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Whales and WW1 – what’s the link?

I have been reading Ranulph Fiennes fascinating book, Cold – somewhat appropriate mid way through a Kazakh winter. Amongst the many parts of his adventures that made me go ‘wow’ there were also many thing I didn’t know about. One of these things was the link between whales and WW1. Ranulph had been talking about the development of the whaling industry over time and the impact it had had on the wildlife and the humans involved.

“During the First World War, when humans turned on themselves the same destructive energies that they had once directed at the whales, the demand for Antarctic whales increased. It was the first ‘modern’ war, and the large-scale use of artillery bombs stoked the world demand for glycerine, the derived primarily from whale oil, to make explosives.”

The glycerine was a by-product of the soap industry – the soap having been made from whale oil. The glycerine was combined with nitric acid creates a liquid explosive that makes a very Big Bang. It was also used in the making of cordite that, in 1889 replaced gunpowder giving a less corrosive bang for guns.

Whale oil also proved a very effective lubricant for rifles and other military machine being non-corrosive and it’s ability to keep liquid even in low temperatures. It was used to allow jute fibres to be spun and then used to make the sandbags for trench warfare. The oil proved an effective treatment for trench foot. It was used as fuel in trench stoves. Whale grease was used by the first pilots to protect their faces.

On the home-front, whale oil was used to make margerine when the supply of fats and butter became in short supply.


How cold is cold?

On this, the coldest day so far this Astana winter I started to wonder about cold, why do we have three different scales to measure it?

Daniel Gabriel Farenheit, created the temperature scale named after him in 1724. The scale is now defined by two fixed points: freezing of water at 32F and boiling water at 212F. Today, in the majority of countries this scale has been replaced by the Celsius scale – except for the US!

Celsius or centigrade? Before being renamed in 1948 to honour Swedish astronomer Anders Celsius who created this temperature scale in 1742, the unit was called centigrade from the Latin centum meaning 100 and gradus, steps. This scale is now based on 0C for the freezing point of water and 100C for the boiling point of water – originally it was the other way round.

The Kelvin scale is named after William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin a Belfast born and Glasgow educated engineer and physician. His search for an ‘infinite cold’ at the end of the 18th century lead to the absolute scale with the kelvin being the unit of temperature measurement in science.  The Kelvin and Celsius scales are used together in science and engineering – temperatures given in degrees Celsius and intervals given in kelvins. Absolute zero 0K is -273C – where all things freeze!


Toothpaste freezes at -60C…

There are two certainties in life

This evening I had the pleasure of listening to Shirish and Ruweida Soni speak at a meeting of the International Rotary Club of Astana. Shirish is in the last month of his four year long appointment as the South African Ambassador to Kazakhstan and gave a truly inspirational talk about his life growing up in a divided country. He spoke of his time supporting the underground ANC movement and of his fight to regain his spirit after his arrest and months of solitary confinement and torture. Though the support and encouragement of Ruweida he was able to rebuild physical and mentally despite doctors lack of hope. He also talked of what could have been a life ending experience of when he and his wife, awoke at gunpoint as their home was burgled by the very people he had almost given his life to for their right to freedom. Here he was the support for Ruweida nursing her back to health after this devastating experience.

Shirish, a Hindu and his wife Ruweida, a muslim have been married for many years and have united their families through their love and respect for each others religion. Shirish shared how he had been lost for words when had had first asked Ruweida on a date and, certain that he would never find anyone as beautiful and wonderful, asked her to marry him on their second date: they were married ten short days after they had that first date. Now with two grandchildren and another on the way they have come through some very challenging times yet their love and admiration for each other is evident in a room full of strangers.

