Almaty, Kazakhstan Report of what it's like to live there

Personal Experiences from Almaty, Kazakhstan

Almaty, Kazakhstan 08/09/15

Background:

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, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

Government

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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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Transportation:

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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Pets:

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?

Yes.

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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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Almaty, Kazakhstan 07/31/13

Background:

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

No, we lived in Moscow and Ghana before.

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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?

Southern Utah. 26-34 hours. Connections in Europe (Amsterdam, Frankfurt, London, Istanbul) and U.S (we usually go Amsterdam to Seattle).

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3. How long have you lived here?

Over 1 year.

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

U.S Government.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

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

All houses in the Embassy are apartments. You can get very nice houses for the same prices.

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

You can find pretty much anything here.

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

Burger king, pizza hut, hardee's. There are A LOT of good restaurants. They can be pricey. I would say they range from US$25-$50 an entree.

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

The only thing I have had to watch out for are ticks when we go hiking.

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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.

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

There is no problem finding help. It costs about US$400-$600 for full-time help. Hourly is about US$5-7.

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

Yes, but expensive. USAID building has one. But, I have never used it because we live far away.

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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?

I haven't had a problem using them.

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

Mormon, Christian, nondenominational.

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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?

It helps A LOT to speak Russian. Many people are not helpful even if they do speak English.

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

Most building have elevators, but most entrances are not handicap-friendly or stroller-friendly. Streets are uneven and constantly under construction.

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Transportation:

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

Taxis are everywhere and very affordable. Most are gypsy taxis, which carry the usual risk of not knowing who you are getting in a car with. Buses, are slow, crowded, and old, but very affordable.

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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?

4 wheel drive for winter roads. High clearance is helpful but not necessary. The road are pretty good.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

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

Business.

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Health & Safety:

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

No every day problems. The only concern is the high earthquake risk.

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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?

Air quality. Good quality care can be found. Most people use the IMC or the SOS clinics.

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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?

Bad, but we have not ever had problems.

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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?

Hot summers, excellent falls and springs, and snowy long-ish winter.

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Schools & Children:

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

Most people go to AIS (American international School) or Haileyberry (British School). AIS is quite far from downtown, but Haileyberry is rather close. Most parents are pleased I think. But, I have no personal experience.

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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?

Many choices. The quality is good. But, they are expensive, US$600-1200/month.

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

Yes. I know mostly about what is available for toddlers. Swimming, gymnastics, karate, tae kwon do, dance, ice skating, ballet.

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Expat Life:

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

Medium.

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2. Morale among expats:

Ok.

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

Good for all.

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

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

We have really been enjoying the outdoor activities. We have two small children and are able to get out hiking and biking quite a lot. During winter time we do a lot of winter sports: sledding, ice skating, snowboarding.

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

Travel to Kyrgystan, Uzbekistan. Outdoor stuff mentioned above. There really isn't much touristy things to do here. But, it is pretty good for everyday living.

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

Snowboarding, hiking, mountain biking.

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Almaty, Kazakhstan 02/04/13

Background:

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, 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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Transportation:

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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Pets:

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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Almaty, Kazakhstan 05/14/12

Background:

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

Yes.

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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?

It's 6-7 hours to western Europe, and then again that much to the East Coast of the US.There are daily connections on all kinds of airlines: Lufthansa, KLM, Turkish Airlines, British Airways, etc., so it's actually pretty easy to get out.

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3. How long have you lived here?

One year.

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

U.S. Government.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

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

The US government community is in apartments exclusively. They are quite large and nice, and many have underground parking for cars in the winter. I have a 35-minute walking commute or a 10-minute taxi ride. Most people have about the same, although we're starting to expand to apartments a bit further away.

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

I've been amazed at the quantity of Western goods here. It's expensive (like the US +10%) but you can get a lot. If you have brand names you like, bring them, but you can get hummus, peanut butter, cornmeal, etc. Fruits and vegetables are abundant, delicious and affordable during the summer, but in the winter the variety decreases dramatically. That said, it wasn't nearly as bad as I was expecting, and if you're willing to shell out the money you can usually get a lot of the vegetable products you want. Tofu can be found at the Korean markets. Meat quality varies a lot and is very expensive ($10/lb for beef--oddly, the fattier the cut, the more it is, so sirloin can be found at US-level prices). Other than Russian-style sausage, pork products are more unusual, especially bacon.

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

A treadmill. The dip pouch provides most of what Almaty cannot, but that's not much.

