Sunday, 2 March 2008


Only a 30 mintue drive from Almaty is Chimbaluk, a ski area that tops up around 10,800 feet. I didn't ski/snowboard, but a friend and I rode up the ski lifts and had a coffee near the top. It was a beautiful Sunday and it wasn't even crowded! I think I'll go back next weekend if the weather cooperates and snowboard... it's been a long time (probably over 9 years or so) since I've skied or snowboarded, but the place looked really nice - good snow and small lift lines.

And spring is in the air - it's noticably warmer (it's been above freezing the last two days), and the snow is melting fast in Almaty! :)

Saturday, 1 March 2008


Here's me and two of the other 4 English teachers I work with - we're out for dinner to a Chinese restaurant - that's Feargus (from Ireland) on the left, and Suroush (from England).

Home sweet home

This is the restaurant in the lobby of my hotel, called the Yourt Cafe. While horribly overpriced (as you would expect in a 5-star hotel in an expensive city), the atmosphere is OK.

Here's what my room looks like - the lobby, the pool, and the gym may be 5-star, but the rooms are pretty ordinary, but they're comfortable and good enough for me.

Thailand photos

The people, the food, the atmosphere, the scenery... I love Thailand. Here are a few photos from my (too short) trip:

I long to return to Thailand, but I think for my next holiday trip on Air Astana I'll try somewhere new - I'm thinking India (Dehli), Turkey (Istanbul), Korea (Seoul), or UAE (Dubai). Decisions decisions...

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Pre-Holiday Excitement

Tomorrow morning I fly to Bangkok for a long weekend - I was there eight years ago, and I can't wait to return.
I should have time to make a quick run to a beach, but we shall see. I wouldn't mind re-living some of my activities eight years ago:

Monday, 4 February 2008

More Kazakhstan in the news

The Air Astana office where I work is adjacent to the airport. Last week, when I was to the place where I catch a shuttle back to my hotel, there were some black tinted-window SUVs speeding around, and I wondered what was going on.

One of the pilots said former US President Bill Clinton was in Almaty for a visit, which I thought was unlikely since he is currently busy playing "attack dog" in Hillary's presidential campaign. However, perhaps it's possible, for the NYT reported he helped Canadian mining financier Frank Giustra secure an extremely lucrative deal for tapping uranium deposits during a hastily arranged trip to Almaty in 2005, which both men denied until this article called their bluff. Surprisingly (not), after this deal was secured, Guistra donated generously ($31 million) to The Clinton Foundation...

Hillary was asked about her husband's suspect Kazakhstan visit, and here's her response.

In other news, the US has just made a military deal with Kazakhstan, and Russia will not be pleased.

Sunday, 3 February 2008

Stunted democracies and outright dictatorships

Interesting NYT article about the "stunted democracies and outright dictatorships" in Central Asia and how the USA has recently reconsidered its diplomatic strategy for these countries. Kazakhstan is mentioned on Page 2.

Imminent travels

Even though I contract through an English language school in Ireland, I'm eligible for the same travel benefits Air Astana employees get, which means I can fly anywhere Air Astana flies at a heavy discount, assuming there's room on the flight. And believe me, I plan on putting those benefits to good use as long as I'm here.

My first trip I've arranged is coming up very soon - I'm flying to Bangkok in a little less than two weeks for a 6-day holiday. I haven't decided on my itinerary yet, but I was in Thailand 8 years ago and I loved it, and ever since I have longed to return to SE Asia and explore it further. So, as you can imagine, I'm very excited.

Then from mid-to-late March, I've got two weeks off and I'll be returning to Edinburgh for a week or week and a half... also, I'd like to go somewhere in Europe that I haven't been to yet (Rome and Barcelona are at the top of my wishlist) if I can avoid the Easter crowds and increased airfares.

I love traveling. Life doesn't suck. :)

Mountain view from my room

It was very strange (in a good way) to wake up this morning on my day off, open the curtains to a nice sunny day, and see some... mountains! This is the from my small balcony, and you can see mountains on either side of the building:

The reasons I haven't noticed that I can see mountains from my hotel room window after 3.5 weeks of living here are because:

1) There's a fair bit of pollution in Almaty, and because of its position sitting below the Tian Shan mountain range to the south (which separates Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan) it doesn't get much wind, so the haze and smoke can settle for days and makes the visibility poor.

2) There haven't been that many sunny clear days since I've arrived, although this is supposed to change after winter.

3) When there have been sunny days with good visibility, I've probably opened my curtains without looking closely.

Monday, 28 January 2008

5-star hotel living as an expat in Almaty

Hello from Almaty! I've been quiet lately, so there's lots to say...

