Hi everyone! Some people have come across this blog and written comments or perhaps wondered if I have dropped off the face of the planet. That, of course, is not the case. In a case of terrible irony, one week after I wrote my blog post on the restricted internet in KZ, the government acted to block WordPress. I was thus impeded from updating my blog for the remainder of the academic year that I was in Kazakhstan. I had amazing trip, but it’s unfortunate that I was not able to publish more photos and information for my family, friends, and other people generally interested in coming to Kazakhstan. I guess this just means I will have to try to return again someday to relive the experience. For anyone who finds themselves similarly blocked out of their blogs or other necessary sites, I would suggest getting a VPN. I, unfortunately, could not afford to do this, but it would have enabled me to get around all of the Kazakh government’s firewalls. I don’t intend to update this blog anymore. So… Сау Болыңыз!
The internet in Kazakhstan is surprisingly restricted. Prior to coming here I set up a blog through Blogger, and then had to change the site when I found out the platform was often blocked in Kazakhstan. I obediently moved to Word Press, which has given me only limited problems. Primarily these problems are that the site for updating and posting new posts is ridiculously slow and blocked entirely in at least one of the locations where I frequently log onto the internet. My ability to view posts on WordPress seems to be unimpeded, but the section of the site used for registering new blogs may be blocked. I had to use a proxy server to set-up a new blog for one of the projects I am working on here, but now that the blog is set-up I can log-in without a proxy server.
In Summer 2009 President Nazarbayev signed a law that categorizes blogs, social media networks, and chatrooms as “mass media.” As a result criminal liability can be incurred for “improper use” of these and the government is able to block and even close websites. Subsequently, the government has exercised its powers in this area quite frequently.
Blogger and LiveJournal were blocked through a Kazakh court order this past August because they were deemed to be extremist. Prior to the issuance of this court order these sites had already been blocked on a number of occasions. “These Internet resources … including LiveJournal … spread materials with propaganda of terrorism and religious extremism and open calls to committing acts of terror and making explosive devices,” Ailana Iskendirova, spokeswoman for the district court in the capital Astana, told Reuters. More recently Kazakhstan’s Prosecutor General’s office touted the blockage of 51 extremist websites. To this day I am not able to open any Blogger post in the country without a proxy server, although I have been able to open LiveJournal posts. Just to be clear I am not against the blocking of websites the incite criminal activity, but the blocking of an entire blogging platform by the government is not a narrowly-tailored solution that neutralizes the extremist threat without infringing on the freedom of speech and access to information rights of internet users in Kazakhstan.
In addition to blogging platforms and extremist sites, the websites of independent and dissident voices also appear to be blocked. The website of opposition publication “Respublika” is blocked and I am told that the publication is so reviled by the government is has to be secretly printed and distributed on A4 printer paper. On a related note, the root of the Kazakh government’s disdain for LiveJournal may be that Raxat Aliyev, the ex son-in-law of Kazakhstan’s president who is now a hardcore dissent-in-exile, once had a blog on the platform. Aliyev published a tell-all exposé that has been translated into English about the Kazakhstan government which includes the allegation that absolutely all of the internet in Kazakhstan is under government surveillance. Observers are split on whether the book is highly dramatized or an accurate portrayal of the situation here. Frankly, I am afraid to even Google the book for fear I find myself eternally on some “blacklist,” but I am sure you can find it if you are interested. According to Freedom House’s most recent “Freedom on the Net” report, the internet in Kazakhstan is subject to “substantial political censorship.” The group writes in its report, “In recent years, the government has blocked a popular blog-hosting platform and passed several pieces of legislation that restrict free expression online, particularly on topics that are deemed threatening to President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s power and reputation.”
Google has also had its fair share of issues regarding the internet in Kazakhstan. In addition to the blocking of its blogging platform Blogger, the site has also fought to prevent its searches from being routed through a server located in Kazakhstan. Google alleged this would result in a “fractured internet.” Kazakhstan’s government announced in June that such routing would be mandatory, but later informed Google that this would only be the case for newly registered domains and therefore not affect the google.kz domain.
