How to Plan a Cycling Trip Across Central Asia and the Caucasus

I am moving to Australia! But first, I’m leaving KZ by cycling from Almaty to Istanbul.

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Naramata

I’ve done two cycling trips before, one from Vancouver to San Francisco and one from Vancouver to Naramata. Along the Pacific Coast, all you need is a decent bike and “the purple book“. And cycling to Naramata simply required choosing between the #3 and the #5 highways. Voila!

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Extensive gear shifter bruising on the way to S.F.

As a North American, if something went awry on a cycling trip within the States or Canada (nothing ever did), I knew help was easily there if I needed it. This trip is very different and required planning of epic proportions (a word that I do not use lightly). The librarian in me kind of loved it even though such details as camping alone, researching strategies for scaring away wolves, having to take a cargo ship, and buying a water filter for the first time in my life completely terrify me.

But it will also be awesome and worth the first few sleepless nights.

Here are the fruits of my labours (other than the actual trip itself). And of course, I’ll update once the journey is complete!

Route

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I so wanted to go through Iran but they changed the visa requirements in the last year or two so that Canadians can only enter the country if they have a guided tour for the entire time. My rough route, minus the many small stops on the way:

  • Almaty, Kazakhstan
  • Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
  • Shimkent, Kazakhstan
  • Tashkent, Uzbekistan
  • Samarkand, Uzbekistan
  • Bukhara, Uzbekistan
  • Train/bus from Turkmenabat to Ashgabat, then to Turkmenbashi (it’s really difficult to get anything but a transit visa for Turkmenistan, and that doesn’t give enough time to cycle across the country)
  • Take a cargo ship from Turkmenbashi to Baku
  • Baku, Azerbaijan
  • Sighnagi, Georgia
  • Tbilisi, Georgia
  • Train/bus from Kars to Kayseri, Turkey
  • Ankara, Turkey
  • Istanbul, Turkey

In general, these sites have been so helpful for route planning and more:

Silk Road
A lot of people have asked if I’m cycling the Silk Road but the Silk Road was never one road so the name is annoyingly misleading. It was a network of roads that fluctuated throughout seasons/political happenings/etc. So yes, I am kind of cycling some of the Silk Roads.

What I’m Most Excited to See
Before moving here, my knowledge of this area was very poor and it was overwhelming to research areas outside of Kazakhstan. Though I haven’t travelled in any of these regions yet (save for Turkey), living in KZ has given me a much better gauge on the surrounding area.

Uzbekistan and Georgia are the countries I’m most looking forward to. Uzbekistan has gorgeous, ancient buildings – Google image search Samarkand, Bukhara, or Khiva. And I can’t wait to eat my way through the country’s plov. And dude, Uzbek pottery.

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Georgia (as represented by a restaurant in Astana)

Georgia looks to have beautiful scenery and more importantly, it is KHACHAPURI AND WINE COUNTRY. Georgian food is getting super trendy now and I can totally understand why. It’s been my favourite fare to go out for while living in Astana.

I’m also very excited to go to Cappadocia in Turkey and see all of the hot air balloons and penis rocks.

Maps
I ordered the Reise Know-How general Central Asia, Georgia/AZ, and Turkey maps, which I read were the best in the business. And this Uzbekistan road map. I’ve also downloaded lots of maps from the maps.me app.

Phone
I’m going to continue using my Kazakh phone since roaming is so cheap across Central Asia/Turkey. But I think this only really works if you have a Kazakh bank account with which to top up your Kazakh cell plan.

Tune-Ups

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The most important thing is to make sure you get a tune-up before leaving. If your bike is in tip-top shape, it’s likely the most you’ll have to deal with on the road is the occasional flat. And also, book mark this list of bicycle repair places in Central Asia. 

I didn’t get any bike work done or buy any major gear in Astana because the one real bike shop in Astana (Limpopo) doesn’t like to work on bikes that aren’t from their store and none of the staff are fluent in English (and my Russian isn’t good enough to communicate about mechanical details). I’ve read that there’s a bicycle shop in Almaty (Ekstremal/Extremal) with English-speakers so I’m going to get my tune-up there before leaving and replace my front tire (and maybe wheel) since I think it got bent on one of Astana’s treacherous curbs.

Bike Skills

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Very important! Test out all this repair stuff a week or two before leaving. It took me several tries and I had to ask for help before I could even get my travel pump to work. Better to have mistakes happen 
at home than on the road! These are the things I made sure to know before heading off:

  • Changing a flat/patching a tube
  • Replacing a broken spoke
  • Fixing a broken chain/installing a new one
  • Removing pedals
  • Replacing and adjusting gear/brake cables

Before this trip, I knew how to change/repair flats and some other very basic tasks. But as bike shops are few and far between, I needed to learn much more. This series of videos was SO helpful.

