Explorer Mikael Strandberg

Kazakh Diary: Beer and vodka cheaper than milk and water

It is -15 degrees Celsius this morning and it has been snowing lately. On and off there´s a freezing wind which makes it a small challenge being outdoors and cheeks, nose tips and fingers feel a bit of a cold nip. Finally it seems like the winter have arrived and stabilized itself, which is a great joy for my little family. But, as usual, when there´s a dramatic climate change, a person gets very tired easily and it takes time to adjust, so lately we have all felt dead tired. It doesn´t help that we all know we are splitting up soon and whilst my wife continues her work, the daughters and myself will return to Sweden. We look at this separation with dread all of us. Even though it has some advantages returning home. A proper Internet, a variety of food to eat (without added sugar in everything and not me serving pelmeni almost every day to the kids), a much bigger apartment (which means comfort and space) and an possibility to read books again and do research without depending on an extremely, extremely slow Internet. At times it takes 10 minutes to open a page here on the local university line. AND, water will be free and drinkable and once again, milk will be far cheaper than beer and vodka! Which will make me drink far less. High taxes and prices on alcohol definitely helps and keep consumption down. Because, if I can get a liter of really good local beer for the same price almost as milk or water, why wouldn´t I?


BUT, having said all that above, it will be dramatically less interesting and most likely quite boring quite fast. And I will miss the people we have gotten to know over this period of time. And every day is like a new period of discovery. The other day we all went to one of the the theaters in the side, the one catering for Kazakh culture. Since both our Kazakh and Russian is limited we didn´t fully understand that it would be a celebration of one of the best dombra performers in Karaganda, so we were the only ones in the full theater who were not dressed up. TV was there, loads of ladies with flowers in this beautiful arena and after 45 minutes we had only one short performance and the rest was all these incredibly long speeches which is a legacy of the old Soviet era. And Dana had enough after just 20 minutes. She likes action, not speeches, so we had to leave among glaring eyes at these Westerners who cannot keep full control over their kids. This situation, that we always bring our kids everywhere, since we don´t have any help, isn´t always easy.

The girls far more enjoyed the fun fair that our new friend Anna set us up for. It took a while to get there in a beginning snow storm, but once there, the kids overran the place and loved it! Even though the cost was 3000 tenge,approx 10 pounds, (which is a lot for most people, if your income is 60 000 a month) -and let me say this, every place we go to, we try to live as the people we have around us and staying at the University means we have to try to live on really low costs- I realized the kids had earned it. Anna was a joy to meet. She had lived in Moscow for a while but decided to move back, not only missing her parents, but also because life is way cheaper in Karaganda. And there´s a lot to do in Karaganda. A lot, costing hardly anything.

Karaganda has acclimatized to the winter conditions quickly. The infrastructure works like normal, people have dressed up and there´s far less vegetables and fruit in the shops. Quite a lot of isn´t looking perfect on the surface and prices have risen. But i do notice that people are used to bunking up, which is also a legacy from Soviet times. All in all, there´s a very strong Soviet feel, which I personally enjoy a lot. And signs of the Great Patriotic War (WW II) can be seen everywhere. My favorite statue is the one of Nurken Abdirov, He and his gunner got hit by enemy fire during WWII and knew they wouldn´t survive so they steered their plane and crashed into a column of German tanks sacrificing their own lives to destroy the enemy. He is a Soviet Hero who has a village, streets and buildings named in his honor.


Even though Karaganda carries the legacy of having been one of the biggest -in size- Gulags of the Stalin Era, it is a positive and vibrant place today. Due to the deportations it has a mixed population with people coming from many places. there´s many beautiful people around and the president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, used to live here for quite a while and he worked in Steel City (Timertau). But interestingly is that the former leader of Chechen republic, Akhmad Kadyrov who was assassinated 2004, was born here. And a lot of sports stars, which are not that well known in the West, but in the East. Maybe Gennady Golovkin the worlds Middle Weight Champion in boxing. He was also born here.

I guess, to some degree, we are now part of its history!


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