Thursday, July 26, 2012


I can hardly believe that my six week visit is due to end this weekend, but there are certain signs that it is time to move on.

The shops ran out of Diet Coke a week or more ago.  If anyone from Coca Cola is reading this please let your distribution organisation know that Pepsi has you licked when it comes to supplying Western Kazakhstan.  I know that may not get the immediate attention of senior management and cause heavy hearts in the halls of power, but there are lots of people here, from all over the world, who are having to train themselves to drink other beverages!

Personally, I thought that I had cracked it, and found the perfect Diet Coke substitute.  And I suspect that others have been doing the same, because in the last day or so the bars have started to run out of Draft EFES!  When the coke runs out it is unfortunate, but when the beer runs out it is a crisis and ones thought move back to California.

And California brings me to wine!  Tonight we are going to have a wine tasting.  We will attempt to reach concencus on the best value wine in Ram Store.  More on this, hopefully, later, including the results.  But let me just say that wine could soon be the beverage of choice for ex Coke and Beer drinkers here.

As I started, this trip has flown by and I have not got to blogging on so many things I had hoped to address.  For example, it seems like we could use some restaurant reviews...but then again maybe not!  I do understand that when you are a new arrival this could be useful, but after a month or so you will probably have been to all the restaurants that you want to go to (I have found a pioneering spirit for new restaurant discovery leads to great disappointment here).  You will have found that they fall into three grades
1. Local
2. Local plus Western
3. Western plus Local
The Local doesn't necessarily mean that the food is local.  The service can be local which means that courses arrive somewhat randomly (I did have dessert and tea before my main arrived the other day), or that they come in a Western style sequence, but for each diner individually.  Local can also mean that the restaurant "quality" scale is different to the western "quality" scale.  In the west we look at things like cutlery/silverware, and table linen, to give a signal.  Here it is more appropriate to look at the brand and number of televisions on the wall, and the hight of the tables.  It seems that the lower one is to the ground, the higher the price.

Similarly, you quickly find out that the Italian influence is ubiquitous in the western menu selection.  Although the Americans at Chevron were the first ex-pats here, they built themselves a little village with a wall around it and for all I know have a MacDonalds and Thomas Keller restaurant in there.  The Italians came along and live closer to the community, and I suppose did what they always do and went out to eat.  So now there is Pasta and Pizza on almost all the menus that are not purely local, and even some of them have spaghetti, though it may come with potatoes and not much meat.

The really chic restaurants, like those in Renaissance Hotel, Marriott Dining Room and Renco Residence make western food the main theme with possibly some local dishes, and style.  They will offer Caesar Salads, though they may be heavily improved upon with the addition of ingredients that I bet Mr Cardini had wished he had thought about when he invented his beautifully simple little salad.  

Then the other thing that you will discover is that the menu presented with its wide selection of enticing dishes is more the chefs favourite recipe list than what he is able to produce for a customer.  In some cases it gets so bad one has to stop selecting from the menu and ask what is available.  But being told that something is not available is good sometimes, what is worse is when they accept the order then reconstruct the dish based on what is in the kitchen.  Waldorf Salad with no nuts!  Taco and Guacamole with no Guacamole!  

Monday, July 9, 2012

Atyrau: Tourist Sites and Thoughts

When I walk around the city I always carry a camera.  One never knows when there might be something interesting or peculiar, spectacular or hum-drum that is worth recording for posterity.  Many of these pictures end up in this blog, though there are always some which I cannot fit into a particular section and end up in the "pending" file.

This blog is a selection from these, with my random thoughts, observations, but most likely questions about them.

I have blogged before about the painted trees.  Every year as winter ends tree painting begins.  Just today a sneaked a shot of a man painting some newly planted saplings.
A thoughtful reader of the blog wrote to me and explained that painting prevented diseases.  This make sense, but it doesn't help me understand the picture below.  The trees are the same type but the ones on the left were painted and the ones on the right were not?
Still on the subject of painting there is the continuing saga of the painting of the Satpaev Bridge.  It was closed on Sunday for road works and some major
barrier patching. 

