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.