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

Personal Experiences from Astana, Kazakhstan

Astana, Kazakhstan 10/19/17

Background:

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

This was my fifth overseas post; previously I worked in Manila, Montreal, Moscow, and Yerevan (Armenia).

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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?

U.S.

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3. How long have you lived here?

We lived there 2010-13.

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

Diplomatic Mission.

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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 embassy housing tends to be apartments, and unlike in the U.S., there are a lot of large (4-bedroom) apartments. We had a great apartment about a 10-minute drive from the office.

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

There were several big grocery chains, including Ramstore and Makro (sort of the German version of Costco). There was hardly anything you couldn't buy. Prices generally comparable to in the US.

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

We managed to ship what we needed.

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

Astana is not a great town for restaurants; unlike Almaty, it's not much of a cafe society. A number of fast-food franchises are present. We didn't eat out much aside from at mall food courts.

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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 only.

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

Decent availability, reasonable cost. We had both nannies and housekeepers.

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

Several gyms. Two 50-meter pools, both kind of run-down and Soviet in their operation, but usable. Also a couple ice rinks, including a major speed-skating stadium with a speed-skating track and two hockey rinks open to public skating (and the staff were really nice to us Americans).

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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 could use credit cards pretty much anywhere. We generally used the embassy ATM but they were elsewhere and safe to use.

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

English proficiency is not great on the street; some ability in Russian is pretty much essential, though people in stores/restaurants are usually pretty indulgent of foreigners struggling with Russian.

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

yes; not disabled-friendly. Certainly not ADA-compliant.

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Transportation:

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

Never took the bus. Occasionally took gypsy cabs - negotiate fare with the driver - generally safe.

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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?

The area is very flat so as long as you have snow tires, anything will work. But most people tend to have SUVs.

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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?

Very decent and reasonable price.

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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?

Local SIM card.

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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?

Pretty much just at the embassy or international school.

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

Standard U.S. dress code.

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Health & Safety:

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

We found it to be perfectly safe. Our kids were young at the time but if a little older would have had no problem with their going out on their own.

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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?

Embassy medical care was quite good. The local health system has some good facilities for testing, but for any serious treatment you'd want to go west, if only for language reasons.

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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?

Good in the summer, smoggy in the winter due to coal burning.

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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 and dry in the summer, very cold (down to minus 40) in the winter. But dress warm and you'll be fine.

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Schools & Children:

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

Several excellent schools. Most expats sent their kids to QSI, which opened up a new campus after we left. Miras is an international school officially, but with the opening of Haileybury a lot of people went there.

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

QSI seemed to be ready to accommodate.

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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?

Yes, but generally only Russian or Kazakh language.

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

Probably, if you speak Russian.

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Expat Life:

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

Mostly embassy community, as well as teachers from the schools and faculty from Nazarbayev University. We found the morale to be quite good.

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

We are a family with four kids. There was enough for us to do but singles might run out of things a little more quickly.

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

Probably not; just not compatible with the local culture.

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

Not that I could see.

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

Swimming, cycling, skating (at the rinks and on the frozen canal). Also professional hockey and soccer teams; the hockey games are particularly compelling.

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

Not especially.

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Words of Wisdom:

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

I wouldn't want to live there forever, but it was a great three years. I'd go back if there was a chance.

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2. But don't forget your:

Warm clothes.

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3. Do you have any other comments?

Astana is a fascinating place. The people aren't necessarily warm and embracing, but they were generally very friendly to us. It's cold in winter and a long way from western Europe, but if you can handle those two things, you can have a great time there for a couple years.

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Astana, Kazakhstan 10/07/16

Background:

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

Yes, this was my first.

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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?

Washington, DC. Including stopover, it is a 20 hour trip. There are one stop flights on KLM, Lufthansa and Turkish Airlines.

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3. How long have you lived here?

26 months.

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

Diplomatic mission.

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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 options are constantly changing. Most are newer construction. The power grid is reliable. Water can run brown at times. Traffic is bad and getting worse as Astana grows in size and population. Key arteries tend to be choked during rush hours which are later than in the U.S. Typically, rush hours are 0830-1000 and 1900-2030.

