Thursday, December 12, 2013


I know that quite a few people read this blog before they decide to come to Atyrau, or not.  I have the pleasure of meeting some of you later.  However I have been blogging for over two years and things do change a lot, so I rather worry that reports of Atyrau 2011 might seem a bit over-egged to somebody arriving in 2013.  So I thought I would simply blog today about something as mundane as a walk to the shops at 4 pm on an early winter afternoon, before the real cold sets in. I hope that something as mundane as walking to the shops will give you a realistic picture of the life here.

There was not a cloud in the bright blue sky and the temperature had crept above freezing.  Yesterday I walked for about 2 hours with snow falling, the temperature at about -6 and a brisk wind, so a walk to the shops today was pleasantly comfortable.  

I left the Zhety Kazyna compound through the security gate.  It is not much of a security gate as it would probably snap off if guard leant on it, but it shows that it is a private compound and stops the uninvited entering.  There is a guard standing outside, or rather loitering outside.  He looks at me but in the traditional Kazak way he fails to acknowledge me, I know I am expected to ignore him too, but can’t suppress the tiniest little nod, as an alternative greeting.  

I can turn left or right but either way will have to go over rough ground or walk along the side of a main road.  The problem is the finer weather has thawed the ground that was frozen solid yesterday.  Today it has turned to mud and it is that special super sticky Atyrau mud.  I decide a left turn might be better but after a few meters I have, big clumps of mud stuck to each boot.  It is only about 500 meters but I have to walk with my legs apart to avoid rubbing the mud engulfed boots on my trouser legs.  This mud is unforgiving and won’t always wash out.  The walk is along the side of the slew, which I sometimes politely refer to as a canal.  The slew sides are raised about 2 meters above the surrounding steppe and it is drier.  Eventually I clamber under some large pipes and up another bank onto the main airport road.  There is only one lane in each direction and with increased building, offices and apartments outside town, it is getting busier.  I try to scrape the mud off my boots before continuing into the town along this road.  I have moderate success. 

 Unfortunately there is no sidewalk here so I either have to step back into the mud and walk, or borrow the very edge of the tarmac.  It is not for very long, a couple of hundred meters so I choose the tarmac, and pay careful attention to the oncoming traffic.  The Airport Road will turn into the cities main road, which is Satpayeva, and goes to the center of the town, which is not a “town centre”.  But before it (and I) go under the town’s only underpass and reach the safety of wide sidewalks, I walk past a large car dealership.  There are several different Asian and European makes being sold (VW, Audi, Porsche, Mitsubishi, Suzuki….if you are interested in buying….), and also Caterpillar trucks and marine outboards, though unlike American dealerships there is not a huge forecourt covered with cars.  Then next to that is the Tamasha shopping Mall.  Although it is quite close I never bother to go into it.  The supermarket is fine, but has a low surprise factor.  

A lot of shopping here is about the surprise factor.  The shops all have pretty much the same products.  Prices may vary a little but since the cost of the imported goods like fruit and vegetables is so high, saving cents on sugar or salt is not a priority.  And when it comes to shopping for those vegetables we go to the market, where the produce is far better, and pay whatever we are told to pay, hoping that by showing some loyalty and becoming known, one might avoid being made a complete fool of!  So instead we shop for the unexpected, and when the unexpected turns up we are surprised, pleasantly! 

 So we shop in places where the unexpected sometimes turn up, and those are shops with an higher surprise factor!  This might seem silly to an Asia reader who has just returned for a local market where there are fresh fruit and vegetables of every shape and color, or an American who stops on Whole Foods to buy organically certified everything, or the Italian, who knows what each small shop in a small town has that is the best.  We just want a surprise…”Lula has asparagus and it’s good”, “Ram Store has Frosties”, “The Marriot shop has canned chopped tomatoes”, “Old Ataba has Dijon mustard” and so on.  Anyway, the shops in Tamasha have a minimum surprise factor so we don’t go there.

It was quite warm walking, although only 2 or 3 degrees, with sunshine, no wind and a thick jacket one can get quite hot.  I could comfortably open my jacket and take off my gloves as I hit Satpayeva and wide sidewalks with puddles of melted water.  Puddles are important.  Will still very muddy boots one gets distracted into walking through all puddles and then dragging ones feet along like a lame man in attempt to clean ones boots.  
The walk along Satpayeva is only about 1 km to Ram Store.  It is not very interesting, there only being offices and apartment on either side of the road.  But it is also safe and easy walking.

