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.

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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.

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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?).

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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.

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Bloemenmarket

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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.

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Rijksmuseum

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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

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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.

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Barys Arena
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Opening Ceremonies
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Opening Ceremonies

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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.

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Early morning at the Astana Train Station
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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.

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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.

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Replica of the standing stones found across Kazakhstan
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This stone has some attachment to some ancient practice from what I could gather
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Clouds coming over the trees
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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.

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The famous standing stone in the center of the lake
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Cool root systems on these trees near the lake
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Rentable boats near the famous rock
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Grey skies and grey water
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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.

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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.

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I thought these looked stupid in the summer, but I see why they are here after walking by in winter – so much cooler
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Snow plows in clearing the plaza in front of Ak Orda
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The Pyramid looks impressive surrounded by white
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The city skyline in the distance beyond some natural snow drifts near the Pyramid
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Hazret Sultan Mosque is even prettier in the snow
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The street in front of Independence Square contrasts the blue of the sky and surrounding buildings

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.

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Bayterek at night
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Dancing fountain
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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.

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Orthodox church
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Catholic church
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Synagogue

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.

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Assumption Orthodox Cathedral
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Inside the church
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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.

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Khachapuri
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Khinkhali

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.

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Cool bridge on the Ishim
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The Astana circus

Nazarbayev University and my first week in Astana

This post is about 3 months late, but better late than never.

I arrived in Astana from Frankfurt just before midnight on August 10.  After dealing with the long lines at the immigration counter, I officially entered Kazakhstan as a student.  I was greeted at the arrivals hall by a local friend and her family – who brought me some wonderful snacks – and the director of my MA program, who took me to the university campus by taxi.  The drive to the university was surprisingly short, as the campus is not too far from the airport, a good distance outside of the city center.  Once I arrived, I was shown my dorm room on the top floor and left to try and catch some sleep (surprise, I didn’t get any – thanks, jet-lag).

The following morning I was introduced to one of the student advisors from my college who took me on a tour of the campus.  The primary building on the campus is made up of nine blocks, each holding a separate academic college, with a large atrium connecting them which is full of fountains and palm trees.  There is a library block, a few small cafes, a bookstore, and a cafeteria in this building as well.  Beyond this building, there are a number of dormitory blocks for students and additional housing for faculty and staff.  In between these dormitories is the Sports Centre, and scattered around the various blocks there are a few minimarkets and a doctor’s office.  At some point there will be skywalks between the buildings which will make it a lot less miserable to get to classes in the winter when it’s -30º+ outside.

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The main entrance to campus
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Inside the atrium

After walking around the campus, I was taken into the city to exchange some money, buy a SIM card, and get a feel for the city.  We took a bus to Asia Park mall and then walked to the famous Khan Shatyr shopping mall, where I changed some money and admired the insane architectural design of the building – which is shaped like a giant tent.  From here we walked along the central park of the Left Bank, the new part of the city which was designed in large part by President Nazarbayev.  The park is quite beautiful, and there was an art festival exhibiting artwork all along the walkways toward the Presidential Palace.  My favorite piece of art in the park is the Expo 2017 figures, each holding a globe painted with representations of their respective countries.

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Khan Shatyr Mall
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Looking into the main park of Astana from Khan Shatyr

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Halfway through the park is the ubiquitous landmark of Astana – Bayterek Tower.  This tower, which was inspired by a design drawn by President Nazarbayev himself, is an observation platform and symbol for modern Astana.  The sidewalks and benches around the monument are full of people selling ice cream and rides for kids, as well as the occasional performer.  Walking further toward the river are a series of dancing fountains, which lead you toward Ak Orda (Ақ Орда in Kazakh), the Presidential Palace.

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Once we walked the length of the park, we turned around and headed back toward Keruen mall (notice that this city has a ton of malls?) for lunch.  Most food is incredibly cheap here compared to the US, so even in an expensive mall food court I had a full set meal lunch for $4.  After lunch we went back to the university and I crashed – 10 hour time changes do a number on the body.

The next few days were fairly uneventful as I didn’t have an ID card to get in and out of campus.  I had graduate orientation on Friday, where I met some of the faculty from my college and most of my cohort, but most of my time was spent in a jet-lag induced state of exhaustion.

