Sophie Breant, entrepreneur, consulting agent in private travels, @so.breant, @agence_qenes
I am French, from Paris. I used to be a Communications Director in Paris, specialized in Press relations, Events and e-Reputation.
I lived three years in Kazakhstan. My husband was transferred to what was Astana at the time by his company, a French energy major. So we moved to Kazakhstan as a family, with our 12-year old son and two cats. I started an exclusive travel agency with a Kazakh friend to promote France to the Kazakhs and Kazakhstan to the French. Unfortunately, because of the pandemic, our project is now on hold. But I really hope that soon we can resume as I really want to continue being an active player in the Franco-Kazakh friendship.
About first impression
We were living in Canada when we found out we were expatriated to Kazakhstan. I looked online and ordered the only tourist guide available in English. I will be honest; I got quite worried when I read it. When you put together ultra-continental weather, non-drinkable water, Russian and Kazakh languages, horsemeat dishes and tick-borne encephalitis risks, you get very worried when you are a European. But when I came for the first time during my pre-assignment trip, I immediately fell in love with Astana whose architecture could not be compared with anything I had seen before. We easily found an apartment and all the furniture we needed. Getting to know the city and places to go was also very easy. Everybody we met was very friendly and welcoming. We got all the help we needed to settle. And there even was the French school already, so our son could continue his curriculum as if he was in France. I have been very lucky to quickly find a great Yoga studio with an English-speaking teacher. Most of my friends, both Kazakh and international, were students at this studio, so it helped me fit in quickly.
The main difficulty I encountered concerned the language. I had started to learn Russian before arriving in Kazakhstan. I felt very confident that I could learn the language fairly quickly. Unfortunately, said app was just an easy introduction to Russian. And when I really got started with a proper teacher, I realized the task was going to be much harder than I expected. I took three years of Russian and finally managed to get around the country with the basics I had, but never got to have a proper conversation in Russian with a Russian-speaking person, which was a shame. The other main difficulty I faced was with my work permit. I sent my application form twice and it was rejected twice, even though my project was to set up a communication agency in Nur-Sultan, with a Kazakh friend, in order to share the best practices I learned from my long experience in France and Canada and train young Kazakh graduates.
One is recycling. Recycling is so important to us in Europe and North America that it feels wrong every time you cannot separate your waste or recycle your plastic bottles. Another is the courier. One day I realized that the Post office was not really a post office and that I could neither send nor receive anything. It was a big disappointment to our family back in France, as they still love to send and receive postcards, letters, gifts, food. Likewise, I often got in trouble because I could not find someone's home for instance, as the street numbers are random and unreliable throughout the city.
I always say that the Kazakh people are the real wealth of Kazakhstan. Everyone I met were so welcoming, open-minded, interested in sharing their culture, hearing about mine, making an effort to communicate, always smiling even though we could not understand each other. At first, I was quite disturbed by the Kazakh way of serving meals, as all dishes arrive at the table around the same time and are shared by everyone. Very different from formal French menus. But my family and I love the "Kazakh way" so much that we often serve dishes like this at home now.
Another day I was travelling around Kolsay and Kaindy lakes with a friend and children. We stayed in a yurt in Saty. As we were surrounded by horses, one of the children wanted to try horseback riding. We asked the owner of the yurts if there was a riding place nearby, when there was clearly none. But about 30 minutes later, to our surprise, a child on horseback came galloping to our place. One of yurts' employees offered to take our little boy on horseback, and they both left on the one horse for about one hour. When they got back, our little guy could not stop smiling and smiling and smiling as he had the best experience ever. A lifetime experience I am sure. This is just another example of how the Kazakhs treated us, always wanting to please us and provide everything we needed, often above expectations.