Take a bunch of photos of your bike before leaving. Sometimes I still get tripped up with seemingly simple things like putting my back tire back on my bike and having a photo saves me a lot of grief. This will be especially helpful if you have to pack/unpack your bike to take on a plane too.

Gear and brake cables are still beyond my skill set but I have spare ones at least and a basic idea of how to change them.

I also taught myself how to true a wheel (kind of). This means straightening a wheel by loosening and tightening spokes, which is the first thing you should try when your wheel has a wobble to it. If you can’t true it, it means the rim is probably a bit bent, which is the case with my front wheel. So I think I can true okay – but I doubted my skills to the point that I had to get a very nice physics professor to check and confirm my findings.  It’s not something I should need on the road once I have my wheel fixed/replaced but I’m glad to have the knowledge at least. And if you’re interested in trying it out at any point, this is a good hack.

How to Carry All Your Stuff

I’ve always gone by two panniers on the back, tent/sleeping bag/camping mat bungeed to the rat trap. Just be careful about weight distribution. The only time I got a flat tire from Vancouver – S.F. was right after grocery shopping, the weight on the back of the bike caused the back tube to collapse.

Cycling Gear

  • Extra chain
  • Spokes/Fiber Fix
  • Gear and brake cables
  • 3 tubes
  • Travel pump
  • Bungee cords
  • Distance tracker
  • Casette Remover
  • Multi-tool including chain breaker and spoke wrench
  • Patch kit
  • Zip ties
  • Electrical tape
  • Pedal wrench

All of these items were easy enough to get. For the most part I ordered items from MEC to my friend Megan’s house (thank you!), which she brought to me when we met up in Tokyo. And the few final things, my friend Dave brought to me in Istanbul from Vancouver.

Spokes were by far the most difficult item because they are a real pain to measure yourself (and then you might not even have the correct measurement). I was hoping my bike shop back home would know but they said they’d have to see the actual wheel again. So I ended up buying a Fiber Fix.

A word on cycle clothing: I am not a believer other than bike shorts, cycling gloves, a rain jacket, and a helmet. I used clip-ins for Vancouver to San Francisco but I found them to be a nuisance. Admittedly, I’m not the most graceful of cyclists, and I often fell over when stand-still at stoplights. But I also had a cartoonish vision of myself going up a large hill, getting stuck, and starting to reverse down the hill with my legs spinning. Anyways, I’ve never used them since.

For tops, I use the same tanktops I wear while running or a sports bra and a t-shirt and I just wear Converses and athletic socks on my feet.

Other Gear

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The most important gear is snacks. Sadly, Cliff bars cannot be bought here.

  • Water filter
  • Tent
  • Sleeping bag
  • Stove
  • Pot/mug/spoon/fork
  • Water bottles/water bladder (I like to be able to hold up to 4 litres total at once)
  • Swiss Army Knife
  • Balloons (to blow up and pop to scare away wolves)
  • iPhone
  • Camping mat
  • Solar charger

Apparently there will be parts of my trip where I will need a water filter (southern KZ). This one is the best on the market, I hear, and I also bought the silt stopper since I heard it was very worth it.

I’ll be camping, as much as possible, not just because of budget, but also because in southern Kazakhstan and Uzebkistan in particular, there will likely be no other option.

I found solar charger research to be overwhelming but went with the Waka-Waka mostly because a friend said other friends recommended it and they donate one to people in need for every one that’s sold.

Other Stuff to Bring (Clothing/Hygiene) 

This is all very subjective, but it’s what I’m bringing:

  • Baby wipes (shower substitute)!
  • Sunscreen (one for face, four for body)
  • Eye cream
  • Kobo
  • Razor
  • A dress and a skirt
  • Bathing suit
  • 1 bra
  • Underwear
  • 2 tank tops
  • Elephant pants
  • Shorts
  • Cotton scarf that doubles as a towel
  • Big warm scarf that doubles as a pillow
  • Thick socks (if my feet are cold, I can’t sleep)
  • Lush shampoo bar
  • Clarisonic and face wash (judge all you want!)
  • Makeup (see above – for my off days: eyebrow pencil, blush, concealer, mascara)
  • 20 chapsticks (jk, kind of)
  • Travel pouch
  • Small towel
  • Decoy phone and wallet
  • bug spray
  • Ibuprofen, bandaids, antiseptic, cough drops, vitamin C, immodium (maybe the most important thing of all?)

