The Astana Story

Posted on August 3, 2013

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Khan Shatyr

Bayterek Tower

On April 15, 2013, two men, acting individually, detonated a bomb at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. This horrific act killed three and injured 264 people. It also started a chain of events that would lead three Americans in Almaty, including myself, to Astana to prove that our American Bachelor degrees were legitimate.

Two Americans and Adil, on the streets of Astana

Two Americans and Adil, on the streets of Astana

On May 1st, 2013, two Kazakh students attending the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth were arrested in relation to the disposal of evidence and obstruction of justice. I watched this news on BBC Headline news at KIMEP University, doubting that it would have any effect on me, but would probably effect many students in my classrooms who dream of studying in the USA.

Stop number 1 in Astana: The Bayterek Tower, and a trip to in innards of the egg at the top

Stop number 1 in Astana: The Bayterek Tower, and a trip to in innards of the egg at the top

Sure enough, on May 26th, I arrived to find Channel 5 on at work, any my coworker explained that several students in Kazakhstan had been denied visas to the USA because of the bombings. This made my coworker feel really bad, but I still didn’t think much of it at the time.

My American friend and I waited for a good 5 minutes watching three ladies take multiple turns placing their hand in Mr. Nazerbayev's handprint before we got this shot. You can tell one of the ladies behind was not happy we took her 20th turn to get this photo, which undoubtedly makes it my favorite from the trip.

My American friend and I waited for a good 5 minutes watching three ladies take multiple turns placing their hand in Mr. Nazerbayev’s handprint before we got this shot. You can tell one of the ladies behind was not happy we took her 20th turn to get this photo, which undoubtedly makes it my favorite from the trip.

By the end of the week, I received an email from the director of my department that I needed to talk to KIMEP’s nostrification officer (nostrification is not, in fact, a made-up word). She is undoubtedly one of the nicest people I worked with to get certified to live here in Kazakhstan, so I happily visited her office, but found out the bad news that the Kazakhstan Ministry of Education had rejected our prior nostrification, most likely in relation to the denial of the student visas.

Random artwork at the base of the Bayterek Tower. The canvas is blank.

Random artwork at the base of the Bayterek Tower. The canvas is blank.

Despite the fact that the USA came out and stated that the Kazakhstani students’ visas were not denied in relation to the bombings, we still had to take a 12 hour train to Astana to take a test to prove that we were qualified to study in Kazakhstan. We had to jump through some hoops, but luckily for us we did not have to pay for this trip, nor the examination.

The National Archives Building, and some of the more "contemporary" architecture behind it

The National Archives Building, and some of the more “contemporary” architecture behind it

On June 14th, 2013, I arrived in Astana with my legal status in the country on the line. The exam would be in Russian, so KIMEP sent along the University President’s translator for the three of us going. This worked in our favor; Adil also gave us a fantastic tour of the city in the morning since our exam was scheduled in the afternoon. Also, we were sent a list of 97 questions that could be featured on the exam, but told that the examiners would only ask us three questions total. Luckily, probably 2/3rds of the questions related to arcane dates but important treaties relating the Cold War, so that is what I mostly brushed up on when I studied the night before the train ride.

The architecture in Astana has very little rhyme or reason. I think the motif of this building is a Playstation 2

The architecture in Astana has very little rhyme or reason. I think the motif of this building is a Playstation 2

We arrived on-time to Eurasian University, where we had to wait for a small amount of time for the proctors to find a proper testing room. I took a slip of paper, and found that I would have to talk about the Paris Peace Treaty of 1947, the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988, and the correspondence between the USSR’s Foreign Minister Bulganin and Sir Anthony Eden, the Prime Minister of England, in 1956.

And the motif of this building is a wavy noodle

And the motif of this building is a wavy noodle

After watching the two other American students perform brilliantly talking about unique topics different than my own, I took the chair and started to talk about how the Treaty of Paris in 1947 was one of many treaties signed at the end of the Second World War that had to do with how the Allied Forces would divvy up the land that had been invaded by Nazi Germany. Within sixty seconds of complete bullshit, I realized that the two proctors had no answers in front of them and were not checking a single thing I was saying. So, I continued to speak confidently about stuff that had nothing to do with the specifics of the Treaty of Paris in 1947, and they seemed fine with that. I answered the next two questions the same way, albeit with slightly more knowledge since both questions were closer to the top of the sample list given to us. The examiners seemed satisfied with my answers, and I thought I was done.

Mind the Gap

Mind the Gap

As I finished with my final answer, I thought that was that and all would be well. Unfortunately, they asked a follow-up question to be answered by the three of us: given the events that took place in Boston, do all Americans think that Kazakhstanis are terrorists? My answer stated that, as far as I am aware, the media was treating the incident as an isolated incident, and that the majority of Americans would hopefully view it as such. Therefore, I sincerely hope that the majority of Americans do not think that Kazakhstanis are terrorists, since the Americans and Westerners I know have been given very good hospitality since arrival, and that, if anything, this incident will hopefully simply educate people that Kazakhstan is a real country, not something fabricated by Da Ali G Show.

Khan Shatyr framed by the KazMunaiGas Headquarters. Khan Shatyr is a large shopping mall with a beachfront aquatic park on the top floor.

Khan Shatyr framed by the KazMunaiGas Headquarters. Khan Shatyr is a large shopping mall with a beachfront aquatic park on the top floor.

Whatever I said worked, and soon after we were given incorrect nostrfication documents, which were corrected shortly thereafter, demonstrating that the three of us were competent enough to continue to study and research in Kazakhstan. Our examiners and the Dean of the International Relations Department were also excited to have us on campus, and made sure a group photo was taken of everyone involved (unfortunately, not on my camera).

Inside Khan Shatyr. A "tour" of the beachfront park cost $10, so we just had Burger King during our last minute preparations instead.

Inside Khan Shatyr. A “tour” of the beachfront park cost $10, so we just had Burger King during our last minute preparations instead.

After dinner and a few celebration drinks, we boarded the overnight train back to our homes in Almaty. 24 hours in the train, 12 hours in the city, all for two hours of testing. What a day, what a trip, and what a city (for more info about the oddness of Astana, check out this recent article in The Economist).

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Posted in: Kazakhstan