How to Grocery Shop

I hate grocery shopping. Always have. However, the novelty of grocery shopping in an entirely different region has made it enjoyable enough that here I am, discussing what is a very boring topic.

There are no grocery stores on the campus of the university I live/work at and the city is about 5km away, which means I have to bus or ride my bike to get groceries. I bought a bike basket this weekend, making life considerably easier even though it took me all weekend to figure out how to properly attach it to the bike.

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So far, I’ve been to three grocery stores, all of which are found in malls. One called Gal Mart in Keruen (sometimes I like to think of this as a derivative of Walmart, and other times, as a store for gals), Green in Khan Shatyr (the yurt shaped mall), and Alma Friendly 24 in Asia Park. I’ll probably go to Alma Friendly 24 the most because it’s the closest to campus.

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There are also bazaars at which you can buy groceries but I’ve been too lazy to go so far. So TBA on that. And ordering groceries is an option, which I’m sure I’ll do a lot in the winter or when I’m craving celery, which is apparently one of the things you can order.

Here are some thoughts on the grocery selection that I’ve seen so far:

  • I haven’t found kale, chard, or dark leafy greens yet. I would even be happy with the leafy tops of beets!
  • I miss coconut oil, apple cider vinegar, and kombucha. Such a west coast hippie.
  • To make up for the above, I’m hoping to acquire a taste for kefir. For now, I’m not so into it.
  • Produce in general is okay. My favourite options include: apricots, plums, peppers, and garlic. Peppers everywhere here!

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  • It took me forever to find body lotion. My skin was about to slough off entirely because it’s so dry here. Every day is a battle with hair static. One of my colleagues highly recommends mayonnaise hair masks.
  • You can buy alcohol! In Alma Friendly 24, there is a separate cashier at which you have to pay for wine and hard liquor (for some reason you buy beer at the regular cash). Good for you British Columbia for catching up to the least progressive grocery store in Kazakhstan.
  • I bought some local Kazakh wine for $4 but then I couldn’t find a corkscrew. I managed to get it open by pushing it through. There were corkscrews next time I went to the store (you have to buy things you want when you see them because they might not be there next time). But the corkscrew didn’t work on the wine I bought today because the bottle top is a weird shape and so I had to push the cork through again. And then it turned out I accidentally bought a dessert wine. The daily adventures of Kazakhtan.
  • Though there is no grocery store on campus, there is a snack store. They sell these paprika crackers and soft cheeses (like Laughing Cow) that are my favourite snack.

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  • I bought what I thought was a jar of plain tomato sauce for making pasta sauce but it’s very sweet and ketchup-y tasting. I tried to buy some other sauce but it had pomegranate seeds in it and was very gross. It’s okay, I’ve always been into this recipe.
  • No peanut butter or nut butters of any kind. I’m kind of okay with this though. I always liked peanut butter in theory more than in taste.
  • Finding spices is a case of judging a book by its cover. The packets are opaque and you have to guess based on the illustrations. I accidentally bought soup mix a few days ago.
  • There is a staple grain here that I eat a lot. I have no idea what it’s called. I Googled the name on the package (“apashka”) but it’s actually the brand name, and means “granny” in Kazakh but it’s also a dervish term, or something, and the images that accompanied the search were very alarming.
  • It took my room mate and I an afternoon to figure out whether we had bought toilet paper or very boring streamers from the snack store on campus. Turns out it is, indeed, toilet paper. They sell standard toilet paper in stores – in so many colours!

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  • I order my drinking water through the reception staff of the building I live in and there’s a big water cooler at work.
  • Bread. BREAD! It’s so good. So cheap. Less than $.50 cheap.
  • Across the board, groceries are cheap. I think I’ve been paying about $30/week here so far.
  • These bulk assorted “fish shapes” make me laugh every time I pass by them.

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How Astana Looks

A lot changes in a week. Starting work, finding some pals, and buying a bike have made me feel more or less like myself again. Oh, and we have hot water now – a week ahead of schedule! Now that I have my bearings, I can explain a bit about how this city looks (to me, at least).

Astana is a city of constant construction. It became the capital in 1997 and the university I work at opened in 2010 or 11. Everything is moving full-steam ahead to improve the city’s city-ness. I feel right at home, coming from UBC’s endless makeovers and Vancouver’s obsessions with condos.

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The soundness of the “finished” buildings is questionable. All looks well and decadent until you realize stairs are inconsistently sized, sidewalks half-finished and falling apart, and cracks spreading in walls less than 5 years old.

Greenery is notably absent. Trees are still young and small. Flowers are constantly planted and constantly dying. Since the city is so new, almost everyone here is from somewhere else, whether they’re an expat or from another part of Kazakhstan (it seems the rest of Kazakhstan has lakes and mountain ranges). I do really enjoy the fake flower displays around the city, though. There’s something very Lewis Carroll about them. I imagine they look especially silly/delightful in the winter.