I know some of these things seem silly to bring but I want to feel like my normal self on my off days. And for me, that includes wearing a dress and some makeup.

Food

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I ate 6 of these. Bulking up.

Real talk: I don’t really know what I’m doing with food other than bringing 25 Mac Coffee packs. I’m bringing a stove, stuff like oatmeal and quinoa (a gift from an American friend). There’s no point bulking myself down with more than a few days’ worth of food at a time so I will just buy what I see on the way!

Safety
I am the most scared of camping alone because I’m a big baby and incredibly easy to startle. I hate getting up to pee in the middle of the night even when I’m on an official campground, sharing a tent with someone else. When cycling to San Francisco, my bf would always get annoyed with me for peeing too close to the tent. Each night is basically going to be the scene in Wild where Cheryl freaks out about a caterpillar in her sleeping bag. Except there will be no caterpillar.

Other than that, I’m not too scared about the trip, just slightly uneasy about so much isolation in unfamiliar territory. I’ve felt safer living in Astana than anywhere else and my hesitations have absolutely nothing to do with the populations I’m passing through.

The bike trip I did alone was very isolated but only for four days. And though there weren’t many towns, there were always lots of cars passing by, and it was still close to home. I’m being as cautiously optimistic as I can be and will simply use common sense.

If anyone asks, I’ll be meeting my husband soon. I’ve learned as much Russian as I can. I have a decoy cheap phone and a wallet with not much money in case I’m robbed, and my actual phone/wallet/passport will be kept in one of those silly-looking waist pocket straps.

And I’m picking up pepper spray from a hunting store in Almaty – though that is more in anticipation of wild dogs.

Visas
This website is very helpful!

If you’re Canadian, for the countries I’m passing through, you’ll need visas for: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Turkey. Apply for as many visas as possible from home!

Theoretically, you can apply at embassies while travelling for visas without an LOI but the processing time can take weeks, and you don’t want to get in a situation where your visa in one country is running out while you’re waiting for the visa for the next country.

Careful that sometimes there’s a domino effect – for example, you can’t get a transit visa to Turkmenistan before having the visas for the countries before and after.

I have a work visa for Kazakhstan and luckily my workplace didn’t feel the need to issue me an exit visa or that would’ve been all sorts of complicated.

For Turkey, you can just get the visa at the airport when you arrive. If you’re crossing overland, you can apply online. It’s easy peasy. And I’m covered already because the visa lasts 180 days and I just got one when I went to Istanbul last month.

For the Uzbek and Azerbaijan visas, you’ll have to hire an agency for help even though there is no particularly good agency. And you’ll have to hire for Kazakhstan too if you’re not already working here 😉

I used The Visa Machine and I found them stressful to communicate with. They generally don’t respond well to email, and often staved me off on the phone, and my paperwork was all issued WAY after the processing times listed on their site. Consequently, I’ve had to rework my schedule twice. They are helpful with giving out initial advice, though!

Here’s a bit more on visa quirks:

Generally: You do not need to arrive on the exact day that your visa begins (other than perhaps the Turkmenistan transit visa). Of course, if you arrive five days later in Azerbaijan than expected, you will only have 25 days in Azerbaijan instead of 30, but you will still be able to enter. However, you cannot arrive earlier than the date stated on your visa.

Apply for visas for as long a period as possible, especially if there’s not much cost difference.

LOI stands for Letter of Invitation and is a necessity for most visas. The LOI is the reason it is very tricky and in most cases, impossible, to get a visa on your own.

Azerbaijan: For this application, I needed a hotel booking. Azerbaijan is hella expensive but apparently no one actually checks if you stay at the hotel you booked. So you can book and cancel later, which I did via Expedia.

Turkmenistan: It’s easiest to get a 5-day transit visa. Initially, I was going to have The Visa Machine issue me a Letter of Invitation, and I could’ve gotten the visa at the border. But they didn’t process my paperwork on time so that meant I had to plan to apply for the Turkmenistan visa in Almaty and pick it up 10 business days later in Tashkent. But now it looks like the Visa Machine won’t get my Azerbaijan visa to me before I leave Almaty, in which case I’ll have to apply for the visa in Tashkent and pick it up a week later (fingers crossed!).

You’ll have to put a hotel down on your application, which is annoying because it’s difficult to find exact addresses of hotels in the country. I used one found in the Central Asia Lonely Planet guide.

Uzbekistan: You’ll need a letter from your employer, stating your employment, to get the Letter of Invitation. It can be very simple, just a couple of lines saying you work at this place.

