February 16, 2003 - Personal Web Site: Western Kazakhstan stories By Kate Mattingly, Peace Corps volunteer in Aktobe

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Western Kazakhstan stories By Kate Mattingly, Peace Corps volunteer in Aktobe

Western Kazakhstan stories By Kate Mattingly, Peace Corps volunteer in Aktobe

Western Kazakhstan stories

By Kate Mattingly, Peace Corps volunteer in Aktobe (malkofish@hotmail.com)

You haven't lived until you've ridden home from work in a marshrutka with two Kazakh kids in your lap, a babushka's bum squished into your seat, and a kazakh man's generous bottom resting on your shoulder. as i've always said, bottoms just don't belong on shoulders...:)

Anyway, I returned this week from a jaunt around western Kazakhstan with an American, an Australian, a Canadian, and some minor mishaps. Here's how it went:

Located in southwestern Kazakhstan on the Caspian sea, central Aktau is a booming metropolis of grey apartment complexes, condemned buildings, and approximately 150,000 peeps. It also happens to be the home of my fellow Peace Corps volunteer, rea oberwetter, who (believe it or not) was the main attraction for us bright-eyed adventurers. We also had heard that from here we could catch a ferry to Baku, Azerbaijan for $40, or that we could take a plane for $70. Of course being the big spenders that we are, we tried for the ferry, but in true Kazakhstani fashion, we learned that the ferry had docked in aktau on Dec. 26th, and no one knew when it would be going out again. On to option number two. I called the airport 3 days in a row, each time receiving the same reply: no, the flight to Baku for tonight was canceled, but call back tomorrow because there will DEFINITELY be a flight then. so we decided to tread the turf of 7 local travel agencies where we were greeted most firmly with a kick in the backside; all non-members of the former Soviet Union must pay over 100% more than members...oh, and the flight for today was canceled. What do we 4 in-no-way-disheartened travelers do then? Squat at lucky rea's apartment for another day or so before moving on. However, before we left, we did get to see some of the beauty of Aktau: hundreds of black and white swans bathing in the Caspian and playing on the snow-covered beaches; a picturesque sunset beyond the cliffs adorned with stalactite icicles; me, tumbling down an icy hill as my sheet of metal shoots out from beneath me and the giggling local kids sled past me like pros.

What do four westerners in Kazakhstan with 2 days to spare do after a 26-hour train ride, a stolen bag, an overstayed welcome in Aktau, and a failed mission to Baku? That's right, they hop a half-day train to Atyrau, the oil capital of Central Asia! we headed to the hotel that Lonely Planet 2000 listed as $15 per room, and found that it was now $75 per room. So we high-tailed it outta there, and tried the $10 place which had apparently become $24 -- not so great, but doable. The next morning in the hotel, we had the best breakfast I've had in Kazakhstan and, quite possibly, my life: blini (like crepes) with sweet, creamy cheese and raisins, for only about $1. next we visited the oblast's 2-floor, 10-room comprehensive museum, which luckily had an english-speaking guide. I could have done without the "oil mining" and "old soviet people" rooms, but the steppe's flora and fauna and the kazakh history were fascinating. After a couple of hours in there, we decided to walk across the Ural river (not the bridge, but the actual river as it was frozen), among ice-skaters and ice-fishermen, to the iconoclad russian orthodox church on the "Europe" side. On the way there, we came across an 8'x10' bronze sculpture of a sheep's kneecap -- supposed to symbolize national games of Kazakhstan (don't ask). As we made our way back across to the "Asia" side of the river, we stopped to chat with the fishermen, and found that people in Atyrau are much kinder than those in Aktau, or even Aktobe. They invited us to hang with them, but we had little time and so much more to see, so we regretfully declined. And then we saw some old houses and a little kid tried to pickpocket me. Then it was back to the train to conclude our adventure with a heavenly 18-hour overnight train ride to our one and only Kazakhstani home, Aktobe.


