TEFL Success Stories – Part 10

Kazakhstan – Paul

A few years ago, many people in the West would have been hard-pressed to pinpoint Kazakhstan on a map but following the coverage given to the antics of the fictional Kazakhstan journalist, Borat Sagdiyev, awareness of this vast central Asian country has grown. While Borat, an alter ego of British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, has given the world an image of a backward, racist and misogynistic society, life in modern-day Kazakhstan is far removed from his fictional version.

I have been living in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s commercial capital, since August 2005. I’m a freelancer, doing staff development work with trainee teachers in a local university, examining for IELTS and teaching Business English to private clients.

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Almaty is a great place to live – it’s not a megapolis so is fairly easy to get around but is big enough to offer a wide range of cultural and recreational opportunities. The nearby mountains provide great facilities for skating, skiing and snowboarding in the winter months (November-March) and mountain biking and trekking in the summer months (May-October).

The city has much to offer gourmets, such as restaurants serving Kazakh, Russian, Chinese, Turkish and Italian cuisine and much more besides. Traditional Kazakh food is based on horsemeat. The national dish,besparmak, consists of pasta strips and kazy (horsemeat sausage). This is often washed down with kumis(fermented mare’s milk) or vodka, an ever-present on the Kazakh table. There are a number of bars serving good local beers such as Derbes and Irbis and even Irish pubs for those in need of expensive imported beers and expat company. There is also a vibrant DJ and clubbing scene in the city.

The locals are a mixture of ethnic Kazakhs, Russians and myriad other nationalities from the former Soviet Union and beyond. Kazakh is the official language, but Russian is widely used as a lingua franca. You can see both mosques and Orthodox churches in the city. For shopping, Almaty has 24-hour supermarkets and is home to the sprawling Green Bazaar, a vibrant cultural experience and one of the best food markets in central Asia.

There are drawbacks to living in Almaty, like anywhere. The traffic is horrendous and the SUV seems to have replaced the horse as the locals favourite means of transport. Consequently, pollution is a big problem. There is also a snobby side to Almaty, as a middle class enriched by petrodollars emerges, and service in bars and restaurants can be hit and miss. On the whole though, these drawbacks are outweighed by the benefits the city has to offer.

Almaty, as the country’s main business hub, offers many teaching opportunities. Native speaker teachers are in short supply, so work is easy to come by. There are a number of private language schools and universities in the city. EF and International House both have a presence. On the higher education front, there are two western-style universities, KIMEP (Kazakhstan Institute of Management, Economics and Strategic Research) and KBTU (The Kazakh-British Technical University). They are always on the lookout for suitably qualified and experienced teachers (Celta and above).

In the last few years, the Kazakh economy has boomed, mostly fuelled by the oil and gas sector. This in turn has opened up opportunities for teaching in these spheres, often on-site in the west of the country in the oil centres such as Atyrau and Aktobe. Demand for the IELTS examination is also strong both from private clients and from a government-run scholarship programme, Boloshak, which sends large numbers of students to study abroad annually.

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The capital was moved in 1997 from Almaty to the city of Astana, which has become one of the world’s largest building sites and is beginning to take the shape of a city of glittering skyscrapers in the middle of Kazakhstan’s windswept steppe. With the focus of government here, it is the place career-minded Kazakhs head. This in turn has led to increasing demand for EFL teachers as new universities and Institutes are set up. As the country has developed, English has taken on an increasingly important role for international trade and communication. But qualified, experienced teachers remain thin on the ground in the capital.

For holidays and days off, Kazakhstan offers many tourism opportunities. There are mountains in the east and south, picturesque lakes all over the country and you can swim in the Caspian sea at Aktau. The country is huge (the size of Western Europe) so getting around can take some time. Air travel is relatively expensive but there is an extensive, reasonably-priced rail network which makes exploring the country easier.

If you’re looking for somewhere off the beaten track of EFL teaching where you can find rewarding teaching opportunities and plenty of activities to fill your free time, then why not come and check out the ‘real’ Kazakhstan and see for yourself whether Borat’s fantasy land exists or not?

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