Places to Stay
I plan on camping as much of the trip as possible. The most difficult part was planning out bigger city accommodation. For this, I signed up for CouchSurfing, which I’ve never done before. And I made sure to look into hostels/cheap hotels/AirBnB as a back up in case CouchSurfing falls through and also for days when I want to be on my own.

The issue with CouchSurfing and AirBnB is that my internet access will be very limited and my schedule is an estimation. So I’ve tried to find people on CouchSurfing who are okay with me saying I’m going to arrive between x and x day. And then of course the hostels and cheap hotels are on hand for backup.

Best Airlines for Bikes
You’re probably going to have to put your bike on a plane, at some point. Make sure you check fees before you book your ticket. Some airlines don’t charge extra as long as the bike fits within your checked baggage weight allowance (Qantas, Emirates, Qatar, Singapore), other will charge a flat fee (Air Canada, Lufthansa). Some people have tried making charts online but these may not be up to date, so check the airline’s site directly.

PRO-TIP Check which carrier is operating the flight. For example, you may buy a ticket on British Airways’ site, thinking you can use their generous baggage policy. But then realize that the flight is actually operated by Vueling Airlines, which doesn’t allow any free checked baggage for economy seats.

There are lots of good youtube videos about how to pack your bike for a plane ride (I just use cardboard boxes).

Friends
I couldn’t have done all this without so much help from my friends. Everything from getting my bike over here from Vancouver, to letting me order the items I need and bringing them to me, to schlepping my suitcases halfway across the globe, to just generally being very encouraging. I am overwhelmed by all the kindness.

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Agassiz. En route to Naramata.

xoxoxo

Also, if anyone would ever like to contact me about planning a similar trip and needing advice, please do!

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How to Go to the Banya

The secret to being a good person is the banya. I would be the nicest if each of my days started with three kinds of saunas, interspersed with dips in cool water, a cold beer, and an hour long massage. Where else can a woman feel so much physical freedom, than half-napping naked on a hot marble slab?

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Banya is essentially the Russian word for sauna. I regret that it took me so long to get to Keremet (the biggest in Astana) but every time I planned to go with friends, one of us was hungover. And hungover banya sounds like a terrible idea.

People often go to the banya with friends/family of the same gender, since it’s not co-ed (yes, everyone is naked). But it’s perfectly fine to go alone. I’d recommend going with friends the first time since it’s a bit of a maze.

Shout out to this excellent post that gives a lot of detail.

No other relevant pics in this post for obvious reasons.

Why You Should Go

  • Who doesn’t love a sauna? There are like three different kinds at Keremet. Dry, steamy, and the hammam room, with a big octogonal marble slab to lie on.
  • It’s the best way to just chill. the. eff. out.
  • $40 CAD hour long massage.
  • Beer and snacks (outside of the sauna parts, of course).
  • You can get everything from massages to haircuts to pedicures (for additional $)

What to Bring

  • Flip flops (though you can rent sandals there for 100 tenge)
  • A towel
  • Cash – any services you purchase can only be paid for in cash. Entry is 2000 tenge, body scrub (pronounced: peel-ay) is 5000, a massage is 6000.
  • Shower cap or traditional felt hat. Hair shedding is a faux-pas.
  • Shower gel/shampoo/conditioner for showering off at the end of the day

The Process

When you enter Keremet, you first purchase a ticket to enter into the banya. You’re given a locker key, and orange blanket type thing, and then you go to the locker room, get undressed, grab your orange thing, put on your flip flops/sandals and shower cap/felt hat, and off you go!

Keremet is a bit overwhelming because there are different levels and rooms and even finding your way back to your locker can be a challenge. But don’t worry about it. Just chill, explore, alternate going into the different saunas with dipping in the cold pool. Grab a beer. Get a massage. And feel amazing the whole rest of the day.

Branches

While the anomalies of my massage included a stomach massage (not good after fried chicken and beer for lunch) with a quick breast massage (in the most non-sexual way possible, but still made me go, “whoa”), there was no branch hitting during the hour. You can certainly buy branches at the banya but at least at Keremet, you’re left with your friends and family to hit each other.

Also, the branches are surprisingly expensive (about $25). I see them at grocery stores sometimes, maybe those are cheaper.

Aside 

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I went to the banya again last Saturday after placing ladies’ third in a 10k race (53:16 – so very nice after my half-marathon slog). The organizers messed up the announcements but I made sure to be a real poor sport and have my placement recognized. I had a feeling it was down to myself and one other woman (other than the Almaty Marathon, races in KZ don’t have high #s of participants yet) and figured this was my only chance to place in a race ever. She was ahead of me the entire race but I sprinted the last km to beat her by something like 30 seconds.

