Not counting a few jet lagged days, I’ve been a resident of Kazakhstan for two weeks. Let’s begin with first impressions on arrival, tired and bleary eyed after an overnight layover in Istanbul. Thankfully, my long awaited visa barely received a glance and Bruce was there to greet me; as was the driver in a 4 x 4 fitted with a roll cage. I would immediately see why as impatient drivers weaved in and out along the chaotic, single lane highway. New and rustic vehicles zipped past as our driver kept steadfastly to the company mandated speed limit. Soviet style military trucks lumbered alongside shiny new Range Rovers, Land Cruisers and an inordinate number of Ladas. These boxy, toy-like cars were manufactured in the Mother Country and were popular behind the Iron Curtain. You could even choose your colour, as long as it was white! They were a symbol of city life and yet here they were in the ‘outback’ of Kazakhstan.
I imagine they wouldn’t stand a chance against one of these bactrian camels that wander so perilously close to the road; good call on the roll cage! The hairy, two humped beasts ambled along, at home in this barren, limestone landscape. They crossed paths with shaggy horses as they both foraged in the scrub. I would soon discover that one of these beasts is a staple of the Kazakh diet. In this hazy dream-like scene, I could picture Ghengis Khan and his warriors riding this parched steppe, once again staking their claim as they did in the 1200’s. In reality, it was only a goat herder recklessly shunting his precious flock across the busy highway. I gasped and the driver chuckled as I clutched Bruce’s hand; he sensed his normally intrepid travel companion was momentarily in culture shock!
The first glimpse of the city itself, Aktau, confirmed my bemusement. I’ve lived in similar cities in varying stages of development, notably Doha and Muscat. They weren’t as modern as they are now, yet it was in their tucked away labyrinth of streets and souks that they came to life; exotic scenes, smells and intrigues. Would it be the same here? Please tell me that’s the case, I feel as if the clock has been rolled back.
At first sight; drab, little greenery, crumbling sidewalks, haphazard and care worn. And then I see them, the Soviet style apartments. They go on and on and I know I’m in a former Eastern bloc state. Even with a smattering of modern buildings, one could imagine a city in decay or, with a positive outlook a city on the cusp of rejuvenation. Had one lived here during the Soviet days, it could appear progressive and modern. If not, it might seem outdated and dowdy, eager for a makeover. For all that, it’s a mere forty years old, originally founded in a quiet corner of U.S.S.R. where nuclear testing would go relatively un-noticed. I’ve met Westerners who enjoy living here because of that open space (happily now without the testing) as well as the traditional simplicity. As always, it’s relative and personal.
By the time I arrive at my hotel, a sleek building of steel and glass, I realize this will be my oasis of modernity. I look out from our suite on the top floor and the Caspian Sea rolls before me like a beautiful canvas. It shimmers and promises something exotic. But that would be stretching the imagination. The hotel stands out incongruously amongst the apartment blocks, a glaring counterpoint to the hastily erected utilitarian structures that give Aktau and any former U.S.S.R. city their character. The majority of the population call them home, some refurbished, most are not. Their once uniform appearance now stamped with a patchwork of individual modifications and candy stripes of pink, yellow and sickly hospital green. They are called ‘Khrushchyovka хрущёвка’ and were constructed from pre-fab’d concrete, mostly trucked out of Moscow. Usually only built up to five stories (this way they didn’t require elevators), they were only intended to stand for twenty-five years or so. They are carbon copied throughout the city, each with seven foot high numbers at the top of each, denoting their address.
The other part… well about those streets with no names, it’s true, there are no names! Even
the busy street I live on which runs close to the Caspian Sea, doesn’t have a name. I suppose you would say it’s the busy street where the modern hotel is. People here would know and if they didn’t, you would tell them it’s in Microdistrict 9… that’s it. The city is divided into these districts, as was Soviet style. One’s address is a series of numbers; the Microdistrict, building number and apartment number. Structured, simple, no nonsense. What I have noticed is that these areas seem to be neighbourly, often with ‘hole in the wall’ corner stores and colourful playgrounds. Children play in the fading warmth of autumn. Grandparents watch from nearby benches as they chat. And so I walk past their endless rows, intrigued with these homely homes, though I’m not quite sure why… not yet.
