How to Go on Vacation

Astana is far away from everything and so for any vacation, you’ll likely be looking at a long travel day with one or more layovers. If you’re wanting to cut down on travel time as much as possible, some direct flight destinations, via Air Astana and other known routes, include:

  • Tbilisi
  • Istanbul
  • Vienna
  • Frankfurt
  • London
  • Paris
  • Moscow
  • St. Petersburg
  • Bishkek
  • Beijing
  • Abu Dhabi
  • Dubai

Careful that some of these cities require visas so a direct flight may not be as convenient as you would imagine.

Other airlines to look at are Austrian and Turkish Airlines. Usually I look at Kayak and then book directly on Austrian or Air Astana’s site because both airlines let you pay in tenge, the Kazakh currency I’m paid in. There are some cheap Soviet-style airlines as well, such as the hilariously named, SCAT Airlines. But I’m already a nervous flyer and as much as I appreciate a poo joke, I’m not willing to take my chances on one of the “world’s least safe” airlines.

IMG_7439

Though direct flights are best, when a friend told me he was going to Tokyo in March, I decided to tagalong. I actually booked it while I was in Sweden in December to help me get through the remainder of winter. It’s expensive to get to Tokyo from Astana, and often requires three flights but LYL or YOLO or whatever, right?

Beware that on the way to Seoul/Tokyo, the Almaty airport requires you to pick up your bag, exit the airport entirely to get to the other terminal and check in all over again. This wasn’t a requirement on the way to Kuala Lumpur but I’ve given up trying to understand. And the Incheon Airport in Seoul requires international transfers to pick up a boarding pass at one of the transfer counters scattered throughout the building. For some counters, such as the one I needed to visit on the way back to Astana, you must go through security, sans boarding pass, take a shuttle, be told that you are too late to get a boarding pass and that you must sprint to your gate. Then the flight attendants will be upset that you don’t have a boarding pass and will forget to check your visa. After you board the plane, one of them will run on to ensure that you’re allowed to enter Kazakhstan. You will be super sweaty from your run and when you try to switch seats because your tv isn’t working, the lady already sitting in that row will give you an up-down and tell you that the seat is taken, even though it totally isn’t.

Despite all the flight hullabaloo, the actual trip itself was amazing and I highly recommend going to Japan, from wherever you are located! I liked it so much more than I anticipated.

IMG_8200

Some specific highlights:

Vending Machines

There are vending machines everywhere, even in entirely residential areas. They sell both alcohol and more importantly, hot drinks! You can buy hot tea, at the perfect temperature, from a vending machine! I can’t believe we have this technology and it’s not used western-worldwide.

Heated Toilet Seats

As a friend on the trip said, “Every time I sit on a toilet seat that isn’t heated now I think, ‘what kind of janky place is this?’” Even 7-11 has heated toilet seats.

The toilets had a lot of other features, most of which I never ventured to use. But I decided to give the bidet a try one day, inexplicably in a Family Mart (7-11 equivalent) instead of my apartment. At first I thought, “ooh!” but then all of a sudden the water started going up my back, soaking my dress, and I jumped up, and then the water went all over the bathroom until I found the stop button. Then I had to mop up as best I could with toilet paper and sheepishly run out past the line that had formed during my lengthy time in the bathroom.

I eventually figured out that you have to scoot your butt fully back against the seat in order for the bidet to properly work (it’s worth a try ;)).

7-11

IMG_7507

There was no way to take a nice photo of this.

Japan is not a breakfast place and so on our first morning we went to 7-11. We got hot green tea from the hot fridge and “salmon bowls,” which had rice, salmon, eggs, spinach, and a big hunk of butter. The cashier microwaved the bowls and the end result was something so delicious we ate it every morning for the rest of the trip.

Chill Ambience

IMG_7615

Part of why it’s taken me so long to go to Japan is because I anticipated that it would be really overwhelming. Though the crowds are big, there’s an orderliness to how everything works. Once you slip into the stream, everything is chill.

IMG_7641

I was also surprised that we rarely had moments of walking around trying to find a place for coffee/snacks/food/drinks. If one place was busy, we just went next door. And we only had one subpar meal the entire two weeks.

Nature

IMG_7707

We took a weekend trip to Nikko, just a few hours away from Tokyo,  and it was so nice to get in touch with variated nature again, after living in the dusty/snowy steppe for a while.