No medal though, since the ladies’ 10k gold and bronze medals were swiped by some presumably non-English speaking construction workers, along with a bunch of t-shirts and safety pins. Banya was reward enough!

How to Buy a Tent (and Used Things in General)

Tents are really expensive here. The cheapest one I could find was at Limpopo for 25,000 tenge ($165 CAD). And it’s bright orange, which doesn’t work for the purposes of stealth/wild camping. I’d be open to investing in a good tent but I’ll be ditching this one at the end of the summer.

Thus, I turned to Slando, the Russian equivalent of Craigslist. Searching can only be done in Russian, though they make it easy to find ads with picture categories. I did all the messaging with the seller of my tent in Russian, since my written skills are decent, and then asked my co-worker/friend, Madina, to phone for me once I decided to make a purchase. Though I’m making person to person progress, a phone call is beyond my expertise.

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Welcome to KZ! In Ust-Kamenogorsk

The tents in Astana were still expensive so I also checked listings for Ust-Kamenogorsk because I knew I’d be there the beginning of May. I found a tent (only 10,000 tenge!) and told the seller the dates I’d be in town and he said that was A-okay. He was actually busy working every day I was in Ust and so I gave the cash to Madina, who was staying longer so she could pick it up.

It turns out this guy didn’t just have one tent to sell – he runs a tent business on the side and he had temporarily run out. He proposed meeting with Madina to get the cash and then as soon as some tents came in, he’d put one on a bus to Astana. Then I’d meet with the bus driver at the station and give him 500 tenge for his troubles. I gave it all the go-ahead because, it’s Kazakhstan.

The seller let Madina know on Saturday that he’d put the tent on the bus and I left my house at 6am on Sunday morning to bike to the station to meet the bus driver, who was scheduled to arrive some time between 7-8am.

When I got to the bus station, I texted with the driver alright but when he phoned me, I told him, “Sorry, I don’t understand very much,” so he thought he had the wrong number. So when he phoned again I tried a different tactic of saying, “Sorry, I’m an American lady but I want the tent!” And then he understood and all was well.

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Now I have a tent.

And here are some photos from Ust-Kamenogorsk. It’s Madina’s hometown, super east in Kazakhstan, close to Russia and China. Lots of trees, mountains, and a nice river. I’ve heard mountain treks in that region are pretty amazing, though I think you have to go by tour which is a bit $.

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Our apartment fell through but then Madina phoned 3 other people to get a new one

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I love staying in Kazakh apartments for the crazy wallpaper

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Ust has a park with old airplanes, a series of progressively bigger Lenin statues, a laneway of houses – one from each ethnic group that lives in Ust (which was really cool), and other random things

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Madina used to work at the local library and it was totally amazing. They do a lot of work with the community. They’re the only public library in Kazakhstan with wifi and their shelves became open access three years ago (the library I work at was the first in KZ to have open shelves but we’re on a closed campus….).

All in all, a very nice city! More ethnically/culturally/landscape-y diverse than Astana. Because of the distance, I’d probably only recommend going there if you’re here long-term – it’s a good getaway for 3 or more days. If only everyone who went could also experience the best manti I’ve had in KZ, made by Madina’s mom (not pictured because I was too busy eating).

How to Take the Train

For anyone who really wants to get to know Kazakhstan, I recommend taking a train somewhere. It’s a full-on experience.

First off, this website has good information too (on all things Central Asian travel!).

IMG_6457A slow train

Schedules

I like to look at e.gov for a broad overview of the Almaty and Astana schedules. It’s in English but it’s not entirely fulsome. For example, I just got back from Ust-Kamenogorsk, which isn’t on the this site.

Look directly on the rail website for all schedules. However, you’ll need to use a Cyrillic keyboard. If you have a smartphone, it’s a good idea to add a Cyrillic keyboard and familiarize yourself with the letters when you’re in this area anyways.

Once you have Cyrillic keys sorted, just type in the names of the cities to see the options! Except, it’s Kazakhstan, so of course it’s not that simple, you dummy!

For example, when I bought my ticket from Astana to Almaty there were two options for Almaty. Why is there АЛМА АТА 1 and АЛМА АТА 2? When in doubt, check each one out by selecting an option and clicking on Поиск мест. In this case, I knew offhand to pick АЛМА АТА 2.

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Despite the language difference, the schedule is pretty straightforward.

2

Speed and Price

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 A fast train

There are “slow” trains and there are “fast” trains. I’ve taken both and don’t have a preference in terms of the actual train itself. It really depends on time v. cost. For example, with the trains going from Astana to Almaty, you’re looking at 12 hours v. 20-something hours and 5000 tenge v. 13,000 (one-way). It’s really not that much more to fly to Almaty than take the fast train round-trip.

