Amnesia in a bottle

A while back J. had a sinus cold that went down into his chest—not a pretty sight. We really don’t have any sick leave to speak of, so he had to go to work and just cough and hack his way through the day. We had thought to bring NyQuil (or Night Nurse) from Canada but our stock had been depleted except for one fuzzy capsule that had been rolling around in my purse for…well who knows how long. We’d also been to the pharmacy (all white and western looking) to find a Kazakh equivalent but how does one say Phenylephrine HCl or Doxylamine Succinate in Russian?  There is a certain amount of healthy fear when one throws back a few pills but has no idea what he or she is taking. I can state for certain that desperation makes one throw caution to the wind.


Pepper Vodka

Pepper Vodka – a steal at a buck a bottle

While at work, one of J.’s Kazakh colleagues, T., takes pity on him and prescribes a Kazakh home remedy—Pepper Vodka.  J. being as desperate as he is, is willing to try it. After school we make a beeline to GalMart and with T.’s “prescription” we seek help from a clerk, and he points us towards two bottles. J. chooses the one that looks like it will be the hottest. (Our brand of logic tells us that the heat from the peppers will clear J.’s sinuses and let him get some much needed sleep. Really, at the time, it made perfect sense and with the idea of alcohol as an antiseptic, well…).

We get home and J. takes a shot of the Pepper Vodka and sits back to wait for the relief…yeah…not so much. This Kazakh myth is busted!

The next day, poor, sick J. heads back into school and when T. asks if he tried the remedy, J.’s replies, “Yeah, but it didn’t work.”

Apparently, one is to drink a tumbler full of the Pepper Vodka. It doesn’t cure what ails you, instead it gets you drunk enough that you forget you are sick at all – Amnesia in a bottle.


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More than just Maple Syrup – The Christmas Bazaar

Canada Eh?

Of course I have to start here, eh?

I did not make a beeline to the Canadian Embassy because that would just be wrong, but when I saw the colours, I have to admit it was pretty nice to see the familiar red and white; to have a sense of connection that is based on nothing more than geography.  And sometimes that’s enough.

I was at the Bazaar with a couple of friends but we had wandered in our own directions. When we met up, M. was eating a Rice Krispie square and, frankly I have been thinking of those tasty little marshmallow treats ever since I learned that marshmallows are not readily available in Astana (I’ve seen little bags of coloured marshmallows in Artyom, but…).  It really was a case of “Oh I can’t get that here so now I lust after it” syndrome.

Canadian Treats

Canadian Treats

As expected I hustled myself over to the booth (through a small crowd:) and picked up, okay, snatched up, the Rice Krispies, when the woman working behind the booth informed me (as she had probably done for all those who dared to try one) , “These squares are made from marshmallows.” I smiled, “I know, I love Rice Krispies .”  A knowing looked passed between us and then she said five words that took my breath away, “We also have Nanaimo bars.” As I began to take one packet after another, I wondered if I looked rude, taking all the Nanaimo bars would be un-Canadian, but I saw another woman moving forward with a platter filled with the bars.  As any good Canadian would, I left a few for others. (I guess you’ll notice I only have a picture of the Rice Krispies squares… (insert sheepish smile here).

While I was mighty happy to see Rice Krispies and Nanaimo bars, I was really expecting the Christmas Bazaar to be more of a craft/artisan’s bazaar.  While there was some of this, it was largely an international food festival.  To that end, it was hugely successful.  There seemed to be plenty of food (at 11 am) and lots of people sampling it.  Apparently there were 60 embassies hosting booths (even Oman was there!).

Would I recommend it?  Yes, but go early.  The bazaar was scheduled to open at 11 am, but I was there at about 10:30 and it was already underway.  By the time I left (about 11:30) it was packed and there was a line up of about 50 people waiting to enter the hall.  The bazaar has been held at the Radisson Astana at 4 Sary Arka Street, though I’ve just read that it is outgrowing this facility; it would be nice to have a bit more space for people to stand and eat as well as to have access the booths.

