Sunday, June 15, 2014

BUYING A LOAF TIN

One of the many strange things that foreigners notice about shopping in the USA is just how willing shops are to exchange goods.  One can buy something and take it back a few days, or sometimes even weeks, later and get a full refund.  There is no need to give any reason, and the clerk will never even raise an eyebrow.  I find this even more surprising when I am shopping after New Year or an High Scholl prom. and see the number of dresses being returned often with imaginatively created excuses just to try and add some credibility to a patent scam.

As a Brit I still find it rather hard to exchange things even with a legitimate excuse, like missing part or failure to work, after all shouldn’t I have checked it first?

Anyway, there is no such difficulty here in Atyrau.  I remain intriguingly perplexed by the process of buying hardware.  I only really bought food (and the eggs are checked) and the occasional glass or bowl, which are also carefully checked.  Until a few weeks ago I had not made an electrical purchase, and when I did I was surprised to find that there was a special “check product” desk to go to before the “check out” desk.  Here the goods are carefully unpacked and plugged in and put through the paces.  I have only bought a blender and a coffee grinder so this was quite straight forward, except putting the items back in the box so the fit seemed to be as impossible as doing Rubric’s Cube and took just as long.  

I have seen the attendants struggling with large screen TVs and other large appliances, and am still wondering if it is worth buying a lawn mower to see how that works!


Anyway, today would be simple.  I was going to buy a loaf tin and I needed one small enough to fit my egg and pork pie filling in. More of that maybe later.  I had no luck at the first store which sold household goods, including pots and pans but not loaf tins.  So I headed to the electronics store as I seemed to recall seeing non-electric household wares there.  Bingo! A choice of three loaf tins. 

I chose one and headed to the checkout, except it wasn’t the checkout.  There was a counter and a girl and a till, but she looked at me as if I was offering her a wet fish.  Then I realized that I was at the quality checking counter not the pay desk, and the was not much electrical inspection to do for a loaf tin.  I made a quick recovery, spotted and headed to the cashier and place the tin on her counter.  But before I could even blink it was whisked away by another attendant who took it away to another place and another desk.  But he was clearly a critical part of the process because he had a small printed slip of paper and was recording serial numbers and the like on it in a neat hand written script.  I was then presented with the slip and directed back to the cashier.  No loaf tin yet.  After paying the cashier he arrived with the tin and it was placed in a bag and handed to me with the receipt.  I put the receipt in the bag and took the two steps to the exit door.  There I was stopped by another assistant, who was sitting on a chair by the door and who had been watching this whole saga.  He needed my receipt, so I gave it to him and he proceeded to give it a very official looking stamp, before sending me off…the proud owner of a new $16 loaf tin.
Oh! And just for the record it was a perfect size for my pie.


Friday, May 30, 2014

UPDATE FROM ATYRAU: End OF MAY 2014

It has almost been a week since I returned to Atyrau from San Francisco.  Although the fastest route is to fly from SFO to Amsterdam and then after a quick connection in Amsterdam fly on to Atyrau, I take different routes, principally to avoid the ridiculously high prices on the Amsterdam Atyrau leg.  Though I have to say, in all fairness, the prices are coming down to a level where this route is becoming competitive.  Nonetheless, this time I came in via Frankfurt and Almaty, which meant the journey began on Wednesday at 9am and ended on Friday at 5am, making it a long 33 hours, instead of about half that on the Amsterdam route.  However the saving was substantial, enough to buy a couple of iPads, so I wasn’t short of reading material, movies, crosswords, soduko, music and all the other things these funny little gadgets do to keep us amused.

When I arrived in Atyrau the first thing I noticed was the Airport Hotel, The Abukkhayir  Khana Prospekt, a couple of minutes walk from the terminal.  This will be useful for people transiting overnight but right now I am having a hard time understanding why people wouldn’t take a 5 minute taxi ride into town and stay in a place closer to their business and all the other facilities that Atyrau has to offer.  Of course if congestion becomes really bad, it will be useful to stay at the airport before flying out on that early morning plane, but the authorities are planning for that.

Right now the airport road is closed for a couple of months as it is being developed into a new four lane highway, ready for the rush.