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

Some products appear and disappear at the grocery store. If you aren't particular about a certain brand or beverage, you can make do. The convenience stores (Magazin) are better stocked than one might expect based on outside appearances. And prices at the minimarkets are identical to the prices charged at larger supermarkets. Be prepared to have exact change--many vendors ask patrons for exact payments.

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

Salsa, chocolate chips, icing.

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

Georgian restaurants; local Shashlik cafes and Western fast food (McDonalds, KFC, Burger King).



Restaurants in Astana quickly open and close. Much of this is related to inconsistent food quality and service. Most restaurants include pizza and sushi and many allow smoking of the hookah. Restaurants also tend to be upscale (including the prices), with MTV-style dance music on wall-mounted TVs. It's a late-arriving dinner crowd in Astana. At 6 p.m., you're liable to be the only diner.

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

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Daily Life:

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

There is pouch service at the Embassy which takes 2-4 weeks to reach us. Local post is expensive and unreliable. There is also DHL for international shipping--also expensive but 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?

Local help (nannies, housekeepers) are available. References are available through various expat newsletters and message boards. The cost is affordable.

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

There are quite a few gyms that offer a host of different exercise regimens, equipment and personal training. The number is growing every day. Indoor swimming pools are few and far between. During the winter, there are several ice rinks that offer public skating.

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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 reasonably safe to use here and ATM machines are common around the city.

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

It is essential to know Russian at this post. Few people are fluent in English. If you are creative with your hands and facial expressions, you can often get your point across. Russian is not an easy language to learn. There are quite a few language classes and tutors around town if you're brave.

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

It would be an extremely hard place to live with a handicap of any type.

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Transportation:

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

Local buses are very cheap but crowded. Public transport infrastructure is 10 years behind where it should be. Many expats use "gypsy cabs" by sticking their arms out at a 30 degree angle and negotiating a rate with the driver. Knowledge of rudimentary Russian is a must. There are marked taxi services that are considered safer, cleaner but are more expensive.

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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?

Snow tires are a must. For someone interested in driving into the hinterlands, a vehicle with high ground clearance is recommended, as the roads get markedly worse on the outskirts of the city.

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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?

High speed internet is decent and cheap. And installation is quick.

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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?

Buy a local sim card. The rates are quite cheap.

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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?

Some spouses telework, others have jobs at the American school while some work at the Embassy. Salaries for spouses tend to be about half what they would be in the U.S.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

American Corner--talking to locals about miscellaneous topics in English; other one-off volunteer opportunities tend to be announced by the CLO.

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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 is more formal in Kazakhstan than in the US, though ties get loosened and the top button undone after lunch. Black tie events are rare, however.

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Health & Safety:

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

There have been some reports of assaults and thefts. Generally, people feel safe in Astana from a crime standpoint. With terrorist incidents in Almaty and Aktobe in 2016, the threat level has increased.

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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 care tends to be good and some expats even elect to have surgeries at the hospitals here. Many opt to go back to the US for surgeries as well as to give birth, however.

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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?

Most of the time the air quality is good. During the summer months, the main issue is a bit of dust in the air. During the winter, the burning of high sulfur coal creates a tremendous amount of smog which settles if the air is not stirred by the wind.

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

Be aware of the nearest smokestacks in relation to the prevailing wind on a winter day. Because of particulate matter in the air, Astana is not advisable for those suffering from asthma.

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5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?

The main issue in Astana is akin to island fever. Astana feels very much like an island on a sea of steppe. There isn't much to do in the city, especially for those who aren't fluent in Russian.

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

The climate is warm and dry in the summer with short autumn and spring seasons. Winter is legendary, with temperatures that don't rise above 32 for three months straight. Negative 30 is not uncommon during the height of the winter season. Astana receives a moderate amount of rain and snowfall. The city does an outstanding job removing snow as it accumulates on streets and sidewalks. The same cannot be said for the removal of rainwater. Standing water and mud are omnipresent during rainy stretches. The city has few storm water sewers, and even fewer that work. Be careful around manhole covers as well--most lids are broken or will be soon.

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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 several international schools in Astana. There are three that very few expats attend: Nazarbayev Intellectual School, Nurorda and Miras. The main two are Haileybury (British) and QSI (US). QSI uses an unorthodox approach to teaching and learning. Haileybury follows the British curriculum and is part of COBIS.

