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 Run a Half-Marathon

The only officially organized race that I know of in the two major cities of Astana and Almaty, is the annual Almaty Marathon. Though I hear that Air Astana will be putting a race on in Astana this September.

I had thought about running the half-marathon portion of the Great Wall race, with a friend, but those plans fell through a while back. So when the Almaty race came up, I was already mentally prepared to sign up.

The idea of a race has always intimidated me. I don’t even like running with friends (it was the only time I felt cranky on my trip to Japan) so the idea of running in a crowd is hugely unappealing. But because of its smaller size, the Almaty race felt like the right one to sign up for. Plus, I love Almaty and it’s always fun to go there with friends.

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Some Uzbek plates I saw on this trip since y’all seem to love them so much 🙂

Preparation

I’ve been running (okay let’s be real, jogging) at least twice a week for the past two and a half years, except for the many times I injured myself and had to temporarily stop. People assume because I’m tall and slim that I’m a natural runner. But the sports doctor I saw about my recurring shin splints told me that my body isn’t really meant for running – the load of it being too much for my shins to bear.

I think a lot of that is bullshit in the sense that I can run decently but I just have to be mindful (and I’ll happily use the diagnosis as an excuse to never run a full marathon). After a lot of physio, the right shoes, and finally getting my groove, I started hitting my stride in Astana. Likely, because it’s the best cure I’ve found for all those frustratingly bureaucratic or lonely days.

Once I signed up for the race last fall, I began running four times a week and did pilates and soccer once or twice a week. I never ran more than three days in a row. I did one fast 3-5k run, an easy 5-8, some sort of interval training run between 5-8k, and a long run between 10-18 (I peaked at 18k). Many thanks to running/librarian friends, Shannon and Lindsay for helping me craft a casual training plan!

I do physio exercises before each run (15 minutes) and I’ve found these really help prevent injury. For longer runs, I sometimes tape my right shin and left ankle. I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m doing it incorrectly and it’s just a placebo effect that helps. Whatever works!

Soundtrack

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My friend, Megan, said that she runs without her phone and runs as long and as fast as she feels. Spirit runs! I could never do this.

I like running best to podcasts. In Vancouver, I would sometimes run to Songza playlists (1993 rap and Dreampop). But Songza isn’t available outside of North America and I have a very minimal music collection, so podcasts it is.

I find that music is too familiar or repetitive to fully take my mind off of running. Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History and Marc Maron’s WTF are generally engrossing enough to put me in the right headspace. It was especially fun to listen to the Hardcore History series on Ghengis Khan while running along the steppe.

Apps

My friend, and spirit runner (though he would never call it that), Sean, said his body tells him exactly how fast and far he needs to go. I roll my eyes in jealousy and continue to use apps to track how all over the place my pace is.

I’ve been using RunKeeper since I started running but I’ve recently switched over to Strava, simply because one of my best pals uses it. I dislike that Strava doesn’t let you program intervals but I felt that for race day it would be best, because it tells you the pace of your previous km and I thought that would be most helpful for keeping track.

Race Day Strategy

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My goal was to run in under two hours. I would’ve been so happy even at 1:59:59.

I planned to run the first 5k (5:50-5:55/km) at a slower pace, the next 12.5k at a slightly faster pace (5:40), and the last 3.6k as fast as possible. It meant I should hit 5k by 29:35 minutes in, 10k by 58, 15k by 86, and 17 by 94.

I’d never used energy gels before but I tried a couple on longer training runs and reserved two to use during the race (one before the start and one halfway through).

I have to pee all the time, so I planned to wake up super early and hydrate and stop an hour before the race. I also felt nervous about hydrating during the race since I normally don’t bring water on my runs but Shannon convinced me that I really need to hydrate during such a long run. So I decided to grab cups at a few water stations and sip as much down as I could without choking.

Race Day

I ate a whole bunch of spicy Korean food the night before, which was totally cool with my iron stomach but not so great for my fellow racing friends. Woke up early to hydrate, had half a banana and some pomegranate juice and took an energy gel 30 minutes before the race started.

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Fresh-squeezed Tashkent (yellow) pomegranates

There were four of us running the race. Jack and I didn’t want to show up that much earlier than the race start time but Sean told us that races are always so chaotic that you do need to show up early.

I really had to pee by the time we got to the race site but we couldn’t find toilets anywhere so I peed by a pile of rocks. I would’ve loved to have gone again right before the start of the race but there was no way that was happening with all the crowds.

The Race

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All I knew for sure was that I had shaved my legs

It. Was. So. Hot. During the race it peaked at 27 degrees. There was snow in Astana up until a couple of weeks ago. And I’m the type of person who runs in short shorts and a tank top when it’s 10 degrees out and still get overheated.

By 6k I totally abandoned my pacing plan and started run/walking. I really hated to walk because I never do on my day-to-day runs but I knew if I pushed myself too much, I would burn out way before the end and be fully walking. I stopped at almost all the water stations, if only to pour it over my head (I was totally soaked by the finish line). And I had no qualms about stopping to pee once I spotted some toilets without a big line.

I finished with a time of 2:17:40, 60/351 women who did the half. And I’m left feeling like it was a respectable first try (average time for ladies worldwide is 2:19), I’m really glad I did it, and I’d like to do another half next year. From the last 5k until I finished the race I was thinking, “Never again!” But now I’ve experienced the same symptoms as post-partum women and a layer of vaseline softens my memory of the race.

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I may not have met goal #1 but I did meet goal #2 to not poop my pants.

Things I Learned

  • Ideally, my first race would’ve been in the city I live and have already been running in.
  • I will never run a race again when it’s anticipated that the temperature will go well above 15 degrees.
  • Listening to a podcast on race day was totally the wrong choice for me. I’m so glad that I downloaded ABBA Gold at the last minute.
  • French-braided pigtails was a wise (ie. secure) hair choice.
  • Listening to my body in the moment was also a good choice.
  • Chocolate flavoured energy gels are kind of gross – I think I’d go with fruit next time.