Actually, I think that the work is associated with the rumoured impending visit of Presidents Putin and Nazarbayev. This snippet from a local newspaper...

"We arrived to Atyrau together with Said Zabitov, the General Consul of Russia located in Uralsk, to look how the preparations for the forthcoming forum of interregional cooperation of Kazakhstan and Russia is going. The forum will take place in your city in the fall of this year. The exact date of this meeting is under discussion. Similar meetings of the presidents, the members of the governments and heads of regions of our countries have been held before and they showed their efficiency"

In any event there is the start of a grand new building appearing on the airport road. I was told that this is where the meeting will take place.  It is suitably convenient for the airport, about 4KM along the soon-to-be expanded road.

Yes, the road improvements are continuing rapidly here.  I was only away for two months and I can report that the concrete curbs along Satpayeva have now all been replaced with granite, and the program is being extended into Azattyk Avenue.



Work is also going on re-laying the walkways and upgrading their curbs too.  I was surprised to see piles of bricks all over the Park Oblakymata.

There are also some new traffic lights, the most effective probably being those at the Dostyk Junction, scene of many interesting but not serious accidents. 

There are also new pedestrian crossings, with lights counting down the crossing time, and many of the pedestrian crossings, which I would call Zebra crossings except they are red and white, have already been repainted. Some, like the one below, have not yet been painted and show the wear and tear that a Kazakh winter has on a bit of road paint.

The planting season is also upon us. The concrete urns along Satpayeva have been planted.  As have many of the roundabouts and road islands.

There are also pots hanging on the lamppost with flowers in them, though Sandra tells me that these are not real. 

I also note that that much maligned watering and dining institution, TGI Fridays is no longer in the Marriot and there is a new American Bar and Grill for us to try.  As it is a “grill” I expect it might have steaks, but I will bet that there will also be pasta and pizza, the signature dishes of all fine international restaurants in Atyrau.  I’ll report back later.

Here in Zheti Kazyna winter has ended with a flurry of activity too.  Planting has started, maintenance of winter worn facilities is going on, and work is, today, underway on some new construction by the gate house.  

My money is on some sort of bike park with cover, as we all (or at least, those with better bikes) take them indoors to protect them from the weather.

And here in the apartment Sandra has had the sitting room wall repainted as it had been damaged.  She was told the new colour wouldn’t be an exact match with the old one, and was somewhat startled that the slight variation in color was from moss green to bright orange.  Anyway, there is nothing to do about it now except face the other way.

This city really is changing all the time.  It is mostly getting better, significantly better.  The living accommodation is much better than a few years ago and the produce in the stores is much better too.  But it still requires a little “adjusting”.  

On Sunday the weather was nice, it’s been nice all week between 25C and 30C and sunny, if a bit windy, anyway we thought we would walk out to the river, but just as we started to leave there was rain.  It was a brief but effective 15 minute squall which left the dusty ground with a thin mud layer on top. In winter with boots one might decide to walk it but in summer with light shoes it is disastrous, so we had to get a taxi to the nearest sidewalk, about half a mile away.  Then we had a nice walk!

Sandra has had a different sort of week with out of town visitors and workshops, so I have not been going in to meet her at lunchtime with our “picnic” to eat in the Riverside Office canteen/lunchroom.  Instead I have been walking to Rahat each day to visit Luda, the famous vegetable lady and getting back in the groove of Atyrau shopping.

My walk to Asia (I like to say that, it sounds suitably dramatic) is a circuitous route around the back of the Zheti Kazyna compound and along the irrigation canal to connect with the paved roads and sidewalks.  One day as I was walking along the top of the dyke I spotted something on the ground ahead. 


You can see it in the middle of the above picture, at the bottom.  And if you have good eye sight you will even notice that it is indeed a fish!


I have no idea how it got there or why it hadn't been eaten by birds or other scavengers.  There is no fishing done in the dyke, and I dont even know if there are fish in it.  Just another one of those odd things that we come to expect.

I mention that apropos nothing in particular, but I wanted to have it on record, and get the evidence on line!

