This morning as I went out to the balcony to sip my morning coffee I was startled by loud “Hu-ah!”‘s coming from the secondary school nearby. Although I am not much startled by the strange and unusual in Astana anymore, and I had mentioned to any and all that the new school playground looked like a police academy course, it was a bit surprising to find it had been taken over by the army. Today is a normal school day for the kids, as far as I can see, so the little ones get to play whilst camoed men run about screaming. Always interesting here…
In warmer, more temperate times (October) we were able to make a weekend visit to Borovoye, the “Kazakh Switzerland”. Just 4 hours drive away from the capital on relatively good roads, Borovoye is becoming a bit like Astana’s Lake Tahoe. We stayed at an interesting place called Zhumbaktas Rest House located in the forest close to Borovoye.
Although the surroundings were beautiful in themselves, the staff seemed to take the structure of our stay very seriously. There were still definitive hangovers in attitudes from Soviet times. As an example of this, we were assigned to a dining table at the start of our stay and given a strict schedule of meals: 8am breakfast, 1pm lunch, 4pm snack/tea, 6pm dinner, 9pm late snack and 10pm disco… Needless to say we chose to respect but not entirely honor all of the Zhumbaktas ideals…
As you can see from above, if you are in a nature reserve, you must find wildlife (or wild-deadlife)! We didn’t see a single thing roaming free, but there were mounted heads galore and a few plastic creatures that seemed to reproduce around the fountain the longer we stayed. At night we could hear wolves which was exciting! The woods in the surrounding area were incredibly picturesque and made me think of “Peter and the Wolf” more than a few times!
In the afternoon we decided to try to row around Lake Borovoye and it was by far the best way to see the area. For about 1000 kzt (£5) four of us had a large boat to ourselves for an hour and took a leisurely look around on a sparklingly sunny fall day.
On the way back to the car, we noticed these strange rope courses in the trees that are apparently for children in the high tourist season. Needless to say, I hope they have all trained with a circus because there are no safety nets and a high looking level of challenge!
There was also a little market next to the parking and we had a quick gander. There were loads of fragrantly smoked fish for sale (I was tempted until I realised it would have to sit in the car for a whole day!) as well as this outstandingly vibrant orange drink that little old ladies insisted was very health with vitamins and I had to sample…It was very healthy tasting indeed… I did finally buy a tub of fresh honey as this is something everyone raves about from this area of Kazakhstan. It was very fragrant and golden flavoured!
After an energetic night of card-playing and drinking with the crew and right before the 4 hour journey back to Astana-land, I took an calming walk around the woods outside of the guest house area. The route to the little lake nearby was stunning and made a dramatic change from forest to woods to lowland scrub and lakeside. Borovoye is certainly a place I will return to again!
Today we are one week in to our life here. We are getting into the swing of things but I suspect it will be easier when we get into our regular digs. Speaking of which, today I was able to inspect the progress in the flat. As suspected, we will now be scheduled to move in next Wednesday, not Monday. I appreciate all the work that is being done for us though, newly painted walls, new sofas and some curtain shopping next week are all being covered for us. Here’s a look at the current state of the flat:
We have a few cracks in the walls that have had to be filled and this apparently has taken some time to repair (Very typical for Astana). The older couple working on all of this together are very sweet and conscientious, if not the speediest 😉 I am told they have been working on it day and night! Anyhow, after the inspection and a look at some swatches for sofas (how house-wifey do I sound right now…) I decided to walk back to the hotel rather than use the offered driver (I think I am being too spoiled!). I took a lovely stroll along the riverside and through “Center Park”. It has been a lovely day that is sunny, not too hot with some breeze.
The park is quite large and lovely. I was mainly by myself for much of the stroll, with only a few amusement stall vendors and moms with kids out and about at this time. I could also see signs that Autumn is on the way, which I am told usually lasts only a day before Winter hits!
The park itself is a strange combo of amusement park and woodland. It seems to only come to life on weekends and the evening.
Sadly, after this tragedy struck as I managed to drop Mr T’s iPhone and shatter the screen 😦
Saiyaku!!! Sigh, sometimes life is so unfair!
This morning we got up in time for the hotel breakfast down in the “Cafe Marco Polo”, a gigantic cream-colored room with massive marble buffet stands and pan-pipe covers of old favorites being played. Mr. T and I spotted only one other guest in the room and the waiting staff seemed extra attentive and bored in turns. The buffet itself had an extrordinary assortment of options. There was Borsch, a cold-cut section, a cheese-section, french toast, cereal, a patisserie section, Kazakh Manti (a meat-filled dumpling), various fruits, salads and a chef on hand to cook eggs. Between that, the huge empty room and the pan-piping, Mr. T and I felt completely mind-numbed by the end.
