Category Archives: Kazakhstan

Questions from Qazaqs

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The last couple of evenings we’ve enjoyed meeting some of our host’s friends and family. This also means we have been exposed to the unique Kazakh questioning style. We’ve been surprised at the apparently burning questions we have been asked. In no particular order, for that’s the order we’ve been asked them in, here are some of our favourites:

  • Can you drink on the streets in New Zealand?
  • Do you have Mexican tacos in New Zealand?
  • Who is your favourite actor?
  • Do you have tattoos?
  • What is the biggest problem that New Zealand faces?
  • Are all New Zealand girls pretty?
  • Are there many Kazakhs in New Zealand?
  • Is summer in New Zealand the time when it’s hot or June, July and August?
  • Have you had any weight problems?
  • What is the pension in New Zealand?
  • Do you like Manchester United?
  • Do you like John Reno?
  • Do you surf?
  • Did you win the lottery before you came traveling?

The Mr Wedge of the kebab world

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In Kazakhstan, donner kebabs have fries inside. They’re sort of a replacement for lettuce.

This seems an eminently more reasonable use of chips than putting them on pizza, a practice New Zealand Domino’s continues to this day.

Almaty: Kazakhstan’s big apple

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Fiona with our host Roxana who she studied with in Paris.

Apples come from Kazakhstan. Almaty is named for them. So there’s pictures of apples everywhere you look. Almaty can also lay claim to being Kazakhstan’s big apple. It’s Kazakhstan’s commercial capital and, at two million people, its biggest city.

It feels a world away from China. In particular it feels European. The foods in supermarkets are more familiar, and the muzak playing as we shop is Western pop. We use words to describe the countryside around Almaty that we’d normally associate with Austria: woods, meadows, wildflowers.

Only half the residents identify as Kazakh. One third identify as Russian. Their light skin and fair hair is pretty easy to spot after seven weeks in China. The rest is a mix of Central and East Asian and European. Different peoples have ended up in Kazakhstan for all sorts of reasons, and many of them are quite recent migrants. Our hosts’ grandparents, of Korean and German ancestry, met here in a small village. They’d been moved there from their Russian homes when world war two broke out, for fear their ethnicity implied sympathy for the enemy.

It feels very calm and quiet here. The suburbs feel like they could be part of a sleepy beach side community. You come straight off the motorway on to streets without footpaths, with sunlight peeking through overgrown trees. The apartment buildings have a kind of socialist austerity to them. Many are looking a bit disheveled these days but in the sense of a batch that doesn’t need to be spick and span, rather than anything that’s actively falling down. It probably helps our beach analogy that the climate feels a lot like a summer at home. I suspect things would feel different if we were here in the winter when it’s routinely -20 degrees.

Almaty doesn’t really have a clear centre, nor a list of ‘must see’ tourist attractions. It would be a tough place to be a tourist if you didn’t have any local connections. We’re lucky we’ve been hosted here this week so we’ve just been able to take in the mountain air, and get to grips with somewhere very different from China. My suspicion is that Almaty will feel quite different from the rest of our Central Asian travels too. As one guidebook says, it’s best understood as a Russian city.

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Policy wonk digest – Kazakhstan

  • The drink driving limit here is zero. You cannot drink any alcohol before you drive. Apparently this is widely observed because getting out of a conviction involves a big bribe. Sometimes people have problems when they have drunk mare’s milk – a traditional beverage – because it’s is fermented and a glass or two can blow the scale.
  • Most cops accept bribes. It’s common to haggle over the amount you need to pay, and to expect the officer to give you change when you pay your bribe with a large note.
  • Kazakhstan has about 500,000 more women than men in its population of 17 million. It’s not clear exactly why this is. It is partly explained by the significantly lower life expectancy of men (~64) than women (~74). But popular culture says that the over-representation of women is also felt at a younger age. Anecdotally, families keep having kids until they have son, and that might have an impact.
  • In 1997 Kazakhstan moved its capital from Almaty, in the south, to Astana, in the north. There’s now a national holiday to celebrate the move to the new capital. Coincidentally it is on the President’s birthday.
  • The President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has been in power since independence in 1991. Before that he was the leader of the communist party in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. There are no serious challengers.
  • The President recently suggested changing Kazakhstan’s name to Quzaqueli to discourage people getting confused with other ‘stans. Basically the same as North Dakota considering dropping the ‘North’.
  • We’d underestimated how interdependent many of the nations of the Commonwealth of Independent States are. Bound together by a shared language and shared modern history these nine countries allow relatively free trade and immigration.
  • There’s a lot of advertising for the Kazakhstan 2050 Strategy. Its objective is to get Kazakhstan into the world’s 30 wealthiest countries. It’s conspicuously similar to the 2030 strategy, except it’s pushed the deadline out by a couple of decades. This conjures up for me the excellent discussion in the Hollow Men budget episode where they talk vision time frames.

