How to Go to the Pharmacy

The other week, someone asked me what is the weirdest thing that’s happened to me in Kazakhstan. I replied by retelling the story of how an overly amorous graduate student found out where I lived and showed up at my apartment one day when I was dyeing my hair and eyebrows. This was an impressive feat considering that my building has security (okay, okay, they are pretty inconsistent and asleep half the time).

But what actually sticks in my mind as the weirdest thing, likely because of its longevity, is that I never get my period here. When I first moved to KZ, I had my period twice, in regular fashion and I have not had it since then. I was so panicky that in one of my lower points of life, I texted the gentleman whom I’d had a casual encounter with (I was once so lucky as to meet someone not affiliated with my workplace who was in town for business) to confirm that it was logistically impossible for me to be pregnant.

Think for a moment about the wording of the question that I had to ask this man. Then you will know how far the effort of going to the pharmacy for a pregnancy test surpassed the embarrassment of posing this question.


Low points

It was all moot in the end because though he answered in the affirmative I still felt uneasy and off I went to the аптека. I held up Google Translate on my phone with “pregnancy test” written on it, the pharmacist chuckled to herself, tossed one my way and yes, indeed, I was not pregnant. It was one of the most straightforward transactions I’ve had in KZ.

In my defense, it is really easy to blow things out of proportion when you live in an isolated place.

I still haven’t gotten my period here. But what really blew me away, was getting my period while on holiday in Denmark. Bodies are strange and amazing and I guess mine doesn’t like being here. Let’s see if it likes Japan when I go there next month.

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This somehow seems appropriate, okay?

Now here are some useful аптека/pharmacy tips:

  • There are pharmacies in every mall and they are separate stores, not attached to grocery stores. My favourite pharmacy is the one in Asia Park.
  • Things at the pharmacy are cheap!
  • This is where you’ll have to buy contact lens solution and dental floss.
  • This is also where you can buy herbal tea. For example, mint tea is sold at the pharmacy because it is considered a kind of aphrodisiac here. Once I bought two boxes of mint tea and the staff could hardly handle it.
  • You don’t often need a prescription for things. For example, you can buy birth control one month at a time for about $6. You can even buy antibiotics without a prescription! But you have to know the specific name of items like this that you want to buy.
  • You can order pharmaceutical items delivered to your house from this site. Though I find it too overwhelming to make any attempts.
  • Some things are universal, like Strepsils and Vitamin C. Other things you can type into Google Translate and show the pharmacist. Sometimes it just doesn’t work, like when I tried to buy cortisone. But I don’t really care enough to ask any local friends what the Russian equivalent is. This is one place you never have to be self-conscious of dry skin.


Everything is going to be okay (when you’re in another country)


Update: How Healthcare Works When You Leave Canada

A happy update to this post! Thanks to a lovely friend, I found an insurance service that will allow me to buy travel insurance as a non-resident Canadian citizen.

It’s a bit less than the amount I would’ve paid MSP/month and then I would’ve had to pay for travel insurance on top of that – so overall, it looks as though my poorly researched decision turned out to be a good one.

To recap:

If you are a Canadian resident moving from Canada, you have two options (specific to BC but I imagine similar to other provinces):

1) Contact MSP to arrange to continue paying the $69.25/month Medical Services Plan premium for up to 24 months. Acquire travel/medical insurance on top of that, whether paid for by yourself or through your new foreign workplace.

You should definitely keep MSP if you are eligible for any of these three options for MSP assistance:

2) Register yourself as permanently leaving British Columbia. Rely on whatever insurance your new foreign workplace provides or purchase insurance from this insurance service.


Celebratory balloons




The best produce to be found in Central Asia is Uzbek lemons. They are cheap and delicious and the best lemons I’ve ever tasted. And I love lemons! First thing every morning, I drink a glass of water with half a lemon.

The only thing better than an Uzbek lemon is an Uzbek lemon on an Uzbek plate.


It took me a while to find these lemons. I was at a friend’s on New Year’s Eve and he brought some slices out with tea and mentioned how much he liked them. Until then, I’d always bought regular lemons but then I noticed that I could get “Tashkent lemons,” as they’re referred to here (Tashkent as in the city in Uzbekistan) at the grocery store I go to most often – Alma 24 in Asia Park.

Though I’ve never tried one, I’m almost certain these are Meyer lemons. They’re fruitier, oranger, and the skin is smoother than a regular lemon.