In an earlier blog I explained how the "outside" railings were painted by a man leaning over the rail and aiming the spray gun bach towards himself, a tad messy!  Well this weekend the painter got over the rails and fastened a cord of some kind round the rails and his back and leant back to paint from the river side with a brush on a stick.  He was painting the bridge , not the rails, yellow.  
There seems to be a general disregard to Health and Safety considerations when doing maintenance work.  
I watched this man swinging all over, but he did have an hard hat and rope round his waist, so he was probably OK!  This man was less fussy, but he had a window frame to hang on to!
This woman was squatting on a plank with no harness three floors above the ground.
Which makes this chaps job look pretty straightforward.
Another hazardous job is cleaning the streets.  I have shown pictures of the sweepers before, they morph into snow clearers in winter.  These people, usually women are unbelievably hard working, keeping the streets clear of dust and snow all year seven days a week.  The traffic rushes by them sometimes only a few feet from them.
I watched this lady from the apartment window, she was sweeping a fairly safe bit of road, but I did wonder if it was making much impact with a 20Km/hr wind blowing across the dusty verges.  This man was sweeping the grass, I didn't quite figure this out but he had a nice broom.
The lady that was sweeping the riverside path near Sandra's office on Sunday was less well equipped.
The green twig is her broom, as you see below!  The cheesecloth face protection is ubiquitous.

As I walked along the pathway I was noticing that the railing posts had caps, but some of them had the tops missing, as in the top two pictures.  But further up the path there were some which had some kind of flap poles attached, seen in the bottom left.  So I can only assume that lots of the flag poles were broken off.  But as the picture further down shows, they are quite tall and there are many missing?  The remaining mystery is the purpose of those in the bottom right! 
Flag poles!  Notice the construction behind the centre flagpole, I have been watching this go up, it is on the beach, and I am intrigued as to its purpose.
I dont think it can be a changing cabin as we have one of those...
And in any case most swimmers are men and they just remove their pants and swim in their underwear. After their swim they just remove their wet underwear and put their pants back on...Hopefully with the benefit of a changing cabin, but not always!

I have seen a couple of these vessels in the river.  It is a bit hard to determine how they function, but to the best of my interpretation it is an inner tube type affair, with paddles made of pieces of tin or wood.  The strange thing is it doesn't seem to be a recreational activity, the fellows I've seen actually appear to be trying to go somewhere.
Another riverside activity is the taking of wedding pictures.  This is especially true outside the Renco building which seems to have some cache as a photo-op spot.
Of course there is also fishing in the river, and I have had lots of pictures of fishermen, in summer and in winter.  But I had never seen one catch a fish until this weekend!  Here is the proof.

And moving along....
This is a picture of a Bentley parked outside the Rixos Hotel in Almaty.  Regular readers may recall that the Rixos is the very posh hotel where the internet connections don't work.  I have to show you a picture of a Bentley in Almaty and not atyrau, because I have never seen one here. And that is because there aren't any registered here.  In fact according to an article I read supposedly based on government registration statistics, there are 36 bentley Continental GTs registered in Kazakhstan, and 31 are in Almaty.  Two are registered to 22 year old "girls" which just goes to show how hard working and entrepreneurial the young ladies are here. There are also 33 Maybachs registered in Kazakhstan, mostly in Almaty...but one in Atyrau!  The only two Aston Martins are in Almaty, as are the two Murcielagos and MacLarens. So the inventory of $250,000 cars in Kazakhstan seems to be heavily weighted to Almaty, which says two things, there are people with money living there and they have roads that cars drive on.  I think Atyrau has the Highest number of Toyota 4x4s but unfortunately nobody was interested enough for that to get reported. 

Here are some things that just puzzle me...
Why is the hot water this colour?
Why does this cookie/biscuit have a palm tree, two Flinstones and Santa skiing on it?
Did the designer of this sign think?

Where do the railings go to?  Many are just missing!
Is this really fit for purpose?  Would you stand on it to paint?
Is Sandra's umbrella really doing its job? (Since despatched to the bin!)
What happens to the tops of many of the buildings?  Why are they not fixed?

Why does this large pleasure boat not moor to a pier instead of ramming the banks?

Picnic on the Ural

As regular readers will have realised, this is not a part of the world that easily lends itself to casual outdoor recreation, just for reference the temperature today was about 42C (107.6F) and quite windy, yesterday it was not quite as hot, but also so windy that it tore Sandra's umbrella apart as she walked home in the warm rain. It is also not a part of the world that is obviously endowed with the remains of Greek, Roman, Ottoman, Egyptian or any other great civilisations existence. But that is not to say it is without an important history. The silk road, the trade route between Europe with Asia for several hundred years was not actually a single road but a network or routes acroos asia and eastern europe. one route went south of the caspian, another north, crossed the ural river about 50km north off Atyrau. There are still the remains of this crossing and the city, Saraijuk (present name - Saraichik), to be seen. So on a pleasant Saturday afternoon we, Sandra and I, Mary and Lee, and Ben, set out in an official vehicle to visit Saraichik, to see the ruins and picnic by the river.

