Sadly I have come to the end of my Astana adventures. This summer we moved back to the UK and are starting up the next phase of our lives. I have so many good memories and attachments that I will be taking with me from Kazakhstan, it is still hard to say goodbye.
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…
One thing I am often asked about is what I eat here in Kazakhstan. To give a better picture of this I have decided to highlight aspects of my current diet to give a flavour (haha…ahem…) of my culinary experiences. In this first entry we will look at today’s Sunday brunch:
Leftover stuffing from dinner (I even found cranberries for this one!) mixed with very anemic-looking eggs, scrambled with a few dashes of Worcestershiresauce and on top of this lovely, crusty, yellow bread freshly made at the local supermarket and a satsuma on the side (the stores finally have the seedless ones in stock).
As mentioned, eggs are not quite like what we get at home but certainly seem fresh (as the chicken guano often found on the outsides will testify). Especially here, it pays to thoroughly wash things before use! The eggs are all locally produced however, unlike a wide selection of items in the market that have to be flown in as Astana is miles from just about anything that isn’t steppe.
The best thing about this meal is undeniably the bread. Here in Astana, we are positively spoilt for choice in this one area! The larger stores, such as our Ramstore in MEGA shopping mall around the corner, tend to have their own bakery and produce very fresh bread in huge varieties throughout the day. The result is the best crusty outside, soft inside, still warm bread I have had aside from when I was staying in France!
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!
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…