About Visiting Hong Kong

As we’ve rhapsodized about before, we love having friends the world over as a result of living and working abroad. Last week was one of China’s Golden Week holidays–a time when holidays coincide to allow an entire week off from work. We called up a friend (okay, we didn’t even do that, we just used Facebook messenger to get in touch) who lives in Hong Kong, a mere 30 miles away. This is a pal we met while working in Russia. She now resides in Hong Kong, and it seemed like the Golden Week might allow us the chance to get together. As it happened, though, she already had travel plans. So when she went on vacation to Japan, she set us up for the week in her lovely studio apartment.

#HongKong #MyView #RandTravels

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This meant we had a chance to explore Asia’s world city in a whole different manner than we’d have done if we stayed in a hotel.

Here’s the funny thing–after a week there, neither of us were blown away. We’d expected a place significantly different from Shenzhen. Don’t get me wrong; in Hong Kong you’re less likely to see a toddler popping a squat beside the road, but I did witness a kid taking a leak into a bottle his mom was holding while we visited a children’s science museum. There are signs posted all over the city forbidding spitting and littering, as well as stipulating mandatory fines for those behaviors. Indeed, before arriving in China, I’d heard horror stories about mainland Chinese people constantly spitting everywhere–and that maybe true of second tier cities, but I’ve only seen a few people hock up loogies during the seven weeks I’ve been in Shenzhen. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen, but it’s not a big problem I’ve encountered. Now, was HK cleaner? Maybe somewhat, but there was still plenty of grunge. In actuality, there are parts of Shenzhen which are cleaner (as well as dirtier, to be fair). Shenzhen shines in some respects, and even compares well to its much more famous neighbor. Let’s take the subway system, for example. SZ’s is nicer–cleaner, larger, better illuminated. While HK has a truly admirable network of public transportation, the electric buses in SZ are much quieter and represent a significant contribution to Shenzhen’s urban environment.

One of our friends here described Hong Kong as “China with a veneer of money,” if I recall his turn of phrase correctly. That’s accurate, although not everyplace in HK is wealthy. Regardless, HK represents a more picturesque place to spend time in than Shenzhen, with stunning cityscapes visible from Victoria Peak and Victoria Harbor.

It’s a big city, so there’s a ton of people. And with tons of people come huge crowds. Sometimes I wanted nothing more than to get away from the crowds. But then, that’s the same in Shenzhen. Now and again, popular places just get too packed for comfort.

We made a day trip to Repulse Bay, and found ourselves on a nice beach with pleasant scenery. It was relatively uncrowded, although there were bunches of people, often Filipinas enjoying themselves very loudly, occupying all the patches of shade. That was fine with us, as getting some sun is part of the reason we like going to the beach, but getting a tan is anathema to most folks occupying this neck of the woods. It was interesting watching the people and groups. There was a church conducting baptisms and singing praise and worship tunes. There was a 60 year old American man and his brother with a gorgeous 25 year old woman of Asian lineage (she was probably American, too, going by her accent) popping the cork out of a bottle of champagne. There were myriad women dressed up and striking poses while their spouses or friends snapped pictures, each doing their best to look like a model. And it must be said, the water was perfect for swimming.

During our days exploring via the cheap and fabulous Star Ferry, the famously creaky double decker trams, and also on buses and our own feet, we covered quite a bit of territory. For the most part, we took in all the touristy things on Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, while skipping Lantau Island, since we can get there easily enough another time. One day we walked more than 7 miles, and others we covered 5 plus. That was tiring, since Hong Kong Island is something like San Francisco in the sense that it is very hilly. In fact, there are even a series of outdoor escalators to help make life easier. The sidewalks are also there one minute, and all but gone another, depending on where you happen to wander, which makes life interesting.

#RepulseBay

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#VictoriaHarbour #HongKong #StarFerry #Skyline #Cityscape #HK #myhongkong #China

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#thetravelingzoo says "hello" from #hongkong #365 #lifewithkids #travel

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Some things we enjoyed seeing included Hong Kong Park, nearby the hugely popular Victoria Peak Tram (pro tip–go before 9:00 am), and the Zoological Park, which had a lot of monkeys who were very animated–except the humongous orangutans, who were more interested in lounging around with head coverings they’d fashioned from leaves than anything else. We found some of the temples, including Man Mo (which is in the process of being refurbished, by the way) interesting. Man Mo, for example, is named for two gods–the god of literature and the god of war. The customs observed by worshippers inside are very similar to those we observed when we visited a local Buddhist temple in Shenzhen (incense being burned, respect being paid, food and drink sacrifices being offered).

Lots of #steps lead toward #VictoriaHarbour

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Here’s something we learned about traveling to HK from SZ–it’s necessary to fill out an immigration card when leaving China (yes, HK is part of China, but it’s treated as if it isn’t), and there weren’t any signs or forms to indicate that. So if you’re waiting in line to leave China and there aren’t any immigration forms at hand, go to an immigration officer and get some. It’ll save 10 or 15 minutes and the necessity to step out of the queue, because they want the forms all filled out before you get to the desk. Hong Kong wants forms, too, and they give you a little 1-inch square piece of paper with a stamp on it you’ve got to keep, too, so that’s a slight annoyance, ’cause man, it’d be easy to lose.

