Thursday, May 19, 2016

Kyrgyzstan Day IV: farewell to Issyk-Kul

On our fourth day we made the trek to Bishkek.  Our first stop was the honey stand we had passed on our way to the lake, where we bought a kilogram of our favorite type of thick white honey with a consistency reminiscent of marshmallow fluff, but with better flavor.

Our second stop was at Burana Tower, a major tourist spot seemingly near nothing.  It had been a minaret, and now provides a lovely view of the nearby landscape. The steps up the tower are startlingly steep and narrow;  none of the steps were wide enough for me to stand on it without my toes hanging off and I have tiny feet. It was also pitch dark in some parts that weren't close enough to a window. Terry got claustrophobic and we decided the climb would be too much for Zoltan so Alex and I forged ahead alone. Good decision too, Alex and I went down mostly on our rear ends, gingerly feeling for one step and then the next in the darkness.

Beside the minaret, there were ruins of three mausoleums, a souvenir shop where Zoltan bought a keychain and Alex bought a miniature whip, and an interesting "artifact path" for lack of a better descriptor, which made something of a U shape with one side a lane of balbals, one side a lane of petroglyphs and one side a lane of what looked like stone wheels. There were also wide open fields to run around in, some hills to climb, and all around loveliness.

Departing Burana we had a relatively short and uneventful trip to Bishkek, where we found the manager of our apartment rental with relative ease and got ourselves settled in the first housing where we'd stay more than one night. We had received an SMS the day before that the original apartment we'd chosen was having hot water problems and we would be in a different place only one block away. The apartment we were put into was a one bedroom (like the original) with pullout couch and a cot in the living room and 1.5 baths.  My only complaint would be the skimpy kitchen set (two sharp knives and no butter knives?) but otherwise it was perfect. Easy walking distance to many things, plenty of room for us and our luggage, everything worked (the wifi occasionally cut out for a bit but it wasn't too bad). 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Kyrgyzstan Day III: Karakol and Petroglyphs

If you aren't going to experience nature, and between the rain and the chill we weren't, there isn't really much in Karakol.  When we got up we took a quick trip to the Dungan Mosque - a mosque built in the old method without using any nails, and also, curiously, built and painted to look like a Chinese pagoda.  The imam came out to greet us, ask where we were from and caution us that we were not allowed to go inside but could take photos.

Then it was a relatively direct road to Cholpan-Ata, the main tourist epicenter of the lake. We got to the town around lunchtime, then checked into our hotel, then headed out to the Petroglyph Museum.

"Museum" may be an overly generous term. It was a nearly deserted enormous field studded with rocks, some of which had little placards by them with some information about the petroglyph beside it. There was nobody around, but the gate was open, so we figured we would start looking around and presumably at some point someone would come by to charge us the admission fee.  We saw a guy on a horse in the distance, and waited a bit for him to come closer, but it turned out he was just a farmer and he went right past us out the gate with a young ram laying across the saddle in front of him.  We saw a small herd of horses, many of which were accompanied by a foal. And, eventually, a woman came up over a small hill to take our fee, ask us where we were from (for statistika, she said) and give us a bit of the lay of the land as well as the warning not to step on any of the stones. She seemed happy to be practicing some English, and bade us farewell after letting us know that about 70% of the glyphs depicted goats.

Due to the ominously dark sky and forecasted rain, we headed straight for the far end where a few balbals stood. then worked our way back to the entrance.  We had the kids scouting for signs, and then they had to find which rock had the picture carved into it, and guess what the picture was (some of the glyphs were better preserved than others).  The fresh air and open sky were the perfect antidote to too much time in the car.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Kyrgyzstan Day II: Southern Side of Issyk-Kul

The next day we headed out to go halfway around the lake. Early in the drive we pulled over in a canyon and had a great time exploring and climbing.  Of course it wasn't any of the several canyons mentioned in the tourist guides, but it was everything we were looking for.  We headed back to the car around the time the raindrops started falling.
We were already crawling so the rain didn't really slow us down, and in fact it came and went all day. The slightly larger town of Bokonbayevo allegedly had a tourist information center, and while wandering around the center of town looking for it we wandered into the town's May 9 Victory Day celebration. (May 9 is the day WWII ended in Europe and is celebrated in many countries.)  We had come to ask directions to an alleged highlight of the Issyk-kul area, Barskoon Waterfalls.  The lady at the tourist info center told us, in essence, "take the road out of town, but turn right instead of left, and keep going, you can't miss it." As we learned that night when reunited with internet, the waterfalls are an hour away from the town on a logging road - we were actually on the right road, which we didn't think at the time, but only went about 15 minutes down and turned around.

We also saw on our GPS the landmark of "Lenin Cutout" and decided it deserved a visit.  Alex and I scrambled most of the way up the hill while Zoltan stayed in the car and Terry took photos.

Unfortunately for us by the time we hit some of the "major" sights - only about an hour out of Karakol - we were drained, weary of sitting in the car, needing the bathroom and not wanting to potty behind a bush in the rain so we drove right by.  Sorry "fairytale canyon" and "7 bulls rocks," i am sure we will forever regret not checking you out.