Breaking news: appendix useful after all!! (...at least for orphans in Kazakhstan)

The director of the alga orphanage in the Aktjubinsk oblast is on a rampage. apparently some minor problem has arisen, and he's taking it out on everyone. This means that all the children from every class, plus their house mothers and teachers, must stand at attention in the gym for hours on end while the director verbally abuses them. However, some of the children have gotten wind of this and are now one step ahead of his majesty the director: they fake appendicitis.

Kazakhstanis are obsessed with the appendix and its potentially fatal complications. (it's commonly thought here that Americans have their appendices removed at birth.) Therefore, if a child has a severe stomachache, s/he is immediately sent to the hospital to have an appendectomy which comes with a week of bed rest. During this particular incident, 4 children spontaneously contracted terrible stomach pains, and thus escaped the wrath of the director.

One 14-year old, alias pac-man, said that he'd been "saving" his appendix for an occasion like this, "i knew i'd need it one day." and so off to the hospital he went. There's no tv in the hospital room, but there's a radio and some other kids from the town of alga, so it really is like a vacation for the orphans. Meals aren't included, so a friend or family member has to bring sustenance in for the patient once a day -- only once because it's too cold in the morning and at night.

Surely, you say, the doctors must notice that the appendix isn't inflamed or burst when the children go in for surgery. Right you are. But the state pays 3,000 tenge for every operation, and there are lots of kids and lots of appendices at that orphanage. Once an orphan graduates from the detskii dom, s/he is no longer covered by the government, so it behooves them to have the appendix removed prior to that graduation. After biding his time for 10 years at the dom, looks like pac-man made the right decision: "i needed a vacation!

ecurity in Almaty

Security on the street:

It is best to treat walking in the street in Almaty as you would treat walking the street as a foreigner in an average inner-city neighborhood anywhere in the world. During the day, you are not likely to have any problems with any passersby as long as you mind your own business. Maybe someone will say something to you as you pass, but if you don't take the bait, you will be fine. During the day, the only dangerous people are probably the police, who enjoy stopping foreigners to see if they can find something wrong with their papers, taking them back to the station house, and demanding a bribe (so be forewarned: always carry your passport or an offical copy of it from your embassy everywhere you go, and make sure your papers are 100% in order). At night you will probably also be safe, unless you run into some drunk miscreants who, recognizing you to be either alone, a foreigner, or both, might decide to jump you. Since they are usually drunk, you can take the advantage by avoiding them or striking first, but this requires being alert and not being too drunk yourself. In general, don't be stupid and think that because you are in a foreign land, the rules of life don't apply -- that means: try to walk down lonely streets at 3am as infrequently as possible.

The center of town is generally quite safe. When you get out to some of hard core neighborhoods, especially some of the microrayons, you will start to feel like you are walking around in a hip-hop video with Kazak faces. Guys hanging out of cars. Girls everywhere sytanding on the streets, music pumping, trouble around every corner. We particularly recommend going to the area around Abaya and Sinaa streets only when you're really in need of some kicks.

Locals have a blustery style and don't mind raising their voice to get their point across. Don't take offense at this unless you feel genuinely threatened. Usually shouting back a bit doesn't hurt and will probably get you some respect for not being just another weenie foreigner. But also be aware that locals can be remarkably quick to the punch, often dispensing with the usual foreplay, especially when they know that as a foreigner you probably won't understand the names they call you anyway. So if you see someone approaching you with a glint in his eye in a confident way, you should either strike first or leave. In general, if you even feel slightly threatened, don't wait to find out if the threat is real.

Security in your home:

If you live in a house with a big fence around it and a couple of guards at the gate you can skip this section. If you live in an apartment and you don't have electronic surveillance (yes! Almaty does have 24 hour electronic security companies) then you need to know a few things to protect yourself. If your apartment block doesn't have lighted staircases, then get them lighted by hiring a local electrician. It won't cost you much, and it'll benefit everyone in the building. This isn't just to protect you from being raped and killed in a dark stairwell. You could slip on a banana peel in the dark, lose consciousness, and wake up in a smelly place so black you won't be able to find a door -- wouldn't that suck? But don't try to replace your light fixtures yourself since the wiring in some of the older buildings is so Soviet that it probably electocutes foreigners as a matter of revolutionary pride.

