Tag Archives: Astana

Astana to Almaty, Kazakhstan

2/20 – Last day in Astana. The temperature got into the positive single digits today! Jim was worried about the effect the jouncing of the train would have on my sore arm, so he found a small pharmacy inside a clothing shop, and asked for pain medication. He came back with a tube that I was hoping was a topical analgesic, but turned out to be flesh-colored makeup to cover bruises, called Bruise Off! Such are the adventures of communication in foreign languages – and thanks to Google Translate for letting us know what we bought.

There is an English language school in our hotel, so we stopped in to talk to the students and teachers. They all agree that English is a good language to know if you want to travel. Someday, they would like to go to London and Paris.

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We negotiated with the front desk clerk to keep our room until 3pm. Our express train leaves at 6:30pm for the overnight ride to Almaty, our last stop in Kazakhstan. We’ll just hang out in the train station until it’s time to board. Here’s the train station in the light of day.image

We boarded our express train, and had our compartment to ourselves. After watching the miles roll by in the dark, we locked the door, got undressed, and turned out the light. At about 10:30pm we heard a furious pounding on the door. Uh oh, guess we’ll be sharing our compartment after all! Jim opened the door, and a woman in furs and high heels rolled a big suitcase into the tiny compartment. She started shrieking in Russian, waving her arms about, until the train attendant came and yanked her out. Evidently, she did not intend to share space with two undressed Americans, and suffer the indignities of climbing into an upper berth. A minute later, a young Kazakh man came in to take her place. He vaulted into the upper bunk, and all was well.

The train arrived in Almaty at 7:30 the next morning. We went to the ticket office to secure our next tickets, to Urumqi, China. We read that we could save 8 hours of this journey by taking a series of buses, but we are comfortable with the train. There was only one ticket window open at this early hour, and the woman, who had no English, communicated that we needed to get our tickets from Window 7, which would open at 8am. When no one opened Window 7 at 8am, we went to the station cafe and had some breakfast, then returned. Window 7 still dark. We asked at all the other windows, and were told by each that Window 7 was the only game in town for tickets to Urumqi. We went to the Information booth to ask when Window 7 would open. The info lady walked with us back to the darkened window and read a note in Russan on the glass. She pointed to where it said 11:30. Oh no! We were punchy from too little sleep, and decided to go find our hotel and come back later. As we were shouldering our packs, she came back with an update – 9:30. It was already 9 o’clock, so we sat back down to wait. Sure enough, at 9:30 the little window opened, and we got our tickets. The train to Urumqi only runs twice a week, and leaves at midnight. As the Chinese New Year celebrations are still going on, we felt lucky to get the tickets.

We walked out onto the street, through the gauntlet of men muttering “taxi” under their breath. Evidently, they are not licensed taxis, so try not to call attention to themselves. Jim chose one, and showed him the address of the hotel and a hand-drawn map showing where it was. It’s been our experience that taxi drivers have no idea of where you want to go, and if you don’t direct them, they are happy to drive around all day, running up the fare.

We arrived at the Mark Inn Hotel, to find a construction zone. The reception area was filled with Sheetrock, and there was hammering, sawing and piles of debris everywhere. There was no one to check us in, and the owner was not on site. One of the workman called him and we spoke on the phone. Seems there was a fire, and they were trying to rebuild. Our room was fine, if you like noise and dust… Always an adventure!

Astana, Kazakhstan

2/17 – It is minus 10 degrees F when we get off the train.  Oh my it is cold!  We stay in the station to buy the tickets for the next leg of our journey.  It’s about 8am by the time we exit the train station, and still pitch dark.  We know that the Hotel Aka is not far from the station, and decide to walk it.  It is snowing, and the streets are covered with snow and ice. Taking baby steps to avoid slipping on the ice, I go down anyway like a ton of bricks with my backpack on.  Left knee, right shoulder.  The air is knocked out of me, and my arm really hurts – I think maybe something is broken.  Jim hauls me up, shoulders my pack as well as his own, and we keep walking, while I make little whimpering sounds.  We stop to ask directions several times, but no one can point out our hotel.  We finally go into the lobby of another hotel and ask.  The lady says we passed it.  I sit down and can walk no further.  Jim asks the lady to call us a taxi, which then takes us back up the street to our hotel, which we had passed in the dark (the entrance was not on the main road, and the hotel name was not displayed, so we walked right by).  I can’t wait until we get back to a country where we can use the GPS on the phone!  Don’t know how people ever navigated without it.