Bad ass Kazakh hunting eagles

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Traditionally Kazakh nomads have trained golden eagles to hunt foxes on their behalf. The fur of the foxes is used to clothe the nomads in Kazakhstan’s frigid winter.

On a visit to some mountains outside Almaty we got to see a golden eagle up close and watch as it perched on the arm of a string of Russian tourists. It was one massive hunk of bird. If chickens grew that large a quarter pack would feed a family.

Hunting with golden eagles is now more practiced as a cultural tradition than a necessity. The kazakh hunters roam their snowy lands in search of foxes. When they find one they take off the eagle’s mask and it goes to work. The fox doesn’t seem to have much of a chance. The eagle swoops in and keeps the fox at bay while the hunters arrive. Once the fox is killed, the eagle is traditionally given its lungs to eat. Yum, yum.

The BBC has captured the whole practice with its typically breathtaking cinematography in the video below. Take a look, but be warned, these birds are genuinely bass ass. You’ll admire their swooping, but feel sorry for the fox.

I favour bringing hunting eagles to New Zealand if they can be trained to frighten rats of the sky pigeons away from urban areas. How sweet would that be?

The road to Kazakhstan

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It took us thirty hours to get to Almaty from Urumqi. Six of those were spent waiting at the border. The rest were on another notorious “sleeper” bus.

We left in the early evening and sometime before nightfall we passed as close as we’re ever likely to to the point on the earth’s surface that is furthest from any sea. It’s called the ‘Eurasian pole of inaccessibility’ and it was a useful symbol for the fact that, though Kazakhstan is in the middle of everything, it is its middleness that makes it so remote.Our bus mates included three toddlers who were at once scared of and mesmerised by the bouncy ball tied to elastic that I used to throw to pass the time at rest stops. Their presence was another example of something we’ve observed throughout our travels: outside of New Zealand (and/or the West) little ones are routinely expected to do things – stay up late, travel on long journeys, walk long distances – that would be considered herculean or impossible feats for kids at home. Sure, the toddlers got a little tired and grumpy as the hours dragged on but, hell, we all did.

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The peril of pretty black passports

The border crossing was a mission. The Chinese side was okay. An official took our passports and examined them in detail. The fancy New Zealand fern covers might be pretty, but they probably attract unhelpful attention. “You are going to central Asia for sight seeing?” he inquired, bemused. Yes, we are. We then had to rattle off all the countries we plan to visit before returning home to New Zealand. As those of you familiar with our forward plans can appreciate, this can take some time.

It seemed like the interrogation might end, but then he paused. “I ask you more questions?” he said. We couldn’t turn him down. “Wellington is the capital of New Zealand?” We confirmed it was. He continued: “New Zealand, Harry Potter, J R R Rowling?” We set him straight: “that’s England, but in New Zealand we have Lord of the Rings.” This satisfied him immensely. “Ah, yes. The Ring,” he said. With the broad smile of knowledge confirmed he waved us through to traverse no man’s land before Kazakh formalities.

Entering Kazakhstan without cash money

We stayed on no man’s land for at least four hours. For no obvious reason the vehicles wanting to cross were in massive, slow moving queues. When we got out of the bus and into the queue for Kazakh immigration a man in military dress approached us. He couldn’t speak a word of English, but wanted to know where we were from. He too seemed to think our shiny black passports afforded us special foreigner status and marched us to the front of the line. We waited patiently there until his colleague, also in military uniform, came and marched us to the back again.

The Kazakh immigration officer was the first local with blond hair and blue eyes I’d seen in months. She spoke enough English to quiz us about our plans and was on the verge of stamping our entry approved when she called over a serious looking colleague. This had me a little worried, until his self conscious giggling gave away the real purpose of his questions: to practice English. He asked my name. He asked my age. He asked my name again. He asked Fiona her horoscope. He asked where my immigration card was when he was holding it in his hand.

The customs officer next up had little English, but he had what he needed. “Passport” he barked, and I handed it over. “Cash money,” he stated boldly. “Good try, but no,” I said. His computation of my refusal gave me enough time to grab my passport and march out to the waiting bus. In hindsight it’s possible he wanted me to declare foreign currency I was bringing into the country. But it sounds like “cash money” is basically the way things get done with government officials in Kazakhstan, so I probably did, indeed, escape offering a bribe.