On Wednesday night we hosted a simple dinner for the workshop participants, 15 were able to make it and although we were a little thrown by suddenly and for the first time, being told by Kheti Kazyna management that there not enough tables and chairs to supply us, some of our guests were less than surprised and more than willing to bring their own chairs.  But this is a lesson well learnt here, just because you are told that it will be done, don’t expect that it will be done.  In this case it was a minimal inconvenience.  

A couple of years ago when we went top our poultry lady in the market to get the Thanksgiving turkey that had been ordered weeks ahead and that we were assured would be supplied….well you know the rest, and what is wrong with Thanksgiving duck anyway?

This trip I brought back a few basic tools, as I always do, which makes life a little easier.









However these simple luxuries are as nothing compared to our new toy...

Yes. a second fridge, which acts as the summer substitute for our winter fridge (that being, outside on the kitchen balcony). Our existing fridge was packed to the gunnels so this will make life a lot easier and I can start stock piling frozen meals for Sandra to eat when I am away.



Friday, February 21, 2014

BACK FOR WINTER

I arrived back in Atyrau four weeks ago today.  It was a long journey, almost 36 hours door to door with about 24 of those on planes, but I arrived in the flight in from Astana at 6.15 Friday morning, just in time to see Sandra off to work and get on with a day’s shopping and cooking. In fact I had to get prepared for 

Saturday night as we had planned to have a surprise birthday party for Jon, who was going to be 60 years old.  His good wife had schemed with us and he thought he was coming over for a quiet dinner.  In fact we had a crowd of nearly 30 people hiding round the corner from the front door, to surprise him when he came in.  It worked! And he managed to take it well within his stride. 


I had been up at 3am after 4 hours sleep (that’s jet lag for you!) and cooked all day until 7pm, with just an hour for lunch.  We only had easy-to-eat finger food, but it is a fiddly task making little pies, little quiches, little pizzas, little samosas etc for that many people.  It was a lot of fun, i enjoyed it.




Then we had a week of very mixed weather.  

There are two short seasons in Atyrau, Autumn and Spring.  They are the brief and sudden transitional seasons between cold winters and hot summers.  Freezing winters and baking summers are fine, with little precipitation (this is a desert) I find the dry cold and heat very much better than winter damp and summer monsoons of other countries.  But the in-betweeny-bits are often a bit wet and very muddy.  They don’t last long but we had a brief taster that week…and then the temperatures dropped down to almost -50C with wind chill, or so they said.  It was pretty cold, my tough Canadian neighbor thought it too cold to come out walking, and I admit that I needed to wear my fur hat with the flaps down…a sartorial no-no in my book, but one which expedience overcame. 

Between the shopping and the cooking, walking and eating, I did make daily trips to meet Sandra for lunch.  We have rather changed our routine.  I think that maybe after a few years of business lunches the novelty might be wearing off.  As exciting as it sometimes is to see what appears and how it compares to the menu description, there comes a time when some predictability is a relief.  So I have been taking food in to the office and Sandra and I usually eat there, often begging colleagues to help us finish what we cannot eat.  I have started making use of the thermos flask to take in soups and sauces  (so far…pumpkin, leek and potato, spicy lentil and mushroom soups, bolognaise and chili, lamb stew and beef curry); this has been most valuable since the second microwave was purloined by the caterers and the rush hour queues make using the microwave for five minutes

We have been going out about once a week, but our dining satisfaction is not improving with that.  Last Friday I made the mistake of suggesting we go out to eat lunch (last day of the week, getting lazy and Valentine’s day too). We went to Winter Garden, one of our regular lunch spots that is not frequented by expats at lunchtime.  I broke my golden rule of not ordering European food in a Kazakh restaurant!  Well, it was pizza which is hardly European in Atyrau since it is as ubiquitous as pasta thanks to Atyrau’s long Italian heritage.  And the picture in the menu looked like a pizza that I had eaten before (Sandra pointed out that it was the same picture in many restaurant menus!).  


Anyway, in short it was a reasonable pizza except for some of the topping.  The fresh chopped tomato on the topping was fine, and the peppers were fine except I don’t like them on my pizzas, which meant the cheese and the salami were below par.  In fact to be blunt the salami wasn’t salami but thick slices of some kind of Kazakh frankfurter sausage thing, and the cheese was not cheese but some sort or processed chees stuff a bit like Cheez Wiz, the squirty cheesy stuff that only specially trained North Americans can eat.  I ate the edge and.  This is a picture of the pizza (after I had finished with it…ie missing a bite and an edge).

