Message from Susan Fong, who lived as an expat in Aktau for 4 years. She is well traveled, experienced in expat life, she has helped many newcomers settle in Aktau and enjoy this city. Hope you like her blog below. Please leave your comments.

Thoughts on Aktau

When I was first approached to write about my almost 5 years in Aktau I was overwhelmed. Where to begin? 4.5 years is longer than high school (for most) and University (for most). At just shy of half a decade I have experienced many things during my time in Aktau. Then I thought perhaps the best way to capture some of what I experienced is to write a letter to my ‘younger’ pre-Aktau self. July 8th, 2011

Dear Susan,

Right now things are chaotic and confusing. Kevin is still in Syria and you are in Canada with 2 small kids. There is limited communication between the two of you and you are exhausted from the almost constant upheaval that comes from having lived in 4 countries in 6 months. You are desperate for information. Where will we live next? When will we be together as a family? Then the e-mail. Short (as they all are these days) ‘What are your thoughts on Kazakhstan?’ with a link to information about a place called Aktau. Kevin won’t have time to read the information so you are making this decision for your whole family-it feels daunting and yet it will be nice to have a bit of control again.

‘…On the Caspian Sea…’you read. ‘I think I have an idea of where that is geographically’ you think. ‘Why didn’t I try harder in Geography?’ Google will be your Friend. You will discover that Kazakhstan is a huge country, much bigger than you imagined. ‘…Soviet-style housing…’ is printed in another paragraph.

All sorts of questions will swirl around in your head…communal bathrooms, 1 room houses ‘What does all this mean?’ You will decide to jump in, fire off a quick response ‘I’m game if you are’ and with that you have changed the direction of your family forever…and for the better. Now you will start prepping for your site-visit, which will happen very hurriedly over a 5 day window during one of Kevin’s very infrequent leaves from Syria. You know you’re going to a Muslim country, and having just recently left one you think you know what to pack…you don’t. Leave the long sleeve tops and trousers at home, this is Aktau in August after all, and you are about to discover one of the keys to Aktau (and Kazakhstan)-it is a place of contrasts! Yes, Kazakhstan is a Muslim Country, it is also a former Soviet Nation which includes a long secular history. The women and men (most) would rather be fashionable and somewhat seasonally appropriate than bound by religious expectation. While you wander Aktau and the Steppe for 5 days in trousers and long sleeves you will be envious of the people in shorts and tank tops and even fantasize about being brave enough to copy those jumping in the Caspian in just their underwear to cool down. Please pack appropriately so you don’t look any more out of place than you already are. Those ‘Soviet style accommodations’ you read and worried so much about? They DO exist.

The landscape of Aktau is hard to miss and all the concrete up against the harsh desert elements creates a white-washed, prematurely aged nature to the already stark buildings, but there is a constant movement toward improvement and alongside these buildings you will see futuristic style buildings, covered in glass and unique features. Although you see these buildings you will rarely be in them. Your experience of Aktau will be much different. For the newly arriving ‘expats’ (mostly relocating from Almaty, but some like you are arriving directly to Aktau) there are modern apartments and min-mansions overlooking the sea. Although these buildings are grand they also suffer from poor construction and lack of proper materials. Again the contrasts…lovely villas that are often on the verge of collapse. This dichotomy of Kazakhstan will present itself quickly and often over the next 5 years. Locals that never smile and yell at you for underdressing your children will be the first to stop to help you with translation or to solve another problem.

You will attempt to get used to living by the calendar and not the temperature outside (summer doesn’t officially begin until 1st June, no matter what the temperature outside is!!) and you will fail. When it’s 30+ degrees outside you need to dress your family for the weather, no matter who will stop you to tell you you’re wrong. Change is rapid and yet nothing changes too quickly. There will be lots of development, locals will learn English at a pace that far exceeds your ability to learn Russian, and yet bureaucracy will slow any big changes to the point of frustration.

Your first couple of years will be spent in a constant guessing game about electricity and water supplies and just as you are lulled into a sense of normalcy in their presence the problem will present itself again. This is in the name of progress as pipes and power supplies are improved, but it doesn’t change the uncertainty and it will make for some interesting parties! Instead of BYOB you will be told to BYOW (bring your own water…for flushing the toilet) or BYOL (bring your own light source). You will love how your new group of friends are so flexible and accommodating.

The locals, many that are weary of ‘foreigners’ (from pervious bad experiences) will display a curiosity and excitement in the presence of the expats. There will be many attempted conversations in broken English (and even more broken Russian on your part…except it now, you are not good at learning languages). You will be constantly impressed with the adaptability of the local community and will become embarrassed at your own inability to learn even basic Russian phrases.

Menus that were once only in Russian will begin to have English and even Kazakh in them and you will become even lazier in your attempt to learn either of the local languages. At the same time that your adopted home adjusts to the foreigners it will also gain a new found nationalistic pride, and Kazakh will become more widely spoken (DON’T attempt to learn Kazakh, your Russian will embarrass you enough!)

In 5 years you will prepare to leave Aktau, the only home your children have known and you will reflect on all the contrasts. Culturally, so desperate to find an identity independent from its history with Russia and yet driven to find connections to the West through shared experiences in entertainment, sport and news. A culture leery of foreigners and yet endlessly curious about your family and experiences in Aktau. Environmentally, dry and barren (green being your favourite colour, you will notice it lacking in nature often), and yet so lush and green at any sign of rain. A place where you will only experience rain a few brief times in your first 3 years but then see the local version of ‘constant’ rain (at least a few times a month from fall through spring) during your last 18 months. Shrubs will sprout into full trees during this time and shade, which was so lacking during the hot summer months will become a welcome presence. A place that removes any sign of wild growth (weeds, dry grass…to prevent fires perhaps?) but meticulously maintains green spaces for people to rest, play and create (you will witness first hand, a group of young art students, seeking shade from trees in a park as they paint landscapes) .

This is a place where you will curse the wind for 6 months of the year only to praise it’s presence the other 6 months. The population will gain a reputation for lack of respect for animals (whether earned or not) but you will witness people stop traffic to let turtles cross the road.

Basically, in (not so) short, try not to be too quick to judge. You will experience many frustrations over 5 years, like the time you inquired about the different pizzas on the menu only to receive one of EACH pizza to your table. You will also create great memories and make some of the best friends you’ve ever had. The whole family will grow here (literally, but I will leave that for you to find out about at the time!!). The children will all start school here, Lucas and Aidan will join several local sports teams (tennis, hockey) and Josie (yes, read what I wrote above, your family of 4 will become a family of 5) will understand Russian as well as English.

You will enjoy camping trips to The Steppe, the kids will explore for fossils and wildlife. You will swim in the Caspian and have bbq’s on the beach. Most of all you will be sad to leave-this place of contrasts-the desert town on the Sea.


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