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

This is not a post that would be appropriate for most special needs children. It is not a forgiving or accommodating place for those with disabilities and it is rare to see someone with physical or mental handicaps in public.

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

Much more so if the children speak Russian.

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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 international community is spread out all over town. The morale is diverse. Most newcomers exhibit a sense of adventure that for some, outlasts a one to two year tour. It's a difficult place to live for more than two years.

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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?

There are some organized events. These tend to be hit and miss. With a small-ish expat community, there isn't much of a critical mass for many activities.

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

Not really-this is really a "make your own fun" sort of place.

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

Not really--the society here is on the traditional side of the spectrum on many issues.

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

This is a tough place to live for African Americans. There is no anonymity and some of the behavior is just plain inappropriate. People here aren't shy about the hair of those of African heritage or taking selfies with them.

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

Traveling to Almaty to go skiing at Shymbulak, flying to Europe

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

Outside of some interesting architecture (Khan Shatyr, Baiterek, Mosque), the new National Museum and the rather mediocre museum to the women victims of the Women's GuLAG Alzhir, there isn't much to do in town. Borovoe is a beautiful area 2.5 hours north of the city with lakes and small mountains, however.

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

Kazakhstan is known for felt handicrafts, tooled leather goods and the two stringed musical instrument the dombrya.

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

There are flight connections to UAE, Turkey, Europe and the sub-continent, all about 5-6 hours away. It is also a great place to live if you like winter sports--cross country skiing, skating, sledding.

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Words of Wisdom:

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

The need for language proficiency.

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

No way.

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

Sleeping pills.

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4. But don't forget your:

Fleece.

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Astana, Kazakhstan 06/18/14

Background:

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

No. We have also lived in Sicily, Italy and Mexico City, Mexico. My husband also lived in Iceland.

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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?

California. We haven't done it yet. But from DC, there was a connection in Frankfurt. Travel time is between 15 and 20 hours depending on layover.

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3. How long have you lived here?

We have been living here one year, with one year remaining.

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

Spouse to an employee of the 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?

Mostly apartments that are spread out. We live about 4 miles from the Embassy and it takes 10-15 minutes, typically. The houses here are not well built or maintained, so some are falling apart. Apartments are large and spacious for the most part.

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

Fruits and veggies can get very expensive during the winter months, look for frozen items rather than fresh. Chicken, beef, lamb, pork are available most places. No bacon or ham. We think shopping is comparable to U.S. Markets are a great place to save some money and are open year-round.

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

Peanut butter, salsa, shampoo/conditioner, nail polish.

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

Hardee's, KFC, Burger King. All are comparable to the States. Quality is better/fresher than U.S. There is a lot of different Asian and Asian Fusion type places. Italian, Thai, Uzbek, Georgian, Japanese, steakhouse to mention a few.

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

Mosquitoes. As soon as the ground thaws they are everywhere. According to the embassy medical unit there is no danger of malaria. But I swear the mosquitoes here have teeth. OFF is carried locally. Antihistamine ointment/gel is available at all pharmacies and works well.

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Daily Life:

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

With my husband's employer. I have heard the local mail in unreliable. DHL is available but very 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?

There is quality workers available for childcare and cleaning/cooking. Cost varies on duties performed. Just for cleaning, we pay 1000 KZT per hour. Live in is not typical here.

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

There are gyms and we have not looked into the costs because we have equipment at home, as well as my husband's workplace.

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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?

Most places take credit cards, ATMs are located throughout the city and in all major shopping spots. It seems that they are mostly safe to use. Always carry cash because oftentimes CC machines at places will not work.

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

Not many.

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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 is not hard to get around, quite a few taxi drivers speak enough English to help you out. There are challenges when shopping and ordering food. Most of my friends speak enough to help us get by.

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

Using a stroller or wheelchair would be difficult, the sidewalks are ridiculously uneven without ramps. All shopping malls do have ramps and elevators.

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Transportation:

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

We have not used these much but they are safe and clean. Taxis are 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?

