Monday, February 1, 2010

Michael Goes North

A Michael-road-trip is not about the destination. When I’m traveling, I rarely want to get to my destination as fast as possible. Back when I lived in Illinois, the 12-hour drive home once stretched over four days. But of course, I stopped in St. Louis, Nashville, Atlanta, and Athens along the way. So when I was looking at a trip up to the northernmost city in Kazakhstan, I didn’t see a straight line from Taraz to Petropovlask. (And there isn’t one even if I had wanted, the trains doesn’t run from here to there.)

The original plan was to stop off in Shychinks to see Sagar, but when Jamie learned she had to teach that week, that plan changed. Sagar decided he’d rather spend his time macking on a local girl in Petro than wait around for me. But that worked out for the best. Because between Taraz and Sagar’s site, lies the fabulous new city of Astana!

Really, how many cities can you really describe in that way? The new city of …. Most cities in America are at least decades old. Lots of them in Europe are hundreds of years old. Some cities (like Taraz) can claim to be thousands of years old. But Astana…it’s about fifteen years old. For a lot of different reasons, the Kazakhstan President decided to move the capital from Almaty to Asatna about fifteen years ago. It’s not unprecedented in the history of the world. Washington, of course, was not the first capital of America. Atlanta was not the first capital of Georgia. Sometimes its just good to get a fresh start.

How they decided on Astana (which means “capital” in Kazakh), I’ve never heard. It was a small town in the middle of the steppe about halfway between Karaganda and Kokshetau. It is a lot closer to Russia, so it gives the country more control of the northern Russian oblasts. And its more centrally located (Almaty is in the southeastern corner). So it made since geographically in some ways.

Anyway, so my first stop on my trip was the NEW city of Astana. There’s a ton of cool, new stuff there. In some ways it’s like Dubai, but not as extreme. There’s a pyramid structure, the Palace of Independence, Baiterik, the President’s residence. The architectural plan seems to be, let’s build cool, crazy stuff. For example, the treasury department’s building is wavy like a piece of money.

Some people like the new capital and some people don’t. But everyone agrees on one thing: It’s cold! Almaty had the advantage of being in the South. But Astana (while still quite a few hours from the northern border) is north and in the middle of the steppe. Cold and windy. I had heard horror stories of the Astana wind. I wasn’t even sure that I had clothes to prepare me for the weather. Layers ended up working though (long underwear, shirt, long-sleeved shirt, fleece, heavy jacket.)

My train ride up to the city was fun. I find that when you travel during January, you usually get a lot of students on the train who are on break. We played Kazakh backgammon (much simpler) and checkers (more complicated, I think, but maybe I just don’t know how to play checkers). And we finally reached Astana at about 8:00 in the morning. My friend Berik was waiting for me at the station. And we began are day of tourism.

I had heard that you only need one day to see Astana, and this was almost true. We spent about an hour at Berik’s apartment warming up and eating delicious borsch. Then off to the pyramid. This place was built to be a meeting place for all of the world’s major religions. They have a meeting every two years or so. I don’t know how they define major religions (maybe percentages), but I don’t think Brian-ism would ever get an invite. The architecture of the place was actually really impressive (especially when Berik told me about seeing it on the Discovery Channel). And you can rent it out for parties or weddings (but the guide didn’t know how much that was.)

Next, we went across the street to the Palace of Independence. The inside may have been prettier than the outside, but since it was lunch they wouldn’t let us go inside. Just kidding, it was 12:50 and lunch was at 1:00. But the guard said we couldn’t walk the 50 yards across the lobby to the main meeting chamber to look inside. This was not cool, but now I have a reason to come back to Astana.

Then we took a bus across the river to the other side (because apparently there is no pedestrian walkway yet connecting that section of the city). Taking a bus in Astana (and in all the northern cities) was strange because all of the windows were frosted over. Don’t take a bus tour of those cities in winter. You will see nothing.

On the other side, we did some picture taking in front of the President’s Residence (more his office, I heard) and then we went to Baiterik. Just like in the Pyramid, Berik had already been like four times with other people, so he didn’t pay to take the tour. Baiterik is built exactly 97 meters tall because 1997 was the founding of the city (or maybe of Baiterik, I forget.) On top if a golden hand you can put your hand in. I heard it was Nazerbayev’s hand from a number of sources. From the outside it seems really small compared to the impressive new highrises being built around it, but it seems tall from the inside. You can look off in the distance and see the edge of the steppe.

After that, we decided to go to the aquarium. Once again, Berik waited outside while I explored. I’m not a big aquarium fan though. I like the ocean, but not seeing tanks filled with fish. However, this aquarium was sweet for three reasons. One, for an aquarium it’s size, it is farthest away from any major body of water. Kazakhstan is landlocked. It does have the Caspian, it had the Aral sea, and there is big lake Balhash. But most Kazakh people will never see an ocean. But it’s brought to them here. It was great to see other people seeing aquatic life. Second, they had a mermaid show. They have one of those cool tunnel things where the fish swim all around you, and twice a day mermaids show up! Why don’t other aquariums have attractive women swimming around the tanks? Great idea. Third, I ran into another Peace Corps volunteer there (Aaron Bean). He happened to be in Astana with his org. (He works for a handicapped advocacy org and their local government paid to send ten disabled people to Astana for two days. Basically the trip of a lifetime for most of them in a country that has about no handicapped accessible transportation.) I had no idea he was in the city, and we just happened to be at the aquarium at the same time. Crazy.

Next up, what else, but MEGA. No trip to a Kazakhstani city is complete without going to the local MEGA. Unless of course, there is no MEGA. But then it’s debatable whether it should really qualify as being a city. We chilled out there for too long. Because our next stop was the President’s Museum of Astana, and it was already closed for the day. (5:15! It closed at 5:00.) There they have pieces from The Golden Man (although I love to tell locals about how it was most likely, but not proven to be The Golden Woman). The Golden (Wo)Man is one of the coolest archeological finds in Kazakhstan. It is golden armor from thousands of years ago, when Kazakhs may have looked more white than Mongolian. Supposedly, the level of quality and detail in the gold would have trouble being rivaled with modern technology.

After that, the day was coming to a close and we just spent some time walking along the river bank. The city was pretty empty overall, but it was -15 degrees outside (F). We stopped back at Berik’s place then went to the bus station. Ken assured me there was be a bus to his village about two hours north. There wasn’t. I took a cab there. But that story will be saved for the next blog.


margie hotatrd said...

Its sounds like a very intersting place. Stephen and I had a stay on plane lay over there when we were visiting you. wish we could have seen it.

Kyle said...

Speaking of the Golden Man (or Woman), Ecik is building a museum all about it. It's supposed to open sometime over the summer. It could be a cool place to check out, I'll keep you posted.


Pub said...

That is some extreme traveling! "Join the Peace Corp and see the world". That phrase echoing in my head. I guess it's like Robert Frost said of the "road less traveled" making all the difference. Hey, do they play internet backgammon?