19 January 2017

Senior Dogs

Our expat dogs have been with us a few weeks now and have settled back into family life very well indeed.  Our house is finally a proper home again. Given the rigour of their journey one of the first things we did was register them with a local vet and arrange for them to have a once over.



Finding a good vet abroad can be difficult.  I had spoken with a local animal shelter and some friends with dogs and they all recommended the same man.  We went with him; luckily given the state of Bessie's health, he does house calls.  We were a little worried when, on observing Bessie, he told us she did not have long left.  We knew this, we explained, and we wanted to make sure that she knew him and vice versa so that she was not put to sleep by a stranger when the time came.  Not to worry, we were told, she could have up to a year longer.  This cheered us up no end.


One of the things I have noticed is that, in many countries, vets and those who care for animals are much more reluctant to advise on euthanasia than those in the UK or Europe.  Probably because they see animals often treated as a commodity, more akin to a convenience or a working animal as opposed to a cherished pet and family member.  We have found it very hard to get good guidance on how to assess when the time will be right to make that very hard decision ie when it is best for Bess and not out of convenience for us.  It is not something that we want to do, nor is it a decision that we want to rush but we do want some guidance on what aspects to consider when making it.  It does not help that neither Mr EE nor I have been at home when parents' dogs have had to be put to sleep so we have not observed the 'tipping point'. Friends and family in Europe and Hong Kong who have had to make these sad decisions have advised us on what changed in their pet to make them decide that the time was right.  Memorably and kindly a vet friend of a friend took the time to write and reassure me.


As the days have gone by we have become more and more confident of our decision which we are basing on a combination of gut instinct and the following points:
  • She is not in pain;
  • She takes pleasure from her environment;
  • She takes pleasure from her food;
  • She takes pleasure from her family;
  • She is not passive in those pleasures, she seeks them out.

In her first week home Bessie gave us a lot of scares.  She was getting stronger and then, suddenly, one day she became incontinent, unable to move at all  on her feet and crawled into a corner. With tears streaming down our faces we decided that, should we not see any improvement the following day, we would call the vet in.  The next day she was better.  This week she is better still, she can't get up on her own and needs support to walk on the tiled floor but once up she can manage a wander around the carpet and choose where to curl up.  She needs support to get out to the garden but once there the support straps (improvised from wide, soft leather belts of mine) are a back up only.  Her bedsores have also healed enough for me to allow her to spend some time asleep in the garden without worrying about her getting bothered by flies.


She is still very much a key family member.  A few days ago Miss EE had a bad argument with her brother while they were out playing and stomped home, tearful and upset.  She went to sit with Bess, stroked her for a while then told me she was in the wrong and was going to apologise.  Master EE spends a lot of time sat with her, just talking and petting her head.  As Bess can no longer come upstairs to bed she sleeps in the hallway.  The first thing everyone does when they come down is to greet her and pet her.  During the daytime and evening we lift her onto a sofa in the living room so she can be with us all, there is enough space for Perdie or some humans to join her, or for her to be on her own and snooze if that is what she prefers.


Bessie's co-ordination has improved enough to allow her to wag her tail and she actively nuzzles for attention now as opposed to just looking doleful when a hand is removed from her head.  The other pets still defer to her as 'top dog' and Perdie is returning the care and love she was given as a puppy by grooming Bess from time to time, even, on occasion, trying to entice her to play.



We are facing the joyful reality that she may be with us for a while.  As we had resigned ourselves to a few bittersweet weeks only this is a great relief and very much worth the back pain we have both developed from having to help her move around. We will have to make a few adjustments to our daily lives. It may mean that we will not be able to travel abroad as a whole family for the moment, we certainly could not kennel her, it would be too cruel and I would worry about getting someone in to look after her, firstly she is hard work.  We have to lift her and walk her outside four times a day and she is a heavy dog.  She is less coordinated than usual so she has to be cleaned every day to catch the stuff she misses, her medication is extensive and confusing.  I know how I would feel if someone's pet died while they were in my care and I had to dispose of the body (there are limited options here in Jeddah), I would feel awful.  No matter how much we would reassure someone it was ok and expected my guess is they would feel terrible and we could not do that.  We will have to see what happens and how things go but we remain so grateful that we have the chance to make these decisions.

Click below for more posts on Expat Pets and how to care for them

The Ersatz Guide To Expat Pets


Posted to the wonderful Animal Tales
ANIMALTALES

11 January 2017

How To Be An Expat In Saudi Arabia: Driving And Getting Out And About!

