Tuesday, February 28, 2012

What Expats bring to Atyrau

When most of us travel we try to take what we need with us.  But if you are like me you take some comfort in the knowledge that if you forget something, a brush, a swimsuit or a pair of shoes say, then one can buy it at ones destination.  In Atyrau it is not that easy.  Whilst most things are available they are sometimes very hard to find, of questionable quality or extremely expensive.  This is sometimes good because looking for something you need can take a great deal of time, and most of us are looking for things to do to fill our spare time!  

I am currently looking for an open topped water tight container which can hold  25 to 35 litres of water to use as a warm water bath for 'sous vide' cooking.  We were told of a new household supply shop and went to check it out yesterday.  The walk of about 4 Km was not particularly pleasant underfoot with mud and ice and no sidewalks for a fair bit of the way.  The store, Evim, is in the centre of the collage.  The lower level was a lighting shop, so now we know where to buy a lamplight (about USD700) should we need one.  The household supply shop upstairs did not have what I wanted, but that was no big surprise.  
Likewise, I am sure that there are all kinds of clothes available, but Sandra who is fairly short and whilst far from fat is not skinny (I hope I get away with that!) finds it extremely hard to find any clothes that fit her.  The Kazakh girls (remember, that is the polite terminology) tend to be tall and thin, and the older Kazakh ladies are of indeterminable size and shape, not typically being qualified enough for professional office work, and so only seen on the streets or in shops, where they are usually wrapped in some type of massive fur coat.  You do not need to bring your fur coats with you, they can be bought here! 

So here is my list of things that a visitor might consider bringing, with various comments and thoughts.


It can get to -40C with wind chill, and +40C in the shade.  However, indoors is usually very warm in winter, and cooled but far from cold in summer.  I was taught to dress with layers of clothes for the cold, so one can remove clothes gradually to reach the required temperature!  Yesterday, in about -10C (walking above) I wore a short sleeved shirt and a thick down jacket.  Inside it is warm enough for just a shirt and jeans, outside a down jacket does the trick.  

It was not windy, but if it had been my jacket has a hood.  You need hats or hoods if you want to keep your ears!  These can be bought here, and fur hats are popular.

You are unlikely to be out much in the rain so a waterproof coat is not an essential if you use an umbrella.  However when it does rain or when the snow melts the drainage system is taxed. The picture below are from an earlier blog.
The mud is thick and sticky and will quickly spoil nice shoes.  Boots are essential, and warm ones too.  Good warm Wellington boots or other rubberised boots are not a bad idea if you are not too fashion conscious. Make sure they have grippy soles as the side walks and parking lots are often worse than ice rinks.

Outside public buildings and offices there are trays of water and long handled brushes.  These are for removing the mud from your shoes or boots before going indoors.  Shoes have an hard life here in winter, so a good cleaning kit is useful.  It is possible to buy all that here but it helps to read Russian so you know what you are getting, and how to apply it, a safer bet is to bring a preferred product with you.

Here I am back from a walk on a cold day.
Gloves are essential as you cannot walk around with your hands in your pockets.  You have to be ready to break your fall when you slip.  On stairs or slopes (like the bridge) you have to hold the railings or be ready to, because the material of choice for steps seems to be polished granite, which is virtually frictionless when covered with a paper thin layer of ice.

Some employers provide their staff with studded grips to pull over their shoes so that they grip on the ice.  These work very well....on ice, unfortunately on stone or a polished floor it is like walking on ball bearings, so they are not a good idea when walking across varied terrain, as one usually has to.

A medium weight coat or jacket is necessary for the spring and fall when it is neither very hot nor very cold.


220 volts is fine for many but not North Americans.  You may want to bring a step up transformer if you plan to bring 110 volt appliances.

There are stores like Techno Dom which have a complete range of household appliances and computer equipment. In fact the range of brands that they have on display is astonishing.  I counted over 55 irons, 56 wand blenders, 10 bread machines and it is the same for the food processors, electric razors, hair driers etc. The major brands are available though the styling and design is different to that which we see in Europe and the US. It may be that the products are those sold in the Asian markets.  Still it is not a problem.  What is more likely to be a problem is the instructions which may not be in English and the warranty, which may not be...at all.  It is common for a vendor to remove an item from its packaging and test it in the store to make sure it works.  If it fails after you get it home I am not sure what happens, and I don't plan on finding out.


Specialist equipment may not be widely available.  We brought in an induction cooker and a sous vide heater/pump from Polyscience, neither of which have I seen here.  Many people bring bread machines (not an availability issue, but an instruction one) though fairly good bread is now widely available.  We bring flour, as white and rye is common, but whole wheat is not.  Some people bring ice cream machines.  Baskin Robbins has a kiosk store in Mall Atyrau, next to Ardagar, and Ramstore had Mövenpick ice cream for the first time this weekend.

