~Almaty and Astana~

alt text Two of my weekends were put together, along with Women’s day, giving me a nice break from work. I decided to visit Kazakhstan, since it’s only a train ride away (I flew though), and not too expensive.

I arrived around 3pm to Almaty International Airport. My friend Al, who I met in Novosibirsk, picked me up from the airport and drove me to my hostel, Loco Hostel. A woman greeted me at the front. She showed me around the hostel and left while I settled in. The hostel was so quiet I felt I was the only one staying there. All of the walls were covered in photos of past guests, art, murals and a Balalaika.

I decided that I wanted to walk around the city and while I was getting ready, I saw a guy walking into the hostel. We started talking, he told me that his name was Ziq and he was from Saudi Arabia. He had fries and a burger with him. I told him I was about to leave and get local currency and I would wait for him to eat if he wanted to join. He said yes. Ziq told me that he was staying at a hotel, but didn’t like it, and switched to Loco Hostel. He came to Kazakhstan for 3 weeks to visit friends, but seemed a bit bored to be there. He finished his meal and we walked around the city. It was chilly and I could tell he was not prepared for the cold. Ziq told me about his life, being a Shia Muslim, in a Sunni country (Saudi Arabia) and the racism he’s faced when trying to find work or make friends with others. He drank alcohol, didn’t pray often, and wore his hair in funky styles; a lifestyle not looked up to for a devout Muslim. He said his father was a very religious man who traveled and gave speeches on religion, and that he was a disappointment to his father. Ziq worked on oil rigs, and would work for a month, then travel for a month, and so forth. He also mentioned his parents didn’t like that he traveled so much. As we walked around the city, I took photos and he spoke more about his life back home.

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At one point, a group of young Kazakhs called after us. They wanted to take a picture with us but I think they secretly wanted to touch Ziq’s fro.

After we returned to the hostel, I left with my friend, Al, to visit his colleague/friend’s house, on the outskirts of the city, it was which was a modernly decorated 2 story home. We sat around at the table with his 3 friends and his friend’s wife. We had discussion about Kazakh politics and music. As they played Bob Marley and lit up, they told me about the corruption and how the government controls the marijuana production illegally in southern Kazakhstan. After a few hours chatting I took a taxi back to my hostel.

Day 2: I woke up at 6:30 because some of the other guests in the hostel were going to the Sharyn Canyons near the Chinese border. I was going with a Russian girl, Lena, and a guy from France, Pierre. We got ready and went to Lena’s mother’s home. It’s very common in Russia and Kazakhstan to live with your parents, even at an older age, or until you get married. My Russian tutor told me once that her daughter, her husband, and grandchildren live with her at her home.

Lena’s mother had breakfast waiting for us. It was elaborate with tea, french toast, vegetables, dried fruits, and biscuits. This tends to be a trend in Kazakhstan: incredible hospitality. We all packed into Lena’s mother’s car and drove ~3 hours to the canyons. On the way we passed many villages, mosques, and shepherds riding horses and herding sheep or cows. The mountains were large and beautiful and the landscape was endless. We would occasionally have to wait for the sheep to cross before we could continue driving. There were also a lot of prairie dogs that were always curiously looking at us and definitely conspiring. alt text At one point, the girl asked me, “OK, tell us about America. Um, Trump! Tell us about Trump.” She said that she watched the election while drinking with her friend. She was so happy when Trump won, but mainly because it just makes America more interesting for her.

And we continued driving through the mountains.

We switched to bumpy dirt roads that must have messed up the car. Eventually we reached the canyons. It looked like the Grand Canyon, back in America, but with snow. It was cold, yet beautiful and sunny outside, which made it worthwhile. We climbed down the steep cliff, something you would never do in the U.S. Grand Canyon. We were the only ones there. We trekked through the canyons for maybe an hour until we reached a river. It was a crystal clear river with colorful stones. There was two Kazakh people there fishing in the river. Everyone found their own spot by the water, in a tree or on the beach, just sitting peacefully and letting the minds wander and settle. I climbed a tree, laid down, and stared at the sky. It was the one of the most serene moments in Kazakhstan. alt text Once we awoke from our naps, we all hiked back to the car. alt text I made an effort to climb some of the cliffs and terrify myself a little.
alt text We finally got back to the car and I basically collapsed into the car and awoke only when we got our first flat tire, shown below: alt text My companions dropped me off in the city, and I got a taxi home. There are no taxis in Kazakhstan, you simply stand on the side of the road with your arm turned out, and anyone will stop and negotiate a price. I did my best to complain in Russian, and to my success, got a more “local” price.