On the other hand, it was a great relief to pull into the hotel and stretch out again.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Kyrgyzstan Day I: Kyzyl-Tuu


To be very frank, the pollution in Astana has driven us, on all previous holidays, to find refuge in the clean air of western Europe or the USA.  As we enter our last three months at post, we finally took our first (and last!) vacation within central Asia - Kyrgyzstan (or, as it prefers, the Kyrgyz Republic).

We rented a car and planned to spend several days driving the whole way around Lake Issyl-kul - a major tourist destination - with just a couple of days of Bishkek at the end.  Unfortunately for us, within our first hour on the road we got shaken down by a cop who didn't seem to understand that we were not going to go ahead and offer him a bribe.  He told us there would be a fine about 5-6 times, and we kept saying OK, what is the amount - turns out we missed the sign telling us we were entering a town, which requires an automatic drop in speed, so OK we recognize our culpability - and he kept exaggeratedly working on the paperwork for the fine.  After 45 miserably hot minutes he finally told us what the amount would be (and he wanted it in dollars, at which I basically pitched a fit and said no way, we have som and will pay in that).  The problem is we then felt compelled to stay well below any speed limit for the rest of the time, which put a huge pall on the trip and added hours of car time.

But on to the good stuff.  One of the main highlights of a trip around Issyk-kul is the stunning view. The mountains are always there, lower ones green and brown, behind them white tops rising above the clouds.  It was a while before I was able to tear my eyes away from the view.

The place where we rented the car also can arrange lodging and our first night I finally checked off the one item on my central Asia bucket list - sleep in a yurt!  The town of Kyzyl-Tuu is experiencing a resurgence of the craft of yurt making and the homestay place was essentially the yurt in the back yard of a family's home. They kept some chickens and a couple of cows. The back yard also hosted all the yurt making activity and we got to see the different phases of it, from stripping the bark off lengths of willow, to gently bending the willow poles into the frame and shanyrak, to the painting of each piece.

The yurt where we slept was surprisingly comfortable (the matting on the floor with a thick sheepskin layer was the most comfortable bed of our week).  Because it was right outside the home it was hooked up with electricity - a chandelier light overhead and a portable heater to ward off the near-freezing night air. The only downside was the darned neighborhood dogs barked all night, and when they finally silenced around 2:30am the rooster decided it was dawn. It wasn't.

For breakfast there were fresh eggs from the chickens, fresh bread, strawberry, raspberry and apricot preserves, and this delicious thick, creamy, slightly sour dairy spread that I have never tasted before and went wonderfully with the sweet sticky preserves.  We had heard rain in the forecast for the day so we wanted to get moving before it hit, and didn't linger long after breakfast.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Spreading American Culture, Hockey Monkey style

The musical group The Zambonis, which we are not sure are even still together, put out this little gem some time in the last. It is a much-requested song among the kids.

Apparently, Zoltan has taught the song to his best friend, who happens to also be the only other American kid in class.  And today, he tells me, the two of them performed the song for their music class.

You're welcome.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Mission Accomplished

A couple of months after our arrival in St Petersburg the CLO organized a tour at a museum on Lake Ladoga. At the end of the tour the museum curator put together a little dinner, I wrote about it here, which included a wood burning samovar for our tea.  Ever since that day we have made it our mission to get one for the cabin.  The problem was the only ones we found in Russia were extraordinarily expensive and (to us) highly unattractive, so after four years we left the country empty handed.  Then we came to Kazakhstan, and one day in the fall last year we wandered around the central market (a huge bazaar massively misnamed, as it is located way out on the fringe of the city), looking for winter hats, and found one!  Because it was the end of the season they were out of the necessary chimney attachment, so we vowed to return when it would be available.

We leave in just about three months. Time is drawing nigh. Today was the day.  We went back to the central market and got the samovar. It was everything we want and need.  Perhaps I can convince Terry to take a photo of it and post it.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

We have a match!

One of our grand plans for next year (no longer next year, but rather in about 4 months!) is to hire an au pair to give us more flexibility with traffic, snow days, and our study schedule.  We decided we would seek only German speakers, to get the kids a little familiar with the culture and language of where we're going, and helping us with our homework would certainly be an added boon! Because we're planners, we had decided April would be when we started the process.  For comparison, apparently most people start the process 2-3 months before they needed someone, and we were just shy of 5 months out. A few weeks ago Terry and I spent a large chunk of our free time crafting our "all about our family" letter, choosing photos to upload, answering all kinds of questions on the online questionnaires, reading au pair profiles, scouring advice from, and scheduling time to Skype with the au pair company people who had to vet us before we could be let loose on the unsuspecting young girls (and a few boys).  In the end we registered with two au pair companies to give us a broader range, although it turned out we would have done fine with only one as none of the au pairs we emailed to from the other agency ever wrote back to us.

