How to Buy a Winter Coat

My co-worker told me that I am the “most coat-averse person” she’s ever met because my winter coat of choice is to layer 2-3 sweaters. I’m not sure why I dislike winter coats so much. I was born in Yellowknife so this is my habitat of origin. But I clearly remember when I was 5 years-old, living in temperate Vancouver, my parents told me to put on a coat before going to play outside. I refused and then they formed an ultimatum: I had to put on the coat or come back inside. I agreed by bursting into tears and making no physical effort to help while they put the coat on me. The neighbour kids were all slightly older and I think wearing a coat made me feel like a baby. But crying in front of them was totally cool.

I have grown to appreciate coats. But often I feel I’ve picked the wrong coat and I’m overdressed in both style and temperature, or it starts raining and I’m not wearing my rain coat, or I like a coat with jeans but it makes me look like a mushroom when I wear it with dresses. The 2-3 sweater combo never lets me down.

It wasn’t until I went for a run one morning last week and my phone died because it was so cold and I got frostbite all over my legs that I finally relented and put on my winter coat on my way to work.

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It was very pretty that day, though.

A winter coat is essential here and unless you were previously living in Edmonton, Alaska, or Yakutsk, you will have to buy one. I think it’s generally cheaper to buy one here and then you’re not taking up valuable luggage space. And the cheapest place in town to buy one is the bazaar.

Going to a bazaar as a tourist is very fun! Some of my favourite travel experiences have been in bazaars – the souks in Marrakech, the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, a craft bazaar in Almaty. I even like the run down ones like the Fantastic Indoor Swap Meet in Las Vegas (they sell grilled cheese and false eyelashes for $1!). But going to a bazaar when you need a specific practical item is a personal hell that I never knew existed (some people apparently like it).

There are two bazaars here, Artyum and Eurasia. I went to Artyum since it is apparently the cheaper of the two.

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The comatose expression on my face is a testament to how comfortable (ie. like a sleeping bag) this coat is.

Here are some tips to make it easier:

  • Don’t buy coats with fur. If there is any fur on a coat, even just fur around the hood, it automatically goes up 10,000 tenge +.
  • Try to buy your coat before October. Once the first snow hits, it will be more expensive.
  • You can bargain about the price.
  • Check the coat’s materials. Many are made with polyester and you’ll want a down coat for maximum warmth.
  • Try to get a coat that has a knit part inside the sleeve to keep the wind out.
  • Make sure the hood fits over your head! It might not fit over whatever fur hat you have chosen, but it should at least fit over a toque (I keep forgetting that nobody here knows what that word means).
  • Bring an amazing friend with you to help you through the process.
  • The tenge underwent a devaluation last year so by next year, who knows what a reasonable price for a coat will be. I paid 32,000 tenge.
  • You’re not going to look good so just don’t worry about it! I went with the coat that made me look the most like a hot dog.

If You Want to Buy a Fur Coat/Hat 

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Fur is so practical in this region that I don’t take issue with it. You will see all types wearing fur coats, from little old ladies on the bus to glamor queens at the opera. Fur coats are available at the bazaar, along with the other coats, though I’ve heard it’s cheapest to buy in Turkey. I’m not sure exactly how much coats go for but I imagine $$$.

Fur hats tend to be pretty expensive too – even more expensive than the coat I bought. If you can find one in the off-season, it’ll be a good deal so snatch it up! I already had a fur hat that I bought in Moscow in 2008 and now it’s finally being put to good use. It is the warmest thing I’ve ever put on my head.

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How to Go to the Opera (or Ballet)

The Astana Opera House is the only building I’ve seen in this city that is as beautiful on the inside as it is on the outside. It is also the only building with a justified use of excessive marble. There are very few events in the city and I really miss being immersed in a creative environment, so I make a point of going to an opera or ballet once a month.

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Schedules and tickets can be found on the theatre website. Good seats sell out quickly and so tickets should be bought soon after release. Click on Tickets in the upper menu, then Русский, then КУПИТЬ, then follow the usual prompts of selecting the time and seating. The seating is poorly designed and it’s difficult to see from many areas. The best bet is to buy tickets in the central area.

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This is actually the best seat but it’s empty most of the time because only the president is allowed in (it even has a separate elevator to get to the box).

