Staying Awhile: Expat Life in Kazakhstan
Expat Life in Kazakhstan
By Alex Lee
Finding unique, largely undiscovered places to live in this wired, global world isn't easy. But Kazakhstan – despite being the world's ninth largest country by landmass – remains one of those places. Relatively few in the West, and even many in the Central Asian region, have a real idea what life is like – particularly for expats – in this multi-ethnic, former Soviet Republic.
But that is changing as Kazakhstan continues to rise, particularly on the global economic stage. Kazakhstan is one of the world's emerging suppliers of both oil and natural gas. The largest oil find in the world in the last 40 years was in Kazakhstan and it is a top 20 gas supplier. The country has also become the world's swing uranium supplier and is now a key producer of rare earth metals – the elements necessary to manufacture high tech goods. It's also been rising on most international economic indexes and is the most stable country in Central Asian. In other words, there's lots of business and lots of deals being made in Kazakhstan that are attracting
multi-national companies and forward-thinking business people from around the globe.
And while most come to Kazakhstan for a short time to scope out opportunities or close a deal and then fly back to their home countries, others have found this unique county with its mix of Asian, Russian, and Western influences and its young and changing culture to be a place they want to settle. The foreign professionals who have come now have the opportunity to experience the beauty of this country and its cultures, and to share their professional expertise with locals. The reciprocal exchange of skills and knowledge is helping both sides grow and develop.
So EdgeKz spoke to a few of the expats who have not only come for Kazakhstan's opportunities, but decided to stay for its lifestyle.
Birthplace: Born in Kazakhstan, raised in Russia
Profession: Director, AltynMerei, employment agency for persons with disabilities
Kazakh Residence: Astana
Anastasia Semenchukova grew up in Vladivostok, Russia and travelled the world after finishing high school. She graduated from university in China, where she learned to speak Mandarin, and then set off on numerous trips around Europe. Though she was born on Kazakh soil and had seen much of the world by her early 20s, she first become familiar with Kazakhstan because her many flights to and from Vladivostok were through Astana. And, she says, she began to feel comfortable here. So in her mid-twenties,
Semenchukova decided to move to Kazakhstan because she felt there were career opportunities in the young country. In the years since, the 30-year-old has built a rich social and professional life and has risen to become director of the AltynMerei agency, which helps find employment for people with disabilities. "It is easier to advance here, career-wise... I love the opportunities and possibilities that Kazakhstan offers for people like me, young professionals," she said.
Semenchukova adds that the openness of the Kazakh people was also one of the first things she noticed. "People's hospitality in Kazakhstan shocked me at first. I would reach the point when I felt like I needed to go home, to not be a hassle for (party) hosts, but then they would ask me to stay longer and offer more food," she told EdgeKz.
On the down side, Semenchukova misses the sea breezes that came with living in her home town of Vladivostok, Russia. And though she has grown used to winters in Astana, she says it still gets very cold and windy. Semenchukova is also not a big meat eater, so she is still getting accustomed to the Kazakh diet. "Meat is everywhere here. Where I come from, sometimes a salad would do for lunch. But here it has to be a full meal with meat," she said.
But neither the winter winds nor meat-heavy dinners are enough to want to make her leave her adopted home. Semenchukova has applied for permanent residency and says she plans to stay. "I love helping people and it's great to see how helpful people are here to me as well. This makes my heart beat louder. We go out and socialize, have fun, we bond, and this bond and interaction between people is beautiful. If every country in the world would adopt the same mentality, then we would live in a very accommodating world," she told EdgeKz.
Birthplace: United Kingdom
Profession: Photographer and Designer
Kazakh residence: Almaty
British born Tim Herbert-Khagay has always enjoyed exploring new countries and cultures. So it's no surprise that he was attracted to his now wife Alina when she was a Kazakh exchange student studying in England. And it's no surprise that after they fell in love and married, Herbert-Khagay agreed to move with Alina back to Almaty, her Kazakh hometown. That was two years ago and today they have made a life here and run an Almaty-based photography studio.
When asked about major challenges he's encountered in Kazakhstan, Herbert-Khagay says "the hardest [part of adjusting] is the big cultural divide between the East and the West." Though the country is becoming more European and cosmopolitan, Kazakhstan remains a Eurasian nation at heart, says Herbert-Khagay. And Herbert-Khagay is still getting used to the food. The horse meat, lamb and mutton diet can be a bit heavy to outsiders and, says Herbert-Khagay, and it can be a bit difficult to find a vegetarian menu at restaurants.
But, he says, he feels that the experience of living and adjusting to Kazakhstan has prepared him to live anywhere in the world. He has also been pleasantly surprised to find plenty of vegetarian options at local bazaars, where shoppers can find stalls offering tofu, green vegetables and beans. He has also been able to establish a successful design and photography studio in Almaty and says as Almaty continues to grow, so has his business.
Kazakh Residence: Almaty
Just over one year ago, no one in Kazakhstan had heard the name Son Pascal. The Italian born musician had recently moved here to pursue his music and enjoy the culture. Little did he know he would become a nearly overnight national star. Today, the name Son Pascal is recognized by most Kazakhs after Pascal become famous among locals for performing a comic remake of the famous "Englishman in New York" video – except he was the Englishman, or rather Italian, in Shymkent (one of Kazakhstan's three major cities). His video clip went viral with more than 50,000 views in just a couple of days on Kaznet. Though the video has convinced people Pascal is a comedian, he actually remains a professional musician and occasionally sings in Kazakh. The 26-year-old says work brought him to Kazakhstan but he stays because he enjoys the country. "I moved to this country because of some work prospects and I love so many things about life here," he told EdgeKz.