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

The only western chains in Kazakhstan are KFC, Pizza Hut, and Hardees. There's also one Cinnabon at the largest mall in town. Street food here is mostly meat pies (samsa) or turkish donor kebabs. Going out is quite expensive: it's difficult to have a beer and dinner for less than $30. That said, there are some gems. Korean restaurants are quite good. There's also good Georgian, Uzbek, Indian, and Italian. There's a Thai restaurant that I think is the most expensive restaurant in the city. There are a ton of sushi places, but the quality varies dramatically.

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5. What kinds of organic, vegetarian and allergy-friendly foods are available, such as organic produce, gluten-free products, meat substitutes for vegetarians, etc?

This is a meat and bread culture. However, tofu is available at Korean markets, there are lots of canned/frozen beans and vegetables. The bazars have amazing dried fruit and nut selections. It's easy to cook vegetarian at home. I'm less sure about the availability of allergy foods and gluten-free products.

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

None.

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Daily Life:

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

Dip pouch, bless it!

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

Help is expensive compared to other posts. I have a lady come twice a month to clean, usually a 1/2 day a visit. She charges $35. English language skills vary significantly, so it's a good way to practice Russian.

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

Gyms are extremely expensive in Almaty. A 1-time pool visit will cost about $40 USD.Memberships can be more than $2000/yr. It's definitely better to bring exercise equipment with you or avail yourself of the mountains out your door.

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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?

ATMs are widely distributed around the city, but I limit my use to one next to the office. I've been told that credit card fraud is an issue here, but I've never had a problem. Cash is used for local transport, the bazar, grocery stores and many restaurants, but credit card use is gaining in popularity.

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

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

TV, yes, although I don't have cable. Newspapers/books, no. I think TV is $50-100/month.

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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?

Life is better if you speak Russian. While English is gaining traction quickly, it's still much easier to get out and about if you speak Russian.

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

It would be difficult, though not impossible. The whole city is on an incline, and while there are ramps at most intersections and sidewalk steps, I think they are designed more for strollers than wheelchairs. The curbs can be tall and there are open drains along the side of the roads that are quite deep. There are often stairs inside of buildings (at entrances, etc.) with no accompanying ramps or elevators.

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Transportation:

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

Yes, yes, and yes. The cabs are the only cheap thing in Almaty, with a trip anywhere in downtown costing $2-3 USD.You should negotiate the fare before you get in the car.

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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?

You have to bring one that can handle the winter. Four-wheel drive and high clearance are typical, plus studded snow tires. Many apartments have underground parking, and servicing seems to be available here. If you're single, you can easily live without a vehicle, but it's much more difficult with a family.

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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, I have very good internet service that costs about $40/month. But across the expat community price and speed vary significantly for no explainable reason.

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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?

If you want an iPhone, bring it!

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Pets:

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.

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

Good vets, not sure about kennels. The USG pet-owning community tends to look after itself.

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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?

Without Russian language skills it's very difficult to find work.

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

Kazakhs take great care with their appearance, so work attire tends to be suits for men, suits or nice blouse/trousers/skirt for women.

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Health & Safety:

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

Almaty's an extremely safe city. You should be aware of petty crimes, but even pick-pocketing isn't that common. As a single woman, I feel very safe on the streets.

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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?

Other than the air pollution, this is a good post healthwise. Minor stuff can be dealt with here.

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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?

The air quality is quite bad. In the winter you get a classic temperature inversion while people are burning coal to heat their homes. There are lots of old cars that spew fumes into the air year 'round.

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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?

It's a continental climate, so there are hot summers, cold winters, and a short spring and fall. In the winter, the temperatures average between -10 and -20C, but as long as you're properly outfitted with coat and boots, it's not bad. The sun shines most of the time, and at least it's not as cold as Astana. In the summer it's usually around 28-32C and dry. Most precipitation falls as snow during the winter.

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Schools & Children:

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

No kids, so can't say. I think most of the kids all go the same school, and I've heard people comment that the high school isn't great.

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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?

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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 have moved to Astana. There are few international NGOs, donor offices tend to be small, and the business community is dispersed.

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2. Morale among expats:

Expats in Almaty usually come in one of two types: those with former Soviet experience and those without. Morale definitely tends to be higher in the former group, but it's good overall.

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

There are plenty of restaurants and bars. There's also a ballet/opera theater and a symphony. Movies are dubbed into Russian. They get random sporting events on a regular basis (ski jumping, rugby, volleyball, ice field hockey??).