The next weekend was Sandra’s birthday party.  She graciously decided to have a smaller party of female friends and, if available, spouses.  This meant the cooking was more manageable, and as she chose to have Indian food I was able to cook a curry a day through the week and keep them in the fridge.  Many curries improve over a couple of days in the fridge so this made life very easy.  On the Saturday of the party all I had to do was make chapattis, papadums and a last minute quickly cooked cabbage dish. 



By my second week I was starting to sleep past 4am and recover from the jet lag.  This meant that it was time to experiment with my new toy…  Sandra had bought me a meat grinder from the Netherlands (220V).  Of course you can buy grinders here, there are many, many to choose from in shops like Technodom.  The trouble is knowing or finding out which ones are any good.  By getting a model that was reviewed on the internet I new what it would deliver.  If this sounds to you like a paranoid expat writing (and I probably am) last week I bought a blender at a local store and can only conclude QED!


So having come to Atyrau this time with a supply of hog gut I was ready to make sausages.  We have missed having English Bangers with our occasional weekend breakfasts, toad-in-the-hole for supper and a good sausage and mustard sandwich, but I intended to rectify this. 


I visited our “pork lady” in Rahat, locals will know the specially segregated “pork-room” at the back where we can find some things porky like very smoky ham,  Kazakh “salami” and pork loins and chops.  She was rather perplexed that I was looking for pieces with a good percentage of fat on them as the local think that Americans (and we can put the British in the same pot) have an irrational fear of fat in all shapes and forms.  I found something suitable and went home and made sausages.  They were not too bad!  

I also experimented with some chicken, apple and onion sausages which I produced in a cumberland style and will cook as a dish for four people if I can find two guinea pigs willing to join us.

Less successful were my attempt at beef sausages. As the beef is all so lean and I cannot buy pork fat alone I decided to make Frankfurter style sausages which use lean meat.  The problem was producing a smooth enough meat puree that wasnt too liquidy.  This is where my new blender failed me, and I don't have a food processor.  The mix was too wet and resulted in a sausage that was not firm enough.  I do not have sheep guts with me so I tried to use hog guts but not tightly stuffed to make some thinner sausages and this further compounded the texture problem. The sausages were poached after cooking and then cooled in the freezer (it may look like a balcony to you but at -20C it is a freezer to me!).


But at the end of the day it was all about breakfast...

And something else that I didn't really realised I had missed having until I started to think about it,  pork sausage rolls fresh from the oven...

The third weekend back was the social event of the year, Burn's Night.  This is my third blog about Burn's Night so I will not repeat myself.  In fact my comments about previous Burn's Nights could just be repeated.  Except this time we had a table right next to the doorway to the kitchen (always the best seats!) and so I could actually see what was coming back from the tables. And I can confirm that my observations about the food are corroborated by the evidence of uneaten meals on the plates.  I would estimate that from our table less than 25% of the main course was eaten.  The beef Wellington was again inedible, The beef was so overcooked I couldn't even cut it, and the use of liver instead of a good duxelle or a pate/duxelle mix is far too strong.  It is such a shame to see good food wasted because of overly ambitious cooking.  This is not a recipe for mass catering, but I the Renaissance cooks wont learn.  They probably think the food comes back because people have had sufficient, but the desserts get eaten! But to end on a positive note, once again the haggis was the highlight of the meal, even if the tatties and neeps were actually tatties and something else!  Could it have been sweet potatoes, or were carrots mixed with something, perhaps it was swede...but lovely haggis!  We do enjoy Burn's Nights but it is important to remember that it is all done, with generous donations from the business communities too, for local charity.

Last weekend was the start of Spring!  That is not an official start, but a start signalled by the weather.  The temperature crept to around zero and snow started to disappear.  On Sunday we went for a walk with our friend, Phil, to have lunch at Venezia and introduce him to Rahat.  We walked across the river and discovered a new phenomenon.  