Driving is a big ticket issue here in Saudi, the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive.    Many locals and residents protest the status quo which is a real problem for families.  Women have to either use taxis or hire a foreign driver to take them places which is expensive, particularly for those on lower incomes.  It also means that women have to plan their lives around the availability of transport.  Arguments against allowing women to drive include that it would leave them vulnerable to attack if they broke down and that male drivers would seek to intimidate them. I have also seen claims that the driving seat acts as a vibrator and gives women guilty pleasures, I can't say I have ever noticed this but perhaps it only applies to cars in Saudi.  It may go some way to explaining the distracted driving we see on the roads!


 I know some expats, mostly women and some men who say they would never feel comfortable driving here.  I disagree, I love to drive, I love the freedom it gives me and I loathe being dependant on others.  With the exception of Mr EE and some other family members I hate being driven.  Even when the roads and other drivers are bad I prefer to rely on my own skill as opposed to those of people who may never have been taught to drive properly.  Nevertheless the situation is what it is and my opinion will not change anything.   I always think expats should be careful when commenting on local issues, at the end of the day it is not my fight to fight, and there are many Saudi women (and some men) advocating for the end of the restriction. 


The driving in Jeddah can only be described as ‘fruity’.  While it is not the worst place I have ever seen (Lagos wins on that count) drivers are very aggressive, probably because they are all male and the roads seem to run on testosterone.  The roads are generally wide and well maintained but, because of the lack of public transport, there are a huge number of cars using the roads at any one time (the photograph above is a quiet Saturday afternoon, in rush hour the same road is blocked). Most people drive the biggest car they can afford to ensure that they can see and be seen.  We have seen the odd Kia Picanto or similar but they must be a very uncomfortable drive.  Light cycles on junctions are long.  There are a few roundabouts to ease traffic flow but roads are generally managed by legal U turn lanes.  These are few and far between so you can find yourself driving a few kilometres in the wrong direction in order to get where you are going to.  Main roads will have a parallel access road (you can see one above), most of these do not filter onto the main road as such, there are access/egress points at regular intervals and it is not uncommon to see two cars racing, one to get on one to get off waiting to see which one will give way first.  

 Fines for infractions are high and have recently been pushed up, a friend told us he was caught going through a light as the amber changed to red.  He now chooses to stop on amber and will prefer to be shunted than fined. Mobile phone use while driving appears to be obligatory, while use of indicators is optional.  Weaving in and out of traffic, standing on breaks, jumping into a stream of fast moving traffic from a standstill, filtering into a 'lane' without looking and of course undertaking are all expected.  Less common, but not unusual, is for the driver to hold a baby or toddler on their lap.  While it all looks rather chaotic I suspect, as with all places, that there are local conventions that make driving easier which you only find out when you are the driver, like flashing  your lights to someone to go ahead in the UK or making eye contact with a driver to be let into traffic on a main road in Kazakhstan.


In terms of  our own transport practicalities I don’t need to take the children to and from school as we live in compound that is connected to school.  Mr EE has a (very good and extremely competent) driver for all work related travel and we can use him for the odd private trip as well.  The compound runs a bus to various destinations twice a day and I can take that for free if I want to.  Alternatively if is very easy to hire a taxi through the Uber or Careem apps on my telephone.  The app tells me how long I will need to wait, directs the driver to my exact location by GPS and then tracks our journey home.  It is safe and the cars are all very well maintained, most drivers speak some English but it is a good idea to learn directions in Arabic just in case. You do get the odd very poor driver and as the law here does not require seat belts in the back and I can't sit in the front with a 'strange' man I do feel vulnerable at times.  If they are really bad I stop the ride and order a new cab.  We book 'executive' cars when we travel with the children as they are more likely to have functioning seatbelts.  Whether or not these apps will continue to work well is not certain.  There is a move to restrict the right to drive an Uber or Careem to Saudi citizens only.  This will, at least in the short term, reduce the number of cars available for hire as many of the drivers are expats.


We hope to be able to buy our own car as this will allow us to explore further afield.  The real pain for us will be that as I will not be able to take over when Mr EE is tired we will be restricted to shorter distances than if we had two drivers available.

