.) Much ribboned hardware on the chests of officers and veterans too. Things ended in a flourish with a smoke-filled sky fountain pattern courtesy of six MiGs. 

When's the last time you saw a military parade? 

Where are those missiles pointed?

A fly-by with colored smoke to match the Kazakh flag. 

Photo with a pretty girl

"I want to be a soldier."
(Pardon the brief writing. We're mobile today and don't have access to the best blogging tools.)

[Update: Additional photos are available at]

Monday, May 5, 2014

People's Unity Day

written by Robyn

Kazakhstan prides itself on a long history of welcoming other peoples of different faiths and traditions.

Part of the ancient Silk Road, there have always been traders and travelers crossing its land.  More recently in the Soviet era, Stalin forced resettlement of many ethnic groups to Kazakhstan, and the Steppe was the destination for a number of people deported within the USSR or imprisoned in Gulags in its harsh climate, far from Moscow. Continuing its long history of taking care of its visitors, there are stories of the Kazakh people sharing food with suffering prisoners during the long winters, and welcoming them on their eventual release from prison, when many chose to stay locally.

I see this legacy today, even among my relatively small group of colleagues. There is the ethnic German who's married to a woman with a Kazakh father and a Ukrainian mother.  There are two Kazakhs, only one of whom speaks Kazakh (as she was raised in a village by her grandparents), and another who has a Kazakh father and a Chinese mother.  A Ukrainian colleague is ethnically Russian but grew up in Uzbekistan (so after one attempt at the subject we stopped talking about current Russian/Ukrainian politics), and an ethnic Ukrainian colleague was born and raised in Kazakhstan. Oh, and his wife is Polish.   And I always thought it was only Americans and Canadians who got so mixed up!

Hence, People's Unity Day is a fitting holiday, and worth celebrating in a region where there are many ethnic conflicts.  It is celebrated on May 1 and 2 (or whatever it takes to make a four day weekend).  While not a holiday for me, Kevin and I took a long lunch break to enjoy some of the local festivities including a Festival of Nations.

In the large square close to the Palace of Independence, a small village was set up with houses and costumed hosts representing the various ethnic communities living in Kazakhstan.  Some we can guess, some we don't have a clue.  Any ideas?

Who is this strong man?
Typical architecture...but from where?

Great pitchers, right?

or is this Uzbeki?

Kazakh!  or maybe Mongolian?
This tower is a clue...just not for me.
Jewish diaspora
We recognized the Ukrainians!
Clearly we need to learn more Russian to be able to ask where people are from... And in terms of we modern-day Western visitors to Kazakhstan? We'll have to get our own booth next time.

Nevertheless, a worthy occasion.  I think we could all use a day to celebrate unity, despite our different backgrounds.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

And... we're back

Written by Robyn and Kevin.

We know we've neglected our blog for the last several weeks, but have some new stories and adventures to share in the coming weeks, and some practical tips for living in Astana.

A few highlights:

Spring has arrived in Astana.  We were out of the country for two weeks.  When we left, the river was frozen and snow was on the ground.

When we came back it was suddenly spring.  Tomorrow's forecast is for 86 degrees F (30 degrees C). The city is looking very different without a mantle of white. Trees are budding and some are just barely starting to leaf out. The snow and ice of winter that turned to puddles of water and mud that we just became used to dodging while walking the sidewalks have now turned to dust on the frost-heaved pavers.

We're sorry to share that it was family events that took us out of town.  Kevin's father passed away on April 6, after several months of declining health.  And, in an incredible coincidence, Robyn's grandmother passed away, at the age of 98, while we were in New York, so we returned to KZ after two funerals instead of just one. We miss both of them every day.

Just prior to traveling to the US, we took a quick trip to Abu Dhabi and Dubai to renew visas. We have yet to experience a more diverse place. Our flight back from the Emirates consisted of Uighurs sitting in front of us (square embroidered hats on the men, flowered silk scarves on the women), two women in black burkas a few rows back, an urban Kazakh family to our right (tank tops and skinny jeans), German businessmen immediately behind, and an older couple with covered heads sharing our row.  Just an example of what you might encounter on a trip to the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

There's been one more move in our Astana lives. Not another apartment this time, but my (Robyn) office has moved from the Diplomat Hotel business center.  We had this amazing view, but no steady internet, truly a requirement for doing business these days.
Former office view
View from the new office (a hint of a riverview)
Thus, my colleagues and I have traded the new city for the old, moving to the other side of the river to the business center at the Radisson hotel. As the weather is milder the longer commute is fine (now a 15 minute drive instead of a 5 minute walk).

And, we survived the winter.  Perhaps that's the biggest news of all.  While it wasn't easy, it wasn't as bad as we had feared, not least of which is because it is almost always sunny.  No mountains or ocean to keep in or change the weather, just the winds across the Steppe blowing away the clouds.  So the winter is cold, but it's not often gray, a pleasant surprise for these transplanted Los Angelenos used to a daily dose of sunshine.

One thing that doesn't seem to be changing...the wind. It is almost always windy in Astana.

More from Astana soon.  Thanks for "tuning" back in.