Both Shirish and Ruweida are both passionate about meditation and a follower of the visionary Ravi Shankar. He encouraged all of us to make sure that at least once a week we make ourselves a VIP – taking time to sit quietly, relax, recharge and take care of own wellbeing. He had at the beginning of his talk said that he would share a tool with us. This tool was about how by taking care of ourselves we would then be in a better place to take care of others. He highlighted the eight areas that he and his wife see as the key areas of their lives they work on to ensure they have synergy:

Spiritual, Mental Health, Physical Health, Career, Finance, Charity, Recreation, Family

All are interlinked and whatever goal you may have, to achieve it fully all eight areas will be involved. Here I am at the start of a new chapter in my life that focuses heavily on my career but I will need to ensure that I do take some time for myself to preserve my spiritual and mental health and make time to exercise for my physical health. As I build a new life here in the city that is my home for at least the next couple of years I need to build a new extended family through different activities for recreation whilst maintaining my close family. Finance is necessary to do enable me to do all of the above to a certain extent but it will be my time that I will give to charity. More valuable than money, time is giving of you personally. Sharing your experiences, supporting others and being involved in making connections to make life that little bit better than it was before.

Shirish refers to the butterfly effect – when we make changes in even a small way to our lives and that of others who know what the repercussions and ongoing effects could go.

There are only two certainties in life: we will all die sometime and everything changes!




Kazakh National Days – a lot to celebrate!

Since 1991 the country, under their first President, Nursultan Nazarbayez either directly or indirectly has been instrumental in making Kazakhstan the nation it is today:

  • First former Soviet state to become nuclear free
  • Country elected to the UN Human’s Rights Council
  • Election of hosting the 2017 World Expo
  • Country became chair of the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe
  • Country chaired the Organisation for the Islamic Community
  • Part of the World Trade Organisation
  • First Asian country to earn a credit rating by Standard and Poor’s
  • Pay back all IMF loans in 7 years
  • Nurture an Olympic Team that would win 7 gold medals at London 2012 Olympics


Kazakhstan has every right to be proud of it’s achievements both as a nation and as a part of the global economy and to acknowledge some very important cultural, religious and political landmarks with national holidays:

  • New Year, January
  • Orthodox Christmas Day, January
  • International Women’s Day – March
  • Nauryz, March – also known as Iranian New year this festival marks the vernal equinox and the start of spring. It has been celebrated for over 3000 years in Central Asia and following independence became an important part of the annual calendar. The festival of Nauryz has, since 2009, been on the UNESCO’s list of Intangible Heritage and Humanity events.
  • Unity Day , May – with over 131 ethnicities represented in this diverse nation a day to celebrate those who make up the nation of Kazakhstan is a colourful and exiting time
  • Defender of the Fatherland, May – A time to pay tribute to those who dedicate and have dedicated their lives to protect their native lands
  • Victory Day, May – This day marks the unconditional surrender of Germany in Moscow at the end of WW2 and to remember those who fell in this conflict
  • Day of the Capital, July – A day celebration of Astana, the capital since 1997
  • Constitution Day, August – Marking the day that the independent peoples of Kazakhstan approved the new draft consitution in 1995
  • Kurban Bairam – Islamic festival also known as Eid al-Adha
  • President’s Day , December – celebrating the election of the first president in 1991 and acknowledging his achievements
  • Independence Day, December – Marking independence from the Soviet Union in 1991


Christmas Cracked!

The Easter Eggs are on the shelves and hot-cross buns are back in the bakers despite it being 12th Night so I guess that we are now in the run up to Christmas!

So as we count down the 360 days until Christmas I thought I would do a little research into the myths, mis-truths, history and facts that make up the festival that never seems to end.

“Four calling birds” from that very popular Christmas song is a misquote – it should read “Four colly birds”. Colly birds are another name for blackbirds. The song can be traced back to the times of Henry VIII when it is said to have been sung by Catholic children in Protestant times. Each verse is said to be code for different religious messages.

The Twelve Days of Christmas themselves are the days from Christmas to Epiphany so from sundown on 24th December until sundown on 5th January. The feast of Epiphany is said to mark the arrival of the wise men from the East and is celebrated on 6th January.

It was  Pope Julius 1 who, in the 4th century, declared 25th December as the date of the birth of Jesus. This date coincided with Winter Solstice and return of the sun Pagan festivals and it was hoped that it would replace previous celebrations.

In 1752 Great Britain and America moved from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar despite many other countries had been using this calendar since Pope Gregory XIII introduced it in 1582. Today some Christians still celebrate Christmas as it would have been in the Julian calendar – around 7th January.