How to get about in Jeddah:
  • There is no public transport.
  • Street taxis are plentiful and identified with a standard livery, I rarely use them.  Negotiate a price before setting out and if you are a woman alone be very obvious about texting the number plate to a friend (I do this as a matter of course with street hails in many countries).
  • Install Uber and the local (better) equivalent, Careem, on your 'phone.  These are tracked apps and therefore safe, you do not need to carry cash or if your card is not registered to the app you can pay with a large note and have it credited to your account.
  • Buy a car (and hire a driver if you are a woman).
  • Walk!  Obviously this is more difficult in the summer when the temperatures get very high and it is not really common to see women out walking on their own as you can be hassled but it is fine for short distances or with your family or a group.  Jeddah is not pedestrian friendly, there are very few designated road crossings and traffic is busy.  It is difficult to walk and cross roads with a pushchair.
  • If you are buying a car be aware that expat ownership of the larger 4x4s is restricted, only expats with larger families may purchase them.
In other words there are plenty of options but you will need to plan.

3 January 2017

The Best Gift In The World

Readers who have popped by this blog more than once will know that when we left Malaysia to move to Saudi Arabia, our pets were not able to follow on immediately.  They stayed with our vet, a good friend who took on their care for us and we blithely hoped that our two dogs and the cat would be able to join us in a few months time.

Home at last
Sadly the import process was beset with delays, none of which were anyone's fault really but were intensely frustrating.  For example the first permits were issued within 6 months but did not get to us until they only had 3 days validity to go, so not enough time to sort export protocols in Malaysia.

Bessie, our older dog and Kismet the cat got their permits in late August and were due to join us in September.  Bessie, who at 15 years old is most definitely a senior dog, became very sick in KL and I had to fly back to Malaysia as we thought she would have to be put down.  Our wonderful vet drove all the way down from Ipoh after work, took her back home and nursed her better for us.  We will never be able to thank her enough.

No longer an only pet... and annoyed to boot.

Kismet, thank goodness, made it home OK and has enjoyed her status as a solo pet for the last 4 months.  In December we got the news we had been waiting for, the permits had been issued and we started export procedures in Malaysia.  Given our previous experience our vet decided that it would be better for the dogs not to board in KL but for her to do all the export permit work in Ipoh with the documents couriered to our handling agents in KL to arrange translations and shipping.  We had a few false starts but on 23 December the pets were put in a truck and taken to the airport, scheduled to arrive in Jeddah on the morning of the 24th.

On the way...

Given all the delays and problems we could still not quite believe that the pets would arrive in Jeddah and, of course, nothing quite went according to plan.  Delays and scheduling issues meant they did not land until the early evening.  We spent the day tracking flight paths on our phones, desperately worried about what the delays would mean for their connecting flights and checking in with the cargo office in Doha.

The flights did land of course, and as soon as they were taken from the plane into the pet handling area Mr EE got them out of the cages for a walk and some water and they were overjoyed to see him.  Bessie, however, was so weak that she was unable to stand; this obviously gave the handlers some concern and they expedited the dogs' release into our custody.  30 minutes later, at about 10.30 at night, the dogs finally made it home, 1 year and 22 days after we left them.  Mini EE had fallen asleep at her usual time but Master and Miss EE had stayed up to greet them.  Perdie launched herself back into family life with an ebullience that was a joy to watch.  Bessie, sadly, was so tired from the journey that she could do nothing more than lie there.

Recovering

When I had last seen Bessie she was very ill indeed so her condition was no real shock to me.  The others, however, had left her as an old but healthy dog.  As she tried, and failed, to nuzzle and lick us all they started to realise just how very old and sick she now was.  Her back legs, cramped from the crate, would not support her, she had no control over her tail, for years our reunions with her had been dominated by a wag that started at her nose and shuddered through the length of her bdy, now she could only twitch the very tip of her tail.  Her long and beautiful fur has been cut very short in order to help keep her clean and she had bedsores from the crate.  We worried that we had put her through too much stress, had been too cruel and brought her home for our own reasons.  Had we seen someone else with a dog like this we would have counselled them to put her to sleep.  As we sat there with her, however, her head nestled in each lap in turn we realised that she was happy to see us.

Getting stronger
We gave them a quick wash and some meat and then let them roam in the garden, Bessie supported in a sling under her hips.  She quite obviously enjoyed being outside sniffing the grass and her legs started to remember they could walk.  Back inside Mr EE and I settled her on a fluffy bath mat laid on a thick foam playmat, sent the children to bed and sat with our pets, their return the best gift we could ever hope to have received and knowing that our family was complete once again.

