How to Go for a Meal By Yourself

Eating out alone in Astana requires a big DGAF attitude. Mine is moderate.

I used to go for a drink/dinner on my own all the time in Vancouver. But it just doesn’t seem to be done here, among expats and locals, alike. The exception is going to a restaurant that seems more like a coffee shop (Shokoladnitsa, Maronne Rosso, etc.) and bringing a laptop with you to do work.

Even when I first arrived here, it was clear that going to the cafeteria at lunch was a group activity. Despite really liking my co-workers at my last job, 4/5 times I ate lunch alone and I had a hard time adjusting to the norm in my new workplace. But now I make a point of going at a different time at least a couple times a week to clear my head and read over whatever variation of a Greek salad I’ve made for that day. I am an extrovert but need a lot of alone time to function.

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But finally, after 8 months, I decided enough was enough and went for a meal on my own.

Sundays are my long run days and I’m getting a bit bored of my two routes (leave campus and turn right or left, then turnaround and come back once you’ve reached your halfway mark). I’ve been experimenting with going for a run and ending it at the grocery store or at a restaurant to meet friends. This is only possible in cold weather so I’m taking advantage of it, while I can. I tried it once when on vacation in Kelowna during the summer and melted on the pleather seats, while everyone looked with grave concern at my bright red face.

So yesterday I ran from campus to Highvill and ended my run at Kakao Dak for Korean fried chicken and beer. I’ve written about this place before. It’s a small, dark restaurant and seemed suited to the weird foreign girl who just wants to read and gorge. I was a little scared about how much I would eat when left to my own devices here. There are times I’ve been to Kakao Dak and everyone else says they’re full and I keep silent though I could eat another basket.

You have to be really strong to be true to yourself, even in the smallest of ways, I’ve learned.

Anyways, the answer is this much:

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Basket of remaining fries not pictured. Basket of chicken not fully pictured.

The waitress was so unconvinced that I sincerely wanted a whole litre of water. But then she tried to convince me to get a 16-piece combo.

Conclusion

Kakao Dak is a good low-key place to go to by yourself if you’re feeling self-conscious about eating alone (even though you normally don’t in your home city) and you’re tired of pasta salads from Maronne Rosso. But don’t go there if you’re feeling depressed because it’s dark and strange to go there during daylight hours (no windows!).

You don’t have to run there, of course, but it would’ve felt excessive to me to take a taxi by myself both ways and it would take so long to get to Highvill by public bus. Running there also helped me not hate myself post-meal for eating so unhealthily (this has never actually happened to me, run or no run, but I hear it is a thing).

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Post-run Japanese beauty mask

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How to Go to a Kazakh Wedding

To get invited to a Kazakh wedding, you should move here and become friends with a co-worker who’s fallen in love with a Kazakh woman.

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They are absolutely adorable and she looked amazing.

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I was disappointed that she didn’t wear a traditional fun hat (user uploaded Pinterest photo).

It’s okay, some fun hats came into play later.

Here is what you can expect if you go to a Kazakh wedding.

Opulence

“Kazakhs’ favourite colour is gold,” laughed Madina when we entered the venue. This was by far the fanciest wedding I have ever attended. Every surface was grand, shiny, and $$$.

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You will not feel out of place wearing red-carpet attire but it’s okay to wear standard fancy dress.

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I decided to match our apartment rental.

Punctuality

If you show up two hours late, you will be right on time.

Program

A hired emcee takes everyone through the evening. I mostly remember him often proclaiming, “SHABA-DOE!” which means “applause” in Kazakh.

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There are traditional dances.

And all the young men were asked to participate in games. One consisted of each man wearing a pair of baggy pants over top their regular clothes, and playing musical chairs with training potties, and before sitting down, each man had to pull down their baggy pants, as if to use the potty. For another game, each man had to wear an oversized velvet jumpsuit with balloons stuffed inside. They had to slow dance with women and then bump against each other to pop as many balloons as possible.

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This guy won the velvet jumpsuit/balloon game. He was sassy.