IMG_7814

Everything Is Cute

IMG_8131

Even the most innocuous sign.

IMG_8279

And every single dog we saw.

$$$

For a big city, Tokyo is much more inexpensive than I had anticipated. Our trip could’ve been even cheaper if we’d really tried.

Sweet Potato Everything

Processed with VSCOcam with t1 preset

I first had sweet potato ice cream when I was in Kuala Lumpur in December. Japan caters very nicely to this new obsession.

Robot Restaurant

Robot Restaurant was everything. This place is what westerners typically think of when they think of Japan but locals wouldn’t ever really go, unless they are going with their visiting friends, as in our case.

IMG_8376

This is my #1 recommendation for anyone going to Tokyo. Think lasers, opera, lots of intense eye contact, weird pop culture references, and basically weird everything. It is magical.

IMG_8379

And of course, the best thing about going to Tokyo (even better than salmon bowls) was seeing two of my favourite people and becoming friends with their wonderful friends, who either lived in Tokyo or came on the trip too. Real talk: not one person knew everyone going beforehand and I was amazed that in such a big group, there was not a single dud. Everyone was awesome.

We went to the Robot Restaurant on our last day and I was feeling so emotional about leaving my friends and the show was so intense and overwhelming that I had to stop myself from bursting out crying for the entire 90 minutes. At one point they picked an audience member at random to box a robot and I’m so thankful they didn’t choose me because I would’ve just started ugly crying.

IMG_7704

Memories!

IMG_8405

Advertisements

How to Get a Makeover

When a friend alerted me that Jane Marie was looking for expats to do mall makeovers for Jezebel, I jumped at the chance. Not only am I a big fan of Jezebel and Jane Marie (the editor, not the adult movie star), I also love makeup. And I was curious about what a Kazakh makeover would look like.

The end result was that commenters on Jezebel are the kindest people on the internet.

Oh and this is what my face looked like:

 IMG_7248

I wrote a bit more about my experience on the site and the other makeovers are definitely worth checking out too!

How to Get Through January-March

My friend, Alicia, is so deceptively skillful at encapsulating the loneliness, beauty, and absurdity of life. This sentiment in particular is one of the loveliest things I’ve ever read and how I’ve been feeling since returning from winter holidays.

Screen Shot 2015-03-02 at 11.12.15 PM

I’ve hesitated to put this into words because when you’re so far away, the broad strokes of negative feelings are latched onto by loving friends who are concerned about your well-being. A delicate balance is required in trying to be a positive person who also acknowledges that life is hard, and sometimes particularly so in specific locations/situations.

So I’ve been feeling kind of bad but not that bad because otherwise I would’ve moved by now. I’m not one to weigh quality of life over determination. My greatest challenge was to get through January-March and now it is only 1 week until I meet friends for a vacation in warmer, delicious lands. I’ll return to spring on the steppe and a lightening of mood.

Here is how I got through the slog.

Knitting

Excessive TV-watching is a sign of loneliness. Knitting is constructive. They balance out, right?

 Processed with VSCOcam with t1 preset

I call this “The Good Wife” sweater.

Cut Down on Drinking

Despite science, this was counter-intuitive to me. I actually haven’t felt like drinking very much during this time and I think it was for the best.

Eating

I generally eat healthily (albeit a lot). I also generally follow Alicia’s 80/20% guideline (in addition to being a great comedian, she is also a nutritionist!) but the last couple months I just DGAF. Give me all the chips and Twix.

Exercise

I started exercising a few years ago. Moving here made me realize how insanely good exercise is for my mental health and I am now a devotee for life. Also, see above. My metabolism will only get me so far in life.

Get Outside During the Day

IMG_7133

No matter how cold it is. Even if it’s just to walk to another building for lunch because it is generally still very sunny during the days here!

‘Tude

IMG_7067

Victory!

A lot of people have a downer air about them at this time, whether because they’re away from home or feeling like the winter is long. I used to be more of a negative person and any time I went down this road, my best friend would yell, “POSITIVE DAY!” and I always wanted to slap him in the face. Then a few years ago I realized how valuable this little phrase is and while I don’t shout it at people here, I maintain that spirit.

Julianne Moore Movies

At the same time, sometimes a girl just needs a good cry.