Archive for the ‘Kazakhstan’ Category

Two Pretty-Good Days

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

Sunday dawned (02/08), we tried to find a church and, when we did find one, although Russian speaking, we were turned away. I suppose we didn’t meet the customary dress code and also didn’t speak enough of the language to talk our way into the service. We strolled the city, walked through a few marketplaces where Matt looked for a t-shirt with odd sayings on it, and explored the Western part of the new old city which we hadn’t seen there. It was on a road in that section that we found CafeMax, a real Internet Cafe with free wifi for its customers! The chai was a bit more expensive, but we sat down and hunkered down for the long haul, we had a lot to do having not had internet for any length of time since Riga, a week before.

We updated the blog, got closer to caught up passing the computer between Matt and I, and got caught up with correspondences. Then, at 1500 Matt went to meet up with James and I finished up another post. We spent the rest of the day swapping stories with James. From being present at the recent riots in China which made international news, to driving a motor scooter across India, James had plenty to tell. We talked late into the evening over cups of chai and made our way back North to toward the train station. James was staying in the station hotel and so we were headed in the same direction. We stopped for some shish-kabaps served straight from the grill at the side of the road and hit the hay a bit after 2300 that evening, after being informed that we needed to checkout by 11 the next morning. No problem.

Monday morning, we left the hotel and headed South again, hunted for some cheap electronics and, finding none, hung out in the nice park on the other side of the river where we watched both a wedding and construction project try to take place simultaneously right next to each other. We cooked up some food and headed north, spending the rest of the rather drizzly and overcast day in a nice little restaurant with 80KT chai called Samovar. That evening, we stopped by CafeMax again for an hour or two and then headed back to the train station.

It was late by the time we got back, after midnight, and we were expecting to be able to rent the room for 12 hours, as had been the custom, the lady at the desk, however, had apparently not been having a very nice day and had decided to surprise us by imposing a rule of 0900 checkout, regardless of check-in time, on repeat customers who had been planning on giving them a glowing review. We had no idea why and tried to explain our position, asking if she could give us a discount then, asking if we had somehow offended them or accidentally broken something in our room. Nothing, just a stolid insistence that there was nothing she could do. We finally got to our room after 0100 and an unpleasant discussion.

The next day (04/08) we awoke unhappily and were out of our room by 0900 as requested… It was drizzling outside and looked as though it might rain at any moment. We didn’t really want to be out there and had already seen most of what Astana had to offer, so we hung out in the train-station’s waiting room and enjoyed free wifi which we had not noticed before. The only problem came when Matt tried to plug in the computer and found that the station administration ladies were adamantly against anyone using their electricity. It seemed like it would be another situation like the night before where, for no reason at all, paying customers would be denied what they wished, for no good reason. That’s when I decided to stop being pushed around, grabbed my train ticket—dated for later that day—and approached the lady who had just unceremoniously and with no regard for our pleading questions, yanked our power cord out of an otherwise unused plug.

I approached with a bit of trepidation and politely explained my position. She had no idea what I was saying, but was apparently impressed by my politeness and took me to a phone where she got her friend who spoke English to translate for us. I was informed that the plugs in the waiting area were for “technical use only” but that Irena, the lady, would find a place for me to work. She did! A nice couch in a little, out-of-the-way waiting room apparently reserved for polite people with tickets. Matt and I switched off using the internet for a while and, when I wasn’t working online trying to trouble-shoot a website issue that had developed, I had a nice discussion with Alexey, a man who explained his job by informing me that he answered the radio and kicked drunks out of the station.

We talked for a few hours about politics, international relations, work, money, our families, and life in Kazakhstan. He knew no English, but with my phrasebook and my limited Russian we had a good conversation. That evening, Matt and I went and hung out in a little cafe in the train station and watched a volleyball match between Spain and Russia before boarding our train for the longish drive to Omsk.

Registering with the Police

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

Our second day in Astana (31/07) was also the last day of July. We looked back on our more than three months of travel and realised how long we had been gone. This feeling of a bit of homesickness was enhanced by the fact that we didn’t really know what we were doing in Astana.

Our first task, however, on this Friday was to get our visas registered before the government had any reason to have problems with us. We found a booth in front of the train station which looked official and had the word bureau on it in Russian. We went to the booth, tried to inform the lady inside, who did not look official, of our needs and were told to wait a few minutes (another Russian phrase I had learned, between Matt and I we had a good dozen words and phrases!). We waited and soon a lady came and hurried is out of the booth, onto a bus (60KT per person, not bad) and we drove downtown.