There are many compact cars here, as well as, HUGE SUVs. They require imported cars to have the newest Euro 4 (maybe even 5 now) standards. We prefer a car with good clearance, especially for snow and occasionally re-routing onto sidewalks. Prep is needed for extreme cold weather. Auto-start is a great idea, block heater, battery warmer, fluids that are made for freezing temps, winter tires. The roads are kept pretty clean during the winter but your driveway or parking lot may not be.

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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. Depends on the location of your home. Reasonable and pretty reliable.

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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?

Pre-pay. We use Activ and pay a monthly flat-rate for data and then per call/text. We put approximately 5000 KZT on my phone every 3-4 months.

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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?

Yes and yes, so we've heard.

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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?

I don't think so. Unless you can get a job at the Embassy.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

Not a lot that I have come across, other than helping at my husband's employer. There is a Catholic charity that many people work with. Medical needs, clothing, food, orphanage.

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

Professional at work. Anything goes in public.

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Health & Safety:

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

None that we know of.

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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?

The quality of medical care is lacking. Avoid it if you can. Dental is pretty good.

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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?

Not bad especially after living in Mexico City. The pollution is mostly dirt/sand and pollen during early summer. High winds blow the pollution out.

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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?

Extreme cold in winter (remains below O, down to -40+ F), mild-hot summer (90s F).
Snow began in October and ended in May. Very cold and dry.
Summer is breezy and dry, temps close to 100 F at times.
It can get very windy because we are on the steppe, very flat for miles around.

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Schools & Children:

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

We homeschool, which has worked well for us here, especially during the extreme cold. But there is a QSI school and Haileyberry, which is British. I have not heard much good news about QSI and HB always has a waiting list.

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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?

There is a preschool that families use and are quite happy with. Cost was very reasonable but I can't remember off the top of my head. It is a Kazakh school and they learn Kazakh, Russian and English. They also offer a Kinder program for 5 year olds.

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

Hockey, skating, swimming... All are in Russian.

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Expat Life:

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

There are a lot of expats here. Morale varies greatly during winter vs summer.

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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?

Clubs, opera, ballet, restaurants.

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

There is a good balance here, it really just depends on what your needs may be.

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

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

The majority is Muslim here but there are no issues with prejudices as far as I can tell. There are many Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic, as well as Mormon. Most churches only provide services in Russian or Kazakh. I haven't noticed any gender prejudices.

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

Our boys learned to ice skate. Met some great friends. Visited some historical sights.

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

Borovoye is a nice drive out of the city into the mountains. Camping, hiking, swimming, resort, great day trip or long weekend.

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

Leather, fur, teapots, ceramics, rugs.

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

Interesting history. Ice skating, snow-shoeing, cross-country skiing, hiking. Easy flight to Almaty for down-hill skiing. Safe.

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10. Can you save money?

Sure.

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Words of Wisdom:

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

We did a lot of research and had great sponsors coming here.

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

Yes.

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3. But don't forget your:

Parka and sub-zero boots.

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4. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

Do not watch Borat!

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5. Do you have any other comments?

This hasn't been the easiest post but it is safe and clean, with good people.

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Astana, Kazakhstan 09/13/10

Background:

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

No, fourth experience.

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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?

About 14 hours if going from Dulles-Frankfurt-Astana. All flights go through Frankfurt or Vienna. Most people prefer going through Frankfurt as the airport is better.

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3. How long have you lived here?

Almost two years.

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

Spouse works at U.S. Embassy.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

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

Mostly apartments, very short commute (15-20 minutes).

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

You could survive without using the consumable shipment but the prices are very high for imported goods and most of the goods are imported. Fresh produce in winter is higher in price if you are buying vegetables other than carrots, potatoes and cabbage. Bring bleach as I still haven't found what the locals use and the water has a high mineral content.

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

Peanut butter, as I don't like the type available here. Also: cereal,brown sugar and bleach.

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

KFC and some non-American chains are available at the malls. Moderately priced.

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5. 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?

Pouch mail. Restrictions on what we can send out if it isn't a return item from a purchase.

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

Domestic help is available. Not sure of cost.

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

Gyms are available but very expensive.

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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?

We use cash. You can use CC but it is mostly a cash society.

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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?

Haven't seen any english newspaper. We have AFN.