It’s worth keeping your eye out for these beauties.

How to Plunge in a Frozen River (крещения)

A few months ago, a friend of mine mentioned something about jumping into the frozen Ishim River after the holidays. Knowing absolutely nothing about the circumstances, I was totally in.

Turns out, this frozen river plunge is part of Epiphany, which according to Wikipedia, marks the baptism of Jesus. On January 19, every year, all water is thought to be holy and those who are Russian Orthodox (and anyone who wants to partake!) submerge into the icy waters three times to cleanse themselves of all sins. It’s referred to as крещения, simply meaning “baptism.”

By 20:00 on the eve of the 18th, a hole is cut in the ice and a wooden platform installed to step down into the water. When possible, the hole is shaped like the cross. Apparently at 0:00 on the 19th and 0:00 on the 20th there are some religious ceremonies. We decided to go at 6:45am before work to miss the line-ups. There were a few other locals around but no waiting! I’m not sure if I could’ve braved it otherwise.

IMG_6621Looking far too serene.

Large cities like Moscow have multiple locations. In Astana, the Epiphany location is on the left bank – kind of across from Ramstore, in Astana Park. We took two taxis for the six of us and paid the drivers to wait for us to finish so they could drive us back. We had to walk a few minutes from the drop-off point so bring something other than flip-flops!

We wore our bathing suits under our clothes and laid everything in the changing yurts. After quickly undressing, we went out with our towels and shoes, and one at a time, ran down the steps, dipped under three times, and immediately got out.


In Yellowknife, we rolled around in the snow and ran into saunas and in Vancouver there’s an annual Polar Bear Swim on January 1st, which I never took part in. So I had never experienced anything quite like this before. It was INTENSE. From the moment of first submerging, until 60 seconds after getting out of the water – I was in shock, shaking, and wondering if I would ever get warm again. But then I felt an allover warm glow, which lasted throughout the day.

Processed with VSCOcam with t1 presetThe expression on my face perfectly reflects my inner turmoil.

After everyone was finished and we took some snaps, we went back in the yurts to change out of our wet bathing suits into warm dry clothes. My first instinct had been to wear a one-piece bathing suit but I read online the night before that it’s best to wear a skimpy suit, so as not to retain icy water next to your body.


There’s not really anything open at 7:00 in Astana, so we taxied back to campus and ate breakfast pizza (just pizza for breakfast) at a friend’s and he made us espresso. He also gave us muffins, baked on the weekend, which we realized were actually brownies in the shape of muffins.
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The gang (except Kevin who stayed dry and took photos).


How to Run in -°C

Chalk it up to my northern roots but I find running in the cold dry snow to be not so bad. Definitely better than running on a treadmill. And I don’t hold a grudge against treadmills just because of that time I fell on one in front of my model cousin when I was 13 (the safety belt is there for a reason!).

Before moving to KZ, I had never run in subzero temperatures before. Vancouver rarely dips below 0°C and the only other place I’d run outdoors in was Kauai, where I made a poor showing by melting into a red blotchy puddle after 2k of light jogging. On any given day, I would rather run in -°C than +25°C

The first time I ran in -°C, I wore a toque, top, jacket, and one pair of spandex pants, lent to me by a friend. It felt okay! But then when I took the pants off at home, my skin looked as if someone had thrown boiling water on my legs and my thighs were in the beginning stages of frostbite. Someone asked me how I knew it was frostbite but suffice to say it’s gross.

So I had a lot to learn. Here is my accrued wisdom – learned the hard way so you don’t have to!

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I could go out and buy all the proper gear but my foreseeable future doesn’t involve cold regions and while you can get sports gear here, it’s generally more expensive than it would be in the western world. Another friend of mine kindly lent me a muffler and another pair of pants and recommended wearing shorts too. This formula seems to work for up to about -15°C. When it gets to around -20°C, my teeth start to hurt and so I base my running schedule on the weather forecast’s predicted <-15°C days.


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Run like a burglar.

My outfit consists of:

  • Wool toque
  • Running tank
  • Running jacket that has flaps that go over your hands like makeshift mittens
  • Muffler
  • Running shorts
  • Full length running pants
  • Full length spandex pants
  • Running socks
  • Running shoes

First I put on the shorts, than the running pants, and then the spandex pants. I find it easiest to keep my hair in a braid so it fits under my toque and muffler. I don’t often keep the muffler over my face since I find it annoying but I will for brief spurts. I keep my iPhone in my shorts pocket, between the layers, close to my stomach so that it keeps warm – otherwise it will shut down from the cold.