The main road was fine, but then we had to turn off onto a dirt road and bump along for a few kilometers.
We approached the trees that lined the river bank and suddenly came upon a makeshift gate across the dirt road.  We stopped and out from the trees emerged a man.  This was the "park" entrance and he had emerged to negotiate or entry fee.  After some conversation with the driver we were called upon for a few dollars each, almost certainly ten times more than a local would pay, and we entered the park.  There was nothing there to show it was a park, and the driver got us as close to the river as he could, about 40 meters away.  
The river had steep banks which were very muddy from the high water.  We could not actually get down to the river so we selected a picnic spot that was on the bank and clear of the scrubby little bushes that were everywhere.  These are the weeds that were growing wild all along the river side.

The mainstay of or picnic was liquid. it is important to stay hydrated in this hot weather, so we had plenty of beer and wine! 

I took some meat pies that I had (made with the local bread dough that is sold in the shops here), scotch eggs and stuffed zucchini, Mary had brought chicken salad and all the sandwich makings.  I was responsible for dessert so has some home made chocolate mousses.  I find this an easy dessert here as the classic Elizabeth david recipe usues only eggs and chocolate, which are always available.

The driver waited patiently in the car.  We shared, or attempted to share, our picnic with him but I am sure that he was thinking "you cant really trust what those foreigners eat".

You will notice all the weeds growing in the woods.

It was rather make shift but we managed to while away a couple of hours before loading the van and setting off towards the famous ruins.

The local housing was not very inspiring at the small village near the ruins, which sadly, were not very inspiring either. 

Being right on the river bank they get flooded most years and so are being eroded very quickly.  Hopefully there is more under the desert sand, and it is better protected.

I am not sure what Yorik was doing there, but he was real enough!  I wondered about bringing him home as my souvenir
Here are the happy explorers, engrossed in the archaeological mystery of it all....well maybe not, but we had a quick look around, before heading back...
Marriott Building, Home is near the top on the left corner.

Friday, July 6, 2012

ALMATY, Apple of My Eye.

Almaty is the largest city in Kazakhstan with over 1.3 million people, nearly 10% of the population.  The name means City of Apples, and it is where apples first came from.  Although a nice city, I am afraid it is no Garden of Eden.  It was the capital of Kazakhstan until the president decided to build a new capital, Astana, the subject of an earlier blog.

Sandra had to go to Almaty for a Friday business meeting, so I tagged along, making every effort to earn the title of "trailing spouse".

I don't think I have had the opportunity to introduce you to Air Astana, Kazakhstan's national carrier.   Air Astana is a good airline, with new planes, well trained staff, reasonable food (by airline standards, not human consumption standards!) and traditional service values (they still give out sweets on take off and landing, and offer economy passengers little travel kits-socks and toothbrushes).  Unfortunately, this all comes at a price, and at a price that is so astonishingly high that only a semi monopolistic airline could survive with it.  Actually fares are not too bad within Kazakhstan, but today's return economy fare to Amsterdam (3400km) was $1,966 booking over a month in advance, a connecting flight to San Francisco (8943km) cost $1,315.  So Air Astana costs $0.58 per Km and American costs $0.15 per Km.  So I suggest you do what I do and take an extra sweet on take-off!

But the other thing about Air Astana that confuses is the schedule.  There are flights from Atyrau  to and from Amsterdam every day of the week except Saturdays.  This flight is about 95% business people who typically end the week on Friday and want to fly home the next morning, but there is no flight!

But back to the point, in order to get to Almaty for a Friday morning meeting we had to fly out of Atyrau either on Wednesday night at 9/50, or Thursday afternoon and go through Almaty.  The Wednesday flight would get you to the hotel at 3am Thursday morning, and the Thursday flight cost an afternoon but would mean that one could check in around 11pm.

The Friday meeting ended at 3pm, but there was no return flight until 8pm on Saturday.  The one week night with no Almaty Atyrau flight is Friday, when businessmen probably want to go home....or perhaps they want an excuse for another night in Almaty!

