Kazakhstan is a beautiful country – its commercial capital Almaty is surrounded by snow-capped mountains, providing a dramatic backdrop to the city, and the landscape is geographically extremely diverse. With vast natural resources (Kazakhstan is the world’s largest uranium producer), it’s fairly well-equipped for expats, with western supermarkets and modern shopping malls. The capital Astana has been coming up in the world for several years now and many headquarters, embassies etc. are moving north. Being the largest landlocked country in the world, much of Kazakhstan is occupied by vast open spaces, but the major cities are fairly busy.
If you’ve been offered a position in Kazakhstan, here are 10 things you should know before you go…
Currency: Kazakhstani tenge (KZT), divided into 100 tïın
Finding somewhere to live
Accommodation can be surprisingly expensive in expat areas, but very affordable if you’re living in areas mainly occupied by locals. Almaty gets more expensive the further uphill you move (the pollution isn’t as bad further uphill!). New apartment blocks, particularly in Astana, are popping up at a surprising rate and often have underground parking and a children’s playground. If you’re hoping to live in a house, you may be disappointed – rents are much higher and they are more expensive to keep warm in the cold winters.
A country of extremes
Although temperature can reach the alarmingly low -35C in winter (and 35C in summer!), the Kazakhstanis are well prepared for winter meaning the roads are cleared and life just goes on. Not all drivers, however, prepare their winter tyres (despite checks!) and lane discipline is not as stringent as you may be used to. In fact, if you can afford to it’s worth using a driver.
The social scene is growing, the Kazakhs are a friendly people, and there are active expat international clubs for many interests. Almaty, to the south, is fairly close to neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, whereas Astana is fairly isolated. The large expat and local communities, however, should occupy your social life, and access to unrivalled natural beauty close by certainly helps.
Learn a new language…
Learn Russian! It’s an extremely interesting and useful language to master the basics of, and what better opportunity to learn a new language? Although Kazakh is the official language since the end of the Soviet era, most business is still transacted in Russian and children learn both Russian and Kazakh in school.
Kazakhstan is very safe
Crime rates are low and the city centres are relatively safe to walk through, even alone and at night in most places.
The work is well-paid...
Salary packages tend to be good in Kazakhstan for expats, and come with housing, pension, education and medical allowances…
...but you do have to pay a premium for some goods
However, prices for anything other than basics tend to be high as Kazakhstan has to import many of its goods – second hand cars, for example, hold their value well so you can expect to pay quite a lot even for an older car (a lot of people simply hail the ubiquitous, reliable and cheap gypsy cabs instead). If you’re hugely into your quality coffee, it may well be worthwhile to bring some with you, use whole beans, and invest in a coffee maker – as it can be very expensive in Kazakhstan!
The architecture has to be seen to be believed
If you’re interested in the built environment, you’ll be absolutely spoilt for choice with a wide range of post-war Soviet brutalist structures, traditional Kazakh offerings and wacky more recent builds (think tent-shaped shopping centres!)
Make sure you sort out health insurance before you go
You will need good international health insurance to access the best care, but hospitals do have high standards and doctors are very well-educated. You may be lucky enough to have healthcare provided by your employer, but be aware that for any serious treatment you may be flown to Frankfurt or Istanbul.
If you have children…
There are international schools available, including some that follow foreign curriculums (such as Haileybury, which follows the National Curriculum of England and Wales). Local schools are good, and education is compulsory.