Archive for April, 2007

Getting Close to the End

Getting close to the End  

The time winds down. On Thursday we saw the shipment of personal effects sent to Yekaterinburg. It went up on the two day train. Let’s hope all arrives safely. All the bribes for the multiple layers at Kaz Rail was mind boggling but, still considerably cheaper that having it shipped by one of the main logistic operators here in Almaty. Yesterday I got airline tickets and paid for visas (double the price since December 2006). We are now focusing on May 12 as our departure date. Only to get the cats’ exit visas and we are good to go!

As we draw closer to bidding ado to Almaty, a whole flood of memories come back. Here are a few organized as likes/dislikes or just in general categories. These are all random thoughts as I remember my 10 months in Kazakhstan:

Food

Bad food:  Beef. It’s all more grass-fed here and the taste is bitter and un-interesting. Street food caused several deaths this year, as there is not much of what we know as public heath to monitor all the food vendors on the street.

Good food: Lamb, baby goat, horsemeat. Yes, I’ve gotten over the hurdle with horse meat and count myself amongst the lucky who have consumed the delicate nodules of “sweet fat” with the choice red meat attached. Pork is OK but not like the other “hot 3” just mentioned. I had lamb chops for lunch today and they were to die for.

Local Characters

The Underground Cleaning Lady. With the new superhighway that is being dug outside our building, the subterranean cleaning lady has lost her gig. She won’t have to bang rats over the head anymore and sweep up the vomit from outside the dart pub. This is what we Americans would term a dreadful job. But she always smiled at those passing by and she kept the space spotless.

Bill Perkins. I never met him the whole time I was here. He had been one of my early email contacts prior to jumping off for KZ. He comes/goes from Almaty at will and no one knows what he really does for a living. He organizes very expensive wine tastings which we never went to or single malt events for the whiskey crowd. We are very happy with our 345 Tenge-a-bottle “Zhar-Zhar”, thank you very much.

My boss Roger Holland. Some call him “Sir” Roger rather derogatorily. He is a very proper English fellow with an acerbic wit and charm that has been tempered by the Central Asian life and culture. Roger, in my estimation, is not a stick in the mud; not by any stretch. He is always dressed well with good cologne. In his business dealings, he is the ultimate networker. I’ve never seen a guy work harder using a string of daily meetings to grow his company. He has great knowledge of his market and how to mate up people for various tasks. He is one of the real veterans of Almaty’s expatriate community, having been in business here since 1994 – one of the pioneer expatriates. He is a patient man in taking his company to the next level. It will happen and Scot Holland will continue to grow. He shows great deference and courtesy to his staff, coming around shaking hands with everyone on each day he is in the office. His goal is to begin phasing out and retiring to Spain and Thailand. He’ll do it and do it in style. All the best, Roger. You are a class act.

Bars

I don’t do them – never have, never will. My wife’s girlfriend Zhouldyz is an incredible brainy Kaz female. I’m talking Oxford here. But her genetic clock has told her that at age 30 she needs to find a Kaz Boy and make Kaz Babies. What a waste of a perfectly brilliant mind. She could be a real influence on other young women to excel toward education, business and service but she is out in the bars dancing and trying in a very western way to attract a man! Sad. I really hope that Zhouldzy comes to a different conclusion, finishes Oxford and becomes a role model for other Kazakh women. She can still have babies but don’t be so much on a clock to do it.

Butterflies

It is not to far fetched to compare this place to the bar scene in the original Star Wars film. All these different characters, ethnic, and linguistic flavors introducing their own cultural verve to the mix. Beautiful Asian women that just pop up everywhere. Just being able to visually absorb the breathtaking good looks, charm and sophistication of a well turned out Kazak woman is a reward. It is a respite from the horns, and the bad manners of the macho men who think they are still out on the steppe doing something really cool and manly like cutting the legs off a goat. Women are a civilizing force but the guys here are still more stone age than new age. Someday the guys will catch up with the women. The ladies here are beautiful butterflies; true feminine triumphs in human design. In Denver we would say they are hot chicks. But in Almaty it is a bit more mysterious and “Asian”. There is a mystique here with these women and it is haunting, beckoning and just wonderful from the male standpoint. I will miss these beautiful Kazakh butterflies.

