Friday, July 3, 2015

Astana Airport



Image result for astana airport photosIt has been quite a week for us, Astana Airport. It all started when my flight from Istanbul touched down at 6am on Friday morning. You had no idea that you'd be seeing me again in fewer than 24 hours, as I brought my family over so they could go home (a.k.a. 'Murca. Which is something I never, ever call it.) And then again 12 hours later to pick up the delegation.

Sunday is a day of rest, as we all know. In our case Monday was as well. But Tuesday our 5am date happened as scheduled. And Wednesday. Ah, Wednesday, when I went to Almaty for the day.

One pick up, one drop off, one inbound, one outbound. We've watched the sunrise together a lot this week, dear Astana airport. I'm glad to know I have a whole week before I see you again!

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Alnwick Castle

When we went to England, we were desperate to find a book long enough to keep Alex's attention for more than an hour because we didn't have enough space or weight to carry as many of her usual books as it would take to make the trip.  I thought Harry Potter would be the perfect complement to an English vacation.

She stubbornly refused to read it. In retrospect we should have had her watch the movie first.

The scene in the first movie where they have their first flying lesson?  Alnwick Castle, about 1.5 hours' trip from the hotel.  Turns out a Downton Abbey Christmas Special got filmed there too.

The place is impressive, with several smaller museums in various towers, the main State Rooms beautifully decorated, a library I could kill for, and for the kids a whole Knight's Quest area with costumes for dressup, activities to pursue (they made soap) and medieval games to learn to play. In addition, for the older and/or braver ones, a Dragon Quest that was like a tamed-down version of a haunted house but with the addition of riddles and games to solve to get the answer to the Quest.  And, finally, the broomstick flying lesson.  Because there must be a broomstick flying lesson. It went way longer than we expected so halfway through Zoltan got bored and tired and went to sit down.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Sheep

My dad knows a guy ... he's got some sheep. Well, he had about 700, then they all bear twins so now it's more like 1200 or something like that. The numbers are fuzzy. The lambs are fuzzy too.  While we were in England (yeah, the trip was practically a month ago) we got to visit a sheep and cattle farm. We had a blast!  The kids especially loved hand feeding a few baby lambs - normally the mama takes care of the babies but sometimes you get a bad mom, or something happens to her, so they hand feed.  Apparently sometimes they can convince a different mama to "adopt" a baby or two.  We also got a see a one day old calf. We also got to ask a lot of questions about their care and the operation of a sheep farm. Career #next?  

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Hadrian's Wall


You just can't spend time in northern England without checking out Hadrian's Wall. And it turns out one of the better sites is one of the closest ones, and of course we wanted to stick close to home for the first day (everyone needed a nap, you know, after the long, started-at-4-am-travel).

We stopped in the gift shop because that is also where you buy the tickets (clever, eh?) and Zoltan immediately fell in love with the swords.

It started raining as we walked the half mile to the actual site - it was a former Roman village on the wall plus a little museum - so we stopped in the museum in hopes the rain, rain would go away.  The kids found the dress up area then became little menaces to anyone who got too close as they might have accidentally hacked off an unsuspecting arm if it happened to fling itself into their swordfight. Thankfully, nobody was slain, or even maimed. By the time they got a little too boisterous, the rain had stopped and we went out to enjoy the site.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Ben Nevis

A long, long time ago Terry met a guy who introduced him to the Scotch of Ben Nevis distillery.  This stuff is rarely found outside Scotland. The first bottle was purchased in Edinburgh, if I remember correctly. The second bottle when we made the pilgrimage to the distillery itself.

The distilery won't ship outside the UK, and we can't receive liquids anyway.

In preparation for our trip to England we decided to try to order some Scotch and have it shipped to our hotel. But ... the web site doesn't have a place to enter a different ship to address than the bill to address.  When I tried calling I got a repeated busy signal.

And then I sent an email.  Through email, the manager? owner? really awesome guy who works there agreed to send it to the hotel where we will be staying and when we get there we can call him with our credit card information so he can be paid.  In the end I was able to work out with him a Paypal invoice that we could pay in advance, but in the meantime he had gone ahead and sent the Scotch so it would be sure to arrive while we were still in country.