There are two theories about whether or not you should attempt to be friendly with your neighbors:

1) If you go out of your way to introduce yourself to your neighbors they will get to know your face and therefore call the police or warn you if suspicious characters are trying to get into your apartment. In addition, they will probably be nicer to you and won't scream at you too loudly over small differences like the fact that your bathroom leaks into your neighbor's ceiling.

2) If you get to know your neighbors too well and start drinking vodka with them, etc, they will start asking you for things. The favors will become more onerous. You'll end up teaching English to the children of every family in your building, and they'll all owe you money. If you start saying 'no' to people after being so friendly at first, you'll create resentment and could end up with a worse situation than if you had simply kept neighborly relations to a mere "hello" in the stairway.

One thing to check on when you move into a new apartment whether or not your building has a communal cleaning schedule. You will have to clean your building's public places according to a schedule (everyone in the building takes turns doing the cleaning). If each floor has a chart with colored squares on it, you are probably in for some communal cleaning. Find out when your turn is a pay one of your neighbors to do the work for you ASAP, because if you miss your turn, everyone in your building will hate you.

Whether or not to open your door when a stranger rings your bell is a complex question. It is dealt with here. (hperlink to the text in HOusing)

When you move into a new apartment, immediately change all your locks. Chances are, your apartment is locked with some of the cheapest, least reliable, most-easy-to-break-through locks known to man. Get a locksmith up there and buy his most expensive lock. Otherwise, when they see the pathetic locks on your door, burglars casing your building will choose your apartment for a little B&E. Changing your locks will also ensure that your landlord will not use your apartment when you are away on trips or otherwise hassle you.

If you notice drill marks around your lock when you come home, or any other sign of unlawful entry, don't enter your apartment. Call the police.


The important thing to remember is that Almaty doesn't have much of a formal taxi service, so when you hail a cab, you're most likely engaging in hitch-hiking. This has its own dangers and thrills. Riding in "taxis" can be trouble if you don't follow the proper etiquette. Etiquette:

1) Whatever price you quote, make sure you have exact change.
When you're making an average of 80 Tenge per fare, have to sit in a Lada 12 hours a day, and don't have real job, you get resentful when you have to start making change for people. So if YOU don't have exact change and the driver claims not to, either, and there's a nearby store, you can go get change from the store, but if there isn't any place to get change you have to bite the bullet and give up your whole bill -- and you'd better like it, too.
2) The more gently you close the door, the closer to heaven you get.
Don't mess with a man's ride, especially if it is so old that closing the door too hard might make the engine fall out. If you close it too hard, don't be surprised if the driver hops out of the car after you and decks you without warning (this does happen, and not infrequently, so be warned).

Word of advice: always agree on your price before you get in the car, and don't get in if you sense the driver is very reluctant to take you for that price. You'll have to put up with him bitching about it for the rest of the ride, and he might get violent at the end of it if he doesn't get his way.

Also, feel no compunction about waving off cars filled with sketchy characters trying to pick you up. Locals do it all the time. No worries. Also, if a woman driver pulls over to pick you up, don't stand there with your hand out as if she's making a turn-off or something. Yes, Almaty has women cab drivers!

Final Note: Probably your driver won't say anything to you during the ride, but if he makes a gesture and says something right after picking you up, he most likely is either asking you to shut your door properly or pull the seatbelt across your chest for ceremonial effect (to prevent cops from stopping the car and fining the driver for your transgression).