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Sunset over campus from my window

One afternoon I managed get off the campus with the help of a friend, whose ID card I used to get through the entrance gates so I could walk around the city to fight jet-lag.  I, along with another international student in my cohort, went to the giant central park in the new city centre of Astana.  It was a nice sunny day, so we leisurely strolled through the Expo figures, taking time to admire the depictions of each country participating in next year’s event.  Many of these figures are from countries which I have previously visited, so I made sure to photograph each of them individually – especially those of countries I studied in like Bolivia and Romania.  Just beyond where these figures end, walking toward Bayterek tower, were performers dressed in “traditional” armor and held weapons while painted like statues.  There were tons of local families posing with each of these statue people, each of whom would quickly switch positions right as the photo was being taken so that it looked as though they were attacking the people posing.  There were some other pieces from the art festival that had been installed since my last visit as well, so as we walked we continued to admire these pieces as well.

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Who would’ve thought…
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Street performer

We met another friend from our cohort at the mall off of this park, and from there we went to the right bank of Astana, which is the older part of the city where a majority of people actually live.  We took the bus to Respublika Avenue, which is main thoroughfare through the old city and the centre of life in Astana.  From here we cut across to the riverbank, which we walked along for an hour or so as the sun began to set.  There were lots of people strolling along the riverbank, which has nice brick walking paths, park benches, and fishing access.

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Monument of Kenesary Khan
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Walking along the river
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Boat going down the Ishim

We made our way across one of the many bridges across the Ishim River and into Astana Park.  This park has a giant clock tower that looks like the Eye of Sauron that surrounded by a bunch of painted life-sized horse statues.  There were also fountains which came out of the ground around the clock tower that were full of children running, splashing, and even biking through.  We continued walking toward a mall, where we got dinner, before continuing on toward the park where we first met.  We made a final stop at the Astana Opera House – a giant Greek style theatre with imposing columns and statues of Kazakh musicians guarding it’s entrance.  It lies in stark contrast to the bizarre architecture of the rest of the city centre.

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Little kid on a horse
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The clocktower
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Kids playing in the park fountains
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Khan Shatyr at night
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Astana Opera House

The next day, after finally acquiring my student ID card (one of many technical difficulties I’ve experienced here so far), I was able to come and go freely on campus.  Thanks to this, I was able to meet up with my friend Galiya who met me at the airport when I arrived.  We met by the Presidential Palace and after a brief food stop in an old cafeteria, we walked across a bridge to the right bank to visit the rest of the famous sites in Astana.  First was the Presidential Park, a giant park across the river from the Palace and surrounding the Pyramid, formally called the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation.  This park has a huge fountain system that looks like an eagle when viewed on a satellite map.  Just up the hill from the fountains is the Pyramid, in front of which are a few Instagram shaped boards that you can pose inside to promote tourism in Astana.

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View of Ak Orda from the bridge
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Ferry going along the river
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The Pyramid through a standing Instagram board

On the other side of the pyramid is Independence Square, which holds a giant pillar, some modern buildings, and a brand new mosque.  We walked up to the monument in the centre of the square before turning toward Hazret Sultan mosque.  This building is probably the most beautiful in Astana with its imposing yet delicate white marble exterior.  The main entrance to the mosque is styled in a way similar to the entrance gates of the most famous Central Asian Islamic buildings from Turkestan and Samarkand.  After I wandered about admiring the architecture, we continued walking down the street toward a mall where we grabbed dinner in a restaurant styled after a Soviet era kitchen, which was really interesting.  I tried my first Russian dumplings (vareniki, apparently the same as pierogi according to Wikipedia) after having fun trying to read the Russian menu.  After eating and hanging out in the mall for a little while longer, we parted ways and I went back to the university – ending my last day of freedom before classes began.

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Independence Square
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Hazret Sultan Mosque
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Side entrance
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Main entrance
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Vareniki
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Bonus: Colorful Kazakh tenge bills

Frankfurt and Mainz – 24 hours in Germany

On August 8, 2016, I left the United States for a two year MA program in Astana, Kazakhstan.  This obviously isn’t the most common international grad school destination, so I’ll be writing a lot of later posts about life in the steppe.  However, right now I’d like to focus on what happened between that flight out of Chicago to when I landed in Astana.

