An American in Kostanai

November 4, 2007 at 12:22 pm 3 comments

Location in Kazakhstan

As many of you know, Kostanai is one of the two destinations to which we will travel for our Kazakhstan adoption. Astana is the other. (Wikipedia link-

I’m sharing a description of Kostanai (with permission) from a couple who has just returned to the U.S. while adoption documents are processed in Kazahkstan. I can’t imagine (though I’ll have to experience it as well) how difficult it was to leave their baby to be during this time. Because they are using the same adoption agency as we are, MAPS, reading their very well written and descriptive blog is becoming one of the best preparation tools for our upcoming journey. Their experiences, the people that they meet, and the places that they go will be similar to what we may experiences, although everything is always subject to change. Here it is:

“Thoughts on being in Kostanai…after a month (long)

After being here for nearly a month, we felt that it might be helpful for us to write down many of the little tips and tricks that we’ve learned that have made life here a little more bearable. In addition, now is as good a time as any to look back over the past few months and write down the things that we “wish we had done or thought of” prior to leaving. Please be sure to remember that this list is based solely on our individual experiences. Your mileage may vary based on your circumstances, your region, your agency and your coordinator. In addition, while these tips may be appropriate for October 2007, they may not apply in the future as events may change in ways that cannot be anticipated.

With that as an introduction, and in no particular order, here are some of the things that we’ve learned:

1. ATMs are far more common here in Kostanai than anticipated. We no longer carry our cash everywhere. In fact, we’ve only changed our US currency a handful of times. This is more for convenience and safety than anything else. Using an ATM results in a fee from your bank, so we probably lose a little ($5-10) each time we withdraw money. As such, we usually get 30,000TT (about $250US) at a pop. From what I can tell, the currency exchanges don’t charge fees, so if you’re trying to save money, go with the exchanges. Based on watching the signs from our windows, the rates are adjusted twice a day.

2. Credit card use is increasing. The major grocery store here in Kostanai, GROS, takes Visa and Mastercard. Our debit cards work fine, and while there is a ‘foreign exchange fee’, it’s small and only 1-2% of the total. There is no foreign ATM fee for using a debit card as a credit card here.

3. Cook for yourself. You can save a lot of money by cooking simple meals for yourself. The produce here is cheap and plentiful (at least during the autumn). Root vegetables, tomatoes, peppers, onions, potatoes and cabbage are easily found in both the grocery stores and in open-air markets. I personally think that the quality of the produce in the open air markets is better that that in the stores. You can pick out your own vegetables at the open-air markets in the same way as you would any farmers market – just be sure to wash them carefully. Certain things are more expensive such as oranges and grapefruit, which is to be expected since they’re imported. Other fruits are cheap and delicious, such as grapes, apples and pears. Other things that we found here to be of excellent quality and low price includes:

Bread: far better than the US, and in over a dozen varieties. Loaves are about 30-50TT (25-50 cents). No preservatives, so it’ll start to mold after 3-4 days, but then again the loaves are smaller. Excellent for sandwiches. Of note: nothing comes pre-sliced, so you’ll need your own knife.

Bakery products: delicious cookies and cakes (torte, in Russian), again these are far less expensive than in the US. They’re not nearly as sweet at dessert items in the US.

Chocolate: this really is one of the highlights for me. Kazakhstan chocolate is really something. Look for the special “Made in Kazakhstan” symbol. The chocolate here is darker and not as sweet, but it’s what chocolate is supposed to taste like, in my opinion.

Vodka: Naturally. The higher priced bottles (700-1000TT or $6-9) are quite good – much better than anything I’ve had from the US or Europe.

4. Alcohol. As opposed to the US, drinking in the open is common here. We often see people walking down the street with an open beer in hand. We’ve seen some obviously intoxicated people, but not a lot. If you’re a beer drinker, most of the beer here is lager- style. Baltika and Kareganda are two of the big names. If you prefer dark beer look for or ask for something that is TEMNOE. Non-vodka distilled spirits made in Kazakhstan include cognac and brandy. Both are 40% alcohol and real throat-burners. Western-style distilled spirits are available but are pretty expensive. A bottle of blended Scotch whiskey will set you back $40 or $50. For wine, it is possible to find French, Italian, Chilean and Argentinian wines. They’re not cheap – about 1500-2000TT for moderate-quality wines. If you want cheap wine, you can find plenty from Moldova and the Republic of Georgia. The Moldovan wines are very sweet and lower in alcohol (9-10%). There are Kazakhstani wines, but we’ve not given them a whirl.