For more posts on Expat Pets please click the picture below.

The Ersatz Guide To Expat Pets


Posted as part of the Animal Tales Link Up hosted by the wonderful Rosie of A Green and Rosie Life/ Eco Gites De Lenault


ANIMALTALES

21 December 2016

Seasonal Foods

December is  a month where traditional foods come very much to the fore and these are easy enough to make (with some modifications) wherever we are in the world.   I am taking the time to teach Miss EE (Master EE is not interested in cooking more than he has to), how to cook various recipes that have become a family tradition at this time of the year.

In Malaysia: Yorkshire Pudding, Festive Vegetables
Roast Potatoes and Duck
We only rarely eat Turkey and prefer other meats if we can get it, duck or goose being a particular favourite.  December also tends to be the time when we eat a lot of  traditional English foods including red cabbage, roast potatoes, stuffing, roast carrots and so on.

Meats do not always come as fully prepared in some host countries
as at home.  Over the years Mr EE has learned to behead and defoot ducks and
detestical (and deinnard) geese.
Fruit cake made a long time in advance and 'fed' with brandy or other fortified wine is also traditional at this time of the year.  When I am unable to get alcohol I cook the cake closer to the time it will be eaten and use tea instead.  The tea will moisten the cake but of course will not preserve it in the same way.  A properly made cake will last for years.  In fact, a few years ago I made one for my father which he did not get round to eating, 9 months later and the day before he married my stepmother they told me they did not have a wedding cake.  English wedding cakes are made from the same type of fruit cake so I simply removed the icing, fed it some more to moisten it up and redid it as a wedding cake.  Versatile indeed!

Fruits infusing in tea
I have always used Nigella Lawson's Cake recipe and it comes out perfectly every time.  It is versatile enough to allow me to substitute fruits depending on what I have available.  This year I was unable to find candied peel and had no time to make my own so I bunged in a similar weight of dried apricots and cranberries.  The cake will taste different but just as good. I have also made a Pudding, again without  alcohol and using frozen grated butter in place of suet which I have not seen on sale and cannot describe to our butcher and played around with some alcohol free, suet free mincemeat.  We found some alcohol free wine in the supermarket which will be perfect for mulling, mulled wine being one of the real pleasures of this time of the year.

The Decorations on the Cake lasts for
an hour or so before the cake is devoured.
Here are some festive recipes I have been teaching Miss EE to add to the ones featured in the links above and for inspiration.  All are versatile enough to allow for substitutions depending on what is available wherever you are celebrating.

Mulled Wine
  • A bottle of wine (cheapest plonk in the shop or alcohol free);
  • A slug of brandy or orange juice depending on what you can get;
  • two clementines, cut in half, squeeze the juice into the wine then stud the halves with cloves and toss in the pan;
  • sugar or syrup to taste;
  • a few cinnamon sticks;
  • a handful or raisins.
  • Warm gently on the stove then serve either in beautiful elegant glass mugs or, more realistically, whatever you have to hand.
Fancy Sprouts

Most people eat Brussels Sprouts out of protest but my family really like this recipe.
  • wash and prepare the sprouts then simmer gently until cooked through, they should be firm not mushy.  A cross cut in the base will help them cook more evenly;
  • fry some bacon bits, pancetta cubes or a bacon substitute (breakfast beef or turkey bacon) in a saucepan;
  • add some chestnuts, coating them in the oil released from the bacon/bacon substitute;
  • drain the sprouts and add to the pan.
If you are a vegetarian or don't like to eat bacon or bacon substitutes you can use butter to give a pleasant taste to the sprouts/chestnut combination.  You could also add other vegetables such as peas or string beans to add variety and taste.