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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?

Basic Russian is very useful.

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

They do have handicap parking spaces at some of the shopping areas but it would be very difficult for a person with physical disablities.

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Transportation:

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

Taxis are cheap. Haven't used the buses or trains.

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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 can bring whatever type vehicle you want as long as you bring snow tires. They clear the roads very well in winter. We have ordered extra parts through the pouch as they can be expensive locally. Service is available locally, we haven't used it so not sure of the quality. Parts are shipped here so are expensive.

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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?

ADSL. I think it is around $50 a month.

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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?

Bring a quad-band phone and purchase minutes as you need 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)?

Pet care is available but methods are primitive.

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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.

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

At work, professional. In public, you can wear what you want. The Kazaks dress nicely when they are out--the women even wear spiked heels in winter.

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Health & Safety:

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

No-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?

No but get your rabies shot if you run or ride a bike, as sometimes dogs are roaming and can be aggressive.

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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?

Good.

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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?

Very cold in winter, and summer is both hot and cool in temperature.

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Schools & Children:

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

Have heard good things about Miras and QSI-no personal experience with schools.

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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?

Yes-no personal experience.

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

Yes, it is improving as the expat community gets bigger.

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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-sized and growing.

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2. Morale among expats:

Depends on who you talk to--don't expect a lot from the embassy community-- they have low expectations.

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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?

At home, we have dinners, play games. The International Women's club has a really nice charity ball in early December. We go out to dinner.

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

It's good for families and couples. Singles may find it boring.

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

Not sure.

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

Haven't heard anything.

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

This is our first post with snow in winter--so we are enjoying winter sports--ice skating, cross country skiing and sledding.

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

In winter they build an ice city at the city park -- with ice slides which are fun to sled down -- and an ice rink. There is a small English library here with a coffee shop that serves American-style coffee.

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

Nice fur hats and coats. Pottery from Uzbekistan.

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

Saving money.

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11. Can you save money?

Yes.

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Words of Wisdom:

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

Yes. It is an excellent hardship post--clean and safe.

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

whatever you don't want to make room for in your apartment.

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3. But don't forget your:

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?

Kazakstan by Brandt (travel guide)

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5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

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6. Do you have any other comments?

It can be boring, so bring hobby-type things to do. As long as you dress properly in winter, it is nice to go outside. The sun shines here a lot, so it isn't a gloomy winter -- which has been a plus. There are some nice things (rock climbing wall, play centers, amusement rides and video games) for kids to do inside at the malls. Each year we have seen improvements to the city.

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Astana, Kazakhstan 07/20/08

Background:

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

No--Moscow, Tbilisi.

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2. How long have you lived here?

13 months.

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

U.S. Government Employee.

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

You have to fly to Europe from Dulles and then change planes in either Vienna or Frankfurt. It takes about 15 hours total.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

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

I have heard that the U.S. Embassy will phase out houses in favor of very nice apartments.

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

Suprisingly, there are many western food items available lately in some grocery stores. Taco shells, cereal, pringles. However, you will pay for this luxury!Bring anything you are especially attached to, like ethic food mixes, spices, baking items.

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

Non-perishable food items I use often--chick peas, baked beans, etc. WINE!Also, more wool socks!

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

No fast food here. There are a lot of restaurants here, but not too many that are consistently good. The restaurants can be expensive, but you can get suprisingly good, cheap pizza here. There are even a few new coffee shop where you can get a decent latte--to go!Great Korean and Russian food, okay American fare at the hotels. It's all a bit expensive, so learn to cook if you want to save money!

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Daily Life:

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

I have never once seen a local post office, but there do appear to be local mail boxes here. We usethe pouch or DHL.

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

Not bad--25 bucks a day for a housekeeper. More if you want her to cook.

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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?

The banking sector is suprisingly developed here, and we use ATMs quite a bit. Many restaurants and bars simply do not know how to use the credit card machines that they have, so cash is best.

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

I think?

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

Local TV gets BBC.AFN for USG personnel.

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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?

At least a bit of Russian is essential--you should know how to order in a restaurant and read cyrilic. Don't bother with Kazakh.

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

It would be very challenging for someone with a physical disability to get around here, especially in winter when all roads and sidewalks freeze solid.