I was pretty impressed with how well-organized this specific race was! The starting could definitely be better managed. And I would never bring a bag to pick up afterwards again (I think it took over 15 minutes to find it). But overall, pretty decent.

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Last flight for a while!

 

How to Go to Turkey

As aforementioned, Istanbul is one of the easiest places to get to from Astana. You can get a direct flight (Air Astana or Turkish Airlines), that is not too long (5 hours), and relatively inexpensive ($400-600). And it is an absolutely wonderful city, so that’s all the reason you need to go!

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Morning

When my BSGF (best straight guy friend) told me he was going to Istanbul for a wedding the same week as my birthday, I put it in my calendar right away. I did my library practicum in Istanbul in 2009 and while I could quickly tell it was a city I wouldn’t like to live and work in, as a librarian (a post for another time), I very much liked it as a place to visit.

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Addition to my tiny bowl lifestyle

Some lasting impressions from the first time around:

  • The food!
  • Beautiful views
  • Ferry rides
  • Figs and almonds
  • Being constantly stared at (not always in a lustful way, but in a – you are so tall and so blonde – way)
  • Friendly folks
  • Turkish delight! And being offered a sampling in a strange man’s apartment (too friendly)
  • Being stalked from KFC in a mall all the way to Taksim Square (way too friendly)
  • Bambi Doner
  • An intense May 1 demonstration
  • Smoking because I felt awkward about having so much alone time and having a waiter tell me, “Please, don’t smoke. I think you only started a week or two ago, because I look at you, and I can see that smoking is not your life. So don’t smoke.”
  • Being informed by my flatmate a week after arriving that I wasn’t actually supposed to put toilet paper in the toilet

All good impressions held up and all of the weird things were just as specific, though different, from the first time around.

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Another morning

And now here is some informative content derived from both visits:

Airports

There are two airports, Ataturk on the European side and Sabiha on the Asian side. The sides are split by the mighty Bosphorus Strait. Prior to moving to Astana, I’d only been to Asia by technicality of crossing the Bos’.

Ataturk, on the European side, is closer to where you’re likely to stay. This site has a guide on airport travel options and current taxi prices.

Where to Stay

I’ve only ever stayed in Cihangir and I really like that area. It’s close to major centres/sites without being too touristy. AirBnB places are so cheap! The two places we stayed at were great (especially the second one).

Where to Eat

Basically, anywhere. But some specific places that are good in Cihangir include: Hayat (for fish), Kasabim (for steak), Miss Pizza (for, you know), Kahve 6 (for breakfast), and Smyrna (for drinks).

What to Eat

  • All things street-side meat
  • Bread with kaymak (clotted cream) and honey
  • Pide (pizza-type flatbread thing)
  • Kumpir (stuffed potatoes)
  • Turkish breakfast (bread, cheeses, cucumbers, tomatoes, olives, honey, jam, etc.)
  • Menemen (scrambled egg dish)
  • Kofte (meatball-esque)
  • Baklava
  • Turkish delight (lokum)
  • Turkish tea and Turkish coffee
  • Ayran (like kefir but better)
  • Iskender kebap (I haven’t tried this but definitely will next time: kebap with tomato sauce and hot foamy butter)

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And get that fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice with your doners

What to Do

  • Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar

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  • Basilica Cistern (for all the James Bond fans)
  • Hagia Sophia
  • Sultan Ahmed Mosque
  • Walk along the Galata Bridge

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Blue gingham not mandatory

  • Eat a lot
  • Sit outside and chill
  • Take a ferry ride to the Asian side and order some tea

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    This would’ve gotten so many likes had Instagram existed in 2009

Where to Go Outside of Istanbul

Overnight Trip (Izmir/Ephesos)

This was my first time venturing outside the big city and we took a round trip flight to Izmir to go to the ancient city of Ephesos (Ephesos like Efes like the beer).

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The prettiest graveyard

We booked directly through Pegasus and our flights were just shy of $100 each. You can get them for as low as $50 if you book well in advance. It’s only an hour long flight – just keep in mind that most of the flights to Izmir go out of the Istanbul airport that is on the Asian side (ie. further away). You can filter flights that only arrive at the major, generally closer airport, Ataturk. AtlasJet and OnurAir are two others to check out.

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The library

Once in Izmir you can take a train, bus, or rent a car, which we did through this site that searches all car rental sites at once (like Summon searches on a library website!). We stayed at a small hotel in Selcuk (totally loved it), close to the site and went early the next morning after arriving.

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Dusty, the stoic hotel dog

Longer Trips

Turquoise Coast

If I had more time, I would’ve extended my Izmir trip further south to hit up the Turquoise Coast. Beaches and mountains forever. And the Lycian Way.

Cappadocia

You may recognize Capadoccia as the land of hot air balloons and phallic-esque land formations. Totally sold now, right? I’ll be going there this July. Between the expense of going up in a hot air balloon, believing the best view to be of the balloons from the ground, and having a moderate fear of flying, I’ll be sitting that excursion out. If you’re keen, apparently Royal Hot Air Balloon is the place to use. And I will most definitely be staying in this cave, despite my claustrophobia. If this region had some association with needles, it would be a perfect triumvirate of all my fears.

 

And that summarizes the very small portion of Turkey that I know. Happy travels!

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“For woman, that is not baggage. Impressive.”

– Kazakh flight attendant

 

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.

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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.

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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

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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Everything Is Cute

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Even the most innocuous sign.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Memories!

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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:

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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.

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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?

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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

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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

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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.

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.