The lights went out in more ways than one in Tashkent on September 10 as Uzbekistan was dumped from football's World Cup play-offs. Jordan edged past the home team 9-8 in a penalty shootout to advance to the next stage, after an embarrassing power outage plunged Pakhtakor Stadium into darkness on Tashkent's showcase night.
The marathon game, which lasted three and a half hours, was decided when Uzbekistan's hero of the first half, Anzur Ismailov, missed his penalty shot, shattering Uzbekistan's hopes of going to the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil. The teams took a remarkable 20 penalty kicks to finally break the deadlock.
Uzbekistan came into the game as slight favorites after securing a 1-1 draw in Jordan on September 6. The home team got off to a bright start with Ismailov scoring in the fifth minute before Jordan's Saeed Al Murjan got an equalizer at 42 minutes. After a scoreless second half, the teams were all square at an aggregate score of 2-2, triggering 30 minutes of extra time.
Uzbekistan's creaking energy system was put on display to viewers around the world in the first period of extra time when the floodlights died for 18 minutes. When the match resumed, the teams remained deadlocked, so it was left to a penalty shootout to decide who would advance to a meeting with a South American team for the right to play at the finals.
Back in June, Uzbekistan stood at the top of its qualification group with two matches to play. Then an own goal by Akmal Shorakhmedov condemned the Uzbeks to a 1-0 defeat in South Korea, who took over the top spot.
Rakhat’s “Kazakhstan.” Everyone wants a bite of Kazakhstan chocolate.
Foreign firms are lining up to take a bite out of Kazakhstan’s lucrative chocolate market. Beloved local chocolatier Rakhat is tempting a South Korean investor, while Turkey's Ülker has recently expanded its Kazakhstan candy operations.
In July, Seoul-based Lotte Confectionery announced plans to takeover Almaty's Rakhat, which EurasiaNet.org featured in March. The deal will see Lotte buy 76 percent of Rakhat's common shares for an estimated $157 million, valuing the company at $43.5 per share, a premium of around 30 percent on the current share price listed on the Kazakhstan Stock Exchange.
The Koreans are not the only ones moving into the Kazakh market. Ülker, a Turkish packaged food producer that has been active in the country for over 10 years, recently launched a rival to Rakhat's best-selling “Kazakhstan” chocolate bar with its own take on, yep, “Kazakhstan” chocolate.
Rakhat, which has operated in Almaty continuously since 1942, features on its packaging a golden eagle flying under a yellow sun on a blue background, a theme resembling Kazakhstan's national flag. Ülker's packaging echoes Rakhat's and features Bayterek, Astana's iconic tower, on a blue and yellow background.
Bayan Sulu, another local chocolate manufacturer, has also tapped into the growing appetite for patriotic-looking candy with its own “Kazakhstanski” chocolate: Its wrapper features a map of Kazakhstan.
A football club from Karaganda in central Kazakhstan has made history by becoming the first Kazakh team to enter an elite European competition.
The 5-3 aggregate victory over Albanian champions KF Skënderbeu on August 6 guarantees Shakhter Karagandy, champions of Kazakhstan's Premier League for the past two seasons, a place in the group stages of UEFA’s Europa League. If Shakhter makes it through the playoff round at the end of August, it could even advance to the exclusive Champions League.
Shakhter travelled to Albania with a three-goal lead from the first of two games. Within the first 30 minutes of the second game, the Albanians were back on level terms, but Shakhter struck back, winning 3-2, and advancing to the playoff round, which will be drawn on August 9.
Kazakhstan is the only Central Asian country to play its soccer in Europe. It joined UEFA – the Union of European Football Associations – in 2002, after competing for 10 years in the Asian Football Confederation, where Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan play their international football.
The elevation of a Kazakh team to Europe's elite will give the country’s regularly disappointed fans a welcome boost. The national team, ranked 150th in the world, has not fared well since joining UEFA. It again failed to qualify for the FIFA World Cup, the 2014 match in Brazil. It is currently fifth in its qualifying group, having scored only one point in the last six matches.
