Thought I’d take a break from the heaviness of “addictions” and share a funny piece by a guest writer from U.K. who has been in Kazakhstan for about two months so far. He works at the same university I worked at for one year in Astana and has a hilarious take on things which I can readily relate to. His style of writing reminds me of a book I enjoyed reading many years ago “Coming Home Crazy” by Bill Holm. Holm was a big, red-haired Icelandic fellow who was a writing teacher from Minnesota and went to China for a year in the late 1980s, came back and was having reverse culture shock. My favorite chapter is when he wrote about the many uses of a Swiss Army knife while stuck in an elevator. I don’t think he embellished anything to make it more ridiculous and funny, that was the way things were back in China in the 1980s. I know, because I lived in Harbin, China for two years and wish I had written down my own laughable, cultural experiences.
I’m glad my British guest writer sees the same things I did about Kazakhstan in a humorous light. Read his other pieces I have featured on this blog here, here and here. If you are an expat who lives in Kazakhstan, you will be able to relate to the following ten things he thinks are “beautiful.” If you are a foreigner who is interested in Kazakhstan and want to come for a visit, this is a good primer for what to expect. (If you are a foreigner who hates Kazakhstan, you are probably NOT reading this blog at all, so whatever is written here is lost on you.) If you are interested in Astana particularly, don’t miss the URL at the very end that shows it in all its glory!
Ten Beautiful Things about Kazakhstan
Foreigners living in Kazakhstan often seem to have made finding things to dislike about the country their new national sport. I guess that when something goes wrong at home, you tend to assume that it is the Gas Board that is to blame, or the local Transportation Department, or your neighbour with a chip on her shoulder. Despite all, here are Ten Beautiful Things about Kazakhstan.
1) Shymkent People – Shymkent is Kazakhstan’s third city, think Glasgow with a strong Uzbek influences. To outsiders it is a hotbed of petty corruption and minor criminality, but – perhaps coincidentally, who knows – every Shymkentian that I have met here has been unfailingly courteous, interesting to talk to, engaged, civic-patriotic, kind and warm.
2) Taxis – Stick your hand out at any roadside and with in seconds a ‘taxi’ will have pulled up. I have known them to veer across three lanes with an enthusiasm that is quite unsettling. Next, comes the negotiation stage: you state your destination and your price, and your answer, if it is in the negative, will involve him driving off, without even waiting for you to close the door, which you are nevertheless obliged to do. Mostly though, people will go out of their way to take you where you need to go, and there is an unwritten code that any driver should get you as close to the front door of your destination as is geometrically possible for him to do. The ride is cheap, drivers, mostly friendly and talkative, invariably inquisitive, (and not at all bashful about asking how much you are earning!)
3) Bus Drivers – If the informal paid hitchhiking puts us Brits with our unshakeable fearfulness of our neighbours to shame, then Astana bus drivers are really in danger of blackening our drivers’s reputation by comparison.
Picture the scene! I was out in the countryside and saw my bus, still a good three minutes’ walk away, pull up. I instantly resigned myself to waiting for the next one, of course. But for some reason the thing wasn’t pulling away. Knowing Fife Stagecoach buses as I do, I assumed that this was some cruel trick: wait til I was within hoping distance, then at the last minute slam the door in my face. But, no. It appeared to be waiting for me. It appeared to care. Certainly there was no one else around. So I cantered apprehensively in its direction. As soon as I got on the bus, the driver closed the doors and off we went, with a slight inquisitive glance from the conductress the only indicator that perhaps I could have made more of an effort.
This sort of thing is common. Unlike in Russia, the obligation is on the conductors to extract payment from you, and not on you to pay them. The drivers are considerate. No shouting, no remonstrating, no obssessive following of the timetable. I’ve asked to be dropped off at one particular corner to save me an extra 300m of a walk, and the driver couldn’t have been more obliging. And all for 25p.
4) Landscapes – Whether desert, steppe, mountains, or Shropshiresque rolling hills is your thing, Kazakhstan has a topographical solution for you!
5) The Clan System – Even in outward-looking metropolises, the clan system is not slow to rear its head. When you are not having favours done for you by third cousins, you will be doing favours for them (a system which even the interesting genealogical heritage of my blood lines has not allowed me to avail myself of yet.) While admittedly leading to unworthies getting appointed to posts that they really don’t deserve, it has its benefits too, by providing a system of conflict resolution, communal defence, moral accountability, and a fairly endless stream of social opportunities. For country kids turning up in a big city, it gives them a ready-made network that they can plug into. The different clans have their own distinct identities and there is definite pecking order, but for aw’ that, it reminds me oddly o’ hame… (of 250 years ago)
6) Personal Freedom – Precious few CCTV cameras, no oyster cards, cash as standard, no Police-enforced ANPR, few swipe card entry systems, a general laidbackness and lack of paranoia… need I say more? (Sadly some of this is on its way.)
7) Doors – After three years of living behind a flimsy little thing with all the security features of a Wendy House interior door, I am so impressed with Kazakhstani appartment doors. My outer one is made of grey re-enforced steel, speckled with what seems to be anti-climb paint. The frame is of a similar calibre. To the outsider, it presents a sheet of solid steel with a tight joint between the frame and the door itself, leaving little room for the odd passing crowbar. The next one offers the intruder even less encouragement with two impressively solid-looking deadlocks that as a practiced keyholder, I struggle to manage. As a nice finishing-touch, the locks have little lock flaps on the inside. Neat or what!
My apologies if this level security is standard for you, but for me, it is a revelation to live behind the sort of security that a tank would have difficulty navigating.
8 ) Friendship – A friend is for life, and not just for Christmas, I’m told.
9) Nonexpat Westerners – Westerners that have come here for Kazakhstan’s sake and not to fill a hole in their personal pension deficit are some of the most interesting people that I have met, and a number are in danger of becoming good friends. Westerners in Kazakhstan fall into two neat camps, with precious little breathing room in between: those that want to be here, and those that don’t. Those that do, tend to be educated, open, outward-looking, engaged, and generally dedicated to their work. For those that don’t just negate everything in that last sentence.
10) Astana – http://vimeo.com/23410752