This year the river ice has some fairly significant cracks in it.  They have refrozen so there is no danger.  I have been told that this is because the water level beneath the ice increased due to the winds across the Caspian forcing water upstream and so causing cracking and subsequent falling and cracking of the ice on the river.  Whatever happened there are cracks and water is now seeping on top of the ice at the edges of the river by the banks.  In the cold period this water just froze, but last weekend it was only frozen on its surface.  So when we got to the edge of the river we suddenly felt the ice cracking beneath our feet and we went through into the water and onto the thick layer of ice underneath.  It was rather disconcerting as we didnt realise what was happening.  Today I noticed fishermen walking through ice and water at the river edge to get to the middle to begin fishing.  The view from the bridge shows the difference in the ice down the edge.







Thursday, December 12, 2013

SIMPLY A WALK TO THE SHOPS

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.


Friday, November 15, 2013

NEWSLETTERS

Here at Zheti Kazyna we occasionally receive Newsletters from the Management.  There was one such newsletter a week or so ago which both Sandra and I missed and which ended up with her posting the following comment on Facebook,,,
Last week's Newsletter carried the following announcement... 
This confused many residents as they where unaware that we had stained glass windows in some of the apartments.  However it did not faze me as just last week I had tried to take a photograph of the window cleaning and it resulted in the picture below. 
Which as you can clearly see is taken through a very stained glass window! So we have all been blessed with stained glass windows which will fortunately soon be cleaned.  

The cleaning itself is quite interesting.  Instead of lowering cleaners from the roof or using one of the trucks with the telescopic arms and working platforms.

So we had wonderfully clean windows...for one day.  Because, as everyone knows, the sure way to ensure that it rains is to wash your windows or wash your car, and so the next day it rained!  After a couple of weeks here with surprisingly war weather it seems as if winter is finally going to move in.
  

Friday, November 8, 2013

FINALLY BACK IN ATYRAU: MY FIRST WEEK

Well, that was a long time away!  I left Atyrau at the end of June with some apprehension.  The British Prime Minister was due for a visit with Mr President, and although, as you will have seen from an earlier blog, preparations were well underway...bridge painting, flag flying, flower planting, strange model animals appearing etc...I was rather nervous leaving the final preparations unsupervised!  

However, everything seems to have gone swimmingly well, and there were no major incidents that we know of.  I cannot report whether or not turned on the oil, but if they did it was turned off fairly quickly thereafter. Because as far as the rumours tell us there is not yet oil flowing.  

I have to confess that I am beginning to worry that they will find a synthetic substitute for oil costing 50 cents a barrel before Kashagan finally delivers up its wealth and riches.

But what else is new?  I arrived back in Astana after a long journey, three red eye flights in a row with two twelve hour layovers (Toronto and Vienna), and spent a couple of days there with Sandra (working!) before continuing on to Atyrau.  

I was surprised to see how halloween had managed to reach even as far as Astana.  The Khan Shatyr was suitably decorated, to fully exploit the potential commercial value of another strange western custom!









It was Friday and we were just in time for an Halloween party.  I had had the good sense to bring costumes and makeup with me from the US.  Well, actually, to be exact, I had had the good sense to follow Sandra's "suggestion" and bring costumes and makeup from the US.


It made party going a lot easier, but I have to say, it was a good job we did because the standard of costumes were very high, and with anything less we would have been sorely under-dressed.  I must remember to blog a new list of what expats should bring to Atyrau.  Things are changing (improving) so quickly. I used to have suitcases filled with green beans, celery, quaker oats and even parsnips.  Now we bring Halloween costumes, tablemats, pictures and cushions!  
Despite what the pictures might suggest we actually had a relatively early party night.  But we still had a leisurely start on Saturday, with Sandra taking an hour or so to go through her exercises.  Unfortunately, this meant that she got into the shower just in time to catch the alarm for a fire practice (which we hadn't read about so thought might be a real fire).  She is paying good money for people to destroy the photographs of her standing in the courtyard with 50 colleagues in a kaftan, coat and wet hair wrapped in a white towel. 

