Bishkek: Three month update on life as a Fulbright ETA in Kyrgyzstan

As you can see, I’ve been doing a great job updating this blog every two weeks like I told myself I would before I left — two weeks = three months in Kyrgyzstan apparently.  I can’t believe I’ve already been living here for almost three months, this year is going by far too quickly but it has been incredible.  Now that I’ve settled down into a regular schedule and winter is setting in I hope to actually force myself to sit down and write since I won’t be exploring the city as much on my days off (Holy run-on-sentence Batman!).  This post may be a bit disjointed because it’s covering a few months of activities, but I’ll elaborate on some of the more interesting things in later posts.

Ala-Too Square in Bishkek

Now, let’s do a recap of what has happened during the last three months.  I flew from Chicago to Beijing to visit a friend for a few days, then went to Astana to reunite with some more friends from my time living in Kazakhstan before flying to Bishkek.  After I arrived, I moved right in to my apartment in the city center, had a day to unpack and buy a few necessities.  My first full day in the country was Independence Day in Kyrgyzstan, so I made my way to the square and ended up standing right behind the Kyrgyz president and his entourage, which was a bit of a shock when I realized it was him.  There were many song and dance performances going on, and of course a speech from the president.  I attended with the other two Fulbright ETAs and one other friend for the festivities and to plan for our trip to the other side of the country for the World Nomad Games in Cholpon-Ata.  This event will have at least one blog post of it’s own, but suffice it to say I am extremely glad that I chose to come to Kyrgyzstan early for the event because it was an incredible way to start the year.

Kyrgyz president on Independence Day
Dancers in Ala-Too Square for Independence Day
Independence Day Fireworks over the square

After the World Nomad Games came Fulbright orientation at the US Embassy.  This was my first experience visiting a US embassy in my five years of travel, and it was certainly a unique experience.  It was nice to hear about the programming that the US government supports here in Kyrgyzstan, especially relating to tourism and education.  After our orientation we also were invited to a welcome reception at the acting ambassador’s house, which is something I never would have dreamed of happening in my lifetime.  

Kyrchyn Jailoo at the World Nomad Games

Once finished with the two days of orientation meetings, I finally began working the following week as an English teacher at the International University of Central Asia in Tokmok.  This city is about an hour and a half drive from Bishkek with traffic, and I ride in a shuttle bus with other faculty to and from the university on my workdays.  The shuttle ride provides a nice opportunity to meet my coworkers and have forced listening immersion in Russian.  This semester I am teaching speaking-focused courses to first and third year students in the linguistics department.  My students are (usually) quite motivated and active in classes, and some of my first-year students have even came to Bishkek one weekend for extra English speaking practice.  I only go to the university twice a week, on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and spend the entire day at the school.  I get picked up at my apartment in Bishkek around 7:30 AM and get home between 6-8:30 PM depending on the day.

“My Bishkek”

My average weekly schedule outside of work tends to make up for the excessive days off.  I have Russian and Kyrgyz lessons twice a week, though I should frankly put even more time and effort into it because I’ve been improving less than I had hoped.  I also volunteer with the American Corners in Bishkek and nearby Kant.  These are US Embassy sponsored places in libraries around the world that provide free access to all sorts of English language materials, games, talking clubs, lessons, and so much more.  In Bishkek they even have a technology lab with 3D printers and robots to get kids interested in science and technology, which I think is incredible.  Here in Bishkek I volunteer with a college preparatory program for high school students interested in going to the US for university, and in Kant I run a talking club once a week with a fellow Fulbright ETA for mostly schoolchildren, with a few adults who come by to practice as well.

Sunset in Ala-Too Square
Art Market in Oak Park

At least once every other week I make my way to Osh Bazaar to buy fresh fruits and vegetables and practice languages with the vendors (usually Kyrgyz), a few of which now recognize me and we have nice conversations whenever I stop by.  I’ve also been hosting Couchsurfers pretty regularly on the weekend, whether offering the spare bedroom in my apartment, showing them around the city, or meeting up at cafes to chat.  I’ve met so many amazing people hosting that I look forward to continuing long after I leave Bishkek. 