My 40th birthday came and went without much fanfare… I was in Astana (Kazakhstan’s capital city since 1997 – before that it was Almaty) teaching for 2 days. Even though I was all by myself without anyone I knew to celebrate or raise a drink with (cue the violins), I had a good day of classes and great students, and the hotel was top-notch (the pillows were particularly nice), so I felt good. And I flew business class, which was really nice – I could get used to that. I’m supposed to be able to fly business class most of the time when I fly on Air Astana, even when I’m not flying for work, so I think this job might spoil me for economy class, which I’m not entirely happy about, to be honest.

I’ve adjusted to living out of a hotel quite easily. I really don’t mind it, and I kind of like it. Perhaps it’s because I used to dream of touring the world as a rock musician and fantasized about living in hotels, I don’t know. Perhaps the novelty hasn't worn off yet. I think I’ve only ever stayed in a 5-star hotel once before (at Whistler Mountain, BC Canada – and that was only because Joanna’s friend worked for the hotel’s company and got us a huge discount).

A daily breakfast buffet is included, which includes everything you’d expect in a Western hotel buffet. I usually have a bowl of fruit (usually pineapple and honeydew melon) then a bowl of muesli. On the days I don’t work, I might get a bit decadent and have hash brown patties with baked beans. On workdays, I catch the Air Astana shuttle-van at 8:00am. It drive to the Air Astana office (adjacent to Almaty airport) usually takes about 40 minutes. On the way home, traffic is usually worse and it might take an hour. (Perhaps the chauffered transportation to/from work also makes me feel like a rock star. ;))

Because we’re on our own for lunch and dinner, I usually put some nuts and dried fruit into a plastic container to eat for lunch, but sometimes I go with the other teachers and eat at one of two nearby local canteen restaurants with the local Kazakhstanis – but there isn’t much to eat there for me, as a vegetarian, although a cabbage dish seasoned with spices (I’m guessing chilli pepper and paprika) is pretty good.

For dinner, there are a few restaurants around. However, unless you eat at the canteens I mentioned above, it’s surprisingly expensive to eat (and drink) here… Look at this list of the most expensive cities for expats to live. Almaty is the 30th most expensive place to live in the world (up from 52 the previous year, and it didn't make this list at all two years ago)! My favourite restaurant I’ve found (within walking distance) is an Indian place called Namasté, which is reasonably priced compared to most, and lots and lots of veggie options. Another is an Italian restaurant La Terraza. Considering I love to hang out at coffee houses, I’ve found a good one: John’s coffee, a chain started by a Danish guy in Turkey, is a 15 minute walk from the hotel.

To me, not being able to cook my own meals is the main downside of hotel living. I have a small refrigerator (I had the hotel staff clean out the mini-bar supplies), but I can’t cook here. A lot of Air Astana expats move into an apartment if they’re here for any length of time for this reason. Another reason is that if they have a local girlfriend, they won’t come to the hotel because prostitutes hang out at the bar every night, so they don’t want to be mistaken for one thereby avoiding judgemental glares from hotel staff. I’d imagine I’ll want to move to an apartment eventually soon as well, but in the meantime I’ll try to make use of the perks like the breakfast buffet, room service (which is reasonably priced compared to the local restaurants after factoring in the 30% Air Astana discount), and the hotel gym (I’ve been trying to ride an exercise bike regularly, but haven’t yet used the pool or Turkish bath).

I’ve been trying to learn a bit of Russian (all of the locals speak Kazak, but they all know Russian too, so it’s more practical to learn Russian), but so far only have a few basics. But hardly anyone knows English – more so that anyplace else I’ve travelled, so my motivation to learn a bit more Russian is increased – I’m hoping to find a teacher for weekly lessons soon.

There’s so much more I could write about – I’ll write again soon. But overall, so far so good. :)

Saturday, 12 January 2008

Here I am in Kazakhstan

I made it! Since I arrived here early Wednesday (Jan 8th) things have been quite hectic and a bit of a blur. I’ve got my first day off on Sunday, then on Monday the 14th (which just happens to be my 40th birthday) I’ll have to wake up early to board a 6:15am flight to Astana, the capital, and I’ll teach there Monday and Tuesday, returning to Almaty Tuesday evening.

Tonight there is a party for all Air Astana employees which should be an interesting time. (Even though I’m contracted through a school in Ireland, Air Astana are essentially my employer, and we teach in their office adjacent to the airport). Apparently they happen only a few times a year, and they’re a big deal, so I guess I’m fortunate to arrive when I did. It's being held at some fancy-schmancy venue downtown. Interestingly, no spouses/partners are allowed at the party, which should make things especially interesting as the (free) liquor flows and the night progresses.

I’ll write more about my impressions later, and try to take a few photos with my new camera I got as a birthday present (thanks Jo), but for now I’m at work and should get back to my lesson planning.