Make friends, visit them, or at least visit their apartments. Build some good relationships with fine people and enjoy their hospitality when the opportunity arises. It is something which helps develop and expand horizons, and it also can provide entirely new options for exploring the world.

 

 

 

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Impressions: Shenzhen After 4 Weeks

In lieu of a straightforward narrative per the usual, here’s a post that aims simply to catch the feelings of some recent moments. Some paragraphs are present tense, some past, so don’t get all English teachery about it. It’s about emotion.

Dafeng Oil Painting Village: Man, most of these rip-offs/copies of other people’s work are actually not even good. Low-caliber. Also, this whole street reeks of sewage. But where are the bathrooms? This toddler needs to pee! No luck with a bathroom. A while later: look, there’s a local mom holding her son in the air, buck naked, over a diaper so he can do his business (again, judging by the state of the diaper).

Princess at Dafeng

Princess doesn’t care that this is a low-caliber knock off. She likes it.

Walmart: no thanks. Holy too-packed-for-me, Batman!

Electric buses used everywhere in SZ for public transportation are made by BYD (who has a factory in California now). Slick! Quiet, modern, nice. The buses also have English announcements, making using them painless for foreigners like us.

More cloudy days than not. Glimpses of blue skies and rare clear days. I’m enjoying one of these on my balcony now, sweating like a stuck pig, but thrilled with the sun beaming down on me.

Clouds keep the heat down.

Buddhist (i.e. Vegetarian) restaurants and Muslim (i.e. halal) noodle places. Who knew?

Curse those wretched silent electric bikes which disregard all rules. Sidewalks, opposite traffic lanes, you name it, they go there. Royally irritating. Can’t let your guard down while walking, and especially not with little ones.

Curse also the miserable excuse for a human who decided to start putting durian into all manner of otherwise delectable foods. Breads, ice creams, you name it. If it’s yellow, watch out.

Speaking of durian, why in the whole world would anyone ever want to eat it? It is the most sense-confusing fruit ever–the nose says, “Hey, that’s going to be sweet!” and the tastebuds, caught off guard, say “Holy unexpected crap, this tastes like rotten onions!” If at first it’s not revolting, try and try again.

Walked into a restaurant. Evidently they were using Szechuan spices as they prepared something. Whole family felt vaguely pepper sprayed and started coughing uncontrollably (but not severely).

Best mango ever! Huge and, oh, words can’t express how soft and sweet.

Breakfast

Delicious–fresh mango and a Cantonese breakfast food called chong fen (pork excluded, of course).

Risky business, making an order for food. Being vegetarian adds a serious layer of challenge to eating out.

Spying a toddler clad in split pants, Turtle points and laughs. “Hahaha! Mom, look! You can see his butt!”

Fuquing St.

Sometimes you need to laugh a little.

People slap themselves while exercising. They also walk backwards.

There are eye exercises at school, wherein pupils shut and then rub their eyes in various patterns.

“That’s called the Beijing bikini,” says a coworker, as I point out the guy walking past our bus wearing his T-shirt rolled up so everyone can see his jiggling waist. This style of dress is common.

Style? It’s all over the place. From none to wow, there’s something for everyone.

Bentley. Porsche. Tesla. Maserati. Those with wealth flaunt it.

Caddy in Nanshan

Cadillac is well represented in the area.

Yeah, it gets crowded. Mornings are less busy.

You could get mowed down in a crosswalk. Keep your eyes open–not just for cars, also for the jerk on the e-bike I mentioned earlier.

I’ve only seen one automobile accident. How is it possible, given the way these people drive? “There’s a rhythm to it,” says another coworker, describing the near-chaotic traffic. “It seems to be about occupying the space,” my coworker continues. “If you’re there first, you can have it, and if you turn and get partly there, then other drivers will yield to you.”

Amazing architecture.

Ping An IFC

Newly completed, Ping An International Finance Center reaches 599 meters into the sky, making it the world’s fourth tallest building. It comes within about 10 meters of being the third tallest and is indeed impressive.

Chegongmiao

Outside the Chegongmio metro stop there are a number of impressive buildings.

Dafeng Houses

These buildings in Dafeng Oil Painting Village suggest the massive growth that’s taken place in the last thirty or forty years.

Mall interiors that defy logic. Why the devil isn’t there an escalator right here, with all the others, to get down a single floor?

Windows that get opened and left open for no reason, including while air conditioning is running.

Noise.

People often shout when they talk.

Shoddy workmanship.

Tropical vegetation. Lush.

Banyan 1

That banyan tree blew my mind. The dude outside started examining it when I aimed my camera up.

Shopping for big items isn’t easy without a car.

Buying food is cheap, unless you opt for the high-end stuff. It’s possible to spend a lot if you’ve gotta have all the same stuff as you do at home. Also, cooking is a hassle when you can’t get all the same stuff as home (and you aren’t versed in Chinese foods).

Banks take forever. Under no circumstances change money at Bank of China. Just leave your cash at home (or swap it in HK at the airport’s forex) and use the friggin’ ATM. Jenia’s going to write an entire post about this.

