May 30, 2006

More impressions...

.... as requested...

- Baikonur is preparing for a visit of Putin later in June. (the meeting is mentioned shortly in this Jamestown report: So, every bus ride I notice new things being put up: big billboards with Putin and the Kazakh president Nazarbayev shaking hands and the town is being cleaned up it seems. Too bad I won't be here anymore when he's coming... could have been interesting to see if there would have been any special events for his visit.

- I mentioned the interaction between Kazakhi's and Russians in an earlier post. I'm starting to notice some clearer differences though. It does seem that the Kazakhs are the less well-off population group. Most of the menial jobs such as cleaning, working in restaurants and at bars, selling goods at the market are done by Kazakh people. In contrast, you hardly see any Kazakhs working in the Cosmodrome itself - these jobs (I assume these are the better jobs available) are done by Russians.

- continuing on with a work-related remark: most 'responsible' work is done by women. At the Cosmodrome most security people and (apparently) also the people who handle cranes etc are women. The reason for this is supposedly that the men are too unreliable because they are drunk for most of the time!

- and yes, alcohol (well, beer and vodka) is ever-present here. You see a lot of people walking outside on the streets holding beerbottles from about noon onwards. If not beer, there will be a group of men (with sometimes one or two women) sitting around with a bottle of vodka in the middle. The cliche seems to be true: every restaurant has over a page in the menu listing the different types of vodka that they sell. And it comes on to the table automatically if you are out for a fully arranged dinner. Having so many people drink outside also means that the streets are full of broken glass but everyone cycles around here on incredibly crappy bikes. It's clear that the mountainbikes from the hotel are envied by the locals.

- there are tons of kids around. Even while were out late last night there would still be loads of children (between 6-10 years) playing out on the streets. I get the impression that women want to be married young, that it's not done if you're not married in your early 20s or so. And apparently it's quite normal to have many children. However, it also seems that there are a lot of social problems such as alcoholism which leads to a lot of single mothers.

- people here seem to go out quite a lot. I was expecting this to be a fairly poor town, which in a way it is, so that people couldn't afford to go out much. However, the disco's are usually pretty busy, and even last night - on a Monday, of all nights - the one Italian restaurant here was packed, as were the beergardens and shaslick places further down the street. So, either it is just ridiculously cheap (which it is, I think our meal of shaslick-meat, bread, fries and beer cost about E10 at most for two persons) so it doesn't matter if you cook yourself or not, or they don't earn so badly here after all. In that sense, I can imagine that especially for the Russians there must be some kind of (financial) incentive to move out here and build a live.... Also, the people don't look very poor. Most people are well dressed (as in, the quality of clothing - it's not falling apart or anything, but the style of fashion here could use some improvement!), although the houses look very rundown.

hmm, all for now I think. Time for lunch!

[btw, happy update on the jobthing below - heard yesterday that I have a new interview scheduled a few days after I come back! Yay!]

May 29, 2006

Killing time at the office...

.... by reading up on what I should be doing in Moscow in less than two weeks time:

Moscow Times:

besides the usual travel book et cetera... can't wait!

May 27, 2006

The Weekend!

Only one-and-a-half hours more to go until I can escape the office and start my weekend. And yes, it is already Saturday noon but my weekends here consist of Saturday evening and Sunday. Today is a good day as we finish early (= 3pm). Actually, I finished my work a few hours ago. But, as we aren't allowed to move freely there's only one bus going back at the end of the day....

In other good news: the weather! It's a lovely 32 degrees outside, tomorrow it'll go up to 36. A very dry heat, so it's actually nice to be outside.

Hopefully hanging out in the sun this afternoon, maybe try to find the river where there is supposedly a 'beach'. Although I doubt the water is clean enough to swim in it should be entertaining enough to have a look, take a book along etc.
Tonight is a big dinner with the whole project, sponsored by one of the companies here. I'm expecting a lot of shaslicks (sp?) and other meats. Followed by some exploration of a local disco, Luna.
Hopefully tomorrow a visit to the local market. It'd be great to get some local spices (in particular the saffran is supposed to be very good here), tea maybe, and they have actual tourist things: ceramic mini-camels. I can't leave this place without one, you understand.

[and in reply to some of Jules'  comments while I can't comment back the normal way:
* re photos - yes, I can make pictures but these tech-issues are keeping me from posting them (that, and the fact that my camera isn't digital... ). I'll get them up as soon as they're developed/burned on cd.
* re caffination by colleagues (that sounds scary...) - the guy who was taking care of me best has left. combined with the fact that I now have other colleagues in my office drink less coffee I'm back to walking to the coffee machine myself again. :-(
* re jobstuff - am writing yet another application as we speak.... *fingers crossed*]

May 25, 2006

Faded glory

After now having been in Baikonur for one week, I am starting to get a fairly good impression of the town. In one word: surreal.

This is a place in (literally) the middle of nowhere - in this case: the desert of southwest Kazakhstan -, a complex built in the '50s by the USSR. At that time, Kazakhstan was of course still part of the Soviet Union. At the moment it is a Russian enclave in a now independent country. Once upon a time, this city was inhabited by 100.000 people, Russians and Kazakhs. And it was the glory of the Soviet space program: this is where Yuri Gagarin launched from, and many other space-milestones were achieved here. Other - not so successful, yet prestigious - projects also have their origin here. For example, the Buran shuttle and its enormous Energia launch pad are here. All in all, it is a area with decades of space history. Even for those without any significant space-related background you cannot not  be impressed.