Safety in night-clubs:

True partying expats, the med students and third world businessmen here for the long haul, tend to be a lot smarter about night club safety then the casual players and short-term types are. What they do is to only go to certain friendly-to-foreigners places. Only. Always. Truth is, clubbing in Almaty is probably as safe as clubbing in Istanbul or most parts of Brooklyn, but it is definitely not a middle class club scene, and that means that you can get seriously messed up if you go to the wrong places, if you go there too drunk, or if you generally ask for it. Pretty much the friendly-to-foreigners places consist of Tequila and Capos, which are under the same management. Lots of other places will have a lot of foreigners on any given night -- Pyramid, Arman, etc., but don't forget that although you can have a good time in these places, unlike with the first group, you are not on home turf. In these places, if you dance too crazily, come on to too many girls, etc., you will draw attention to yourself and make yourself a target for the stupidity of drunk local nouveau-riche kids. Another thing not to do anywhere is come on to another guy's girl, for reasons that make sense everywhere in the world except in some remarkable, oft-studied communities. The result of coming onto another guy's girl will probably be a good fight no matter what you say or do to explain it. As anywhere, if someone tries to engage you in a fight, pushes you etc., heed the immortal words of Sun Tzu: when the enemy attacks, retreat. Even if the population here is not that big, you are grossly outnumbered and have no business getting offended by a big old shove or a "fuck you" or two. (The second part of Sun Tzu's advice is to attack when the enemy retreats, but in practical terms, the only way that you could really do that, given the circumstances, is by convincing your country to invade Kazakstan, and we all hope that will never happen.) All this sounds pretty gloomy because the subject is security, but the truth is that Almaty clubs are a lot of fun and full of good surprises, provided you enter with the right attitude and know what kind of turf you are on. Locals, especially Kazaks -- probably since they are the power in the country -- will sometimes make it a matter of honor to start trouble with you, but if you don't give them an opening, you'll be fine. A last note: with all the cheap liquor around, it is very easy to get ridiculously drunk in clubs here. If you do, you become a great target for anyone out to do a little target practice -- and some bad stories have resulted from that for foreigners here, so if you're going to get ridiculously drunk, make sure to do the last five shots at home or surrounded by mindful friends in certain places designated for safety.

When a foreign guy goes out with women friends, especially if there is more than one of them, he may run into trouble in some of the more provincial venues in town. This will consist in local guys trying to steal your extra women from you. This can sometimes be quite physical -- men pulling your girlfriends onto the dance floor by the arm. Though this is less likely if your friend aren't local, it can also happen with them, too, so you have to be ready to defend them. This is completely justified (and they know it) since if you were doing it the girlfriends of a local guy you would probably already be short a few quarts of blood. But we do urge you to be firm without being too provocative, because you are, after all, outnumbered, and without you your friends will be completely without recourse.

If you do get in a fight or have other trouble and require the services of the law, we highly recommend waking up your embassy duty officer and calling the police through him, since your embassy people will be able to help you communicate with and navigate through the authorities. So keep a 24 hour number for your embassy on hand.

If you require medical attention, you should probably do it through SOS International, which is unfortunately ridiculously expensive. It is considerably cheaper to use their services if you are a member of their clinic here. So look into becoming a member before you arrive.

"Papers Pleeze"

