Longtime Almaty resident becomes the first Kazakh to earn master-tour-guide status in London16 april 2015, 15:48
Ainura Bertram has become the first Kazakh to earn London’s most prestigious tour-leader distinction: a coveted Blue Badge that designates her a master guide.
What’s the big deal, you say? A tour guide is a tour guide.
Not in Britain.
Getting a Blue Badge include two years of study, 11 non-essay exams, three essay exams, seven practical-knowledge tests and a major paper to write.London is full of landmarks. Behind the Lambeth Bridge over the Thames River is the Houses of Parliament building. Photo courtesy of Ainura Bertram.
When Ainura finished the course, she joined a select group of the most knowledgeable guides qualified to take visitors to and explain London’s landmarks, history and culture.
“The Blue Badge exams covered history, literature, music, art, culture, politics, education – you name it,” she said in an interview. “By the end of this course you know most of what’s important about the British Isles.”
She combined the Blue Badge certificate she was awarded in June of 2014 with her English-language skills to jump right into leading tours.
Her timing was perfect. In the summer of 2014, London eclipsed Paris as the world’s most visited city, attracting 4.9 million tourists in the July-to-September high season.
Most of the tourists Ainura has guided have been Russians, some of them arriving on cruise ships, she said. Two travel agencies she’s developed a relationship with have given her the bulk of that business.
She also gives tours in English to Britons, Americans and others.
The longtime Almaty resident, who married a Brit, said she’d love to guide more Kazakhs. She hopes a website she’s building will help spread the word about her services in Kazakhstan and elsewhere.
In the meantime, if you’d like an ace guide in London, you can reach Ainura on her Facebook page, at the email address firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling her at (+44) 7789 523115.
The world-history program that Ainura pursued when she was an undergraduate at Kazakh National University in Almaty included a strong English component. That made her a hot commodity with international companies when she graduated in 1992, as Kazakhstan was just opening up to overseas investors.
She worked for the Swedish mining company Atlas, the Australian mining company Moonstone and then the American tobacco company Philip Morris before marrying British public-relations consultant David Bertram in 2001.
The two settled in London, where they had daughters Jamilya, now 11, and Tomiris, 7.
Ainura took a break from work for 10 years to raise the girls. When Tomiris reached school age, she decided to return to the work force.
Ainura Bertram with daughters Jamilya, 11, top, and Tomiris, 7. Ainura waited until Tomiris was in school before starting her two-year tour-guide course. Photo courtesy of Ainura Bertram.
She had grown to love London as much as David did, but she felt she didn’t know enough about the sprawling city.
She also wanted a job that would fit her inquisitive nature and outgoing personality. “I’m a people person,” she said. “I like people. I like company.”
Ainura also wanted a profession that gave her the flexibility to deal with personal and family matters when necessary, particularly her daughters’ needs.
Tour guiding was a great choice. Ainura wanted to be the best at it, which in her mind meant earning a Blue Badge.
Not only does a badge mark you as an elite tour guide, but badge holders are the only guides allowed in some of London and southeast England’s most popular venues: Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower of London and Windsor Castle.
Other important venues, such as the British Museum, don’t require guides to be badge holders, but give preference to Blue Badgers, Ainura said.Ainura Bertram, standing alongside Westminster Abbey, is the first Kazakh to win master-tour-guide status in London. Photo courtesy of Ainura Bertram.
Non-badgers do not receive specific training about such storied venues as the British Museum. In contrast, Ainura became an expert on the museum through her Blue Badge studies and “by spending almost every weekend there while I was taking my course.”
Obtaining a comprehensive knowledge of the museum was a challenge, she said, because it’s massive and its exhibits far-ranging -- “from the Vikings to Southeast Asian Buddhism.”
When Ainura started leading tours in June of 2014, demand for her services was brisk. She sometimes found herself working 10-hour days back to back.
After the high season ended in September, she was still guiding visitors two to three times a week during October and November. The winter, as always, has generated fewer guide requests. The work will pick up again in March, she anticipates.
Visitors can request a half-day or full-day tour, Ainura said.
A half day typically consists of a walk through one section of London and a visit to one site – say, Buckingham Palace. A full day typically covers walks through more than one section and two landmarks.
Some travel agencies try to cram too much in to a tour, Ainura said.
For example, they schedule visits to three sites in one day that are far apart from each other.
“Ideally I would prefer to help visitors get more out of their visit by taking them to fewer sights while giving them a deeper and richer experience at each venue,” Ainura said.
In many cases Ainura has a tour in mind when she meets a group she’ll be guiding.
But sometimes visitors make requests that cause her to alter her game plan on the fly.
“I once was a guide for a man who loved horses,” she said. “He wanted to see the Hyde Park stables, so I adjusted my tour plan to meet his request.”The Queen’s guard at Buckingham Palace, one of the sights Ainura Bertram takes visitors to see. Photo courtesy of Ainura Bertram.
Ainura has learned that visitors from different parts of the world want different tour experiences.
American tourists are particularly intrigued with British royalty, and want to know the historical connections between landmarks they’re visiting and royals associated with them.
British tourists already know those broad-brush connections. They want deeper knowledge of the vicissitudes of British history and the personalities that played key roles in it.
Many Russians Ainura has worked with want to know as much about contemporary London as its history
A typical party of Russians will not only compare the British Museum with the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. They will also want to know the name of a good fish restaurant, where to buy souvenirs, where to purchase diamonds, and, in the case of the wealthy, the names of top schools to send their children to.
Aithough she’s been guiding less than a year, Ainura has already had funny and romantic moments on her watch.
A funny moment came when she was giving nine Russian women a tour of the British museum.
They came to the Egyptian exhibit, which includes a number of mummies.
Ainura began explaining how a body was mummified.
With most of her tour groups, when she gets to the part about a person’s brain being removed by being sucked out through their nose, most visitors go “oooooh” in disgust.
But none of the Russian women flinched. Curious, Ainura asked why.
“We’re doctors,” one replied. “We’ve seen it all.”Ainura Bertram in front of a railing that marks an entrance to the Tube, London’s subway system. Britons and visitors alike use the underground to see the sights. Photo courtesy of Ainura Bertram.
The romantic moment came when Ainura was leading a group to the London Eye, a 135-meter-tall Ferris wheel built in 1999 that offered the highest view of London until 2013, when the 308-meter-tall Shard skyscraper opened. Tourism officials have been surprised but delighted to see the London Eye become the city’s most popular tourist attraction, drawing 3.5 million visitors a year.
One day Ainura and a Russian tour group she was leading piled into one of the London Eye capsules for a view of the city.
A young couple who was not part of their entourage boarded as well.
When the capsule stopped at the top of the Ferris wheel so the group could see the view, the young man got on his knees and proposed to his partner, who accepted.
Ainura’s party loved it, oohing and aahing over how adorable the moment was.
Ainura’s dream is to continue building her tour business, enlightening visitors with her knowledge and giving them unforgiveable moments like the one on the London Eye.
London is the city outside their homeland that Kazakhs say they most want to visit, live in, study in and work in.
When word about Ainura’s tour-guiding skills gets around Kazakhstan, it’s a good bet she’ll add a new layer to her business.