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Friday, October 17, 2014

Almaty, Part 1

We are on the cusp of wrapping up a fall break in our neck of the woods.  Scott and I knew for weeks that we really wanted to do something, but it took us a while to decide on what.  Getting around in Kazakhstan isn't very easy with our extremely barebones Russian skills, and we considered traveling to Turkey, which we visited some years ago and enjoyed very much.  In the end, though, we decided we should try to see some more of Kazakhstan.  In a close to eleventh hour decision, we talked with our next door neighbors, and decided to travel to Almaty together.

The same friend who took us to Karaganda very kindly got us train tickets, since he speaks Russian and lives near a travel agency.  We spent some time with our neighbors discussing hotel possibilities and must-sees for our trip.  Our train departed Saturday around dinner time.  A couple of hours before, the water in our apartments was randomly cut off, and we saw that as an omen that we'd made the right decision to leave Astana for a few days.

The train we took was an overnight train that took a little over twelve hours.  We had tickets for a sleeper compartment for four people.  I think I would have been a lot less willing to take an overnight train if I couldn't share a sleeper compartment with people I knew--imagine the awkwardness of sharing a sleeper compartment with strangers with whom you probably wouldn't even share a common language.  The sleeper compartment was certainly cosy, but it worked out.  When we started out on our trip, it had two sets of two seats facing each other.  Then, when it was time to sleep, an attendant came and unlocked compartments on the walls that released two sets of top and bottom bunks where the seats had been.

The train also had a dining car where we passed some time on the way to Almaty.  The menu was surprisingly extensive, but they were out of a number of items.  I ultimately ended up with borscht and "Thai" chicken.  The chicken dish didn't feature anything that I thought of as Thai flavors, but it actually wasn't too bad aside from that.

The actual sleeping part of traveling by overnight train was a mixed bag.  Sleeping lying down is preferable to sleeping sitting up (like on a plane), but I don't think any of the four of us got anything approaching a full night of sleep.  I kept being startled awake by sudden movements and noises.  Still, I'm glad I got to try taking an overnight train with a sleeping compartment.

Another one of our wonderful colleagues and friends grew up in Almaty, and she was there for the break, as well.  When we arrived in Almaty early Sunday morning, she came with her nephew to pick us up, show us around, and take us to our hotel.  She started by taking us to a popular local restaurant for breakfast.  I ate like a shark--a plate of fried eggs with tomato and three blinis stuffed with cheese, yum!  She then showed us some highlights around town (many of which we visited again later on), and then we headed in the direction of the Medeu ice rink and Chimbulak ski resort.

On the way there, we visited a ski jump training facility.  If I remember correctly, I think it was built for the 2011 Asian Winter Games.  We actually saw some people practicing ski jumps there, although I didn't manage to successfully photograph anyone at the right moment.

It was funny to see people practicing ski jumps without any snow in sight.

We then headed into the mountains south of Almaty.  We stopped to take a look at the Medeu ice rink, which I've read is the highest ice rink in the world.

Looking down at the Medeu ice rink

We then took a cable car to ascend to the Chimbulak ski resort.  We had some lovely views both on the way and once we got to the top.  We had lunch there so we could enjoy the views for a while longer.

Written in stone(s)!

 After that, our friend and her nephew took us to our hotel for a much-needed nap.  In the evening, the four of us headed out for a stroll and dinner.  We had surprisingly good Italian food that night.  We then made sure to get a good night of sleep for another day of sightseeing.

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