Day 3: I woke up and saw Ziq. We drank coffee and I ate some veggies and nuts I bought the previous day. I told him to come with me to the Green Bazaar and walk around the city. So we took an Uber to the bazaar, and walked around inside. They sold everything you could possibly imagine. From fruits to nuts, to juice, to cheese, sushi, underwear, jackets, toys, etc etc.

Horse meat is a delicacy here. alt text

He talked more about Saudi Arabia. He told me how people get married - the mother and sister talk to the son and ask him what he wants, then they try to find the best match. Then the son goes to the woman’s house and meets with her parents, and the girl will come out for a second. The son is supposed to see her for this second and decide if he wants to marry her. He told me that he wants to marry when he returns home, but he doesn’t like this tradition. He said that the looks of a woman matter a lot to him, but personality matters too, and he will have no idea what this woman will be like if he can’t speak with her.

We walked around the city, and the buildings were huge. Tall and wide. I have never seen a city with such interesting architecture. It was cold and humid outside, but I was dressed properly and enjoyed walking around. We stopped at a cafe for some tea and coffee. Again, there were some school girls there, who asked where we were from and if they could take a picture with us. (I think it was the fro) They spoke English quite well. People asking for photos happens quite a bit, since we don’t look Russian or Kazakh and we speak English.

After, we walked to many different museums about instruments and history of Kazakhstan.

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At one square there were many pigeons. Little kids were feeding the pigeons. Of course, we joined in. alt text

We went back to the hostel and I took a nap and then we ate pizza. Some other people from the hostel joined us and invited us out to dinner as a farewell to the Frenchman, Pierre. Everyone from the hostel was there. One of the guys from Kazakhstan had lived in Orlando and worked for Universal Studios and now studying electrical engineering at the university. The other guy from Kazakhstan also studied at the university. The girls from Malaysia were studying abroad. I learned some Kazakh words. It’s common for the Kazakh people to speak three languages as they all spoke Kazakh, Russian, and English. alt text

Day 4: I woke up early to catch my flight to Astana, the new capital of Kazakhstan. I packed and walked out to the main road to catch a “taxi.” The guy that picked me up didn’t speak English so we communicated minimally. He asked me where I was from:


“Where in America”

“Florida, near Miami”

“Oh Florida, thumbs up

“Sunny State, but not as Sunny as Philadelphia”

“Huh? Have you been?”

“It’s always Sunny in Philadelphia!!”


“Oh!! California beautiful”

“Yes, I love california”

“Trump, good or bad?”

“Bad, what do you think?”

“good, we like him”

“Putin, good or bad?”

“I don’t know”

“We don’t like him… Mike Tyson?”

“Yes, we like”

“Jennifer Lopez, we like! 50 Cent?”

“haha, yes I like”

“Eminem good!”

For your reference: 1000 Kazakh Tieche = ~$3 Meals are usually 500 Kazakh Tieche, taxi usually ~500 around the city.

ASTANA- The new capital of Kazakhstan, which was formally Almaty. Literal translation means “capital.” Astana is a huge but empty city, ready for people to move in. It has less residents than Almaty yet filled with beautiful skyscrapers, interesting architecture, and smog.

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The flight took an hour and a half. I listened to some Russian Pimsleur and watched out the airplane window. Outside I could see vast mountains and plateaus.

When we landed, we got out of the plane and took a bus from Astana International Airport. I looked at my recent phone messages from the couchsurfer I was intending to stay with, Nali. He told me to “take bus 10.” I rode the bus until I saw 2 golden buildings” and went inside the one closest to the bus stop. I met Nali, left my stuff at the building and walked around the space-like city.

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Nali met me again after his work and we walked to his car, getting to know each other better. He seemed like a very deep person. He said that we will go to his apartment, so I can drop off my stuff and then he would drive around the city to sightsee.

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The first stop on our list was the Hazrat Sultan Mosque, which is one of the largest in Central Asia. He wanted to also go for the 5 o’ clock prayer. We walked inside this huge Mosque, took off our shoes, and I had to wear something to cover my head.