Steve Hunter, author, traveller, @freddi_woomba
I am from Canada. I grew up in an industrial city Sarnia in Ontario on Lake Huron. The city has a lot of beaches and gorgeous forest areas and a small population. But the place called, “Chemical Valley”, the whole region smelt of rotten eggs. It was a bit of a catalyst to push me out of there and into the world. I studied cooking after leaving my hometown. I did an apprenticeship, worked for some good chefs, trained in Montreal, Vancouver and in the Rocky Mountains. I left to Australia to work as a Chef. I had lived a few summers on the road, so once I arrived to Australia and met all the travelers, I got hook right in like a fish on a worm.
After 11 years of globetrotting and 78 countries, I walked into Kazakhstan from China. I was drawn to Kazakhstan. It is a huge country, people rarely spoke about the place and it had a reputation of steppe nomads’ culture. After some time here, I realize that the steppe culture is pretty much dead in Kazakhstan, but there is still plenty of steppe.
About first impression
My first impression was across the border from Khorgos in Xinjiang. The place seemed so much freer than in China. I could breathe easier. I was able to walk onto the highway, there was no traffic so I had to walk quite a while before I got my first hitchhike, but I could move freely and that was relieving. The kamaz driver that picked me up, he hosted me at his house with his family that night. We had a great time together. We could not speak much because my Russian was zero and his English was the same. We had high spirits going and that is all that mattered.
People mentioned Almaty. The city needed English teachers. With my experience, it would not be a problem. Except, there was a lot of “protocol”. What I wanted was to avoid the difficulties that I had before working illegally, being thrown around to different businesses and being misrepresented. Unfortunately, as a chef, I do not get a university degree and without it, I was forced to find side jobs. That is where the problems arose.
People came to me like hawks. Like out on the steppe and I was the mouse. I spoke English as a first language, I had teaching experience, I could teach. Instead of getting a legitimate job, the first few months I ended up working with a handful of different “managers”. It took a long time to find a decent place to live, a decent job and a bit of calm. I saw many expats with a nice and cozy, comfortable life and it was a bit frustrating. Part of that was due to me not working for a foreign company and been placed here by them. The second was that I did not speak Russian.
The people were grumpy, pushy, and disorganized. The drivers were madmen behind the wheel, stopping on a dime then starting again. Even with 2Gis, finding anything was a bit of a mission. I noticed a lot of “middleman” work. Nobody wanted to do menial jobs, so they needed to start a business. But you need some cash flow to start a business, so what you need is an angle to exploit, build your bankroll then expand. It is a process. And it is very clear.
I traveled with my girlfriend, a Kazakh that I realized that everyone was going through the same thing. There was so much clutter left behind, still, from the old Communist style, that there was a long way to go and it brought on a lot of stress for those who have modern ambitions. What I mean is, if I had a business I would want everyone to be self-motivated, goal orientated, and timely.
The Altai region of Kazakhstan reminded me a lot of Canada. And the random sand dunes and desert areas, we also have a few of these in Western Canada. Beluha is about the same size as Mt. Robson and the forests are fantastic. After the Soviet Union, a lot of poaching happened and still does, so the wildlife is scarce. Which is sad, because in Canada it is still very much there and controlled and fantastic. We both eat meat and potatoes, we are both not known on the map for our culinary skills and we both have a dual language society. We are both huge countries with different climates and both endure tough winters and scorching summers. The people in big cities are not much different on buses I guess, but I could at least communicate.
What I like there
The thing is that there has been plenty of development. But the Russians liked to cut corners and make things shorter and cheaper. Kazakhs are the most developed, multi-national country in the whole of Central Asia. There is an economy that brought me and many others here, there are opportunities, and there is a lot in this country especially in its two biggest cities for personal gain. Find something that works do a bit of marketing, and you will inherit something from that.
I have learned a lot in my time settled in Kazakhstan. In addition, I am glad to have experienced firsthand the collapse of the Nomad. That is ultimately, what brought me out this way. If not for coronavirus, I would be in Mongolia, searching out the last remains of this culture.