The problem with making ones own ice cream is that there is only UHT milk available and no cream.  In fact there is rumoured to be real milk in the local market, but it may not be pasteurised, and I have never seen it, so we rely on milk made from milk powder.  Milk powder can be bought in the supermarkets, but it is in bulk (like the sugar and salt) so has no labels.  It may or may not be skimmed, and the mixing ratio is not clear.  When I have used it I have not had very good yoghurt.  We bring in dried milk powder.

Fruit yoghurt is widely available with various fat content. Plain non-fat plain yoghurt is available, but sometimes hard to find, so I make large batches using a yoghurt culture that we bring in.

In the past two years the markets and supermarkets have transformed their fruit and vegetable shelves.  
RamStore: They do not allow picture taking so these have been "sneaked"
A wide range of vegetables is available though most are expensive by western standards.  The quality is not always very good though and one often has to go to several stores to find what is required, though this is changing fast.  There are also frozen and canned vegetables, but again, the quality can disappoint.  Canned sweetcorn turned out to be far from sweet and we through the chowder out.  The one think (in the 'normal' vegetable category) that we have not yet found is fresh green beans (we bring them in). 
Picture taken in Rahat Market
The other range of ingredients that is hard or impossible to find are herbs and spices.  Fresh herbs, coriander, parsley, basil and chives can be found in summer.  In winter they are sometimes available.  It is the dried herbs and spices that are harder to locate.  Some are available such as caraway seeds, ground cloves and cinnamon, but Indian spices like tumeric, cardamom and cumin seeds (and similarly Mexican and other SE Asian spices) I have not yet managed to discover.  We have brought a complete herb and spice cabinet with us. Mixed herbs are actually on the supermarket shelves, but they are typically blend designed for a particular dish, and instructions and details are in Kazakh, Russian or maybe Turkish non of which are edifying for me.  Along the same lines you may want to bring baking powder and/or cream of tartar and bicarbonate of soda.

It is possible to buy an increasing number of western European and US foods and ingredients, olive oil, balsamic (and other) vinegars, pasta of many types, breakfast cereals, canned fish, bouillon/stock cubes, crackers/biscuits etc, but there may be very little variety or choice.  So if you are particular, it is a good idea to bring your favourite brand with you. 

It is fresh food that people mostly tend to bring in when they return from an R&R trip out of country.  We used to bring a suitcase full of produce but more than a couple of lost luggage incidents have put us off this!  A vacuum packet ham that has spent three days in transit in summer is not very appealing.  So now we bring what we can in hand luggage.  Even though Kazakhstan is a Moslem country we can get pork and even a version of bacon and ham.  But if you are serious about pig, then bring some in with you.  You can buy beef, lamb, mutton and horse, though the cuts are not always familiar and translations not very illuminating (yesterday I pondered over a chunk of meat called "front foot of cow", being sure of only one thing, it was not a foot).  So, people do bring in meat that they can use for a special occasion.  Turkey is a good example, as it is available but the birds are small and scrawny and very expensive.  Sandra was offered a 6 lb turkey for over 100 Euros at Christmas 2010.  Last year when we went to collect the turkey for our Thanksgiving dinner (over 20 people) the supplier simply said "Nyet" but it would be there for Christmas!  Supply is often unreliable, and or expensive.

But the most important "import" for us is cheese.  Local traditional cheese is very hard and salty.  There are lots of flavoured President brand cheese spreads.  There is even President brand packaged cheese, Roquefort and Emmental, Parmasan and Rondele, Brie and Camembert.  There is Edam and some other similar cheeses, but there are no really good artisan style cheeses.  We therefore bring in really good Parmigiano Reggiano, sharp Cheddar, Aged Jack and Gouda, soft Chevre, Stilton and the like.  We also bring our favourite crackers and salami and pate (in a jar).  This makes casual feasting possible.

Whilst on the cheese topic, I referred earlier to yoghurt making.  I sometimes mixe it with fruit for Sandra's breakfast, but more usually I strain it through a cheese cloth and make the thick labneh eaten in the Middle East.  This with Apricot jam, is a breakfast favourite, and we can now buy the jam.  A year ago I had to make it from dried apricots.