Gifts & Toasts

It is a truth universal that everyone loves money. I just put some money in a Chinese envelope that I picked up while in Malaysia.

There is no gift table because gifts are only presented once you’ve given a toast. The emcee calls up groups, based on how you know the bride or groom. For example, all of us who worked with the groom were a group. Then you each give a toast into the microphone, you all dance for a song (we got “Blue” by Eiffel 65) and then you go up to the couple’s table to hug them and present your gift.

I was totally horrified but it was actually okay.

Food

Endless alcohol! Too much food! We only had to scoop one spoonful out of a salad (and by salad, I mean meat with mayonnaise) and it was promptly replaced with a fresh bowl. At the end of the night, each guest received a handful of plastic bags to take home the leftovers.

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This was how much was left AFTER the ten people at our table had all they could eat.

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Procession of meat. Serious business.

Lemons

The best produce to be found in Central Asia is Uzbek lemons. They are cheap and delicious and the best lemons I’ve ever tasted. And I love lemons! First thing every morning, I drink a glass of water with half a lemon.

The only thing better than an Uzbek lemon is an Uzbek lemon on an Uzbek plate.

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It took me a while to find these lemons. I was at a friend’s on New Year’s Eve and he brought some slices out with tea and mentioned how much he liked them. Until then, I’d always bought regular lemons but then I noticed that I could get “Tashkent lemons,” as they’re referred to here (Tashkent as in the city in Uzbekistan) at the grocery store I go to most often – Alma 24 in Asia Park.

Though I’ve never tried one, I’m almost certain these are Meyer lemons. They’re fruitier, oranger, and the skin is smoother than a regular lemon.

It’s worth keeping your eye out for these beauties.

How to Go to Almaty (and Avoid Arrest)

Almaty is the biggest city in Kazakhstan and was the capital up until 1997, when that title was bestowed on Astana. It’s an older city with lots character, cafes, parks, and mountains, and milder weather due to its location in the south. From Astana, you can take a 20-hour or 12-hour overnight train ride and easily spend a week exploring the city and surroundings. If you splurge on the 1.5 hour flight ($200-350 depending how far in advance you book), it makes for a good weekend trip.

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Uzbek pottery

I’ve been in Astana for about three months now and was feeling a bit antsy to get away but a trip to Almaty seemed a bit expensive, considering that I could only go for two days. But the steppe currently looks and feels like an apocalyptic arctic backdrop and so I went ahead and bought a ticket and booked a tour guide for Saturday to go into Alatau – Eliy National Park to see some greenery and land elevation.

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Our guide, Marat, picked Sophie and I up at 10am with a plan to hike up to Big Almaty Lake and hit Sunkar Falcon Farm on the way back. We rented an apartment and there were no coffee shops nearby so we asked to stop at a cafe on the way. He always drinks coffee at home and he also explained that cafes are constantly opening and shutting down and so this proved difficult. The first place didn’t have any coffee ready yet and the second place had coffee and to-go cups but no lids. Marat kindly waited to begin the drive until we had half-finished our cups since the hour-long way to the Park is very bumpy. It was the first of many times that he demonstrated his capacity for patience that day.

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Locals are allowed to drive right up to the Lake but foreigners must stop at a makeshift guarding point and hike up. I asked why but asking “why” in KZ is often the equivalent of asking a rhetorical question. I could tell the hike was a bit strenuous for Marat and I admired his tactic of stopping every so often to tell us some history or a story, while we all caught our breath. His favourite descriptor was “Stalin-style” and his stories ranged from telling us about the inspiration behind A Clockwork Orange, to why Kazakhs hate walking, to all of the people he knows who have been accidentally killed by guns (2). Somehow, this didn’t come off as dark, at the time.

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The lake was completely breathtaking, a perfect saturated blue. Formed from a glacier, it’s a protected source of drinking water. Visitors cannot walk along the edge of the lake, which accounts for its pristine condition. Foreigners and locals alike have to hike/drive above and walk down aways. Marat mentioned something about a big rock and stayed up top, letting Sophie and I on our own. I walked halfway down the muddy side and sat for a bit. Another tourist came up from the lakeside and seeing that she managed to make it up without slipping on the wet ground, I headed down. Sophie followed and we took some photos.