Korean food

22 kwai (if memory serves) buys a delightful Korean dish (kimchi fried rice), plus water and appetizers are free.

What a modern and efficient subway system. It actually is a pleasure to use.

It really is possible to eat out for less than it is to cook at home. Quality varies.

 

 

 

 

 

Exploring Shenzhen’s Nanshan Neighborhood: Tang Lang Mountain

Today my 4 year old son and I hiked a mountain. That is, we walked on a nicely paved road and granite stairs. Tang Lang Mountain overlooks our residence, and it’s been beckoning me since we arrived. Since Jenia won’t be talked into scaling its heights, such as they are, I dragged my boy along instead. Wowzers! We left at 9 in the morning and got back after noon. By then, my shirt was soaked and so were my shorts–soaked with sweat and nothing else!

Typhoon Hato caused, according to today’s headlines, no major damage when it came through yesterday. The threat of serious damage was enough to lead to school cancellations and the like. What we ended up with, however, was lots of broken tree branches and that is about it.

When we headed out on foot this morning, it was humid and there were many maintenance people out and about cleaning the sidewalks with straw brooms. They were sweeping leaves and other debris into piles along the sidewalks. It’s only a couple of blocks to Tang Lang Mountain, and there were lots of people cleaning up there, too. If you’ve worked in the UAE, you might have heard a couple of jokes about how dish washer and street sweeper aren’t appliances or what have you, but are actually careers–that might fit this area too. There were lots of guys (and ladies) out there sweeping the curving road along Tang Lang (which is, by the way, restricted to pedestrian traffic except for a few odd autos) with brooms. It’s got to be hard work in this heat.

Making the hike wasn’t easy. I’m told there are actually trails along Tang Lang, but I didn’t notice them. I did see sections of stairway, and those were too inviting to pass up. Going up the stairways is hard, I admit. Coming down them isn’t at all bad, however.

Since I had a 4 year old in tow, I had snacks and water for the trip. Those were magic–whenever things seemed too hard, a treat showed up, a pause along the way ensued and strength to continue was summoned forth.

We were rewarded for our climbing prowess (or rather, our hard fought tenacity) with splendid views out over Shenzhen and the bay. This is quite a place.

Should I mention the mosquitoes which enjoy the shadier places we found? Nah. Let’s just say the attraction was not mutual.

By the time we returned, dripping with sweat, Jenia was wondering if we were in fact coming back, and we were both ready to be off our tired feet. Traveling by foot with a four year old isn’t a particularly speedy proposition, and we’d also stopped at a shop to purchase a couple drinks on our way back, our water supply having dwindled. Notably, I recognized when the clerk said “Seven quid” in Chinese! It was a proud little moment! (I only just learned how to say seven yesterday, you see).

Days like this hot one really drive home how far we are from…well, home. Climbing the mountain provided a different view of the city, quite literally, and helped me feel like I am actually exploring the area. Tang Lang Mountain’s network of trails offer a little respite from the constant noises of city life. It’d be easy to forget that there are 15,000,000 souls not far off, were I not so unaccustomed to the area. It must be said that lush Shenzhen is nothing like rural Georgia, and even less similar to arid Utah. I look forward to my next hike.

Shenzhen: First Impressions

1. Holy horrible humidity, Batman!

2. They take the border between HK and mainland China very seriously.

3. Hm. No English from the security guards at the international school we live at?

4. Green! Hills, parks, lining the streets.

5. Laundry on every balcony. I wonder what size that pink underwear is? Looks pretty big.

6. The people seem to enjoy trying whatever English they know on us. They also seem to love finding someone nearby who can help interpret.

7. Banyan trees are amazing!

8. Food is cheap.

9. Whoah, that’s a capacious, sparkling, clean subway system! And it has English on the signs and over the intercom. Sleek and modern. Air conditioned, too.

10. It’s way cleaner than we expected.

11. The kiddos get tons of attention. And we get stared at. And photographed.

12. Bamboo scaffolding.

13. Those cursed electric (i.e. silent) bikes and scooters going every which way on the sidewalks.

14. Typhoon Hato! Yeah, a typhoon!

Getting a Chinese Work Visa

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Waiting outside.

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The queue at 8:30.

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Nondescript surroundings.

As we are approaching the end of summer, we are trying to cram in visits with friends and family members we haven’t seen before we ship out to China. When they find out we’re headed for the Middle Kingdom, lots of people ask me (Shon) questions about the preparation process. The usual conversation sounds a little like this: “Wow, you’re going to China! How did you get that job? What do you have to do to work in China? A lot of paperwork? You need a visa? Wait, what’s a visa?” Actually, not many people ask what a visa is, but sometimes young people do–students, for example, who haven’t garnered much, if any, experience traveling the world.

In regards to a visa, it’s the documentation for your passport which legally authorizes you to visit a foreign country. There are different kinds of visas, with the most basic ones being simple stamps which indicate an entry date, and with multiple-entry business sorts taking the shape of complex documents affixed to entire pages in your passport. This Rex fellow’s blog post about visas is humorous and informative in the event that a visa is a new concept to you.

