Almaty, Kazakhstan Report of what it's like to live there - 08/09/15

Personal Experiences from Almaty, Kazakhstan

Almaty, Kazakhstan 08/09/15


1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

This is our second overseas assignment, previously in West Africa

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2. 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?

Home base is outside of DC, it takes about 24 hours to get there. There are direct flights to Frankfurt and Amsterdam which are both code shares with another connection to the east coast.

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3. How long have you lived here?

8 months

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


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Housing, Groceries & Food:

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

Almost everyone lives in apartments. They are mostly in the downtown area and are small by typical foreign service standards. Most people walk to their offices depending on where they live in the city. Apartment quality ranges from amazing to tacky.

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

Groceries are expensive, but seasonal fruits & vegetables are relatively cheap in the markets. Most are Russian brands, but some European products are available. The main grocery stores are Ramstor, a Turkish chain, Interfoods, Gulmart, and local chains. Almost any international food is available, if you are willing to lose your shirt in paying for it. Example: American cheddar cheese costs US$20 for a two-pound brick, the only way you can buy it. Most meats are also pricier, and quality is not to U.S. or European standards, but not bad.

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

This is not a consumables post, you can get almost anything for a price. If you drink beer or wine, ship it as you will pay a lot more for lower quality wine here. There are only a couple U.S. wines available here and they are overpriced (ex: cheap Carlo Rossi wine that costs US$6 in the U.S. costs US$15 in Kazakhstan). So if you want to save money, ship it.

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

Tons of fast food restaurants are available: Burger King, KFC, Hardees, and McDonald's is coming soon. There is even a Hard Rock Cafe. There are also European fast food restaurants like Carlson and Paul. There are a few quality restaurants, but eating out is expensive. Costs are comparable to D.C. but variety and quality are not.

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

There are very few insect problems, they can't survive the cold winters, but in summer there are centipedes.

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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. No DPO.

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

The going rate for housekeepers is about $5 per hour, so it is more expensive than some cities in the developing world, but it is available.

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

Lots of gyms are available - Kazakhs are really into working out. They are expensive, so be prepared to spend money for a membership. Costs run from about US$85 per month to US$300 per month depending on the gym. One of the two USG office spaces has a gym, but it is depressing.

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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?

You can use your credit card almost everywhere, even American Express. You should use ATMs at the office for security reasons, but ATMs are everywhere.

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

There are some English language services available.

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

Many American here do not speak Russian and are able to survive with a handful of words and phrases. English is becoming increasingly spoken and often required at university level, but your quality of life here will be much better if you speak Russian.

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

Yes, it is difficult, lots of hills and uneven pavement. Very few accommodations for handicapped people, but fortunately, lots of working elevators.

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

Yes, local transportation is very affordable. Registered, official taxis are safe. Private taxis, better known in America as hitchhiking for money, is common and usually safe, but not recommended.

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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?

Local restrictions require EURO 4 standards and other technical requirements, so you should check that before shipping your vehicle. If you plan on going outside of the city, an SUV with 4-wheel drive is essential. Registration of diplomatic vehicles takes an exorbitant amount of time because of local bureaucracy, so be prepared to not have a car for several months while you wait. Sedans are fine in the city, some people bring snow tires.

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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?

Internet access is relatively cheap and usually reliable. Speed is normally enough to watch streaming movies and TV, but sometimes freezes.

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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?

There are lots of cell phone options. Bring an unlocked phone from the U.S. and buy a local SIM card. Data plans are cheap and pretty good.

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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 quarantine and there is reasonable pet care.

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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?

No, not unless they speak Russian fluently.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

There are lots of volunteer opportunities, ranging from English teaching to orphanages and charities.

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

The dress code ranges from casual to business. Locally, professional women dress up, normally in heels and full makeup and full hair. Salons and cosmetics are a big business here. For men, USAID/NGOs typically dress casual and other diplomats/business wear suits.

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Health & Safety:

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

Kazakhstan is relatively safe, the biggest concerns in Almaty are scams and pickpockets. We haven't had any problems. There have been cases of extremism and violent crime, but it is unlikely to impact your daily life.

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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?

Respiratory concerns as air quality is poor and most medical procedures require a trip to Europe. The regional medical officer is based here, so they have walk-in hours to take care of minor issues. There are two decent clinics for emergencies.