However, now in 2006, Baikonur has been stripped of most of its prestige. Towards the end of the USSR the space program inevitably suffered. At the moment, there are about 30.000 inhabitants of the town. At times, it feels like a ghost town. Huge apartment blocks are unoccupied; the streets seem deserted; paint is fading and the ferris wheel stands still with Russian songs coming from the croaky speakers. Of course, the Baikonur Cosmodrome isn't completely deserted. In June, for example, at least 5-6 launches are scheduled. Some of these are for governmental or military satellites, other launches are for cargo supplies to the International Space Station.

The drive from Baikonur town into the Cosmodrome is a surreal experience. Exit and entry to and from both areas is stricly monitored. The town is surrounded by a wall, with a few checkpoints to get out. The Cosmodrome itself is as large as a third of the Netherlands: it has a diameter of 80kms. The landscape is almost moonlike - desert and steppe continues for miles and miles. The only thing growing out here are some shrubs now and then. And of course there's the occasional tracking station or antenna farm. Once inside the office building we are onlly allowed outside for about 20m, anywhere further is off-limits. And for every single request explicit approval is needed from the Cosmodrome authorities (at the moment we are waiting for approval to visit the Buran model in 15 minutes....).

The inhabitants of Baikonur town are a mis of Russians and Kazakhs. There is also a Kazakh village just outside the wall (where we are not allowed, as we only have a Russian visa) and I can only assume that many of the villagers work in the town or Cosmodrome. As far as I've heard the two groups get along without problems. There was some friction just after the collapse of the USSR with rioting in the town - after all, Russia was not about to give up its valuable facilities in Kazakhstan, but the Kazakhs wanted to reclaim their land. At the moment, there is still some separation between the group and the people tend to keep to their own. So far though, I do see them mixing at the market, in the local bars etc, although it might be too early to really tell accurately. There is a lot of military on the streets, and it is clear that all people here are fully dependent on the space activities for their livelihood.

In any case, it will be an interesting further two weeks. There is a lot going on at the Cosmodrome and in the team, the weather is great, so far the team members seem interesting enough to socialize with; now just to get that Russian under control....

May 24, 2006

Note to employer

Dear employer,

If you would like me to keep working for you, paying for my stay in Moscow is a very good strategy.

However, it will not balance out the fact that after Moscow I come back to a changed office, a changed work description, and a new roommate who takes structuring/organizing to the absolute extreme.

Please, don't be surprised if my work performance drops drastically/my resignation is on your desk soon.


Online - sort of: random impressions

Thanks to Jules I have finally figured out how to post without being able to access blogger. Some things in Kazakhstan are clearly what I had feared them to be  - although involuntary internet rehab might not be so bad ;-)

I have a long post written up on my laptop, at the hotel where I also don't have access, so it'll have to wait until tomorrow.

For now, a few first impressions:

- it's summer! Warm/hot days, a slight breeze (okay, sometimes a strong wind), couldn't be better.
- about Kazachstan? There is nothing - NOTHING - here. Except for small little marmot-like things who run across the road at the moment our bus races by; loads of antennas and tracking stations; eagles and oh, camels! Spent the first afternoon mountainbiking around the town and a bit through the desert down to the riverbank from where we saw camels and some debri of a failed rocket (okay, that doesn't sound good but in a way still impressive)
- am discovering advantages of being in an almost all-male project team. I only have to blink and I've got coffee in front of me...
- clubbing (well, going to the local disco) feels like being in Japan.
- and I'm turning into a satellite expert. Who'd have imagined that!

Okay, off to lunch, more later.

May 16, 2006

Packing (2); or, non-organisation

I'll be travelling in less than twelve hours. I am only half way packed. I also need to sleep in between. Why can I never be more organized? Gah.

Still very excited though: I'm going here!


I had no idea the Pecha Kucha nights had turned international. I've been to one or two in Tokyo, and thought it was a pretty cool and interesting concept.

But apparently they've gone across the world, and recently a Rotterdam version was launched! One thing that I'll definitely have to check out after this month.

May 04, 2006

Could it really be happening...?

It seems like spring (summer?) is well and truly here. Finally!
Of course, rather than being behind my computer at work and getting immensely frustrated with a bunch of incompetent colleagues I want to be outside. I'll be logging off, getting work done, and hopefully disappearing to a outdoor cafe for a glass of rosé or such.

And to make it even better, I have the first bbq of the year to look forward to on Saturday. Bliss.

May 01, 2006

Another new book!

I just got back from one of my favourite shops - all shelfs are stacked with travel books, how can you not love a shop like that? - to start a bit of research about my upcoming weekend in Moscow! Yay :-D

Contrary to habit, I ended up buying a different guide than the standard Lonely Planet. I mean, the Rough Guide has a lot more pages, is cheaper, seems to have much more information on the city etc etc. Only drawback appears to be that it's a year older, but I'm sure I can survive my few days in the city on 2005-information.

Btw, the picture above is off the hotel (Metropol) I will most likely spending my first night in... From what I've read about it it seems to be one of the most beautiful hotels in town, so I'm not complaining at all about corporate travel so far!

P.S. Yes, I'm slightly overexcited about this upcoming trip. But hey, I haven't been on an airplane since, oh, January. It's about time again.