Osh Bazaar
Vendors in Osh Bazaar

On weekends (at least before it started snowing) I also go hiking with the Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan to some of the gorges outside of Bishkek, which I’ll also be writing about with more photos that I can fit here.  So far I have gone to a glacial lake called Kol Tor, camping in the valley below said lake, and an incredible canyon in Krasnyy Most.  Later in the winter I’ll probably join one of their winter sports trips to learn how to ski or snowboard at one of the many nearby resorts.  I also took a weekend trip to the city of Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan, but again, I’ll save that for a later post.  

Hiking to Kol Tor with the Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan

That’s all for now; I hope to be caught up with the rest of my posts before Christmas break, when I have a fantastic trip set up that I know I will want to write about as soon as I get back, so if you don’t see a new post by next week bother me until it happens! 

Lenin wants you to visit Bishkek!

Amsterdam – Exploring the city on a short morning layover

(Note: I wrote this on the plane right after leaving the city, and only just got around to publishing it now — almost a year later.)

This morning, en route back to the US for the summer from Astana, I was stamped into my 30th country, the Netherlands. I booked a KLM flight from Astana to Detroit with a 7 hour layover in Amsterdam, and with that much time its insane not to go into the city and wander around the old city centre.


Taking the train from the airport to Amsterdam Centraal station is probably the easiest airport-to-city transport experience ever. A return ticket from/to the airport is only 9.20€ and the trains depart from platforms under the arrivals hall. The airport also has tons of luggage storage options so you don’t have to lug around a carry on through the city.

Dutch anarchists

Amsterdam Centraal station is very aptly named, as its in the heart of the historic city centre. Walking straight out of the station will lead you along the main street, Damrak, and its beautiful canals. If you are lucky like I was, you can see the buildings reflect off of the water like a mirror. It was a very calm morning with few people around which made the view all the better (but honestly who would be voluntarily be wandering around at 7:30 AM?).




Following Damrak will take you to the Dam Square, and continuing roughly in the same direction from that point you’ll reach the Rijksmuseum and the famous IAMsterdam sign after crossing a few canals. Along the way you can stroll through the Bloemenmarket to see the tulips and tulip bulbs for sale from the surrounding countryside. If you are as lucky as I was, you may witness a bicyclist crashing into a Mini Cooper in what is quite possibly the most Dutch thing ever.




Once you reach the museum, you’ll see that the park/square has a number of other musuems inside of it, such as the Momo Museum and the Van Gogh Museum. The Momo Museum had a Banksy exhibition and a couple of pieces were visible from the street, which was super cool (also free wifi that worked from the park outside).  Unfortunately, due to the early morning timing of my layover I wasn’t able to go into any of the museums and have enough time to make the ticket worthwhile.




Banksy Museum

Running along the canals parallel to Damrak are a number of beautiful streets, including some which hold the infamous red light district. I walked along one of these roads on my way back to the train station, though this street mostly held restaurants with a few sex oriented businesses scattered about. The bulk of the district was one street/canal over, though I did see some of the stereotypical glass rooms as I was walking along (all empty, as business is probably not so great at 9 AM on a weekday – almost everyone wandering around were over 50 and in a tour group).




I went back to the airport after about 3 hours of wandering around in order to make it back for my connecting flight. For anyone looking to explore the city on a layover — and you’d be crazy not to — be sure to be back at the airport 2.5 hours early because security is incredibly strict and slow. Immigration is quick and easy for US/Canadian/etc. citizens with self-service lanes, but the rest of the security process took seemingly forever (why is it necessary to remove every charger from bags?!), so don’t waste too much time on the land-side of the airport.

Dordoi Bazaar – haggling in Central Asia’s largest bazaar

Bishkek, like most urban centers in Central Asia, is a city of many bazaars. While Osh Bazaar is the most famous of them, Dordoi Bazaar is by far the largest.  Located a few kilometers northeast of the city center, this bazaar is built from thousands of old shipping containers.  Dordoi is the largest bazaar in Central Asia, and one of the top ten largest on earth.


Inside Dordoi Bazaar you can find literally anything you need.  There are dozens of sections for different goods: shoes, clothes, fur hats, military surplus, traditional clothing, toys, and of course a bunch of places to have snacks when you get exhausted from all the shopping.  I spent about 3 hours just in those few sections mentioned, which probably only comprise a third or less of the whole complex.  There are countless other sections of products I never saw because the bazaar is too large to see in a single day.