Here are a few pictures (it was impossible to get close to the booths with my camera:(

Bazaar Map

Bazaar Map

Oman Booth

Oman Booth

Inside the Bazaar

Inside the Bazaar

Inside the Bazaar
Inside the Bazaar
Two dolls from Latvia (2500 t.), two felt camels (2500 t.), two pairs of wool socks from Mongolia (2000 t.) and of course the Rice Krispies squares.

Two dolls from Latvia (2500 t.), two felt camels (2500 t.), two pairs of wool socks from Mongolia (2000 t.) and of course the Rice Krispies squares.

These people are waiting to get in (thankfully we are leaving).

These people are waiting to get in (thankfully we are leaving).

Radisson Astana

Radisson Astana

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Meteorologists don’t know how to use similes

Astana is located in northern Kazakhstan, in an area called the Kirghiz Steppe.  What exactly is a steppe?  Wikipedia says a steppe is “too dry for a forest but not dry enough for a desert.”  And in fact, Kazakhstan has the “largest dry steppe region on earth.”  I’m from Canada so we call this the bald prairie.  Steppes, like prairies, don’t have a lot of trees to slow the wind and thus the cold.  And this is basically the reason I’m considering banning similes for meteorologists, unless they can learn how to use them correctly.  Let me explain…well let me show you first:

Feels like -42

Feels like -42

Do you see that simile lurking beneath the -32C…the one that says “FEELS LIKE -42C.”  In my book, -32 C is bad enough but now my weather app wants me imagine how it feels when the wind whips over the open steppes into my apartment complex.  That’s where the simile comes in; it’s the simile’s job to establish a comparison (by using like or as) so the reader can experience an abstract concept in a tangible way.  Robbie Burns did this beautifully with, “my luve’s like a red, red rose.”  The beauty, the symmetry, and the uniqueness of a rose tells the reader more about his luve.  This works.

This does not: “FEELS LIKE -42C.

When my weather app tells me it “FEELS LIKE -42C that actually doesn’t really tell me much other than it is damn cold.  So I’d like to share my “FEELS LIKE” as I’ve now successfully survived -42C windchill temperatures.  (Mr. Meteorologist, you have my permission to use any, or all of these similes if you wish, with acknowledgement of course.)

  • -42C feels like the brain freeze from a slurpee, but doesn’t go away.
  • -42C feels like the first time you left home to travel, it scares the crap out of you, but you have to go out on your own,
  • -42C feels like one big newly-minted tattoo,
  • -42C feels like your worst ever sunburn,
  • -42C feels like paying a taxi driver any amount of money just so you can get in the car is right and fair,
  • -42 C feels like it’s okay to dance, flap your arms, run in circles right out in the open, where people can see you,
  • -42 C feels like it’s okay to dress mummy-style,
  • -42C feels like your eyeballs are freezing,
  • -42C feels like one big, bad curse word,
  • -42C feels like you should call in sick and just stay home.

Click here for some funny cold jokes; maybe laughing will warm us up. Inshallah.

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Finding the Holy Grail at the HP Store

The Holy Grail

The Holy Grail

You’ll excuse my hyperbole when you realize that to find both a printer and the requisite ink has driven both me and J. almost to distraction.  We have traveled from Respublika to Turan Street with no success.  Texhodom (pronounced Tex-no-dome) and Sulpak are the two major tech stores in Astana, and both have a wonderful selection of printers but very few, and I mean a very few ink cartridges.  It is typical to walk into one of these stores, cash in hand to buy a printer, only to find that the store does not have ink cartridges in stock.  Of course, you do get one starter cartridge, but what is one to do when that runs out? The clerks just shrugged when we asked about a spare.

In early October we finally broke down and bought a printer because it had a spare cartridge…a good reason to buy the printer you don’t want (she writes mockingly).

Cut to today (November 22, 2014).

