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

Arequipa and Colca Canyon – colonial architecture and stunning Andean landscapes 

We arrived in Arequipa early in the morning after a long overnight bus from Huacachina. Most of the bus got dropped off at the Flying Dog hostel, which thankfully allowed us to use their lobby area to rest and charge our phones and cameras. Since many of us were booked there for the following day, we were able to have our backpacks stored before our two day one night tour of Colca Canyon. We left for Colca Canyon a little after 9 AM with a number of our friends from the bus and made our way toward Chivay.
We made a couple of stops along the way, first at Salinas National Park, which was home to herds of vicuña (llama relatives) and stunning mountain landscapes. We made a few stops in the park, one of which was a for a herd of llamas grazing along the road. The landscapes in this area were absolutely amazing, especially for fans of the barren and desolate. The bus continued higher and higher in altitude before our next stop, Mirador de Los Andes, a viewpoint located at 4,910 meters (16,017 ft) above sea level. Since this was our first day at high altitude, a few of our friends had some difficulty with the low oxygen content, though Kirsten and I had no troubles. After taking a few pictures of the surrounding volcanoes and mountains, the tour descended into Chivay, the base town for Colca Canyon treks and tours. There was one last overlook where we took a number of pictures of the town and were able to pet and take photos with a baby alpaca (who later tried to push a small boy off a cliff).

 

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Salineras National Park
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Sassy llamas in the park
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Homicidal baby alpaca -don’t let his cuteness deceive you

We finally arrived in Chivay around 2:30 PM, when we went to a tourist restaurant with an all-you-can-eat buffet of Peruvian food, which was actually pretty decent. After lunch our guide drove us to the beginning of the canyon where we took a short hike through into the canyon with absolutely stunning views of the valleys and snow capped mountains. The hike probably lasted for an hour or so, after which we headed to the volcanic hot springs located outside of the town. A friend and I managed to get separated from the group and ended up in a thermal pool by ourselves, which was really relaxing. The waters were filtered to get rid of the sulfuric smell but retain the minerals and heat, which felt wonderful after long bus rides and the earlier hike. We had dinner at a crappy tourist place that had terribly slow service and filled with smoke from the pizza oven inside, which made it really hard to breathe. Once that ordeal was finished, we checked into our hotel and went to bed early for our early morning trip into Colca Canyon.

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First view of Colca Canyon
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Geothermal pool

We began the trip into Colca around 7 AM, which felt way too early but the morning light made the landscape brilliantly colored. We stopped in a small village with a church about an hour later to use the bathrooms and buy snacks and souvenirs. At one point a friend of ours had a large bird perch on her head for photos, which was hilarious. The stop was fairly brief, and afterward we continued on into the canyon.

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We arrived at the condor viewpoint around 9:15 AM, which at first was pretty but underwhelming, especially since we had a couple hours to kill there. At first there were only a few condors flying around, but after about 30 minutes at least a dozen began flying around the canyon near where we were standing. There were a couple of viewing platforms available to watch from, so we hiked all over them to see the birds from all the different angles. After about an hour and a half our guide gathered the group up and we took a moderate hike along the valley to see the landscapes and various local plants that grew in the area. We finished the hike around noon and continued toward another viewpoint before heading back to Chivay for lunch and then onward to Arequipa before nightfall. Bonus: at the last stop we got to eat cactus ice cream, which was amazing.

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Condors at Cruz del Condor
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Viewpoints for condor watching
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Colca Canyon

 We got back to Arequipa around 6 PM and checked into our hostel, and then visited the Santa Catalina Monastery with a group of friends from the bus. On certain nights of the week the monastery is open at night, and that night happened to be one of them, which was convenient as most of our friends were leaving for Cuzco in the early morning. We all toured the various streets and buildings of the monastery — which is essentially a walled off town within the center of Arequipa — for an hour or so before heading to the main plaza to see the cathedral and other colonial architecture.

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Santa Catalina Monastery at night

After wandering through town for a bit, we went out in search of a restaurant that served cuy, otherwise known as guinea pig. We got a great recommendation from the hostel for a good local place that served it and all but two of us ordered it for dinner (the other two were mortified at the thought and could barely watch – though one did manage to try a bite). Everyone seemed to enjoy the meal, and the owner of the restaurant even made an earring for one of our friends out of the tooth of the guinea pig she ate. Unfortunately we had to say goodbye to many of them in Arequipa as we were staying an extra day to see the city.

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Mmhmm, deep fried guinea pig

The next day we spent wandering the old city of Arequipa. First we visited the Jesuit church, which had stunning architecture and intricate murals on the domed ceiling in one of the side rooms. After the church we visited the Museo Santuario Andino, which houses the Juanita mummy, and perfectly preserved mummy of a child sacrifice which was found frozen on top of a local mountain. The features of the body are incredibly preserved and the associated artifacts were explained well by our guide, who was an archaeology student at the university which runs the museum. Unfortunately you aren’t allowed to take photos, and cameras must be checked at the entrance to make sure the rule is followed.

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Colonial architecture near the Jesuit church

We left the museum and grabbed lunch before heading to the Basilica of Arequipa, which also required a tour guide. Thankfully the service was included in the ticket price and the two of us were the only ones on the tour. The guide was knowledgeable about the history of the church and the former priests, and I ended up being glad we had to hire her for a tour. There were a number of rooms available to tour which held various relics from the church’s history. Toward the end of the tour the guide took us on the roof of the church to show us the bells and the view of the main plaza, the monastery, and the volcanoes in the distance. The views from the top were great and the tour was absolutely worth taking.

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The basilica from La Plaza de Armas
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Inside the basilica
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View from the roof of the basilica

Once we finished at the church we returned to the Santa Catalina Monastery to take more pictures during the day, since it was so impressive during the night prior. The difference between night and day is striking, as the colors were much more vibrant than I had expected after seeing them the day before. We stayed much longer on the second visit in order to see everything we missed the night before. I would recommend visiting during the day and the night if possible, as both experiences are fascinating and worth the price. Once we finished in the monastery, we wandered through the town centre again before grabbing dinner and going to bed before our early morning bus to Cuzco.
 
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