Thursday, December 1, 2011

Christmas is Coming

The public trees are being erected.  These are not Christmas Trees as Christmas Trees are for people who celebrate Christmas, the 25th December.  The Kazakhs do not.  That is a normal work day.  These are New Year Trees, and just to reinforce the point I saw one being erected on the 27th December last year.  But this year they are ahead of the game.  There seem to be four strategic places for them in this part of town.  One on the square by the mosque, one on the Satpayeva/Abay roundaout. one in front of the Drama Theatre, and the forth by the river in front of a goverment office.  They are all the same, about 50 feet high and made of a tubular metal frame which they weld together in large sections, and later cut down.
Starting to build the tree by the river.

Bits of the Tree on the Square being assembled

On the Asian side of the bridge in the center of the traffic circle another large tree is assembled.
Assembling the tree on the roundabout
On the frame they hang green artificial branches and on that they mount decorations, giant candie etc.  Lights are strung around the trees fairly evenly.  Satpayeva has solid blue, the riverside has flashing blue breen and red.  

I haven't seen the others at night yet. 

All along Satpayeva Road and over the bridge the lamp posts have been adorned with lighted decorations, New Year trees and shooting stars (probably the Star of Bethlehem, but not a concept of great worth in a Muslim country).
However, it is the wiring of these lights that most impressed me, especially in the wet and snowy season.

Every lamppost had the same high quality electrical engineering work.  And as you can see there is snow melt on the ground and puddles of mud and water everywhere.  The collage below is Sandra negotiating some of the sidewalks and street crossings.  This is top quality mud.  It will not wipe off with a damp cloth.  If it gets on your clothes it stains, we use a special caustic shoe cleaner to get it off footware, and it works but doesn't leave the leather looking very healthy, imagine a shoe that has been boiled for an hour and left to dry.
Some of the puddles can be quite deep but it is best avoiding wading through them, even in rubber boots, as below the surface can lurk hidden dangers, examples of which are exposed below.
It suddenly started to get cold, the snow fell and the river begun to freeze. A day later the first of the ice fishermen were out on the river.  Parts of the river around the bridge piers were still unfrozen.  I said to Sandra that I guess they know what they are doing, but she said last year a few went through the ice so maybe not.
As the snow falls the snow clearing machinery springs into action.  Unfortunately there is not a great deal in the way of ploughs and the like, and a lot depends on manual clearing done by the same workers who sweep the roads in winter, except now they have shovels.  As they have to provide their own some are rather "improvised".
A snow plough
Men with shovels, they bring their own, and some have an artisanal finish.
The temperature dropped to below 20C and it was suddenly a lot harder to do things, like walking outside.  A couple of days I stayed in and didn't make the trek to Asia for lunch with Sandra.  

Below are some pictures I took as the winter proper started.

View from our bedroom window, morning sunrise
The snow gets piled up in heaps, I don't know if it will be removed later.
Ice round the bridge piers not properly frozen but fishermen are out already.
How does the smoke/steam go in different directions?
A not-snowy panorama from our window

A snowy panorama from our window

Monday, November 28, 2011

Customised Balconies

I have mentioned before that it seems tha the balconies on apartment blocks are often modified by the occupants or owners.  I have no idea how this happens or if it is allowed (maybe the well informed local reader, who told me the trees are painted to prevent bugs knows?), but anyhow it fascinates me.  The other day I walked over to meet Sandra and had a few minutes to wait, so just standing at a street corner took these pictures of the apartments' balconies around.  I won't try to add commentary, they speak for themselves!


And finally, this is one from a different location, above the supermarket we now do most of our shopping ib, Ideal.  As you can see, this is quite a new block but that hasn't stopped the balcony modifications.  We cannot even put a nail in the outside of our Californian condo without permission!

Winter has Arrived

A couple of days ago it snowed and with the fall in temperature the snow stayed on the ground.  It is now the third day with temperatures around zero Farenheit or -17C.  There are clear blue skies and a light wind, but still the wind chill can be felt.  The view from my desk is really quite pretty when there is snow "cleaning" everything up.

The trouble is that the snow does not get cleared very effectively.  The major roads are eventually ploughed and traffic heat clears them but the side streets and most sidewalks are packed snow or ice.  We only had a few centimeters of snow, so it isn't packed very deep, but that makes it no less slippery.  

