Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Buildings and Monuments Everywhere: It's like a capital city in Civilization!

We've been here in Astana for a little over a week now, and that has given us a chance to walk around (a lot) and see our area of the city. Astana isn't exactly a large city, positively tiny compared to the sprawl of Atlanta, but it's large enough that walking isn't exactly a feasible way to get around the city; with our apartment on the southeast edge of the city, if we want to go anywhere or do anything, we have to walk a couple of miles minimum. It will be even tougher in the winter when temperatures get down to -30 and below, but so far we have a lot of people who've offered to drive us to the different stores, and since the weather isn't bad yet, walking is still a possibility.

Our apartment is basically on the equivalent of the National Mall in Washington. From our balcony, you can see the presidential palace right across the river.

It's that massive white one with the blue dome on the left. Past that (to the right) are two gigantic mustard bottles, right out of The Phantom Menace, and a bit further is the Bayterek (the tower with a large golden ball at the top). I'll get to some better pictures later on.

Before I do, though, I want to point out some things about the above picture and most of the rest you'll see from me in this country. Astana is a very, very young city at only 14 years since it was made the capital of Kazakhstan. The president wants it to be huge, beautiful, and built before he dies (and at 72 years young, you never know when that might happen). Because of this, there is construction work going on every hour of every day. Here's the view from the back of our apartment:

Everywhere you look, there are massive cranes being used to put together massive, amazing buildings. It is undeniable that they look great, inside and out. What is a bit more questionable is whether they are actually great. Everything is done with speed and beauty primary, so what gets left behind sometimes is quality. We were told a story about a building that absolutely had to be finished, so they slapped it together, opened it up officially with all of it's amazing looks, and then they spent the next couple of months taking the facade of the building, putting the insulation in, and replacing the facade. The maintenance guys at the embassy can't stop complaining about how everything looks nice to cover up weird pipes, sketchy wiring, poor fittings, and any other of a number quality issues.

That being said, we haven't experienced any significant problems, so much like some of the other things we've been told about Astana, it might be a bit overstated.

Back to the point of this post: cool buildings and monuments! Right outside of our apartment is the back half of the national mall, and there are some really cool things over here:

This is the Pyramid of Peace and Reconciliation. Apparently there is a 1,500 seat opera hall, a restaurant, and conference rooms aplenty inside, but I don't know that I really want to go in there. We saw a couple of wedding parties going in and out of it this past Saturday, so it does get used. It is surrounded by a huge park with trees and flowers stretching out in all directions, apparently forming a giant bird if seen from above. Keep an eye on that tall, white monument with a bird on it in the background.

Flowers! Everywhere. We're right at the end of these guys' lifespan, but apparently in the warmer parts of the year, they spread them on even thicker, especially out near the Bayterek and in front of the presidential palace. (Notice the cranes in the distance. There were about 10 we could see from this spot.)

Speaking of, this is a view from the foot of the pyramid towards the palace. If you look closely, you can see those big golden mustard bottle buildings. Way past it is the rest of the mall and the Bayterek. To the right of where I was standing is our apartment:


This is the pyramid again. That pathway is large enough to drive a couple of cars down side by side, for reference. Also, keep those two little white spires on the left of the picture in your mind.

On the other side of the pyramid, there is a big arrangement of fountains on the ground. The water kind of goes everywhere, but it looks very nice. There's that bird on a stick again!

This is a legendary legend of what I think was a phoenix that laid the gigantic egg that is precariously balanced on top of the Bayterek, and on either side of it are MORE oddly shaped buildings. The left one is a concert hall shaped like a dog bowl. The right one is... something... shaped like a bread basket.

Remember those two white spires? They belong to the largest mosque in all of Eurasia. It's pretty big. I haven't been inside... I don't know what the rules for that are. See that tiny black speck on the dome of the place? That's a guy. I don't know what he was doing up there, but he's got a rope and he's dangling from the crescent moon. To the left of this picture is where the U.S. Embassy is, but I didn't want to take pictures of it. There is a menacing Kazakh guard at the front gate covered with body armor and carrying some sort of assault rifle. I don't want to upset him.

Lastly, if you walk about 30 or 40 minutes from our apartment, you can get to the actual "in-the-city" part of the national mall. Here's a shot of the presidential palace from the OTHER end of the mall:

I walked out there one day early on, apparently for the only two hours it rained that week, so the pictures are a bit (or extremely) fuzzy and gray. You can see all of the flowers and the mustard bottles for location reference, though.

And right behind me is this guy:

The Bayterek. You can go up there and take pictures, and we probably will some time. It only gets busy on Saturdays. The last thing I will point out is the big egg-shaped thing on the left of this photo. I don't know what it is, but just behind it is a pretty nice mall with lots of stores and a huge food court with a Hardee's and KFC. We may have been there a couple of times already...

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


Although we have only been here a few days, I think that we were fairly well prepared for Astana, Kazakhstan. Susie and I have even discussed that we might have been a bit over-prepared. Of course, it is our first post in the Foreign Service, and like any place, things are going to be different. You need to know about the weather, availability of food and other products, cultural norms and customs... and it’s been fairly easy to find out whatever we have wanted to know. But you have to keep in mind who is telling you the information and what their experiences are, despite the difficulty in doing that when you haven’t met them. Every bit of information comes from someone who has different experiences from you and no matter how similar they might be, they won’t know exactly how you think.