And maybe it is not a good life. Maybe living out on the way, changing places with seasons, and running with your herd day after day is a hard life. Perhaps farming is a crap life. Living on fresh air, on riversides, and chasing the wind around open plains. Nature at every corner, open skies and starry nights. And all the hard work that comes from that. It is miserable. I can see why everyone decided to settle down, start a business, and buy a Landcruiser. Makes sense. Just glad I got to witness it. And see that I myself, I might be one of the last nomads.
Isabelle Colard-Tyler, teacher trainer, @isabellelavagabonde
I am originally from France. Around 28 years old, with a master's degree and advanced studies diploma in history and geopolitics, I decided it was time to see the world. I went to Puerto Rico and there, I taught French at the University of Puerto Rico. What a fabulous adventure. I did it all by myself. Spent after that two years in DC, find jobs, had a great adventure too. I went back to France to get certified in Applied Linguistics and became a teacher of French and a teacher trainer. I went back to the US and started a teaching career in Louisiana; New Orleans was home for me.
I married an American and we started a family and received my citizenship. After ten years, it was time to discover the world with our two children. We went to teach in Kuwait, Dubai, and finally to Kazakhstan.
About first impression
Beauty. Modernity. Simplicity. Authenticity. Calm. Clean. People are excited about new developments in their country. It is still the beginning of something. There is a positive atmosphere in the air, a joy. Many babies, young children, young couples.
Nothing is too big. Everything is just perfect. A mix of old and new. Beautiful parks. We can walk everywhere we want. It is super safe. We can talk to people in English. I felt so welcomed at KAZGUU University and then at Nazarbayev Intellectual schools. I think it reminded me of when I was young in France. I felt happy, calm. And it stayed this way for two years. Even though when it is minus 20 or 30 outside. I loved it. We loved the arrival of the fall that year.
Nothing really was difficult because we are travelers and we know how to adjust. We are aware of our economic advantages. We want to be accepted. We are respectful of people and their traditions. We have a comfortable apartment at Riverside, on Saryarka with everything nearby supermarkets, pharmacies, the old city, shops, coffee shops, and restaurants.
Of course, language. It is a real barrier. However, we survived it. The fact the country is bilingual Russian and Kazakh, we did not know which language to learn and so we learned neither Russian nor Kazakhs. Which is sad. My son, 16, however, has many local friends at school and loves to learn languages so, he did. He is singing in Russian Rap songs and has a charming friend with whom he also learning Kazakh, visits his friend today he can have a basic conversation.
People did not smile back when we smiled at them. They did not like gestures or physical gestures. They do not have the same way to maintain a certain physical distance between you and them. They can touch you in the street or in the shop because it is OK for them.
The buses were full-packed around six pm, which did not stop the controller to ask for each ticket.
For me, it is the same fabulous blue sky in winter and summer. I met people from Almaty and I found them, in general, more open, to express their emotions with a great sense of humor. I felt that I understand Kazakh, I like their authenticity and the way they are direct. When I could exchange in English or in French at University, I felt a complicity with my students, a true connection.
I had the wonderful opportunity to develop friendships with Kazakh colleagues: they are very professional, speak perfect English, and are curious, courageous, and resilient with a smile. What was clear was the difference in income between a local and a foreign teacher. This situation of low income, in general, help to maintain a strong family connection, which does not exist anymore in France or in the USA. But I also learned not to judge because in our countries people must count on themselves most of the time and only. Money still not the most important thing in Kazakhstan. People still helping each other. They still have more human values. I am aware that a minority in Kazakhstan has a lot of money but a large portion of the society has not. People are enjoying life still with simplicity.
What I like there
Less complicated life. Much fewer worries. We are foreigners and life is easier for us. Kazakhs are very courageous people. People are more polite. Women and men present well. Women are most of the time very feminine, charming, slim, and looking professional and in good health. I hope it will continue this way. Kazakhstan needs to create its own model of society.