In preparing to travel to Kazakhstan I made the egregious mistake of thinking everything would be cheaper here. In fact, I have found the prices of many items to be the about same as they are in the U.S. This is true even though the average income in Kazakhstan is significantly lower than that of people living in the U.S. According to a press release issued in July by the KZ Prime Minister’s Office the average month salary in KZ is 92,993 KZT ($632.61) or about $7584 per year, whereas the average income in the U.S. is probably between . mid $30,000s and low $50,000s a year (see average per person income by state). (The U.S. Census likes to publish by median household income so exact figures are not so easy to nail down.) A little additional research has revealed that I am actually living in one of the world’s most expensive cities, at least according to Forbes. In their most recent ranking I could find, one from 2008, Almaty is the 44th most expensive city in the world, more expensive than Los Angeles (ranked 55), although definitely not New York (ranked 22 in 2008).
As an example, when I recently went shopping for an umbrella, the cheapest I one could find, a flimsy collapsible one, cost 2,700 KZT ($19.73). I have a similar one in the States that I got for $2.99 during a sale at JCPennys. The price for the umbrella I found in Almaty (at Baraholka – a market where cheap goods are reportedly plentiful) was marked on the item and despite my best efforts I could not convince the saleswoman to sell it for any less. Even if she had bought the price down by 50%, that would have only put the price on par with similar (non-sale) products in the U.S. On an entirely different adventure, I received a flu shot here for a whopping $42. From what I can find on the internet, the typical price in the U.S. without insurance is $30, never mind that insurance will cover this expense for many people.
Although things are expensive here, there are some ways to save money. If you are looking to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, seasonal fruit and vegetables are always cheaper. As an example, grapes are currently about 400 KZT in season, but will surely jump significantly higher come winter, never mind that they will become exceedingly difficult to find. Locals generally eat the fruits and vegetables that are in season. If you too are willing to do this, it is a definite cost saving measure.
When it comes to purchasing preserved, canned, jarred and pre-made products buying local is always a good idea. Items made in Kazakhstan do not incur a customs fee and need less transport, therefore the prices tend to be cheaper. Prices seem to go up in proportion to where a product is imported from. As a funny example, there is a Russian supermarket in downtown Almaty that stocks “Shoprite” brand canned and jarred goods – beans, mayo, etc. Yes, these are the generic/store-brand goods you buy in Shoprite grocery stores in the U.S. In America we think of this brand as the cheapest and perhaps lowest quality item available, but here they are marked up as the fancy American brand and are more expensive than any of the other products. Craziness.
Another way to save money is to avoid fancy expat stores. Ramstor and Interfood are the main stores here that cater to expats and, although some of their prices are fairly competitive, others are not. Never mind that there is always the temptation to buy a way overpriced bottle of imported wine, etc. while you are in there. Also, the stores right in downtown, particularly those near to fancy hotels, etc. tend to be more expensive then the stores in the neighborhoods of average Almaty residents.
I made the trip to the Green Bazaar this past weekend – which stocks produce, meat, school supplies, clothes, tools, and even souvenirs, and the prices for produce and also school supplies are very reasonable. I am told clothing is cheaper at Baraholka, but I am not sure about this. One issue with the Green Bazaar is that prices are not posted, so you definitely need to bargain people down from the first price they state. If you’re not willing to do this you may leave the bazaar feeling like you received prices that are not particularly competitive. Additionally, I am told that the prices for goods sold in the actual Green Bazaar building are higher than those of the people right outside the building. (On an only slightly related note, the Green Bazaar is definitely the place to buy Korean salads from carrots, eggplant and cabbage. They are out-of-this-world good, and frankly I really don’t see them elsewhere in the city.)
Finally, as if prices were not a big enough concern already here, there is a rumor floating around the cost of petrol and bus fares could rise significantly this month. I am told that bus fares in Almaty could go up from 50 KZT to 80 KZT and petrol could be increase from around 123 KZT to 150 KZT. If this happens, all other costs for goods and perhaps even services will probably also rise significantly because of the fuel necessary to transport everything. I sincerely hope this speculation is wrong! I am going to go out on a limb to predict that when the metro in Almaty opens to this December, the local government raises bus prices to try get to more people on the metro. I haven’t heard anything yet about what the metro is going to cost.
Here are some prices from recent purchases and inquiries here in Almaty:
Loaf of bread – 80KZT
Bottle of Coke (500 ml) – 90 KZT
Bottle of water (500 ml) – 65 KZT
Tide Laundry Detergent (450 gr.)– 290 KZT
Bic single-use basic razor – 50 KZT
Sultan bag of pasta (400 gr.) – 90 KZT
Liter of petrol – 123 KZT (and rising soon?)