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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 families and couples without children if they like to be outside. I've heard it can be a little hard to find stuff to do with kids if you don't speak Russian. The single guys tend to end up married pretty quickly, but for a single lady like me, the dating scene is non-existent. Going out is quite expensive, and the quality is mediocre. So this is definitely a post better suited for outdoor enthusiasts, and if you are one, then it's heaven.

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

I don't know, but I imagine it's not good. That's generally not tolerated in the countries of the former Soviet Union.

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

Coming from another post-Soviet state, one of the most pleasant surprises about Kazakhstan was tolerance for different religions and races. Many different ethnic groups were deported to Central Asia during Stalinist times, so it's quite a diverse population that rubs along together fairly well. There are definitely traditional gender roles in relationships, but in a Western workplace things are quite normalized.

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

The exotic-ness of it all. Kazakhs are Chinese-looking people who are Muslim and speak Russian, so all of those influences are present in the culture. I've done some great hiking and amazing travel in the region to Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and northern Kazakhstan. And this is a little thing, but the roses in the spring are incredible!

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

Hiking/skiing/camping/mountain climbing, floating on the Ili River, beach at lake Kapchagai, petroglyphs, picnics in the parks, Kyrgyzstan (only a 3 hour drive). In the region: Uzbekistan for the silk-road cities, flamingoes in Northern Kazakhstan, horse-trekking/hiking in the Tien Shan mountains and the Pamirs, mausoleums in western Kazakhstan, the Baikonur space launch pad. Everything's off the beaten track but awesome when you get there.

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

Carpets, funny hats of all varieties, felt handicrafts.

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

Almaty is a very special city. There are incredible mountains right outside town, so you're less than an hour from amazing hiking and skiing. The city is very green, clean and walkable, with lots of parks and wide sidewalks. Central Asia is isolated, but fascinating, so if you're willing in travel in the region you can visit the Silk Road cities of Uzbekistan and some of the most incredible mountains in the world in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. If you like places off the beaten path, this is for you. Plus, everyone who lives in Central Asia is very jealous of you, which does tend to make you smug :)

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11. Can you save money?

It's tough, but possible.

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Words of Wisdom:

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

Absolutely. Almaty is a pretty, pleasant and comfortable place to live. There are great outdoor activities, and all of Central Asia at your doorstep -- places very few Westerners ever see.

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

beach gear.

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3. But don't forget your:

eye drops, home gym equipment, outdoor gear, and winter clothes.

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

Apples are from Kazakhstan (can't remember the author), The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk

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5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

Borat-- JUST KIDDING!!

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6. Do you have any other comments?

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Almaty, Kazakhstan 03/29/10

Background:

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

No. San Salvador, El Salvador.

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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?

United States. KLM/Delta through Amsterdam and Lufthansa/United through Also Turkish Airlines through Istanbul or American/BMI through London. The trip is long (about 20 hours just flying time to LA) and the jet lag hard, especially with kids.

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3. How long have you lived here?

July 2008-present.

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

U.S. Government.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

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

Most USG housing is apartments due to a policy. The apartments are very nice in general. Some are closer to the Embassy (walking distance) and some are closer to USAID.

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

At the "Ramstore" supermarket that all the expats use, packaged food is fairly expensive--like shopping at Whole Foods (but not organic/fancy), except that fresh vegetables/fruits/meats are pretty economical at the Green Bazaar. Anything imported (ex. olive oil, cheese, pasta sauce, etc.) is pricey.

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

Children's toys and games are very expensive here, especially large items like slides and swings, but also smaller items. For those that are part of the US diplomatic mission, anything in glass and liquids (as those are prohibited in the pouch). Also, any special foods, like chocolate chips (unless you have pouch service). PJs orders can be made by diplomatic staff for alcohol and some basic food items. There are some weirdly hard to find thing--decent potato chips or fresh milk that is pastuerized, for example, but most things can be found locally (ex. "Kirkland" brand cheddar cheese, peanut butter, pizza dough).

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

No American fast food, though there is a local company affiliated with KFC here and also a Pizza Hut. Both seem a little more expensive than in the U.S. Generally restaurants are expensive. Fresh juice will easily cost $8-10 at a normal restaurant, but the national dish of kebabs (shashlyk) is relatively affordable. Typical cost of a dinner would be around $30-40 including a glass of wine or a beer for one person. Food is difficult for vegetarians, but there there are a couple of Indian restaurants, including one that is run by Hare Krishnas (pure vegetarian, and no alcohol).