Clothes are far cheaper here than in Osh Bazaar or neighboring Kazakhstan, and high quality Chinese fakes can run for a 10th of the original cost.  For example, I bought two Under Armour shirts for hiking for less than $5 a piece, and I couldn’t see any difference from the original thing.  Souvenirs aren’t so prevalent here, unless you want some Russian military attire, in which case you have lots to choose from (the stereotypical fluffy black fur hats will set you back about $10).DSC_0409


Getting to the bazaar is fairly straightforward, with many buses and marshrutkas going there from the city center (look for Дордой on the signs).  I went by marshrutka with one of the employees at my hostel, who showed me around for a bit before she had to leave.  Be sure to visit in the morning, as everything starts shutting down around 12:30-1 o’clock.  It’s an incredible place to visit, even if just to see the magnitude of the place and  the amount shops clustered together in this huge area.

Osh Bazaar – getting lost in a maze of shops

With its crowded streets and wide array of goods, Osh Bazaar is one of Bishkek’s most popular attractions.  Here you can find an incredible number of spices, dried fruits, nuts, fruits and vegetables, and even an entire aisle of Kurt (a local dried/salted milk snack).  The bazaar doesn’t only include food though; you can get lost in the maze of household goods, Chinese knock off clothing (ranging from bad fakes to identical copies with the original tags), and military gear.

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While many people find this place unappealing, I visited twice and found it fascinating.  The salespeople are quite friendly, and many spoke some English. However, when I started speaking in Kazakh/Kyrgyz, they were always so surprised that someone from the US knew any of the language and wanted to chat even more.  Even crazier when compared to other markets around the world, when I pulled out my camera to take pictures, many vendors asked for their portrait to be taken with their products!  Walking through one aisle of the shoe section I had almost the entire row ask for pictures and then we chatted for almost twenty minutes.  In the fruits section, a woman explained to me in English all of the different products and let me sample them all since I had never tried them before.  Of course many people were friendly for tourists, but even those people who I told I was just looking around the bazaar were very talkative and nice.


One of the biggest things I read online before going was that there were many “police officers” (both fake and real) who would try to steal things from you if you followed them when asked for your passport.  During both visits (which were quite long), I never saw anything like this nor had anyone I met during my week stay.  While it’s definitely wise to be aware of the scams, they are not as common as they are made out to be in travel guides and online.  This place is a must see for anyone visiting Bishkek!


Ala Archa National Park

Ala Archa NP, located just outside of Bishkek, is the number one place to visit when in the city.  The park is accessible all year round and offers breathtaking views of the Tian Shan (天山 – “heavenly mountains”) range.  The mountains live up to their name, and the park provides an easy place to explore them on a day trip from Bishkek proper.

I went to the park with fellow Midwesterner and long term traveler, Karl (@wanderbadger on instagram, highly recommended), from the hostel and hiked around for a couple hours.  Right by the beginning of the trail we encountered the fluffiest and friendliest squirrels I’ve ever seen, that kept climbing or attempting to climb up us both.  Further along, the trail runs along a rocky river with a few haphazard bridges to cross it.  It was still really snowy everywhere but it was hot enough that even just wearing a T-shirt was too warm.  I stupidly forgot sunscreen and became a tomato (in case you didn’t know, eyeball sunburn is a thing and not a fun one), but it was so nice to feel the sun and be in the mountains after being in the frozen and cloudy steppe.  The walk to the marshrutka station was less fun, as after the park entrance gate it was just flat asphalt walking for kilometers.  The only interesting part of that return journey was meeting a bunch of middle aged guys parked on the side of the road taking shots to celebrate one of their birthdays.


To get to Ala Archa, the quickest, easiest, and most recommended way is by taxi.  For about 2-2.5k som the driver will take you round trip and wait for a few hours while you hike.  If you are cheap, there is a marshrutka stop about 10km away from the entrance that you can walk to and from.  Having done a combination of them both and feeling miserable because of it, take the taxi round trip and spend the extra few dollars.

There’s not so much more to say about the park, so I’ll let the pictures do the rest of the talking.DSC_0139DSC_0107

Skyrim or Kyrgyzstan?