We get up to our room, and Jim pulls up Google Translate to figure out how to say ‘my wife needs a doctor’ in Russian.  I tell him I’m not going anywhere (after two full days on the train) until I’ve had a hot shower.  The shower enables me to assess the damage – knee scraped and swollen, and shoulder painful, but I can move everything.  I don’t think anything is broken, and ask for some ibuprofen and a day of rest.  It continues to snow all day – a good day to stay inside.

2/18 – This morning it is minus 20 degrees!  Jim thinks I must be reading Celsius instead of Fahrenheit.  Nope  – in Celsius it’s minus 29!!  I am feeling better today after a good sleep and ibuprofen every four hours.  My upper arm is one big bruise, and I don’t have range of motion, but it feels like a soft tissue injury, and I just need to give it some time to heal.  Today the sun is out, and it is the day we had earmarked for walking around the city to see all the monuments, but no way am I walking on any more ice!

We have breakfast at the hotel, and lunch at a cafeteria next door where we can point to food instead of trying to interpret a Russian menu.  It is definitely not high cuisine. After lunch we put on our long underwear, bundle up, and Jim asks for a taxi.  We travel to the other side of town, where there are lots of skyscrapers, and a long mall like in Washington D.C., with monuments on both sides. Astana became a capital city in 1997. The word Astana means capital. Most of these buildings have been erected within the last 10 years!

Our first stop is the Palace of Peace and Accord, a conference center built in 2010 to foster communication and peace among religions.  It is shaped like a pyramid, and is supposed to have a stunning room at the top.  image

The taxi drops us off in front, but it has a big promenade drive, and by the time we walk up to the door my mouth is frozen and tears are sprouting in my eyes.  So cold!  And windy!  image

I reach the door first and pull on the handle – locked!  I can see people inside, and bang on the door.  A security guard opens the lock and begrudgingly lets us in.  He motions us over to two young women behind the counter, who tell us in very precise English that the elevators in the building are not working, for an indefinite period, so no tours are being given.  Perhaps we can return next month?  Jim and I give each other the “you’ve got to be kidding” look. We ask if there are stairs we can walk up, but are told no. We ask if we can at least look around the ground floor, and we’re told we could.

The conference center:
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The first floor lobby:image

There is a big staircase, and we start to walk up, when an older, supervisory looking woman stops us and says we can’t proceed without a guide. We say we were told we could walk around. She leaves, and suddenly the two young women from the front desk are marching up the steps – they are now our guides!

They show us the library on the second floor.image

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On the third floor are Egyptian artifact replicas.

Also, a display of native costumes, representing the 106 ethnicities of Kazakhstan:

That’s as far as we got. Here is a window with doves on the staircase:image

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The top of the pyramid is supposed to be breathtaking with these doves on the glass, but we won’t get to see it today.

We thank the young women and ask them to call us a taxi so we can visit the Bayterek. One of the girls tells us it is not too far – we can walk. I say today is much too cold for walking, but they laugh – this is normal weather here – they don’t think it’s cold until it gets to 50 below!

The Bayterek Tower was built in 1997, and represents the folktale in which the bird of happiness lays a golden egg in the branches of a poplar tree.image

We entered on the ground floor and purchased tickets to ride the elevator up to the observation deck. Here we had a 360 view of the city through tinted glass.image

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Beyond the office buildings known as the Golden Beer Cans, you can see the Pyramid we visited earlier.
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There were lots of visitors here, lining up to place their palm in the president’s golden handprint, and snap pix of the views. image

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We hailed another taxi to take us back to the hotel – enough excitement and cold for one day! These are some other notable buildings seen through the cab windows. The very large Hazrat Sultan mosque:image

The Palace of Creativity (looks like a dog bowl):image

Khan Shatyr, the world’s largest shopping mall built inside an inflatable tent:image

Quite the day!