Spiced biscuits, pleasingly and elegantly plain
Spiced Biscuits

These lovely biscuits taste very similar to the Kruidnoten I ate as a child in the Netherlands and I sometimes keep back some dough to form them into tiny little button noten, just for old times sake.  Sometimes we pop them on the tree, sometimes the children decorate them with icing and sometimes we eat them as soon as they are cool from the oven. 
  • Heat the oven to about 175 degrees;
  • Combine 150g Flour with 1/2 teaspoon of baking powder, and add cinnamon, cloves, ginger, allspice, nutmeg and pepper to taste, I like my biscuits spicy so tend to use 1 tsp cinnamon and 1/2 of everything else and a grind of pepper;
  • Cream 50g butter with 50g muscovado sugar then, in the mixer, add to the dry ingredients;
  • slowly add a beaten egg and then enough golden or maple syrup to allow the ingredients to combine to a soft dough;
  • roll out the dough and, using a cutter of your choice, cut out the biscuit shapes.  If you want to hang them use the end of a straw to pick out a hole in the top of the shape;
  • Put the shapes on a lined baking sheet and bake for about 20 minutes until firm through but not ultra hard;
  • If you are going to decorate them let them cool on the rack before bringing them out and letting the children have some fun;
  • The biscuit is firm enough that you could use it to make a gingerbread house if you wanted to.
And jazzed up by the children.

Bread Sauce

The first time I had this quintessentially British sauce was at my mother in law's house.  The idea of bread soaked in milk and mixed to form a sauce sounded so disgusting that I was struggling to take a taste,  I am so pleased that my parents trained me to be able to eat unappealing food because while it might look revolting this food is truly wonderful.  I make mine on the hob because I only have a single oven but my mother in law makes hers, to great effect, in one of her smaller ovens.
  • peel and quarter a white onion and stud with cloves, I love the taste of cloves so use more than most English people, the traditional recipes tend to call for 4-6  I use about 10;
  • add the onion, a large bay leaf  (I will occasionally use myrtle leaves for a change) and some peppercorns (traditionally people use black but I prefer pink for this, sometimes I use juniper berries, particularly if I am using myrtle leaves) to about 300 or so ml of milk (I do it by eye in my pan so this is a guess) and a bit of cooking cream.  Heat the mix to a simmer then turn off the hob, put on a lid and let it sit for a while;
  • Take some cheap sliced white bread, cut off the crusts and tear into small pieces or stale it a little and blitz into breadcrumbs;
  • Add the bread to the milk mixture with a knob of butter and put it all back on a gentle heat, stirring to incorporate all the bread into the milk until it is mushed together.  Grate some nutmeg over to season it;
  • Some people fish out the onions and bay leaves before serving (some even strain the milk before adding the bread) but I often leave them in as I rather like the look.
This sauce works beautifully with duck, goose and other birds and compliments cranberry sauce rather well.

Bread Sauce, Cranberry Sauce, Roast Potatoes, Stuffing, Yorkshire Puddings
and more.  

Roast Potatoes

Proper roast potatoes can only really be made with the Dutch Bintje potatoes which go wonderfully fluffy when shaken in the pan after boiling.  You can get the same effect though by boiling your table potatoes for slightly longer (I know a lot of people parboil before roasting, I give a proper full boil), bashing them about in the pan and dusting with flour once dry.  I often boil my potatoes the night before I am going to roast them.  I have found that people who will eat only a few boiled potatoes will eat up to five times the amount if they are roast (or mashed) so make sure that you serve plenty.
  • Cut the potatoes into even pieces.  My sister maintains that the more sides the potatoes have the more crispy bits you get so as roasties are all about the cripsy bits I cut them into odd shapes;
  • Boil the potatoes until fully soft.  Drain and ensure they are completely dry then add some flour to the pan to cover the potatoes;
  • Place a pan of non smoking fat  in a hot oven (230 degrees).  Goose fat is traditional but groundnut oil also has a high smoking point, don't whatever you do use olive oil, it smokes terribly and does not roast well, you can add a rosemary sprig for flavour if you wish;
  • Once the oil is good and hot remove the pan from the oven and place on a hot hob top to maintain the temperature of the oil;
  • Use a slotted spoon to transfer the potatoes to the oil.  Turn them so that all sides are covered.  The hot hob will ensure that the oil does not lose heat;
  • Return to the oven and cook for about 25 minutes or until crispy.  Half way through turn the potatoes in the oil to ensure even cooking. 
Red Cabbage

Red cabbage is one of my favourite foods of all time, I eat it plain, in sandwiches and as an accompaniment to just about everything.  I usually cook it with apples but at this time of year I often add some cranberries as well.
  • dice a red onion and place in a pan with a small amount of butter, once the onion has softened and sweated a little add two diced red apples;
  • Add a head of shredded red cabbage slowly, allowing the pieces to wilt down as you add it.,
  • cover the mixture with a half and half mix of fruit juice (cranberry or cherry juice is tasty) and water; 
  • add sugar to taste and some cinnamon;
  • simmer for about three hours minimum. You can cook the night before, leave covered on the hob and warm it up again to eat.  Sometimes I roast it in the oven, sometimes I just serve it as is.
Gravy

I cannot make gravy; my mother, grandmother and mother in law have all tried to teach me.  My home economics teacher at school tried to teach me, I have tried so many recipes but for some reason it always turns out appalling.  I just don't bother serving it, relying instead on a festive trio of cranberry sauce, bread sauce and cinnamon spiced apple sauce.  If anyone has a guaranteed foolproof recipe for gravy please let me know.