One of my friends runs in up to -25°C and he wears one more layer of pants, and two more layers of tops than I do. And a toque that’s actually meant for exercise.


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The sidewalks are not always cleared of snow here and it’s so dry that the snow tends to get packed into ice. I always run in the snow to avoid the ice, even though it’s like running through tires and a lot more work. Sometimes your eyebrows freeze over, which is kind of neat!

I have many more close calls with slipping on ice in my day-to-day walking than I do with running. Actually, I fell so hard on my tailbone this weekend when I stepped up an icy entryway that I won’t be able to run for a week or two (I couldn’t tell if I was crying for pain or for sadness at having to be sedentary).

You can also buy some fun spiky things that strap on under your shoes to help grip the ice.


If you have an Astana number, then you get a text telling you when the wind reaches over 15km/hour. It is windy so often that I can’t really base my runs on it, which is for the best since the weather forecast doesn’t say anything about wind. I just make sure I’m running against the wind for the first half of my run and then I turn around for the last half. It is brutal and sometimes it feels like I’m barely moving. But I am building so much character!


You are going to be slower. Come to terms with that. And run for distance/length of time and totally forget about speed until the snow clears and the weather rises above 0°C or else you are going to be constantly disappointed.

Post-Warming Up

I always run up the 10 flights of stairs in my building to warm up afterwards, which sounds terrible but it’s very effective. Also, Astana is so flat and I’m doing a half-marathon in Almaty in April, which is more undulating, so this is my way of elevation training.

I find if I have a hot shower right away it irritates my skin and it’s better if I stretch and give it a bit of time to adjust first.

Final Thoughts

Running in the cold is hard. You’re bulked down with tons of layers, fighting against wind through fields of snow and your body is working so much harder just because of the temperature. But it’s totally doable and kind of magical in its own way. Take this as one of the very few opportunities to go outdoors this time of year, especially in Astana, which is not a city designed for strolling.

It is also worth it for how AMAZING it is when the cold lets up and you get to run in only one pair of running pants.

How Healthcare Works When You Leave Canada

If you are reading this because you are actually interested in the information (and not just an indulgent friend), please see this update!

What this post lacks in interest it makes up for in valuable information for other Canadians who are (thinking about) moving from Canada and wondering about healthcare options.

Please learn from my mistake.

Before I moved, I registered myself as permanently leaving British Columbia. I did this so that I wouldn’t have to pay the $69.25/month Medical Services Plan premium. My salary here is half of what I made back home and MSP felt like a steep price to pay when I also pay a fee in Kazakhstan for health coverage through my workplace.

When you leave British Columbia, if you do not declare yourself as permanently moved:

There are options for people having trouble making MSP payments:

  • You can apply for hardship with MSP as long as the hardship is unforseeable (not valid for me because a planned move is rather forseeable).
  • You can apply for premium assistance, based on your salary from the previous tax year (not an option for me because it wouldn’t take my current low salary into account).

It all seemed fine since I have coverage through my current workplace but then I started looking into travel insurance for the three months I’ll be travelling after I leave my job. There are no travel insurance or healthcare coverage options for non-resident Canadians unless they are a permanent resident of another country, or they have travel insurance coverage through their workplace.

To purchase travel insurance, you must be a permanent resident somewhere. For example, to list Canada as your country of permanent residency, you must be registered with MSP within your province. For British Columbia, if you’ve declared yourself as permanently moved, you can only regain MSP coverage by moving back to BC for six months (you can purchase insurance for the time period before MSP kicks in). I am not a permanent resident of Kazakhstan and I will of course not be covered by my workplace once I leave and so I am not eligible for travel insurance.

Basically, from the time I leave my employment in Kazakhstan, until six months after I move back to British Columbia or gain employment in a different country with a workplace that provides medical coverage, I have no medical coverage options. I’m kicking myself because it was reasonable to assume that I’d be travelling after my contract and possibly not moving back to BC and so I should’ve continued my MSP payments.

My last hope is in talking with World Nomads but it’s not looking promising.