A Weekend Hockey Game in Astana – Barys vs Avangard

Last weekend I got a ticket from a friend to watch the local hockey team, Barys, play in the giant arena near the university campus.  She picked me up at a nearby mall and we met another one of her friends at the arena for the game.  The arena is quite nice inside, and it was absolutely packed with people for this game.  The opening ceremonies with the team introduction and the national anthems of Russia and Kazakhstan were really impressive.  The opponent for this game, which I’m pretty sure was the last of the season, was Avangard, the team from Omsk, Russia.  As someone who knows nothing about hockey, it was an interesting experience to see and hear everything going on during the game in Russian (I still don’t quite understand what was happening).  Unfortunately, the local team lost 3-1, but it was a cool experience nonetheless.  I’ll probably end up going back again next season, especially if my Russian is better (maybe I can figure things out!).  Anyway, here are some shots from the game.

Barys Arena

Opening Ceremonies

Opening Ceremonies


Final score 1-3

A Cold Autumn Day at Burabay National Park

My first trip out of Astana was to the popular nature destination of Borovoe (or Burabai in Kazakh).  Located just a short three hour train ride away, this is a pretty popular weekend getaway for residents of Astana.  There are plenty of resorts and hotels around the lake which are full during the summer months.  I went with two classmates and we headed out on the first train north, which left sometime around 6 AM.  The train cost only about $3 each way and ran fairly regularly all day.  Once we arrived at the train station in the town nearest to Borovoe, we hired a taxi to take us to the end of the hiking route so that we only had to walk into the town instead of doing the same trail there and back.

Early morning at the Astana Train Station

Our first view of Borovoe

Now, the thing about Borovoe is that the weather is entirely unpredictable.  Unlike everywhere surrounding it which is endless steppe, Borovoe has mountains and forests that contribute to its erratic climate.  According to most of the forecasts, the weather was supposed to be fine the entire day, and many friends of mine had been there the previous day with beautiful weather.  When we arrived, it was cloudy and much colder than Astana (which isn’t so surprising considering its proximity to the border with Russian Siberia).  Since there was a cafe at the beginning of the route, we stopped for hot drinks before heading out on the walk.

Stopping for hot drinks before our hike

Unfortunately, during the time we were inside getting warmed up, it started raining outside.  It was only a light rain and we hoped it would stop after we started walking, so we began the trek into a forested area nearby.  The scenery was lovely, and there were tied rags which are used for religious rituals on many of the trees.  After getting turned around in here, we made our way toward the town.  Of course, the rain came down harder and harder during the next 3 hours to the point that everything was pretty well soaked through by the time we arrived in town.

Replica of the standing stones found across Kazakhstan

This stone has some attachment to some ancient practice from what I could gather

Clouds coming over the trees

Tied rags symbolize many things in local religious contexts

Once we managed to find a restaurant and get food (and have a few incidents along the way) we made the journey back to the train station and to Astana.  The train station for Borovoe is incredibly cold for being indoors, so we ended up drinking a lot of hot chocolate from a vending machine to keep warm with all the wind coming inside and hitting our still pretty wet clothes.  The train back was pretty late in the evening, and we got stuck with very loud and inebriated soccer fans from a city on the other side of the country who were singing their team’s anthem for hours.  Overall though, even with pretty much everything going wrong that could go wrong, it was still a beautiful trip and definitely one I will remember.

The famous standing stone in the center of the lake

Cool root systems on these trees near the lake

Rentable boats near the famous rock

Grey skies and grey water

A cyclist who was also stuck in the rain

Winter Wandering in Astana

As you can probably guess from both the title and the time of year, its wintertime in Astana.  And yes, to answer the question I already know is coming next, it is very cold living in what is essentially south Siberia (but without the trees).  Since its usually grey, cloudy, and windy all day in addition to being cold I rarely go outside and explore the city.  However, this was the first day in the month of so since I’ve been back from my holiday in the US that the sky was blue and not smoggy/hazy, so I decided to go exploring again even though it was -5ºF/-20ºC outside.