Anyway, China has a number of visas which travelers can apply for. The Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C. provides a handy list for reference. As I’m going to be working there, I needed to apply for a Z visa and provide all the necessary supporting documents. While the list of documents is easily accessible through the Embassy’s website, it amounted to this for me: three pieces of paper, each related to the other, issued from the Shenzhen government and my employer in Shenzhen, which amounted to an invitation to work. We also needed to provide copies of our passport’s info page, our marriage certificate, and the children’s birth certificates. That’s it.

Getting said invitation, however, took time and required jumping through all the hoops that I did for the UAE back in 2012. I know I’ve written about this step before, but for the sake of having things organized well, here’s what went into that: I needed a recent state police background check, a notarized (specifically as an unaltered copy of the original) copy of my highest degree, a notarized copy of my marriage certificate, and then the kids’ birth certificates. These things had to be authenticated (the steps for which are mapped out easily right here, thanks to Georgia’s efficient state government) at the state level and then the national level. It might be worth mentioning that since the children were born overseas, they have Consular Report of Birth Abroad certificates, which are a national level document, and therefore don’t require authentication on a local level. After the authentications were all in hand, I had to send original marriage and birth certificates to the Human Resources folks at my employer’s in Shenzhen, and email scans of the other documents. Ultimately, of course, I’ll take all of the originals and provide them upon arrival in China. I also had to send along copies of my teaching certificate and letters of reference (which had to be in a fairly specific format), my resume (again, typed in a very specific format), and scans of our passports. All of that sounds pretty simple, but ends up taking quite some time to gather, so if you are going to take a job overseas that requires this stuff, get it done sooner rather than later.

We chose to hand deliver our visa applications rather than using an agent this time around. Why? Well, D.C. is half way to Maine, and as you may know, we have family in Maine, so it gave us a legitimate reason to go spend some time up north. Stop in Washington, spend the night, run our errand to the Embassy, and then finish the trip to Maine. The money we would have had to pay an agent (ProEx charges $170 for their courier services, after all) covered our gasoline for the trip, and so we could justify a hotel stay. Also, by the way, we have been booking hotels in the States through www.hotels.com, and they give you a free night’s stay after booking 10 stays. That’s just an aside, however–what matters if you’re going to go to the Embassy and submit your application in person is this: make sure you have all the supporting documents necessary, get the pictures done in the correct format (just go upstairs to the visa service place, it’s quick), and be sure to type your application. This is important; if it is handwritten, it’ll be rejected immediately. Oh, and what about the location of this visa office? It’s not in the Embassy; it’s on Wisconsin Avenue in a nondescript office building. And it’s pretty busy, so be forewarned. On the way to Maine we showed up around 11:00 am and had to wait forever. On the way back from Maine, when we just needed to pick up our completed visas, we arrived at 8:30am, parked in the garage downstairs ($10), and then joined the queue waiting outside. When the doors opened at 9:30, we entered in an orderly fashion and the security guards gave us numbers in the order we’d been waiting in line. It took just over half an hour. The nice lady at the counter took our payment, then sent us one window over to pick up our passports. We were able to pay with our Visa card (they’ll only take MasterCard or Visa if you’re planning to use a credit card–we saw a woman who had American Express get turned away), and we were good to go. Speaking of which, the total for the four of us was $560. We inspected the visas to ensure that passport numbers and names were correct (they were), and I noted that I received a Z visa and my spouse and children have S1 visas.

The visas we have in our passports are now good for entry until October. Immediately after our arrival in Shenzhen, we’ll have to apply for a residence permit and visas that will be good for an entire year.

Well, this brings us up to date. That’s the extent of our experience thus far, and hopefully this helps provide an idea of what exactly goes into getting the visa. It’s not extraordinarily difficult, but it is time consuming and requires a great deal of care, as you might expect.

 

 

 

Russia: Underrated Teaching Location?

Note: Moscow at one point earned the title of World’s Most Expensive City; that’s no longer the case, but it is undoubtedly more expensive than Kazan. The information herein relates to our experiences in Kazan, rather than Russia’s huge capital.

Russia–what a storied place. Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Leningrad, multi-hewed onion domes atop brick towers, Red Square. Having had time to reflect on our year in Russia, a few things really stand out about the experience.

First and foremost, it’s a country that can aptly be described as Second World. Google the phrase and you’ll find that it refers to the former Soviet countries (and a handful of others). While the term Second World is a relic of a bygone era of Cold War, it is still used to describe a country’s level of development–between underdeveloped (Third World) and developed (First World). Perhaps we’d be better off using the phrase “developing” instead of Second World. At any rate, whether we call it Second World or developing, sometimes Russia is as modern and wonderful as can be–spacious new apartment complexes, glittering towers, high speed internet, glamorous German sedans, and all the luxury you might imagine of a country that, as some say, is experiencing a type of resurgence. And yet, those glamorous Teutonic cruisers zoom over potholed pavement, suspension slamming against the stops in a most unglamorous fashion, and despite blazing quick internet, the hot water quits working for days at a time whilst undergoing yet another round of maintenance and repairs. The fancy apartment complex’s landscaping consists of tires as planters, poorly pruned trees and helter-skelter shrubberies. The newly paved parking lot has a section ripped up and poorly repaved scarcely a week after being finished. The parking garages in this complex have never even opened because they are both a terrible deal–one has to pay extra to park in them, as opposed to simply parking on the street level–and also because they are dreadfully constructed. Consequently, navigating through the overcrowded street level parking lot is sometimes impossible.

