Steppes around Astana
Friday 24th November – Astana
Main process today has been travelling from Helsinki to Astana, arriving and travelling around Astana.
The flight was uneventful. The plane, a Finnair one, was half empty. Whew, I was worried it might be half full. It left right on time at 9.25pm Helsinki time. As soon as we boarded, I set my watch to Astana time, 3 hrs ahead, to 12.25am the next day. I do this to acclimate myself to the new timezone. The journey took 3 and a half hours and try as I might, I couldn’t fall asleep. I nodded off for about 20 mins but something woke up. I couldn’t get back again.
We arrived at Astana at 4:45am and I was expecting a long wait at passport control and emigration but not a bit of it. I was through in a jiffy. The only fly in the ointment really was that they stamped the last page in my passport and not the next blank page. A first world problem! The airport itself was amazing; all marble and glitz but I was too tired to really appreciate it properly. I pushed my way past taxi touts in the airport and went outside to find an official taxi. The guy, he told me he was 23, was Uzbek and had driven a taxi for a few years so knew the city well. He didn’t really speak English but when I told him he was Irlandski he delightedly mimicked Conor McGregor. He’s our national symbol? WTF. How about our poets, musicians etc. But, hey, that’s the way it is. Barbarians rock, apparently.
I got to the hostel at around 5:30 am, I think, checked in and went straight to bed. I slept like a log until around noon today. I had a coffee and went out to find breakfast. The only place I could find was a McDonald’s, ugh. But, I was hungry and needed some protein so McDonald’s it was. Some tasteless chicken sandwich thing. Cheap but filling.
I went for a ramble along the main areas of Astana to get a sense of the place and also to take my foot out for a spin. I went almost 6 km without pain; a bit but manageable. I definitely think it’s on the mend again but I need to be mindful lest I damage it again.
It’s a strange place, Astana. Not very people friendly. I couldn’t find any shops anywhere but there was a downtown area with all the usual international dollar magnets. I spotted a Costa and went in for my caffeine fix and a piece of apple pie. It was OK.
This afternoon, the weather was very warm but chilly and lashing down rain in the early evening. According to Wikipedia, Astana is the second-coldest capital city in the world after Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, a position formerly held by Canada’s capital, Ottawa, until Astana attained capital city status in 1997. Astana has an extreme continental climate with warm summers (featuring occasional brief rain showers) and long, very cold, dry winters. Summer temperatures occasionally reach +35 °C while −30 to −35 °C is not unusual between mid-December and early March. Typically, the city’s river is frozen over between the second week of November and the beginning of April.
Astana has a well-deserved reputation among Kazakhs for its frequent high winds, the effects of which are felt particularly strongly on the fast-developing but relatively exposed Left Bank area of the city. This evening, the wind was very strong and made a loud howling noise. It was exciting but I was glad I wasn’t out in it.
I decided tonight to leave Astana earlier that originally intended. I was going to stay until Monday and then head down to Almaty, the previous capital of Kazakhstan. I went onto the Kazakh railway site to book a ticket for tomorrow, Saturday. Gulp, there were no trains left. There was one en route from Moscow to Bishkek but this cost 17,000 roubles, an insane amount I wouldn’t pay unless there was absolutely no other choice. The only ticket remaining was on Monday! Departing at 10am and arriving in Almaty 25hrs later. I booked the last available berth. 64000 Tenge, less that 9€. Whew.
Saturday 25th November – Astana
I couldn’t get to sleep until 3am or so this morning. I was tired enough from all the walking but my body clock was still on Dublin time, 5 hrs behind, and thought it was early evening. One I did drop off, I slept soundly until around 9am. Up for a shave and a shower and the other one and then out to McDonald’s again for more pap.
I noticed a guy beside me with his daughter; she was about 9 or 10. He was ordinary but looked into the his daughters-in-law eyes with an extraordinary look, to my eyes, a look of complete attention and love. She seemed very soothed by this look and there was a serenity about her. All normal stuff and the birthright of every child but so rare in this sad old world of ours that I noticed it. Or maybe it’s something I’m noticing more and more. Or maybe it was something in the McDonald’s air.
The weather is quite bad today with very heavy rain and a bit chilly. I had to wear my coat and hat going out. What exacerbates the weather is the terrible state of public infrastructure I can see so far. Unbelievably, many roads seems to have no drainage and no camber so huge puddles of water form on the road, most near the edges but many right in the middle of the road. Drivers swerve to avoid the deep ones and woe betide any hapless foot passenger who is near a speeding SUV ploughing through a nearby deep pubble and is unable to duck the approaching tsunami of dirty water. I was nearly caught out when I saw a huge Zil bearing down on me and being driven at an insane speed. I managed to run forward to a dry spot and the day was saved.
