Fourth Letter

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Fourth letter

Everyday Life in Kazakhstan – May 9th, 2005

Thanks for all the e-mail, it’s good to hear from home! Many of you have asked questions about what it’s like here…I’ll do my best to try to describe it to you.


Some of you have asked what the music is like here. You are likely to hear just about any kind of music on the radio. The only kind of music I haven’t heard here is Country. I was surprised that Rap (Hip Hop) is popular here. They have MTV (it’s even called MTV). Eminem, Beyonce, and Britney Spears are popular. There are also equivalent homegrown artists (Rap in Russian is pretty interesting). You also hear Classic Rock, Jazz and traditional music….all on the same radio station. The traditional music is sort of like polka…accordions, mandolin-type instruments and odd percussion instruments (we saw a band that used something that looked like a boot as an instrument).

Our driver, Annatoli, loves Classic Rock. He’s very proud of his CDs. He likes the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Chicago. He was showing us his CDs and we asked if he bought them in a store (I asked this because the CDs did not have the band’s names on the labels). He said that he had bought them in a store, so I assume these CDs are pirated (I never had a sense of how big a problem this was until I got outside the U.S.). Dave and I went into a store that sold DVDs and CDs and I think everything in the store was pirated (robbing the artists and recording companies of their royalties). Dave and I bought Annatoli a Santana CD….he really liked it. It’s fun to hear him say "Black Magic Woman" with his Russian accent.

Live music is popular. One of the restaurants we like to eat at has a singer every night (the equivalent of lounge singer). We were in this restaurant a couple of nights ago and a lot of people were dancing and enjoying themselves.


I think we’ve been asked questions about the food more than anything else (this subject is very near and dear to my heart so I can understand that). Meat and potatoes are very popular here, especially shish-kebabs (shashlyk in Russian). The lamb shish-kebabs are terrific. Meat is inexpensive here and vegetables and fruits are expensive (in this arid region things like that don’t grow). We haven’t been getting much fresh fruit or vegetables and we miss them. Some of the restaurants serve "salat" which consists of tomatoes and cucumbers (really fresh ones). They have wonderful cake here….layered with nuts and frosting (very labor intensive to make). They also have great chocolate….the dark kind (it’s delicious).

It’s common to drink fruit juice, soda (Coke & Pepsi are widely available), mineral water or piva (beer) with meals. When you order something to drink, they don’t fool around….if you order Coke, you get an entire liter bottle. Tea is more popular than coffee and the coffee you get is instant (not worth ordering….boy do I miss Starbucks!). Grocery stores sell liquor. In fact, I would say that one-third of the grocery store is liquor…vodka mostly. They sell large bottles of bottled beer, but there is no such thing as a six-pack. Liquor and beer are very inexpensive (a large glass of draft is 57 cents). They have very good locally brewed beer (so they tell me).

Since we can’t read the names of any of the restaurants, we have nicknames for them (except Mario’s Pizza since their sign is in English). There’s the Ali-baba place (they have a little genie guy sitting on top of the entrance), the Uzbec place (ethnic Uzbekistan food), the barbequed chicken place, and Assorti (the sign sort of reads like that). Lots of restaurants have outdoor seating now that the weather has become warmer (it’s been in the seventies most days). For some reason, they charge you less to be served outside…go figure?


Most people have televisions here, but there isn’t all that much to watch (by comparison to the U.S.). There are things like soap operas, MTV, and game shows (a Russian speaking version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?"). There are a lot of variety shows (something we don’t have much of anymore) and some old American programs. "Murder She Wrote" and "Baywatch" are aired regularly (with the Russian dubbed in).

There is a news channel, Caspionet, which has some English speaking news (sort of like CNN and the Weather Channel combined). The news is all national (there are no stories about local events) and very repetitive. You see the same stories for quite a few days in a row. The economy seems to be the biggest concern. The economy is growing very fast…according to their news, residential housing construction is up 68% in the last year (by residential I mean apartments that people own….there really aren’t single family homes at all) and inflation is a concern. Gas is very inexpensive though…$1.40 per liter.

There are several large, impressive theaters here, as well as an opera house. American movies are very popular, but I haven’t seen any movie theaters (people mostly rent movies). One thing that surprises me, is they have lots of casinos. They also have a lottery. There is a bowling alley down the street from us (we will have to go there sometime) and the children play cricket in the streets (occasionally you see soccer).


Most people do not own cars here, but there are lots of buses and many businesses run passenger vans to take their employees back and forth to work. People also do a lot of walking which is probably why you don’t see many overweight people. The most common car you see is a Mercedes. There are also lots of Audis, Volkswagons, and various Japanese cars. The models look a lot like the ones you see in the U.S., but the names are different. We have only seen three American cars here: a Jeep, a Lincoln Towncar, and a Ford (the model name was unfamiliar to me). Various Russian made cars are also common.

Riding in a car is exciting….people don’t really drive in lanes. They drive on the right-hand side of the road, but frequently crossover to the other side to avoid potholes (there are lots and lots of potholes). They painted lines for driving lanes on some of the main streets the other day and you could tell the drivers weren’t too pleased. Drivers honk their horns often and cars rather than pedestrians have the right of way (trying to cross the street can be a challenge).

We observed the police doing speed enforcement the other day. They stand along the side of the road with their radar guns and if you are speeding they wave a black and white striped stick at you…they tell me it’s called the "pazhalsta stick" (pazhalsta is "please" in Russian). If they wave at you, you are supposed to pull over to get your ticket (what a concept).


Everywhere we go we stand out because of how we are dressed. People tend to dress-up more here and they wear a lot of black clothes. (We think they wear black because the city is very dirty. There is dust and dirt everywhere and it gets all over your clothes.) Younger people wear very tight jeans and young women wear very high heels with pointy toes (the most uncomfortable shoes I have ever seen). What makes this even stranger is the sidewalks and streets are very torn up and uneven. You really have to watch where you are walking, the sidewalks all need to be repaired…there are open manhole covers and thousands of opportunities to break your ankle on every street. We walk around in our sneakers and people actually point and laugh at us.

The other thing that is very funny to us is that they really bundle up when it gets even a little chilly. They have very harsh winters here (temperatures go as low as -40), so this is surprising. Summers are very hot, but people don’t really wear shorts (or so our translator tells us). When we visit the orphanage we try to take the children out for awhile (its very hot in the orphanage) and if its chilly (say 50-55) they make the children put on two layers at least. They put a snowsuit on Vera when the temperature dropped the other day….the poor child must have been baking!

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