When we were finding out information about living in Astana, it was emphasized again and again that the supply management of stores, especially grocery stores, was haphazard and prices for things (especially imports) were very different from what we were accustomed to in the U.S. In a given store, they might have a big shelf of sauces from America one week then the next week it has been replaced and you won’t see those same products for a month or more. Fresh foods like vegetables are even more unpredictable. They just buy what they can when they can, and “seasonal” takes on an entirely new meaning. The entire place is run like a closeout store.

That said, Susie and I lived in rural Japan for two years. I know that our experiences don’t apply one for one, but we know what it is like to be in a place where you never know what you can get. People here pine over peanut butter like it was as rare as gold (and not without reason, because it’s priced like gold when you can find it). But even in large cities in Japan you can’t find peanut butter. People complain of sticker shock when it comes to American foods and fresh vegetables, but so far, our experience in Japan was tougher. At least here you would recognize the vegetables they have. We sometimes wandered through the produce section of our Hok Food Market without seeing anything that seemed familiar. Worse, we would look up some things in our dictionaries, thinking that they might just be unusual in the U.S., only to find out that the translation didn’t help at all. We will never forget the almost entirely uninformative “Devil’s Tongue” entry in our dictionary.

We’ve been able to get apples, bananas, frankfurters, beef, bacon, eggs, sliced bread, carrots, lettuce, coke (of course!), frozen vegetable mixes, frozen pizza, and apparently in town there is a KFC and a Hardee’s. Some of it isn’t exactly the same as what we are used to, but even the things that are a little off are available, which is more than you could say for the middle of nowhere, Japan.

Our feeling of preparedness does come with one significant caveat, though. We are living in what is unquestionably the coldest capital city in the world. I know we have mentioned this to our families, but for anyone who doesn’t know, Astana holds the world record of forty degrees below zero in the winter. The marines in the embassy have shirts that call it the coldest post in the world, and when an eagle scout and U.S. marine with years of outdoor survival experience tells you it’s uncomfortably cold, you get a sense of how serious this is. We were made aware of the weather possibilities before we came out here, thankfully. We bought some intense cold weather gear in Washington. (On a side note, we got it extremely cheap. Down jackets go on clearance in 100+ degree summers.) We have boots and polypropylene long underwear on its way. We’re going to find fur-lined hats and gloves shortly. But we are still intimidated by the weather. Astana cold is overwhelming, soul-crushing and dry. We need to buy lotions and vaseline, balaclavas and goggles... it’s not going to be easy. 

The only consolations are that we’ve lived in some very cold places before, so we have that experience, and people here agree that past a certain point, your body just doesn’t register the temperature being any colder. We won’t have to spend much time outside, but we just don’t know how bad it will really be, and it has got me worried. I suppose that making it through this will be good, though. They literally can’t post us anywhere that will be colder! We will have hit the limit, so any other place we go will be warmer.

At least I have these Mega Bacon potato chips to comfort me while I await the coming Winter.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

What's a good word for "scary, exciting, and overwhelming"?

I've had the experience before of being about one week out from moving abroad, and it can be a bit distressing. The last time, I was moving to Japan with basically no idea what I was going to encounter. This time, it's a bit better, because I have talked to a few different people in Astana and been able to ask lots of questions, but as our departure time draws closer, nervous energy starts to wind its way through everything I do.

We're almost as prepared as we could possibly be. In the past couple of weeks, we have put so many orders in to Amazon for clothes, shoes, electronic accessories, chargers and guitar strings that I would imagine the folks at the warehouse take periodic swims in the money they've made. We've sorted our pack out, done rough calculations of what consumables (e.g. hot sauce and mouthwash) we will need, made and worked through extensive to-do lists, and Google Streetview-ed our new town... but I just can't shake the feeling that there is more we could do.

I know there is, actually. That much has been made clear. A few weeks ago, I went to a spouse seminar at the Foreign Service Institute just days after the Generalist class (the other group that Susie is not a part of) had their Flag Day and found out where they were posted. The spouses were abuzz; they hadn't even had a chance to initiate contact with their post, and suddenly they realized how much they had to do before they left. Most of what we talked about that day was what everyone needed to do before they left. But first, as is done with so many seminars, we went through the class one person at a time, stood up, said where we were going and what we were looking forward to. We also said when we were scheduled to leave. After the first half-dozen or so people had done their introductions and explained that they were worried they wouldn't have enough time, they were leaving in July... I could sympathize, but I realized that it was August, and that they meant July of next year.

The air got sucked out of the room when I told them "We're leaving next month on the 13th." I was one of two or three other Specialist spouses, and we all were surprised by how much time the other people were getting, and how little our time seemed in comparison. They were panicking that they would only have 12 months to get ready, and I hadn't even begun to worry about how little time we got. It just seemed like "Not a lot of time, but plenty to do everything we need in."

Well, now that it's down to just over a week of time before we leave, I'm beginning to feel the pressure. Not really of needing to get things done. There are things we will surely miss, mistakes that we'll make, games and clothes we'll pack in the wrong boxes, but I know we've got most of it under control... it's more of an intense feeling of impending change.

When I moved to Japan, it didn't hit me until the night before I flew out. It hit me hard: I would be away from my family for the first time ever. I would be away from Susie. I didn't know anyone where I was going, I didn't know how I would get around, what my job would be, and I had never really spoken Japanese to anyone without knowing that they could speak English with me if I failed. It was intimidating, to say the least.

This one isn't going to be nearly as rough, but last night the same sort of unease began to creep upon me. I'm not going to be here anymore. I'm going to be there. Not on vacation... living there.

It's staggering.