When I started writing this post my first thought was to give some facts and consequently numbers before entering the sphere of more subjective issues. Counting the number of Greeks in Astana, I came up with the number 12. Twelve is a significant number, thought, taking into consideration the 12 Olympians Gods, the 12 Heracle’s labours, the 12 Apostles, the Ocean ‘s 12 and so forth. So probably, we are on a good path for the time being. Don’t forget the old wine sells better in new bottles!
I (information specialist)and Vasileios(robotics) were the first Greeks working at Nazarbayev University in Astana-a multibillion project of Kazakhstani government with the help of the World Bank to introduce the western education in the developing countries in central Asia. Few months later, another Greek joined us, Vasilis (chemical engineering) followed by Grigoris (chemical engineering), Themistocles (education), Katerina(physics) and George(chemical engineering). Most of them came from Greece but their qualifications (PhD) are either from USA or Britain. The rest of the Greeks are, the Ambassador, three employees of the Greek embassy and a Greek girl who works in a multinational company.
The NU is a good place to work in Astana and there are plausible reasons for that: Firstly, it’s an English speaking environment, something quite rare in Astana since the official language is Russian and very soon will be Kazakh. The Kazakhstani government has intensified the effort to introduce the kazakh language as the main language in the schools and generally as the country’s official language. Nevertheless, so far all the well educated Kazakhs speak Russian and few of them English. Secondly, something that adds value to NU potentials are its partners, first class Western universities such as Cambridge, UCL, Madison-Wisconsin, Duke University … and thirdly, the students are the smartest in the country. They are being selected by tough entrance examination with rate of acceptance 1/8.
The University campus is this interior atrium in the picture left. The reason of course is the low temperatures during winter which can drop to -40 C.
All the expats have free accommodation, well equipped hi-tech(Japanese/Korean) style apartments in the city centre and close to the University campus. Interestingly enough, despite the below zero temperatures the apartments are quite warm. I suppose, the main reason other than the nonstop heating system, is the good insulation (pictures below).
Tenge is the Kazakh currency and 1000 T are around 4 Euro at the moment. There was a devaluation some months ago and somehow the expats started feeling unsafe but they made the appropriate adjustments in the salaries to keep the expats happy and in place. Astana is not different from the rest capital cities of the western world in terms of cost, the prices are quite high for certain commodities, since almost everything is imported, such as clothes and other luxury goods. It’s quite expensive place and without offering the buzz of a well established city. It is designated to be the government’s place.The latter has already shaped its future and someone can visualise what it will be next : A place where people come mostly to work in the government offices or oil companies. This fact has some advantages in terms of safety. My only concern, coming here in the first place, was safety for my family. I had heard a lot of stories by word of mouth such as : It’s dangerous place, there is a lot of corruption… Two years now living and working in this city, I didn’t feel a bit of threat and I can say that there is an absurd confidence among the inhabitants. Everyone can get a ride to home or wherever is his destination by making a hand signal to the cars(not official taxis) on the road by paying a minimal fee. Small children can get on the bus without being accompanied by their parents, the ticket controller will look after them. I found so sweet this attitude and their sense of camaraderie.
Every few months new restaurants are opening in the city, but again the good ones with the expected western service are few and very expensive, possibly at the same price as those of central London. There are malls with western high chain stores such as Zara,Gap… with the aforementioned prices. There is no Starbucks but there is Gloria Jean’s for the coffee lovers. Someone can find a reasonable range of food products in the super markets, there is Metro and a Turkish super market chain which reminds me a bit the Greek super markets, especially the bakery. The local vegetable and food markets, outside Astana, during Spring and Summer are a feast in the eyes and nose.The vegetables and fruits are so “real” that somebody can recognise easily by the fragrance without seeing them, if you understand what I mean! Fish is quite rare product, since Astana is far away from the sea or lakes,but they have horse meat for the meat lovers: A traditional dish except shashlik(souvlaki) is horse meat with hilopites(pastry).
Astana is not a place for a tourist yet. In order someone to visit the country and specifically Astana-the city has border control in its exit/entry – needs working visa or invitation and there is a big bureaucratic process to gain one of the above. Somehow, this is a way to keep out people that they don’t need at this particular moment, where they are building up the infrastructure of the country/city. The rest of the expats are working in oil/gas companies- serious business in Kazakhstan- or construction companies- a big construction of the Abu Dhabi Mall is on the way.
At the moment, there is a lot of preparation for the forthcoming ASTANA EXPO 2017. It is expected to create new jobs opportunities. Those who are interested in and they are quite brave and adventurous in heart, keep an eye on the announcements.
Kazakhs care about culture and entertainment. There is a Concert Hall and a new Opera House with regular performances of various orchestras and classical ballet. Most of tickets are sold out quite quickly. The Russian and Soviet Union’s influence is quite obvious at this point.
At the moment, I would say with confidence that summer is here, in Astana and life is getting easier and more pleasant comparing it with the wintertime. We can go outside and have big walks along the big river Ishim. The good thing is that there are seasons, some are shorter(spring and autumn) than the others(winter, summer) but there is this seasonal change that makes you feel optimistic and ready to make new starts every now and then. During summer, the sun can be much more brighter than someone would prefer but nothing can be perfect in this life.