Monday, February 13, 2012

Back in Atyrau jit for Burns Night

I am sitting at my desk once again looking out over the Ural River and the Asian side of Aryrau.  It is a bright sunny day, and I have just come back from a "business lunch" with Sandra at the Pizza Club.  We have now decided that this restaurant is off our list forever, I am starving as I only ate about 4 mouth-fulls and half a bowl of chicken soup (the stock) from 4 courses.  I could have photographed it but why make you ill as well?

As you see from the photograph we, like a lot of Europe have had some heavy snow, the largest snow fall for several years.

Of course it falls on frozen ground, it was about -25C, and doesn't melt.  There are only a few snow ploughs so only main roads get any attention, so the snow gets packed down by cars into thick ice.  Now the temperature is up to -12C so it is reasonable to walk outside, but the snow is not melting.  The road workers who are sweeping up the dust from the roads in summer with their home made brushes of a bunch of twigs are now shovelling snow with home made shovels (a piece of plywood about 2 feet square screwed to a broom handle!).  They shovel it to the side of the road, and later seem to put it into trucks to be taken into the desert and dumped.  

You can see that there are big chunks of solid ice in the piles of snow.  These are chipped off the roads and side walks but I don't know what equipment they use, certainly not those shovels. 

I started the long journey back to Kazakhstan on the 8th of February. My ride to SFO in the Marin Door to Door minivan took two hours and I boarded a flight to Amsterdam at 2pm.  My journey this time was SFO to AMS (a 1.5hr connection) and then a flight to Istanbul, where I had booked to stay in the same funny little hotel.  It is ironic that this route id so much cheaper (and about 3 hours longer flying time) than getting on the direct Air Astana flight to Atyrau which would have got me there 24 hours earlier.  Air Astana has a monopoly on these routes and knows that the business travellers are all on the Amsterdam route so the prices are much higher there than on the Istanbul route.

As you can see below a flight from SFO to IST going via AMS costs GBP621, but on the screen shot below that the flight from SFO to AMS (in the same plane) costs GBP1,086.  So the extra 3.5 hour flight from AMS to IST actually costs an additional MINUS GBP465! 

And you will see below that the IST to GUW flight costs Euro1,542 but the IST to GUW costs Euro621, a further saving of Euro921.  Such is the absurdity of air fare structures.  So those of you who ask how I pass my time now have another insight into what occupies me....finding cheap air fares!

The total saving or $1,954 was quite enough for a $60 hotel room in Istanbul and a $10 plate of fresh fried sardines with a salad and a diet coke!  Istanbul was covered with a thin blanket of snow which was not expected.  Fortunately this was not a problem as I was dressed for Atyrau! The hotel owner wanted me to put on my jacket as I waited for my airport taxi, and looked aghast when I said it was too hot.
View from the Istanbul hotel window
I arrived in Atyrau on Friday evening.  It was the usual bun-fight at the airport in arrivals.  The one conveyor of baggage and the one x-ray machine through which every arriving piece of baggage must pass as they screen for illegal imports.  There is a queuing system which is only partially successful as the concept of forming a line is not widely accepted.  I got through with no problems, having had my bag of wholemeal flour x-rayed twice in SFO (vacuum packed it looks "just like explosives"!) and my sous vide heater and pump x-rayed twice in AMS.  More of that item later!  Sandra met me and we had a happy reunion.

Saturday was a big day.  It was the night of the Annual Burns Night party.  The Atyrau Burns Society, which has been in existence for some 12 years, is a testimony to the number of Scots employed in the oil business.  They do a lot of charitable work, and the Burns Night dinner is the big fund raiser.  The fly in a Scottish band, a Piper, the Haggis and goodness knows what else.  Sponsorship by the hotel, Air Astana as well as many other oil related businesses helps with the costs. Sandra had bought a ball gown (yes, here in Atyrau!) for the occasion.  I had had to bring my dinner jacket/tuxedo from California.  We walked to the dress shop to collect the gown.  It was my first time walking across the Ural, not the bridge, the ice.  It is about 18 inches thick now, and covered with about 18 inches of snow.

Various pictures of us on the river.  As you see there are some well trodden paths which go between the steps on either bank.