Aktau to Astana, Kazakhstan

2/13 – We stayed only one night at the lovely but high-priced Hotel Harat. After purchasing our train tickets and finding that the train only runs on odd numbered days, we looked for another hotel that was more reasonably priced, so we can settle in for two more nights. We are very pleased with the Silk Way Hotel, which actually offers better amenities, and a wonderful breakfast.

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The currency here is the tenge, and one tenge is equivalent to five cents in US dollars. This has the unfortunate result of making everything sound really expensive while you are trying to work the math – our new hotel costs 14,000 tenge a night, which works out to be about $75.00. Still too expensive, but Kazakhstan is an expensive country, thanks to uranium, oil and gas wealth.

Unlike the wide avenues and glittering buildings of Baku, we don’t see the wealth here. Buildings are flaking and haphazardly painted, streets are rutted, sidewalks broken or just dirt paths. Even the 4 star Hotel Aktau, commanding $400.00 a night, looks on the outside like it has seen better days. We find this strange, as Aktau was only built 40 years ago. Maybe the harsh climate?imageimage

This is literally the city “where the streets have no name”. The buildings are numbered and the areas referred to as micro-districts. Google Maps was confused, and so were we…

That said, the people we met were very nice. A young man encountered us searching in vain for an ATM that would accept our debit card, and walked us to the main street where we found one. An older man tried to direct us to the travel agency without a word of English. Jim had written down several phrases in Kazakh, which turned out to be of no use, as folks here speak Russian. This is the first country where many of the people look Asian, probably a politically incorrect thing to say. 50% of the people here are Kazakh, and 30% are Russian.

The president wants to change the name of the country to Kazakh Eli, as he doesn’t want to be associated with the other, poorer “stans”. He also wants to reintroduce Kazakh as a national language. He moved the capital from Almaty, near Uzbekistan, to Astana, in the middle of the country, a few years ago, and built lots of monuments to attract tourists. He sounds like a guy who gets things done (and he was elected with 95% of the vote)!

2/15 – got up early Sunday morning for the taxi ride to the train station, which is about 12 miles north of town. We have second class tickets for the sleeper to Astana, which will take two full days to arrive. Here is our sunrise.

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The train sleeps four to a cabin, but we are the only ones in our cabin so far. We meet Timon, a full-contact fighter from Azerbaijan, who is on his way to Astana with his team mates for a wrestling match. He showed us the scar on his nose, and helped us practice our Russian phrases.image

These were the views we had today. Flat desert:image

Desert with camels:image

Desert with mountains:image

We stopped occasionally, and more folks got on. image

The scenery showed that it was getting colder as we rode northeast.image

We saw women selling food on the siding right outside the train – we weren’t sure what food options would be available, so we brought our own fruit, water and canned tuna. And cookies. Maybe tomorrow we’ll hop off and see what the women are selling. The train attendant came by once selling socks, and again selling whole smoked fish. Pee Eww!

At 7:30pm we were joined by two young men who had tickets to the top bunks. They had no English, and heaven knows we don’t have enough Russian for a conversation. I hope they don’t snore. I can’t help remembering back in Turkey, where they wouldn’t sell me an empty bunk because there was a man in the section. Now here I am with three men!image

2/16 – the view out the window is just as flat, but now it’s white… I wonder how cold it is out there? imageimage

It’s still 85 in here – slept all night without even a sheet, never mind the thick woolen blankets we were given. Turns out Jim was the only snorer, so I slept pretty well. More people coming down the aisle today, selling clothing and trinkets. The word has gotten out that we are Americans, and several have stopped in to acknowledge that fact. Americans? they say. Da, we say. That’s about it!

Today Jim jumped off the train at lunchtime, and came back with a plastic bag of hot stew – potatoes and what is probably horse meat – definitely not beef or lamb. They eat both horse and camel here…image

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At mid afternoon a Mongolian-looking man came into our cabin and introduced himself as Norman. He said it made his heart happy to see Americans here. He is from Uzbekistan, and worked for 10 years at a gold company. It’s the longest conversation we’ve had all week!

By supper time our cabin-mates were packing up. They will be getting off at the next stop, so we’ll have our little cabin to ourselves tonight.

2/17 – the loudspeaker woke us at 5am – the train is due in to Astana at 6:10, and I guess its going to be on time!image