Later we met up with Mr. T’s predecessor, her lovely son and another Embassy driver. We took a quick tour of the area around us , finding the medical clinic, the Astana Supermarket (a lovely, old-fashioned place selling amazing looking cakes) and a stroll down by the river. From the river we really could see how the “old city” joins to the “new city”, although everything is really less than 20 years old.
We also got to see the local “beach” scene which seemed to consist of Katy Perry blasting out of some large speakers, men laying out in tiny speedos and kids swimming in green water. Sadly no mankinis spotted so far… There were also some people scuba diving, although we couldn’t quite figure out what for.
There was also the start of love-locks appearing on parts of this particular bridge which was quite sweet.
After this, we got to have a tour of the apartment we will be moving into at a later date which was exciting! All I can say is stay tuned for some pics of the most amazing light fixtures you will ever see! Here is just a taste of what we have in store for us.
We then set off for the Central Park for some shashlik (meat skewers). It was so good, but so much meat! I think this is something I will have to get used to here.
Later that evening, we met up with some other British ex-pats at this most amazing Soviet-themed bar called “Epoch” to watch a Newcastle-Arsenal football game (Brits can never be far from their football). Inside the bar were many rooms for patrons including a room that appeared to have a Soviet gulag theme. Out on the dancefloor were several gents doing amazing old-country-ish quickstepping to impress the girls. It was weird. I only had one beer, but I think the surroundings alone were enough to make me feel intoxicated. Before we knew it the time was 1am and I think Mr. T and I were very ready to walk back to the hotel and rest our massively confused heads.
After a chaotic scramble to extract ourselves from London (and stressful mobile phone contracts along the way), we arrived at Heathrow and headed directly to the BA lounge. Never was I so happy to have splurged on travel as we were both incredibly frazzled by that time. The flights themselves went very smoothly, with an interesting plane ride on Air Astana from Frankfurt. Although the cabin in business class was rather too loud with the drone of the engines, we experienced these amazing remote chairs that turned into beds by sinking toward the floor and underneath the chair in front, kinda like the Dark Knight’s batmobile cockpit. This was just the first taste of what awaited us in Astana.
Arriving at 6am in the morning (strangely all flights appear to arrive either super early or late in the day here) we stumbled along toward immigration, only to find we somehow ended up in the VIP immigration arrival area and got shuffled through very quickly as I think the staff didn’t want to be bothered with explaining our mistake (lucky us). Mr. T’s lovely predecessor was there to greet us with an Embassy driver and let us know she had gotten us upgraded to the Astana Ramada Plaza Hotel. This was to be our home for the next week as she moved out of her old flat and everything was refurbished as it hadn’t been updated for a decade. Upon arrival at the Ramada, we were struck by the amazing, empty marble halls that surrounded us, greened up by the occasional faux palm tree or silk fuschia flower. The room was similarly styled with marble topped desks and bathrooms, but plastic slat ceilings over the tub. This seems to be the way things are here in general, trying oh so hard to impress and not quite achieving the perfect illusion of luxury that is being strived for. Not that I’m complaining! We get a Ferrero Roche on our pillow every day and access to a pool complete with saunas and turkish baths! Having backpacked most places in my recent history, this is pretty swank.
After a good long nap, Mr. T and I decided to get ourselves up and have a wander around the city. It was a wonderfully warm day and the scenery looked to be full of promise!
View from our Hotel floor
The first direction we wandered took us along the road you can see below. This entire road appeared to have been taken up and new pipes being laid for miles (we were later told these were pipes for the central heating in the city). Pedestrians just picked their way through the site as best they could, no health and safety here!
We next wandered to the big Congress Square. Here we met with two teams driving on the Mongol Rally and both from Bristol, oddly enough. The Mongol Rally is a car rally that begins in the UK and ends in Ulan Bator, Mongolia. The rally is done in cars that are particularly unsuited to the task (under 1200 cc engines). From the sound of things, they were lucky to make it this far! Good luck to “Cider Me Up Genghis” and “The Sign Up” teams! The Congress Square contained the city hall of Astana, an expensive yet bazaar-like shopping mall with random desks of official-looking guards sitting around, various ornate fountains and this super-happy-fun train for the kiddies that just seemed to move very slowly in circles around part of the square.
You can just make out the Mongol Rally vans in the top left, under the big towery thing…
Nearby all of this was one of the many city parks. We noticed that Astana seems to be a very family friendly town, with parks, bouncy castles and playgrounds dotted everywhere. It made a nice change to see kids running about and playing freely!
You know Mr. T had to walk all the way down and around the side of the fountain, even though it was slippery marble and lethal…
In front of the “Friendship of Peoples” monument…
After this, we were thankfully able to change money at a very good rate on Respublika Avenue (who knew?) using our very limited Russian. As evening began to fall, we made our way back to the hotel to order some room service. Luckily we get our meals reimbursed as we are unable to move into our flat in the foreseeable future. So for now, we have a home with room service!
The sunset from our room window…
The city begins to light up…
Waiting for our club sandwiches to arrive…