The picture below is looking up stream.  The large building on the right is the new NCPOC office building which Sandra and others are due to move into sometime in March. On the left are apartments.                                           

The snow is very dry and powdery.  It will not stick together in snow balls.  The crystals are as big as I have ever seen in snow and they reflect the sunlight beautifully.  In fact the snow looks like the artificial snow that is used in Santa's Grotto in the Mall (the good stuff, not the cotton wool!) or in movie sets.  It is quite lovely, and makes most of the city look lovely and clean.  

As some of you will know if you have read earlier postings, most buildings in Atyrau are heated by hot water that is pumped around the city in (mostly) overground pipes of all shapes and sizes.  These pipes sometimes go over roads but are more usually buried under major roads.  This means that where they go underground the earth is heated and the snow melts.  

The little picture (left) shows how the snow actually makes the dusty summer streets, which become horribly muddy when it rains, all look quite attractive.  But I am sure that like me, you are thinking, what will it be like when it melts.  I just hope it stays frozen for the next six weeks!

We collected the ball gown and I bought some beef ribs at the Ideal supermarket in Rahat.  The ribs are to be my first sous vide cooking experiment in Atyrau.  On Saturday afternoon I got them started, pictures below.
Trimmed beef ribs
Put into a Ziplock bag

And then immerse in a water bath at 135F for 72 hours, covered with cling film to stop evap- oration.  The water pressure forces the air out of the partially closed Ziplock bag, so it can then be closed  in a weak vacuum (sous vide = vacvuum). They are still sitting there, so more on this experiment later.  I will place more details on my other blog about my cooking experiments.

I did this while Sandra was off at the hairdresser getting prepared for the big night.  When she came back she had hair like this....

So here we are, all dressed up in our best bib and tucker, ready for the bash.
 This works out pretty well in our apartment, but we have to get to the Renaissance Hotel for the party and it is 20C below freezing and very snowy outside.  A couple of feet of ball gown trailing through the snow is not a great way to start an evening, but I grabbed Sandra's shoe bag, shawl and purse, and she hitched up the skirts and climbed up into the land cruiser taxi.  It wasn't very elegant but it worked.  We made it in good shape.

I hope someone will share more photos of the actual event with me, but here is a little collage.
Thank you Jon, he shared many more pictures and I have added some below.  But before that, what of the evening?

We begun at 7pm with drinks and canapes outside the main dining room on the first floor or the Renaissance Hotel.  Although the dress code was formal they were flexible as some people were passing through (eg contractors) and didn't have their gear with them.  The hard core Scots were of course in dress tartan and kilts.  But it was a bit of a dress mishmash.

At 7.40 we were piped into the dining hall to find our tables.  As late entrants, we had to take where we were assigned a cancellation, but we were next to a couple we know.  The first course was Scotch broth, which was pretty much a Kazakh chicken soup with pearl barley in it!  Not a great start. 

Then the Haggis was piped in with all formality.  The piper lead it round the tables as people clapped.  Finally it reached the podium where with all due ceremony and drama the haggis was "addressed" and cut.  For those unfamiliar with all this, follow the haggis link above.

The haggis was served with neeps (turnips) and tatties (mashed potatoes).  It was one of the best haggises (shouldn't that be haggi from the Latin?) that I have ever had, quite spicy.  Unfortunately it was all served on cold plates so  the vegetables were not worth eating.  Plus the neeps seemed to be carrots!
Between courses there was a fair bit of activity, speeches, poems, live music, a wee lassie dancing, and stuff.

The main course was individual Beef Wellingtons.  It must be called Beef Wellington because it smells and cuts like one.  Unfortunately a good bit of beef had been wrapped in a very strong liver mix (supposedly pate?) and cooked to death under a pastry shroud.  I tasted the liver, and cut into the meat and gave up.  Sandra didn't do much better.  Some people actually ate theirs which just shows how tough life (and beef) is here.

Dessert was supposedly cranachan, a strange choice in a place where you can't buy fresh whipping cream.  The substitute seemed to contain cheese, and could have been mascarpone.  It had oats in it but not fresh toasted, rather old porridge.  So that got a miss too.  

All in all a good evening only spoilt by the food! A great deal of whisky was consumed as people were encouraged to bring their own special favourite bottles.  I managed to resist all but two glasses at the end (my defences were down and Sandra's boss was pouring for all and sundry!)

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