A photo posted by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on Oct 25, 2015 at 10:47pm PDT

 

It would seem #winter is ending.

A photo posted by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on Feb 29, 2016 at 9:24am PST

 

Second, it’s an inexpensive place to live, assuming that one makes an otherwise competitive Western salary. While it would be classless to share how much I was making, it was in line with a typical IB/international school salary, and included the usual benefits for those sorts of jobs. Suffice it to say that we were able to send up to 70% of our money home monthly. Cab fare using Tap Taxi would run around $2-3 for a typical middle-length ride (Kazan is cheap compared to Moscow or St. Petersburg, by the way), and while eating out could be as expensive as anywhere else if we didn’t use some discretion, we found fantastic delivery sushi, and groceries were inexpensive. During August and September, the fruits and vegetables were surprisingly fresh and delicious. We had trouble finding decent cheeses, though, and settled on Cheese Gallery offerings as usually tasting best. Home DSL internet is inexpensive. Mobile phone service is marvelously affordable–we paid around $3 a month for our MTS internet-equipped phone plans, for instance. A month’s expenses for water, gas, and electricity, as well as whatever fees the apartment complex included, cost around 5,000 rubles (the ruble hovered around 60 to a dollar while we were there).

By some measures, then, teaching in Russia is a great experience. Financially, it was very good for us. Other things made it hard, though. There’s virtually no English spoken on the street (even though some road signs feature both languages), making exploring more of a challenge. Of course, that also helps one be motivated to learn some Russian, and acquiring a foreign language is no small feat.

What about teaching itself? There is a range of opportunity available for an American to teach English. Language schools are one option, although they are basically their own animals as compared to public or private schools. I was able to get a job working at an international school, which, we shall wait and see, may help open doors to other international schools in the future. The school I worked for was brand new, and had its share of growing pains, which made the work environment a bit more difficult than it probably would have been if the school had been established for a while (there’s a good lesson, I think; find a school that’s been around for long enough to be stable, with administrators who have plenty of experience in their roles). In most ways, the work place was nice–it must be said that the new building was generally world-class; having meals (they even accommodated my vegetarianism happily) provided was super convenient; and having transportation to and from work included was a definite perk.

Coming out of the Emirates, I found Russian students to be much easier to work with than the over-privileged Emirati youth, and that was a welcome improvement. Also coming out of the Emirates, the long work days (7:45-4:45) were not a pleasant adjustment, and seriously ate into my quality of family life, while also making it harder to fit routine things like going to the gym into my schedule.

As was the case in the Emirates, and as is usual of international schools and many teaching jobs abroad, living quarters were included as part of the salary package, and the apartment we had was nice and plenty roomy. The location in the Sun City area wasn’t very convenient, which meant we relied heavily on taxis to get around (we could travel by bus, but it took forever and a day), but as I said before, taxi fare is cheap in Kazan, so that was alright. Of course, Russian taxi men are a mixed bag, and you might get a jovial driver one day, and a horrendous jerk the next. Uber has made its way to Kazan, by the way, but I never had any luck finding a car with Uber.

Everyone always asks about the weather. In short, the temperatures only got extremely cold for about a month around January, and only about 2 weeks were truly frigid (-25 c or more). August sucked–it was cold and dreary, but September was made great by Indian Summer–beautiful and clear–and snow fell and stuck from October. In general, after that, winter arrived and it was an overcast crap fest with terribly short days, especially in December, making the arrival of spring and frequent blue skies most welcome around April. May was okay, and June quite nice.

There isn’t much of an expat scene in Kazan. “Single women we knew had a particularly hard time making any kind of connections outside of work,” Jenia says. There are a few small gatherings, there’s a little Western church homegroup that meets regularly, and with coworkers at the school, we had a bit of a social life, but nothing like the thriving one that we experience in Abu Dhabi. But then, as our world-traveling fellow expat-teacher friends the Casales once observed, it is incredibly easy to live in the UAE as an expat. Russia, or at least Kazan (Moscow and St. Petersburg have larger expat populations), doesn’t make it easy to be an expat, although as I said, that does have some benefits, including making it easier or at least more necessary to acquire some language skills. There are lots of events going on, though, with concerts, sports events, and more happening frequently, if one can just navigate enough Russian to figure them out (a task much easier these days with the mind-blowing Google Translate app).

Travel within Russia is inexpensive. We’d recommend visiting the Caucasus–it’s drastically different from the plains which dominate the rest of the Russian landscape.

#Dombay #Russia #Caucasus #caucasusmountains #skiresort

A photo posted by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on Apr 3, 2016 at 2:41am PDT

A final observation is what Jenia calls spotty but inexpensive healthcare. There was only one hospital in all of Kazan, with its 1.2 million people, willing to allow me into the delivery room when our youngest was born, for example. This private hospital, Ava Kazan, did generally offer a Western level experience. “It differed dramatically from doctor to doctor,” Jenia says.  Ava had English-speaking staff, too, which was great, but even they couldn’t get Western-made vaccines (Russian ones don’t have a very good reputation).

