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:
- St. Petersburg
- Abu Dhabi
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.
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.
Some specific highlights:
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 ;)).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Everything Is Cute
Even the most innocuous sign.
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
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 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.
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.
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.