I flew out of Chicago just before midnight on an overnight flight to Frankfurt, Germany on Lufthansa.  This was both my first flight on Lufthansa and my first visit to Germany.  I have to take a moment to mention that I managed to snag both the bulkhead seat AND and empty row for this flight, which is pretty much what everyone dreams of on an overnight transatlantic flight.  I managed to get some decent sleep with this arrangement, and I arrived in Frankfurt more refreshed than one normally is after such a flight.  Thus began my 24 hour layover in Germany.

When I originally booked my flight, I had intended to just book a hostel and wander around the city.  However, in a wonderful twist of fate, one of my best friends from my exchange program in Singapore over two years ago was living in the nearby city of Mainz for university.  Thanks to this, I got to visit a good friend acted like my personal German tour guide and gave me a free place to stay overnight.

My friend met me at the airport arrivals hall, and after a brief time finding the luggage storage desk, we took the train to central Frankfurt from the airport.  The train to the city is incredibly fast and easy to take, and I’d recommend it for anyone spending more than a few hours on a layover in the airport.  The train station itself was really cool, at least for someone who has only visited Europe once prior.  The industrial look in the inside is just something I really love.  The outside is also nice, though not the most beautiful building on the planet by any means.  It’s a relatively short walk from the train station to the city centre – literally just straight out the front door on the pedestrian street and then a few blocks.  The pedestrian street had food stalls, little shops, and hundreds of bicycles parked everywhere.

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Frankfurt train station

After about a 15 minute walk, we encountered the giant Euro statue in the park near the European Central Bank.  This thing is incredibly gaudy and I honestly don’t understand why it’s even necessary, but it did make for some striking photos.  The park marks the beginning of the financial district, where the shorter stereotypically European buildings shoot up into massive skyscrapers.

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We left the park after a few minutes and made our way toward Frankfurt Maintower, one of the city’s tallest buildings and home to an observation tower.  The ticket to the top was €6.50 and well worth it for the view.  You can see the entire urban sprawl and the surrounding landscape.  The juxtaposition of older style buildings with modern glass and metal skyscrapers is especially visible from this vantage point.  After a 15-20 minute visit we made our way back to the ground and toward the old city centre of Frankfurt.

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The old city from Maintower

After walking through a large plaza with a statue of Gutenberg, we turned into the curvy streets of the old centre.  This area is quite different from the rest of the city, with little sidewalk cafes, old style architecture, and even a painted chunk of the Berlin Wall from an art gallery.  The Goethe house museum, located in the famous author’s birthplace, is right on the edge of this district of the city, which we walked by but didn’t enter.  Just around the corner was entered St. Paul’s Church, which while no longer an active church, was the historic site where the German constitution was written.  There isn’t much original stuff left in the building as it was gutted during World War II, leaving only part of the outer structure intact.

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St. Paul’s Church and nearby monument

Just around the corner from the church is the centre of the old city, a square called Römerplatz.  This square is lined with German style buildings which were rebuilt, like the church, after being destroyed in WWII.  Along with the beautiful architecture, there’s also 17th century fountain and a 13th century church.  It would be very easy to sit in one of the cafes along this square and enjoy the views for quite a while.  It reminded me vaguely of a small scale version of Prague’s Old City, though nowhere near as grand.

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Römerplatz

There are many interesting streets and alleys which lead out of the square, one of which we took that led us to the riverbank and the Iron Footbridge, a pedestrian walkway across the Main River.  Rather than crossing the river, we ended up turning around and heading back into the old city to continue seeing the sites.  Our next stop was the Frankfurt Cathedral, another of the many post-WWII reconstructed buildings.  The inside looked very new and quite plain, though there were some hints of the deep history of the church in the traces of old murals along the walls.  After visiting the church, we took a short break at a nearby cafe to rest for a few minutes before trekking through the rest of the city.

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From the church plaza, we made our way toward Zeil Street, a well known shopping street in Frankfurt.  Along the way I was able to try my first German bratwurst, which was delicious with the brown bread and mustard.  The shopping street was packed with people, a stark contrast to the previous streets we had walked in the old centre.  While I had no interest in shopping, we did stop to admire the insane architecture of one of the My Ziel mall which had a huge wormhole built into it.  A short distance from this mall was the Main Guard Square, which is the main center of the city.  From this square you can again see the contrast of old and new architecture in the city.