Where we spent the last couple of days. #Kazan #россия

A photo posted by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on Nov 28, 2015 at 1:02am PST

 

So is Russia an underrated teaching destination? In some ways, probably so. If you value a place where your dollars stretch a long way, then Kazan is certainly a place where they do. If you don’t need to be surrounded by a large community of Westerners, and if you value the chance to be immersed in Russian (and in the case of Kazan, Tartar) culture, then it’s a neat place to spend some time. So find an established school with experienced leadership, and give it a shot.

Alpine Russia

This post is a bit late. A few months late, in fact, as I’d intended to write it and post it almost as soon as returning from our trip. But life intervened, and it’s been hard to find the time.

Spring break for my school fell during the last week of March, and Jenia and our little family were finally able to travel–something we have very much missed doing throughout most of our time in Kazan, due to having a new baby, passport hassles, and the like. We didn’t schedule an international trip, however; we opted to go somewhere within the vast country of Russia–somewhere little known outside the realm of the former USSR, but which was once a thriving vacation destination during the USSR’s existence: Kislovodsk, a place situated in the Caucasus.

The only thing I remember hearing about the Caucasus before moving to Russia involved Chechnya and people dying. There might have been knives involved, but I don’t know for sure. Anyway, what with separatists and gunfire, things I’m sure I remember, the Caucasus seemed a good place to avoid, not unlike, say, Afghanistan, a place about which, as far as I can remember, I’ve never heard any good news.

Russians, however, take a different view. The Caucasus ridge runs through the southernmost extremity of Russia, with Sochi and the Black Sea basically on the western end of the ridge, and the Caspian Sea on the eastern end. Just over the dramatic mountains lie Georgia and Azerbaijan. This region has long been a true destination for Russians seeking a retreat. In fact, there are four towns (pitifully small ones, with populations hardly over 100,000 people) clustered quite closely together which are known for their resorts–with Kislovodsk being first and foremost, and it even bears the slogan “Resort City” plastered on signs at the entrance to town. Kislovodsk is noted for its mineral springs, the waters of which offer a number of medicinal properties, if you believe it.

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A map from ABC News’s website.

We spent our time in Kislovodsk in an Air BnB-sourced apartment (which was great, even though a cat fell through the ceiling one day). We explored the town, finding it quite run down except for the city center, but with all its hills and the expansive Kurortny Park lined by some beautiful sanitariums (not like insane asylums, by the way–maybe I’ll write about them later), still pretty. It was also delightfully inexpensive. We took a train to nearby Piatigorsk one day, a town which figures prominently in Russian literature. Piatigorsk is a bit less run down and more populous, and with its own springs and parks, a nice place to visit.

However, it took a vehicle tour with Caucasus Voyage Club for me to realize the true extent of the area’s diversity–according to our tour guide and driver for our day trip, a wonderful guy named Rasheed, there are no less than 35 totally different languages spoken in the Caucasus.

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Another map from newroute.ru. Kislovodsk is near Piatigorsk.

I learned a lot of 20th century Russian history from Rasheed, as well, as he detailed the spread of communism, “The red virus,” throughout Russia and the toll it took on the once-wealthy region. While Jenia was aware of the brutal treatment of the area’s ethnic groups under the hand of the communists, it was new to me. Rasheed told of the disenfranchisement of the locals to communists from the north, the theft of their properties, and their resistance against their unjust rulers. The might of the Red Army was against them, though, and the locals could not win. Interestingly, when Hitler’s forces swept through the area with orders not to harm anyone unless they were met with resistance, things improved for the locals. The wartime occupiers were actually better masters than those whose country they belonged to. Of course, after the German army withdrew, Stalin made sure to exact revenge for the locals’ cooperation with the invaders. People were rounded up and herded onto trains bound for Kazakhstan, where, if they didn’t die on the way or after arrival, they spent 17 years. After the tremendous tragedy of Stalin’s death, they returned to their country, and things have been more or less normal since then.

Rasheed, wearing a long beard, looks every bit the typical Muslim man, and so he is. He’s nice, open, and friendly. As we learned from him, 60 percent of the population of Kislovodsk is ethnically Russian, which corresponds with the Orthodox church, and the other 40 percent are Muslim, as corresponds with their ethnicities. “How are Muslims treated?” Jenia asked at one point. “I know it was not easy to be involved in a mosque for a while here,” referring to a time of heavy suspicion in Russia toward Muslim people about 10 years ago. Rasheed mentioned under-cover intelligence men in the area, but was not angry about their presence. He said that the climate has changed now, and it’s not bad.

