Almaty, Kazakhstan Report of what it's like to live there - 02/04/13

Personal Experiences from Almaty, Kazakhstan

Almaty, Kazakhstan 02/04/13


1. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

Washington DC. 16 hours flight time. Transit via Frankfurt.

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2. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, military, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

(The contributor is affiliated with the US Government and has lived in Almaty for two years, second expat experience.)

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

USG housing is all apartments. Other diplomatic missions and companies use houses. Almaty houses are often huge, but they are located far from the city center and work. Traffic can be bad and commuting a problem. It's the same trade-off you see in many cities.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Almaty has a huge "green bazaar" where in-season fruits and vegetables can be purchased at very reasonable prices. Highlights of the summer include the incredible mountain strawberries. When vegetables and fruits are out of season, they are impossible to find or very expensive; in winter we get down to carrots and cabbages. Almaty is the "city of apples", so there are always apples. For other shopping, the city has Ramstore (a large Turkish chain) and Silk Way City, so groceries can be purchased at prices like those in Washington, DC.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

Exercise equipment for your house. Clothes (only luxury brands and cheap stuff from the markets are available). Most food items can be purchased here, but chocolate chips, American crackers, American cake mix, etc. aren't usually available. You can even buy salsa and taco shells...sometimes. So, if you really need a certain brand, bring it. When you vacation in Bangkok, stock up on cooking supplies.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

Western fast food has just come to Almaty - we have Burger King and Hardees. It's expensive ($15 a meal) and strictly a treat. There are lots of local places for shashleek, doner and samsa on every corner. Most expats get sick of this really fast.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Ticks! People are very worried about tick borne-illnesses.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

Diplomatic pouch. Local mail service is not reliable.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Most people have a housekeeper. Full time help runs about 80,000 TT a month, so about $450. Some speak some English. Most expats drive themselves (unless they are with an oil company wthat pays for the drivers).

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

Yes, very expensive health clubs and gyms at hotels. It's better to bring your own workout equipment and do this at home!

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

Credit cards are only accepted at large stores - Ramstore, etc. ATMs are generally reliable, although we have had cards eaten by the ATM here for no apparent reason. There is a Citibank that dispenses US dollars and offers customer service. Official Americans just cash checks at the consulate.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

There are a few weekly services, including Catholic.

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6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?

There is no English-language local press. Also, English-language movies have just arrived here --- one theatre shows movies in English a few times a week. There are a few channels of English TV on cable.

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7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

Russian helps alot. If you don't have it, lots of stuff will just pass you by. You can live here with very little Russian, but you will get more out of it if you know more.

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8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

It would be very difficult. The city is on a hill, so there are stairs everyone. You don't really see people in wheelchairs. I have seen visually-impaired and hearin-impaired people getting around the city.

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1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

There are no local trains, but we do ride the bus, and it is safe and reliable. The cost is about 50 cents a ride. In Almaty, every car is a taxi---since this place has the "gypsy cab" (i.e., hitchhiking) culture. We are told officially that gypsy cabs aren't a good idea, but everyone here uses them. If you want to spend time in the mountains, bring a vehicle!

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

Traffic in Almaty is insane. Locals drive huge, expensive SUVs and ignore all rules of the road. As an expat you just shake your head and hope no one hits you. Its a snowy mountain town, so bring a 4-wheel-drive SUV. Toyota and Mitsubishi are very popular, so they can be fixed if they break down. Locals drive Lexuses. This is also were old Mercedes and Audis come to die, so you can bring those, too.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Yes, and it is decent and not too expensive. Cost and type of service depend on the building you live in.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

All kinds of phones are available here. SIM cards are cheap and all service is pay as you go.

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1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

No. Importing a pet can be a paperwork hassle, and it helps immensely to have a Russian speaker at the airport when you arrive to talk to the customs people if there is a problem.

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2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?

Believe it or not there is. We found a great local vet - Russian-speaking but very good. There are no real kennels, but there are folks who run small businesses for watching pets --- ask around. Most people have a friend watch their pet. As a side note: most Kazakhstanis are quite afraid of dogs. If you bring a large dog, be prepared to be harassed --- by police (who will ask you where your muzzle is), by guards in your building, by people who live in your building, etc. On the plus side, a large dog clears the entire sidewalk.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

Not really, it seems, unless you speak Russian. You might work at the school --- if you can get a work permit.

