Day Fifty-Three: Astana

In Astana, the first step was to get to my hostel. Easier said than done, as I took the wrong bus from the train station; didn’t have enough Kazakh money and had to find an ATM; and the door was locked and the proprietor of the hostel took an hour to come and open it for me (I never did see him or any other staff again)… Whatever it lacked, the hostel made up for in location. I strolled almost straight out to the Bulvar Nurzhol, which is a pedestrian plaza leading from the Presidential Palace past the Bayterek (a tower and monument) to a shopping center, the Khan Shatyr, lacking nothing in extravagant glass skyscrapers and gardens and fountains along the way. IMG_6613 (1280x853)

The boulevard
The boulevard

IMG_6621 (1280x853)

These completely artificial objects are everywhere
These completely artificial objects are everywhere
Khan Shatyr mall
Khan Shatyr mall

Asel is a Kazakh friend of mine who I hadn’t seen since high school, when she was an exchange student. She lives in Astana now, and we met up and she showed me around for the day.

Our first stop: Hazrat Sultan Mosque. It’s the biggest mosque in Kazakhstan and all Central Asia, and it was only built in the last few years. (Mosques with minarets are hard to photograph… sorry for the angle!)

IMG_6667 (1280x853)Asel assured me that she had seen tourists there before, but none were inside when we visited - only people at prayer. The majority of the area was men-only. I took a few photos and left quickly – I wasn’t at all sure my presence would be tolerated for long.

Inside the mosque
Inside the mosque. This front area was mostly empty and I wondered if there was a reason for it.

One of Astana’s more curious attractions is the Palace of Peace and Accord, which is a pyramid-shaped building inside of which, apparently, the dear president holds conferences with diverse religious and ethnic leaders every few years. It’s got interesting architecture, and some offices inside, but I have to wonder about its stated purpose. You can go inside on a paid, Russian-language tour only.

Finding the entrance to the pyramid was actually a challenge. It's underground.
Finding the entrance to the pyramid was actually a challenge. It’s underground.
Meeting room at the top of the pyramid
Meeting room at the top of the pyramid

To change things up, next we went to an aquarium. There were a lot of fish… including the famed золотая рыбка.

IMG_1999 (1280x960)

 

And finally, a visit to Astana wouldn’t be complete without a walk through the central park and along the river.

IMG_6775 (1280x853)

 

 

 

Posted from Moscow, Moscow, Russia.

Days Fifty-One – Fifty-Two: Almaty to Astana

[Time for some long-overdue posts! I've been writing some of this as I go.]

The last couple of days in Almaty were relatively uneventful – but not completely uneventful, as Nazerke invited us all over for dinner, which she and her parents insisted was simply required when having guests, and we tried the Kazakh national dish beshbarmak, composed largely of horse meat, which was excellent.

I took an overnight express train to Astana. This train is an exception to the rest of the Soviet rail system, being designed/built by a Spanish company and fairly new and clean, and containing a restaurant and bar car, and comparatively comfortable bunk beds (see later for what I’m comparing them to). I knew in theory that it wasn’t normal for this rail network, but only truly understand that now, as I sit writing about it while aboard a train from Astana to Ekaterinburg, Russia (currently stopped at Kurgan), which I shall have to describe in more detail later. The other trains from Almaty to Astana take about 24 hours.

Train tracks in Almaty
Train tracks in Almaty

It’s at least sort of true what they say about trains in this region: although there were no endless vodka shots (supposedly this is a common sticky situation as it’s made hard to say no), people are talkative. Through the language barrier (meaning about 75% in English, 25% in Russian), I made one friend and also met one less than savory character. The friend is a Kazakh girl, Venera, who also just finished university; she might be reading this, since we became Facebook friends! The other guy, from Siberia (where I now am), scoffed at my claims of being a tourist, pointing to his own hefty hiking boots and swearing at me in Russian, and repeatedly told me to flirt with Venera (after having, as it seemed to me, tried to do so himself and been rebuffed).

Venera was amused that my name was Michael. “Michael” is the stereotypical American boy, she said, the way that Natasha is the Russian girl. I asked what the equivalent for an American girl was. Jessica, she said. I guess it makes sense, because a plurality of my friends at Yale are named Jessica!

Astana train station
Astana train station

When the train journey was over, it was time to find my hostel in Astana. To be continued…

Posted from Moscow, Moscow, Russia.

Day Fifty: Shymbulak

Today Nazerke and her sister took us to Shymbulak. This is a ski resort in the winter, but the high mountains just outside of town are just as amazing to see in the summer.

We rode several cable cars (gondolas) to the top of the ski area – first to the lodge, then to the very highest part of the ski trails.

View from one of the cable cars
View from one of the cable cars
Looking back towards the city
Looking back towards the city

When we got to the final stop, the view was magnificent – but we wanted more. Sam, Nazerke, and I climbed what the GPS said was 120 meters higher up a steep slope and took it in for a while. Our top altitude was 3336 meters, or 10,945 feet. It was hard to catch my breath during all that exercise.

IMG_6591 (1280x853)

IMG_6595 (1280x853)

IMG_6600 (1280x853)

Only a panorama can begin to do the place justice.

IMG_1941 (2560x559)

 


This is the kind of thing I bought my GPS for. Here’s the track.


 

As an aside, I’m posting this on battery power using cellular data, because the electricity has gone out at our hostel. This is the first I’ve encountered an outage on my whole trip.

Posted from Almaty, Almaty Province, Kazakhstan.