We head to Asia Park Mall this morning to “register” our phones (more on that later) and as we wander, we come upon the HP Computer store.  As we walk in, we could see the back wall is filled with printers and…wait for it…lots of printer cartridges! (Insert angels singing here.) Well J. and I beetle our way to the wall and stare reverently at the printer cartridges and then we actually giggle like kids on Christmas morning. There are color printers, scanners, fax machines, all-in-ones and all have cartridges right there to buy…the Holy Grail…

Even though we have a laser printer at home, we buy an inkjet color printer because this is what we wanted all along, and because we know we can come back and get cartridges any time we need one.

The upshot is that I would highly recommend this store for printers and, of course, for anything HP. Lots of techie bits to buy right off the shelf and they also order other bits as well (I will be in need of a new battery for my laptop soon).   It was also nice that the salesman, besides being really helpful, speaks some English–a win-win for this Canadian chick. (Disclaimer: I know this sounds a lot like an advert…it is not; mostly because I have no idea how to ask, in Russian, for a discount in exchange for a favourable blog post:)

Here’s a price breakdown for you to see the comparison.

At Texhodom we were able to buy:

  • Samsung SCX-3400 Laser black only printer/scanner/copier – 23,000.oo tenge ($145.00 CDN)
  • Spare cartridge for the Samsung – 11,000 tenge ($69.00 CDN). We have not seen anymore spare cartridges since.

At the HP Store we were able to buy:

  • HP Inkjet Advantage  2515 Color Inkjet printer/scanner/copier – 8,000. ($50.00 CDN) sale price. The regular price is 11,000. tenge
  • Replacement cartridges – 1 color cartridge and 1 black cartridge for 2,650. tenge each ($16.00 CDN). And there was a peg full of each. (Insert satisfied smile here.)
HP store front in Asia Park Mall

HP store front in Asia Park Mall

The "Wall of Printers"

The “Wall of Printers”

Card for HP Store in Asia Park Mall

Card for HP Store in Asia Park Mall

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Hunting in an Urban Landscape


I remember what it used to be like…doing a bit of baking and I’d run out of an ingredient, no problem, jump in the car and head down to the local grocery store and pick up the missing items and head back home.  This would take maybe an hour, if I drove slow, stopped for gas, and had to wait at the checkout.  Easy peasy lemon squeezie.


It is a bit different here in Astana. The grocery store, Galmart, is just down the road and has the usual grocery plus-a-bit-more stock.  The trouble is that many of these big grocery chains carry some of this and some of that, so when you need a specific something a bit out of the ordinary (even if you think it’s ordinary) it requires some hunting. What did I want? Baking powder.  Galmart and Greens seem to sell baking powder albeit already in cake form, so I had to go further afield (haha…get the pun?)

When one goes hunting it is imperative to be prepared. The tools for hunting in an urban landscape are:

Hunting in an urban landscape

Hunting in an Urban Landscape: The top image is from Word Lens, the middle one from Google Translate, and the last is the actual package of baking powder (you can see why we had some trouble locating it.)

  1. an image of the item in question so that you can ask store clerks if they’ve seen this (imagine yourself pointing at the picture on your phone…hey this would be a good reason to buy the iPhone 6Plus!)
  2. Google Translate to help you “speak” the language when they squint at the phone screen, and shake their head in confusion.(Did you know that Google translate also talks? Oh yeah baby!)
  3. Word Lens so you can amuse the locals by waving your phone over packages trying to get the program to recognize, and then translate the words.
  4. A healthy sense of humor when you realize that finding one packet of baking powder took one taxi ride, 25 minutes of walking, two cell phones, and three hours (and a partridge in a pear treeeeeeee.)

Besides scoring the baking powder (enough to last us through to the next ice age…which might actually be December), we also stumbled across a small craft fair (Canadian Christmas will have a Kazakh tint this year), a souvenir store, bought J. a red shirt so he can bring in some Christmas cheer, and a pair of woolen reindeer knee socks, for men.  We would never have found all this at Galmart!


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Hitchhiking – Kazakh Style

Circa 1977

I remember skipping school one day and hitchhiking into the big city.  A friend and I were picked up by a truck driver who warned us of the dangers of hitchhiking, in fact he picked us up so he’d know we’d get where we needed to be, safely.  Nice fella. Fatherly-like.  It was the last time I hitchhiked because I knew he was right.  I’d seen the news about the “axe murders” who were either the hitchhikers or the guy behind the wheel.