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Kind of worth it.

We were about to go back when a policeman with a huge gun approached us. He spoke no English but told us we had to follow him and said something about being arrested and made handcuff motions and talked about fines and generally looked very stern and unimpressed. I then realized Marat meant we weren’t supposed to go past the big rock by the lake because it’s an unmarked border. Uncertain of where we were heading, we were eventually passed off to a friendlier, gunless policeman. I motioned to make a phone call and explained the situation to Marat who said he’d come meet us by the lake.

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Marat and the friendly policeman

The friendly policeman also spoke absolutely no English but was very interested in speaking with Sophie and me. We chatted a bit but I mostly had to answer, “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand.” He then said, “you are very beautiful,” and I said, “thank you” and he laughed so hard that out of my limited Russian, I can clearly understand when someone is giving me a compliment. He also said Sophie was very beautiful and asked if we had husbands and then I began using a trick I picked up from a friend here – when Russian-speakers are getting too flirtatious, don’t let on that you know what they’re saying. So when he tried to to link arms and said we should fly to Canada together, I exclaimed, “I don’t know!” and traipsed quickly ahead.

Marat met us with the stern policeman and told us to keep smiling and all would be well. That was easy because I had been giggling the entire time. The other tourists took photos of us as we walked to headquarters, which was a small white shack similar to the kind you see in nature documentaries that feature photographers who stake out for years for the perfect snow leopard shot. It was a giant kitchen/garbage can. Marat talked our way out of arrests and fines and into simply writing statements. I was given a blank piece of paper and a pen. With no instructions, I began by writing the date in the top right corner. The policemen didn’t like that and so they turned the paper over and made me start again.

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Directly in front of me on the table, there was a container of dish detergent labelled, “BARF.” I clearly have poor common sense but even I knew it would be entirely inappropriate to laugh out loud. I have never bit my cheek so hard.

After our statements were signed we were on our way. Except Marat had forgotten his walking poles at the top of the lake so he ran up the long distance ahead to get them. I tried to offer to go instead since I felt terrible but he insisted we go ahead. By this time, I really had to pee and generally have no problem going outdoors (bicycle travelling makes you comfortable) but I didn’t want to risk another brush with the law.

A long time passed and Marat eventually caught up with us, breathless. He made us lunch in a sunny spot and we rested for a while. Sausage, cheese, Mr. Noodles: it was as if I’d placed advanced requests for the meal. The manager of the falcon farm notified him that the daily show time was changed last minute from 3:00 to 5:00, so we had a lot of time to kill. We told him we were okay not seeing the show but he wouldn’t hear of it.

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The falcon farm was terrifying and sad and beautiful and I felt conflicted the entire time.

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The birds are trained to hunt and sold. But who buys them?

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Marat walked around a bit, told me all he knew about the animals and then waited in the car while the show took place. We drove back and just before dropping us off he accidentally backed into a children’s playground.

As someone who works in a customer service position, I often wonder how other people feel when providing a service. There was no speculation in this instance.

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Picture of a jerk

Where to Eat

Doing anything here is a production. But going out for food is a PRODUCTION. For dinner, you have to block off an entire evening. For lunch, three hours of an afternoon. If you order takeout, you will be waiting for two hours. You can be the only table in an entire restaurant, and it will still take over an hour for the food to come. Items come at all different times. Service is always terrible.

That said, I go out for food at least three times a week because it’s the main form of entertainment here. Also, “going for a drink” in Astana is not something that really happens. You can go to a restaurant and just get a drink but it will take so long that you’ll need to order food at some point and then you might as well call it dinner.

Here are some of the restaurants that I like best so far and a map of more.

Turfan
Outdoor seating, cheap Central Asian food, big portions, and they don’t mind when you show up super grubby from a long bike ride. I like the plov (lamb with seasoned rice), lagman (lamb and noodles), and lahmacun (Turkish pizza).