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

Not many to annoy you, except in certian regions of the country.

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Daily Life:

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

We use pouch, but I understand that people have used Kazakhstan local mail without a problem. There is also DHL, but it is expensive.

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

Available, probably around $600/month for 6 days a week full time. Part time usually costs between $3-$7 per hour.

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

Yes, but expensive. Also, some public outdoor tennis courts (not expensive, but indoor courts are pricey) and also a very nice golf course open to non-members (expensive--$100 or so for a round).

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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?

Citibank ATM works fine in Almaty.

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

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

Alma TV (cable) has some English stations. Haven't seen any English newspapers as we rely on the internet. You can also get satellite from Dubai or India, I think. AFN is available for USG personnel.

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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?

You can get by with just a little Russian (especially if you hire a maid who can translate), but it is imperative that you at least know how to read Russian (it doesn't take long) and your experience here will be much better if you learn some.

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

It does not seem particularly accessible, and it seems like physically disabled people are not in public often, like in Europe or the U.S., but I haven't been looking for that either. My suspicion is that there is some embarassment or discrimination concerning diabilities.

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Transportation:

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

Yes, and buses are cheap. Almost everyone takes "gypsy" cabs despite official warnings otherwise, which generally cost about $3-5 for short trips in the city. Official taxis cost more, and you must speak enough Russian to explain how to get to your residence.

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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?

Within the city any car is fine, but if you want to go out of the city a bit (which you should), I recommend a vehicle with some clearance due to potholes, uneven/unpaved roads.

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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. Cost is relatively low ($40/month), but speed and reliability is poor. Fine for skype, when it works, but not great from streaming.

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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?

Get an unlocked quad-band and it will work in the region. Phone rates are pretty cheap.

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Pets:

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?

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

Not applicable to us, but I hear it is ok.

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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. Even those who speak fluent Russian seem to look for EFM jobs rather than the local economy.

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

Short fur coats, mini skirts with fishnets and stilleto boots in winter (better for cracking the ice on the pavement) and regular stilleto heels the rest of the time. Well, maybe not everyone, but that's the most noticeable fashion trend. Overall, a more body conscious style of dress than you would expect from even a secular "muslim" coutnry. Dress code at work is on the liberal side for women. For men, not very different from a European city.

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Health & Safety:

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

Not really--aside from normal big-city concerns, like getting mugged late at night coming out of a club and there have been some reports of break-ins to cars and apartments (not diplomatic ones, and anyway we are not the ones with real money here). I feel very safe.

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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?

Medical services are poor, locally. USG med unit is not equipped with xrays or other more sophisticated technology. Dental services seem to be adequate.

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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?

Summer-fine. Winter-bad, due to coal dust always in the air (city is heated by coal).

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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?

Like Chicago. You get all four seasons.

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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 some choices, but I don't think it is a "great school" type of post--but we don't have any direct experience.

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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?

Options exist, but we have been generally disappointed with the selection among pre-schools. This is no Nairobi/Delhi/etc. There is no true montessori school (though several incorporate some elements of montessori system), there are some with waiting lists, and some seem to have questionable safety features.

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

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Expat Life:

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

Not so big, as the capital (with most of the diplomats) being in Astana and oil money also being elsewhere.

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2. Morale among expats:

Pretty good, especially in Spring/Summer.

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

Because there is no safety concern, you can go out to eat with friends and not worry about being out late (though babysitting can be an issue). There are a lot of activities within the USG community and also an "International Women's Club" which is a good networking tool, especially if you are not working, as most of their events/meetings are during the work day.

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

I think it is good for both families and couples. I think it may be hard for a single who wants to really conenct with someone unless they know Russian, but I have no direct experience. There are a lot of nightlife and restaurant options, if you have the money to spend and there are also a lot of public parks and children-oriented activities.

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

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

It seems to be a pretty tolerant city. There are many "local" people from different backgrounds (ethnic Russians, Kazakhs, Chinese and Koreans) here. I have not felt any discrimination.

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

The safety--you can walk around and go to parks, etc. and other than normal big-city crime, feel relatively safe.