For more posts on cooking as an expat click on the picture below


Ersatz Expat



8 December 2016

Travel At Home 11

Welcome back to Travel At Home. Wherever you are in the world there are probably so many wonderful and fascinating things to see.  If you are anything like my family it becomes all too easy to ignore the sites close to home, falling prey to the belief that they will 'always be there'.  Familiarity breeds contempt and we hanker after the exotic.  But the truth is that what is home for one person is exotic to many others.  As an expat family we get to be at home in a wide range of different places and we try to make sure that we make the most of any place we are living right now, getting out and exploring as much as possible.  

Travel at Home is the linky for people who want to write about their home (or host) location and all the places that don't make it into a guide book (but really should).  You don't have to be an expat to participate, just someone with a passion for their local area.  The link will be open for a week so there is plenty of time to add your post (or posts).  If you notice that something does not work as it should or you think I could improve something please do let me know.

Last month we travelled to Africa and the Middle East.  My favourite post was Africa Expat Wives' Club post on her visit to Lamu .  It reminded me very much of the old town in Jeddah.

There are just a few rules:
  • Share your post - it can be a new post or an old one you want to share with a new audience.
  • You can write about anywhere you have a strong connection, home country, current host or former host.
  • Add the link up button and code to your post so that people can navigate back easily
  • Comment on some of the other posts on the link up (the more the merrier)
  • Tweet/share your link.  If you include me (@ErsatzExpat) in your tweet I will retweet.
  • Add your post to the Travel At Home Pinterest Board contact me via Pinterest and I will add you to the board.
  • Spread the word - the more the merrier and everyone is welcome.

Monthly link ups will go in the main feed but will then be linked to a tab (see above) for reference.  Thank you in advance for linking up and I look forward to enjoying some vicarious visits in the next few days.

Ersatz Expat

The Old Smokehouse, Malaysia

Yesterday my personal facebook feed brought up some memories on its ‘time hop’ feature.  I love seeing these memories.  These memories were even more special because this marked the anniversary of our penultimate day in Malaysia.  Today is exactly one year since we left our home in Ipoh and flew into another new expat adventure.
An English cottage in the heart of Malaysia
Malaysia was not the best posting we have ever had but we do retain a fondness for it, in the way expats often do for countries they have once had a very close connection to.  I had to go back a little while ago and that was a thoroughly bizarre experience.

The southern parts of the Cameron Highlands are more picturesque than the North
The period between getting the notification that you will definitely be leaving and actually sitting on the plane is hectic, this one particularly so as starting requirements for the new job gave us just a few weeks to pack up and leave.  However, once the hassle of packing was sorted, the children had spent their final days at school and Mr EE had handed over his work we had a few days to do as we wanted.  We became, for want of a better word, tourists in our own home and we went to as many of the places we had always wanted to see but never quite managed as we possibly could. 

The Old Smokehouse
One of the places we made a point to go and say goodbye to was the Cameron Highlands.  Ipoh is situated just to the North and we would often drive up for the day to have tea and buy fresh temperate vegetables and strawberries, an unbelievable luxury in the tropics.  A colleague had recommended a hotel called ‘The Old Smoke House’ in the southern part of the highlands but we had never had the time to visit, we were determined to see it before we left.


We drove south on the main Penang/KL motorway to the southern junction access point and then up the steep switchback roads to the Cameron Highlands proper.  This route, being closer to KL, is much more popular than the northern access road which we normally used and was jammed with a lot of coaches stopping off at scenic waterfalls and roadside stalls.  Once we reached the highlands tea fields were more in evidence in the south than the lines and lines of polytunnels that hug the hillsides in the north making for a more scenic drive.  It was not long until we saw the sign for the Old Smoke House.

