Well, oil be ... Kazakhs turn to Brits for overhaul tips
Temperatures in winter can drop to -45 degrees Celsius, its dubious democracy is fledgling at best and its authoritarian leader names almost everything after himself.
Despite these drawbacks, British teachers have answered a call from Kazakhstan's president Nursultan Nazarbayev for support in overhauling the country's entire education system. Indeed, the huge central Asian nation is hoping to attract a wave of Britons to work in its schools.
British teachers are already heading to the landlocked country to work in the first seven of a new network of 20 elite government grammars, set up using wealth generated by large gas and oil reserves. Experienced teachers are being targeted to teach their subjects while mentoring Kazakh teachers and helping to develop the curriculum. About 20 British teachers started work there last September, but the figure is expected to rise to 80 a year from August.
The authorities hope that they will be lured by attractive packages including free accommodation, two free flights a year and wages of between $4,000 and $5,000 a month.
President Nazarbayev - who has named the new Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools after himself - is hoping that the British influence will help to move the education system away from old-fashioned Soviet teaching techniques and towards a modern curriculum taught in Kazakh, Russian and English.
Cambridge International Examinations (CIE), the international arm of exam board OCR, was contracted last year to advise and support the government on the development of the curriculum. As part of a related teacher training project, the University of Cambridge's Faculty of Education is developing in-service training programmes for Kazakh teacher trainers, with the aim of introducing more critical thinking, interactive teaching and learning and the use of assessment.
"The Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools are creating, with our support since 2011, a trilingual education system which combines the best traditions of Kazakh and world education systems," said a CIE spokeswoman.
Pupils at the new intellectual schools will be expected to progress to Kazakhstan's new university, the imaginatively named Nazarbayev University, set up in partnership with University College London.
The news comes after British independent boarding school Haileybury raised the profile of Kazakhstan by opening its first overseas branch in the city of Almaty in 2008. Its second opened in the capital, Astana, last August. Recruiters of teachers of English as a foreign language have reported a surge of interest from Kazakh employers looking for English instructors, and more teachers have been enquiring about the country. A growing number of international schools in Kazakhstan (there are now 16) are also fuelling the jobs boom.
Richard Evans, who was a science teacher in the UK for 25 years, took a job at the Nazarbayev Intellectual School in the town of Kokshetau last September. He works alongside Kazakh teachers, leading professional development sessions and supporting them in teaching, planning and assessment.
"The students have a positive work ethic here, allowing teachers to concentrate on teaching and to spend less time on class management," Mr Evans said. "The workload is less than in the UK. We work hard and are in school from 8am to at least 5pm, but the demands of producing reams of paperwork that are rarely looked at are not as great.
"The local teachers are keen to develop their teaching skills and have been very supportive and friendly."
Diane Jacoutot, general manager of recruiter Teachanywhere, one of the companies hired to find staff for the schools, said: "Nobody really knows very much about Kazakhstan. You mention it on the phone and you get a sort of silence.
"It is cold there, but having been there, you can see there's so much going on and the people are warm and welcoming."
Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, said teachers gaining jobs abroad should show their union their contract. She added: "If the number of teachers going to Kazakhstan is increasing, that is a sign of the times. The government is driving teachers out with its policies at a time when it should be seeking to retain the best ones."
Landlocked Kazakhstan is riding a wave of oil wealth that has led to expensive and flamboyant building projects reminiscent of Dubai at the height of its powers.
While the Arabs built an indoor ski slope in the desert, the Kazakhs have built a shopping centre with a sandy beach in defiance of the numbing winter cold. Other erections include a 300-foot statue of a poplar tree embracing an egg.