I didn’t exactly go anywhere new or exciting that I haven’t written about before, but the city looks pretty different in the snow.  It was interesting to visit places that are packed with people in the summer that are completely dead in winter.  For example, the viewpoint for the Presidential Palace usually has people walking around, especially in the park right before the stairs, but today it was only me and a security guard.  I saw maybe ten people total walking outside in the park between Khan Shatyr and Ak Orda.  I will say that I had to melt ice off of my face a few times, but it really didn’t feel that cold outside when walking in the sun.  Most everywhere is plowed or shoveled down to the cement, though I did have to trudge through knee deep snow near the Pyramid when I was trying to find a good view.  Anyway, here are some pics of Astana in the winter as a brief update before I catch up on writing about my trips to southern Kazakhstan and Turkey.

I thought these looked stupid in the summer, but I see why they are here after walking by in winter – so much cooler

Snow plows in clearing the plaza in front of Ak Orda

The Pyramid looks impressive surrounded by white

The city skyline in the distance beyond some natural snow drifts near the Pyramid

Hazret Sultan Mosque is even prettier in the snow

The street in front of Independence Square contrasts the blue of the sky and surrounding buildings

Exploring Astana – Visiting the National Museum of Kazakhstan and Bayterek Tower

(Note: I wrote this on the day it took place but didn’t post it for the sake of keeping things in order)

Today I set out to explore the city on my own, with the primary goal of visiting the National Museum.  I set off in the early afternoon so traffic would be mild and the buses not so crowded, since standing while taking a bus across the city is a pain in the butt.  Both of my bus ride hopes were fulfilled when I got on, and everything went well until the bus made an unexpected detour in the opposite direction of where I was going because of some surprise construction work.  I managed to get off at a bus stop well beyond the US Embassy and slowly made my way back toward the museum, and what was supposed to be a quick walk across the park to the entrance became a mile and a half of walking – but hey, what better way to get more acquainted with the city?

Since I had to take the long way around, I figured I may as well take my time and photograph the stunning Hazret Sultan Mosque, since I had all my camera gear with me and nowhere to be in a hurry.  There were more flowers and greenery there since my previous visit a few weeks ago, and there were families walking around the park and taking photos of themselves with the mosque.  If you look closely, you can see the elements of Kazakh traditional design within the architectural elements of the building.  I find it fascinating how religious architecture in this city manages to incorporate local art into the designs on and within their walls.

Admiring the architectural details

Colorful minaret

I made my way toward the museum by walking across Independence Square, a giant plaza with a huge pillar in the center called the Kazakh Eli monument, a symbol of Kazakh independence and progress (information I found out while writing this post as I came across an infographic about the plaza when trying to figure out what the place was called).  The plaza is so big and there are so few people in it at any given time that it almost feels almost eerie.  The only other people who were there were other tourists who seemed to be on break from some kind of conference.

One of the buildings in the square

The National Museum

Cool fountain in front of the museum

Eventually I made it to the brand new National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan, which was opened in 2014 and has an impressive 4 floors of exhibits with eleven giant halls for exhibits. The museum employees speak English and there is even a student discount on the already low ticket prices (I paid less than $2 to see everything).  It does cost an extra $1.50 to take photos in the museum, but when the ticket is only $2-4.50 total, it really isn’t that much extra for those who want to use a camera.  I spent probably 3 hours in the museum, wandering through the exhibits which range from the Hall of Gold (which holds the famous Golden Man artifacts), History of Kazakhstan, and even modern Kazakh art.  The collections are very well rounded for being only 2 years old, and I’ll probably return to see everything again in the near future.

Museum lobby

Inside a replica Yurt

The hall of history

Model of a kurgan excavation

The famous Golden Man

After leaving the museum and realizing my immense hunger, I took the bus to Keruen Mall and grabbed a döner meal for $4 before wandering into the park which marks the center of Astana’s Left Bank.  Since the Artfest entries were still up, I decided to wander around the park and see the newest pieces.  As I was wandering around Bayterek, the grey cloudy skies opened up to a vibrant blue – which led me to make an impromptu visit to the observation tower in Bayterek.  As I walked toward the entrance, I randomly heard the sound of Single Ladies by Beyonce playing in the park ahead of me, and when I looked up I saw a woman dressed as a Mongol Warrior dancing to the music, in what is so far the most bizarre thing I’ve witnessed in Astana.dsc_0258

After that confusing experience, I entered the tower and paid the 500 tenge ($1.50) entry fee and took the elevator to the top.  The viewing area looks otherworldly, like a mix between a spaceship and a greenhouse.  There are three floors inside the giant gold bar, the first with a small cafe in which you can enjoy a great, albeit gold tinted, view of the city.  The second floor has more viewing space, while the third holds a gold cast of President Nazarbayev’s hand which you can touch and take photos with.  It wasn’t too crowded for being a Saturday afternoon, which was great because that space was not all that big.