Lesson learned: if you’re moving from Canada (specifically BC), do not register yourself as permanently moving if:

  • You are not a permanent resident of another country.
  • You are not getting healthcare coverage through your workplace.
  • You get healthcare coverage through your workplace but you plan on travelling once your contract is finished.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to continue drinking my tears from this delightful mug I purchased on Saturday.

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 


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.

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.



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?”


“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.



“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!”



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!

How to Go to Almaty (and Avoid Arrest)

Almaty is the biggest city in Kazakhstan and was the capital up until 1997, when that title was bestowed on Astana. It’s an older city with lots character, cafes, parks, and mountains, and milder weather due to its location in the south. From Astana, you can take a 20-hour or 12-hour overnight train ride and easily spend a week exploring the city and surroundings. If you splurge on the 1.5 hour flight ($200-350 depending how far in advance you book), it makes for a good weekend trip.

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Uzbek pottery

I’ve been in Astana for about three months now and was feeling a bit antsy to get away but a trip to Almaty seemed a bit expensive, considering that I could only go for two days. But the steppe currently looks and feels like an apocalyptic arctic backdrop and so I went ahead and bought a ticket and booked a tour guide for Saturday to go into Alatau – Eliy National Park to see some greenery and land elevation.


Our guide, Marat, picked Sophie and I up at 10am with a plan to hike up to Big Almaty Lake and hit Sunkar Falcon Farm on the way back. We rented an apartment and there were no coffee shops nearby so we asked to stop at a cafe on the way. He always drinks coffee at home and he also explained that cafes are constantly opening and shutting down and so this proved difficult. The first place didn’t have any coffee ready yet and the second place had coffee and to-go cups but no lids. Marat kindly waited to begin the drive until we had half-finished our cups since the hour-long way to the Park is very bumpy. It was the first of many times that he demonstrated his capacity for patience that day.

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Locals are allowed to drive right up to the Lake but foreigners must stop at a makeshift guarding point and hike up. I asked why but asking “why” in KZ is often the equivalent of asking a rhetorical question. I could tell the hike was a bit strenuous for Marat and I admired his tactic of stopping every so often to tell us some history or a story, while we all caught our breath. His favourite descriptor was “Stalin-style” and his stories ranged from telling us about the inspiration behind A Clockwork Orange, to why Kazakhs hate walking, to all of the people he knows who have been accidentally killed by guns (2). Somehow, this didn’t come off as dark, at the time.


The lake was completely breathtaking, a perfect saturated blue. Formed from a glacier, it’s a protected source of drinking water. Visitors cannot walk along the edge of the lake, which accounts for its pristine condition. Foreigners and locals alike have to hike/drive above and walk down aways. Marat mentioned something about a big rock and stayed up top, letting Sophie and I on our own. I walked halfway down the muddy side and sat for a bit. Another tourist came up from the lakeside and seeing that she managed to make it up without slipping on the wet ground, I headed down. Sophie followed and we took some photos.


Kind of worth it.

We were about to go back when a policeman with a huge gun approached us. He spoke no English but told us we had to follow him and said something about being arrested and made handcuff motions and talked about fines and generally looked very stern and unimpressed. I then realized Marat meant we weren’t supposed to go past the big rock by the lake because it’s an unmarked border. Uncertain of where we were heading, we were eventually passed off to a friendlier, gunless policeman. I motioned to make a phone call and explained the situation to Marat who said he’d come meet us by the lake.


Marat and the friendly policeman

The friendly policeman also spoke absolutely no English but was very interested in speaking with Sophie and me. We chatted a bit but I mostly had to answer, “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand.” He then said, “you are very beautiful,” and I said, “thank you” and he laughed so hard that out of my limited Russian, I can clearly understand when someone is giving me a compliment. He also said Sophie was very beautiful and asked if we had husbands and then I began using a trick I picked up from a friend here – when Russian-speakers are getting too flirtatious, don’t let on that you know what they’re saying. So when he tried to to link arms and said we should fly to Canada together, I exclaimed, “I don’t know!” and traipsed quickly ahead.

Marat met us with the stern policeman and told us to keep smiling and all would be well. That was easy because I had been giggling the entire time. The other tourists took photos of us as we walked to headquarters, which was a small white shack similar to the kind you see in nature documentaries that feature photographers who stake out for years for the perfect snow leopard shot. It was a giant kitchen/garbage can. Marat talked our way out of arrests and fines and into simply writing statements. I was given a blank piece of paper and a pen. With no instructions, I began by writing the date in the top right corner. The policemen didn’t like that and so they turned the paper over and made me start again.

