Claire McCarthy, PRSD’s very own correspondent in Kazakhstan, is the author of a story published in Drinking Camel’s Milk in the Yurt, an anthology written by expats who live in this vast, but little-known country in Eurasia.
With 24 separate authors from 11 different countries, each story provides a fascinating insight into a place and its people that most of us know nothing about and would never think of travelling to.
Originally from Plymouth, Claire shares her personal journey of how she came to end up living in Kazakhstan, and why this unique, ex-Soviet country – the ninth largest on the planet, is worth a visit.
What do you do? And why did you move to Kazakhstan?
I trained as a German and Russian teacher, but had never had the chance to use the Russian part of the degree. My friend had worked in Kazakhstan so I had some idea of what the country was like. In 2007, I was single with no commitments so when I applied for and was offered a teaching role at the first British school to open in Kazakhstan, I accepted straight away.
How easy or difficult was it settling in Kazakhstan?
I lived in Russia as part of my first degree and had spoken to Kazakh friends in the UK so I had a good idea of what was awaiting me. I also speak Russian and I actually felt reassured when I arrived because things seemed very familiar. The buildings and vehicles were similar to what I remembered from Russia. I enjoyed being surrounded by Russian speakers and being able to use it in my daily life.
Where have you lived other than Russia and Kazakhstan?
At 18 I spent a year as an au pair in Stuttgart, Southern Germany in preparation for my languages degree. After my first two years in Kazakhstan, I felt the need to be somewhere warm so I spent a year working in Kuwait. Then I was offered a position at a new school in Astana and decided to return to Kazakhstan the following year.
What is the best thing about living in Kazakhstan?
The best thing about living in Kazakhstan is that it is, as yet, relatively untouched by Western culture. I enjoy living somewhere you won’t find McDonald’s or Starbucks on every street corner. Unfortunately, this is slowly changing but I still enjoy discovering the independent shops and restaurants that allow for a more unique experience.
What are the best things to do in the area; and what would you recommend to future expats?
I live in the capital, Astana. It’s a relatively new city and despite its rapid expansion, there isn’t the plethora of things to do compared to other capital cities. I would recommend a stroll along the banks of the river Ishim; a boat trip along the river in the summer, and definitely go up the iconic Bayterek monument in the centre of the new town for a fantastic view of the city. There are a few museums in the city, the most interesting houses the gifts that world leaders have given to President Nazarbayev. The Khan Shatyr shopping centre is worth visiting; a huge tent-like building with international shops, as well as a beach in the roof that keeps a constant temperature of 25°C all year around. An evening at the grand new opera and theatre hall, or a performance at the philharmonic hall on the banks of the river is lovely.
Astana is situated in the north of the country on the vast steppe. It’s quite isolated compared to other large cities, but it’s possible to travel outside the city by car and there are buses and trains.
I would also recommend the resort of Borovoye, a mountainous area about 250km outside of Astana. It’s an unspoiled and picturesque location in stark contrast to the modern, futuristic capital.
What’s the worst thing about living in Kazakhstan?
The hardest part is the weather. It is the second coldest capital in the world and winters are severe. The temperature plummets in December, often below -40°C, making every aspect of life difficult. Winter lasts from November to April and one has to be prepared. I still haven’t got used to it.
Tell us an interesting fact about Kazakhstan that isn’t widely known?
99 of the 110 chemical elements on the Periodic Table are found in Kazakhstan!
If you were to plan an itinerary for a week in Kazakhstan, where would you go?
It’s such a vast country that it’s not possible to explore it in such a short time. But I would suggest choosing Astana or Almaty to begin with. Almaty is great if you want to experience nature. It’s a good base to explore the Tian Shan mountain range, and provides everything a large city has to offer. Astana on the other hand gives a view of the new Kazakhstan and its vision for the next 20 years. When my friend visited Astana, I had hoped to cover both Astana and Almaty, but realised there really wasn’t enough time. I introduced her to Astana by taking her on a bus tour and then we visited Borovoye for one night to explore the countryside. We also went to Karaganda about 250km south of Astana; a typically bustling Soviet city with an interesting and moving museum dedicated to the victims of the Soviet Gulag. I am yet to visit the western part of this huge country. Hopefully, I will get a chance in the next few months.
How long are you planning to stay in Kazakhstan?
At the moment I’m not sure, but I enjoy my life here and don’t feel like I’ve seen enough of the country so I would like to stay at least another year.
Drinking Camel’s Milk in the Yurt: Expat Stories from Kazakhstan: Edited by Monica Neboli, Summertime Publishing: £9.99
Interview by Shelley Antscherl of www.disparatehuisvrouw.com