My solace is the sea. Twice a week I walk and chat with a lively group of expat ladies. We meet at various points along the seafront, some with precious cargos in tow, (toddlers or wee dogs), though most of us are here alone. Accompanying our ‘oil and gas’ husbands, we have nothing but ourselves and time. Many of us are at the stage where adult children are scattered around the world. We speak of them and miss them, of course. But there’s a sense of wanderlust as we recall countries we’ve lived in, adventures remembered and those that are being planned. I’m reminded that living in any new country is always about the people. I’ve been welcomed into the expat group with open arms, lunches, seaside walks and apparently a crazy night of Karaoke is on the cards. No, I can’t sing, but one must be respectful of the local ‘culture’ so I’ll have to be dragged along! If you’re lucky in a new ‘posting’, you meet that one person you just kind of click with… that ought to be here the same time you are.
Molly is also new to the country and as Bruce and I waited for the hotel elevator that first day, she was exiting it. I was an exhausted mess, but I do remember her saying “I’m so glad you’re here now!” I don’t think that’s how I felt, but it was nice to hear. Within days, Molly strolled from her end of the corridor to mine for tea. Admittedly, a farewell one as she and her husband were off to an apartment. There went my new friend and neighbour with her red bucket, rubber gloves and a suitcase. I went back into my suite to ponder if we should also consider an apartment, an option open to us. Our hotel suite suite had been cleaned, our laundry just delivered and I haven’t thought much about it since. Well, maybe once or twice as I shuffle my microwave off my tiny counter to make way for my ‘stove’. Admittedly this isn’t for everyone, being confined to a small space. Let’s see if that view of the sea and ease of life keeps us here.
But what is it like, life in a hotel? Well it’s a delightful revolving door. From the people that work here, to the visitors, to those that call it home. The world seems to come into ‘my’ lounge and I love it. Also wonderful are the local Kazaks and Russians, eager to befriend you. I hope to meet with one of them this week as she’d love to tell me more about life here. For that and for friendship, I’m thankful.
Of course, there are a multitude of questions I have that in time will hopefully be revealed. To begin with there’s the food, fodder for it’s own entire blog entry. Not to mention the cultural differences, history and the language. My Russian lessons begin soon and admittedly, I’m frightened to death. Firstly, there’s that pesky ‘other’ alphabet to contend with (it’s called cyrillic.) I’ve left other countries not having made an effort with the language and I’m determined to not repeat this. Most people in the traditional shops don’t speak English. Nada, nothing, so it’s rather important. My first word… спасибо, sounds like spasiba… it means thank you. If I’m in the room about 4 pm, our laundry is delivered by a friendly lady named Amanguel. She comes in, hangs up the pressed shirts, plunks down the rest, and proceeds to chat. We point and motion, a game of charades which often ends in her grabbing a pen to illustrate her point. She smiles freely through her front gold-capped teeth, her jet black hair pulled back in a bun. We like each other, even though we can’t communicate.
And so, this new adventure is just that, an adventure. I’m enjoying that guy beside me again after mostly living apart the last year. We’re suddenly in a suite together with no housework, laundry, chores, weeds to pull, or kids to cook for? It’s pretty darn brilliant actually, the time is ours. As Bruce has always said, ‘Terry Anne, I haven’t experienced it unless you’ve been there to share it with me.” So now I’m here and we’ll see how I manage. It should be alright, unless those walls start to close in, that Siberian wind blows me away or I never get past спасибо!
In the meantime, Molly and myself are planning a trip with our guys, into the countryside to photograph those odd looking camels, just for starters. She’s a photo journalist, another reason we seem to get along just fine. For me, our friendship was pretty much sealed when I boarded the company bus recently. I really feel like a school child as we’re not permitted to drive here, I miss my Aspen! Once seated, Molly pulled a small vial out of her bag and slipped it into my palm. “Some lavender oil for you, I know yours broke on the way here. Have some of mine.” And that about sums it up. You can weather just about anything if you have friends at your side, a deep blue sea to gaze upon and a trip into the unknown to look forward to!