Sunday, June 26, 2016

Breaking up is Hard to Do

... no, no, don't worry, Terry and I are fine.

With 5 weeks to go in my tour things are winding down. Many of my kids' friends - whose parents are often our friends - have started leaving for their summer holidays, only to return after we've left.  My kids spent the last couple of weeks bickering with their friends more often and some friendships ended on such terms that there was no goodbye. Cultural differences I used to think enriched out experiences, and even found endearing at times, are grating on my nerves and offending my sensibilities. We're starting a lot of sentences with "When we are in the USA..." and "When we get to Germany..."

We all know the end is nearing, and it is easier to say goodbye if we are also saying "good riddance."

It isn't you, Astana. It's us. 

Saturday, June 25, 2016


I had a business trip this week that required me to overnight in a hotel. 

This was sitting on a shelf above the mini-bar, right next to the complimentary bottle of water.

While this was not my room, my room's door was strikingly similar.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Finishing with Panache

Open apology to my mother's mah jjong and canasta groups - Sorry, my mother is going to be insufferable for the next week. I'm sure you have all had your turn as well.

Today was "Speech Day" at Haileybury, where award were given and speeches made. Alex, it turns out, won the academic excellence award for her class - she was the top student (pupil, as the British say). She accepted her award and medal in front of the assembled students (pupils) and parents.  For various logistical reasons, she was actually the very first child to receive her award.

Well done, Alex!

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The First Farewell

We have friends whose kids attend a school with a more Kazakhstani schedule. That means school's out!  They head home for the summer later this week. When they return to Astana in August we will be gone.  We had them over for brunch this morning. When we said goodbye we knew that we didn't know where or when in the world we'd ever meet again in person (but, thank you internet) but that it wasn't going to be in Astana.

The leave taking begins.


Wednesday, June 8, 2016


My kids bicker and fight. Yes, most siblings do, but mine always seem to take it up a notch. We've tried numerous solutions, involving both carrots and sticks (metaphorical, folks, metaphorical sticks) and not one thing ever worked.

Then we tried a points system.  They get a point for being kind or helpful to each other, for doing chores, eating unfavored dinners without complaint, and just generally helping us.  The get points taken away for being rude, for fighting, for complaining about chores. If they make it to 2 points by an appointed time each day (somewhere between the end of dinner and the start of getting-ready-for-bed) they get a treat/dessert. The size of the sweet is dependent on the number of points (4 points gets twice the treats of 2).  After 2 points they can trade points for extra allowance instead of dessert if they wish.

Not only has the fighting screeched to a near halt, but they are cooperative and, best of all, simply happier and more loving generally.  As these things become habit we'll raise the bar, but for now we are thrilled to realize we actually need to buy more candy because they are earning treats so many days in a row!

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

My quick trip home

One of the downsides of foreign service life is how often we miss our extended families' big moments. This time managed to be an exception - sort of. My nephew had his bar mitzvah last weekend. We are 20 hours of travel away, we return home within 2 months, and the kids have school.

So, I came alone and represented.

Best. Decision. Ever.

I don't get much jet lag, so the fact that I spent all of 5 days in the USA wasn't too bad. I have a Kindle so the 20-24 hours of travel didn't kill me (I did read 4 books!)  I ate spicy Thai food and Chipotle. I got some quality time with various family members and although we all wished the rest of my nuclear family could have been there, it was just easier. Also, I picked up a bunch of things that will see us through until we return to the USA (a pack of hot dogs, some cheddar, pig and turkey bacons, a box of blueberries, soy cheese shreds). 

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.