While he got ready for prayer, I walked around and took photos. alt text alt text

I suppose it took 30 minutes. Given that he prays 5 times a day for 30 minutes, that’s quite a devotion of time to religion, spanning about two and a half hours per day. To him, it seemed to quite convenient, as he diligently woke up everyday to pray for sunrise, and then had time to study before work or breakfast.

He finished prayer and took me to the second stop, the river view. It was very beautiful. Nali told me that his friend came to take photos once, crossed the lake(since it’s frozen), and got arrested by the police because he came too close to the government buildings. After questionings for a few hours, they realized that he wasn’t a spy. The chief of police started laughing and invited him to his house for dinner. alt text

We then went to Khan Shatyr, the “largest tent in the world” which you can hardly call a tent. alt text alt text We walked inside and I realized it was a huge mall. On the top floor there was a beach, with salt water, sand from the Maldives, and UV rays so you can tan. I was appalled. I asked him if we could see inside “the beach.” He said, well, I don’t know, if you want we can sneak up to the window, last time they didn’t let me look. And so we snuck up to the beach. “Do you feel the adrenaline, Bianca?” alt text

We went to the food court to eat and talk. We spoke of many things I can’t remember now. And waited for his brother to meet us, Tim. Tim was in IT and hitchhiked to Mongolia, and then to Turkey. He had quite the stories.

Nali told me that we would go meet up with his friends who were training for marathon running. His friends were all very friendly and spoke English. They asked me about America, why I was in Kazakhstan, and why I decided to move to Siberia. All the common questions.

We played table tennis, and at one point I was so tired, we decided to leave. We dropped off his brother and went to smoke shisha. Nali and I got to talk about many subjects including purpose, personal growth, happiness and our values in life.

Day 5: The next day I woke up and waited for Nali to pick me up. I wrote and did yoga and got ready. He came and we got in his car to get breakfast. He brought me to an ornate restaurant near his home with traditional central asian cuisine. Then we went to his house so he could pray and he told me he had to leave for work, but I could spend time at his home with his mother until my train ride. We drank tea with his mother, who was lovely and did her best to speak English. With her English and my broken Russian, we managed to have conversation after Nali left. They had a cat named Dani. I watched BBC on their TV.

His mother told me she would take the bus with me to the train station, and help me find my train. So we went together on the bus to the train station, and hugged goodbye.

I got on the train, and asked a girl where my seat was in Russian. She obviously caught on my accent or incorrect grammar, and said “Don’t worry, I speak English.” So I put my stuff at my seat and then came back to her. “Can I sit with you?” I asked. She replied, “sure”. So I asked her about her life, where she was from, where she was going, etc etc. A man heard us speaking English and came to sit with us. He was Turkish and had a bright personality. He listened to our conversations and told us funny stories from his own life. We were all chatting and laughing the entire way. He spoke Kazakh, Turkish, Russian, Azerbaijani and English. He said he went to university for computer programming that was only taught in English. He didn’t’ know a word of English, but it was a very good university and his uncle told him he should go there. So he struggled, and didn’t have a minute of free time during his studies. He not only studied for courses, but he would translate his homework once for him to understand, and then back to English to turn into his teacher. He constantly studied English so he could understand his lessons. I was in shock that this school accepted him when he knew no English! Now, it had been quite a few years since university, and he wanted to practice his English again.

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He offered us tea and chocolates and finally, he left and I decided to sleep. I woke up at 1:30am when I thought we were getting off soon. The girl laughed and told me that this particular train runs on Moscow time even if it’s from Kazakhstan. (All trains in Russia run on Moscow time) So we fell back asleep until 5am, when a man started yelling through the halls, what I presume was “get up!” in Russian.

Day 6: I sat with the people near my bed. They didn’t speak English as well as the others but we managed to introduce ourselves and talk about simple things. One of them was also going to Novosibirsk and was a truck driver. That was cool for me, because now I knew someone who spoke Russian and could help me find my next train. We all got off, said goodbye to the girl, who was now with her fiance that lived in that city. The next train was leaving in two hours so I went inside the train station to wait. I had to pay for a squat toilet and found the guy from the previous train going to Novosibirsk.

At around 7am, I went to my new cabin. This time I was on the top bunk. There was a mother and her daughter under/next to me. I went right to sleep, being (angrily) woken several times to check passport and visa papers as we crossed the border into Russia. It was a long ride.

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