It's only been about 10 days since we finished our paperwork and we just matched with an au pair!  I was really nervous because I didn't think we could possibly get so lucky, because she was only the second au pair we had an interview with. She seemed to have all the qualities we found most important, and she seemed such a good fit for us. We had her "meet" the kids tonight via Skype before we settled down to our conversation, as we figured we never hired a nanny who hadn't met the kids before, why would we start now?  Of course, we have had three out-of-the-ballpark amazing nannies so far, and one perfectly fine nanny who lacked the problems and dramas we have heard about from others, so we do seem to manage OK.  Two of the amazing nannies were only the second people we interviewed so I know it can happen so quickly.

When Alex wanted to be tucked in again after getting up to use the bathroom I told her the lady she met would take care of her next year while we were at work and she asked why we chose her.  I told her the main points, and she said it sounded good ... so I guess she's on board.

[note: I wrote this on Monday but was too nervous about jinxing things to post until she confirmed. She just did (within 10 minutes of being offered the match - the person at the company whose job it is to offer her our match was out Monday and Tuesday)]

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Leaving, on a jet plane ...

Well, not anytime soon, but it is for real now. I have orders and I have plane tickets. At this point it's just me and the kids, we don't know the details about what will happen with Terry (whether he leaves with us or 1-2 weeks later. He will leave Astana in August, that is for certain!)

With fewer than four months to go, everything seems funneled.  We base our meal planning on what is in our pantry we need to get through before departure day. we have stopped shopping in bulk and cancelled many a Subscribe and Save.  We're looking hard at anything we could donate: clothes, kitchen items, toys and although we've done one large load to the nuns, I plan to fill the car at least one more time.  Looking to sell the car. We try to keep the kids from buying things with their allowance, knowing we'll be moving them soon. Our last major allowance drawdown was when we convinced them to use their money to go visit the amusements at Khan Shatyr. We even let them buy themselves ice cream/sorbet at the end.  We have our bucket list of those things we figured we'd get around to doing, then never did - Khan Shatyr beach, you're on the agenda within the next couple of weeks!

At work we're looking forward to our successors, looking for time to prepare handover notes among regular work duties. Goodbyes are still a couple of months away, but there is that note of winding down.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Date Night

Our date night plans were pretty sedate, then a friend called who also had a babysitter that night and we changed our plans to meet up with them. With the rain and additional movements in the evening we ended up deciding to take the car rather than try to catch cabs throughout the night.

It all started innocently enough.  Babysitter came, we hopped in the car and headed to Shoreditch, a restaurant we'd been hearing about.  It does burgers and stir fry type stuff. We tried one of each. The burger: completely forgettable.  The Indian chicken and spinach over basmati ... it tasted just like Indian food!  It had spice, and the right kinds, and the right flavors, and did I mention my mouth felt a nice warm burn that endured after the food was eaten?  We were ecstatic. It was probably on par with your average strip mall Indian in the USA but here in Astana, that makes it the best in the country.  The restaurant was also really funky and adorable, with a hopscotch game in the front entryway and live music appropriate for a restaurant (i.e. not too loud and not too distracting).  It was completely booked but we had come early and had no qualms promising to be gone before the table's second act at 11pm (outside the USA we have found there is no turnover for tables - the one you book is the one you own all night long). Also, service was FAST.  We got an appetizer and our main course and easily could have come and gone within 45 minutes.

Dinner over, we headed to the bar where we were supposed to meet our friends. It's drizzling. Our windshield wipers refuse to kick on. We pull over a few times to squeegee off the front windshield. Terry keeps turning the wipers on hoping to make them work. The back wiper is working just fine. This is not cool.  The bar is in a more populated part of town from where we live, and it took a few swings around the block and a half-block distance to find parking, When we got there not only was every table reserved, but almost all of the bar seating. We found our friends squashed into the corner of the bar against the wall.  The music is deafening.  The beer is Corona.  We decide to split.

The final stop of the night, The Rock's, was the perfect pub.  Several British standards on tap as well as the bar's own brew. Although they were also fully booked, our friends ran into friends and we all piled into their generously large booth. A good night was had by all.  When we returned to the car the rain had stopped and visibility was 100%.  Just for fun on the way home Terry tried the windshield wipers to see what would happen.  I think we all know what happened.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Homeward Bound

Technically, they are home and no longer bounding.  Terry and the kids went to Berlin during the kids' spring holiday last week while I had to stay behind and work. I earnestly hope he will post some photos of their trip.

Not only did they explore a new city, but they got to spend significant quality time with dear friends who live there. I wish I could have been there too and missed them desperately - it is always harder to be left than to leave - but don't begrudge them their adventure.

Due to my status of stay-at-home-mom for most of the kids' younger years, I have experienced hundreds of hours of just me-and-them adventure. Although they were too young to remember most of it, I can remind them, show photos, talk about what we did.  I think it's important for each parent to develop these special, independent times with their children - both one-on-one and one-parent-all-children. In the hustle and bustle of daily life it's hard to work those moments in, especially in our two-working-parent current existence, where I never feel we spend enough time with the kids.  I'm so happy they had this trip, and I am ever so happy to have them back in the house!