A lot of expats will train one way and fly the other when doing a trip within Kazakhstan.

Buying Tickets

Hang in there for a bit longer because buying the ticket is the hardest part. Buy as early as possible in the summer months since apparently trains often sell out.

On the rail site, I believe only Central Asian bank cards work. If you have one, then you probably also know someone who speaks Russian and you should ask them for help. Or if you know a bit of Russian/are feeling brave, use this guide I made.

Picking a Seat

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A non-passenger train

On the trains I’ve taken, there have been 3 classes: luxe/люкс (1st class), kupe/купе (2nd class), and platzkart/плацкартный (3rd class). Though it seems slower trains just have kupe and platzkart.

Kupe is generally comprised of a closed compartment for 4, with two bunk beds. Platzkart has 6 beds (3 bunks). On the two trains I’ve taken, I’ve been in kupe. Though I bought a train ticket to Almaty on the fast train for later this month in platzkart that looks to only have two beds. So, I’m confused but that’s okay.

On slow trains, it’s best to be on the lower bunk because there’s more room (especially for us tallies). On fast trains, it’s the opposite and best to pick the top bunk.

During the day, there are no bunks, and there are just seats. At night, you need to ask the conductor to put the beds down. I find the beds pretty comfortable! Much better than the 6-bed sleeping compartments I’ve been in on trains in Europe. The cabins on the slow trains are bigger and have more room. Space is tighter on the fast train so I think a kupe compartment would be a bit awkward with strangers.

What to Bring/On the Train

Kazakhstan is a big country, so prepare to be on the train for a long time, no matter where you’re going!

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Train bedding/towel

If it’s an overnight train, you’re given a set of bedding to use, including a pillow and a towel. Here’s a list of other things, compiled by my co-worker who gave me the same solid advice for my first train ride:

  • Passport
  • Wear something light since it’s blasted with heat in the winter and not air-conditioned in summer
  • Flip-flops or slip ons for walking around (bathroom floors get soaked because it’s impossible to wash your face without creating a total deluge)
  • A toiletry bag (it can be a hassle to get at your things after you make your bed, so bring a small bag to keep out with necessities)
  • Mug, spoon, fork, sharp knife
  • Books! Cards! Whatever keeps you busy. The fast trains have outlets if you want to watch movies on your laptop.
  • Food (anything that doesn’t need to stay cold or be cooked)
  • Water (if you’re on the slow train)
  • Water bottle (if you’re on the fast train)

There’s as much hot water as you could desire on the slow train and the train makes stops but they tend to be short and it’s more like a gas station run, in terms of food. There is both hot and cold water on the fast trains.

Bring food that’s good for sharing, whether you’re by yourself or with friends! Kazakhs are generally really forthcoming and happy to share.

There is also a restaurant car on the fast trains, which is absolutely terrible for food but good for beers. You might get shushed multiple times because your fellow passengers are likely not accustomed to inherently loud North American/British gals.

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 I opened this bottle of wine with a hairbrush since none of us brought a corkscrew

I’ve heard it’s not really okay to bring your own alcohol on the slow trains but as long as you’re low-key, it should be fine.

I haven’t had an issue but it’s a good idea to lock your compartment door before you go to sleep since a local friend told me that one time she woke up to a dude sitting on the end of her bed and not budging. Even though she was able to speak with him in Russian, of course, and tell him to go away.

How Early to Arrive

You’ll want to arrive at the train station at least 30 minutes beforehand. Look for your car number and seat and show your ticket and whatever form of ID you listed when buying the ticket (likely, your passport).

Bicycles

Apparently it’s not a big deal to bring a bike on Kazakh trains – I’ll report back once I’ve done so at the end of this month! I picked a platzkart with only one bunk (still not sure how I got a platzkart with only two beds) so I can lean my bike on the wall side. But I also noticed one car of the train had a bicycle sign on it, so perhaps some trains now have special storage rooms.

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The steppe goes on and on and, on and on (video here)

How to Go to Vancouver

A friend in Astana is going to Vancouver this summer and I decided to turn my email to her into a post. Here is a map with all things mentioned – it makes my overwhelming list much more palatable.

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Morning run around the seawall

Vancouver is very magical. I moved around a lot growing up and this is the place that I consider home.

For me, a perfect few days would involve:

  • All Top 5 restaurants
  • Cycling across the Lion’s Gate Bridge to Deep Cove and going to Honey’s Doughnuts
  • The Cobalt
  • chai and a ferry ride at Granville Island
  • one of: Sunday Service/Come Draw With Me/Laugh Gallery

And some weird things like doing karaoke at The Aristocrat but that is purely for sentimental value and not necessarily something a visitor should do.