And now the bottles sit proudly on our apartment waiting for the jet lag to subside so Terry can properly enjoy them.

Love good customer service.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

5 Pros and Cons on Astana

The New Diplomat's Wife is hosting a pro/con list of everyone's posts here. I figured I'd jump in.

Highlights
1. Winter activities.  If you can handle the cold (easy when you dress warmly enough), you can easily stay busy all winter.  Snowshoeing, ice skating, cross country skiing, snow fort building, all available for 6 months of the year.

2. It's a real city.  Everyone seems to think central Asia is a total backwoods.  We have Zara (although admittedly not Ikea). The opera is really good, haven't been to the ballet yet. Museums are few but not bad.

3. Pedestrian rights. When you walk into a crosswalk, the cars stop for you. Nevermind the car was trucking along at 30 mph 10 feet from the crosswalk. They will literally burn rubber to stop and avoid crushing you.

4. Fun architecture.  Where else can you give such a direction as "head past the pyramid, and when you get to the dog bowl turn towards the bread basket." (these are nicknames of buildings). The monument near our apartment puts on a nightly light show, as do several buildings.
Image result for astana pyramidImage result for astana dog bowlImage result for astana architecture
5. Indoor entertainment, especially for kids. The number of indoor amusement parks, restaurants with play areas, and even special treats like the indoor beach (sand imported from the maldives!) make the cold winter and hot summer much more fun.

Lowlights
1. Astana is like an island. The city is in the middle of the steppe, which is like an ocean of grasses.  The closest anything is Borovoe, 2.5 hours away, and it's a resort-ish town.  Basically you need to fly to get anywhere.

2. No cheddar cheese. In fact, no cheese of significant flavor. Food in general can be a challenge, epseically in the winter where of course nothing is fresh/local. There is a beef industry but I don't know what they do to these cows.  It has taken a good deal of trial and error to find meat tender enough not to stew.

3. Traffic.  There is little public transit infrastructure and all the lovely wide avenues means most things are just a bit too far away to walk.  The trip from our garage to Zoltan's preschool (less than a mile away) to work (about 1.5 miles away) takes 45-60 minutes if we leave the house too late. We could almost walk it as fast.

4. Pollution. In the winter they burn coal. You can smell it in the air, and some days look foggy but it isn't fog obstructing your view of across the street.

5.  The driving. This is related to, but separate from, the traffic problem. Many people drive like they just got their license (or perhaps never did).  The number of ridiculous, dangerous or just stupid things I have seen on the road ... just gotta shake my head. Of course this is a problem I find in Virginia too, just not quite so bad.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Leave it to the IRS!

Last week we received a letter from the IRS and a $1.00 check. Yes the decimal is in the right place, we got a check for $1.00.  Today we got the letter and explanation:  you see, we overpaid somehow, by $19.00.  We were assessed a fee of $18.00 for failing to pay the correct amount, and that left $1.00 to be refunded to us.

Speechless.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Observations from outside Kokshetau

Kazakhstan had a presidential election Sunday April 26. I was one of the embassy folks who participated as an election observer. I'm not going to talk about the work now (or, quite honestly, ever), but the general experience was definitely something to write home about.

The region I was assigned to was around a biggish town outside the oblast (state) capital of Kokshetau.  The train ride from Astana was 4.5 hours to Kokshetau, then about 30-90 minutes by car, depending on where exactly I was going, to get to these little villages.  I have now taken the train three times to cities within Kazakhstan and have to say I greatly enjoy the rides.  The train carriages I have been in so far have all been a series of 4 person compartments.  In each compartment are, essentially, bunk beds - sometimes fixed, sometimes that fold out of the wall. Each passenger is given a featherbed/mattress, pillow, linens and a blanket. Usually I stretch out and read or do work, and the rhythm of the train often lulls me into a catnap. In one ride in one of the fancy Spanish trains we were given little toiletry bags with soap, a comb, toothbrush and toothpaste, etc

It turned out that one of the villages we went to was where our driver had grown up.  To get there, you drive until the dirt road itself disappears, and then you follow tire tracks through fields.  He told us when he was young they would go to the disco in the nearby town - a good 20-30 minutes away by car - by horse. I should note I still considered him young, so his story can't be more than 10 years old. In retrospect, it probably took the same amount of time to travel by horse as the car couldn't exactly speed down the not-road.