Construction/Destruction

This country is building infrastructure at a blistering pace. The noise, dirt and pollution are overpowering. I’m no environmental whacko but I must offer a warning to the Kazakhs that progress has its penalties. It is time to get real about noise and airborne particulate controls on vehicles especial on the killer KAMAZ trucks. The noisy fleet of orange dump trucks that bring so much utility to the infrastructure expansion but with such a high cost due to the way they pollute.

In the past week, we’ve seen our al Farabi Street become a dirt pile. The road gang is digging very deep as this will be a partially subterranean freeway. The ring road on the outskirts will all connect up this bustling city.

Culture and Corruption

There is none – culture that is. Well there is the official government cultural push, but the Kazakhs are a nomadic people who have been thrust into being identified as Kazakhs. They lack the historical depth that the Uzbeks possess. I’m not being funny here. This culture thing has gotten out of hand with the official government pitch to portray a unique past. One thing to do is to not deny the current culture. As much as we may hate it with the cell phone and bad music emanating from these devices, the KZ mind has adapted naturally to the easy “one touch” life of cheap electronics and banal conversation. What we see are confused, listless and clueless teens not unlike the States. Pensioners scared about the future. And a growing greed class that wants to screw the little guy. The culture is NOT all about this mythical past and how to properly say the pledge of alliegance but also about modern art and for good or ill an evolving political paradigm that is asking more and more questions of the ruling elite. John Wayne might say “Pilgrim, do we have a problem  here?” The answer is yes; it will take a long time to right it.

Money is very corrupting and the extent of the greed driven by the oil revenues in KZ is on a scale that dwarfs what the Saudis tried to do in the mid-80’s. I have no problem with making lots of money but the “haves” need to be mindful of the consequences of not paying good wages and most importantly setting a good example for a civil society. The bribes, kickbacks and other under-the-table stuff have got to stop. Kazakhs don’t have to make yourselves into Brits or Americans. Just be mindful there are Kaz versions of Hugh Chavez that want to re-socialize the system and that would be a shame. There is simply humongous abundance of mineral wealth in KZ and it needs to be shared amongst all the KAZ people through good wages and opportunities in education and the evolving job market. It’s setting a level playing field for everyone.

An interesting stat on Kazakhs (credit ABN-AMRO Bank): In 2003 Kazakhs had zero consumer debt. At the end of 2006 they had racked up $19 billion in debt $7 billion in credit card debt and $12 billion in mortgages. They have clearly adopted the American model for debt and living the good life “today”. The growing middle class can get anything they want and are not holding back. Defaults are building as they have not learned the flip side; when you borrow you must pay it back.

Banks need to be taken to task for their lack of truth in lending. Some interest is userous, up around 50%. No APRs here, just hidden charges. A consumer movement is much needed and would be welcome but the big guys would have the government shut it down.

Government Goons

Just last week there was a freedom of the press dog-and-pony show,  put up by the government. Remember our President’s daughter owns all the TV and radio stations in the country. As things turned out an unlicensed demonstration ensued in front of the hotel where the freedom of the press meeting was taking place. The cops moved in as they always do in those cases where the groups have not gotten a permit to demonstrate. The cops are merciless, batons move right to the head area and things are shut down quickly. The press who were covering the freedom of the press meeting came running with cameras rolling to catch the action of the demonstration and the cops retort. Cameras were smashed and reporters/cameramen put in the patty wagons and hauled away as well. There is no freedom of the press here in KZ. It is managed media at its Soviet/Russian best. This is another clear sign that they lack a fully transparent civil society. Keep trying guys.

Stores

Ramstore. Generally huge selection of everything from food stuffs to TVs but really bad customer service. Low paid workers that will snarl at you at the drop of a hat. Raise the wages and put on a third shift when the store is closed too do the merchandize restocking.

 

The Old Gastrome Downtown. The best store for alcoholic beverage demonstration girls. Remember Vodka Girl from earlier blogs? Biggest boobs on the planet and a really sweet girl to boot. She sold a lot of Stoly and Putkinka! Ramstor gets only honorable mention in this category.