Pair of Pantyhose – 180 KZT
Apples (in season) – 200/250 KZT per kilo
Banana – 50 KZT for 1
Potatoes – 70 KZT per kilo
Carrots – 80 KZT per kilo
Grapes (in season) – 400 KZT
Newspaper – 25 KZT
Flu shot – 6,091 KZT
Half kilo of Korean carrot salad – 300 KZT
*For my price comparisons/conversions in this blog post I have used an approximation of the exchange rate: 1 USD = 147 KZT.
After nearly a month here, I, as a completely under-qualified layperson, have concluded that Almaty suffers from a language identity clash, one that I think may reflect larger linguistic issues bubbling under the surface throughout Kazakhstan. In Almaty, once the capital of Kazakhstan, street signs and commercial billboards are most commonly seen in two languages, and hardly anyone speaks one sentence in pure Kazakh. More often than not, it’s Russian that seems to dominate, with a couple colloquial phrases in Kazakh thrown in for good measure. Then again, what is “pure Kazakh?” Better not to ask. This very issue caused a mild-mannered female student to go on a tirade during a guest lecture I attended a week ago. (The lecture was on the situation of the Oralman – ethnic Kazakhs returning to Kazakhstan from other countries to regain Kazakh citizenship. They are often simultaneously teased for not speaking good enough Kazakh and complain that they speak Kazakh but many Kazakhs in Kazakhstan do not.)
The status of the Kazakh and Russian languages is defined in Article 7 of Kazakhstan’s Constitution. The state language of the Republic of Kazakhstan is Kazakh, however state institutions and local self-administrative bodies the Russian language shall be officially used on equal grounds along with the Kazak language. In Almaty, despite the preference for Kazakh at the official level, Russian appears to be the lingua franca. In light of the half a century or so the nation spent under Soviet rule and the dearth Kazakh books, as compared to Russian, I guess this makes sense.
In Almaty I attend Kazakhstan’s Institute of Management and Strategic Research (KIMEP), a wonderful gem of a university that gives all of its classes in English – except of course the foreign language classes, including my three hour-a-day Kazakh classes and thrice weekly 50 minute Russian lessons. I have sat in on classes taught by both local and international staff and low and behold that classes are absolutely in English. Officially the university’s languages are Kazakh and English, however beyond the classroom, I hear almost nothing but Russian, and surprisingly a lot (perhaps at least a third) of the student announcements I see posted by groups and clubs around campus are in Russian. The students generally socialize in Russian, and I have to communicate with the convenience store workers, gym employees and almost all of the other local employees in Russian (except of course the professors who speak fluent English). If there is a silver-lining perhaps it is that at least one woman working on the cafeteria line has figured out I speak Kazakh and seems to give me a slightly larger helping of food than the other students, always with a pleasant smile, when I order in Kazakh. This of course is a welcome reprieve, but if I make this “mistake” with the wrong lunch lady, which has been known to happen, I get an unhappy scowl. (If you’re a Seinfeld fan imagine the Soup Nazi…. Next!)
My wonderful host family often speaks to me in a mix of Kazakh and Russian (occasionally using my dictionaries to figure out words in Kazakh), yet when my host mom went upstairs to complain to our neighbors above us, who happen to be ethnic Russians, that water was leaking through the ceiling into our apartment, she came back down grumbling in the “purest” Kazakh I have ever heard her speak about our difficult Russian neighbors. This confused me, because of her seemingly strong preference for the Russian language prior to that moment. Whenever we watch the news together she is constantly marveling at how well all of the ethnic groups in the country get along. She will then proceed to remark that Russia has issues with extreme nationalism, particularly violent attacks on migrants from Central Asia, but Russians are very welcome in Kazakhstan and don’t encounter such issues here. From what I can tell this is pretty much true.
While it might sound like I am complaining about the linguistic cacophony here in Almaty, I actually feel extremely grateful to be experiencing it firsthand. All of this in fact relates quite directly to research that I have started working on while I am here in Kazakhstan. My topic is “The Legal Framework for Ethnic Stability in Kazakhstan.” Of course the two major ethnic groups in Kazakhstan are the Kazakhs and the Russians, and the State is raring full speed ahead with numerous language policies and initiatives related specifically to continued elevation of the Kazakh language above Russian. This has the strong potential to alienate Kazakhstan’s Russians and other minority groups who have relied on Russian to get around Kazakhstan for so long. (Nevermind that, from what I can tell from watching the national news, the vast majority of government officials are more comfortable speaking Russian than Kazakh.) I look forward to exploring this topic more deeply, particularly from the legal angle, and hope that I will be able to make some more eloquent remarks on it the future.