We got out in the middle of the new old city (the Soviet-looking part) and walked a block to what proclaimed itself in small English letters to be the Migration Office of Kazakhstan Police. This is what we had been looking for! Inside, our friend sat us down and gave our passports to a police officer. That police officer directed her to another room, where she disappeared for a few minutes and came back, rather agitated. Apparently the Migration Office could not register our passports because we were tourists, not actually migrants, at least that’s how we understood it. Our guide then took us down the street and we walked a bit looking for, from what we could understand, a tourist agency where they could register our visas.

Apparently, and to our great surprise, we were expected to have an arrangement with a tourist agency when we requested our visas (hence the confusion and concern of the border guard) and that agency would then register us upon our arrival in Kazakhstan. We had not heard any such thing before applying for our visas and therefore were at a bit of a loss when we heard this. We did eventually find a tourist agency and someone who spoke excellent English. She explained the situation to us but told us she couldn’t register us. She did, however, point us to an agency that could. We made our way there with our guide (we had decided at this point to offer her 1000KT for her selfless assistance). At that agency we handed over our visas and 6000KT, got an official receipt, and left, thanked our guide and offered her the 1000KT Matt and I had agreed on.

She refused the money, but not because she was too kind, but because she claimed we had somehow agreed to pay 10000KT for our visas, 6000 of which was to go to the travel agency and 4000 was to go to her. We understood that it would have taken significantly longer than the half-hour it did take to figure out for ourselves how to register our visas, but we were quite convinced that it was not worth a full nights hotel cost for half an hour especially since we had agreed to no such arrangement. She was not happy and claimed that she would take the receipt (which I had firmly placed in my wallet) and return it to the agency (something the agency told her it would not allow). We finally got her to accept 2000KT, and, as we parted ways, felt a bit bad about the situation.

We wandered the city again, bought some delicious street-food for cheap, and stopped in at a little restaurant for 90KT chai. We relaxed there for quite a while, strolled the riverside watching the ferry boats make there way up and down the river, and made our way back to the hotel. On the way back, we found a little internet cafe and stopped in for an hour mostly so Matt could print off his airplane itinerary for his departure from Ulan Bataar in just a few weeks. Then, we returned to the hotel, bought another night, cooked up some food in our now-empty room, read a bit, and went to sleep.

The next day (Saturday, 01/08) I got up, exchanged some more money, and went to a gostinitsa (hotel) we had noticed just off the square in front of the train station. It was only 3000KT a night for a two-person room! And it included a shower! The only catch was that the cheap price for for only 12 hours so we would have to do something with our four heavy bags. I went to the train station, discovered the left-luggage office was only 300KT per bag for 24 hours, and we had a deal. 400KT less and we had showers and a place to wash our clothes.

That day, we again wandered the city, enjoyed some 80KT Chai (we were finding the cheap places), found a bit of free street-wifi, and learned more Russian. Matt went to use the internet again before we checked into the hotel and met an interesting Canadian fellow named James who had been doing a very similar thing to us, except he started six months earlier in China and travelled through Southeast and South Asia before making his way up to Kazakhstan. He was traveling with his brother until his brother found a job in Almaty just a few days before. James was leaving from Astana on the 5th, the day after we were, heading home to south-central Alberta via southern Ontario. He had just arrived in Astana and Matt and he decided we should meet up the next day at the odd statue of the wolf with the kid on its back, so we could swap stories.

In the meantime, I had been accosted by a very nice completely soused man who attempted to inform me of his need for more vodka. He did so in Russian however and, except for the words vodka, magazin (a small shop), and Guri (his name) I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. That is until a 14-year-old chain-smoking boy showed up who, though unable to speak English, was quite good at explaining things in a way which the pissed-as-a-newt Guri was not. I talked with them both for about an hour and a half learning a lot about their life and about Russian. My vocabulary surely doubled.

After Matt came back, I finally convinced Guri that I wasn’t going to buy any vodka or even schnapps for him, and bid goodbye and thank you to the boy. Matt and I made our way back to the hotel that evening, checked in around 2230 and were informed that we had the room until 1030 the next morning. We stocked the refrigerator with a drink we couldn’t identify which Matt thought was milk (tan it was called… neither of us enjoyed it) and some real milk (moloko, another Russian word). The next morning we had Müesli and oatmeal with 3.2% milk straight from the bag. Like being back at home.

Hunting for the US

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

When we left off we had just arrived in Astana and were making our way South exploring the city. We were also looking for a place to register our visas, and keeping our eyes open for a hotel (which I had learned in Russian, thanks to my phrasebook, was gostinitsa).