This morning it was even colder.  The view out the window of our bedside clock and thermometer is on the right.  The temperature was flickering between -21 and -22.  Another cold day.

Yesterday the ice was solid across the river on the north side (upstream) of the bridge, but there was still a channel of water on the south side.  However it was very icy on the bridge and cars were slipping all over.  Sandra's minibus taking her to work couldn't make it over the hump of the bridge and had to have several attempts, before it was able to  get to the downward slope.  At lunchtime yesterday she missed the bus home and had to walk.  But by the time she arrived back she was very cold, and ended up going back to the office after lunch on the bus.  Yesterday afternoon I had to make desserts fo a dinner we were invited to, so actually went to the stores three times, twice on foot and later in the dark by taxi.  Early afternoon I walket up Satpayeva Street and they were starting to erect the Christmas Tree on Mahambet Square.
In my cold outside garb, still snow on my boots!
 Today after going to meet Sandra in Asia for lunch, I walked along to The Renco residences to buy a gift for a birthday aprty we were going to, then I headed over to the store, and finally home.  The distances between stops are only a kilometer or so, but the total distance is about 5km.  This seems one of the differences between the cold we experienced in Canada and Colorado (where temperatures are even colder) and here....we go out in it more here.  In North America one goes from home to car to shopping mall, we always walk the 1.5km  round trip to the supermarket, and it is not just cold it is slippery, with the sidewalks covered in thick ice, and the roads even worse at the corners where one tries to scurry across, add two heavy shopping bags and it is an accident waiting to happen.  The other day I went for a big shop (that means buying the heavy stuff, diet coke, wine, carrots and potatoes etc, not spending "big"), and planned to call a taxi to get home.  Unfortunately as I finished checking out I reached for my phone to find I had left it at home.  Without a cell phone one cannot get a taxi, so I had a slow and painful walk back.  With heavy bags and my fingers really hurt, until they were so cold I couldn't feel them, and it was fine.

The river is now fully frozen.  It looked that way, but I was not sure until I watched someone walk across it.  Yesterday it was still water!  There are two schools of thought, the locals really know and understand the river (which I assume) or the locals have a love of ice fishing greater than a love of life (Sandra expounds this theory, and points to the number of deaths of people falling through the ice as evidence).  Surprising to say, we have not been out on the river yet...

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Today: Just Another Day

I frequently get asked by the working people "What do you do all day?".  It really is not a bad question, especially when asked by people who only get two days a week off and use one of those to catch up on work and the other wondering what to do.  

So let me tell you how today is going, as it is a fairly typical day.

We get up around 6.30 and Sandra then has 2 hours before the bus leaves for work.  We do not start the day with a mad rush, but I am afraid we still sometimes end up in one.  When men dress for work they rarely try on three or four ties before deciding which to wear, and they definitely don't do that with suits or socks.  And rather than get myself into any trouble, I'll just leave you with the general observation that women are different.  And 40+ years of observing this has lead me to conclude that there will never be any convergence of our behaviours in this respect.  Enough said!  

In the morning my job is to prepare breakfast and the emergency supplies that Sandra takes to refuel herself between meals.  Fortunately, Sandra, unlike me, does not require "different" food all the time, so the only thing that stops me feeding her the same thing each day (which she tends to do when alone) is that I get board cooking eggs the same way day after day.

First priority though is tea.  A mug of Fortnum and Mason's English Breakfast tea just goes to show how difficult it is to suppress the colonial spirit, and I am talking about the new-colonial Sandra, not me, I drink my diet coke!!

There is always grapefruit followed by yoghurt, either home-made with pureed frozen fruit in it, or store-bought if we can find the low fat stuff, then eggs.  This is the challenge to add egg-variety, without adding too much time.

On the eggs list are the basics like:

Scrambled (European style to American, so they are soft and creamy)
Fried (but with very little fat)
Boiled (and shelled, to make consumption easier)
Omelettes, we have fun here with lots of things I can add
Quiche, if I have some pastry left over
and todays choice...
An omelette made by seperately whipping the egg whites, folding in yolks and cheeses, adding grilled cherry tomatoes and artichokes (canned!) and finishing under the broiler.

