Thursday, December 12, 2013


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


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


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!

Thursday, June 27, 2013


Wednesday, and I am due to leave on Friday.  I will not be back for a couple of months and so, as is my tradition, I must stock the freezer for Sandra so she can have so easy meals when I am away.

I am afraid that I have been working on a scheme to to make this an easy half day task, so I decided to put it to the test. 

First off was a trip to the store.  I decided to walk, so that I could first stop at Ram Store and if they had what I needed avoid going to Rahat.  But more importantly this gave me the chance of a last minute check on progress before Sundays VIP visits.  I am pleased to be able to report good progress.

However the first item of interest was not very presidential.  Progress has been made on the pipe that is being buried along the burr of the canal...a valve has been added at the end.  As yet there is no sign where it is going to, or coming from, which is just as well because I know the other end is similarly disconnected.  But we have a big cylindrical concrete lined hole with a manhole at the top and a valve inside. To wit, the concrete cylinder
And the valve with only one pipe into it.
But shortly after I climbed the bank onto Airport Road I noticed that the corrugated iron fencing that surround (I think by law) land waiting for development, is being hung with colourful scenes of Atyrau on plastic sheets.

And where this was not practical, different decorations were used.
The side of the bridge has been beautified with plant pots mounted to it, not a very good picture but I was shaking with horror at the thought of the poor creature that had to do the watering.  This surely must be impractically sustainable?

I think this lady or man is the one who does the watering as that seemed to be what she was doing here, all manually.

The painting activity is continuing and indeed even ramping up.  Today (Thursday) there were thirty or forty people at this bridge location (clearly a key visual impact location as the entry to Atyrau) and they were painting the curbs white, sweeping the roads, digging a bit, and generally beautifying the place.

All along Satpayeva people are at work.  In one place there was a truck parked  in the fast lane of the road.

On inspection they were putting up flags, one Kazakh, the next British.  They were already hanging all the way to the river, where they decorate the recently planted traffic island.
There are three new urns and a new peacock to report, but no more camels!

There are also newly attached plant pots on the lamp posts.  These are surely going to be another watering nightmare as Sandra says these flowers need a lot of water.

Unfortunately Ram Store only had black mushy celery so it was forward and onwards to Asia and Rahat Ideal.
When I arrived at the bridge I was surprised to see the barrier painting had not yet started.  The repairs to the cabling ducts were partially reconnected to the walls but a lot still had to be done.

But rather strangely there had been some painting done, in two places on the Europe side by the steps the barriers had been partially painted, one side green and the other grey.

I hope somebody will be able to explain this because I cannot!

And then, just as I was getting to the Asia end of the bridge I saw a squad of people walking along with buckets.  I think I can report that the painting is about to commence, but I won't be here to confirm or otherwise.
I walked on and finally arrived at Rahat. Where I did all my shopping and took a taxi home to begin the freezer stocking exercise.
The shopping list is below!

4lbs                Ground Beef
5lbs                Onions 
2lbs                Carrots (peeled and finely chopped)
1bunch           Celery (trimmed and washed and finely chopped)
3lbs                Potatoes 
2 large cans    Tomatoes (chopped or crushed)
1 medium can Tomato Paste
2x15oz Can     Red kidney beans 
2x15oz Can     White beans
8oz                 Frozen Peas 
2 Medium        Egg Plants 
1 Medium        Red Peppers 
1 lb                 Cheese...whatever is tasty for sauce
1 Box              Lasagne Pasta Sheets 
1 Head            Garlic   

Now you understand why I took a car home to Zheti Kazyna!

This I then had to prep...and I had nearly an hour of peeling and dicing.

After that came the cooking and the "assembly".  I will do another blog of the full recipes, which are probably of little interest to anyone except my sister, to whom I have been promising them for some time.  But here are pictures of a couple of them...

Actually, this is a big cheat!  Just as they do on TV, I do....and say "here is one we did earlier" except in this case it is two (or more if I showed them all.  In fact these are pictures of assembling a Cottage Pie (left) and  a Keema Curry right.  They were ones I made on my last trip here.  The ones I made this week were done individually so Sandra can just take out as much as she needs.  I also did a large batch of lentil curry the night before, as this is very low calorie and therefore has special appeal!

What I actually had to put in the freezer this morning, when It was cooled and bagged is shown below (including the lentils).  This is an honest picture!

In total there are 37 meals of:

Paprika Bean Stew
Cottage Pie ("Shep Pie"!)
Lentil Curry
Keema and Rice
Bolognese Sauce
and Beef Chili

My job done!