It was a truly dislocating experience.  Designed like an old English Cottage, complete with lawn and flowerbeds and a red telephone box the hotel was a perfect simulacrum of an English pub.  It was too cold to eat on the terrace so we enjoyed a lovely if slightly pricey and stingey cream tea in the conservatory.  The bars and sitting rooms had been decorated for Christmas and we wandered through the public rooms soaking up the atmosphere.  Although we were flying back the next day it had been over 2 years since we were last in the UK and even longer since we had been in the UK for Christmas so Mr EE, the older children and I felt an unexpected burst of nostalgia.  Mini EE who at just over one year old did not remember the Christmas tree from the previous year, was entranced by the lights. The barman was amazed that we had driven up from Ipoh, it turned out his parents lived just down the road from us.



As the light faded we drove north through the larger settlements of the Camerons until we got to the area we knew well and then the long steep road down into Ipoh and home for one last night, last minute packing and the next step on our personal adventure.


For more posts on Malaysia please click on the photo below.

Ersatz Expat

Posted as part of the Travel at Home Series

Ersatz Expat

30 November 2016

Expat Stopovers: Bishkek

There are so many places that you get to go to as an Expat that you might not otherwise decide to visit.  I would hazard a guess that not many people based outside of Central Asia would choose to go to Kyrgyzstan on holiday.  That is a real shame as it is a beautiful country with amazing alpine scenery and an interesting history.  It is also visa free for many nationalities.

Bishkek, Capital of Kyrgyzstan on a rather overcast day.
The capital, Bishkek, is only a short flight from Astana so a few years ago we decided it would be the perfect spot for a short break for Nauruz (Persian New Year) at the end of March.  I was 15 weeks pregnant at the time so  a short hop was ideal.  At that time Astana is usually still on the cold side although winter is loosening its grip.  Bishkek is quite a bit further south and very close to Almaty (the former capital and largest city of Kazakhstan) and has a much more temperate climate. The downside of this is that unlike Astana which is typically dry with wide blue skies, Bishkek can be overcast and wet.

Traces of the Soviet past are still in evidence.
Bishkek, unlike Astana, is a low rise city, all the better to enjoy the spectacular views of the surrounding mountains. It  is very typically Soviet in its design looking very like Karaganda and other similar cities (broad boulevards lined with apartment blocks).  The city is very green and there are ample small parks for children to play in or people to stroll through.

Parks and open spaces can be found all over the city.
Our rental apartment was about 45 minutes walk from the centre of town we decided to orient ourselves to the city with the short walk to Chuy Prospect, the central artery of the city.  After lunch (Bishkek has excellent restaurants at very good prices) we took in the main sites.  These are mostly clustered around Ala-Too Park and include the Krgyz White House (Parliament), the National Flag (much smaller than its equivalent in Astana) and many statues in typical Soviet style including a very large one of Lenin.  After that we went on  to the market.  This bazaar was refreshingly unpretentious, there were, of course, a few stalls selling national costumes, magnets and the like but many more selling pieces of tack for horses, plumbing equipment, babygrows and so on.  There were even doctors’ offices operating out of the market.

The Burana Minaret is a short drive out of the city

Now restored the tower was in a very poor state
when the Soviets took over the country.
Not all aspects of the restoration have been well done...


The inside climb is steep and narrow
The following day we hired a driver to take us out to the Burana Minaret about 80km from Bishkek.  This tower is all that is left of an old Krgyz city on the silk road.  The site is fairly open and, along with the tower it is possible to look around some old mausoleums and grave markers.  There is a small museum on site which gives details of renovations that have been undertaken since the 70s and information on the artefacts excavated in the area.  The babushka in charge was extremely friendly and more than happy to talk about the place and her experiences during her time there and the restoration work that has been carried out.  The tower has been repaired and can be climbed.  Miss EE was keen to get to the top and took Mr EE with her.  Master EE and I stayed at the viewing platform half way up and watched a Krgyz bridal couple on their photo tour come to have shots taken at this iconic site.  Unfortunately the bridal party started the climb in the narrow upper section of the Minaret before Master EE and I could take our turn.
Markers cover the ground surrounding the minaret

The complex is large and covers a lot of ground

It is a favourite spot on bridal photo tours
The city must have been impressive in its time.
The following day our friendly driver took us out along the old silk road (now a rather unromantic and poorly maintained highway)  towards lake Issyk-Kul.  One of the largest (10th)and deepest lakes in the world it is slightly saline and never freezes despite being exposed to some very cold temperatures.

