A wintery Saturday with the family in the second coldest capital in the world: Astana, Kazakhstan
Hello All, I’m Anna, a motherscholar living and working in Astana, Kazakhstan. I’m an Assistant Professor within a Graduate School of Education, teaching early childhood education, how to conduct research, and working to promote diversity and access within education. My husband, a graphic designer, and I moved from San Antonio, Texas, where we had lived for ten years, to Kazakhstan with our 4 year old and 5 month old. We have now lived in Kazakhstan for about two years and our youngest now easily understands the two official languages of the country—Russian and Kazakh—as well as English, and Spanish, which I’ve spoken to my kids since they were little.
When you look up Astana (located in the northern part of Kazakhstan, a country between Russia and China), one of the key features you’ll find is that it’s the second coldest capital in the world. Cold it is! It regularly is in the -20s F with an additional wind-chill throughout much of the winter. Snow starts falling in October and continues on and off until March. We’ve lived in cold cities before, in Western Massachusetts and in Boston. But the cold in Astana is very different, it’s a dry snow, within a very sunny location. So while it can be exceptionally cold, it doesn’t always feel terrible, and instead produces a superb fluffy white snow coverage that blankets the city with sparkles for a few months. I imagine this is what it is like living in a colder version of Denver, Colorado! With the right clothes, it’s possible to be outside, enjoying seeing the city, or just the playground throughout most of the winter.
Before we arrived, we asked many questions about how baby/child-friendly the city and culture is in Kazakhstan. (This was not surprisingly an important question for us in moving across the world!) We were told that Kazakh culture is very welcoming and accepting of children. Families are seen out in restaurants, music halls, museums, and in the most common places to spend time during the winter, malls. The malls in Astana all have play areas for children, often multiple establishments that offer different types of play, from art studios for kids, to open tumbling/play areas with toys and various make believe spaces (ex. Mini City), indoor amusement parks for little kids (ex. Happylon), and our favorite, an indoor beach with real sand brought in from The Maldives (ex. SkyBeach)!
We live in a very family-friendly part of Astana, living on the campus of the University where international and local families live and work. Over the last year, multiple facilities are now all within the borders of the campus including an Italian and Turkish restaurant, three coffee shops, a tailor, two hair salons, a laundry mat, two gyms, a daycare, a soon-to-be Montessori school and three outdoor playgrounds.
Morning – Wake up!
During the week, household alarms of peaceful music and children’s songs (in Russian, Kazakh, Spanish, or English) start playing. But on the weekend, it’s our two year old who is our alarm, excitedly going around the house to wake us all up and bring us to the living room.
Now that everyone is up, we can start preparation for the special Saturday morning coconut flour pancakes with honey. Our five year old gathers all the ingredients and one by one, our two year old cracks the eggs excitedly and delicately cracking each egg. (We tend to make a double recipe, so there are eight eggs to crack!). We use a step stool/tower for the kids to join us at counter height (here are the plans to make your own).
Preparing to leave the house
To get ready for our morning outing, during the winter means packing a lot of clothes – jackets, mittens, hats, scarves (we made our own from remnants of a tie-blanket we made that the kids chose the material for), snow boots, and on especially cold days or when we will go play outside or at the ice rink, snow pants too. We bundle all these items onto a stroller to make it easier to lug around the house and down to the taxi. In Astana, it’s very typical to take taxis throughout the city instead of owning your own car, and very convenient for the winter because it means you don’t have to walk as far within the cold.
Morning outing stage one, starting with a taxi ride into the city
Once we leave the house, we tend to be gone all day, exploring, playing, and enjoying the city and each other’s company. These outings always involve things to climb on and play. We may start with a playground at Nazarbayev University then take a taxi to Khan Shatyr entertainment center (a giant transparent tent) and the park across the street to pose with the “I <3 Astana” sign.
Stage two of our morning outing, climbing time
From Khan Shatyr, we walk across the street to go to Ice City, an entire area constructed just for the winter, made entirely of ice, some colored and some transparent. There are pyramids, igloos, and characters made from colored ice, including a colorful Genghis Khan soldier.
From Ice City, we cross over Kabanbay Batyr Ave and walk to Saryarka Mall where there are wonderful huge mosaic lizards to climb inside and on.
At this point, we’re all a little hungry, and go straight into the mall, climbing escalators to the top floor for a delicious lunch at one of the “fast food” local chains, where high chairs and children are welcomed.
Afternoon playing, snacking, and coffee time
With full bellies and having warmed up, we are ready to back outside and walk a short distance to another mall, Mega Mall, which has both swings and climbing structures for little kids and also a larger rope pyramid that our five year old loves. My husband and I take turns playing with the kids, while the other one runs inside to grab snacks from the Turkish grocery store chain, Ramstor, and to pick up a fancy coffee from Gloria Jean’s. We carry all our goodies around in the Ju-Ju B, has spots for two bottles (large enough to fit an adult water bottle or reusable coffee mug), and is completely waterproof, which is useful for snow too. (Ju-Ju Be is sold online, in major chain stores, and also in local shops).
While our five year old doesn’t nap anymore, his sister at just two years old, can still use a long nap. This is where it’s so useful to have our double Phil and Ted’s.
We max out the weight limit with both kids, but it still pushes very easily over snow and up and down curbs, allowing our little one to sleep while we walk around town and even in and out of narrow doorways. As we walk back towards home, our son snacks on dried fruits and сасиска (sasiska – sausage, or hot dog within a bun). Whenever we get too tired to walk, we just flag down a taxi or call an Uber, and off home we go for the night.
Taxi ride back home
Time to see friends and burn off energy
Once we’re home, the kids quickly pull off all their layers of winter clothes, tossing them into their baskets (or close to the baskets!), and then grab their scooters to meet their friends downstairs to play one last time before getting peaceful for bed. One unique aspect of living in a large apartment complex where everyone works on campus, is that everyone knows one another creating a very safe environment. This means that kids get a chance to be very independent, such as taking elevators by themselves and walking to their friends homes by themselves.
After the long day of playing outside, eating, playing with friends, we transition into a evening routine of relaxing, playing, cooking together, listening to music, and having dinner. Popcorn is our common family treat with a side of local fruits, either apples (interesting historical note: all apples originated from Kazakhstan!) or pomegranate seeds.
The little one is ready for bed and the older one stays up a bit later to watch a documentary on space, slowly nodding off.
Time to reflect
At the end of the day, I love the chance to take a moment to reflect about our winter adventures in Kazakhstan and all we have to be grateful for. The winters are long, but the cold outside helps us cherish our times together in the snow and sun, then enjoy the chance to come back into a cozy area, ready for our next weekend adventure in wintry Astana!