Finally, Sandra finishes with some toasted home made bread with labneh and apricot jam, both are also home made.  Below is the everyday set up, only the eggs differ!
As you will observe the table is set for one.  I am not ready for breakfast just yet, so I will just sit and chat, if we aren't listening to the BBC World Service News on the internet, as I do for a lot of the day.  We do get some lovely sunrises as we sit and eat and talk.
At about 8.20 Sandra leaves to catch the waiting bus downstairs.  She carries a briefcase that is half work, half food.  Raw carrot and celery sticks, cherry tomatoes, grapes and bananas are the basics, accompanied by a yoghurt drink, diet cokes and more recently banana muffins.  I don't know where she puts it all.  Maybe I am feeding her whole office?

After Sandra leaves I usually read and answer emails and do any computing chores that I have.  I have been struggling to download some TV programs which with s slow internet connection keep timing out, so seem to take several attempts over a few days before they work.  I have also been fixing our VPN connections on our iToys so that we can read blogs that friends have.  I have also set us up on the iCloud and subscribed to the new iTunes Match service.  Doing these little things with my techno-fossilised brain takes a lot longer than some of you younger readers would ever believe!

After messing about for an hour or so (for, I guess, that is what it really is) I have been trying to fit in a brief visit upstairs to the gym, before getting dressed and ready to go out.

Today I left the Marriott at about 10.30 and walked up to Ardiger to RamStore. Tonight James is coming to dinner so I will look for something a bit different, but know I'll have no luck.

It was not very cold, minus 2C, but with a dry wind it is chafing, so one walks briskly.

En route to Ardiger I passed a new restaurant that is getting ready to open.  A few months ago there were signs announcing the Noodle House would be opening soon.  Sandra was getting quite excited at the prospect of a specialist noodle restaurant, but then the signs went down and nothing happened.  However, recently work has been going on and the signage has gone up.  As you can see..
The Noodle House has



In other words it is Everything House with Noodles.  Sandra is disappointed.

After shopping I called a taxi to go back to Marriott, and then straight on to Abay Office to meet Sandra for lunch.  Something was wrong with the system and I waited 30 minutes before it arrived and got to Sandra an half hour late for lunch.

We weregoing to go to a new found place for an exciting "business lunch" but it was closed.  We decided instead to go to Guns and Roses, which is a pub that does one of those strange Atyrau transformations from business restaurant to after work drinks meeting place to live music event venue and finally early in the morning becomes an international dating center (I will say no more other than, this is all second hand information as we have only ever done lunches there.  We deserve prizes, just look what we had!


Actually Sandra didn't touch hers, it had a very strange flavour that I couldn't identify, but was decidedly offputting in a salad.

Then soup....

I have told you all about this before, but for the record, I got 3 little pieces of meat and Sandra got one.  Which made me the winner this time.

Finally chicken and rice...

This was OK.  It was cold so the sauce of sour cream and a few mushroom slices was more like glue, but avoid that the cold chicken and cold rice was like an advanced salad, so edible.

After lunch I walked over to Rahat Market to do some shopping for dinner.  I was hoping to find a piece of meat to braise.  I bought a piece of meat but I was not sure what the cut was.  It turned out to be too lean and after 6 hours braising was stringy but not soft.

As I was waiting for the taxi outside Rahat, in the muddy carpark I took this picture of the buildings opposite.

 This is an example of something I have been meaning to mention.  Most of the residential homes in Atyrau are apartments.  Typically they are 3 to 5 storey buildings like these, not in very good shape.  They are almost all built with open balconies but the residents customise them as they see fit.  Many are glassed in, some have only sides, others are barred and some are occassionally bricked in to make an extra room.  I don't know how the ownership or building regulations work but this seems to happen to even some of the newer and higher buildings as you can see in the picture of the new tower block next to The Renco (right)

The balconies are obviously useful extra storage space as you can see below.