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Transportation:

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

The American side, but that doesn't stop the locals from driving into oncoming traffic or ignoring the lanes.

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

The trains aren't as cheap as in other former Soviet countries--plus, there isn't really a nearby city to take a train to!

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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?

It's not the type of vehicle, but its ability to handle in winter months. BRING STUDDED SNOW TIRES! That said, the locals are obsessed with the Toyota Land Cruiser, so if you want to fit in, buy one, and wash it often.

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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?

It has improved markedly in the past year I have been here. It has gotten faster and more reliable, but is still slow by western standards. It's about US$60 a month.

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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 be provided with an Embassy cell phone if you are USG personnel. You should be prepared to buy a phone for any of your family members who are coming with you. You can bring an unlocked U.S. cell if you want, and pop a sim card in.

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

Skype.

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Pets:

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

Vets are okay, although I sometimes question their decisions. Haven't heard of any kennels.

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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. Perhaps for a self-motivated Russian-speaker.

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

Suits for Americans at the Embassy. Locals dress upmore than Americans do. Bring your high-heeled pointy shoes. Locals don't wear sweats outside. Fur coats (for men and women) are extremely posh.

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Health & Safety:

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

Good--although it can get dusty in the summer with the wind blowing the construction dust around.

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

Low to moderate. There have been some unfortunate muggings of foreigners in recent months. Just avoid getting too drunk and ending up in a dangerous situation.

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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?

Medical care is okay, since Kazakhstan is trying to prove that it is a western country. The Embassy health unit is great.

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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?

Um--cold. Summers are nice--not humid, but short! It's usually sunny even when it is cold.

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Schools & Children:

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

I don't have children, but there are two respectable schools--MIRAS and QSI. Both have their strengths and weaknesses, I've heard, so do your research before making a decision. The schools really only go up to about the 9th grade.

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

Not sure. I think there is a special needs teacher at QSI.

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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 is a preschool at MIRAS, but it can be hard to get in to (it's rather full). Many families hire nannies.

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Expat Life:

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

Growing--about 300 now.

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2. Morale among expats:

Fair to good. Those who get out and do things have a better time here than those who sit at home at mope.

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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?

Bars, clubs, restaurants, house parties, happy hours, excursions. It's pretty good!

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

I think this post is good for all, but can be the most challenging for single women. A postitive attitude can make anyone enjoy this post, though.

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

Hard to tell. Locals are not that accepting of homosexuality, but the expat community would most likely be very accepting.

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

There is a very slight conflict between ethnic Russians and ethic Kazakhs here among the local population, but it's mostly just talk. For expats, anyone who doesn't look either ethnic Russian or Kazakh will be stared at. This is especially true for blacks--they are treated either like rock stars or snubbed by locals.

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

Summer--strolling outdoors through the central park, people watching, pick-up sports with other expats. Winter--cross-country skiing, ice skating, saunas. Any time--swimming laps in one of the public indoor pools. Also, go to the resort area called Borovoye for hiking in the summer or a cozy getaway in winter.

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

Some carpets, but better shopping in Kyrgyzstan.

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9. Can you save money?

Yes, if you don't blow it all going out or taking trips to the west.

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Words of Wisdom:

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

Yes.

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

Baltika beer, dill, horse meat.

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3. But don't forget your:

Wool, snow ties, coffee filters, wine.

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

Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart.

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

Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart.

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6. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

Mongol, Nomad.

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7. Do you have any other comments?

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Astana, Kazakhstan 01/29/08

Background:

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

This is my first expat experience.

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2. How long have you lived here?

13 months.

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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:

From US (DC), 14 hours. Frankfurt is largest connecting point.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

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

Flats for singles and couples without kids. Houses are available for families with multiple EFMs (eligible family members).

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

Things are expensive here. The location makes it hard to receive goods. Groceries cost about US$80 per week if you buy a fair amount of produce. Household supplies are about 2-3 times as expensive as the same goods in the U.S. Dining out is also expensive--about US$30 per person for a meal (salad, meat, one side dish, one drink).

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

Food and baking items.

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

No fast food chains. There is one place, Mega, where there's a food court that serves burgers. Pizza is probably the most ubiquitous western food available.