SUME. The old commie cum capitalist department store. Still a good store to shop for cloths, house wares, etc. It reminds one of an out of date department store in the States. Reasonably good merchandise and moderate prices but visually sterile. No demo girls here but middle-aged women only dreaming of the days gone by when they were doing vodka demos at the Gastronome.

Mega Center. This is your usual high-end suburban mall with a 12 auditorium movie house, two supermarkets and a huge, tiring, boring mall called Mega attached to it. Astana, Almaty and Shemkent have them and they will grow. I can get this banality back in the States!

Driving

I’ve ranted at KZ drivers before. No change since my last note. They can’t back up, can’t judge distances between the curb and the car, can’t parallel park and they live by the horn, always in a hurt to get into the next traffic jam. They taunt pedestrians with their cars, seeing how close they can come without hitting them. They all should be thrashed and send to driving school!

Flowers and Gardens

Please visit the new pictorial with Ms. Nadia. She is out smelling the flowers of spring. She learned this year of the incredible beauty of the tulip and also about its incredible short life span. They are so delicate and beautiful but with us only a few days every spring.

Almaty has a very decent season for a variety of flower types. Nadia is loving the jasmine and lilac; the brilliance of the tulips and the pending show-of-shows with the Rose gardens. Here we have a purely naive child, enjoying God’s choices of beauty. All this colorful beauty and good smells make life wonderful for us jaded adults but for a moment; and to see a child indulge in the frivolity and sweetness of smelling and touching delicate flowers.

Life is good.

Slowing It Down

 

 

Slowing It Down

 

It’s Friday, April 06, 2007. Nadia and I walked over through Fearless Leader Park and by Administratisi Gorda (City Hall) to meet Sophie on the way home. Remember my photo essay on Wake Up and Smell the Roses? Nadia and I were marveling at the thousands of rose bushes that were only last month, asleep and dormant, and today they are starting to bud and offer the early signs of spring. We were please and sad at the same time since we know that that we will be gone from Almaty by the time the rose bushes are in their full glory for the summer, yet it is such a marvel of nature to see thes little buds poking out for yet another spring and yet another chance to show the world exactly how beautiful rose can be. We loved the roses last summer. It will be one of those memories that linger for many years to come.

 

And spring is our sentinel for change this year. We are packing, readying ourselves for the next adventure and (hopefully) our last move for awhile to Yekaterinburg. I will be closing this Blog out at some point and putting up a new Blog – no name yet. Those of you having the inclination, send names that you would like to see for the next one – Putinka Times, Lynns of Yekat……..let me know.

 

Tonight was good. We got Sophie from work and stopped by Ramstor and picked up parts of our “international dinner” – waiting at home was Kazakh sautéed calf’s liver with mild red pepper and onion served over pasta prepared by Ludemilla, Nadia’s nanny, then the goodies we bought including Danish blue cheese, French baguette bread, a lightly smoked Kazakh horse meat (I’ve really gotten to like horse meat) and a fabulous bottle of Georgian wine “Teliani Valley 2005 red table wine made from the Saperavi grape not unlike Pat Maustuono’s fabulous, thick, complex, orgasmic Paso Robles (California) Zinfandels of the early 1980’s. Bill Mosby of Mosby Winery in Buellton, CA has great respect for Pat’s wine making ability. Those early 80’s Zins were legend and have never been equaled in the region. This Teliani Valley offering is very chewy, a little grassy on the front end and just bursting at the finish with great fruit. Maybe Pat is making wine for this little Georgian winery.

 
Sophie and Nadia are in watching the Russian variant of wheel of fortune. This old, old, old Russian-Pat Saijack where the guests bring all this crap to the guy and make long Russian speeches kissing his ass. Everything from cookies to live animals are offered up at the alter of the Ruski Wheel.

 

I’m writing the Blog in the living room, the cat Masha sleeps at my feet. Tonight has been celebrated well. Good food, love and kindness spread around the family and the anticipation of the next frontier – Russia. More on the move as we inch closer.