Study abroad stories: Jakub in Kazakhstan

7 December 2016

Third-year AUC student Jakub Polansky (Class of 2017) has spent the previous three months studying abroad at Al-Farabi Kazakh National University in Almaty, Kazakhstan. In an interview with AUC's International Office, Polansky reflected on his unique time abroad, discussing his daily life, insight into the cultural differences he has noticed and his own regional travels, as well as some tips for those thinking of journeying to Kazakhstan. Read Polansky's full impressions of Kazakhstan below.

Jakub Polansky,Amsterdam University College,Study Abroad

What motivated you to choose to go Kazakhstan?

Jakub Polansky (JP): When I was deciding where to go for exchange, I asked myself what destination would benefit me the most. Thanks to the large network of AUC, UvA and VU partners, I had access to renowned universities and colleges across the globe. Having this once in a lifetime opportunity, I based my decision on the following factors: academic quality, language, as well as cultural and social diversity. I looked at a world map, thought of my CV, considered my life goals and imagined what my future me would regret if I had not done it. I am an economics and law major at AUC and have a deep interest in policy. Studying the development of emerging economies has been the most interesting university experience so far and I would like to focus on the relationship between economic growth and development during my future studies. Speaking basic Russian and having been born in a post-communist country myself, the CIS-region appeared to be a logical choice. Finally, given the reputation as the most established institution in Central Asia, the Al-Farabi Kazakh National University in Almaty, Kazakhstan crystallized as the most promising option.

How is your experience in Kazakhstan so far?

JP: Insightful – in all possible ways. Not only do I have the honour to live with people I would otherwise not get in touch with and learn from them, but the confrontation with different values and attitudes makes me reflect about my own beliefs and convictions. On top of that, my Russian is getting better and I learnt how to bargain at a bazaar (or at least they let me believe that).

Jakub Polansky,Amsterdam University College,Study Abroad

What is your day to day life like?

JP: I have classes four days a week which is very exceptional for Kazakhstan as the usual academic week starts on Monday morning and ends on Saturday around lunchtime. In addition, if I were a male Kazakh national, I would spend my Fridays receiving obligatory military training. On class days I usually skip breakfast and just buy a bottle of water (tap water is not drinkable) before the start of lectures. Having only 10 minute breaks between classes, there is not much time to talk to classmates as I try not to get lost on the over 100 hectares large campus called Kazgugrad. For lunch I usually go to Keremet, the student canteen, where they serve a variety of tasty Kazakh meals, soups, desserts, coffee, tea and snacks – with prices ranging from some 30 cents for a delicious cheese pastry called Samsa, 60 cents for a warming Borshch soup, to EUR 1,50 for a full meal with vegetables, meat and rice. On the way to my dorms, I usually sit down on one of the many benches to take a look at the breath-taking Tien Shan mountains and contemplate about my day. Then I proceed with studying or preparing myself for the next day’s lectures. My average day ends with a conversation over a cup of chai with my roommate. 

Jakub Polansky Kazakhstan,Amsterdam University College, Study Abroad

Do you notice many cultural differences? How do you adjust to those?

JP: The cultural differences cannot be overlooked. As soon as I landed at the airport, it hit me like a hammer. However, after a few days, I figured out how to get along seamlessly. No longer would I pay horrendous sums for official taxi services, but rather stick out my finger and hitch a ride with an unlicensed driver for a few cents. Though the most beautiful thing about going abroad to a far away destination is that you never stop learning. Even after being in Almaty for over 3 months now, I am still discovering new facets of this historically rich and undoubtedly interesting culture.

On adjusting, I can only recommend the "copy and paste" technique – going with the flow worked best for me (although it sometimes resulted in having to eat some dishes I really was not planning on having on my plate – just kidding, mutton intestines are an underappreciated delicacy).

Are there any cultural similarities?

As much as the usual focus lies on the cultural differences, no matter where people come from or what god they believe in, they seem to like putting selfies on Instagram. This is being taken very seriously in Kazakhstan where I have seen people setting up those photos for ten minutes or longer. Jokes aside, in the end we’re all human and have the same needs, hopes and wishes – no matter how different we appear on the surface, in the core we can relate to each other based on a number of similarities, such as the increasing need for coffee as exam periods approach.

Are you meeting a lot of locals?

JP: This question should rather be phrased: “Are you meeting a lot of foreigners?” As a matter of fact, it is hard not to meet locals by default, as out of the over 20.000 students at KazNU there are only a dozen foreigners (excluding students from neighbouring Central Asian states and Northwest China). The only exception is the surprisingly high numbers of South Koreans who come to either learn Russian or Kazakh, or provide assistance in the medical sphere. All of my classmates are from Kazakhstan and the majority of them from Almaty. The situation is, however, slightly different at the dorms. As locals tend to stay with their parents, the dorm is full of students from other cities or the countryside, and of course the handful of foreigners. My roommate, for example, was born in a small town of 30.000 people in East Kazakhstan, yet lived in Almaty for over 5 years already. Thanks to that, he could show me around and provide me with insightful recommendations. 

Jakub Polansky Kazakhstan,Amsterdam University College,Study Abroad

Are you traveling in Kazakhstan or planning to do so? What is that like?

JP: While within Kazakhstan I have travelled only around the Almaty region and I was quite impressed by what I have seen. To name some examples, I went to a festival of nomadic culture in the Ile-Alatau National Park where I experienced the remainders of the nomadic spirit of which the locals are so proud. Part of the tradition is to watch Kokpar, a horse-game with the goal to grab a headless goat from another player and throw it into a circle to score points. The winner not only gets to keep the goat, but also some prize money and of course a lot of honour. Another unforgettable experience was the short trip to the Big Almaty Lake which is a natural reservoir of a glowing turquoise-blue colour located 2511 meters above sea level. The fresh air and the beauty of nature attracts a lot of local visitors during the weekend who like to spend their Sundays stepping back from the stress of the lively city.

Further, I travelled to Kyrgyzstan where I spent over a week waiting for my visa to be processed. That gave me enough time to discover the capital city Bishkek and the second largest city, Osh. While the former is the political, cultural and financial centre of the country and still has a beautiful Lenin statue on display, the latter is known for its rich history (over 3000 years) and the busiest bazaar in Central Asia. The two cities are also ethnically very different. Located on the Silk Road at the border with Uzbekistan, around half of Osh’s population is ethnically Uzbek, while Bishkek is predominantly Kyrgyz.

As promised to my taxi driver who got me safely to the border, I would also like to mention that the first “y” in Kyrgyzstan is a silent “y” – and Westerners keep mispronouncing the name of the country of Manas (Google it). 

One tip for a person going on exchange to Kazakhstan is …

JP: … not to take anything for granted. While you can shop for Gucci and Prada at the exclusive Esentai mall, electricity or water blackouts at home should not surprise you. Also, expecting a bus to leave on schedule is as naïve as to believe that highways need to be asphalted – buses leave when they’re full and driving on gravel does not mean you’re off-road. Be open for everything, don’t take yourself too seriously and you will have an amazing time.

AUC would like to thank Jakub for his contribution. 

Jakub Polansky,Amsterdam University College,Study Abroad

Published by  Amsterdam University College