Just north of the river we ran into a student who spoke some English, the first Anglophone we had met so far in Kazakhstan, and asked her if she knew where the US Embassy was, we had a few questions including where we could register our passports (we figured the Embassy could help us with that) and where to find an English-speaking church service (we had no idea if they could help us, but figured we’d ask anyway). She told us where she thought it was, pointing to an area on the map and telling us it was near “The Pyramid” (which turned out to have been designed by Sir Norman Foster himself). We went to where she said, found no pyramid, found no embassy, and made our way to the tower of Astana.

While under the tower, we spotted a few policemen in their giant, round hats lounging on a nearby street corner. I was a bit reticent to approach them, as I always am with policemen, for some reason (perhaps related to my experiences with extortion in other countries I’ve visited). But, Matt’s cool-headedness prevailed and we walked up to them. In broken, horribly pronounced Russian learned directly from the phrasebook I had been studying as we walked, we asked where the embassy was and, after quite a bit of map flipping and some squabbles among the three officers, were given a route to get to the embassy which was apparently right near the Pyramid, although the Pyramid was on the other side of the city from what we had been told.

Before we left we asked the kind policemen where we could register our visas and were met with a bit of shock when we handed them our unregistered passports and informed them of our predicament. They told us they had no idea how to help us, drew a location on our map telling us someone there might be able to help us and bid us goodbye in Russian (dosvedanya), English (goodbye), and, for some reason, Italian (ciao). Matt and I headed off encouraged. We could communicate a bit in Russian and had a pretty good idea of where the Embassy was!

It took a bit of walking and the directions turned out to be a bit off. We were standing slightly forlornly on the street corner when all of the sudden I spotted a giant US flag waving proudly over a huge building (remember, Kazakhstan has oil). We had found it and were a bit proud of our nation for providing such a beacon of hope to us. That hope was crushed, however, when we approached the well-defended embassy and talked to the entrance guard, Dmitry. He spoke English slowly, with a stutter, and had a limited vocabulary. That was ok with us, however. What was not so ok was that the Embassy was closed for the day and wouldn’t be open until 8 or 9 the next morning. No help there.

We made our way back toward the city, it was along walk. We stopped at one “supermarket” (the sign for which I could now read after studying the Cyrillic alphabet for a bit), found the prices to be out of our range and kept trudging. That evening, however, we had our first break. We found a cafe by Matt’s intuition and my Russian reading and discovered that delicious tea was only 100KT and a plate of delicious crepes with sour-cream was only 200KT! For about €1 each we had a wonderful break from our walking, two cups of delicious green chai (another word I could read, hooray!) and some heartwarming crepes. We also listened to MTV Dance Russia… which was not so heartwarming and was rather loud over the cafe speakers.

We made our way back North, it was getting late and we didn’t find the train station until after 11 that evening. Upon arriving back at the hotel we found one fellow already asleep in our room and another just coming in for the night. I had a nice conversation with him in what English he understood. It turned out he was an Electrical Engineer just in town for a short stay and was leaving rather early the next morning. Matt and I bid him goodnight and made our way outside to surreptitiously, and quickly cooked up a pot of stew in the parking lot behind an ancient Soviet dump-truck and crawled quietly into our beds so as not to wake our two roommates. We slept in the next morning, although not particularly well as our roommates had to catch their trains early, one left loudly at around 0400 and the Electrical Engineer left a bit less loudly at around 06:30.

We had learned a lot in our first day in Astana and were still learning the ropes.

Finding Astana

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

As we stepped off the train onto the platform at the Astana, Kazakhstan Train station on that chilly Thursday (30/07) we quickly realized two things. First, we had almost no idea how to speak Russian and I had only a very rudimentary ability to read Russian and, second, we had no guide book to help us find anything in Astana. We left the train station, loaded to the hilt like pack-mules, walked in a highly confused circle around the square not recognizing a word on the signs, and returned the the station feeling as though we had failed our first foray into the sleepless city.

We decided the thing to do was turn to the all-powerful Internets. There was a little internet shoppe in the train station near the waiting area and, after grabbing some Kazakh Tenge (€1≈400KT) from the cash exchange shoppe around the corner, Matt and I split an hour of internet time. During that time, I discovered that all of the hotels listed online had prices in the €30 a night category for a twin room. I did discover, however, that there was a resting-room hotel in the train station which had much more reasonable prices: in the €5 per person a night range (2000KT). I also discovered that there was no easy way to get out the National Park which was a hundred or two kilometers away without using a travel agency and, again, the prices listed online were astronomical.