A river runs through the city, and so locations are defined as to whether they are “right bank” or “left bank”. The ground is flat, flat, flat, which is very new for me. Tucson, AZ had its flat parts but still had mountain ranges and flora.

Astana is a relatively small city and doesn’t take long to get around. There’s more to the city than what this post shows, and an old pre-capital part that I haven’t had a chance to explore much.  But here’s a brief overview of what I see on a day-to-day basis:

This is the university. Marble on the outside:

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Marriott hotel on the inside:

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It’s on Kabanbay Batyr, which is a big road that goes on and on. Looking at a map, you’d think the city is walking distance, but it’s actually about 5km away:

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A boulevard stretches through the city stretches from Khan Shatyr (the yurt mall. You can kind of see it at the very back of the photo. The so-called “lighter building” on the right is apparently where one should hang out if they want a rich boyfriend):

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with Bayterek (the egg in the nest building) in the middle:

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and ending at the Presidential Palace:

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If I’m ever unsure of how to get back home from the city, I look for this gold-topped mosque:

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So there is a little bit of Astana.

What I Like So Far (and Also Some Things I Don’t)

Today, I got up at 4am (not by choice), read until 7 and then went for a run. Just after I left the building, I broke the jack of my headphones in my iPhone and had to run in silence. I couldn’t leave campus since you have to have an ID card to do so, which will be issued for me tomorrow. So many areas are blocked off with construction that running around the accessible part of campus only took 20 minutes. The short run at least got me warm enough to wash my hair in the cold shower (all the construction on campus means there is no hot water until the 28th of this month!!!). And then I went to blowdry my hair and discovered that my voltage converter doesn’t work for the outlets here.

For breakfast, I opened the yogurt I bought at the store yesterday and inside was a big brown puddle. Apparently, I bought chocolate cherry flavour. It was actually okay, just startling. I accidentally bought loose tea, and have no tea strainer yet but I was so desperate that I boiled the last of my water (you can only drink bottled water in KZ) and used a weird straining spoon that was in the kitchen. It took me ten minutes to figure out how the stove top works even though it’s in English. Before my first sip, I completely knocked the tea cup over and I was waterless for two more hours since the store doesn’t open until 10 on Sundays. I also noticed that there is no oven in the apartment, so file my Silpat baking sheet under the future post, “Useless Things I Brought”.

It was not a great morning. Especially after a night of silent ugly crying in my room (I have a room mate, who is very nice but doesn’t need to be subjected to that yet), feeling very overwhelmed and wondering what I’m doing here. I should’ve written down exactly why I wanted to move before leaving because it’s hard to remember when you are wallowing in sadness.

But let’s not be a downer! I felt better after some Des’ree and the morning and made a point of thinking about what I like so far. I also gave myself some real talk that I’ve been here for less than 36 hours. Patience has never come easily to me.

Things I am excited about:

  • The bread is amazing and is only 30 cents a loaf! A giant bag of salt costs 10 cents! So much cheese and also for not much money! Groceries in general are very cheap.
  • Alcohol in the grocery stores!
  • There’s a little snack store on campus that sells very delicious paprika crackers.
  • I haven’t experimented in trying any of these yet but you bet I will:

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  • The main mall looks like this, and apparently there is a pool at the very top inside, that I will be frequenting in the winter:

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  • I first bought my groceries from a store in there. It’s similar to Buy-Low, and the similarities continue in that I’ll have to find somewhere else to get my produce. Or maybe that’s just how produce is here (not the best!).
  • The apartment I’m staying in is really big and nice. Super high ceilings and in suite laundry!
  • Taking the bus is also very cheap (30 cents) and easy. You get on the bus on any of the three entrances and there is a conductor who goes around and takes money from the people who have just gotten on. I am so impressed by how they keep track of everyone who’s paid and who hasn’t yet.
  • Everyone has been really friendly so far.
  • My remedial Russian is serving me well. But I have to make an effort to not be shy about using it and say hi to everyone, lest I’m thought to be rude. Also, I will have to look up laundry vocabulary to actually take advantage of the in suite:

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  • No one stares or is particularly interested in foreigners/tourists. It was a bit jarring in Istanbul when I did my library practicum there, but no one even glances twice here.
  • There are so many KFCs.
  • The architecture in general is very cool.
  • Astana is very into fake floral displays, which I am also into:

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  • One of my co-workers explained how to get the internet working here today (web proxy set-up) and when I was finally able to stream Project Runway I was so happy I almost cried.
  • And at least I am not as sad as the saddest looking crab in the world:

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