Tickets really range in price from 500 tenge ($3) to, well, a lot. When my friend asked if I wanted to go to the opera this month, I immediately said “yes!” I still always think of everything as being so cheap here and I didn’t convert the tenge until later. Then I realized it’s the most I’ve ever spent on a ticket for anything ($155). But I don’t spend much money here so I tell myself that it’s okay.

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Aida may have gotten Radames but Amneris gets that sweet cow bed!

Productions often use borrowed set designs and performers from other countries. For example, the opera I saw tonight is an Italian production. And every show I’ve seen so far has been amazing. I’m totally impressed.

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Before shows begin, there are no announcements to turn off cell phones. During the show, not only will you hear the chime of a mobile, you’ll often hear the person pick up the phone and have a conversation. There’s also a fair amount of in-person talking, flash-picture taking, and candy opening so slow it feels passive-aggressive. Two theories I’ve heard: 1) Mobile phone etiquette is behind the times here. 2) Some people are obliged by their employers to go to these shows, though they have no desire to do so.

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During intermission you can buy expensive wine and rolled meats served in martini glasses.

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And the staff wear incredible outfits that change with the seasons.

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Make sure to read a synopsis before you go! Subtitles are only in Kazakh and Russian. Even if I was fluent in either language, it would be too uncomfortable to constantly look up so high.

My friend Kevin is also always happy to provide a synopsis. Here is a summary of his explanation for Aida:

There is this slave girl who works for the princess in Egypt. And she and the princess both love the same general. But the princess doesn’t like that the general loves the slave girl.

Drama drama drama!

Then the father of the slave girl says she has to sleep with the general to find out information because he and the slaves are going to fight the Egyptians, and she goes, “oh ho ho ho ho boo hoo, okay.”

The slave girl tells the general about the fight and he is like, “oh no, not again!” And then they decide to run away together.

More drama drama drama.

The princess hears the whole thing and the general is taken away while Aida escapes.

Drama drama drama.

Then this guy says, “Hey, come down into this basement,” and the general says, “okay,” and then the guy locks the general in the basement. And the general goes, “oh ho ho ho ho so sad,” but then he hears the slave girl is locked in the room next to his and they talk and are happy and then they both die.

How to Travel Alone As a Woman

Recently, the sexist behaviour I’ve experienced and witnessed since living in Kazakhstan was bumming me out. But when I broke this experience down into individual instances I realized it shares an uncomfortable similarity to my daily life in Canada.

The striking difference is that sexism is simply more obvious here in Kazakhstan. It’s harder to expose in Canada and other western countries, which in its own way, is more frustrating. Trying to explain or discuss subtle acts of gendered disrespect is often met with the deflating response that you’re overreacting. The video has its flaws but Hollaback’s street harassment PSA illustrates the type of behaviour I’m referencing and how difficult it can be to make others aware of the damage it inflicts.

While this was on the forefront of my thoughts, I began researching for a two-month cycling trip I’ll be embarking on next spring. I will likely be on my own and I realize that as a woman, a trip like this comes with risks and so I’m gathering all the information I can that will be helpful in this respect.  In my research, I came across a publication produced by the Canadian government:Her Own Way – A Woman’s Safe Travel Guide. The following is a list of direct excerpts.

  • Women travel for countless reasons, whether to discover new frontiers, pursue business opportunities, or simply to rest and relax – not unlike men.
  • Among women’s greatest risks are the dangers and disappointments of international cyber-dating.
  • The fact that activities, such as wearing a bikini or having premarital sex, are legal in Canada doesn’t mean they’ll be so in a foreign country.
  • Always ask to see the room before taking it…. Are there holes in the door or walls that could be used by peeping Toms?
  • Remember that camping solo… could be an invitation to danger.
  • carry a photo of your husband (or an imaginary one)
  • Understand that businessmen in certain societies may think it’s okay to flirt with or proposition you. A firm “no” is appropriate.
  • When in doubt, wait for the man to initiate handshaking.
  • Never quit your job, give up your home, or sell all your belongings in the hope of a union that may never happen or that you may later regret.

If anyone from Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development reads this, I am volunteering to edit the content. And I’ll do a great job! As a professional librarian and writer, I frequently write and edit informative content, including government guides. I will also do it for free. Because any opportunity to adjust passively dehumanizing information, especially coming from such a high-level, is well worth my time and effort.

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How to Get Your Hair Done

I’ve watched many of my friends get haircuts at Viva Salon in Khan Shatyr (the yurt mall). I know that is weird but this is a weird city and you have to get creative with recreational activities. We make an afternoon of it and afterwards, go for lunch and shopping for groceries.