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2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Kazakhstanis can be outrageously dressed - short, tight dresses and high heels are the norm - so professionally-dressed expats are usually much MORE conservative than locals, and consequently no one even looks at us. Last summer I noticed men wearing long shorts, and that seemed "new". Women don't really wear shorts, but I suspect its an issue of fashion more than anything else, because a micro-mini is perfectly acceptable here. Sweatpants in public will mark you as an American instantly.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

Not really. Almaty is a big city, so drinking and staying out late exposes you to the same dangers as in any big city. Almaty is located in an earthquake zone and most housing is sub-standard. If the "big one" hits, we will all be in a lot of trouble.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Local health care is average/poor quality. We are official Americans, so we use the RMO, but you get medevac'd for almost anything more than a simple injury.

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

In winter, smog blankets the city from coal-fired power plants. The smog can also be bad at other times of the year, but spring and fall tend to be nice. Many people get a hacking cough before they leave that never goes away...until they do!

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

The weather is similar to that in Minnesota. Cold winters (-25C) with lots of snow, nice spring and fall, and warm summer. Almaty can get a lot of snow, which does not phase the locals in any way, because work and school will never be cancelled due to snow. Main streets are plowed, but side streets maybe not. Huge piles of snow accumulate on the sidewalks, and navigating them can be an issue. Sidewalks are icy and dangerous for 6 months of the year.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

There are three main English-speaking schools attended by expats: AIS ("American"), Miras (Kazakhstani operated, English medium with an IB program), and HaileyBury (British). All three schools have issues. We are familiar with AIS, which is a QIS school and has a particular educational philosophy that may (or may not) be good for your child. Do your own research! The schools don't have the extensive sports or music programs you see in the US.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

Pretty much none. There also aren't really any "gifted" programs. If your kid tests above grade level, they just move him or her up a grade (but just for certain subjects).

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

There are some preschools, but we haven't used them.

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

Offerings at schools are very limited, so the expat community has improvised! There is a very active sports club for kids at Miras school on weekends, but anyone can join, and its a de facto hangout spot for expats of all nationalities. Kids (both boys and girls) play non-competative rugby and field hockey until it gets too cold, and then they do a weekend ski club. If you want your kid to compete in sports, this is the wrong place to live.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Small. All of the embassies moved to Astana years ago, so the diplomatic group here is small. Most other expats are in oil or mining.

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2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

Expats socialize a lot - dinner parties, dining out, meeting up for hiking/skiing, kids' activities. Our lives feel full.

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3. Morale among expats:

I think its good. Snowy weather and smog wear you down, but a day in the mountains cures it. The daily grind of ridiculous traffic, rude drivers, stupid "Sovietski" rules, etc. makes it a challenge sometimes.

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4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

I think it's good for anyone who is willing to get out and take advantage of what Almaty has to offer. If you sit in your apartment in the smog, you will be miserable. If you hike or ski or get together with friends, you can make this work. The English-speaking expat scene for families with kids is great.

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5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

These issues don't affect expats. Most Kazakhstanis are ethnic Muslims, but most aren't religious. Almaty is a culturally diverse city. Because many ethnic Russians live here, almost anyone with an Asian, European or South American look will blend in and might be taken for a local. African Americans do stand out, but not in a negative way - it's just clear that you are "not from around here" and "probably a diplomat."

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6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

Skiing, hiking, visiting mountains in Kyrgyzstan, great friends.

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7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Almaty city has a long weekend worth of stuff to do: a museum, a cable-car ride to a park in the hills, a war memorial, a big church downtown, monuments, etc. Having once done them, you probably won't do these things again. The mountains are the big draw, with hiking (which you can do every weekend of the year) and skiing.

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8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

There is lots of stuff to buy - carpets, Uzbek pottery, embroidered clothes, felt, etc.

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9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

Almaty is located at the base of the Tien Shan mountains, skiing is 30 minutes away in winter, and hiking is excellent. It's a mountain town and the outdoor activities are the big draw.

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10. Can you save money?

No. People spend it all skiing, vacationing in Thailand, and buying carpets.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Yes. But a long tour might be hard.

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

expectations that things will work like they are supposed to---or that they will work efficiently. Remember, this is the former Soviet Union - and the rules don't apply the same to everyone. If you keep thinking of this, many things will fall into place.

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3. But don't forget your:

skis, hiking boots (and poles and camping gear), bathing suit (you will need it when you escape to Thailand). Also some yak-tracks to navigate the ice.

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4. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

Tulpan (Subtitled)
is a famous movie about this place, but The Recruiter
(also called "Fifty-Fifty") is informative about the culture (but not entirely flattering).

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5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

Lonely Planet Central Asia (Multi Country Travel Guide). The book Silent Steppe: The Memoir of a Kazakh Nomad Under Stalin
talks about the very depressing history of Kazakhstan under Soviet rule, but it does not really seem relevant to daily life.

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