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Sunday, October 26, 2014

Almaty, Part 3

For our third day in Almaty, we had a tour scheduled for the afternoon.  In the morning, we decided to visit Green Market, a bazaar in Almaty.  This bazaar had multiple levels, and indoor and outdoor components.  There were sections with clothing and housewares, but we decided we were most interested in the food.

The food section was absolutely full of stuff I would have purchased if I lived in Almaty, but that I thought would be difficult to transport back to Astana.  Of particular interest to me were all sorts of pickled vegetables and long, uncut sushi rolls.  A rather large part of me wanted to buy one of the sushi rolls and eat it burrito-style, but maybe it was a better idea to not risk that.  I also saw some interesting looking berries (currants, maybe?) that I didn't think would last the trip home.

We did buy plenty of spices.  We were on this trip before receiving the remainder of the stuff we had shipped, and I was beginning to lose hope of getting ahold of the spices I had shipped.  We bought curry powder, sumac, saffron, cardamom, and dried chili peppers.  We also bought cape gooseberries, a fruit I came to love in Egypt, and have only seen once in the US, at a farmer's market.  One thing I regret not buying was something that looked like large, red cape gooseberries.  I didn't buy them because I wasn't sure what they were, but I've discovered a lot of interesting fruits over the years by buying things I didn't know about.  Oh well.  Here are a couple of pictures of the bazaar--I didn't want to go crazy taking pictures there because I thought that might be sort of annoying to the locals.

We bought an assortment of food from street stands for lunch in the hotel (stuffed fried breads, dumplings, the rice dish plov), and got ready for our tour.

Our English-speaking guide showed up at the hotel with a driver and a van.  Our plan was to go to Big Almaty Lake and the Sunkar falcon farm, with a somewhat larger, late lunch somewhere along the way.  Quickly, I could see that we were leaving the city and heading into the mountains.

The mountain roads were narrow and full of switchbacks.  I thought they were most appropriate for one vehicle at a time, but naturally, there were times when we encountered other vehicles heading back down the mountain, at which point both had to proceed carefully.  In addition, there were some very large icy patches in some areas.  Kudos to our driver for getting us there and back in one piece!  The scenery was spectacular.

Scott, our friends with whom we traveled, and the tour guide all walked to the edge of the lake.  I gave up at a certain point because it was a steep path and I think my knees have aged about twice as fast as the rest of me.  I decided to continue enjoying the view from where I was.

Soon, it was time to head back down the mountain.  Again, I worried about the icy patches, but the driver's skills were up to the challenge.  We even saw some interesting scenery on the way back down.  I don't remember the story behind the yurts, but they were interesting, even if not inhabited by actual nomads.  Then we stopped at a cafe and had a delicious meal including grilled meats and soup.  Then we went to the Sunkar falcon farm.

Truthfully, I don't know too much about the Sunkar falcon farm.  I know that they have a variety of birds of prey, that the birds they have were born in captivity, and that the birds are trained to hunt using traditional techniques.  I don't know if they are breeding additional birds in captivity, precisely where the existing birds were born, or whether they ever actually get to hunt.  It was interesting to see the birds and the show they put on, though.

Some of the birds lived in large cages, and some were in the open, kept on tethers so they couldn't fly too far.

We all walked around for a while to check out the birds, and then we saw the show.  For the show, trainers showed how the birds could be used to assist in hunting.  The trainers showed birds at various levels of accomplishment, and rewarded each of them with a chick for their efforts.  It was an amazing show, but at times, these birds with their extremely sharp talons swooped a little too close to my head for comfort.  I spent a lot of time ducking.  The show started with this amazingly beautiful owl, who initially landed about two feet away from me on the bench, and started squawking discontentedly while looking right at me.  I was too nervous to take a picture when he was so close, but here are a couple pictures of him in action.

The show then progressed with other birds, each one pretty fierce.

We then headed back to town, had a light dinner, and tried to get a good night's sleep.  The next day would be our last day in Almaty, and we would face another night on the train to go back to Astana.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Yet More Stuff! (And a Spicy Disaster)

Ladies and gentlemen, I interrupt my series of posts on our trip to Almaty to make an important announcement:  We have been reunited with the remainder of the stuff we shipped over here!

This was a long time coming.  After our initial trip to the customs office back in September, Scott made two additional trips without me (my schedule requires me to be physically present on campus more often than his schedule does).  Both of those trips were fruitless.  If I remember correctly, the computers at the customs office stopped working while he was on the first of those trips, and some magical piece of paperwork was missing on the second trip.

Anyway, one of the university staff members organized a trip last Friday morning for us and several other people who were still awaiting shipments.  We all spent several hours there, signing forms most of us couldn't read and dashing to the office next door to make photocopies of documents.  Most of us had to pay customs fees.  Scott and I had to pay quite exorbitant fees.  I won't ruin anyone's day by saying how much, but it was far more than I ever expected to spend to get ahold of my used stuff which I had already spent money purchasing in the first place.

The staff member in question was unable to procure a vehicle large enough to get our stuff the same day.  I felt very uneasy.  It was one thing to never get the stuff I shipped, but to not get it after paying hefty customs duties was quite another.

Well, today, this staff member told us he had a van and driver for us to go to the post office to get our stuff.  We were supposed to bring our forms from the customs office and our passports.  We brought along our Kazakhstani tax numbers for good measure.  I don't understand why, but people often want to see them in contexts in which they seem irrelevant.