Бір отбасының бақыты жұмыска, ақшаға, туыстарға, балаларға байланысты. Бақытты отбасылар әр жерде тұрады. Әрбір отбасы үнемі қуанышты емес, әрине әр отбасында жақсы және жаман күндер болады. Ғалымның зерттеуі бойынша ең бақытты отбасылар Норвегияда, Данияда және Финляндияда тұрады. Бұл жерлерде жалақылар жақсы және үкімет азаматтарға жақсы қамқорлық жасайды. Бақытты отбасына көп ақша керек емес, бірақ олардың ақшасы тамаққа, киімге, дәріге және аздап демалысқа жету керек. Мен әдетте Қазақстанда естемін адам бақытты болу ушін тұрмыста болу немесе үйленген болу керек, ал біз Америкада солай ойламаймыз. Қосымша біз ажырасу түралы жаман ойламаймыз. Үйлену той жасау және ажырасу түралы әрине көп ойлау керек, бірақ егер бір адам жалғыз бақыттырақ болса немесе оның жолдасы өте жаман адам болса ажырасуға рұқсат. Бақытты отбасында ғашық ең маңызды, ал шыдам да, кешірім де керек. Отбасы бақытты болу ушін оның мүшелері меселелердің бәрін бірге шешу керек.
So I have a decent commute to school (about 45 minutes) and I have been studying the fine art of riding public buses in Almaty. They cost 50 tenge (approx. 34 cents) unless you’re going somewhere particularly far like Medey (the outdoor ice rink in the mountains). I like to put 50 tenge my pocket before I go anywhere so I am not messing around with my wallet in the bus. I am told pick-pockets are pretty common and fairly adept at stealing things in an undetectable manner. Fortunately, I don’t have personal experience yet with such issues and I’d like to keep it that way. Also if you need change, best to head over to the assistant a little before your stop so you can get proper change before you’re corralled off the bus.
For anyone studying in Almaty who gets official student status you’re supposed to be able to take the buses for free with your student ID. Unfortunately my program doesn’t give me full-fledged student status so I don’t get the necessary ID. I think this is a major shortcoming in my program, but that’s an issue to broach in another blog post.
Regarding buses, you want to avoid the morning and even rush hours like the plague. From what I can tell these occur from about 7-9 a.m. and 5:30-7:30 p.m. At these times people are basically crammed into the buses like cattle: prepare to be elbowed, groped and so on. Do not harbor any expectation at all of getting a seat. Also bear in mind that the buses that run to Almaty’s main bazaars: The Green Bazar and Barakholka are packed with people all day on Sunday and also fairly regularly throughout the week – except that Barakholka is closed on Mondays. Best to avoid the bazaar buses whenever possible.
Buses are staffed by a driver and an assistant. The assistant’s job is to yell out the bus route to entice people onto the bus and also to call out the next stop as we approach. They also collect money and, during rush hours, yell at people to stand closer together and not crowd around the two doors – one in the front by the driver and one in the middle. Occasionally I find the bus assistants to be extremely annoying – I have one female assistant in particular in mind who works Bus Route 35. During rush hours she will literally push people to get them to stand closer together in the bus, and argue with and insult them. I am not a fan and will generally avoid her buses if possible.
Backpacks are definitely a pain in the neck on crowded buses (and probably easy to unzip without you noticing to take stuff out of). I have actually gotten yelled at on buses to take mine off a couple of times. I usually wear it on my chest or set it on the floor between my legs. Also, on a related note, backpacks are frowned upon in stores because they suspect you will steal something. Some stores have lockers you can put your bag in, but even for other places without lockers don’t be surprised if an employee comes up to you and yells at you for having a backpack in the store. They may even accuse you of trying to steal something.