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From the border it was another seven or so hours into Almaty. The road was bumpy and single laned, despite being the main highway from China. The desert and steppe landscape rolling by was majestic and open, punctuated only by the occasional yurt.

We were super grateful to be met in Almaty by the friend we would be staying with. We’d been told our bus would arrive at 5pm. She’d been told 9pm and had been waiting since. It ended up being about 11pm.

Just in time delivery – more adventures with Kazakh bureaucracy

Like dutiful visa applicants we returned to the Kazakh visa today to collect our passports at the pre-appointed time of 4.30pm. The familiar queue of hopeful Chinese applicants greeted us, but we breezed past expecting our visa would be waiting for our pick up.

The same official who turned down our single sided application a week before told us to expect our passports back at 5pm, and that we could sit and wait until then. Generous.

5pm came and went without any movement of the door that separated consular staff from the great unwashed. The gatekeeping official was looking frazzled, and checking his watch.

We really needed our passports back. We had a train to catch out of the city that night. Plus, checking into accommodation without a passport to be copied and provided to police is tricky. We’d already had trouble when we changed hostels mid week without our original documentation.

Fiona spent our second half hour of waiting looking longingly and attempting to communicate telepathically in phrases she thought would be understood: “need go scenic spot” she muttered, “Need take fast train, railway station”.

At 5.40pm, ten minutes past official embassy closing time, someone said something in Chinese and everyone suddenly jostled for a position. Fiona’s telepathy must have worked because ours were the first passports dispatched.

What followed was a herculean effort from us to cross the city by metro. We make our train with time to spare, despite some misadventures in various railway station queues.

There’s something enormously satisfying about a passport with a hard won visa sticker and the new freedom it represents. And this one was especially hard won. Our Kazakh visa will be put to use when we spend a week in Almaty with one of Fiona’s Paris classmates. But first we have to cross China to get there.

A strong dose of visa bureaucracy

For everything else there’s MasterCard. But for a Kazakh visa, you need to wade through a morning’s worth of bureaucracy.

The Kazakhstan Embassy in Beijing is in the sub-section of the diplomatic quarter reserved for countries that cause your mother concern: Libya, Lebanon, Iran, Ukraine. We arrived early because the scant information we’d been able to find online suggested we could be in for a long wait. We were there by 8am for a 9am opening and I counted eighteen Chinese visa seekers in the queue ahead of us. A sign ominously advised that overnight queuing was forbidden.

It's about 9am when this snap is taken. There's maybe a dozen Chinese in front of us, and forty or so behind.
It’s about 9am when this snap is taken. There’s maybe a dozen Chinese in front of us, and forty or so behind.

When the Embassy opened it turned out our foreigner status meant we could jump to the head of the line. Presumably that’s a concession to the fact that we wouldn’t easily be able to come back day after day if we didn’t get an appointment.

By the time we left there must have been more than a hundred Chinese loitering about the otherwise pristine street. When we left we were sad to see that the woman who had kindly shared her parasol with Fiona looked unlikely to get a look in that day. The locals in line must have really wanted a visa. The Beijing sun was baking, probably about the temperature you want your oven to be when you’re cooling a pavlova.

Shortly after 9am we lost our front of line position, and a decent chunk of our sanity. We’d downloaded our application form from the Embassy website but the embassy official said it wouldn’t do. “Old form, need new one” he said. The new form was identical in every way to the old save for one thing: it was double sided. I practiced my best photocopier sound as we walked in the direction of a vaguely described hotel. The reception desk correctly interpreted my buzzing and provided us with further vague directions towards a business centre. We got there, got the copies we needed and headed back to the Embassy.

Our interviewer was Third Secretary of the Embassy. He spoke English well and muttered in Kazakh to himself. I’m left imagining that most of our friends who work for New Zealand foreign affairs spend their days doing basically what he did: interviewing people who needed a visa to visit their friend. His questioning was pretty thorough – where were we going, when and why? – and at one point it even stretched to an inquisition as to why our  drivers license are different colours.

Paperwork done we reached stage three of the process, a trip to a bank a few blocks away to pay the quite reasonable fee. By the time that was done it was basically lunchtime but, as much as we might bemoan the undue bureaucracy, we still got an express service relative to the dozens who didn’t get so much as a look inside the Embassy.

Our application should be processed in a week. Without the passport we need to board trains or register for accommodation we’ll be waiting for it here in Beijing. Luckily there’s bundles to see, and a whole new Chinese cuisine to get acquainted with.