The very popular Christmas song Jingle Bells was written for Thanksgiving in 1857. On 16th December, 1965 it became the first Christmas song to be sung in space thanks to the crew of Gemini 6.

It is commonly said that Oliver Cromwell banned Christmas in 1647. However, it appears that it was the excessive feasting, frivolity and merriment that he banned considering it immoral on a Holy Day. This ban was not removed until 1660.

There is another law that has not been repealed, that of the Holy Days and Fasting Days Act of 1551. The act states that all must attend a Christmas service and that no vehicle must be used to get to the service.

The abbreviation of Christmas to Xmas is common and often thought to be disrespectful. The letter X is the Greek abbreviation for Christ so perhaps not so disrespectful after all.

The first Christmas cards were commissioned by a civil servant, Sir Henry Cole, in 1843. The picture on the card was that of a family drinking wine. It was not until 1915 that Hallmark begun producing Christmas cards commercially.

To date, the best selling Christmas song is White Christmas written by Iriving Berlin and sung by Bing Crosby.

Christmas Pudding was originally a soup made with raisins and wine.

Boxing Day, the day after Christmas Day is so called as it was the day when money collected in church alms boxes was given to the village poor.

The average Christmas Tree is 15 years old.

Christmas Dinner in Early England was a pigs head smothered in mustard. In the Middle Ages swans and peacocks were the choice of the wealthy and were part of a lavish meal. The birds would be basted with saffron and melted butter.

There are two sets of Christmas Islands: one in the Pacific Ocean, the other in the Indian Ocean.

Mince pies date back to the 16th century. It is thought that the original filling recipe of meat, dried fruit and spices was brought back by the Crusaders. One a day should be eaten during the 12 Days of Christmas to bring good luck in the next 12 months.

Postmen in Victorian Britain wore red uniforms and were often referred to as robins. This may be why the robin is such a popular feature on Christmas Cards.

…must be time to get on with the Christmas shopping now!











Whakatane is the kind of place where people out walking along the river greet you and when the fire siren sounds everyone stops, looks at each other and scans the skyline quizzically. It has only one ‘dollar’ shop (which is having a sale) but more coffee shops, hair and beauty salons and clothes shops on it’s high street than I have seen in a very long time.

According to Maori oral legend the area around Whakatane has been a fortified village since the first Polynesian settlers arrived around 1200. It was an incident which happened some 200 years after these first settlers arrived which gave the settlement it’s name. When the Mataatua waka (sea faring canoe) arrived bearing the first kumara the canoe was left on the shoreline but began to drift in the changing tide. One of the village woman had gone against tradition and lead the other woman folk in paddling the canoe to safety calling out ‘Kai whakatane au i ahua’ – I will act like a man.

After European settlers arrived Whakatane became an important centre for ship building and trade in the 1880’s. In the 1930’s a paper mill opened which along with beer production is still part of the local economy alongside agriculture, forestry and tourism.

In the 1990’s a few North Island brown kiwis were found in the scenic reserve on the hill. The Kiwi Project was set up to protect these endangered birds leading to Whakatane being more recently known as the Kiwi Capital of the World.

Russian Banya experience – Moscow August 2003

I came across some travel notebooks from previous adventures. This is the second from a trip to Russia visiting an old school friend who was working there.

Gypsy cabs – Lada car owners making extra cash.

400 roubles gets you a cubicle for clothing – all 5 of us in one. Into main area – marble like benches, large plastic bowls. Towels and modesty off and shower. Into hot room lined with pine, pine steps and staging – heat rises. Varying sizes and shapes – many with super tans. Women in charge opens metal door in the wall to the fires of hell and adds water to raise the temperature and humidity. She throws essential oils at and around us. After a while more water is added to the hot coals and the humidity soars – all bar the most hardy exit fast. Head to the ‘pool’. Very cold, a shock but welcome exhilarating experience after next hot session. In main hall pampering begins. Body scrubs, face masks, hair conditioning, scrubbing. Option to gently and not so gently hit all over with ‘bring your own’ birch and juniper branches. Silky smooth skin and clear nasal passages. Must be a welcome escape and relief from the bitter winter cold. Fur coats and jackets abandoned for towels and tea-cosy hats. Coming out would be awful.