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Directly in front of me on the table, there was a container of dish detergent labelled, “BARF.” I clearly have poor common sense but even I knew it would be entirely inappropriate to laugh out loud. I have never bit my cheek so hard.

After our statements were signed we were on our way. Except Marat had forgotten his walking poles at the top of the lake so he ran up the long distance ahead to get them. I tried to offer to go instead since I felt terrible but he insisted we go ahead. By this time, I really had to pee and generally have no problem going outdoors (bicycle travelling makes you comfortable) but I didn’t want to risk another brush with the law.

A long time passed and Marat eventually caught up with us, breathless. He made us lunch in a sunny spot and we rested for a while. Sausage, cheese, Mr. Noodles: it was as if I’d placed advanced requests for the meal. The manager of the falcon farm notified him that the daily show time was changed last minute from 3:00 to 5:00, so we had a lot of time to kill. We told him we were okay not seeing the show but he wouldn’t hear of it.

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The falcon farm was terrifying and sad and beautiful and I felt conflicted the entire time.

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The birds are trained to hunt and sold. But who buys them?


Marat walked around a bit, told me all he knew about the animals and then waited in the car while the show took place. We drove back and just before dropping us off he accidentally backed into a children’s playground.

As someone who works in a customer service position, I often wonder how other people feel when providing a service. There was no speculation in this instance.

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Picture of a jerk

Essential Russian Phrases

I’m four weeks into Russian lessons*. Major accomplishments include:

  • Being able to order an americano with milk, both to stay and to-go!
  • Passive-aggressively yelling “FINE!” at a taxi driver.
  • Last week, the corner store lady asked if I could understand Russian, I said yes and then she told me I looked nice that day.

My преподаватель is a lovely woman who teaches lessons to all the expats studying Russian here at the university. I’m sure there are other options out there but she’s so very good and already on campus so often, what would be the point in looking elsewhere? She’s also endeared herself to me forever because she once asked me if I was a ballerina.


Language books continue to be racist.

We meet for an hour and a half once a week, one-on-one, which is ideal for me. She tells me my reading and writing is very good and she’s impressed by my memory but my conversational skills need a lot of work. When someone speaks Russian to me, I feel as if I’ve just been passed the ball in soccer and I get so panicky that I forget everything and kick/blurt as fast as I can in an aimless direction. I get especially nervous when people I know are around. My friend Kevin (who is fluent in like 7 languages) doesn’t think I know, but I KNOW, that he was laughing at the way I pronounced “coffee” in Russian yesterday. Or maybe my self-consciousness just makes me crazy. It’s probably both. If only more people had been around to hear my flawless зеленый чай order later that afternoon.


There are many sites out there that will tell you basic Russian phrases but how often am I going to say “I’m looking for John?” So here is my comprehensive list of phrases/words that I actually use on a regular basis and I think, would be helpful for visitors here. I’ve also linked them to pronunciations on Forvo, rather than write garbled phonetic strings. And if you want to learn/brush up on the Russian alphabet, this is my favourite site.


Getting a Taxi

Once you’ve flagged down a cab, go up to the driver and say the name of your location. Then if they say да (yes), you ask сколько. Agree on a number, which will probably be between 500-1000 tenge and off you go.




Можно means “may I” and is used to preface any ordering.

Putting this altogether, here’s how you could order two beers: Можно два пиво, пожалуйста. And then you will probably be asked a question, which I always assume is about the size and so I automatically respond with a size-related answer: Нул пять. If it turns out to be about something else, then a не понимаю is in order.


The power was out over the weekend. That’s the building I live in.


You have to ask for milk when you order since it’s not kept on the counter. Things like latte and cappuccino are all pronounced the same way, except the “i” in Americano is pronounced like an “ee,” and roll the “r” if you can.

Deciding Which Dumplings to Buy

Potato is best, in my books. Mushroom is worst (said by someone who likes mushrooms).


One of the last morning runs I’ll go on for some time, probably.

Taxi Conversations 

Sometimes taxi rides are really long and often the drivers want to have a conversation or know more about you. Here are some common questions they ask and answers you can give (I got lazy about the pronunciation linking here. There aren’t links to the full phrases, anyhow):


I went to the Canadian Embassy for Thanksgiving. Best sugar pie of my life.

*This post is not conducive to photos and so there are some random ones throughout.