Pascal is also a unique expat in that he doesn't long for his home country's food. "Besh Forever!" he gushed. Beshbarmak is a national Kazakh dish made of boiled horsemeat, mutton or lamb and large flat noodles.
In addition to the food, including Kazy (a horse meat sausage), Pascal says he loves "the ladies in Kazakhstan, the ski resort Shymbulak; Kazakh honey is amazing as is the Kazakh traditional musical instrument, the dombra." He has also made a lot of friends and says he enjoys the company of Kazakhs.
Among the biggest challenges Pascal has faced living in Kazakhstan is the language. "I'm starting to understand Russian, but the first months were really hard to live and to take care of myself." But, he adds, "Apart from that, I'm becoming more and more "Almatinian" and I don't have huge problems moving around the city and dealing with people." He also moved to Kazakhstan in the middle of winter, so it's taken a while for his Italian blood to adjust. "I had to deal with the serious cold, but I got used to it quickly," he said, adding the only thing he misses about his Italian home is the sea. Pascal says he is not sure if he plans to stay in Kazakhstan for the rest of his life, but is enjoying the country so far. "I don't know (if I'll stay forever). Life is so unpredictable. But I like what this country is giving me and I know I can give a lot to this country."
What to Wear and Say in Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan is a massive country. Its vast steppes unfurl from the Caspian Sea all the way to Chinese border. As a result, its climate can vary greatly from region to region. Aktau and Atyrau in the west are mild year round, although they can get pretty hot in the summer. Southern cities such as Almaty, Taraz and Shymkent are blazing hot in the summer. And if you are going to live in the east or the north where the capital Astana is located, you better bring some winter gloves. Astana has the honor of being the world's second coldest capital and the country's coldest city. Only Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia's capital is colder. Astana's winter temperatures have dropped as low as -51C and the city is covered in a cold – but lovely – permafrost for nearly half the year.
The language issue can also be confusing for newly relocated expats. It's not easy to figure out if Kazakhstan is officially a Kazakh or Russian speaking country. The short answer is that Kazakhstan's official language is Kazakh. However, Russian remains the primary language of business and most of the population grew up under Soviet rule and continues to speak Russian. So though Kazakh is the official language and its use is growing exponentially, the government does not discourage the use of Russian, and as a practical matter, Kazakhstan remains a dual language culture. The use of each language, however, does vary somewhat by region. Most of the northern regions are Russian-speaking while the southern and western cities speak mostly Kazakh.
Moving to another country can be challenging, no matter where you come from or where you're going. Language barriers, unfamiliar weather patterns, strange new food, and culture shock are part of the process.
Kazakhstan is no different. There's a honeymoon period after you arrive when day-to-day challenges such as calculating Euro-to-Tenge conversions and bagging your own groceries in the market are charming. Then there is the reality-sets-in period in which you realize a good burger is hard to find, Russian is a little more difficult to learn than you anticipated and you don't actually like Karaoke – a key part of any night out in Kazakhstan.
The final stage takes a long time to reach, but according to expats here, is worth it. It is when you come to appreciate the vast open spaces, the family-friendly culture, the mixed religions and ethnicities and the vibe of a culture, society and government that are just getting started. You stop looking for expats to socialize with and start settling into what the country has to offer.
With so many influences – East, West, North and South – and so many cultures and religions mixing in one place, most who stay in Kazakhstan say that eventually, in the mix of it all, they find their unique place and the country begins to feel like home.
A bit of advice...
The biggest mistake expats make in Kazakhstan is separating themselves from the locals. Kazakhs are a proud people with a proud history. As a result, Kazakhs don't harbor resentment or suspicion against people from the West. Kazakhs, the vast majority of the time, are happy to meet you and glad for an opportunity to try out their skills at any number of Western languages. Often you will be stopped on the street by Kazakhs – particularly young people – who just want to say hello and have a chat.
The history of the country, from the many cultures of its ancient steppe to the ethnicities that have found their way here in modern times, is one of tolerance and inclusion. So don't be afraid to say hello or try out a little Russian. (Or better yet a little Kazakh).
One of the best places to find expats in Kazakhstan is at local bars that cater to a Western clientele. Here are a few joints where you'll likely be able to have a pint and a chat in your own language:
The Shakespeare Pub
40 Dostyk Avenue
+7(727) 291 94 22
248 Dostyk Avenue
+7(727) 387 04 03
149 Furmanov Street
+7(727) 261 39 54
13 Dostyk Street
+7(7172) 79 54 12
14 Tauelsyzdyk Street
+7(7172) 24 49 00
Other Expat Resources
Expat in Kazakhstan Facebook Page: http://www.facebook.com/groups/expatskz
Expat Women's Club in Almaty: www.AlmatyClub.org
Company Offering Expat Relocation Services
The company is based out of Almaty, the staff speaks a multitude of languages and they offer a range of services from transportation to getting settled in your new city.