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

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.

Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna

Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna (also known as Coati) are two islands located in Lake Titicaca, not far from Copacabana. Isla del Sol is the most popular with backpackers as it has great trails for day hikes, however both islands are great to visit. Isla del Sol is the larger of the two, at about 8 kilometers long. Isla de la Luna is much smaller, and only consists of one village and an Inca ruin on the other side of the large hill that splits the island in two.  
Kirsten and I visited Isla del Sol on Aymara New Year in hopes of seeing the festival which we had heard would be going on that day. Unfortunately we did not make it on time, as it had apparently started at 5 AM and the boats don’t leave Copa until 8:30 AM. However, it was still a lovely day for a hike, so we began at the north end of the island and began the 4 hour hike to the village of Yumani at the south end. There’s a small museum at the town on the north end, which includes a couple sets of (commingled) human remains. You have to buy a 5 Bs ticket here to continue along the trail toward the Inca ruins. Once you leave the museum, it’s about a 45 minute hike to the Inca ruins located at the far north of the island. These ruins are pretty pathetic compared to those in Peru, but they still make for nice photos.  

 

Inca ruins on Isla del Sol
 
From there, continue uphill toward the second checkpoint, where there is a 15 Bs fee to walk across the center portion of the island. This is the most beautiful section of the hike, so don’t skip out because of the fees to cross. There’s nothing in particular to see in this part of the island, other than the breathtaking (literally) landscape and deep blue colors of Lake Titicaca. There are two killer hills in this section, so make sure to bring a lot of water and some snacks as there’s only one place to buy stuff and it’s way overpriced. You’ll have to show your ticket a couple of times on this part, but don’t have to pay again until reaching Yumani.  

 

Stacked stones in the middle of Isla del Sol
  
Hiking trail across Isla del Sol
 
At the end of the hike, you reach the village of Yumani, which is where the boats that return to Copacabana are docked. This is the largest of the villages on the island and it has the most options for hostels/hotels and restaurants. I personally don’t think that it’s necessary to stay on the island overnight, while others say to spend at least two nights, so it’s a personal preference. I would definitely recommend starting the hike at the north end, as Yumani has a very tall and long set of stairs which take forever to go down, so climbing up that at the beginning of the hike would be awful. Boats return to Copa in the late afternoon, and usually arrive between 5:30 and 6 PM. The roundtrip boat ticket should cost no more than 40 Bs ($5.81).  

 

Village of Yumani at the south end of Isla del Sol
 
Isla de la Luna is also accessible from Copacabana, though at less regular times due to the few people that visit. We went to the island on a private boat with a resident of the island, as we were invited to their house to have lunch. The lunch consisted of potatoes, oca, fava beans, and pork, which were cooked in a stone oven (called watia). This was the first time I had seen food cooked in a stone oven, I had only seen earth ovens prior. The flavor of the stone oven was different, and it made the food substantially less dirty than the dirt oven. After lunch we hiked over the hill to visit the Inca site located on the other side. The site had earlier been excavated and partially reconstructed by archaeologists, however, in the past two years the locals have taken it upon themselves to “restore” the site. This actually means that they built a bunch of new “Inca ruins” which are quite poorly done. Comparing photos from two years ago to this year’s visit shows the drastic changes that have occurred in that short amount of time. Even with the problematic “restoration” process which is going on there, the ruins are still interesting and worth visiting if spending a few days in Copacabana. The island really survives on tourism, and there are a few cheap guesthouse in the village for those who want to relax in a quiet place for a night or two. To reach the island, talk to one of the people in the ticket booths along the beach in Copacabana and ask for the rate for the day – there is definitely a combination ticket for sale with Isla del Sol and the Floating Islands with one of the companies. 

 

Stone oven cooking on Isla de la Luna
  
Inca ruins on Isla de la Luna