Seat culture on Almaty buses is somewhat interesting. Basically when I get in a bus where there are still free seats I look for the worst seat possible – usually one on top of a wheel well. The worse the seat is the less likely some old lady will come up ask me for my seat. From what I can tell, the pecking order for seat priority is 1) elderly people and pregnant women and women with a baby/infant, 2) middle-aged women, 3) middle-aged men , 4) young women (especially those in heals and dressy clothes), and 5) then everybody else. Sometimes people lower in this chain don’t even bother to sit when there is empty seat because the chance is often short-lived. This could also perhaps be interpreted as show of toughness and/or politeness. An exception to the “young people usually don’t get seats” rule is the back row of seats, which requires a step up as this row of seats sits on a trunk-like area of the bus. This row of seats is usually full of young guys and girls. I don’t like to sit here unless I will be on the bus for a while. This is because it takes a while to push through the throngs of people to get off the bus from these seats.
If you’re fortunate enough to have a seat and a person nearby is without a seat and has a heavy load the proper thing to do is to offer to hold that person’s stuff on your lap. I do this sometimes if the load looks fairly innocuous and the person seems pretty clean cut. I am all for being polite, but I don’t want to end up holding anyone’s contraband.
Finally, a surprising difference for me between the bus-riding culture in Almaty, as compared to that in Baku (where I lived for four years), is that men have no problem crowding right in next to women even when we are literally squished together like sardines. This is a little weird as with the stop and go rhythm of traffic we all practically end up bumping and grinding together. I guess just don’t be surprised…
So now that you know how to ride a bus in Almaty, I hope you come here and give it a shot! :)
(Written September 9, 2011, however I was unable to log onto WordPress here until now)
I arrived in Kazakhstan last Friday and now have officially been in Kazakhstan for a week. I started Kazakh classes on Monday. They are 1-on-1 classes five days a week for 3 hours a day. So far, I have only had Kazakh lessons, but American Councils promised me that one day a week would be allocated for Russian lessons. Hopefully that will happen soon. At KIMEP (http://new.kimep.kz/) everyone speaks Russian. The teachers and students are fabulous, but I don’t think the environment is conducive to learning Kazakh. In Almaty too I mainly hear Russian and my host family speaks in a jumbled mix of Kazakh and Russian, although they’re obviously taking great pains to speak to me in Kazakh, which I greatly appreciate.
My host family consists of a mother, father and 27- year-old sister Jamila. Another sister, Augerim, is married and has an infant daughter. The family was not really home until Tuesday night, which made for an extremely unremarkable first weekend in Almaty and a not exactly ideal “homecoming.” Still the family has been kind and welcoming. One lingering issue is that I don’t have a bed. I assume this is coming soon, but for now I am sleeping in the living room on the sofa, which is a huge pain because my sleeping habits infringe on their social time and TV-viewing habits. Additionally, I want to sleep in shorts, but can’t really tell if wearing shorts in the house is acceptable or not. Surprisingly lots of girls in Almaty are sporting “daisy dukes.” I don’t have a good handle yet on if these girls are viewed in a positive light.
My Kazakh classes are alright. The teachers are focusing intensively on pronunciation, which is probably a good thing since I am sure my Azeri and Turkish knowledge is influencing how I speak Kazakh. One problem I can foresee with the classes is that the teachers teach Kazakh in Russian. In truth, I really should have had much better Russian before coming here. My three semesters like 10 years ago at UNH are not really cutting it.
I met with the Dean of KIMEP’s law school, Terrence Blackburn, yesterday. He is a very nice guy from Pittsburgh (!!). We discussed possible ways to collaborate. One possibility is working with KIMEP’s Vis team and another is working with the European Law Students Association (ELSA). I am not sure how I feel about working with the VIS team as my forte tends to be public international law, but I am open to giving it a shot, especially since it’s a way not only to learn something different, but also to meet people. Meeting people at KIMEP has been incredibly difficult without Russian. Even the cafeteria lady gives me a dirty look when I try to order in Kazakh. She barks the Russian back at me as if she is correcting me. Working with the ELSA might entail helping them organize a city-wide moot court competition which would also be interesting. In my interactions with the law school, I also came across another American student. He is in KIMEP’s Masters in International Relations program. He introduced himself to Dr. Blackburn and me by telling us he plans to attend Stanford Law and is currently testing around a 169 on his LSAT. Congrats to him, but I want to be at Stanford if he continues to introduce himself by telling people his LSAT score (haha!).
There is a lot more I could write, but I am short on time. I have been granted permission to workout at KIMEP sports gym and must get there at my assigned time. The gym is very simple, but it does have three treadmills which makes me happy. My use of the gym is very strictly regimented by the university staff. I can only attend three set days a week and at a set time. My assigned time is MWF at 2:30.