Some people like to entertain their friends and colleagues by inviting them for lunch or dinner.  This is also a good way to share special produce that you have just imported.  If you are fortunate enough to live in an house or large apartment you will possibly have a largish kitchen.  Marriott, Ardager and Renco only have smaller kitchens, and this makes organisation more important.  But a bigger issue is that whilst the apartments are adequately stocked for (typically) six people for a full meal there this is the limit.  In fact it is almost over the limit if you want to sit around a table and eat family style.  We have brought in extra sets of plates, bowls, wine and water glasses, serving and cooking dishes, cutlery/silverware, baking tins and pans, food storage jars and cooking utensils to supplement what is supplied.  Some we needed in Ardager, but are supplied in Marriott, so supply is varied.

It is also advisable to bring good knives, food thermometer, oven thermometer, food scales*, cup measures (Americans!) and a good can opener and cork screw.

The equipment supplied is generally robust and functional, but you may prefer to have better quality, and more than a six place three course meal setting.  Of course everyone fully understands the situation and asking people to bring their own or borrowing from friends is not treated with the dismay that you may have at home. 
"Come for dinner."
"What can I bring."
"A chair and knife and fork."

The apartments usually only have 4 dining room chairs, and maybe a desk chair or two.  We bought an extra folding table and two folding chairs here in Atyrau.

*Your residence may or may not have bathroom scales.  


There are lots and lots of pharmacies, so I presume there is ample medication for routine ailments.  If you have to visit a doctor then the medication is prescribed and this is not a problem.  It is the simple OTC drugs which pose difficulties.  When you have a heavy cold, headache, aching muscles and sinus congestion you are not in the best mood to try to communicate with a Russian speaking pharmacist about your need for medication.  But should you be successful you then face the challenge of translating the dosage instructions.  It is best to bring a small medicine cabinet with you containing the basics, especially if you have children.

I am reliably informed that there is fair availability of recognised brands of women's cosmetics.  However I am usually requested to bring in some particular brand of hair product or shade of eye make-up.  So, ladies (and gentlemen, I suppose)  if you have favourite products get someone reliable to tell you whether they are available.

One thing that it is prudent to bring is moisturising lotion.  It is very very dry in Atyrau.  It is a good idea to bring an humidifier or two to make your home air more comfortable, but your skin will still dry out, crack and itch.  Having had similar problems in Canada, and consulted a dermatologist, I was informed that not all moisturisers are suitable.  For North Americans, Cetaphil Moisturising Lotion is a good choice.  In Europe Balneum Plus Cream is available and works well.  I am sure there are many others, but get advice on what is suitable for a cold climate, some creams penetrate the skin and then freeze, and this does not help.


Golfers in Atyrau play indoors in a gymnasium. They chip wiffle balls into empty children's paddling pools, and drive them towards targets.  A full set of clubs is unlikely to be necessary for this but a putter might be useful!

There is also an informal cycling club which meets when the weather permits. In summer they go out a couple of evenings a week and Saturday mornings.  Most of the time they go into the dessert. It is not hilly but rough and dusty. A mountain bike is necessary, but it does not need to be an high end trail basher.  You wont be stump jumping! 
The bikers keep going out until it gets too cold, so some cold weather clothing (see above) is a good idea if you plan to join them.

An ice rink on the Ural
Cold weather clothing and ice skates will be necessary if you want to get out on the improvised ice rink on the Ural in front of River Club Residence.  

This year there has been three times as much snow as normal so there have been cross country (langlauf) skiers on the snow covered river ice.  However this is not a guaranteed activity. 
If you are out skiing or skating on the river be alert for holes in the ice where the ice fisherman have drilled through to the running river.  I don't know any expats who have been ice fishing, but fishing from the banks in summer is done. You will need a licence, but they are supposed to be free.
It is also possible to boat on the Ural.  For expats this means kayaking or canoeing and some people have brought their kayaks with them.
  Ownership of power boats is restricted to locals, or at least very difficult.  But in any event access to the Caspian is prohibited, so activity is limited to the river, and local knowledge is necessary as there are underwater obstacles (sunken ships?).

You can swim in the Ural but most expats prefer not to as it is supposed to be polluted with heavy metals.  There are swimming pools for the public, and there are also pools at the Renaissance and Renco.  
Of course some people are content to just to get their workout in the gym.  There are clubs with gyms (eg at the Renaissance), and some residences, like Marriott have gyms.  Some people have shipped out their exercise machines.  You can also buy this equipment here.


  1. just caught up on the blog! Very interesting...does not want to make me come visit you guys there! You are an amazing writer!

  2. Being from Sonoma, CA... this must be a tough life for you- especially foodwise =(

  3. It is 2016, are you still in Atyrau?

  4. I may be moving there in 2017. I'll be sure to take a spice rack and cheese cloth.