Several times along the way our headway was slowed by cows or sheep crossing the road. I really wish I had gotten better photos.

Kazakhstani hospitality was in full bloom all day.  In nearly every polling station where we stopped, we were invited to sit for tea and something to eat. Also in nearly every polling station where we stopped, the commission members wanted to take photos with us.  I would not be surprised to learn we were the only non-Kazahstani people some of these villagers had ever met.  Although only hours from the capital city, it felt remarkably remote.  Chickens, ducks and geese wandered around, there were small garden plots around most homes, and most villagers seemed to have cows and/or sheep and/or horses. One of the villagers mentioned that everyone had a dog, and they were working animals not pets.

All in all it was a wonderful experience and a chance to see part of the country far from the main tourist attractions (although actually geographically pretty close to some tourist attractions - forests and lakes and resort type holidays.)

Friday, April 24, 2015

The most hilariously awful vacation ever

[it's been a grievously long time since my last post. Life hit hard. By life I mean work + bidding + work and more work. I see an end in sight now, at least I see a vacation soon enough. But it turns out this gem never got posted so here you are]

A few weeks ago [more than a month now] we went, with a whole passel of folks from the embassy, on an overnight trip to Borovoe.  We have been to Borovoe a couple of times and it is a treat. However, this trip was a disaster from the start.

First the hotel that had been booked cancelled all reservations with a week's notice and for no reason.
The second hotel apparently tried to cancel the reservations the night before. The poor coordinator of the trip nearly pulled all her hair out.
We are always early to everything, so between being early and the people who were late we ended up waiting 45 minutes in the embassy parking lot to caravan with the group. We're idiots. And because we waited so long, rather than scooting up there in just over 2 hours as we know we can, we had to do a pit stop on the way for a bathroom break. Except the bathroom was an outhouse and everything was all frozen. Alex is not cut out for third world life and let's just say it was a tough decision for her, attempting the frozen squatter or peeing her pants. (Let's just say I am happy with the decision she made).

When we arrived lunch was waiting. Except it was all full of dairy. And it was "impossible" to have anything else (nevermind the vegetarian in the group did manage to score a different meal) The only saving grace was that, being all Russian-y, the meal started with soup - that was safe for Alex to eat - and she was full by the end of it.  After having just spent 3.5 hours in the car we planned to stick close to the hotel and find something hill-like for sledding for the afternoon.

Somehow we ended up agreeing to join the group heading to the "ski resort" that had "good hills for sledding" and was "only 15 minutes away". Adding in getting lost time, it was more like 30 minutes.  Given we were already frustrated and car-ed out, every extra minute was a minute too much. And then we got there.  It was the saddest little place, one run that was barely downhill and a rope tow that made the rope tows of my youth look fancy.  The kids could sled if we gave a good push and had a relay of adults giving an extra nudge on the way "down". There was a group who had planned to go snowmobiling, as this "resort" advertised it.  There was one snowmobile. They took turns going on 10 minute rides.

At the hotel we were on the 4th floor, walk up, so we got some much needed exercise during the trip.  The room was large, I'll give that to them, but felt like it was crumbling under our feet.  The shower didn't drain.  They had to come back twice to bring extra towels for Alex and Zoltan.  They said they would bring a folding cot for one of the kids to sleep on - the other would have the couch - and that never happened.  When we tried to use the pool it took half an hour to find someone to take our money and bring towels (yes, again with the towels!).

At breakfast the next morning Zoltan threw the most monstrous mighty fit.  I tremble for his teenage years.  That certainly wasn't anyone's fault, but it was in keeping with the tenor of the weekend. At that point we were mostly just done.  Knowing we needed to eat before getting on the road, we stopped at a cafe that looked open.  After unsuccessfully trying to order about half a dozen different things only to be told each time they were out we finally got one of each item they did have, and it was surprisingly good. Additionally surprising was the fact that the kids tried all the unfamiliar dishes without complaint and even each chose a favorite.

Lest it sound too complain-y, there were some highlights and fun times.  Conveniently located right next to our hotel room door was a comfortable couch, where Terry and I retreated when the kids went to sleep.  He had brought some bourbon and I had a brought some wine.  It was lovely.