We took the Wednesday 9.50pm flight and arrived at our hotel before 3am.  It was the luxurious Rixos.  I am sure they had read my blog about the Astana Rixos, because they had given our room to somebody else, which we eventually ascertained when we managed to persuade them that we had not already checked in, I don't know what they were thinking, as if we would suddenly say "Oh yes, sorry, quite forgot, we did check in 3 hours ago, completely slipped our minds"!  Anyway they got revenge by checking us into a broom cupboard, a corner room so small they couldn't fit a chair in it, and if the bathroom door was open one couldn't access the toilet. It also had two single beds not the queen/king we had booked.  But at 3am one doesn't feel like trying to change hotels, and they assured us that we would get the correct room in the morning.

The plan was to sleep in a little, have breakfast and Sandra would work and I would keep out of her way, get the room changed, plan the weekend etc.  We hadn't bargained for the inability to connect to the internet.  None of the NCPOC staff in the hotel could get onto their network, and gmail did not connect either.  Not the best working environment, so a few annoyed people.  The hotel said they would sort it out, but never did.  I managed to connect our ipads to the internet through a different route.

Meanwhile they told us that they had no rooms but that we could have one the next day.  That is when I played the "potato chip" card.  When we had lifted up the clean bath towel in the bathroom we found a bag of half eaten potato chips (or something) between the towels.  So I handed it back to them and asked why they were there, and it was not a feature of five star hotels to which I was familiar.  This was enough to raise our case to the manager, and we did get a room and a plate of fruit by way of an apology.  Thank you Rixos.

I actually did not get out much on the Thursday, what with all the excitement!  Venturing out in the evening with Sandra we wandered over to the Cathedral, which is on Trip Advisors list of top things to see in Almaty, TWICE.  It would appear that it is entered under two different names, so we managed to kill two birds with one stone!
From the Cathedral we went in search of the Green Market, which we knew was Down from the Cathedral.  Almaty is a city built in the foothills of the Tien Shan mountains, and is itself on a gradual slope going up from north to south.  So the convention used when giving direction is to that of Up and Down, not South and North.  This works quite well unless you need to go east or west!
As we hunted the Green Market (Zelyony Bazaar) which I warned Sandra was not green as in the colour, but green as in vegetables, we came across the large green coloured building!

Which of course is not just a vegetable market but an "everything" market, hundreds of little storesmany of them almost identical in what they stocked, indicating commodity buying where price is the differentiator, hence the need to bargain as no prices are posted.

The buildings in Almaty are typical of a city that has been developed over many years, although the money has only really started to arrive more recently.  In Almaty there is the old and the new, Astana is predominantly new and showy, Atyrau is old and rather dull. 

These two older buildings were, I believe, from around 1900.

 And this was clearly from more recent times.

We stopped at an outdoor restaurant for some thing to eat on the way back to the hotel.  Our timing was quite good as it poured with rain as we ate our Shaslik; beef, lamb and horse skewers of grilled meat, some grilled vegetables and enough raw onion for 25 hamburgers.  We ate it all except the onion!  One of the essential pieces of furniture in a Kazakh restaurant, even more important than the cloak-room (to leave winter coats and hats) is the television, or more likely televisions.  They are usually flat screens mounted on the walls playing either a music channel (half naked people, usually female, dancing) or a fashion channel (sometimes scantily clad females prancing), the sound is usually turned off and different music is playing in the background, making the music videos even more inappropriate.  In this outdoor restaurants the TVs were mounted on tripods, so they could be easily taken indoors for the night.  
The next day Sandra was in her conference so I explored the city.  The first place I went was up the cable car to the top of the mountain where there is a very tall TV mast.  It was an hazy day so the view was not perfect but still good.  It was interesting to look down from the cable car and see all the homes huddled together.  These were large homes.  They often house three generations of a family together.  In between these homes were other buildings, some of which looked hardly fit for habitation in a cold climate.
From the top there were views north (Down) back over the city of Almaty.
And views south (Up) into the hills, and of the TV mast itself.
There was a small petting zoo and carnival games as well as some pleasant gardens and paths with a restaurants and cafes; it was a family type of place but with the 5 minute cable car ride costing about $7.00 it could be rather expensive for an average Kazakh family. 
I completed the day by investigating the The Central State Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan which was a little disappointing as very, very few signs were in English (why should they be?) so I couldn't really understand the detailed and very busy contents of numerous display cases. I can say there was quite a bit about the tribal movements and the development and formation of the region and the Republic, quite a lot about textiles, pottery and agricultural tools, something about the military and the Second World War, and plenty to laud recent Kazakh history.  You probably get the picture, I decided that it wasn't likely to be a must-see place for Sandra.