I returned to Marriott with the spoils from my shopping trip.  And started to prepare dinner.  The menu was Curried Lentil Soup, Salad with honey mustard dressing, braised beef and Pear Tartin.  I made corn bread muffins and a loaf of light rye bread to go with the soup and stew.  Results are below.
Given that we pay for our own travel and that the trip from San Francisco to Atyrau can go a number of ways at very different prices and journey times, I spend a lot of time shopping for fares.  This afternoon I realised that I would be arriving back at SFO at 8.30 pm and had to get to Sonoma.  One way car rental is quite expensive.  I checked on Expedia USA and this was what I found.
The cheapest Hertz car was $140+.  I thought a better option would be to go by bus as far as I could and stay overnight in an hotel, which in Petaluma would be $50 to $100, Then I could complete my journey by bus the next day.
But I also decided to look at some other rental sites, such as Hertz directly, which was the same price. (I was using Hertz as they have a Sonoma office, but it is closed on Saturdays!)
Then by accident I got on an Hertz UK site and the price was about GBP20!! Bingo, I thought, only about a quarter of the US price.  However, it would not allow me to enter a credit card billing address outside the UK. And our UK cards are billed to US addresses now.  So instead I had to go on to Expedia UK.  As some of you will know, Expedia will normally reroute you to a local Expedia service, but I have a proxy UK server so I could get through.  My card billing details are already on record there to the billing address anomoly did not exist. Hence the final confirmed booking...
So the message is that it may take a lot of time, but there really is a case for shopping around.  I have found significant differences in the prices on UK, US and Canadian travel websites as well as differences in flight availability.  So if you have the ability to pay with cards of different residence, keep this in mind!

I also started this blog on Monday afternoon, but now as I am finishing it, I'm afraid it is already Tuesday.  Which brings me back to where we started...making breakfast for Sandra.  Today the eggs were a type of quiche with no pastry.  To the two eggs I added about two tablespoonsful of marscaponi and about one of grated parmesan cheese, salt and pepper, whisked and put it in a muffin tin in the oven. 

I served them with some roast cherry tomatoes.  Below is the evidence.  

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Bridge

I went to Asia to meet Sandra for lunch today.  We went to Hugo's and had the business lunch.  I'm afraid that I may be getting used to oily soup!  I think I can now give you the recipe if you want to try it.  You take one chicken bouillon/stock cube which should make a pint of liquid, and add a pint and an half of water.  Cut a small potato (very waxy type) and a medium carrot and a small onion into small cubes (about 1/2 centimetre).  Add to the liquid and boil till very soft, about 30 minutes I expect.  Then add a tablespoonful or two of corn oil (to taste) and youave it.  It can be tarted up with with the addition of a few thin slices of cabbage added to the vegetables, and if you want to push the boat out a couple of small pieces of boiled meat or chicken turns this into a festive season menu item.  Adding an half tablespoon of tomato paste to the liquid transforms it into a radically different dish!

So that was the business lunch soup (without the extras), followed by a crab stick salad, which I am sorry to say, even when prompted by Sandra, I could not photograph.  It was just too sad...canned diced vegetables with runny mayonnaise (I think) and some small pieces of crab stick.  We each got about two tablespoonsful on a saucer and neither of us could touch it.  Two beef meatballs (which have overcooked rice in them for moisture) with three very small scoops of mashed-ish potatoes (no cream, milk or butter) and a tomato fluid was the main.  Sandra ate all of her's, further proof that she has "gone native".  Dessert was a ball of what looked like a chocolate brownie, topped with cream and a chocolate curl.  It was quite attractive, but it wasn't a brownie (neither of us could identify it...perhaps cake soaked in juice and compressed into a ball?), nor was it cream, and the chocolate may have been that laxative type.

Anyhow, I am supposed to be blogging the bridge!!

I walked back to Europe, as you can see from the by now familiar "monument" at the end of the bridge footpath on Satpayeva Street.  Satpayeva is the main raod from the airport into Atyrau and across the Ural, so it is fairly busy.  

After the road crosses the bridge it broadens and widens and it is also joined by three roads from the side.  So I suspect this was something of a suicide spot for people trying to cross.  So two years ago they built a footbridge over the road.  I think it is the only footbridge in Atyrau (except for the one over the river).  

On the top left you see it in all its glory, then the left end, middle section and right end.  Each end has two sets of steps up (but on the same corners!).  The bridge is covered and has blue glass sidewalls, but in the central part of the middle section there are also railings, for no obvious reason.

This bridge is two years old.  The steps are polished granite, which make them more dagerous than running across the road, when it is wet and icy, and the flat part started off as packed earth.  For the first year the footbridge was either mud, dust or ice, then it was paved.  

But the reason I am blogging about this bridge is that it is often the little things that really highlight the differences between cultures and lifestyles, not big things like religion or food.  

The pictures below show you some details of this two year old bridge.
I said to Someone that it was amazing that it was in such poor condition.  She said that it looked like this two months after it was built.  

And another thing, what happened to the street lights that were next to the bridge? 
They appear to have been chopped off, which says it all really.