Monday, 31 December 2007

Snow Leopard Country

I may be leaving for Almaty, Kazakhstan in less than a week (although I don't know the exact date yet), so I'm trying to get everything prepared and organized before I go.

I didn't know much of anything about Kazakhstan or Central Asia before I was considering this job, so lately I've been doing a large amount of reading up on it. Like anywhere, there are pros and cons.

Here's a recent New York Times article.

And here's a 4-page photo gallery from a guy who spent some time around Almaty while renewing his Chinese visa. I got especially excited looking at his photos of the surrounding mountains and lakes on Page 2. It will be nice to be around large mountains again (they're an hour's drive away). And I was also excited to learn that this part of Kazakhstan is habitat for the almost mythical snow leopard.

I recently saw the first close-up footage of a snow leopard ever filmed in its natural habital on the BBC Planet Earth documentary. They're amazing and rare animals, I thought I'd share that exact excerpt (which I found on YouTube):

And I discovered that the snow leopard is on the seal of Almaty:

Anyhow, I'm looking forward to seeing that part of the world. It's really not that far (relatively speaking, at least - Asia is pretty large) from Tibet or Mongolia, and it's not too far north of the Silk Road (the trade route that connected China to the Mediterannean). So it seems pretty exotic and exciting, even though Almaty is supposed to feel more European in many ways, so it hopefully won't feel like too much of a culture shock.

So while a large part of me is sad to leave my life in Edinburgh (it's the most interesting place I've lived), and of course to leave my partner of the last nine years - another part of me is excited to discover and experience this new part of the world, and to see what the future holds as I begin my (yikes!) fifth decade on this earth.

Finally, for those of you that need a brief geography lesson of Central Asia (like I did), here's a map to help orient you where Kazakhstan and the city of Almaty is. Almaty is near the center of the highlighted circle, in the Southeast of Kazakhstan near the Kyrgyzstan border (I know the text is small - it's the only city shown in SE Kazakhstan though).

Monday, 3 December 2007

Coming Soon: Brett in Kazakhstan

In the previous post I mentioned I might have a job teaching English in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Well, it didn't happen as soon as I thought it would, but it looks like it will happen!

I'm awaiting the paperwork, but it definitely sounds like a go. I'd be working for a school based in Ireland that has a contract to teach English to the non-native English-speaking pilots working for Air Astana, Kazakhstan's national airline. I'll be one of their Subject Matter Experts (SME), as I've got an education/background in aviation. I'll mostly be teaching English but in an aviation context, and then I'll be creating lesson materials for about a third of the time. Additionally, I'll travel to Beijing, China and Dubai, UAE to teach at their other schools when needed.

I've been reading voraciously about Almaty, Kazakhstan, and Central Asia, and it sounds really interesting. I've got a really good feeling about it and I think I'll like it. And whether I do or not, it's a great opportunity and exactly what I was hoping to do when I started teaching English. It feels like a new adventure is starting, and I've always wanted to travel more in my work.

The downside to taking this job is that I would be away from Edinburgh for a long time. Joanna has been 100% supportive, but we have been going through some soul searching of our own, and what we want in the future as a partnership.

Recently we've decided to separate, as we are both looking at future possibilities that may not be compatible. We want all of our friends and family to know that we still love each other very much, and we're simply giving each other some time and space to explore some things on our own. And while we'll miss each other, we do feel that this separation is necessary, and if we decide to get back together in the future we'll be the better for it.

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Teaching English

Where does the time go? This summer sure went fast... and I've obviously been horrible at updating my blog! Sorry 'bout that...

Anyhow, I had a great summer in Edinburgh and a very enjoyable time teaching English. I've improved my teaching and have met many great people from around the world. I do think I've found a career I will find interesting and rewarding for the foreseeable future, which is a great feeling.

One thing that teaching English as a foreign language (in Edinburgh and elsewhere) often lacks is 1) a good livable pay rate, and 2) reliable year-round available teaching hours. When I decided to switch careers to teaching English, my strategy was to get around a year's experience in "general" English first, but ultimately I planned to specialize in Aviation English (teaching pilots and air traffic controllers whose first language is not English), thereby leveraging my past aviation knowledge/experience - and thereby making more money, having more flexibility, travel, etc. I was hoping I could find an Aviation English position for the autumn/winter...

And, I might have found one! Nothing's been promised or signed yet, but I've tentatively agreed to teach pilots in Almaty, Kazakhstan for Kazakhstan's national airline Air Astana. I still don't know all of the details yet, so it's too early to count my chickens, but I'm very excited about the opportunity... more info to come!

Holiday Photos

Here are some photos from my recent holiday...

Ljubljana, Slovenia:

Various places in the Cinque Terre, Northern Italy:

Lake Como, Northern Italy:

Duomo di Milano (aka Milan Cathedral), Milan, Italy