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.

How to Go to the Pharmacy

The other week, someone asked me what is the weirdest thing that’s happened to me in Kazakhstan. I replied by retelling the story of how an overly amorous graduate student found out where I lived and showed up at my apartment one day when I was dyeing my hair and eyebrows. This was an impressive feat considering that my building has security (okay, okay, they are pretty inconsistent and asleep half the time).

But what actually sticks in my mind as the weirdest thing, likely because of its longevity, is that I never get my period here. When I first moved to KZ, I had my period twice, in regular fashion and I have not had it since then. I was so panicky that in one of my lower points of life, I texted the gentleman whom I’d had a casual encounter with (I was once so lucky as to meet someone not affiliated with my workplace who was in town for business) to confirm that it was logistically impossible for me to be pregnant.

Think for a moment about the wording of the question that I had to ask this man. Then you will know how far the effort of going to the pharmacy for a pregnancy test surpassed the embarrassment of posing this question.

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Low points

It was all moot in the end because though he answered in the affirmative I still felt uneasy and off I went to the аптека. I held up Google Translate on my phone with “pregnancy test” written on it, the pharmacist chuckled to herself, tossed one my way and yes, indeed, I was not pregnant. It was one of the most straightforward transactions I’ve had in KZ.

In my defense, it is really easy to blow things out of proportion when you live in an isolated place.

I still haven’t gotten my period here. But what really blew me away, was getting my period while on holiday in Denmark. Bodies are strange and amazing and I guess mine doesn’t like being here. Let’s see if it likes Japan when I go there next month.

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This somehow seems appropriate, okay?

Now here are some useful аптека/pharmacy tips:

  • There are pharmacies in every mall and they are separate stores, not attached to grocery stores. My favourite pharmacy is the one in Asia Park.
  • Things at the pharmacy are cheap!
  • This is where you’ll have to buy contact lens solution and dental floss.
  • This is also where you can buy herbal tea. For example, mint tea is sold at the pharmacy because it is considered a kind of aphrodisiac here. Once I bought two boxes of mint tea and the staff could hardly handle it.
  • You don’t often need a prescription for things. For example, you can buy birth control one month at a time for about $6. You can even buy antibiotics without a prescription! But you have to know the specific name of items like this that you want to buy.
  • You can order pharmaceutical items delivered to your house from this site. Though I find it too overwhelming to make any attempts.
  • Some things are universal, like Strepsils and Vitamin C. Other things you can type into Google Translate and show the pharmacist. Sometimes it just doesn’t work, like when I tried to buy cortisone. But I don’t really care enough to ask any local friends what the Russian equivalent is. This is one place you never have to be self-conscious of dry skin.

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Everything is going to be okay (when you’re in another country)

Update: How Healthcare Works When You Leave Canada

A happy update to this post! Thanks to a lovely friend, I found an insurance service that will allow me to buy travel insurance as a non-resident Canadian citizen.

It’s a bit less than the amount I would’ve paid MSP/month and then I would’ve had to pay for travel insurance on top of that – so overall, it looks as though my poorly researched decision turned out to be a good one.

To recap:

If you are a Canadian resident moving from Canada, you have two options (specific to BC but I imagine similar to other provinces):

1) Contact MSP to arrange to continue paying the $69.25/month Medical Services Plan premium for up to 24 months. Acquire travel/medical insurance on top of that, whether paid for by yourself or through your new foreign workplace.

You should definitely keep MSP if you are eligible for any of these three options for MSP assistance:

2) Register yourself as permanently leaving British Columbia. Rely on whatever insurance your new foreign workplace provides or purchase insurance from this insurance service.

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Celebratory balloons

 

 

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.

How to Plunge in a Frozen River (крещения)

A few months ago, a friend of mine mentioned something about jumping into the frozen Ishim River after the holidays. Knowing absolutely nothing about the circumstances, I was totally in.

Turns out, this frozen river plunge is part of Epiphany, which according to Wikipedia, marks the baptism of Jesus. On January 19, every year, all water is thought to be holy and those who are Russian Orthodox (and anyone who wants to partake!) submerge into the icy waters three times to cleanse themselves of all sins. It’s referred to as крещения, simply meaning “baptism.”

By 20:00 on the eve of the 18th, a hole is cut in the ice and a wooden platform installed to step down into the water. When possible, the hole is shaped like the cross. Apparently at 0:00 on the 19th and 0:00 on the 20th there are some religious ceremonies. We decided to go at 6:45am before work to miss the line-ups. There were a few other locals around but no waiting! I’m not sure if I could’ve braved it otherwise.

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Large cities like Moscow have multiple locations. In Astana, the Epiphany location is on the left bank – kind of across from Ramstore, in Astana Park. We took two taxis for the six of us and paid the drivers to wait for us to finish so they could drive us back. We had to walk a few minutes from the drop-off point so bring something other than flip-flops!

We wore our bathing suits under our clothes and laid everything in the changing yurts. After quickly undressing, we went out with our towels and shoes, and one at a time, ran down the steps, dipped under three times, and immediately got out.

