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?

IMG_9510

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 

IMG_9508

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!

Advertisements

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.

1

Despite the language difference, the schedule is pretty straightforward.

2

Speed and Price

IMG_9399

 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

IMG_9191

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!

IMG_6446

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.

IMG_9174

 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.

IMG_9407

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.

IMG_9012

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

IMG_8961

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

IMG_9060

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.

IMG_9018

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

IMG_8571

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.

IMG_9034

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.

IMG_9066

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!

Capture

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.

IMG_8863

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.

Capture2

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)

IMG_8775

And get that fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice with your doners

What to Do

  • Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar

IMG_8853

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

IMG_8848

Blue gingham not mandatory

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

    Capture

    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).

IMG_8760

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.

IMG_8752

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.

IMG_8748

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!

IMG_8856

“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.

IMG_7439

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.

IMG_8200

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

IMG_7507

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

IMG_7615

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.

IMG_7641

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

IMG_7707

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.

IMG_7814

Everything Is Cute

IMG_8131

Even the most innocuous sign.

IMG_8279

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

Processed with VSCOcam with t1 preset

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.

IMG_8376

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.

IMG_8379

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.

IMG_7704

Memories!

IMG_8405

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:

 IMG_7248

I wrote a bit more about my experience on the site and the other makeovers are definitely worth checking out too!

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.

Processed with VSCOcam with t1 preset

They are absolutely adorable and she looked amazing.

Untitled

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 $$$.

IMG_7117

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

Processed with VSCOcam with t1 preset

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.

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 11.06.58 PM

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.

IMG_6588

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.

IMG_7116

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

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 11.10.00 PM

Procession of meat. Serious business.

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.

IMG_6621Looking far too serene.

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.

IMG_6620

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.

IMG_6619

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.
Processed with VSCOcam with t1 preset

The gang (except Kevin who stayed dry and took photos).

 

Illuminati aka How to Go to the Pyramid

Before moving, I came across the theory that Astana is The Illuminati capital of the world. The Illuminati are supposedly a masonic-style society, chock-a-block full of celebrities and politicians controlling the world. Any Beyonce fan worth his/her salt has heard of the new world order, specifically how Whitney Houston was actually assassinated to make room for Blue Ivy.

The Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, more informally referred to as the Pyramid, is an integral part of the Astana/Illuminati theory. I think, primarily, because of its shape. All I care about is that Beyonce wasn’t there.

Processed with VSCOcam with m3 preset

The Pyramid was built primarily to house the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions every three years but I don’t think there’s actually been a meeting since it was built in 2006. Norman Foster, whom Wikipedia tells me is pretty fancy, designed the building.

It sits on the river, across from Highvill and is open 7 days a week, 10:00-18:00 in the winter and 10:00-20:00 in the summer. Tours leave every 30 minutes so you don’t have to worry about showing up at a specific time. Admission price is about $4.

Our tour guide showed us an opera hall but I’ve never heard of any public events held there. According to the official website, “Hall use, both for concerts, and for carrying out various conferences and seminars is possible.

We passed by a library but I assume it’s not public. I tried to look it up on the website but didn’t find any information. However, I did find that there is a VIP makeup room for rent, as well as a utility room.  Somehow, the utility room costs way more.

IMG_4889

The elevators go up diagonally and we took one to a big empty room on one of the mid-floors. There was a display of traditional costumes tucked in the corner but we didn’t get a chance to look. Some Russian speakers showed up at the same time as us and our guide had to speak in two languages and so I suspect she limited the tour accordingly.

We then took the elevator to a set of stairs that wound through a bunch of fake plants with a fake rabbit arbitrarily placed on a shelf. It was weird and I mildly regret not taking any photographs.

IMG_4895

The very top of the Pyramid is a conference room intended for the religion congress. Between the plastic covered furniture and the gaping hole in the middle of the table, it feels like Lysa Tully’s living room, if she were an Italian grandmother.

IMG_4921

The glass is blue and yellow with painted doves.

IMG_4911

All in all, I would definitely recommend going to the Pyramid, especially on a sunny day!

IMG_4944

And afterwards, you should definitely go to Kakao Dak in Highvill for Korean fried chicken.

How to Go to the Opera (or Ballet)

The Astana Opera House is the only building I’ve seen in this city that is as beautiful on the inside as it is on the outside. It is also the only building with a justified use of excessive marble. There are very few events in the city and I really miss being immersed in a creative environment, so I make a point of going to an opera or ballet once a month.

Processed with VSCOcam with t1 preset

Schedules and tickets can be found on the theatre website. Good seats sell out quickly and so tickets should be bought soon after release. Click on Tickets in the upper menu, then Русский, then КУПИТЬ, then follow the usual prompts of selecting the time and seating. The seating is poorly designed and it’s difficult to see from many areas. The best bet is to buy tickets in the central area.

Processed with VSCOcam with m3 preset

This is actually the best seat but it’s empty most of the time because only the president is allowed in (it even has a separate elevator to get to the box).

Tickets really range in price from 500 tenge ($3) to, well, a lot. When my friend asked if I wanted to go to the opera this month, I immediately said “yes!” I still always think of everything as being so cheap here and I didn’t convert the tenge until later. Then I realized it’s the most I’ve ever spent on a ticket for anything ($155). But I don’t spend much money here so I tell myself that it’s okay.

Processed with VSCOcam with t1 preset

Aida may have gotten Radames but Amneris gets that sweet cow bed!

Productions often use borrowed set designs and performers from other countries. For example, the opera I saw tonight is an Italian production. And every show I’ve seen so far has been amazing. I’m totally impressed.

Processed with VSCOcam with m3 preset

Before shows begin, there are no announcements to turn off cell phones. During the show, not only will you hear the chime of a mobile, you’ll often hear the person pick up the phone and have a conversation. There’s also a fair amount of in-person talking, flash-picture taking, and candy opening so slow it feels passive-aggressive. Two theories I’ve heard: 1) Mobile phone etiquette is behind the times here. 2) Some people are obliged by their employers to go to these shows, though they have no desire to do so.

Processed with VSCOcam with t1 preset

During intermission you can buy expensive wine and rolled meats served in martini glasses.

Processed with VSCOcam with m3 preset

And the staff wear incredible outfits that change with the seasons.

Processed with VSCOcam with m3 preset

Make sure to read a synopsis before you go! Subtitles are only in Kazakh and Russian. Even if I was fluent in either language, it would be too uncomfortable to constantly look up so high.

My friend Kevin is also always happy to provide a synopsis. Here is a summary of his explanation for Aida:

There is this slave girl who works for the princess in Egypt. And she and the princess both love the same general. But the princess doesn’t like that the general loves the slave girl.

Drama drama drama!

Then the father of the slave girl says she has to sleep with the general to find out information because he and the slaves are going to fight the Egyptians, and she goes, “oh ho ho ho ho boo hoo, okay.”

The slave girl tells the general about the fight and he is like, “oh no, not again!” And then they decide to run away together.

More drama drama drama.

The princess hears the whole thing and the general is taken away while Aida escapes.

Drama drama drama.

Then this guy says, “Hey, come down into this basement,” and the general says, “okay,” and then the guy locks the general in the basement. And the general goes, “oh ho ho ho ho so sad,” but then he hears the slave girl is locked in the room next to his and they talk and are happy and then they both die.