One thing that Sandra might have been interested in was the shops.  I made sure to note where the temptation lay so that I would be able to navigate a safely distant route through the city.
Not all the stores were doing so well...

The Rixos Atrium
Saturday was our joint sightseeing day.  But before anything else we had to change hotels for our final night.  As we were now no longer "on business" we were free to select an hotel of our own choice for the last night.  I had found an hotel called the Worldhotel Sultanat Almaty, which has been recently renovated, and was not far from the Rixos.  To be honest I was a bit aprehensive when we arrived, it had very limited signage and had a very modest entrance.  Inside reception was very modern, very clean and very efficient.  Our room was like a breath of fresh air after the grandiose pomposity of the Rixos.
The room was a cross between Legoland, Ikea and Computerstore.  Not only did the free WiFi actually work, but there were connectors to link our pcs to the tv, and play sound through room speakers.  There was even a printer.  So, I do admit that we were surprised to find the toilet and shower behind white cupboard doors, but we could afford to use the minibar without taking out a second mortgage.  So this is now my hotel of choice in Almaty.

After the move we headed on back up the cable car, and met up with Sandra's colleague Jan, at the top.  Where we took more pictures.  
Notice that the view north over the city shows just how flat the land is stretching across the steppe.  There is also a picture in this collage of the ski jumps for the Asian Winter Games that were held last year in Almaty.  The previous day I could not identify the large structure in the distant haze, but Jan clarified things as did the enlargement in Photoshop.

We ate at a restaurant overlooking the southern hills and the TV Tower.  The Tower is actually very tall, in the world's top 15 highest towers, 371.5m and built out of steel in 1982 (when it ranked higher on that list!).  It was over lunch that Jan said something that made us rethink our plans.  A number of people had looked a little quizzical when we said we were going back to Atyrau on the Sunday afternoon flight.  That was because there isn't one and I had erroneously booked a flight at 3.20am from Almaty to Atyrau, we didn't need to make plans for Sunday, in fact we didn't need to change hotels!  It just goes to show how conditioned I am to the flight curfews that most western cities have. I never considered a 3.20AM flight.  Mea Culpa...again.
That afternoon we wandered around Almaty.  We did go and check out "The A. Kasteyev State Museum of Arts" which was quite interesting, but had as its main feature a visiting exhibition of French paintings and etchings.

There is quite a lot of water in Almaty.  The snow capped mountains may give a clue to where it comes from.  There is Big Lake, which serves as a reservoir for the city, up in the mountains.  we wanted to go and see it but the logistics didn't work out.  This is a quote from the email the taxi service sent us...

"There above the Alpine Rose hotel  (3 000 m before the lake) foresters of the National Park set up a barrier and block the road at 9 AM (they appear there 10-15 min earlier especially on weekend days so It is better to be there 20 minutes earlier.If we can't start before 9 AM will be necessary to pay bribes about 2000 KZT at the barrier and sometimes they do not accept any bribes....
It is possible to do the tour by parking the car at the Alpine Rose and to do the rest of things on feet (3000 m one way it is not so big distance) but it is better when the car is with the group."

We decided to give it a miss, which is just as well as it turned out we didn't have any Sunday to sightsee.

The water from the mountains flows through the city in open drains, they are not smelly or disgusting, though we did get to see a nice big fat rat walking along one.  The many fountains around town were more pleasant.

Under the Soviet central planning policy, when a city reached a population of 1 million people they built a subway or Metro system.  Almaty achieved this distinction in the late 1980s and construction began in 1988.  However after the USSR collapsed there was no funding to complete the project and it languished for many years until in 2003 when the government approved a new initiative to complete it.  It opened at the end of 2011 and is now the newest Metro system in the world, and very nice indeed.  The 8.5km section that is currently open cost about $1.1billion but it is just the start of a bigger system.  We took a brief ride, and found that the few other passengers were almost all local sightseers, posing and taking pictures.  On weekdays it carries well over 30,000 passengers a day but on a Saturday afternoon it is a tourist attraction.
Subway Scenes: a really nice, efficient facility.
We returned to our hotel ready for a drink, food and an early night as our car to the airport was arriving at 1.15am.  
 Drinks in the hotel lobby bar were followed by an OK meal in a deserted restaurant...not a sole, even a waiter!

We did get a couple of hours sleep before heading out to the airport and were actually quite pleased to be home on Sunday morning with a day for Sandra to adjust before going back to work.  In Atyrau we don't have all those distractions to tire us out!