The modern silk road...

In training to be a security guard
The lake was used a naval test site in Soviet years and a portion is still leased to Russia (and I think, India although I am not sure) for these purposes.  It was also a very popular Soviet tourist destination and the shores are dotted with old sanitoria.  There is excellent hiking and trekking in the area and had we not had the children with us we might have stayed the night in order to indulge in some mountain walks to view the famous petroglyps that abound in the local area.  Instead we went to the town of Cholpon Ata where we spent some time in the small museum which documents what life was like in the area from prehistoric to pre soviet times.  We bought some fruit, grown in the orchards that pepper the local area to keep us going on the way home and as a gift for the wife of our driver.

Spring is still low season so the sanitoria are left for the animals to enjoy,
a few months later and the beaches will be teeming with holiday makers

Just saline enough to prevent the lake from freezing in the winter
local livestock still find it potable.
On  the way home we stopped off to see the monument to Pyotr Semyonov Tian Shansky, a chair of the Russian Geological Society  and the man responsible for much of the initial exploration of the Tian Shan mountains, the surprisingly lovely monument is surrounded by a small park and shows the gentleman as a young man and explorer.

Pyotr Semyonov Tian Shansky
Miss EE came down with a horrible bout of tonsillitis running a very high temperature, she was so bad that the insurers said that had we been in Astana they would have wanted her in the clinic, as we were in Bishkek where they were not comfortable with the facilities on offer they gave us the option of driving to Almaty in KZ (just the other side of the mountains) or taking care of her ourselves and bringing her in for a check up on our return to Astana.  I have found that insurers tend to err on the side of caution by a massive degree and while she was clearly ill and in need of antibiotics we thought she would be able to wait 24 hours.  I always, always, travel with children’s medicine and this was the one and only time I could not find it.  Mr EE went out to find a 24 hour pharmacy.  There were plenty available but the one he went to operated on an intercom system  and as any expat or traveller knows a lack of face to face contact makes communication very difficult when you are not 100% fluent in a language.  Whether they did not have it or whether the intercom scrambled his accent too badly they did not give him ‘children’s paracetamol’ but ordinary tablets.  A quick call to the insurers told us how much to give per KG though and we were able to grind them up in some juice to give her some pain and fever relief

We enjoyed a tour of some of the other city centre sites while cafe
hopping for Miss EE.



We stayed in the apartment for as long as possible the next morning before dropping the bags and getting a taxi (for Miss EEs benefit) into town.  Once there we went straight to a pharmacy to get some children’s paracetamol  and ibuprofen syrups. We then spent some time in the rather fascinating museum devoted to the history of the Kyrgyz people, Mr EE and I taking turns to walk around  with Master EE while the other sat with Miss EE asleep in our laps.  Unsurprisingly a large portion of the museum was taken up with the history of Soviet rule.  I always find it interesting to look at things from a different perspective, to see how the people who lived (and prospered and suffered) under Soviet rule view it with the benefit of hindsight and compare it to the view we have from the west.  Museums such as this one are a wonderful resource.  Once we had exhausted all the museum had to offer we were at a loose end.  While there was much we would have wished to see in the City we could not really make poor Miss EE walk around any more than she needed to.  We therefore decided to engage in a sort of café crawl, looking for places with comfortable sofas where she could sleep in between being dosed with medicine.  The crawl took us slowly but surely back to our bags and onwards by taxi to the airport, home and antibiotics.

Good To Know

The currency is the Som and the cost of goods is very cheap.  Be aware that most ATMs only take Visa, our Kazakh bank cards (Mastercard) were next to useless to get money out although we could use them to pay for goods by PIN.  Luckily our English bank cards are Visa supported and we were able to use those to take out money.  English is not widely spoken away from the main hotels so be prepared to communicate in Russian.

We hired a driver because it worked out cheaper than a car hire over a short period.  I understand self drive rentals are easily available.  Petrol was more expensive in Kyrgyzstan than Kazakhstan at the time of our visit, we were surprised at how expensive it was compared with goods like fresh food which was much cheaper than KZ.

We went in the early spring for two reasons, firstly we wanted to visit in a quiet season and secondly it was the time we had available to devote to a trip there.  The weather in spring is warm (15 degrees) but can be wet and overcast.  Winter will not be too cold (ie more alpine as opposed to Astana style cold) and summer is warm and sunny but busy.

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Ersatz Expat