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German bratwurst
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My Zeil mall
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Main Guard Square

Our last stop in Frankfurt was Eschenheim Tower, a building I noticed on my travel guide app that looked really interesting.  This tower was an old city gate that looks like it was transported out of a Disney movie castle.  It now sits in a small little park and apparently has a restaurant inside of it.  Once we stopped by the tower, we started heading back to the train station.  Along the way, we stumbled by the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, in front of which was a cute interpretation of the bull and bear statues.  We managed to make our way toward the opera house, which was a really beautiful building surrounded by a huge square with stunning architecture.

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Eschenheim Tower
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Frankfurt Opera House

As we walked along one of the main streets in the city, we wandered past the Deutsche Bank Twin Towers, which were strikingly beautiful as they reflected the deep blue sky and fluffy white clouds.  Since neither of us were entirely sure of how to get back to the train station in the best way, we ended up stumbling through Frankfurt’s red light district, which was incredibly bizarre for someone who has never lived somewhere where this was a normal thing.  Though there were few people there as it was early afternoon, the signage and hotel names were hilariously sexual, as if teenage boys came up with names that sounded erotic.  Thankfully the district is quite small and very near the train station, so we just made our way through quickly and hopped on a train to Mainz.

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Deutsche Bank Towers

Mainz is a quaint little university town not too far away from Frankfurt, and conveniently close to the airport.  This city is where Gutenberg invented the printing press, and as such it holds the Gutenberg Museum in the city centre.  The town is very walkable, and so we made our way along the beautiful old streets and I admired all the architecture.  We walked through this square with a crazy statue for Carnival in which everything is doing the opposite of what it should, like cats being in the water and fish flying in the air.

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Mainz city centre

In the centre of the city stands the most stunning piece of architecture in the city, Mainz Cathedral.  This church was founded in 975 CE, which is mind-blowing.  Interestingly, the church is constructed in different styles, including Romanesque, Baroque, and Gothic, due to various stages of construction over history.  The inside of the church is incredibly beautiful and holds an impressive collection of art.  Beneath the church are some ossuaries which hold the remains of archbishops and other significant figures from history.  There’s also a small courtyard inside of the church with gardens, around which are arched walkways with old statuary.

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Mainz Cathedral
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Inside the cathedral

As we continued walking in the city, we made our way to the Rhine River and walked along its bank for a while.  There is a very nice walking path along the river which makes for a pleasant stroll by the water, and there were many people taking advantage of it.  After a short walk along the river, we headed into another part of the old city.  There was this very interesting building which had been painted to look quite old, and the sign on it said that the town had been there since 500 CE.  I though the church was already old, so this part of the city just blew my mind.  My friend didn’t even think about how old everything was, while I was pointing out all of the years on the signs we walked by.

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Sunset over the Rhine
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The town has been here since 500 CE

Not far from this building was the shopping district and primarily pedestrian part of the city.  The buildings in this area look very similar to the Römerplatz in Frankfurt but a lot less touristy.  They hold shops and restaurants which were not really aimed at tourists like those in Frankfurt, which was a nice change.  As we walked through here at sunset, the colors on the buildings were wonderful and the atmosphere was perfect.  Because we walked so much in the city so I could see everything in the daylight, we missed our opportunity to get dinner at a lot of places in the city.  Since there were few options, I ended up eating a sampler platter of local cheeses and pretzels — something I can’t really complain about, as it was pretty good.  The first was called Spundekäse, which was like a whipped and creamy cheese, while the second was called Mainzer Handkäse, which was a local specialty cheese that was marinated in vinegar with onions.  I was given a sampler platter with half portions of each cheese and it was entirely too much cheese for one person to consume, though I did my best to do it anyway.

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Old city architecture
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Cheese dinner

The following morning, after eating a wonderful breakfast of fresh local rolls and butterkäse, we set out to walk around the city for an hour or so before I had to return to the airport.  It was then that we visited the church, as it had been closed before our arrival the prior evening.  This took up most of our time as the building is huge and there is a lot to see.  After that, however, we walked back toward the train station where we took the 20 minute ride back to the airport.  After I grabbed my bag from the luggage storage desk, my friend helped me get to the proper gate and terminal for my flight before we parted ways (and I encountered the most frustrating security line ever).

Though I was only in Germany for 24 hours, I feel like I had a really good visit and saw quite a bit of the Frankfurt area.  I hope to be able to visit Germany again soon, but this trip was a great teaser of what a future trip could hold.