Our tour took us over the Caucasus ridge, where the towering twin peaks of Elbrus were concealed in the dramatic clouds, and where water runs from one side downward to the Black Sea, and from the other to the Caspian Sea; we continued past the Sintina Temple, the earliest Christian monastery in the area, established in the tenth century, along a sparkling shallow river, to the tiny ski-resort town of Dombay and its cable car up the towering mountain I thought was also called Dombay, but which it turns out is actually known as Mount Mussa Achitara. Sunlight had vanquished the gray clouds by the time we arrived, and there was a perfect, deep blue sky. There wasn’t much to Dombay other than the ski slopes–but wow. That mountain, and those slopes. What a place. We only ascended about two thirds of the mountain’s height (2,277 meters), as we didn’t feel like taking the toddler and baby on a chairlift, which was the mode of transportation from there to the top (3,200 meters), but nonetheless, the views were like something from the Swiss Alps. There was a peculiar little hotel that looks as though it just arrived from outer space. There were men with with yaks (wanna photo with ’em? Only a hundred rubles). There was pine cone jelly and sunglasses and hats for sale. The walkways were slippery and covered with snow and ice. It was a giant lawsuit waiting to happen, but it was fantastic. We ate some delicious, fresh bread in a restaurant, then went outside and frolicked as best we could with a baby in a carrier and a toddler in tow. We managed to get sunburned, too, although the temperature was right at freezing.

On our ride home, Rasheed put the pedal down a little bit, not needing to explain so much about the countryside. Speaking of which, we had marvelous views from the ridge when we crested it again–this time Elbrus revealed just how much taller it stood than the surrounding mountains–and at 18, 510 feet/5,642 meters, it is an imposing sight indeed. A little trivia for you–Europe’s tallest peak is the tenth highest in the world, and a dormant volcano, too.

Once again, I’ve discovered that the reality of a place can be drastically different from what we hear about on the news. While it’s true that Rasheed did have a knife (it’s a tradition! And we got to hold it!), there was no blood spilled, nobody shot, and nary a separatist in sight; the Caucasus turned out to be wonderful. While I’m not ready to go to Afghanistan to see if things are really crummy there or not, I’d venture to say that any trip to the resort town of Kislovodsk would be well worth it, and I’d happily go back.

The Latest

I’ve seen blogs that languish as their authors lose interest, and it’s sort of a sad thing. The posts get sporadic, and then, with no explanation at all, the writers simply stop updating. When that happens it’s like a story has been interrupted in the middle. It’s like you’re watching TV and the channel suddenly cuts off and won’t come back. I’m always left wondering what has happened to those authors who wrote about their interesting lives–what happened? What did they stop writing for? Did things go badly for them? Inevitably, I find myself hoping for the best–that they quit writing because life simply got too busy, too full of goodness–not that they dropped the virtual pen because they had some tragedy strike, or because everything went sideways, or etc.

As for this blog, it’s languished a bit because it’s been really hard to find time to update. When we write we like to share things we find insightful or memorable for some reason, besides the odd bit about teaching abroad. We like to write about good things, because the world is chock-full of negativity. With the new baby, we simply haven’t had time to sit down and do much writing. We find as a family of four that there aren’t enough hours in the day anymore. And, really, sometimes it’s hard to find good things to write about, too, when life is in something of a rut–not necessarily a nasty place, but nothing remarkable, either.

Somewhere in Mundaneville, Regulartown, USA, one of our readers is chuckling, imagining life in Kazan, Russia, as pretty unremarkable. He is grinning and saying, “You’re living an adventure, and you think you’re in a rut.” And, dear reader, if you’re the one laughing, you are partly right. Sometimes I pause as I’m walking through the birches and think to myself, “Hey, I’m in Russia, the former USSR, and I was just speaking Russian with a random guy–I’m living a kind of dream;” and that’s all fine and good, but I’m reminded that wherever we travel to, people live more or less the same kinds of lives, observing pretty similar daily routines, not much different from those of anywhere else, except perhaps in location.

So what really is new for us? Well, we’re finishing up the school year at the end of June and packing our bags for someplace new. I was offered a contract for a two year position here in town, but decided it would be best to move on and explore more of the world. Where to next? Stay tuned:)

Russian Winter Has Come…

…and gone, or so it seems. It’s been snowing here since October, so what is going on? I expected a frigid winter, and while it has been significantly below freezing since about the end of November, it hasn’t been the sort of “Holy crap, it’s horrendous!” cold that I’d anticipated. Except for about a 2-3 week stretch, that is. Last week it was down all the way to -20 Fahrenheit.

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The day it started warming up. Look at how quickly it bounced back t0 + temps.

That was pretty much Russia as I’d expected it: nose hair freezing weather. It was actually cold enough that public schools closed for a couple days. My school, holding the weather in contempt, did not follow suit. After a couple of days in a chilly classroom, suddenly I found myself with two electrical space heaters to augment my room’s 4 hot water radiators, and a room that’s always plenty warm. During that cold snap the school doctor also started planting little home-made paper trays full of sliced onion in all the classrooms and even common areas.

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Nice little carton, huh?

Did I mention there’s supposedly a flu epidemic going around? Not that I’d have much way of knowing it, since my Russian language skills are rudimentary at best, and since I haven’t seen anyone outrageously sick, either.

Anyway, two days ago, the temperature bounced back up. Now, it’s above freezing and the all the white stuff is melting; roads are slushy (a slight improvement in the case of the really secondary ones which they seem to have given up plowing after the snowfall got really serious and the cold snap occurred).

