The train journey from Astana to Ekaterinburg takes 24 hours. And it is not nearly as nice or modern as the express from Almaty to Astana. Originally I thought I might continue with additional trains all the way to Moscow, but I quickly changed my mind. Maybe the Trans-Siberian wouldn’t be my thing.
The night before, I had met, in the hostel in Astana, a Kazakh guy named Oskar, who was very inquisitive about my ultimate purpose in life (цель), and in disbelief that I couldn’t provide an adequate answer. (It didn’t help that we were speaking as much Russian as English as we were equally bad at each other’s languages.) Anyway, his proximate purpose in Astana was to collect a certificate from the Minister of Health for his eight years of service as a firefighter, having risen to the rank of captain. Why do I tell you this? Well, because (at his insistence!) this happened…
On the train I had a top bunk, because all of the bottom ones were sold out. I quickly figured out why. If you are on top, then other than awkwardly sitting on someone else’s spot, all you can do is lie down (under the storage rack 2 feet above your head as you lie there, preventing sitting up). Add to this the constant fear of falling off of the narrow surface and the fact that the conductors yell at you if you walk around in the corridors, and it makes for a long 24 hours.
The Ekaterinburg train station had an Orthodox chapel! I later noticed that the airports in Ekaterinburg and Moscow do too.
Upon arrival, I went relatively directly to my hotel, but I noticed a memorial on the spot where Tsar Nicholas II was killed by the Bolsheviks in 1918. A few people still leave flowers there.
I got up before 6:00 to take a day trip to Lake Burabay, about 270 km north of Astana, with Philip, a German guy who I met the night before at the hostel. Philip is a surgeon (not finished with medical school, but that’s not a concern in Kazakhstan) who was taking a short break from working in a hospital in Almaty. (Even the best hospitals in the country, he said, are awful – medical knowledge, practice, equipment, etc. are all fifty years out of date.)
The hardest part of the travel was actually getting to the bus station, as the city bus that we rode, besides taking seemingly the most circuitous route imaginable, stalled at least five times before settling into a top speed of about ten miles per hour, and then the engine died altogether. We filed out, onto some unknown street, being handed back our 60 tenge (about 30 cents) fare as we left. We walked the rest of the way.
We had feared that shared taxis to Burabay would be hard to find, but at the bus station, we were immediately accosted by no fewer than four drivers shouting “Burabay?!” at us.
Once in town, it was a short walk – though we found it by chance – to an extensive nature reserve around two lakes, with trails more or less circling them. The shore looked and felt a lot like Lake Willoughby in Vermont.
The second lake, north of the first, has a peninsula in it and a big sand beach. The (fully clothed) people on the far left of this panorama were offended by my taking their picture (they were really fast to notice, given that it was my phone and I was only pointing it in their direction for a second from pretty far away – they certainly weren’t the main subject!), saying, according to Philip’s translation, that they felt violated. In this reduced version you can’t identify them, so whatever. We had a conversation afterwards (in Russian). They refused to believe that I wasn’t an undercover journalist. After all, why would a tourist with an iPhone come to a beach?
And that, my friends, is Burabay. You should really come there.
After the car ride back, I deliberated about where to go the next day. I settled on Ekaterinburg, Russia; now the only thing was to buy a train ticket for the 24-hour journey, which, if you don’t have a CIS credit card, means finding an aviakassa at which to do so in person. I took two buses across town to the only one still open (thank goodness for Yandex, the Russian competitor to Google), as seats were quickly running out (what with the people who did have local credit cards). But not before being asked, “Девушка нада?” (“Need a girl?”) by multiple rather elderly ladies on the street by the bus station.
Since the route back to the hostel went along the Bulvar Nurzhol, I walked. Everything is lit up at night!