Cut to 2014, Kazakhstan.

Hitchhiking or waving down a ride is standard practice.  While catching a ride here is not free, it is the way the people move around cheaply.  To catch a ride, one stands on the side of the road, arm out, palm facing down, waiting for someone to pull over.  When a car is willing to offer a ride, he (I’ve yet to be picked up by a woman) will pull up with his hazard lights blinking. Of course, a little bargaining occurs at the open window but really not too much.  300-700 t. for short rides on the same side of the river, and 1000 t. for journeys that cross the river.  The only exception I’ve had thus far is the return trip from Artyom (a shopping area on the other side of the river) where the drivers charge 1500 t. because they can (I mean what is one to do when her arms are full of fabulous finds!).

What still surprises me every time I hop into the back of one of these “taxis” is how safe this place is, and how the locals (and now us) take that safety for granted.  The people who pull over have no licenses (that I’m aware of), and can be anyone who does this sort of thing for a living to someone who just needs to make a little extra money.  This means I’ve caught rides in a BMW, a Lexus, a few Hyundai’s and Toyota’s, and a whole pack of Lada’s; regular folk making a few dollars on the side, how great is that?

Besides making it quick and easy to move around the city, these informal” taxi’s” are a great way to meet people and practice one’s Russian. One of my favourite memories (thus far) is one driver, who was taking us to the Sports Palace, reaching over and pulling me close to him so that I could see the Sports Palace down the road.  Admittedly a bit of a surprise being hooked around the neck, but he really wanted me to see the arena as we drove towards it.  Another “fun” ride was coming home from a night out on the town and being picked up by two young guys with “Thrift Shop” blaring on the tinny car stereo. Fueled by alcohol, J. began to sing along which the driver interpreted as “please turn up the music to turbo volume.” Our driver/DJ “rocked” us all the way home. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to act 15 or be embarrassed.

From the jaded Western perspective getting into a stranger’s car, a male stranger in a strange city, goes against all that we have come to know; however, these informal taxis are very much a part of the culture and the society.  They speak to a sense of community that is still evident in Astana as well as to a culture that is removed from a western influence. I hope it stays this way.

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Survivor Astana

You know how on “Survivor” they sometimes have the “food” challenge?  The one where contestants have to eat some really weird, unrecognizable (or recognizable) “food”?  I sort of had my own “Survivor” moment at work a while back. And in truth sometimes I feel like I’m a bit of a survivor here because I haven’t been voted off the “island” (yet:) and mental will is how I overcome the challenges.  Perhaps that’s why I easily agreed to try a Kazakh treat. Now let me tell you just how lucky I am to have this opportunity.  This treat is not something I can just go buy in the store…nope this is a homemade treat.  My colleagues were all indulging with quite a lot of revelry -the challenge is clear (I’m also representing Canada here), so I dug in when the bag was passed to me.  I took a big piece and bite off an “I’m not afraid of food” size chuck. Whoa! I mean WHOA!  This stuff is…well I don’t know what it is but I keep chewing and the taste.just.keeps.getting… worse, more intense.  I keep smiling as my colleagues look at me with assumed approval. I tell myself this isn’t so bad, I even say so out loud, and for the first maybe… two milliseconds my ruse works, for me and them. I try to chew a bit more, and then…nooope can’t do this!  I scrunch my face, and the room bursts into laughter as I go through the “Suvivor” food faces trying to keep it down (I happy to report, I kept it down!).

Fat Cottage Cheese

My food challenge is called “Fat Cottage Cheese” but looks nothing like the North American version.  This cottage cheese is hard as a rock…seriously it looks just like that white plaster stuff found in drywall and the flavor is intense with a capital “I”. It tastes like rancid sheep milk…if you can imagine what that tastes like. Apparently this is quite a treat, especially the homemade stuff I had the “luxury” to try.

I trying to think of some way to repay their generosity, hehe…

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