5. Water. Without a doubt, don’t drink the water. It’s not worth it. We don’t even cook with it. Get into a routine of buying large (5 liter) bottles. We try to have 2-3 of these in the house at all times. It’s a pain in the neck to have to schlep them up into the apartment, but it’s worth it. For cleaning fruit and vegetables, we rinse with bottled water. In addition, we us it to make our pasta and coffee. We keep a small 0.5L bottle in the bathroom that we refill each day for brushing our teeth.

6. Cleaning vodka. Because it’s so cheap, you can actually buy the least expensive vodka here (180TT/500mL bottle) solely for its disinfectant properties. Remember, vodka is 40% ethanol and is good for sterilizing your toothbrush (since it’s not safe to rinse it under the faucet). It’s also good for rinsing off fruits and vegetables that you want to eat with the skin on (e.g., apples or pears).

7. Coffee and Tea. Kazakhstan is a tea-drinking country. Most of the tea here is bagged black tea. It’s not bad. We’ve seen loose- leaf tea available in both grocery stores and malls, so if tea is your drink, you’ll be all set. It’s not hard to find a cheap teapot that brews loose-leaf tea. We bought some lovely Japanese porcelain tea sets (cup, strainer and lid) in the markets for 400TT ($3.50). Electric tea kettles are available in the stores for under 2000TT. If you’re a coffee drinker, life will be a little harder. Most of the coffee sold in stores is freeze-dried instant. Truth be told, it’s not half bad in a pinch. We like the MOCCONA Black Label and the JACOBS Monarch brands. There is ground coffee available here, but it is very finely ground for Turkish coffee – put it in your french press and you’re in for a cup of grit. We saw whole-bean
coffee at the “Family” mall in Kostanai, which the vendor will grind for you.

8. Fresh Meat. We’ve been a little adventurous here in that we’ve bought whole chickens for dinner. Some of the meat markets will have them both whole and cut up. We’ve seen frozen chicken breasts in some of the grocery stores. Most of the fresh cut up chicken here seems to be legs and thighs. As for beef and pork, we’ve decided to limit ourselves to whatever is prepared in the restaurants when it comes to fresh meat. We’ve seen frozen ground beef which looks to be about 80-85% lean in the grocery stores, as well as fresh ground beef. Being uncertain of storage conditions, I’m not as inclined to take a chance at this time.

9. Cheese and Preserved Meat: There is an abundance of delicious sausage and smoked meats here as well as an enormous variety of cheeses. In the markets (as opposed to the grocery stores), particularly where there are rows of vendors selling the same thing, you’ll likely be able to get a taste of different things. Remember that you’re ordering by the gram, so a pen and paper to write out the quantity you’re interested in (200g, 500g, etc.) is helpful.

10. Illness: The odds are pretty good that you’re going to get sick here. At the very least, you’re going to get a viral upper respiratory tract infection. I got sick about a week or so into our trip, and my wife got sick about 3 weeks in. There are plenty of
pharmacies here that stock over-the-counter cough and cold remedies including TheraFlu. We found generic Robitussin for coughs. We brought plenty of ibuprofen with us for headaches and sore throats. As opposed to US pharmacies, all of the over-the-counter meds are behind the counter, but they all seem to be on display. Just find what you want and point. For the GI tract, both of us had very noisy intestines for the first week or so after we got here. We figure that it’s adjusting to the differences in diet along with probably small amounts of tap water that we were exposed to. We brought a big bottle of ciprofloxacin just in case either of us ended up with traveler’s diarrhea, but so far we’ve not touched it.

11. Toiletries: Most US brands are available here and are comparably priced. For soap, you can’t go wrong with Fa, a German brand. Shaving cream, disposable razor cartridges, shampoo and conditioner, and the like are all found in any of the small stores (magazines), open air markets, or larger grocery stores.

12. Entertainment: Be ready to entertain yourselves. TV here is almost exclusively in Russian or Kazakh. We have 50 channels, none of which have English or English subtitles. Most English-language movies or shows are dubbed, so you can’t understand the English. Note that not all of your DVDs will work here. Some DVDs are coded for only “Region 1” (US). The DVD player in our apartment couldn’t
play those disks. If you have a laptop with a DVD play, though, you’ll be all set. We didn’t have a radio in our apartment. My wife was very smart in thinking to bring a small portable speaker system for our iPods. It made a huge difference to have our own music. I’d definitely bring a good deal of books. We’ve not seen one English language book, newspaper or magazine since being here, and believe
me, we’ve looked.