Today I went outside–it’s a rare sunny day (see some photos above from another sunny day a couple weeks ago, when it was 7 Fahrenheit and Turtle and I ventured outside for some fun in the snow)–and found that the fleet of tractors and skid steer loaders which at first did a somewhat acceptable job of keeping our residentail area’s driveways somewhat cleared of snow was active again for the first time in approximately 3 weeks. In the interim, the snow had gotten so deep on these roads that cars’ undercarriages were scraping the snow flat between the deep ruts cut by their tires. For a country where winter comes at the same time every year, it seems to always be a surprise here, and even though Kazan is far better at handling it and keeping the main roads clear than Ryazan, the other smaller city I’ve spent time in here, it is quite astonishing from a first-world perspective. To cope, people buy studded winter tires as a matter of course, and get stuck remarkably little, given the conditions.

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The forecast for the next week is fairly warm, hovering not far below freezing, so that should be nice. February’s first week is already virtually past, so maybe we have only a few weeks of real winter left.

Money Monday: 4 Years in

It’s been almost 4 years now that we’ve been living the expat life, experiencing life overseas and away from home. Regular readers know that we’ve found this to be a challenging, but generally wonderful period of our lives. We’ve had children, we’ve traveled to corners of the globe we once only day dreamed about, and we’ve mingled with lovely people from all sorts of places we’d have never been blessed to meet otherwise. That said, one of the major stressors in anybody’s life, except maybe the privileged few from the one percent, is finances. Living abroad carries its own stressors, of course, especially after moving to a new location, but we’ve sought and found employment that allows us to significantly allay our financial stresses, and that’s a big deal.

Going rent-free and enjoying the reduced expenses of life in the UAE allowed us to pay off my student loans in 2 years, a task that seemed Herculean, though not impossible, in the USA; the best aspect of working in the UAE was that I, Shon, generated the income (if you subtract taxes) that it took 2 of us to make in the States. The income was one of the redeeming elements of the job, along with the shorter work days.

So where do we stand at this juncture, approaching 4 years into our adventures in ordinary life abroad? How are we faring financially? We are doing alright, I’m glad to say. We’re not wealthy, by any stretch of the imagination, but we’re able to put back a healthy nest egg, a significant portion of which came in the from of the 3 years worth of bonus pay (not really bonus, given that it’s contractually obliged) from working for ADEC; and we’ve been building the savings account nicely.

Besides the savings account, in 2014 we opened a couple of Individual Retirement Accounts and started contributing to them–only to discover that, as we should have known from reading about them, but failed to notice, IRAs are meant to be contributed to from taxable income only, and we would be looking at a significant tax penalty every year we had no USA taxable income (and, of course, one of the main advantages to working in Abu Dhabi was that we weren’t being taxed). So, with the assistance of our Edward Jones financial advisor, we shifted the money into an American Funds mutual fund which Edward Jones manages. That meant no tax penalties, happily. That was about all I could say about it–the mutual fund, called Capital Income Builder, which goes by the ticker CAIBX, had generated a reasonable return for years, and it seemed like a solid enough choice, given that neither of us knew much about investing. Whatever fees we incurred through using a financial advisor was of no consequence, because the advisor was, after all, being paid to help us navigate waters we didn’t know anything about.

However, during the last six months or so, I’ve been learning a great deal about investing, and I’ve discovered that our Edward Jones mutual fund account is probably a financial mistake, since there are plenty of other Electronically Traded Funds (ETFs) which perform better, and cost a lot less to purchase. Not only that, but 2015 turned into a terrible year for CAIBX, and instead of the upper single-digit return it had been generating, it turned -8.5%, making our ongoing investment into that fund seem like a bad choice. Not only that, but taxes on an actively traded mutual fund are higher than a more static ETF, and the fees that it once seemed reasonable to pay Edward Jones (which, by the way, are among the highest of the investment firms, at least according to my research), now don’t seem like such a good idea. After all, the waters of investing are evermore familiar to me at this point. We haven’t yet closed our Edward Jones account, but we will; we’ve reduced what we put into it, however. We will close it, though, and transfer that money into other funds in the near future.

Besides having a savings account and a mutual fund, we’ve also opened up a Scottrade account to manage our own investments with. Scottrade has low brokerage fees and has an excellent program called FRIP, wherein dividend payments are reinvested for free into stocks of your choice. We’ve established a portfolio there with a small number of stocks, and will be expanding it over time, confident that we can do better than -8.5%.

What brought on the interest in investing, you might ask? My friend read The Wealthy English Teacher, penned by a blogger with numerous years spent teaching abroad, and he recommended it to me. I found the book very relatable, and then perused the author’s blog. I’ve also discovered, again, thanks to my friend, blogs like Go Curry CrackerDividend Mantra, and many others, all of which helped show me what’s possible to achieve without much more effort than we were putting into being frugal anyway, and prompted me to get serious about my own investing.

So there you have it. I’m happy to say that we’re doing rather well for ourselves at this point, especially considering where we came from with quite a bit of debt, and we’ve learned a lot about investing our hard-earned cash for ourselves. It’s nice to actually have a net worth these days, and we have every reason to believe that it will continue to expand.