Friday, June 27, 2014

Sidewalk (& Parking) Culture

by Kevin

The forecast for today is sunny with a high of 95° F (35° C). It's hard to remember that a few months ago it was -40° F (-40° C). With summer in full swing, the hours of daylight in Astana are many and people are outside making up for months of arctic winter hibernation. It's much faster and easier to walk around town now than in winter, not just due to the warmer weather but because you get to use the full width of a sidewalk that doesn't have to be shoveled of snow and because there's no danger of slipping on patches of ice.

Summer; however, doesn't solve all pedestrian challenges. In fact some things actually get worse. Kazakhstanis like the Chinese have a habit of spitting on the sidewalk. In a culture that eschews blowing your nose in public, one must dodge vile globs of spittle. Apparently these were not visible on the snow and ice. (No photos necessary.) Nicer weather also brings outdoor construction and repair work. Much of that creates new obstacles to avoid.

That's quite a trench and moms pushing strollers navigate this too. Cross at your own risk.  

Was this filled with snow in winter?

And not to be forgotten, Astana has a parking culture in which cars constantly block sidewalks and crosswalks.

Yes, that car is parked-in by cars blocking the driveway.

And then there are sidewalks that just don't connect to anything.

Parking regulations and even parking meters are reported to be coming to Astana before the end of this year. Will Astana pedestrians see improvements?

Saturday, June 7, 2014

[UPDATED] The other Kazakhstan, or a trip outside of Astana

by Robyn

We are urban dwellers. City people. and while I won't turn down a trip to a National Park, I'm not usually the one initiating those outings. And if like me, your tendency is to define "somewhere" as a metropolitan destination, Astana is in the middle of nowhere! Karaganda (population 465,000) is 3.5 hours by train (or longer in the winter).  Almaty, the closest legitimate city (1.5 million people), is 800 miles or an 1.5 hour flight away.

So, a combination of visa runs, settling in, and winter weather have meant that we have spent our time in Kazakhstan almost exclusively in Astana.  But! during the recent two week holiday period, a local friend invited us on a daytrip. Our first roadtrip!  Destination: Borovoe / Burabay.


A note:  most places now have Russian names and Kazakh names. This has added to our confusion and adds to the challenge of figuring things out.  It's usually easier for me to use the Russian names, although "Astana" is a Kazakh name.

Borovoe is the one destination within an easy distance of Astana that is being developed as a bonafide tourist destination.  

About 250 kilometers north northwest of Astana along a new, fast highway (tolls are rumored to be introduced in the next few years), Borovoe is a mountain resort with lakes, rocks, and a fair number of groomed trails. Winter sports focus on snow, and summer sports center on the water. 

Borovoe is the most common name for the area, which includes Lake Schuchinsk and Lake Borovoe, and a few small communities stretching along their shores, with smaller lakes in the near vicinity.  At a higher altitude than the Steppe, there are birch and pine forests, it's being marketed as "the Switzerland of Kazakhstan.". (It is a lovely place, but definitely not Switzerland.)   Accommodations range from the swish ($500+/night) to the rustic, and it seems that parking is a problem everywhere.

Daytrippers! Photo credit: Robyn
But I'm getting ahead of myself.  There's a lot of Kazakhstan between Astana and Borovoe!

Days are long at this time of year, and we took advantage, setting off with Sasha & Natasha, and Yegor & Aliya at 7am. Winding our way out of Astana, in just 15 minutes we were beyond our usual destinations, showing me how small our world has shrunk in the winter months.  

And Astana itself is bigger than I'd realized.  The older city has a residential core and gives way to industrial outskirts, finishing in municipal complexes, perhaps showing where the city expects to grow to in just a few years' time.  There are no big roads, not by Los Angeles standards at least, until we hit the highway which doesn't have a link to the central city.

And it doesn't take long until we see The Steppe. Wide, open spaces. Grasslands.  (Looks a lot like Nebraska to me.)  

Our driver is a chain smoker which meant we stopped about every hour or less for a break, at rest areas, service stations or the like.  Fine by me. 

Rest Area WC

About 9am our stop coincided with something that sounds like "butter bread"... a breakfast of savory open-face sandwiches of sausage and cheese, sliced cucumbers, and tea, of course.  (There's always tea).

No running water?
As we turn off the new road to head up to the lake, we stop for water in a village. and we immediately realize how little of Kazakhstan we've seen. And why Kazakhstan is considered a developing country.  

Far different from the space age architecture of Kazakhstan, this village is a step back in time.  The older homes are wood with detail and decoration, and "modern updates" of tin fences and the odd satellite dish. The newer homes are Soviet-era concrete block construction, making the dilapidated wooden homes seem like a row of quaint Victorians. 

Main street
Our water stop is on a half-paved road at a pump in the middle of the street. I presume there is running water in many of the homes, but Yegor tells me that his parents only got indoor plumbing two years ago, so maybe not?  The locals have seen it all before and we don't linger, but head up the road to the lake. 

Sasha and Natasha have been visiting the area for 20 years, and know lovely places to take us. 

First stop: at the throne of Ablay Khan.  A distant descendant of Genghis Khan, he was the leader who united the tribes of what is today northern Kazakhstan.  His ancient throne lies in a small valley ringed by rock formations, and marked by a white column with a golden eagle on top.  

Surrounded by a hedgehog-shaped hill (Do you see it?)

Up a small path is a sacred rock. If you circle it 7 times and throw a coin, Your Wish Will Come True. 

None of our friends know what these new markers are meant to represent.

Heritage marker
 Subsequent stops are hikes along rock walls, through pine forest, birch forests, on the lakeshore, at a local market, or for views of the famous rock formations.

The ladies. Natasha, Robyn, Aliya

lovestruck graffiti is universal

Make a wish by tying a ribbon on the tree
Kevin among the spruce

Smoked fish for sale

Farmer's market with produce for sale from Russia

Still a little snow on May 1

On the shores of Lake Schuchinsk
We had to laugh - there are multiple legends about the rock formations at one end of Lake Borovoe...they are three sisters, they are an old woman, they are a prince turned into a crocodile, they are a mystery, they are...apparently Kazakh people love their legends.

Pick a legend
Our last two stops were for good eats!  First, for shashlik at their favorite Turkish place, and last, as their family tradition, for blini, before making the journey back to Astana.

"Shashlik" - although we didn't have it here, I just liked the sign
We didn't eat her shashlik either

Blinis (and of course more tea)

Cafe Petrovich
Just a day, but a glimpse of the rest of the country...newly motivated to explore some more!  Our future plans include trains, planes and automobiles to see more of the country. 

By the way, wherever we go, we will not forget to bring our mosquito repellant - those insects are HUGE here.

UPDATED: Borovoe is north northwest of Astana.