13. Not standing out. It’s difficult to disguise yourself here – there is a big difference between the way that Americans look, dress and act, and the way that Kazakhstani’s do. That being said, it is our opinion that it is worth keeping a low profile for a variety of reasons. First, you don’t need to attract the attention of the
police. We’ve heard from other American families that they’ve been stopped by the police in the markets and asked for their papers. While I’m sure all would be OK, we’re not interested in this type of attention. Second, you don’t need to attract the attention of anyone who might think that you have something worth taking (e.g., money, electronics, etc.). Again, we’ve felt very safe here, but given that Americans come over here with a large amount of cash, better to stay under the radar. Finally, and most importantly, we’re of the opinion that the impression of international adoption here is not 100% positive. This comes from a variety of sources: we’ve heard from families who’ve told us about prosecutors opposed to adoption, and we’ve been told by our coordinator that older people are not particularly happy about Kazakhstani children being taken to America. One day, we pulled up to the baby house that we’re adopting from and saw a TV news crew on the front steps. Our coordinator was very quick to tell us not to say a word – that the news here can be exploitative at times. All in all, we feel that it’s best if people think that we’re here for other reasons, and even better if people don’t know that we’re here at all. Here are some of our thoughts on not standing out:

Talk quietly. Talking loudly and openly is an absolute giveaway that you’re American. A large group of Americans sitting around a table in a cafe talking about adoption, or worse, complaining about Kazakhstan, can’t look good.

Don’t assume that people don’t know English – we’ve been caught off guard when people have addressed us in English. This makes the above point that much more relevant.

Photograph carefully. Taking pictures of people without their consent, of police, government buildings or transportation centers (train stations,airports), or inside stores or markets is a big no- no. At the least, you’ll get a dirty look or get scolded. At the worst, you may attract the attention of the police.

Dress conservatively. I brought two plaid button-down shirts that I thought were pretty neutral – and they are for the US. I’ve seen no plaid here. Dark colors predominate, and despite the unusual fall warmth, people here walk around very warmly dressed. I’m sure that I stand out in my fall jacket without gloves or a hat. The women here dress to the nines even on weekends.

Understand the differences. For example, things that are common customs in the US (holding doors open for people behind you, waiting patiently in line, stopping for pedestrians in the road) are simply not the custom here. Don’t mistake people as being rude just because they don’t operate according to our Western ways. We’ve found that if you hold the door open for people as they exit a store, you’ll be standing there like a doorman for a long time with people pushing past you and giving you strange looks. Go with the flow and do what everyone else does.

Understand the world view. Americans tend to have more of a sense that things are going to, or are supposed to, work out that way we expect them to. Here, that expectation is replaced by a sense of tolerance for the general uncertainty associated with life. There is much less of a sense of ‘entitlement’ here.

14. Internet: In Kostanai, there is very little in the way of high- speed internet. We’ve seen a couple of Internet cafes but have been told that they are very expensive. We’ve been using KazTelecom Internet cards with success. You can buy them at the KazTelecom building or at certain cellphone stands/stores throughout the city. The cards that we’ve been buying are 1000TT each. You’re not buying time, instead your buying a certain amount of data transferred. I can’t tell how much, but with moderate use, they seem to last about 7- 10 days each. Make sure that you know how to use the dial-up internet settings on your computer before you leave for Kazakhstan. It’ll make your life much easier.

15. Cell phones/Blackberries: We bought an unlocked, quad-band phone with a SIM chip before we left from a company called Telestial It ran us about $150. The SIM chip gave us a UK-based number. After we got here we bought a Kazakhstan SIM chip which gave us a Kazakhstan number. We’ve been using it since. I think that incoming calls are free, which means our friends/family can call us here if they wish. I also got am AT&T Blackberry 8800 with an international data package, and that’s been a godsend. I can send/receive e-mail at anytime, in real time.