There always seems to be some sort of construction work going on along Satpayeva.  It rarely interferes with traffic very much but it can be a distraction as one walks.  This time it was the erection of the Christmas decorations on the lamp posts.  A few weeks ago it was the replacement of all the cast concrete curbs with new granite blocks.  Then there was some ditch digging along the central reservation, the nature of which is not yet apparent, but it may be irrigation for next summer’s flowers.  The last two or three years the flowers have been a nice feature, but all the watering, and there is a lot, has been done by a water truck and men and women with buckets.  There has also been the repainting of all pedestrian crossings including a color change from white and yellow to white and red.  I am not sure of the purpose of this but it is not longevity as the new paint is wearing off already, though not fast enough for me, as I discovered two days ago that when slightly snowy the new crossings are like walking on marble coated with WD40.

There are always some kinds of road cleaners on Satpayeva, in summer with their brooms made of twigs they try to sweep up blowing dust, in winter with their crowbars and wooden shovels they try to remove ice and snow, and today a lady with a spade was moving mud from the roadside onto the edge of the sidewalk.  It is a Sisyphean task, and it never ceased to bewilder me.  I think a lot are women, and I am told they are foreigners, but it is hard to tell as they dress in similar type clothes and wrap all their face and head except their eyes with cheesecloth (sunglasses in summer add to the effect) and wear hats.  I wonder if they have skin, I have never seen any?

When I got to Ardager Mall, home of Ram Store I had to top up my phone.  It had run out of credit so stopped working.  As cell phones are critical for ordering the taxi service, it meant I missed meeting Sandra for lunch today! 

 The phones are topped up at stores or using machines like stand alone ATMs.  I can’t really tell you how they work as they are all in Russian and Kazak.  I went up and touched the screen logo of KCell, our service provider.  I got a screen with a number pad, and a input line starting +7, so typed in my phone number, there are two buttons to press at the bottom neither of which I could understand to hoped the right hand one was next and the left back…it may have been, it worked and I went to the next screen which I think were payment choices…I chose the notes picture and fed in a thousand Tenge note.  It showed me that I had 940 of something and 60 of something else and gave me option buttons…I thought a fee of 60 was a bit steep, but wasn’t going to add more notes until I knew if it worked.  I pressed the right button again, and I got another screen showing 940 and 60 somethings.  So pressed a few more buttons and it went back to the start screen, but didn’t return my money.  I tried my phone, still no luck.  But too early to worry, these things take time.  

I thought I would do a spot of shopping and try again.  In Ram Store I went to check out the meat.  I have been doing some enquiring about the meat and found that my suspicions might just be right.  I think that the meat is not exactly butchered with any great consistency or methodology, and that the labeling is very general.  It is pretty much impossible to tell if a piece is fillet or chuck from the label or shape.  I have even been told that in one store a manager told the butcher to re-label some meat because they were short certain cuts!  (The manager didn’t realize the expat spoke Russian).  Today I made a safe and easy selection ground beef, and a more ambitious selection of some sort of beef strips usually marked as stroganoff beef, though given the quantity of this in the butcher’s cabinets stroganoff must be a secret national dish.

The surprise in Ram Store today is that they once again have diet coke.  This has been out of stock for some time except as small bottles.  Though it has not been one of the major city-wide coke shortages that we sometimes experience.

Ram Stores vegetables are not the best, when fresh they are OK but they get left on the shelves for far too long.  I bought some carrots.  Being extra lazy I bought the washed and wrapped evenly shaped carrots, not the earth encrusted ones that are loosely packed and come from short and very fat to long and thin…sort of Laurel and Hardy carrots, they make you smile too!
I bought some eggs, the more expensive ones now come in plastic cartons instead of plastic bags. This has two advantages. Firstly, they are labeled.  

Unfortunately I can’t read the label, but the picture of an ear of corn on it obviously indicates that these are eggs from free range organically corn fed happy chickens!!  Secondly, they are reasonably well protected so that when you get them out of your plastic “packet” (Ram Store bag) you have a fairly good chance of still having 10 eggs and not 7 eggs and a lot of shell and mess.

Finally I grabbed some mushrooms and sour cream.  The mushrooms looked OK, they rarely do at Ram Store and I was being lazy.  The sour cream, Smetana, is a dairy staple and I will use it in a stroganoff!  Maybe the beef really is for stroganoff, I will find out.

 After check out it was time to phone for a taxi from Transport Control. Sure enough the phone was back in business, and the call went through.  I had the usual short wait for a text message confirming the car number, and after that another five minute wait till it arrived and whisked be back to Zheti Kazyna in about 5 minutes. 

Another entirely uneventful shopping trip over.