Matt and I were a bit dejected. We had wanted to come to Kazakhstan so that we could see the beautiful scenery! Look at Astana from Google Maps and you’ll see just to the South-West of the city, a series of spectacular blue lakes… but… they seemed completely inaccessible. We were carrying hiking equipment and it didn’t look like we’d be able to use it. Man, things were not turning out as we had hoped. We bought an Astana map from a little kiosk in the train station, dug out our Russian phrasebook and sat down in the train station waiting area to decide on our course of action. Before we decided, however, I went to the Train Station information office, asked the location of the tourist office in phrasebook-Russian, was assisted to a booth outside by a kind lady who spoke no English, and was rather rudely informed at that place, that they could not offer me any information on hotels, guesthouses, or other accommodations.

We decided to spend the night in the cheapest place we knew, the Train-Station Hotel—despite the fact that the price didn’t include showers—, drop our bags there and wander around the city looking for a better place to stay. We also had another mission. Upon finally being allowed to enter Kazakhstan, we had read on the back of our entry/departure form we filled out that we had to register within 5 days of our arrival in Kazakhstan. We were convinced that it was too late to register that night, and we had no idea where to go to register. We were in a pickle.

That evening we spent a few hours wandering the city, familiarising ourselves with it. The city lies in the middle of a flat plain and consists of three informal divisions on a north-south axis. The first is the old, crummy city on the North side of the train-tracks. This area has existed for decades, since Astana had a different name and was the capital of nothing. It is filled with low-rent, three-to-four story apartment buildings, shacks, sheds, and markets. According to everyone we talked to, it was filled with seedy individuals, the “Russian Mafia,” and unsavory people of various sorts.

The second division of the city is between the train station and the river to the South. This consists of a lot of older, Soviet-era cement-block buildings. Several universities, a museum, a few dingy parks, and a number of palote apartment buildings. In this area, older restaurants, cafes, and a few “Beesnes Tsentrs” or shopping centers mingled with police headquarters, a military university, and a place called “Congress” which is apparently where the circus performs when it’s in town. I liked this area, because it was rather what I was expecting from Astana, and because there were several odd statues, like a naked boy standing on the back of a lion-sized wolf.

The third part of the city is South of the river and past a large park/amusement park area. It consists of gleaming new buildings, a “diplomatic quarter” slated to be completed by 2030 and house all the diplomats in the capital city, and dozens of buildings of stunning un-Soviet architecture. This entire region had been built up since 1991 when Astana became the capital of a free Kazakhstan after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Architecture was the main feature of this picturesque part of town. The famous tower of Astana, now a national icon sits at the middle and is surrounded by buildings which spiral, curve, and angle skyward proclaiming the worth of this oil and land-rich nation and perhaps reflecting a bit of its space-faring past (the spaceport from which most of Russia’s cosmonauts and Soyuz vessels launched is inside of Kazakhstan and the nation makes some money renting the spaceport out to both commercial groups and nations).

We realised that the main adventure of this part of our trip would simply be learning how to survive and do the things we needed to do like register our visas, find a cheap place to stay, and see the city.

Moscow and Trans Siberia, Our Style

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009

Dan and I arrived in Moscow before noon on the 27th, with only the afternoon and early evening to collect our next train tickets and explore. I would be unable to experience the city’s infamous nightlife. Given the nature of this journey, however, we weren’t completely disappointed in our tight schedule. Moscow is the priciest and (according to a study) rudest city in the world. Alas, we wouldn’t have time for the world’s most expensive cup of coffee among the world’s largest number of billionaires. Not our style.

We disembarked from the train and starting walking north, searching for a Wi-Fi connection. We knew we needed to collect our Trans Siberian Railway tickets but we were clueless as to where we could find the Real Russia office. We would ned to find the tourist agency and collect before our train departed at 10:45 that night. No pressure. Along our route, we exchanged some money at something like 44 Rubles per Euro. It’s always surreal to handle bills with so many zeros, but we took consolation that there was much more money in the pockets of most people we passed. The Cyrillic alphabet was new to both of us so we started deciphering business signs as we walked. Dan related his knowledge from our guidebook but we found no sign of an ИНТЕРНЕТ КАФЕ (Internet Café).

Instead, we found more familiar letters spelling “McDonald’s.” Say what you will about the fast food chain, but it still offers free bathrooms and often, outside the States, free wireless Internet. We found a power outlet on the second floor and Dan began trying to coax life from the macbook’s damaged power cord. Apparently, Apple had recalled its cords for their faulty wiring. PC fans out there: judge not lest ye be judged. Apple will replace damaged cords for free. We just didn’t have time to find an authorized reseller in Moscow, collect a new cord, find Real Russia’s address, find their office, and pick up our tickets.