The trip got off to a pretty unpromising start.  We were told to wait in front of the university at 2 PM.  Several phone calls later, the van actually pulled up at around 3 PM.  Then, once we got to the post office, we weren't completely sure where to go.  Finally, we walked in to the warehouse-y section, and saw a pallet with our boxes!  An employee saw us, and directed us the paperwork signing room.  I was convinced then that we'd be hit up for more fees or that we'd be sent away due to not having some specific form.  To my very pleasant surprise, the employee we talked to quickly and efficiently photocopied the customs forms we brought.  Then, she took us back out the pallet of packages, and with a couple other employees, helped us to maneuver it to the van outside.

I couldn't believe our good fortune!  I was halfway afraid we'd get into a car accident on the way home because getting our stuff with so little hassle seemed too good to be true.  Despite my worries, we made it back, and the driver even helped us haul our boxes into the lobby of our apartment building.

We're still unpacking the boxes.  Our apartment looks like a scene of destruction now.

Piles of disreputable looking boxes

The boxes were in pretty rough shape.  Some of them had been through two stateside moves already, but they will definitely have to be retired at this point.  In terms of the contents, it's been a mixed bag.  Some of Scott's books are heavily damaged, but not in ways that you would expect.  One of his books looked like someone would have had to actually open the box and purposely damage it (and who knows, maybe that happened along the way).  So far, some of my casualties have been spilled beads, broken glass on a picture frame, and a spicy disaster.

I had shipped my spices in a plastic cabinet with pull-out drawers.  I thought they were wedged in pretty tightly and would be pretty safe, but somehow, some of the lids of my spices unscrewed themselves in transit, scattering fragrant seeds and powders all over the plastic cabinet and all over the beads I packed in the same box.  A good number of the spices were salvageable, but the ones that weren't certainly made a mess.

Opening my spice cabinet…yikes!

Cleaning out the spilled spices

Messes aside, we're glad to have the stuff.  Nonetheless, if we had to do this over again, we would cough up the money for a larger storage unit and ship far less stuff.  Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but if anyone reading this is contemplating an international move, take whatever cautionary tale you want from this.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Almaty, Part 2

After a good night's sleep in a nice bed in a hotel room (as opposed to a moving train), we spent our second day in Almaty exploring mostly on foot.  We live on something that resembles a compound in Astana, so one of the things we were really looking forward to was being able to just walk around, go into cafes that interested us, and visit parks.  Almaty did not disappoint, and our hotel was quite centrally located for walking.  Here are some of the highlights we hit:

The former parliament building, from Almaty's days as Kazakhstan's capital:

Lots of beautiful trees:

Women's war memorial.  I believe the woman on the left was a sniper, and the woman on the right was a machine gunner during World War II:

Almaty's version of Bayterek Tower:

Zenkov's Cathedral, which was designed in 1904, and is one of few buildings to survive the 1911 earthquake in Almaty.  It is made entirely out of wood, even the nails:

A gathering of people and pigeons:

The Central Mosque, which I failed to photograph in its entirety.  I had forgotten to bring a scarf, but a woman selling souvenirs in a kiosk outside loaned me a (very sheer) one to wear inside.  Interestingly, a woman who looked like a local even went in without any head covering at all.

Gorky Park.  There were lots of statues, games, and rides here:

We also had Korean food for lunch that day (yum!).  In the late afternoon, we headed to a hotel where a tour office was located to finalize an activity for the next day; a tour to Big Almaty Lake and the Sunkar falcon farm.  Because this hotel was far from Gorky Park, where we were at the time, we decided to take a taxi.  I think this may have been the scariest taxi ride any of us had had in Kazakhstan up until that point.  To make matters worse, the driver was playing really odd music.  The lyrics were in English, but they weren't songs I remember ever hearing before (nor are they songs I ever want to hear again).  Has anyone else had the misfortune to hear a song that may be called "Shooby Dooby Love"?  Ugh.  I'm thankful to say that we emerged unscathed and lived to hear other, better songs.

Aside from that particular brush with death, it was a great day.  I loved having that day to just wander around, especially since the next day was more structured.

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.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Lifting My Spirits With Silly Pictures

My grandfather passed away yesterday, just shy of turning 99.  Given his age, this was not unexpected, but it's always sad to lose someone you love.

I had been planning to post these pictures for a while, and decided that today might be a good day for a lighthearted blog post.  Plus, I'm traveling soon, and hope to come back with new pictures and stories.

I had never seen such a quantity or variety of artificial trees before moving to Astana.  I'm also not really sure why they seem to be so popular here.  Maybe it's because many parts of the city don't have a lot of "natural" trees, since Astana is young and a work in progress.  Anyway, check these out:  an artificial floral tree and an artificial fall-themed tree.

There were other artificial trees with flowers in other colors nearby.  What's odd here is that there are real trees in the background.

It's hard to tell from this picture, but in addition to orange lights, this tree is covered in artificial maple leaves.

Also, check out these critters!  I photographed them near Astana's circus building.  I don't plan on seeing any circus shows that incorporate animal acts, but I don't mind taking pictures of these sorts of animals.

Finally, a sign that reminded me somewhat of home.  Our Russian-speaking friend who was with us that day said this was for English classes.

Enjoy, and have a great weekend, everyone!