After being here for three weeks, I thought I'd share my thoughts on the best kept secrets for adoptive families that we've encountered during our stay here. These are items of mostly routine interest that I knew little or nothing of prior to traveling here. Please note that these are highly subjective, and are current only as of the time of this posting. The availability of these resources may change or disappear over time, so of course, individual mileage may vary. Apply large grains of salt as needed. I've listed these in rough reverse order of importance to us.
8. ATM machines. Widely available throughout Karaganda. Key locations for us included the Shkolnik market (across from baby house) and City Mall (machine behind bank center just inside main entrance). We preferred the convenience of ATM withdrawals over the better exchange rates offered by trusted money changers. This also helped us conserve our hard-won uncirculated currency.
7. Internet access. Nursat pre-paid dial up service is very slow, but generally reliable and inexpensive. We used it primarily for text-only email, and did most of our web browsing and photo uploading over wireless at the Cafe Karaganda. The Hotel Cosmonaut and the Oriental-motif restaurant near the park lake both have free wireless networks, as well. We bought Nursat cards at the Shkolnik market directly across from the baby house. Be sure your modem has a built-in modem, as many newer models do not. If not, external USB modems are available inexpensively. Also bring a long (20'-30') phone extension cable, as your apartment's phone jack may be a long way from where you want to use your computer. For increased web browsing performance over dial-up, you can also turn off image loading in your web browser (Internet Explorer or Mozilla Firefox).
6. City buses. We find the buses to be a very safe and economical means of transport after hours, when our driver isn't available. The 01 (not 1) bus runs between the baby house (Shkolnik stop) all the way to the City Mall (exit bus when you see tall blue office building on the right). Cost on 01 bus is a mere 30 tenge (about $0.25) per person, per one-way trip. Ask your interpreter for routes and other tips. Typically, you sit down on the bus first and then pay a "conductor" who will collect payment once the bus is rolling, with no ticket issued. Paying in exact change is preferred. Using paper currency on the bus is OK, although it would probably be bad form to use a bill larger than 200 tenge. Be prepared to pass other commuters' fares forward, and change back.
5. Local cell phones. Cellular service can be had for peanuts if you bring an (important!) unlocked GSM cell phone handset from the states. A new SIM card will get you a Kazakh phone number and a few starter minutes of service for about $10 USD in tenge. You can buy additional units of prepaid service starting at $5 for the smallest increment (500). We found this pay-as-you-go service very useful for minor coordinations with our local staff. If you are comfortable with text (SMS) messaging, then your minutes will stretch even further. I wouldn't recommended using a pre-paid phone for international calls, as you will burn up your minutes quickly. We did have success in sending text messages internationally (format number as "+[country code][cell number]"). Don't forget to keep track of your original SIM card so that you'll have service when you return stateside.
4. Grocery stores. Groceries here are generally very plentiful, inexpensive, and fresh. Ramstore is a large, western-style grocery store located in the City Mall. They accept VISA/MC credit cards. Purchase their inexpensive membership card for a few tenge during the first visit for savings over time. Although the in-country staff will tend to steer you to the larger stores for convenience, when the staff is off-duty, don't hesitate to use smaller local stores (they're everywhere) for necessities. The aforementioned Shkolnik market is especially convenient. Staples like bottled water (in 5L bottles), butter, bread, juice, and common vegetables are very inexpensive. Specialty items and processed foods generally cost more than expected. If you like deli foods, I would recommend buying salami-style sausage in 200g increments and cheese in 100g increments. This will give you enough for 1-2 days of sandwiches or snacks without it going bad. Good grocery store bets: fresh pizza (Ramstore bakery); whole roasted chicken or pretzel-pizzas (deli counters); fresh loaves of bread (available anywhere); yogurt (many varieties); and milk or juice in 1L boxes. We really liked the fresh lavash bread, which is like a large flour tortilla and is great for many uses in your own kitchen: fajitas, tacos, baked into corn chips, or sandwich wraps. When the Ramstore is out of it, you can also get fresh lavash made on-the-spot by asking nicely at the Cafe Karaganda.
3. Shkolnik market. This is a very small shopping center located directly across the street from the baby house. Shkolnik consists of many small stalls crowded together within a larger building, but you can get just about anything you need -- from groceries to tools to clothes to hardware to cell phone minutes to small appliances. There is a well-stocked baby store in the back, and an ATM machine out front. Strangely, the in-country staff rarely points us to Shkolnik, but we've discovered they have just about anything and everything, to include pet turtles and goldfish! No English spoken, so be unafraid but polite and be prepared to use your best pointy-talky communication skills.
2. Cafe Karaganda. Our favorite lunch spot, located just across the street from the City Mall, has a very friendly staff ("English-curious", if not proficient), decent food at good prices, non-smoking environment, clean restrooms (complete with toilet seats!), warm international scene, and free wireless internet access. Best bets for food: cheeseburgers with fries; pizza (either veggie Margarita pizza, or salami-combo); rice with meat; chicken with vegetables; or fried (or scrambled) eggs with wurst and cheese (not on menu, just look up "eggs" or "breakfast" in your phrasebook to order). If you ask nicely, the staff will make fresh lavash bread to-go, albeit costing more (but still cheap, and tastier) than Ramstore.
1. Kazakh people. By being just slightly extroverted and a whole lot lucky, Laura and I were able to meet several locals socially outside of the adoption process. We found them to be very humorous, polite, warm, hospitable, and intensely curious about America and Americans. This runs counter to much of the "official" adoption travel information and many stereotypes. They suffered my clumsy communications attempts with grace and ease. I was careful not to reveal anything potentially compromising to our process, in keeping with our agency's guidelines. I also took care to avoid clearly intoxicated people (of whom there are many), although not always with success (see Laura's previous post). To be perfectly blunt, our few interactions with people outside of the highly-charged and emotionally-draining adoption process as been a source of enormous comfort and stress-relief for us, and a great opportunity for us to learn about our son's birth country.