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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?

Air quality is unhealthy to very unhealthy, especially in the winter. The smog from coal burning and pollution settles over the city over the course of the day.

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4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?

It will be rough on people with seasonal allergies. There are not a lot of options for people with severe food allergies, but they can manage if they come prepared.

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

Almaty has four seasons, winters are very cold with lots of snow, the other three seasons are relatively short and mild. Weather is similar to the northern Rocky Mountains of the U.S., like Montana.

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Schools & Children:

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

The main international schools are Haileybury (the British school) and Almaty International School. Both have a pretty good reputation, but we don't have children so can't speak to this specifically.

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

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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?

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

There are sports programs available at the international schools, but they are limited.

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Expat Life:

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

The expat community here is primary Russian, Chinese, Turkish and other Central Asians. The Westerners who live here tend to work in oil & gas-related fields and are American, Australian, and British. The American community is small in Almaty, but well-connected.

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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?

Limited English-language movies at 1-2 movie theaters on limited runs, ballet, opera, symphony, live music, pubs/bars and restaurants.

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

Families: Overall families seem to be pretty happy here, but the size of the housing is not great for families. There is not much storage space, usually not enough play areas for kids, and often the limited number of rooms means that children have to double-up. There are a lot of options for family activities outdoors: camping, ice skating, horseback riding, parks, etc.

Couples: This is a good post for couples without children, there are quite a few couples that live here and really enjoy it. Most have extended their tours here, and there are lots of activities for them: restaurants, bars, live music, the outdoors, shopping, etc.

Singles: Not the best singles Post. There are only a few singles here, and most tend to be workaholics. The dating scene is better for single men, it could be a challenge for single women.

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4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

No. Kazazkhs are very discriminatory against LGBT, although gay clubs do exist they are very much underground.

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

Yes, internally there are issues between ethnic Kazakhs, Russians, Uzbeks, etc. Prejudices exist, but you will not likely encounter much of this as a foreigner. There is a growing trend towards Kazakh language to replace Russian, but Almaty is a very ethnically diverse city and Russian is still the language of daily life. In terms of religion, Kazakhstan strictly regulates religious practices, so freedom of religion is non-existent, but there is a modicum of religious tolerance. There is a high level of sexism, you will even occasionally hear women disparage their own gender. Women will get straws when they order their beer, men will not.

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

Getting out of the city and into the mountains. There are lots of groups of expats who enjoy camping and hiking.

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

There are so many hiking trails and beautiful vistas that it would be difficult to list them here, but a secret gem that we have enjoyed is horseback riding in Budakovka.

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

Carpets and textiles (although they come from Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, they seem to have stopped making nice carpets in Kazakhstan about 30 years ago), and horsemeat (but don't take it back to America, customs will seize it!)

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

The number one draw to Almaty is the outdoor experience. It is at the base of Tien Shan mountain range and you can get to the mountains in about 20 minutes from downtown. The hiking, camping, and outdoor winter sports are very popular. There is an opera, ballet, and symphony in the city with fairly cheap season tickets.

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10. Can you save money?

For USG personnel, the differential pay is very high - in fact some would say too high (those people in Astana). So it is difficult to save money, but it is not impossible. Don't eat out at nice restaurants, don't travel outside the country and shop at local markets and you can save money.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?

In the winter, it is very hot in the apartment and office buildings as the heat is centrally controlled by the city in typical Soviet fashion and they tend to overheat. We know several people who open their windows when it is 30F degrees outside, because of radiated heat from other apartments.

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


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

Fine china (the city is prone to minor earthquakes), expectations of Western customer service, your car that can't be scratched.

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4. But don't forget your:

Outdoors anything: tents, backpacks, sleeping bags, skis, hiking boots, yak-traks (essential). Also, good shoes and winter jackets.

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5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

Racketeer ("Reketir"). Kazakh director Timur Bekmambetov also has made some Hollywood films like "Wanted" with Angelina Jolie.

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

The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia (Kodansha Globe) and

Apples Are from Kazakhstan: The Land that Disappeared.

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7. Do you have any other comments?

Surprisingly, Almaty is on the list of "historically difficult to staff" assignments, and while it literally is halfway around the world from the U.S., if you love the outdoors, this will be a good assignment.

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