Semipalatinsk: City With A Past

Kazakhstan is not only Astana or Almaty, it’s a huge country with innumerable cities and towns. Semey  is in the northeastern province of East Kazakhstan and in the Kazakhstan part of Siberia near the border with Russian Federation. Semey, during the Soviet Union era, was called Semipalatinsk and for sure isn’t a new brand city as Astana . It’s a city with past and a complicated one.  Very close to the city centre of Semey,  there is a small town “Kurchatov” one of the dozen “closed towns” of Soviet Union. They were known only for the post boxes. Kurchatov was Semipalatinsk-21. It was site of nuclear power. The Soviets use all the nuclear weapons in this site.

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Arriving in Semipalatinsk and stepping out from the airport hall there is a big label : “We are open for our friends”

Some years ago this area was closed. Movement in and out of the cities was restricted and entry was forbidden to foreigners.

“It was Lavrenti Beria, the ruthless head of Stalin’s secret police, who chose the location in the depths of Siberia for the Soviet Union’s nuclear testing programme and ordered the town of Kurchatov to be built-using gulag labour” to house its scientists. During a test of one particular powerful bomb, in 1953, the authorities evacuated villagers and livestock.But not everyone was evacuated. The Soviet scientists left a group of 40 men behind as human guinea pigs. Infant mortality increased four times of the level of the rest of the Soviet Union. Today, residents still have a life expectancy that is several years lower that in the rest of the country” Secret cities of the steppes, Jack Farchy, Ft weekend magazine, sept 6/7,2014.

 

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The park in the city centre of Semey.

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Abay museum, the national poet of Kazakhstan.

 

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City centre.  A war memorial.

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Semey, as part of Kazakhstan Siberia, is quite cold place, the temperature is around to -48 C during Winter but probably without Astana’s winds.

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The city has a major university.

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Binar hotel in the city centre. picmonkey_image

 

Semipalatinsk was the place of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s exile for five years and it was depicted in the various books of Dostoyevsky including  “The Brothers karamazov”

Personally, I had a lovely time there with my Kazakh friends and a major event, a veritable Kazakh wedding!

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Greeks in Astana: Old wine in new bottles

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.

 

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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.

 

P1090215The Library is equipped with the latest technology and is being developed with rapid pace by adding thousands of items (print and e-resources) per month.

 

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).

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

P1070270Kazakhs 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.
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Almaty : Paris of Kazakhstan

For quite a long time, my Kazakhstani friends from Almaty were nagging me to visit Almaty by saying “it’s gorgeous city, it’s the New York of Kazakhstan…”! I didn’t need to have wild imagination to believe their saying but just compassion. After so long roaming around the globe, I am quite familiar with this kind of exasperation which is correlated with the longing for the homeland and as consequently the beautification of it.

Almaty was the previous capital of Kazakhstan, south east of the country close to the borders with Kyrgyzstan and it has totally different scenery, climate and population from Astana. It’s surrounded by mountains and forests, it has a mild climate comparing to Astana and an established multicultural population. The latter, I’m suspecting, gives the right to my Almatian friends to be a bit superficial in their description.

The distance between Astana and Almaty is around 900 Km and by airplane  one and half hours.

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Looking out my hotel’s window, I was quite happy to see something else other than  steppes.

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P1080188Abai’s statue in the city center. Abai (1845-19040) was a prominent Kazakh poet, composer and philosopher
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Remnants of the Soviets. The portrait of Lenin in the entrance of an old building with apartments.
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I was quite impressed by these Moscow like kiosks (newspapers agencies).
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The smaragdi colour traditionally is the most popular colour of the whole region.
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An elegant girl is waiting for taxi.
P1080173On the way to the airport we passed  by this mini replica of the Eiffel’s tower  and I’m still wondering why my friends didn’t mention Paris and  were insisting on calling Almaty “New York” !!??