I set out to find the ИНТЕРНЕТ. It was a challenge because no one understood my intentions. After half an hour of making a fool of myself, a young man pointed me in the right direction. I soon returned to the Mickey D’s with an address and Google’s directions to the RR office, a thirty minute walk. We lugged our luggage across town until pausing for a break. A friendly hostel owner stopped to ask if we needed directions, helpfully identified a nearby Metro station, and pointed us in the wrong direction. We followed our map to the office, presented our passports, and left with eight train tickets. Dan and I stopped at a park on the way back to the subway and I popped the rest of the popcorn. A laughably cheap snack in such an expensive city. Our style. We braved the Metro system to find the Red Square.

Our packed subway unloaded just across the road from the Red Square wall. We entered through the Resurrection Gate, a copy of the original Stalin destroyed in 1931 because he felt it impeded his parades and demonstrations. The lovely Kremlin’s occupants liked to strut their stuff around the Square. After several days on the train, we were less than strutting about the Square. Not our style. We saw Lenin’s Mausoleum but not the father of Soviet communism’s embalmed body, the world’s most famous mummy. A secret until the fall of communism, Ol’ Lenin was preserved by being wiped down every few days and then submerged in a tub of chemicals, including wax. For a million dollars, you can have the same done.

Alternately, you can pass the tomb and view the incredible St Basil’s Cathedral. What ridiculously wonderful swirls of colors! The building is the culmination of the Russian style, developed in wooden churches, and contains nine chapels. I was struck that it looked like candy, like technicolored peppermint-striped candy. The eccentric colors made me want a taste. It was constructed over the grave of the an equally eccentric character, Saint Vasily (Basil) the Blessed. Great guy. Great style. He was an early nudist and liked wearing chains, perhaps the equivalent to “bling.” He told Ivan the Terrible off for not paying attention in church and for his violence towards the innocent. So we appreciated the nutty saint through the Cathedral, and circled the Square, past the State History Museum and the State Department Store, both closed.

Back at the main train station, Dan and I took turns exploring a local grocery store while the other “watched” our luggage (I took a nap). I pulled another close-call, returning to quickly walk our bags to line 3, struggle down the narrow isle, and sit down, just as the train pulled away from the station. We were on the Trans Siberian Railway, one of the 20th century’s engineering wonders. We shared the “row” with four others, one young man and one elderly, and young and older women. The older man spoke a little English and grilled us as to why we were traveling Russia without a translator. After a while, he began repeating the phrases, “Don’t be afraid. Everything will be fine.” It was a little unnerving. Dan and I had our own beds on this train so we were content.

We had plenty of time to enjoy our beds; our first TSR leg lasted three nights. Days were spent in sleep and reading. I love books but I began to regret my iPod’s deceased condition. The morning of the 28th, the train stopped for an hour and almost everyone awake in the car, got out to smoke and buy snacks from numerous vendors. Dan and I, stocked with provisions, remained on the train, reading our books. That night, around 11:00 Moscow time, we shared my “birthday meal” of Ramen noodles, cooked with the hot water available on the trains. Totally our style. Dan surprised me by producing a delicious jelly roll cake-substitute and, to my delight, a 1,5 liter Mountain Dew. I was appreciative and we enjoyed a pleasant dinner in the low light and calm car. I drank half the bottle and my body, unused to the caffeine so late at night, remained awake until around 4:30 a.m. Completely worth it. I am 21 years young.

The next day we were back to reading and sleeping. I was working on Desiring God, a wonderfully challenging John Piper creation expounding what he calls “Christian hedonism.” Strongly recommended to anyone! Dan finished Eco’s The Name of the Rose and began Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Around 6:00 p.m. the train stopped and ominous, uniformed Russian officials inspected our faces and validated our visas. We always feel a little nervous at these borders; we have nothing to hide but are doing our best to stay out of prison. The government officials in these districts seem to do their best to intimidate. The train continued a little further and stopped at the Kazakhstani border. The gruff border guards collected our passports and the packed car waited in the hushed silence that reverberated fear and apprehension. For an hour and a half. During that time, one guard searched our bags and one took Daniel aside for questioning. Note: questioning works very poorly when neither parties speak the other’s language. The guard wouldn’t even try to understand Daniel and seemed disappointed for some unknown reason. More on that later. The locals sharing our row laughed as we finally left the border, blaming us for the delay. We could only shrug. I was merely happy to have made it into my 39th new country. The next morning (July 30th) we pulled into Astana’s train station, our first TSR leg complete. The two of us had made it out of Russia and into Kazakhstan, not without some excitement. It’s our style.