Getting stopped by the police for papers problems is a rite and a ritual in Almaty. It can be inconveniencing, but it can also be an incredibly rewarding adventure in goofiness, ineptitude, nastiness, baseness, helplessness, pathos, greed, and folly that is often remembered with the clarity of a good sit-com moment. The police will do their best to find something wrong with your papers or to discover that you are breaking any law at all, made up, infered, or implied. Often they are awkward but determined to extort from foreigners, and this combination makes them quite funny. Sometimes it will be a desperate cop in the middle of the night looking for a little money to round out the night's drinking -- these tend to be impatient and will move on at any sign of protest -- sometimes it will be a posse of young recruits eager to see what's in your pockets; sometimes it will be an old pro with a good repertoire of imagined laws (I like the one that permits you to sleep in your home or public places but not in a friend's house -- "it's ok if I sleep here in the street then?" "Yeah, as long as it's not in a friend's house; $50 fine"). If you do get taken back to a station house -- sometimes it's just an apartment in a residential building -- you will either be searched and released or retained due to some violation or other. The game begins: the cops will try to make you think you will end up waiting forever in the station house and then face several weeks of visits to judges, etc., in addition to a ridiculously high fine (whose validity the cops will verify to you in a weathered law book). You will be allowed to make a phone call to friends or your embassy in order to facilitate communication. In our experience, embassies aren't very knowledgeable about how to get you out of these situations and will generally leave you to extricate yourself through financial hardship. This is where having a Kazak friend (or a Kazak friend of a friend, business partner, etc.) helps a lot. Your arresting officers will almost definitely be Kazak, and they respond rather positively to people who reason with them in Kazak. Call your friend, get him to get down to the station to see you, and get him to broker a deal with the officers. Paying $50 on a potential $175 fine for living in a flat not designated on your visa is not unheard of, although you might be able to get out for less with a good negotiator. Don't forget to cut your negotiator in too if appropriate. Sometimes chance will help you out, too, if you've been good -- once we were sweating out a hung-over Saturday morning in a police station when a subordinate brought the commanding officer a woman of loose virtue. He immediately accepted our offer and expelled us from the small office before presumably acquiescing to her demands.
Whatever the resolution, make sure you fix your papers ASAP, because you can be sure that your arresting officer will pay you a visit soon enough just to see if he can't hit you up on the same charge again.


Since we're talking about safety, this section had to sound gloomy. It is possible to lead a very safe, relaxed, and happy existence in Almaty, and you have moved one step closer to doing that by reading these words of advice. So don't tear up your plane ticket yet. Almaty certainly isn't heaven, but it can certainly look like it from the right spot on a sunny summer day.

We leave you with the US Embassy's guidelines for security in Almaty:

In combating residential burglaries remember the following:

* Like many other crimes, residential burglaries often begin with surveillance.

* Avoid living on the first two floors to reduce the possibility of someone entering through your windows.

* Grill any window that may allow a burglar to access your residence.

* Strictly control the number and access of keys to your residence.

* Change the locks when moving into a new residence.

* Protect your residence with good solid core doors and well made locks.

* Make certain that access to your apartment building is limited by ensuring the locks and doors remain in good working condition.

* Make certain your building is as well lit.

* Maintain a good relationship with your neighbor. Look out for each other.

* Report any suspicious activity to the police.

* Leave lights and music on while you are not at home.

The police also recommend that you consider the installation of a residential alarm system.

With the onset of Spring and Summer we can anticipate a seasonal increase in street crime in Almaty. Using good judgement and avoiding high risk areas can reduce the crime threat. Both travelers and residents should exercise the same precautions concerning personal safety and protection of valuables as they would in any major US city. Two popular scams that may surface as the weather improves are described below.

The wallet scam has been a common street crime in the region for many years. It has numerous variations and goes something like this:

1. Suspect number one approaches you and spies a wallet on the ground.

2. He picks up the wallet in front of you and asks for your assistance. The suspect may ask you to hold the wallet while he trys to find the owner or may offer to split its contents with you.

3. Along the way, suspect number two is introduced into the equation. He identifies himself/herself as the owner of the wallet, thanks you for finding it, then proclaims there is money missing.

4. He insists that you pay him or he will call the police.

All variations of this common street scam rely on your being a "nice person" and engaging the suspects in conversation. When you encounter this scam, simply ignore the suspects and continue on your way. Do not engage them in conversation.

The tire scam occurs when suspect number one approaches your parked car and notifies you that one of your rear tires is low. As you exit the car to examine the tire, suspect number two enters your car and steals anything lying on the front seat (perhaps a purse).

Avoid engaging in conversations with strangers on the street. You wouldn't do it in a city in the United States, so please don't do it here.

If you encounter this or any other scam, please note the suspects' description and the place of occurrence and notify the police by calling 02. The embassy would very much appreciate it if US citizens would report such incidents to either the consular or security sections. E-mail:Consularalmaty@state.gov Consularalmaty@state.gov> or Almatyosac@state.gov Almatyosac@state.gov> Your anonymity will be respected

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This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Kazakhstan; PCVs in the Field



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