Kazakhstan a good place to live
Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, is unknown to many expats. For years it was in the shadow of its predecessor, Almaty, but it has matured and ever more corporate headquarters, embassies and consular services are moving north to Astana.
A quick Internet search will divulge that it's the world's second coldest capital city, but what is life really like for expats in Kazakhstan? Below is an overview of the advantages and disadvantages of living in Kazakhstan. It makes specific references to life in Astana, which is where most expats are based, but the information also applies to the country as a whole.
Accommodation in KazakhstanThe quality of accommodation in Kazakhstan depends, to a certain extent, on an expat's allowance. For those with a healthy salary and accommodation allowance there are many decent-sized apartments to choose from, while those without much of housing stipend may struggle to find something suitable.
Kazakh tastes in interior decor tend to be very different from expatriate tastes, so it may be worth asking someone to view the apartment and take photographs before signing a lease.
PRO: Expanding choices in accommodation optionsAstana is expanding at an amazing rate and new apartment blocks are being built all the time. If expats move into a new apartment, the landlords are generally happy to provide furniture to order. Most apartment buildings have underground parking, a shop and a childrenâ€™s playground. Entry is usually controlled by a secure entry-phone system.
There is a wide range of choice in the types of apartments â€“ from riverside home in the older, Soviet-designed right bank part of the city to high-rise apartments with spectacular views in the new centre.
One- to three-bedroom apartments are the norm, but four-bedroom units are available if expats are willing to shop around.
CON: Houses are hard to findMost accommodation in Kazakhstan is in apartment buildings. Houses are available, but rents are much higher and they're very expensive to heat.
PRO: Cheap utilitiesWater and heating are run on a central network and piped directly into each building. This is cheaper than running an individual boiler.
CON: No control over utilitiesAs the utilities are run on a central network, residents have very little choice on when the heating is turned on or off. It comes on in October and turns off in April. In some buildings the heating is so warm that tenants may have to open the windows to cool it down â€“ even in the middle of winter.
Many buildings have an interruption in the supply of hot water for one to three days twice a year while the systems are switched from summer to winter and back again.
Lifestyle and shopping in KazakhstanIt's natural for expats to worry about the winter temperatures, but Astana is well equipped to deal with this and most people find it an easy city to live in, with plenty of options for socialising.
PRO: Growing social sceneKazakhstanis are very friendly and welcoming, and while the expat community in Astana is still small, it's growing rapidly and there is an active international club for just about any interest.
The city's restaurant scene is also developing and new offerings open every month, with a good range of quality food to suit mist budgets.
There is a wide range of concerts, plays, ballets and circuses available in the city, all at very good prices. Although the quality is not always the highest, expats shouldn't be stuck for something to see.
PRO: Beautiful parks and architectureWhile the old town is rather chaotic in places, the river has beautiful pedestrianised embankments which make them a wonderful location for a stroll at any time of the year, in the summer pleasure boats take customers for rides and beaches are opened for swimming. In the winter, ice slides and skating rinks are built at intervals along the river.
The new centre has been built with gardens in mind. It runs East West along a central garden boulevard that is carpeted in flowers and fountains over the summer months. There are also some impressive buildings mostly situated along this boulevard, and at the western end is Kazakhstan's largest shopping centre in Kazakhstan, a giant tented complex that has a beach (complete with sand imported from the Maldives) and swimming pool complex on its 5th floor.
At the other end of the boulevard and across the river is the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, Norman Fosterâ€™s pyramidal concert hall and conference venue. In between there is the magnificent Ak Orda, the blue-domed Presidentâ€™s Palace and the Baiterek â€“ a tower topped with a golden egg, which is the symbol of Astana and the new Kazakhstan.
CON: IsolationAstana is a long way from anywhere else. Borovoye â€“ the nearest lake resort is a 250km drive or a three-hour train journey away. Karaganda, the nearest neighbouring big city is a similar distance away and the best way to get to Almaty is with an expensive flight or a 12-hour train ride.
Astana has a limited number of direct flights, so to travel to most destinations expats will have to transfer through a hub such as Moscow, Kiev, Vienna, Frankfurt or Abu Dhabi. Fortunately, the airport does operate throughout the winter â€“ rarely closing even in the most extreme temperatures and conditions - but road and rail links are sometimes blocked.
Safety in KazakhstanKazakhstan is generally quite safe, especially if expats exercise the necessary level of of caution. Driving in Kazakhstan can be challenging and those that have no experience driving during a Kazakh winter should be extra careful.
PRO: Low crime ratesAstana is a very safe place with low levels of petty crime, and even lower levels of serious crime.The new town centre is safe to walk through until late at night, even for a woman alone.
CON: Hazardous driving conditionsAstana's road network is new and well maintained, and snow is cleared almost as soon as it falls, with ploughs operating on a 24-hour basis throughout winter. While cars are required to pass an annual check and to use winter tyres during the snow, not all drivers do this. Lane discipline is another fluid concept and many drivers use their hooter or horn instead of indicators.
Most expatriates have the use of a company car and driver, but many still drive themselves. The bus network is extensive and cheap, and it is simple, safe and acceptable to hitch a ride in a â€˜gypsyâ€™ cab. Proper taxis are more expensive and not always easy to order.