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

A day in the mountains looking at wildflowers or skiing/boarding (depending on the season); Going to the green bazaar and seeing every part of a horse, cow or goat on display as well as beautiful raspberries, exotic mushrooms, and other produce; Going to a "trout farm" where you can catch your own fish that they will cook for you (great fun for school-age kids); Going to see the "Grand Canyon" of Kazakhstan (a long day-trip) or the petroglyphs (easy day trip). Depending on your finances, longer trips to Uzbekistan, Delhi, or Istanbul are fantastic. There are also nonstop flights to Malaysia, London, Amsterdam, Bangkok and Beijing, among others (though usually at least $700 per ticket).

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

Carpets (the better ones are from Turkmenistan or Afghanistan, but available locally), felt shoes, local paintings and vodka, but this is not a shopper's paradise. Things are relatively expensive.

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

Spring and summer are great with wonderful fruits and vegetables at the Green Bazaar and lots of opportunities for hiking and such. In winter, if you don't ski or skate, your options are a bit limited but there are some indoor malls, including one with a bowling alley. Unforutnately, all movie theaters dub films into Russian. There are a lot of things to do with kids, especially with warmer weather, and also a lot of restaurants and bars/clubs.

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11. Can you save money?

Yes, if you dont' go out to eat or travel too much/far. Flights out cost a minimum of $400, even to Astana, the capital. You can get to Delhi for about $500.

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Words of Wisdom:

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

Yes, but only for a short tour. The remoteness and expense as well as language barrier are what would prevent me from staying longer.

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

Vodka and guest towels (you are unlikely to get many visitors, other than family you convince to spend a large amount of time and money to come here).

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3. But don't forget your:

Language skills (learn some Russian), Positive attitude,

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

Apples are From Kazakhstan, The Great Game (related to country/region, not just city). Lonely Planet Guide to Central Asia is good too.

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5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

Mongol, Tulpan (related to the country, not just city).

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6. Do you have any other comments?

A great post if you come with a positive and adventurous attitude.

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Almaty, Kazakhstan 03/27/08

Background:

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

No, this is my third expat experience.

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2. How long have you lived here?

About 1 year.

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

I am affiliated with the U.S. Government.

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4. Travel time and best routes to this city from Europe or the US:

Flights from the U.S. are either via Amsterdam (KLM/NW), London (American/BA), or Frankfurt ( United/Lufthansa). Different people prefer certain routes, but no matter how you cut it up, it will take over 24 hours of travel time to get from the East coast in the U.S. to Almaty.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

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

Housing is pretty good, but a dramatic increase in rent prices has made it difficult for the Mission to keep some very nice properties. Most are happy with their houses, with most families that have children being placed in houses, and singles/empty-nesters into apartments. The housing is not clustered, but all within about 20 mintues of the USG buildings in the city.

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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, especially if you want U.S. brands ( Philly cream cheese-US$ 10/8 oz). We've dong a good job finding local substitutions, so overall, I'd say we spend a little more than we would in the U.S. on groceries.

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

Any comsumables that you can't live without....any favorite junk foods.....wine...tequilla.....snow tires....

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

There is no fast food ( that teenagers would consider fast food). There are many restaurants in Almaty, they're all VERY expensive and not worth the cost. A dinner for 2 with a beer for each diner can cost US$70-80. We just don't go out, and have learned that it's much less frustrating avoiding the meals-out thing.

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Daily Life:

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

You're out of luck without pouch as the local mail is unreliable. DHL/UPS are very expensive (US$80 for flat 8 x 10).

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

Available, but costly. A full-time maid is between US$450-600/month. It's getting harder to find help, as the local job market has really taken off, and wages are better for those that may have been happy working for expats in the past.

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

No problems here other than an ATM eating a card ( which could happen anywhere).

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

There is a Catholic church, with English Mass at 5 on Saturdays. It think there are other demoninational services also.

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

We all use AFN at post, but some also have local cable, with about 5 English channels.

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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?

I can't make this clear enough: You need to know Russian!! There are hardly any signs in English (why would there be, really), so it's like being 4 all over again and not knowing how to read anything. In fact its like being less than 4, since I'm pretty sure I knew my alphabet by age 4, (which I couldn't say for myself when I showed up here).

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

A big yes to this question. The sidewalks are ankle-busters, and in the winter, there would seem to be a ban on snow shovels, as the snow/ice just keeps on piling up, adding to the treachery.

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Transportation:

1. Do you drive on the right hand side of the road or the left?

Right, mostly. The driving here is some of the worst I have ever seen. They just painted lines on the roads last week, which should make things interesting.

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

Safe, but probably not very healthy.