Hair cuts are 4000 tenge ($22) at Viva. It’s a steal for women who are charged the same as men. I think it’s because most women here have extremely long hair down to their waists with super blunt ends and no layers to trim or cut.

Men are given the KGB treatment of having their hair washed face down in the sink. There is generally only one sink for proper hair washing and it’s reserved for women, who are fussed over more. As with everything, a hair cut takes a very long time and even men should expect a standard appointment to take an hour.

My friend Kevin loves it when people get their hair cut, or “hairs cut” as he says in his Belgian way. Between his peer-pressure and the effects of going from the dank Pacific Northwest to the dry dry forever dry steppe, I caved. I was planning on holding out until going to Copenhagen next month but I’ve tried everything from mayonnaise masks to argan oil and nothing was working well. I had no idea it was possible for hair to be so dry and so greasy all at once.

I also decided to dye my hair because I no longer wanted to be a redhead. I dyed my hair shortly before a break-up and it was fine and whatever but that kind of thing is generally a bad idea and just ends with you spending time/money to get it back the way it was before. Which is exactly what I did here.

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Before

Also, Kazakh water is very harsh and unkind to brightly coloured hair.

Toni & Guy opened up on campus and I decided to give it a go instead of Viva even though I once had a bad experience. A stylist from the Vancouver T&G stopped me on the street when I was 18 to ask if I wanted to hair model for the salon’s look-book. While setting the dye on my hair, they showed me photographs of hair-models past.

“This one was sooooooo pretty!”

“See how the hair is covering her face? We did that on purpose because she wasn’t very good looking.”

The end result was a hot pink and purple asymmetrical bowl cut overtop of a mullet. How I have no pictures of this, I do not know. The salon phoned me the day of the shoot and told me the photographer had cancelled and they weren’t going to bother doing a shoot at all and that they would fix my hair.

They dyed my hair back to its natural colour and I tried not to think about what it meant that the shoot was cancelled outright – not even given the chance to be mocked by hair models future. The stylists didn’t have time to fix the cut and so I went from punk-chic to something reminiscent of 2009-Kate Gosselin (this was 2004, it was very ahead of the times).

But that was many hair modelling gigs ago and I’ve learned they are pretty much always terrible, except for the hair show that had free hamburgers, so I do not specifically judge T&G as an organization on this basis.

The T&G here entirely flooded (because, Kazakhstan) and so I had to wait a couple of weeks. Once it opened again, I popped by and had a consultation with a lovely friendly stylist.

“You really want to get rid of the red?”

“Yes.”

“So difficult.”

I appreciated her honesty and put all my faith in her dubious “I will try!” attitude. We spent five and a half hours together the next day to bleach most of the red out.

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Bantha.

“Did you say you wanted a haircut too?” the receptionist asked at 10:20 pm, my hair still wet, the salon having closed twenty minutes ago.

The hairdresser laid my hair against my back and cut in a straight line. It took less than two minutes and she didn’t charge me for it. And it looks surprisingly good! Or maybe I have absolutely no perspective after living here for three months. We’ll find out next time I travel.

I had to go back the next week to get a darker colour put on top to more closely match my natural colour. I was glad I understand enough Russian to know that the receptionist and stylist were discussing how nice they thought the end result was. Though I don’t know the Russian yet for, “Yikes!”

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Voila!

Overall, it was cheaper than it would’ve been in a western place but still a decent amount of tenge. Most of the cost was in how much dye was used and they gave me a very thorough breakdown. I’m happy I took the chance on KZ hair skills and I think I will be seeing my stylist again before the end of my time here.

Concluding thoughts:

  • Getting your hair done here is like everything else, if you’re not terribly fussy, go for it.
  • If you’re a bit hesitant, go to a standardized franchise like Toni & Guy.
  • If you are pretty particular, especially about hair dye, get your hair done next time you’re in a western lands. There are not as many hair dyes available in KZ as in other countries.
  • Keep in mind that layers are not common here and it may be wisest to stick with blunt trims.
  • Block off A LOT of time for any hair procedure.
  • Good hair products are more expensive here than western countries. It wasn’t until I left the salon and did the conversion that I realized I paid over $40 for one hair product (I think it was worth it? That’s what I tell myself.).
  • If you hate small talk with hairdressers, KZ is great because most hairdressers don’t speak English!