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!

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Hits and Misses

Things I Miss:

  • Chips that aren’t crushed.
  • Half-sweet soy mochas from Starbucks, even though they always give me a stomachache.
  • Good pizza.

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  • Rosé.

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Specifically, Okanagan rosé.

  • Cycling over the Lion’s Gate Bridge.
  • Cycling. Period.
  • Events (other than the ballet and opera).

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Though I did see a really great ballet last night.

  • Good beer.
  • The ability to spontaneously meet up with friends for a drink (that doesn’t take place in someone’s apartment).
  • Meeting new people. It’s hard to meet people when there are no events and both expats and locals seem to be very family-focused.

And here’s one that gets an explanation: hugs. In the six months I’ve lived in Astana, I can count the number of times I’ve hugged someone on one hand. And the number of occasions on which I have come into any sort of physical contact with someone on two hands. This includes both times I’ve had my hair cut but does not include the number of times I’ve shaken hands, collided with people on the soccer field or high-fived after a game.

I am both embarrassed and surprised to admit this as I have been called out by two separate friends in the past for being hug-averse. When I saw how the latter felt hurt by my stiff-as-a-board reaction to hugging, I softened and fully embraced the friend-hug. But here, no one hugs. I think it’s because living, working, and socializing together creates a strange dynamic. No one wants to risk crossing a line or making someone uncomfortable when they have to see that person in all facets of day-to-day life. And then see above re: meeting new people.

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A reluctant hug with one of my best friends (2008, pre-hug-reformation).

On to the positive!

Things I Like:

  • Free coat check everywhere.
  • Not being sick ever. I had chronic sinus infections/bronchitis every winter in Vancouver but have not had so much as a cold here.
  • Toothpicks are socially acceptable.

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.

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.

What I Like So Far (and Also Some Things I Don’t)

Today, I got up at 4am (not by choice), read until 7 and then went for a run. Just after I left the building, I broke the jack of my headphones in my iPhone and had to run in silence. I couldn’t leave campus since you have to have an ID card to do so, which will be issued for me tomorrow. So many areas are blocked off with construction that running around the accessible part of campus only took 20 minutes. The short run at least got me warm enough to wash my hair in the cold shower (all the construction on campus means there is no hot water until the 28th of this month!!!). And then I went to blowdry my hair and discovered that my voltage converter doesn’t work for the outlets here.

For breakfast, I opened the yogurt I bought at the store yesterday and inside was a big brown puddle. Apparently, I bought chocolate cherry flavour. It was actually okay, just startling. I accidentally bought loose tea, and have no tea strainer yet but I was so desperate that I boiled the last of my water (you can only drink bottled water in KZ) and used a weird straining spoon that was in the kitchen. It took me ten minutes to figure out how the stove top works even though it’s in English. Before my first sip, I completely knocked the tea cup over and I was waterless for two more hours since the store doesn’t open until 10 on Sundays. I also noticed that there is no oven in the apartment, so file my Silpat baking sheet under the future post, “Useless Things I Brought”.

It was not a great morning. Especially after a night of silent ugly crying in my room (I have a room mate, who is very nice but doesn’t need to be subjected to that yet), feeling very overwhelmed and wondering what I’m doing here. I should’ve written down exactly why I wanted to move before leaving because it’s hard to remember when you are wallowing in sadness.

But let’s not be a downer! I felt better after some Des’ree and the morning and made a point of thinking about what I like so far. I also gave myself some real talk that I’ve been here for less than 36 hours. Patience has never come easily to me.

Things I am excited about:

  • The bread is amazing and is only 30 cents a loaf! A giant bag of salt costs 10 cents! So much cheese and also for not much money! Groceries in general are very cheap.
  • Alcohol in the grocery stores!
  • There’s a little snack store on campus that sells very delicious paprika crackers.
  • I haven’t experimented in trying any of these yet but you bet I will:

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  • The main mall looks like this, and apparently there is a pool at the very top inside, that I will be frequenting in the winter:

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  • I first bought my groceries from a store in there. It’s similar to Buy-Low, and the similarities continue in that I’ll have to find somewhere else to get my produce. Or maybe that’s just how produce is here (not the best!).
  • The apartment I’m staying in is really big and nice. Super high ceilings and in suite laundry!
  • Taking the bus is also very cheap (30 cents) and easy. You get on the bus on any of the three entrances and there is a conductor who goes around and takes money from the people who have just gotten on. I am so impressed by how they keep track of everyone who’s paid and who hasn’t yet.
  • Everyone has been really friendly so far.
  • My remedial Russian is serving me well. But I have to make an effort to not be shy about using it and say hi to everyone, lest I’m thought to be rude. Also, I will have to look up laundry vocabulary to actually take advantage of the in suite:

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  • No one stares or is particularly interested in foreigners/tourists. It was a bit jarring in Istanbul when I did my library practicum there, but no one even glances twice here.
  • There are so many KFCs.
  • The architecture in general is very cool.
  • Astana is very into fake floral displays, which I am also into:

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  • One of my co-workers explained how to get the internet working here today (web proxy set-up) and when I was finally able to stream Project Runway I was so happy I almost cried.
  • And at least I am not as sad as the saddest looking crab in the world:

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