Kazakhstan has found a novel way to combine two of its passions du jour, green energy and cycling. Astana is hosting a group of intrepid cyclists who have spent the last seven weeks or so racing from France to Central Asia on vehicles fueled by pedal power, with a little help from the sun.
The race, known as “The Sun Trip,” is the brainchild of Florian Bailly. The pioneer of solar-assisted cycling made his own way from France to Japan in 2010, a 10,000-kilometer trip relying solely on pedal and solar power. For Astana, the Sun Trip is a way of publicizing EXPO 2017, which it promises will focus on renewable energy.
Solar bikes, which use a combination of a pedal-powered machine with a solar-fueled battery, allow riders to travel long distances at greater speeds than on conventional bicycles.
Thirty-three competitors set off from Savoy on June 15 on a variety of machines – including conventional bicycles with trailers transporting the solar gear, along with a tandem or two and a tricycle.
On July 23, Raf van Hulle wheeled into Kazakhstan's capital first, 37 days after leaving Savoy, France. The Belgian’s grueling 7,500-kilometer journey took him through Italy, Croatia, Hungary, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Authorities in Kazakhstan are again undermining religious freedom with the detention of a Protestant pastor and a Baptist leader on unrelated charges, a watchdog says.
Pastor Bakhytzhan Kashkumbayev of Astana's Grace Church was detained May 19 on vague charges related to how he said his prayers. Forum 18, the Oslo-based religious freedom watchdog, reports that Kashkumbayev was questioned on May 17 and two days later remanded for two months' pre-trial detention on “unclear charges, apparently including praying and singing.”
In an unrelated case, in early May Baptist leader Aleksey Asetov from Ekibastuz in northeastern Kazakhstan spent three days in jail for failing to pay a fine imposed for holding a worship meeting without state permission. In 2011, Astana introduced legislation vastly curbing the activities of unregistered religious groups in the country.
The Astana police told local media on May 18 that Pastor Kashkumbayev was detained on suspicion of committing an offence under Article 103 of Kazakhstan's criminal code, which can carry a sentence of between three and seven years’ imprisonment.
The Grace Church had a run-in with the authorities last October when it was bizarrely accused of spiking its communion wine with unidentified hallucinogens.
The exact nature of the charges against Kashkumbayev are unclear, but members of the church who attended his arraignment told Forum 18 he was detained, not for the wine, “but for praying in tongues and singing.”
Spoilt for choice with shopping malls mushrooming all around them, Almaty's shopaholics now have an option that harks back to earlier times, when shopping was a more refined experience, with the opening of a GUM department store in Kazakhstan’s commercial capital.
GUM (pronounced goom) is short for Glavnyi Universalnyi Magazin, or main department store. The original in Moscow is an iconic landmark for Russian shoppers. Almaty's four-story shopping and dining complex is modeled on the ornate original in Moscow, which was built in the nineteenth century and survived through the Soviet era as the State Department Store.
Almaty's GUM has no connections with the Moscow original, but is trading on the famous brand. The Kazakhstani version is calling itself GUM Talipoff, with GUM here standing for Guldala Univermag, a partner company whose name translates as "flower of the steppe." The general director of the Almaty store is prominent Kazakh businessman Yerlan Talipov.
This new development is bucking the trend of ever-bigger mega malls that – like they have in Moscow – have proliferated around Almaty in recent years.
Almaty's GUM does not have such a prime location as the one in Moscow, which faces the Kremlin and stretches along one side of Red Square, but the development is expected to catalyze regeneration in a formerly rundown area of Almaty close to the Green Bazaar and the city's main mosque.
The complex opened its doors to the public in April but is very much a work in progress with construction workers still putting the final touches to its elegant brick façade.