View of Ak Orda from Bayterek

Nazarbayev’s golden handprint

Inside Bayterek

Once I headed back down from the tower, I wandered through the park toward Khan Shatyr mall, taking photos and enjoying the warm weather before winter descends on the steppe.  After briefly entering the mall, I headed toward the bus stop back to the university, but stopping along the way at Nur Astana Mosque, a place I’ve seen every day (it is visible from the university) but had never actually walked up to and photographed.  The lighting was perfect and made for great pictures with the gold of the dome being accented by the sunset.  It made for a wonderful end to a nice summer day in the city.

Late afternoon at Nur Astana mosque

Religious Architecture and Georgian Food – An Afternoon on Astana’s Right Bank

My second weekend in Astana involved a lot more exploration of the city.  After a successful first week of classes, I went out for an evening to walk through the central park at night to see the lights on the buildings and fountains.  I managed to catch a dancing lights and fountain show in the park that I had no idea was going to take place, which was a nice surprise (this is really only worth mentioning because I took cool pictures).  The most interesting part of the weekend, however, was spending an afternoon with a 2nd year student from my program who took me and another friend to see most sites on the right bank of the city.

Bayterek at night

Dancing fountain

Ak Orda at night

After taking the bus from campus, we got off across the river from a small orthodox church.  Not too far away was a rather plain looking Catholic church with a nice flower garden in front.  As we continued walking, we went by a synagogue which was painted light blue and white and had a unique architectural style.  We kept walking and talking as we made our way across the campus of Eurasian National University before taking a bus toward our next stop.

Orthodox church

Catholic church


We got off the bus near the Eurasia shopping center and made out way to the brand new Assumption Orthodox Cathedral.  This church was opened in 2010 and is currently under construction/renovation in it’s courtyard.  The inside of this church is incredibly painted with icons and murals of church history.  As we were admiring the church, we were approached by a man who was dressed as a church official who asked us in English if we were visiting with the U.S. Embassy.  Apparently he was waiting for a group from the embassy so he could conduct a tour of the church, but since they were already twenty minutes late he decided to give us a tour instead.  He explained in detail the ceremonies that take place during a normal service, as well as on special occasions like the Astana city holiday, Christmas, and Easter.  He also took us to the balcony where the choir sings, which had an incredible view of the domes of the roof, as well as the basement level where services take place during the winter because of the cold.  We talked about everything in the church for about an hour before we had to leave to find food.  It was incredibly interesting to hear about how the Orthodox church functions here in Kazakhstan.

Assumption Orthodox Cathedral

Inside the church

View of the ceiling from the choir’s balcony

Since we were all really hungry, we hopped on a bus to Respublika Street and went to a cafe which served Georgian food.  Since I had never even thought about Georgian cuisine before that moment, I was eager to try everything on the menu.  At first I was overwhelmed by how high the prices were, until I put the numbers into my currency converter and realized all the main dishes were between $3-5 USD.  Since the prices were low and I was starving, I ordered two main dishes.  First was khachapuri, which is a cheese filled and topped flatbread that is like something between breadsticks and cheese pizza.  The second was khinkhali, which are meat and broth filled dumplings that are apparently the most famous food from Georgia.  I ordered the restaurant special version which was a combination of beef and horse meat.  Everything was absolutely delicious but I was completely stuffed afterward.



Because we gorged ourselves on lunch, we took a walk along the riverbank and across the river to burn off some of the food.  We crossed the river on a very modern looking bridge which brought us to the UFO shaped building that houses the city circus.  Outside of this building is a series of statues that represent different stories from Kazakh folklore, which were really interesting.  There was also a giant fountain and shrubbery carved into the shapes of animals, two of which were alpacas! Both my friend and I were unintentionally wearing alpaca shirts that day so encountering alpaca shrubs was really amusing.  Our walk back took us once again to the central park in the centre of the left bank, where we picked up the bus back to campus, thus ending our weekend exploration.

Cool bridge on the Ishim

The Astana circus