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3. 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?

Bring something you aren't too proud of. There are many nice cars on the roads here, but most are violently driven, and accidents are pretty common. A SUV or 4-wheel drive would be best if you want to go up to the mountains. We didn't have problems going up skiing in our minivan, but we got studded tires for the winter.

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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?

No, not really. We have ADSL, which is a little faster than dial-up for about US$60/month. Reportedly some have faster service, but it's spotty at times.

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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?

You will need one. Try and buy an unlocked phone from the U.S., as they're very expensive here. Get a SIM card once you show up.

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3. What is the best way to make phone calls back home?

Skype works...we use it.

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Pets:

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

There are pretty good vets, with ones that makes housecalls. Kennels are also available, but most have help or others at post watch their pets when they're gone.

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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 unless you speak Russian or Kazakh.

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

Business dress at work. The women wear the highest heels I have ever seen...even in the winter, using their heels as ice-picks to manage the sidewalks.

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Health & Safety:

1. Pollution index (Good, Moderate, Unhealthy, or Very Unhealthy)?

Pollution is horrible especially in the winter when there is a thermal inversion layer at the base of the mountains. Having said that, people with asthma seem to do fairly well.

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

None really except for the typical big city precautions one would take anywhere in the world. It's probably safer here than most U.S. cities of this size ( 1.5 million or so).

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

Most tend to have diarrhea when moving here.

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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?

Nice summers and nice winters ( if you like snow) and short falls.

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Schools & Children:

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

Ahh, this is the big issue in Almaty. There are 4 main schools that USG folks/expats send their kids to, and in my honest opinion, not one is signifcantly better than any other. Some are closer to the city center, some follow a more traditional educational program. Overall, we are very disappointed in the schools, especially when you think about the great international schools at other posts. If you come to post with children (especially middle school and high school age), know this: You will need to be a strong advocate for your child/children in every facet of the educational process at each school. Overall, I wouldn't recommend coming to post with children in the upper grades unless there is no other option (and personnaly for us, boarding school wasn't an option)

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

This would not be a place to bring a child with special needs.

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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?

Although we don't have younger kids, some at post are happy with the preschool programs that are available. THe CLO has good information on this.

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Expat Life:

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

Very small, which is one reason I think that this is a difficult post.

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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?

Most entertain at home. There are no movies (in English), and as mentioned above, the restaurants are expensive. There are lots of opportunites to view ballet, symphony and opera, and the quality is pretty high from what I've heard.

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3. Morale among expats:

Fair..... to good.

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

The school issue makes this a difficult issue to answer. I would say that it's a great city for infants/toddlers/preschooler families, and there certainly is plenty to do ( parks, etc). Singles ( men) seem to do OK. I think that this is a hard place to be a single female, especially with a very small expat crowd. Couples seem to do fine.

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

I would guess it's OK, but I don't think there would be a lot of tolerance for open affection between same-sex couples.

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

I would have to say no, there seems to be no specific prejudices that I've noticed.

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

The winter is by far the best season in Almaty. The ski resort, Chimbulak, is 20 minutes up the mountain from the city center, and though it isn't cheap ( about US$20 for a 2 hour pass!), the convenience makes up for the cost. You can leave your house at 9:30, be on the slopes by 10, and be home for lunch by 12:30 ( avoiding the price-gouging at the lunch place there).

The outdoor skating rink in the same area is fantastic, if not a little crowded. It's where the Soviet speed-skaters used to train. There are amazing winter hikes and sledding opportunities. In the summer, the moutains are again a source for diversion, and those that get up and out of the city seem to be the happiest.

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

They have some local felt rugs that are nice, and some regional pottery ( Uzbekistan), really cool fur hats.

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9. Can you save money?

Absolutely not.

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Words of Wisdom:

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

I'd have to say no.

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

Need for efficiency.

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3. But don't forget your:

Skis/snowboard, ice-skates, sleds, hiking boots and your sense of humor, good winter clothing, boots.

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

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

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6. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

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7. Do you have any other comments?

Overall, this is a very liveable place, but there are many things that make it a difficult post. Some of it is the isolation of Central Asia and the fact that it's VERY expensive to leave the region... some of it is the language barrier... and some of it is the fact that things we all like about living in another culture are hard to experience here secondary to cost and the reality that a lot of the culture of this region is not visible in the big city of Almaty. On paper it should be more enjoyable that it actually turns out to be, and many of us haven't quite figured out why.

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