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In Yellowknife, we rolled around in the snow and ran into saunas and in Vancouver there’s an annual Polar Bear Swim on January 1st, which I never took part in. So I had never experienced anything quite like this before. It was INTENSE. From the moment of first submerging, until 60 seconds after getting out of the water – I was in shock, shaking, and wondering if I would ever get warm again. But then I felt an allover warm glow, which lasted throughout the day.

Processed with VSCOcam with t1 presetThe expression on my face perfectly reflects my inner turmoil.

After everyone was finished and we took some snaps, we went back in the yurts to change out of our wet bathing suits into warm dry clothes. My first instinct had been to wear a one-piece bathing suit but I read online the night before that it’s best to wear a skimpy suit, so as not to retain icy water next to your body.

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There’s not really anything open at 7:00 in Astana, so we taxied back to campus and ate breakfast pizza (just pizza for breakfast) at a friend’s and he made us espresso. He also gave us muffins, baked on the weekend, which we realized were actually brownies in the shape of muffins.
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The gang (except Kevin who stayed dry and took photos).

 

How to Run in -°C

Chalk it up to my northern roots but I find running in the cold dry snow to be not so bad. Definitely better than running on a treadmill. And I don’t hold a grudge against treadmills just because of that time I fell on one in front of my model cousin when I was 13 (the safety belt is there for a reason!).

Before moving to KZ, I had never run in subzero temperatures before. Vancouver rarely dips below 0°C and the only other place I’d run outdoors in was Kauai, where I made a poor showing by melting into a red blotchy puddle after 2k of light jogging. On any given day, I would rather run in -°C than +25°C

The first time I ran in -°C, I wore a toque, top, jacket, and one pair of spandex pants, lent to me by a friend. It felt okay! But then when I took the pants off at home, my skin looked as if someone had thrown boiling water on my legs and my thighs were in the beginning stages of frostbite. Someone asked me how I knew it was frostbite but suffice to say it’s gross.

So I had a lot to learn. Here is my accrued wisdom – learned the hard way so you don’t have to!

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Temperatures

I could go out and buy all the proper gear but my foreseeable future doesn’t involve cold regions and while you can get sports gear here, it’s generally more expensive than it would be in the western world. Another friend of mine kindly lent me a muffler and another pair of pants and recommended wearing shorts too. This formula seems to work for up to about -15°C. When it gets to around -20°C, my teeth start to hurt and so I base my running schedule on the weather forecast’s predicted <-15°C days.

Gear

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Run like a burglar.

My outfit consists of:

  • Wool toque
  • Running tank
  • Running jacket that has flaps that go over your hands like makeshift mittens
  • Muffler
  • Running shorts
  • Full length running pants
  • Full length spandex pants
  • Running socks
  • Running shoes

First I put on the shorts, than the running pants, and then the spandex pants. I find it easiest to keep my hair in a braid so it fits under my toque and muffler. I don’t often keep the muffler over my face since I find it annoying but I will for brief spurts. I keep my iPhone in my shorts pocket, between the layers, close to my stomach so that it keeps warm – otherwise it will shut down from the cold.

One of my friends runs in up to -25°C and he wears one more layer of pants, and two more layers of tops than I do. And a toque that’s actually meant for exercise.

Snow/Ice

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The sidewalks are not always cleared of snow here and it’s so dry that the snow tends to get packed into ice. I always run in the snow to avoid the ice, even though it’s like running through tires and a lot more work. Sometimes your eyebrows freeze over, which is kind of neat!

I have many more close calls with slipping on ice in my day-to-day walking than I do with running. Actually, I fell so hard on my tailbone this weekend when I stepped up an icy entryway that I won’t be able to run for a week or two (I couldn’t tell if I was crying for pain or for sadness at having to be sedentary).

You can also buy some fun spiky things that strap on under your shoes to help grip the ice.

Wind

If you have an Astana number, then you get a text telling you when the wind reaches over 15km/hour. It is windy so often that I can’t really base my runs on it, which is for the best since the weather forecast doesn’t say anything about wind. I just make sure I’m running against the wind for the first half of my run and then I turn around for the last half. It is brutal and sometimes it feels like I’m barely moving. But I am building so much character!

Speed

You are going to be slower. Come to terms with that. And run for distance/length of time and totally forget about speed until the snow clears and the weather rises above 0°C or else you are going to be constantly disappointed.

Post-Warming Up

I always run up the 10 flights of stairs in my building to warm up afterwards, which sounds terrible but it’s very effective. Also, Astana is so flat and I’m doing a half-marathon in Almaty in April, which is more undulating, so this is my way of elevation training.

I find if I have a hot shower right away it irritates my skin and it’s better if I stretch and give it a bit of time to adjust first.

Final Thoughts

Running in the cold is hard. You’re bulked down with tons of layers, fighting against wind through fields of snow and your body is working so much harder just because of the temperature. But it’s totally doable and kind of magical in its own way. Take this as one of the very few opportunities to go outdoors this time of year, especially in Astana, which is not a city designed for strolling.

It is also worth it for how AMAZING it is when the cold lets up and you get to run in only one pair of running pants.