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The number of drinks required after a steppe-ride on a hot day. 3+/person.

Osoba
Georgian comfort food. As in Euro-Georgian, not southern US Georgian. This is hands down my favourite restaurant here. And it’s one of the only places in town that serves decent-tasting and decently priced wine. Beware that everything is huge. The first time I came here we went home with three boxes of leftovers. Favourite items include: Greek salad, lobio (beans), manti (dumplings), ajapsandali (eggplant and tomato stew), and my favourite – khachapuri (cheesy bread).

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Guest appearance by Kevin! He is the first friend I made here and our hangouts mostly consist of eating and him telling me I’m not marriagable material.

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Manti the size of coin purses!

Also I guarantee you will enjoy the man sitting by the door singing softly into a microphone.

Kakao Dak
Korean fried chicken. Order fries and whatever this is (yes, I am following them on Instagram). There are photos on the menu!

Korean > Kentucky. If I lived in Highvill, I would eat this every other day.

Indiagate
Temporarily closed but good food when open. Apparently one of the staff usually plays a xylophone and sings “My Heart Will Go On” and I was so disappointed that it didn’t happen when I went.

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More beer with straws. Because I’m a lady.

Line Brew
Steak. Steaks! I’ve felt like garbage after each visit here but other people seem to love this restaurant, especially expats, which is why it made this list. It’s a little pricier here but you definitely get your money’s worth of food. I tried horse for the first time here (I ate smoked horse slices at a party but everyone said that didn’t count). Horse tastes pretty good but it’s so dense that I don’t think I could eat a whole steak.

Notes

  • You must have snacks with you at all times. This is how I get through life here.
  • Although wine is very cheap in stores, it’s very expensive in restaurants. Cocktails are expensive all-around and so I almost exclusively order beer when out.
  • When you need the waitress’ attention, call out, “dyeh-voosh-kah”, which means “lady.” I realize that’s just how it’s done here, but it feels so strange.
  • On average, I think I pay 3000-5000 tenge/$16-28 USD for dinner and a beer or two.
  • Shashlik (kebabs) really vary in size. Meat ranges from 1 in. cubes (Turfan) to the size of a fist (Osoba).
  • Though many restaurants seem to focus on a specific kind of cuisine, as you flip through the 50 page menu, you’ll see it ranges from Italian to Japanese. You could do a Bang-Bang in any one restaurant here.

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Tips for Ordering

  • When in doubt re: food, order plov.
  • When in doubt re: beer, order Efes. The waitress will probably ask you a question after you order, which will be about the size that you’d like. I am too embarrassed to ask my Russian teacher how to order different sizes of beer so I just say “ball-shoye” (big) like the ogre I am.

A Short List of Things I Like (and Two Things I Don’t Like)

Things I Like

  • There is no nutritional information on anything (I have gained ten pounds since moving here).
  • Pomegranate juice.
  • Sour cherry juice.

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 This one has apple too

  • When I say things like, “I shouldn’t eat so much sugar,” people here genuinely ask, “Why?”
  • People aren’t constantly looking at their phones. It wasn’t until all of us went on our smartphones at dinner one night that I noticed this. I’m not sure if it’s the culture or that most of the people expats text with are in a totally different time zone, but I really appreciate it.
  • Everyone is blunt and friendly. My favourite combination of traits! Though I long for the cold politeness of the Pacific Northwest when I’m feeling moody. Which is all the time.

Vancouver

 Hello, Vancouver!

  • You can actually learn Russian, if you want to. There are opportunities to use it every day since a lot of people don’t speak English.
  • If you don’t want to learn Russian, locals really try to meet you halfway to reach a mutual understanding.
  • The best sunrises and sunsets.
  • When beer is served to women in restaurants, it comes with a straw. It makes one of my girlfriends so upset but it makes me laugh every time.

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 Ladies’ Night

Two Things I Don’t Like

  • It is so flat here that I can always see the entire distance I will travel during my runs. Mentally crushing.

