Yesterday I featured the writing of an American friend of mine who went to a Kazakh village to help teach for several days. Please contrast that with what the initial impressions are of a British chap I haven’t met yet but who just arrived in Astana about the time I left. He is newly employed at the western university in Astana and has a funny take on things. Please note the difference between urban and rural realities in Kazakhstan from yesterday’s post and the following:
“Travel – The last leg of my journey here was not at all what I had expected. We flew in some swish, modern Embraer, don’t ask me which. First impression are obvious perhaps, the area is vast and very flat, and the hospitality has been very warm. Getting around Astana mostly involves encyclopaedic knowledge of the local bus routes (25p a time on any route), or hitching a lift (typically for £2.50.) About one car in fifteen will pull over so you don’t have to wait long. On one occasion, I even had them queuing up.
People – I like Kazakhstanis a lot. Deference and status are terribly important. The elderly are always being helped in and out of buses and the like, and one ought to familiarise oneself very quickly with the inticacies of the ‘chivalric’ code governing male-female interactions in and around the workplace. Most of it is common sense and courtesy. Smile less than you want to! I can’t stress this enough as a rule for getting on in the former Soviet Union.
And Expats 😉 – Thankfully expats are not as much a feature of Astana life as they are elsewhere, and so they are more willing to notice you, offer advice etc. etc. which is neat. There is also an amazing equality. The Ambassador and I no less had a good half hour chin-wag a couple of nights ago over drinks at the embassy. The constant assumption is that as an expat I am on enormous wages, have something to do with the oil industry, am only here for a year, have either a family or twenty girlfriends, love getting drunk, know no Kazakh, have a few pathetic phrases of Russian, and can’t dress to save myself. OK, the last one I’m working one, but really… A lot of expats stay on after they have finished their contracts and start their own businesses. There is a thought that pretty much if you start a business in a field that was taking off in Russia five years ago, you pretty much can’t go wrong by replicating their successful models.
Climate – A chap at the British Embassy put it very well: there is no spring and no autumn. One day you are staving off the frostbite (-50°C is not unheard of), the next you are dying of heatstroke (40°C). I have been both cooked and engulfed in a blizzard this week.
The University – Wow! This university is more impressive than I can begin to explain. Everywhere you go there is modern decor, marble, traditional inlaid designs, extremely smartly dressed staff, students and teachers (apart from the Westerners of course). The scale of the central atrium is just breathtaking, think a hanger for three airships and you are getting somewhere. I was showing around some Russian publishers and found myself speaking to myself. When I looked back they were just standing at the entrance staring at it all. The atrium is heading towards being a pretty impressive botanical gardens in its own right! Our library is over four floors and is equipped with around 100 computers, a strong room for antiquarian books, and all the trappings of a more Western university library (apart from the books, and that is where I come in…)
The Work – This is no jolly! I’m typically in at seven in the morning, and I don’t think that I have ever left before 7pm. Many students are here 7-22 daily, including Saturdays, and a good chunk of Sundays too. On the plus side we have 2 1/2 hour lunch breaks (which are often admittedly used for catching up on work.) The regime is mostly self-imposed by the staff. No one will stop you from leaving at 6.30pm or coming in as late as 9am if you want. Mostly I am preparing lists of books and library ‘fabric’ for purchase at the moment. Our target is to add 90,000 books over the next year. In the same time, St Andrews University Library will add about 10,000 if I understood their head librarian correctly, with about three times the staff.
Driving – Much like in Eastern Europe you have a sense of your life hanging by a thread when being driven somewhere. No one wears seatbelts and a lot of things are really freestyle, but there are some laws that people obey with such awed reverence it is a marvel to see. At a red light, people jump on their brakes as though suffering a sudden bout of extensor spasticity. People seem in terror of inadvertantly running the lights. Also, no one swings round in the middle of the road, no matter how wide, no matter how empty, no matter how far away the nearest junction is. Or jay walks.
Random Stuff – Ah the wonders of the internet: am sitting here on a Saturday afternoon, typing up lists of books from obscure German English-language publishers, listening to Radio nan Gàidheal, staring out across the steppe. Have had two job offers! And seen a big knife fight, involving Mercs and stuff: all very Mexican soap-operaesque. Have finally found the ultimate snacking food, namely sunflower seeds, which I have discovered take for ever to open and then fill you up more slowly than chewing gum! Best of all, all around there is open steppe, there are virtually no cameras anywhere, your every car or bus journey or entry to the library or other public building is not tracked, and everything is still interpersonal. I can’t begin to explain the psychological release!
If you are passing Astana, feel free to look me up and I would be happy to show you around the university and city… If… oh well…”