Here’s a longer list.

Things to Do in the Daytime

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View of Stanley Park from the Lion’s Gate Bridge

Walk on the seawall and through Stanley Park.

A stroll through Granville Island. It’s touristy, but I LOVE IT so much. Get a chai latte from the Granville Island Tea Company in the market. It is horrifyingly made with butter but so delicious. And buy a bag of Cream Earl Grey. If you’re hungry, go to the Stock Market, which is also within the market.

While at Granville Island, you can also try on a bunch of hats and buy tiny adorable note pads that you will never actually use. And make sure you take a boat ride.

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If you are feeling ambitious, hike The Chief (you’ll need a car to get there). If you’re feeling more low-key, hike Deep Cove and go to Honey’s Doughnuts afterwards (plain is best. Also, possible to get here by public transit, though it’s a bit long). Watch out for the aggressive seagulls.

Find a Purdy’s and get something with peanut butter in it and your life will be forever changed. Beta 5 chocolates is also fantastic.

Elysian and Beaucoup Bakery are my favourite coffee/pastry places. Nero Waffles is delish.

I did not spend enough time at Queen Elizabeth Park and the Bloedel Floral Conservatory but they are beauts. Van Dusen and Dr. Sun Yat-Sen are also great gardens, worth the visit.

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Beatty Biodiversity Museum at UBC

If you have time, the University of British Columbia campus is gorgeous and I feel so lucky I spent the majority of my young adult life there. Great museums, gardens, and the best beach in town, Wreck Beach (naked beach!).

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En route to UBC (and my desktop background)

If you’re really into cycling, then you can follow these guides for day/afternoon trips around Vancouver (shameless plug).

Things to Do in the Night Time

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Getting ready for The Cobalt

The Cobalt – you can go here on almost any given night and have a good time. Former punk bar now known for drag shows, burlesque, art parties, pinball, karaoke and more.

The China Cloud – the strangest/best comedy you’ve ever seen and music shows.

Hot Art Wet City – super fun venue with art, comedy, and more.

The Biltmore – mainly a music venue. Check out their calendar to see what’s on. Same goes for Fox Cabaret.

The Sunday Service on Sunday nights at The Fox Cabaret. This is also absolutely the best thing to do on a date. But as my ex is in the group and I am a polite Canadian, I regret that I will never reap that particular benefit.

If you are so lucky as to be in town during Graham Clark’s Laugh Gallery, Alicia Tobin’s Come Draw With Me, Rapp Battlez, or Rain City Chronicles (storytelling night) then I would say, definitely go!

Even for folks who aren’t generally into comedy, Vancouver has a really wonderful comedy scene so I would highly recommend checking out a show.

And check out the weekly Scout List.

Places to Eat

Vancouver has amazing restaurants with a huge variety but most places don’t take reservations, so expect to wait in line. There are also no Taco Bells 😦

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You can’t get food here but I ate here all the time (on top of my old workplace, the courthouse, downtown)

Top 5 (places I would have to go to any time I return)

  • Rangoli/Vij’s – these restaurants, both owned by Vikram Vij, sit side by side in South Granville. They’re the Indian food places that even people who don’t like Indian food love. Rangoli is the more casual of the two and you won’t have to wait nearly as long to get a table.
  • Sushiyama – okay, there are better sushi places but I will forever have a soft spot in my heart for this place. Just don’t order sashimi unless you like your tuna Texas Toast sized.
  • Bao Bei – modern Chinese. So good. Get the dessert: chinese donuts with white rabbit dipping sauce.
  • The Sardine Can – I discovered this place shortly before I moved but I would go here all the time if I were in Vancouver again.
  • Nuba – Lebanese. Hearty, cheap, with decor I would drape my house in. And the one place I love where you generally don’t have to wait in line, especially the Main street location. A typical Saturday night for my ex and I involved walking around to three different restaurants, finding it would be a 45+ minute wait, and eventually winding up at Nuba.