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 On and on and on and on.

  • Being chased by wild dogs while cycling. I didn’t think that would actually be an issue here but it happened last week and then all of a sudden I started encountering wild dogs everywhere. Future post: How to Find Pepper Spray.

How to Grocery Shop

I hate grocery shopping. Always have. However, the novelty of grocery shopping in an entirely different region has made it enjoyable enough that here I am, discussing what is a very boring topic.

There are no grocery stores on the campus of the university I live/work at and the city is about 5km away, which means I have to bus or ride my bike to get groceries. I bought a bike basket this weekend, making life considerably easier even though it took me all weekend to figure out how to properly attach it to the bike.

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So far, I’ve been to three grocery stores, all of which are found in malls. One called Gal Mart in Keruen (sometimes I like to think of this as a derivative of Walmart, and other times, as a store for gals), Green in Khan Shatyr (the yurt shaped mall), and Alma Friendly 24 in Asia Park. I’ll probably go to Alma Friendly 24 the most because it’s the closest to campus.

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There are also bazaars at which you can buy groceries but I’ve been too lazy to go so far. So TBA on that. And ordering groceries is an option, which I’m sure I’ll do a lot in the winter or when I’m craving celery, which is apparently one of the things you can order.

Here are some thoughts on the grocery selection that I’ve seen so far:

  • I haven’t found kale, chard, or dark leafy greens yet. I would even be happy with the leafy tops of beets!
  • I miss coconut oil, apple cider vinegar, and kombucha. Such a west coast hippie.
  • To make up for the above, I’m hoping to acquire a taste for kefir. For now, I’m not so into it.
  • Produce in general is okay. My favourite options include: apricots, plums, peppers, and garlic. Peppers everywhere here!

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  • It took me forever to find body lotion. My skin was about to slough off entirely because it’s so dry here. Every day is a battle with hair static. One of my colleagues highly recommends mayonnaise hair masks.
  • You can buy alcohol! In Alma Friendly 24, there is a separate cashier at which you have to pay for wine and hard liquor (for some reason you buy beer at the regular cash). Good for you British Columbia for catching up to the least progressive grocery store in Kazakhstan.
  • I bought some local Kazakh wine for $4 but then I couldn’t find a corkscrew. I managed to get it open by pushing it through. There were corkscrews next time I went to the store (you have to buy things you want when you see them because they might not be there next time). But the corkscrew didn’t work on the wine I bought today because the bottle top is a weird shape and so I had to push the cork through again. And then it turned out I accidentally bought a dessert wine. The daily adventures of Kazakhtan.
  • Though there is no grocery store on campus, there is a snack store. They sell these paprika crackers and soft cheeses (like Laughing Cow) that are my favourite snack.

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  • I bought what I thought was a jar of plain tomato sauce for making pasta sauce but it’s very sweet and ketchup-y tasting. I tried to buy some other sauce but it had pomegranate seeds in it and was very gross. It’s okay, I’ve always been into this recipe.
  • No peanut butter or nut butters of any kind. I’m kind of okay with this though. I always liked peanut butter in theory more than in taste.
  • Finding spices is a case of judging a book by its cover. The packets are opaque and you have to guess based on the illustrations. I accidentally bought soup mix a few days ago.
  • There is a staple grain here that I eat a lot. I have no idea what it’s called. I Googled the name on the package (“apashka”) but it’s actually the brand name, and means “granny” in Kazakh but it’s also a dervish term, or something, and the images that accompanied the search were very alarming.
  • It took my room mate and I an afternoon to figure out whether we had bought toilet paper or very boring streamers from the snack store on campus. Turns out it is, indeed, toilet paper. They sell standard toilet paper in stores – in so many colours!

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  • I order my drinking water through the reception staff of the building I live in and there’s a big water cooler at work.
  • Bread. BREAD! It’s so good. So cheap. Less than $.50 cheap.
  • Across the board, groceries are cheap. I think I’ve been paying about $30/week here so far.
  • These bulk assorted “fish shapes” make me laugh every time I pass by them.

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