Adam and Eve are from Kazakhstan : Branding

O Aδάμ και Εύα  είναι από το Καζακστάν, ο Στηβ Τζoμπς από τη Συρία, η Μέρλιν Μονρόε από την Αμερική… “Mας φάγανε όλα τα σελέμπριτις οι βάρβαροι, οι ξένοι” σκεφτόμουν καθώς έγραφα αυτό το ποστ. Παράξενο βέβαια, γιατί μέχρι σήμερα είχα συνηθίσει  όλες τις πρωτιές και  ό,τι καλό και άξιο προς επίδειξη είχε ήδη κατοχυρωθεί από τους Έλληνες. Τελευταίως, δυστυχώς, τα Eλληνάκια έχουν επωμισθεί την αποστολή να διδάξουν στον υπόλοιπο κόσμο, παραδειγματικά, το ηθικό διδάγμα “οι αμαρτίες πληρώνονται στην επίγεια ζωή”. Και ενώ τα Eλληνάκια βρίσκονται σε αυτό το φαύλο κύκλο για το ποιος φταίει και ποιος θα τις πληρώσει πρώτος, κάποιοι άλλοι βρήκαν ευκαιρία να μπουν δυναμικά στο παιχνίδι του Βranding.
Οι Καζάκοι είναι οι καινούργιοι παίκτες, οι οποίοι εκτός του Τζένκις Χαν, των Σελτζούκων Τούρκων… ισχυρίζονται  ότι και τα μήλα προέρχονται από το Καζακστάν! Εξού, υποθέτω, και οι πρώτοι καταναλωτές αυτών (Αδάμ και Εύα), και μάλιστα από την πρώην πρωτεύουσα του Καζακστάν, Αλμάτι. Αλμάτα στην γλώσσα τους  σημαίνει “πατέρας των Μήλων”!
Δεν έχω εξερευνήσει την αξιοπιστία αυτής της εκδοχής αλλά  εδώ στο Καζακστάν είχα την τύχη να γευθώ τα πιο νόστιμα μήλα, λαχανικά, φρούτα … Σχεδόν όλα είναι οργανικά . Η γεωργία και κτηνοτροφία  είναι στα αρχικά στάδια της ανάπτυξης και η  διαδικασία των γενετικών τροποποιημένων είναι στα σκαριά ακόμα. Οι είδικοί επί των αγροτικών καταφθάνουν από τη Δύση για να τους δείξουν τα μυστικά του Βοtox.
Η πρώτη βόλτα μου στη Λαϊκή της Αστάνας ήταν μια αποκάλυψη από αρώματα και γεύσεις. Είχα καιρό ή μάλλον είχα ξεχάσει πως μυρίζουν οι ντομάτες , οι φράουλες…και ότι δεν έχουν την τέλεια και τσιταρισμένη εμφάνιση της Πλαστικής ή του Botox. Moυ θύμισε τις παλιές καλές μέρες στις Λαϊκές της Αθήνας.

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Adam and Eve are from Kazakhstan , Steve Jobs from Syria, Marilyn Monroe from America …”All the celebrities have been embraced by the “barbarians foreigners” I was thinking as I was writing this post. How strange, so far I was used to the idea that everything good and worth showing off  was coming from Greece. Unfortunately, lately the Greek’s mission is to teach the rest of the world the moral percept “all sins have to be paid in full and in this life”. In meantime, since the Greeks are in an inner turmoil-whose is the fault and who has to pay first- some others found the opportunity to enter into the game of Branding .
The Kazakhs are the new players and except of Jenkins Khan and Seljuk Turks, they claim as well as that apples come from Kazakhstan and as a consequence the first consumers of them (Adam & Eve). Specifically, apples are from Almaty, the old capital of kazakhstan. The word  Alma-ata in their language means “Father of Apples’.
Personally, here in Kazakhstan, I have tried the most tasty apples,fruits and vegetables… It seems to me that they are genuine organic. The agriculture farming are in the first steps of developing the techniques of the genetical modification and the experts from the West are arriving to help with the process.
My recent visit to one of the farmers market in Astana reminded me again the olden days in Athen’s farmers market – Laiki- where everything had a gorgeous smell and a look far from the Botox look of the Western agricultural products.

 


Tourists, who cares…

Oh! It’s for me! Let’s enjoy the photoshoot !


Βerries (not yet riped)


Sugar (τέτοιες λέξεις βρίσκω και τις διαβάζω σαν νεράκι)


Starbuckstan: Organic Starbucks 😉