Other Places that Are Very Good

  • Legendary Noodle – handmade Chinese noodles.
  • Cafe Medina – I don’t really like brunch but this is a place I will happily go to.
  • Bob Likes Thai – this is my favourite lunch spot. So reasonable! The Main Street location, last I checked, does not have a liquor license.
  • Pad Thai – it’s kind of awful but also kind of amazing and very cheap. Best for takeout/delivery.
  • L’ Abbatoir or Chambar – if you’re feeling fancy!
  • Les Faux Bourgeois or Burdock & Co. – if you’re feeling fancy but don’t want to spend a lot of $$$!
  • Alibi Room – best known for beers and brunches, but great any time.
  • Peaceful Restaurant – amazing Chinese.
  • Ask for Luigi or Campangolo – Italian. Delicious. Luigi also has a good brunch.
  • Exile Bistro – cocktails that make you not feel bad about drinking and also great food and decor.
  • The Acorn – same designers as Exile Bistro. Vegetarian even non-vegetarians will love.
  • Pizza – Vancouver has a lot of great pizza places, including: Nicli Antica, Barbarella, Farina, Don’t Argue!, Nook, and more.
  • Basho Cafe – I didn’t have a chance to make it here before moving but I have heard great things.
  • Phnom Penh – another one I never made it to. Heard their chicken wings are the best.
  • Bandidas – the one place I actually love to go to for brunch, for “The Breakfast.”
  • Guu – it’s an experience. Can be intimidating (unless you go to tranquil Guu Garden) but totally worth it. This is not a place to go to alone and is best for a small-medium group dinner. Many locations around town and heated debates as to which is best.
  • Budgies – it’s not THAT good but I love it.

Other places that are not noteworthy enough for singling out but generally quite good if you happen to spot them and you’re hungry: Mamie Taylor’s, Little Charlie’s Italian, Meat & Bread, Wildebeest, Banana Leaf, Acme Cafe, Fable Kitchen, Red Wagon, La Mezcaleria, Los Cuervos Taqueria, Lolita’s, Savary Island Pie Company (in North Vancouver) the list goes on and on. You can also check out the Scout 25.

Places to Drink

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Obligatory chandelier shot at The Emerald

L’ Abbatoir is also a good place for just drinks. If you’re into beer and handsome men, check out 33 Acres and Brassneck (and the Alibi Room, of course). Reflections is a rooftop bar that feels kind of surreal and totally not Vancouver but is fun.

If you feel like treating yourself, grab a $16 cocktail from the Shangri-La hotel (worth it). One time I saw Reiko from The Real Housewives of Vancouver there and I almost died.

Six Acres is a standby, good for snacks too. The Emerald and The Diamond, also good. And Exile is nice for just a drink.

Places to Stay

AirBnB, no doubt about it. The hotel exception is The Best Western on 205 Kingsway. This is where my suburban/out of town drag queen friends stay when they do shows at The Cobalt.

As for which area to stay in:

Mt. Pleasant – hipstery, best place to stay if you plan on mostly going out/drinking/eating.

West 4th – “yummy mummy” central. But a nice quiet area for walking around the water, with some good restaurants too. A pal of mine has a great place in this neighbourhood on AirBnB.

West End – my favourite neighbourhood to live in, hands down. A bit tricky to get around the rest of Vancouver (unless you’re on bike) but if you only have a couple of days and want to see the nature sites, this may be the best place to stay. Walking distance to the seawall and Stanley Park and en route to Deep Cove/The Chief.

Gastown – super trendy, with great but $$$ restaurants and shops. Has a nice historical feel.

Kitsilano/South Granville/Fairview, Commercial Drive, and Chinatown are all places I would consider staying in, as well.

Scout’s neighbourhood guides may give you a better idea of the lay of the land.

How to Get Around

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Lion’s Gate Bridge

Considering how bike-friendly Vancouver is, it surprises many that there’s no bike sharing system. But Vancouver’s helmet bylaw is a hindrance, for now (for the record – I always recommend wearing a helmet!).

I would actually not recommend that a tourist rent a bike to ride unless they’re a comfortable rider. There are a lot of pedestrians/cyclists/drivers in the city who are jerks and it can be really intimidating and offputting, even as an experienced cyclist.

It may be worth considering getting a Car2Go membership (something like $30 to sign up), especially since Car2Go is valid in a few cities. I think a whole day rental is $60. You can read more about it on the site. To me, it sounds easier than actually renting a car and I used this all the time while I was living in the city. Especially, because parking is awful but Car2Go’s can be parked in permit only areas.

Public transit is decent. From the airport it’s easy peasy, just hop on the Canada Line. Check out Translink’s site and the Trip Planner.

And for the most part, Vancouver is an easily walkable city.

How to Get There

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Pink clouds are a semi-regular occurrence

Don’t go from Astana if you can help it. Literally, halfway across the world from here, you can go over Asia or over Europe and get there in the same amount of time. I chose over Europe because the layover times were a bit shorter. But you’re looking at a long travel day(s) (my 22-hour journey here was a stroke of luck).

Wherever else you are, just book a car or a plane and go! And give it all my love.