Before I came over, I got briefly hooked on YouTube videos of dashcam footage of car crashes. Most seemed to have occurred in Russia. You know how YouTube registers what you’re watching and then presents an option to view something similar. I have the app on my huge TV at home so they would play back to back. I know schadenfreude is a sin but I couldn’t stop cackling at some of them. I couldn’t help myself, really. It did help me keep a sharp eye on the traffic here through and to take no chances.
I did a tour of most of Astana main sites today. I spent most of morning and early afternoon lying on my bed reading Kurt Vonnegut Jr’s book Cat’s Cradle. What an astonishing writer. I read him back in the 70s when I lived in Holland but didn’t really understand it. I thought he was ‘anti’ things. I was anti-things back then, anti-anything at all really, especially myself. I used to think that my enemy’s enemy was my friend. Until he became my enemy, as everyone did eventually. Not exactly a good recipe for a happy life. Anyway, KVJ was part of this but I completely misread him.
The reason I’m reading it is because I broke my Kindle ebook reader. This is the second one I broke in a short time as they’re very fragile. I had about 50 books loaded onto the Kindle so I would have plenty to read on my trip. They were mostly mind-candy books, science fiction mainly. Well written and intelligent but not challenging. My favourites were Iain M Banks, Neal Asher etc. But now they were all gone. What will I do. I’ve had a book stuck under my nose for almost every day of the past six decades. The withdrawal didn’t bear thinking about.
I read academic books on my Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 tablet and that worked fine. However, I had associated it with work and not idle pleasure. But needs must when the devil drives. I opened up my Android ebook reader and ‘Cats Cradle’ was in the cache. I must have accidently downloaded it to the tablet ages ago. I changed the theme to a dark one and fiddled around with the settings so it was easy to read. And, lo and behold, it was much more like reading a real book than the Kindle ever was. It was heavier but as heavy as a real book might be. Goodbye Kindle, hello tablet. I had all my Kindle books backed up to to my cloud drive so I downloaded again to tablet. Bob’s your uncle.
My trip today was about 7.5km according to Google Maps Timeline and the longest I walked in a year. My foot was sore at the end and I probably couldn’t have gone further. But I’m pleased that it’s holding out. I had an MRI scan a week or so before I left and the result was that the avulsion fracture had healed but that I had a lot of moderate osteoarthritis in my second, third and fourth metatarsal joints. I take a 400mg Ibuprofen 30 mins before I go walking and the pain is manageable. I haven’t taken a second one yet but will if I have a long days walk. I really want to minimise their usage.
Sunday 26 November – Astana
Still here. I’m here because I’m not all there, as the man said.
Last day in Astana so spent most of the late morning and afternoon walking around the main architectural sites taking photos on my new camera and bringing out my 10-18mm wide-angle lens for its first spin. Photos of wide areas and buildings look great with this lens but I’m still learning about composition. Many of the buildings are impressive but strangely impersonal. I spend around an hour just rambling around the administrative centre where the presidential palace is until a policeman with one of those soviet era peaked hats, said foto, nyet. So, this not being the democratic West, I stopped.
I read somewhere recently that someone said that photography is the art of learning so see so that eventually you don’t need a camera. I totally get that and walking about and imagining what. A scene would look like through a camera lens gives me a far greater feel and experience of a place. Once the shutter clicks I lose interest in the photo and only occasionally look at them again. Mind you, I haven’t learnt Photoshop yet. Once I do, my inner geek will have a field day.
I then went back to the hostel and had a short power nap as I’m not a spring chicken any more. Afterwards, one of the advantages of hostelling, I got into conversation with a Dutch man, a Serbian woman and a gay Iranian couple. We spoke of our experiences of travelling and exchanged information and advice.
Afterwards, myself and the Dutchman walked about 30mins to a restaurant the Serbian woman recommended for some authentic Kazakhstani food. It was dark now and the city looked very different with lots of couples and some people, but not many, having the craicski.
I had what the menu said was a signature Kazakh dish. But it had horsemeat. I’ve never eaten horsemeat before and, to be honest, it wasn’t on my list of 100,000 things to do. But, when in Rome etc etc. So I ordered it. I wasn’t hugely impressed as it had a strong gamey flavour. I probably won’t order it again. Chalk it down to experience.
I forgot to mention in my last blog but I had reindeer meat in Helsinki just because I never had it before. It was only a starter and quite small thankfully as I couldn’t get Rudolph out of my mind.
That’s it, possums. Off to Almaty tomorrow. Please feel free to comment and say hi.