Sunday night was Dawali, the Hindu festival of lights.  Marina had organised tables at the Green Hotel, which is Indian run and the scene of our usual curry nights, and a party of about 30 of us headed over there.  Sandra wanted to buy a sari so she could dress the part as well, but Marina was kind enough to lend her one instead.  Fortunately Gowri was available to dress the ladies and when they finally emerged they really were impressive.  Dinner was fun and we were entertained by two local dancers that started with an Indianish type of dance but then seemed to morph into a kind of Las Vegas show crossed with Rio carnival mode. 

Monday was back to the old routine except that Ram Store has shrunk to half its previous size.  It doesn't seem to have really contracted its product range very much, maybe some of the hardware items have gone, but most of the food is still there.  There was even a better selection of meat in the meat counter, including some that looked like T-bone steaks, albethey from a rather small cow.  I didn't try them, instead deciding to buy a piece of top sirloin from the Zheti Kasyna restaurant.  It was expensive but very good.  I cooked it sous vide at 131F for 4 hours and then seared it in a very hot oven for about 5 minutes.  It came out properly pink throughout with a crispy crust on the outside.  But I forgot to take a picture so will have to do it all again.



It was also time to restock the fridge so I made a couple of cottage pies, and ham and cheese quiches to keep us going.  
 Yesterday I made a batch of plain low fat yogurt, some of which I strained to make Labneh so that Sandra can start having it with apricot jam again for breakfast.  I am so glad that we can now buy jam in the stores.  Only two years ago I was making jam from dried fruit and scrambling around to find empty jars to store it in.  


I also made some polenta.  I had a lot left so I cut it into french fry sticks and fried them till they were all crispy.  Not great for the diet but quite tasty.  Also not conducive to dieting was an attempt I made to make Pasteis de Nata, Portugese custard tarts.  These highlighted the temperature differences in the oven as some had firm set custard and others did not.  Next time I will cheat and thicken the custard more first.

Out of the kitchen and onto the streets...

The weather is lovely, around 10 degrees with clear blue skies. Lovely walking weather.  The flowers have all disappeared from the roadside beds and from around the compound but some evergreen scrubs have appeared.  There seems to be a major maintenance project underway in Zheti Kazyna with scaffolding and ladders and men in hard hats and white cover-alls.  


I can also report that the Satpayeva bridge was finally repainted in this summers ubiquitous green.  



Though as you can see from this detail of the yellow trimming paintwork, sometimes the quality makes one think that it must have been rather a rushed job.

Nonetheless it was done, hopefully in time for the VIP visitors, and it should be good for a few more months. 

I can also report that the construction work on a number of strange structures that was commencing in June on the riverside path has been completed and there are now some completed "things".  I am not sure what their exact purpose is yet, but will investigate and report back.  

This is a picture of the "thing" outside the Riverside Office.  I have it on good authority that at night they are lit with changing colours, but have yet to witness this.  I will have to venture out with a camera.  It doe seem a shame though that there are these grand edifices on the river when those at either end of Satpayeva Bridge marking the ends and starts of Asia and Europe seem to be ignored.

There have also appeared even more model animals.  There is one piece of waste land on Satpayeva which is especially blessed with artificial wildlife.  To wit...




I can also assure you that Atyrau's Christmas preparations are already well under way (though strictly speaking these are New Year decorations as Christmas does not exist here). Tamasha is once again the first to have its tree erected though not yet decorated.  I am waiting to see if the giant inflatable Santa Claus reappears or if last years puncture actually did him in?

I also noticed that there are large snow flakes hanging down either side if the entrance of NCPOC Riverside Office.  I cannot remember whether these have been up all year, being left over from last Christmas, of are the decorations for this season.  

Meanwhile, with the mild weather the fishermen are out in force enjoying the last few weeks of autumn before getting out their drills, little stools, warm jackets and vodka for the winter ice fishing.



I stood and watched the fishermen, hoping I might see one of them actually catch something, which is such a rare event that I have come to believe that it is not the objective of the exercise, but rather an excuse to get out of the house.  Then a battered old boat came chugging up the river. The Ural is supposed to be navigable up to Oral (Uralsk), but I don't know for what draft vessels.  I did wonder where this one was going...
...I guess we'll never know!