16. Gifts: We’re very luck in that we’re both in the medical field and as a result we were able to bring a lot of medical items over to donate to the baby house. Customs didn’t look in our luggage when we entered Kazakhstan. As such, we brought in multivitamins, antibiotic creams, etc. without any issue. Many orphanages need basic items such as thermometers, nailclippers, bandages, neosporin, etc. Bringing over a bunch of these (available at your local drugstore) will make your baby house’s medical director very happy. Other things such as children’s chewable vitamins, PolyViSol vitamin drops for infants, children’s tylenol, etc. will also be very welcomed.

17. The Language: Learning a little Russian goes a very long way here. It will make you appear to be a better global citizen, it will show that you care enough about the people of Kazakhstan to extend yourself, and it will also make your life a lot easier. Learning to recognize different food-related words (meat, chicken, pork, etc.) will help eliminate surprises at restaurants without English menus. Being able to say, “I’m sorry, but I only speak a little Russian” is a nice prelude to the pointing and grunting that invariably takes place when you want to buy something. Knowing how to count to 10 is also a big help. Our rudimentary Russian has made it possible for us
to be more independent here – as such we’re able to spend out days out and about, including stores and restaurants, without our translator. While I’m sure that we miss a great deal of what people are saying, we do get occasional smiles from people when we try hard.

18. Expect the unexpected. While we learned a lot from reading various weblogs, the Kazakhstan Adoptive Families site, and the Kazakhstan Adoption Yahoo group, we also learned that there is so much variability between agencies, regions and experiences that it is impossible to generalize things. In addition, the process seems to be in a state of constant evolution. As a rule-of-thumb, we believe that it is important to ask your agency and your coordinator to be as open, honest and forthcoming with you as possible. While you may not be able to control anything or change anything, knowing the machinations may help you cope. For example, it was only after we arrived in Kostanai, and after a week of being here that we learned
that our coordinator was going to have to re-locate our child’s birthmother and get her to come to the court and write a second renunciation document. It wasn’t until we’d been here a month that we learned that it might be necessary for her to attempt to locate the father as well. Similarly, right around the end of our 14-day bonding period, we learned that the system for assigning judges had completely changed. Whereas before, a handful of judges handled international adoption cases, and our agency’s in-country staff knew all of them well, now a computer assigned cases to judges. As such, we ended up with a judge who had never before handled an international adoption case. How these things will impact our process isn’t clear – and may not be clear until the very end – we just have to sit on our hands and watch/wait.

One other thing, you mentioned dark clothing; do the men in Kaz wear jeans? All the adults in Kaz seem to own several pairs of black jeans, almost the casual ‘uniform’. Our coordinator in Kostanai wore jeans herself most of the time. We wore them for visits to the orphanage and in and around town.”

So…there you have it. Kostanai!


Entry filed under: Kazakhstan Adoption. Tags: , , , .

In Search of Kazakhstan Where We Are in the Process

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Kerri  |  November 22, 2007 at 5:43 pm

    sis, i have some meds i got from my overseas doc for GI issues prior to my travels to the West Bank. May i also suggest you get Hep A shots if you haven’t already (Hep A comes from fecal matter to food to you…)

    anway, these pills will kill anything in you if it should ever come to that. i’ll get them to you somehow. they are handy because sometimes hospitals are not.

  • 2. K  |  November 25, 2007 at 3:35 am

    I would say Americans are generally NOT under the “radar” no more than any other person traveling there…you have to put it into perspective…it’s like a New Yorker staying in some small hick town in the MidWest…you are just a curiosity, not a target. If you protect yourself too much you might miss the best parts of being there…the people. Keep an open mind.

  • 3. Scott  |  November 28, 2007 at 11:45 am

    Very good report on Kaz. and Kostanai. You should travel then write travel info professionally. Many Americans could benefit from some of your advice about travelling in a foreign country. We seem to stand out anyway, and sometimes people resent, what they perceive to be, our somewhat brash nature.
    I have email friend in Kostanai, but as she is native. She cannot adequately describe the differences between cultures…nor does she seem to want to…especially because I am an American who has lived in Brasil the last 3 years. She only wants to gab. I like to visit when I have a chance too, but my interests are wider. By the way, I use Skype to make all my international calls. It is free between Skype users, and only a few cents per minute for most international calls. In fact, I met my friend in Kostanai because she has Skype.

    I am starting an import/export company in Brazil, and I often do research and “little investigations” on places world wide. I am looking for niche markets. This is how I came to read your blog. I enjoyed it.

    I wish you very good luck with your adoption, and much happiness for the future. Hang in there. God bless.

    Scott…Santos, Brazil


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