Kazakhstan's Education Ministry has enlisted the secret police to monitor students studying abroad on a government-sponsored scholarship program. The KNB, successor to the Soviet-era KGB, will ensure the students return home to serve the motherland.
“The ministry, jointly with the National Security Committee [KNB] has fully adopted the 'student abroad' program. The return of our graduates to the homeland will now be strictly tracked,” Education Minister Bakytzhan Zhumagulov told a cabinet meeting in Astana on April 16, News-Kazakhstan reports.
In exchange for the scholarship, which covers all tuition fees and living expenses for the duration of a student's course, alumni of the Bolashak (“Future”) program are expected to return to Kazakhstan to work in any sector for five years after completing their studies.
The minister did not present any figures for non-returnees, so it is unclear how much work is cut out for Big Brother. A 2008 diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks quotes government statistics claiming that only 29 out of some 4,500 students sent abroad on the program by that time had failed to return.
Since its implementation in 1993, Bolashak has sent around 10,000 students from Kazakhstan to educational institutions across the globe. Initially the focus was on undergraduate students, but following the opening of the Nazarbayev University in Astana in 2010, the program has turned its attention to Ph.D. students.
World Cup fever is gripping Uzbekistan, where tempers flared this week as some 1,500 football aficionados queued for tickets for an upcoming group game match at Tashkent’s Bunyodkor Stadium. The BBC's Uzbek Service reported that police used force to disperse the disorderly crowd.
The excitement is understandable: A first for Central Asian football, Uzbekistan's national team stands on the verge of qualifying for the game’s top contest, to be held in Brazil next year.
The Uzbekistan Football Federation website reported the supporters flooded Bunyodkor's ticket offices on March 18, expecting tickets to go on sale at 2 p.m. When ticket windows failed to open, disgruntled fans started revolting. The police moved in with batons and made several arrests, according to the kun.uz website.
The 12news.uz website claimed 6,000 tickets were sold later in the day, but a fan commenting on the story claimed that only 200-500 tickets had been sold after 18.30 and that enthusiasts were unhappy with the process.
Fans will now have to wait until after the Navruz holiday to get their hands on the precious tickets, which will go on sale again March 22. The tickets, which cost between 15,000 and 30,000 sum ($7.50 to $15.00 at the official exchange rate), are limited to two per person.
Wedding Plov comes with slices of kazy (horse sausage) at the Plov Center in Tashkent.
Each day around lunchtime, Tashkent’s plov cognoscenti start gathering in the shadow of the city's landmark TV tower. Theirs is an open secret: the best plov money can buy.
Follow the groups of men, or your nose, to the appropriately named Plov Center for a fix of Uzbekistan's beloved rice-based dish.
In Uzbekistan plov rules supreme – the country practically runs on this hearty staple, which is based on rice simmered for hours in a broth of seared meat chunks, carrots, onions, garbanzos, garlic, dried fruit and spices. The Plov Center does not disappoint. In an outdoor kitchen, five cauldrons bubble away over wood fires, permeating the air with the scent of cooked meat, rice and spices.
Forget about fancy surroundings or over-attentive service: At the Plov Center the food is the draw. The Center's cavernous hall, which can hold about 500 people, is no-frills. Clusters of men, interspersed with a few families, peck at shared platters of plov with forks, though fingers – the traditional utensil – are acceptable.
The Plov Center specializes in variations of Wedding Plov, a rich blend, which, as the name suggests, is usually served on special occasions. You can have Wedding Plov with the meat of your choice – lamb or beef. Slices of kazy, smoked horsemeat sausage, are optional, though no true celebration is complete without a serving of Central Asia’s favorite ungulate.
The platter of plov is accompanied by small roundels of nan bread and a choice of two salads – diced tomatoes and onions or pickled vegetables. Pots of green tea help with digestion.
With prices ranging between 4,500 sums and 8,900 sums ($2.25 - $4.50 at the official exchange rate) for a generous serving, at the Plov Center your belt may need loosening but your finances will not take much of a hit.