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Daily Life:

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

I have pouch privileges.

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

We pay a house cleaner US$50 per week for 2 full days of work.

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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?

I don't use credit cards or ATM cards but I know people who do. ATMs are available at some banks. Credit cards are accepted at grocery stores and restaurants. Cash is just easier.

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

Yes. Evangelical, Catholic, Mormon.

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

VH1 and BBC on tv. Newspapers: I haven't seen any.

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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?

Tourist-level: numbers, greetings, directions, food/drink items.

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

There aren't any ramps nor automatic doors. People in wheelchairs would have a very difficult time with the steps. Lifts sometimes don't work when they do exist.

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Transportation:

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

Right-hand driving (many still use right-hand wheel cars, though).

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

I haven't taken local trains or buses but I've heard from locals that buses are not safe especially for women. Gypsy taxis are generally ok. Just use the basic rule not to get in one with a passenger already inside.

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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?

The roads are not well-maintained; however, you can get by without an SUV or 4-wheel drive vehicle. We have a Ford Focus with studded tires for winter driving and we're fine. The one time that a 4-wheel drive vehicle is useful is if you take day trips outside of Astana. It can get rough either on or off-road. Potholes are prevalent both in and out of the city.

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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?

ABout US$50 per month for DSL, but the connection can be very slow and it drops often.

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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?

Cell service is dominated by two companies. I've never had a problem with calls; however, I only make local calls.

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

Skype.

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Pets:

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

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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?

If you teach, there are opportunities. As for other opportunities, I'm unaware of them; however, they may exist.

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

Professional--shirt/khakis or dress pants for guys at a minimum, many wear ties if not suits daily. Women don't need to wear skirts, but dress pants and button-down shirts are often worn instead.

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Health & Safety:

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

Good.

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

Foreigners can be targets depending on the time of day/night and location. It's advised that foreigners not be out on their own, especially men, because they can be targeted even more. It's typical for 5 or so Kazakh men to jump one foreigner.

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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?

No health concerns because of the cold climate. Medical care is not that great. There is an SOS clinic. Medevac is often the default.

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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?

Winter can begin in November and last through May. Summer is June through August. Autumn is September and October unless iwinter comes early. The winter of 2006 was vert cold (-55F for weeks). The winter of 2007 brought more snow but was not as cold just very windy. The winter of 2008 is colder but less snow and virtually no wind. Weather, in general, changes quickly in the steppe. You can have sun, wind, rain, and sun again in one day with temps varying by 20 degrees in a few hours.

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Schools & Children:

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

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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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Expat Life:

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

About 200 Americans maybe a few hundred more among the other diplomatic communities.

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2. Morale among expats:

Morale can range from low to medium. I think that since new staff have arrived in the last year, it's improved. The move from Almaty to Astana left many feeling embittered.

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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?

Most people congregate at each other's places for dinner parties, etc. Dining out is also a big thing. There are a lot of restaurants here. The cuisine is varied, but the cooking style is basic and similar on the whole. Again, dining out is expensive for what you get (US$30 per person on average for a meal that would cost half of that in DC).

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

It's best if you're a couple or a family with young kids. Although singles and families with older kids do thrive.

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

Not if you're openly gay/lesbian. It's a very homophobic culture.

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

Missionaries and other openly religious expats may be harassed due to the government's watchful eye. If you're black, you will be an object of attention--negative and even positive.

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

Winter: cross-country skiing, skating, ice sculpture gardens. Anytime: bowling, monuments.

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

Some craft works and some rugs maybe but there is not much available here in Astana in terms of those things.

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9. Can you save money?

Yes. Just don't eat at restaurants too much, don't go clubbing or bar hopping too much, and watch the alcohol intake--it's expensive and you often find yourself in a vulnerable spot (i.e. getting jumped).

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Words of Wisdom:

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

Maybe.

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

Vodka, fanta, basic ingredients like sugar, flour, baking soda, salt.

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3. But don't forget your:

-40F proof coat, winter accoutrements (hat, gloves, scarf, etc.).

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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:

Borat! :)

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7. Do you have any other comments?

See my blog: http://the-oyster.blogspot.com/

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