Monday, June 21, 2010
ASTANA and the Southbound Train
This past weekend was quite possibly one of my best in Kazakhstan. Veronica, Steven, and I decided to venture across the country on the train and see the capital city of Kazakhstan—Astana. For starters, Steven and I didn’t know where the train station was, and we were waiting in our apartment for Veronica. However, there was a change of plans that we were unaware of so at the last minute we realized Veronica was at the train station. We started walking towards where we heard the train station was and couldn’t find the bus we were looking for so in a panic I flagged down a taxi and paid him a little more than I should have, but I was happy I did it because he brought us right to the front door. We ran up to the train, tried to find our wagon number, and hoped that Veronica had made it on. After showing our passports we hopped on and found Veronica.
I had once taken a small train to the Grand Canyon for fun with my parents and grandparents. They surprised all of us and it was great fun, but this was my first real train experience—with the beds and everything. On our way to Astana Yelena (our boss) was wonderful and bought us tickets on the nice Spanish train, so we got to enjoy some luxury and it only took 12 hours. On the way back, we had to pay our own way (except for Veronica, she flew back early because her boyfriend was going to be in town) and of course, we chose to buy the cheap train tickets on the crappy train. The crappy train wasn’t so bad, the worst part was that the air conditioning was broken. So we had to fight with the window and prop it open with a water bottle still to have our compartment feel like a sauna. The cheap train made several stops so it took us 20 hours. The Spanish train wasn’t bad at all because we left at 8:00pm and arrived around 8:00am so it was just like sleeping in a small, shaking hotel. On the way back our train left at 2:00pm and arrived at 10:00am. It finally started to cool off around 8:00pm and I was able to breathe again. For the first several hours I just laid in my bed with a towel, trying to read and wipe the sweat off my body. You would never believe how hot it was.
When we arrived in Astana we had no plans except that we had tried to make some vague sleeping arrangements at our church conference that operated out of the city. So we got out of the train station, hopped on a bus, and got out at the first sight of something interesting. The first interesting thing was a big orthodox cathedral. We wanted to go inside, but we found out that they weren’t finished building it yet. So we saw all of the big buildings in the distance that made up the “new part” of the city. Astana is only about 10 years old. The president moved the capital to this city and renamed it Astana (which means Capital in Kazakh). Now he is pouring tons of money into making it an impressive and sought after city. I must admit the buildings are impressive, but it seems as though there are no people yet to fill them. I’m pretty sure they are building faster than people and businesses are coming, which I think could cause some problems pretty soon. But anyways, we walked all over the city and through big parks, occasionally sticking our heads in the sprinklers trying to cool off. The climate in Astana is ridiculous. In the summer it gets over 40 degrees C while in the winter it gets below -40 degrees C. That is crazy. We first came to a big pyramid they call “The Palace of Peace and Accord.” We got to tour this pyramid and go to the top where they have a ring of chairs and translation booths for when Kazakhstan has peace conferences every 3 years. It was actually pretty neat. We then walked across the river, having a great view of the Kazakh “White House” where the president lives and continued to just walk, seeing everything, with no plan or schedule. We ended up touring some fancy and expensive Chinese hotel acting like we were considering a stay in the place, but it cost over $400 a night so there was no real consideration going on. We then came to the famous tower of Astana which is on all the Kazakh money and tourist signs. The real name of it is hard to pronounce so we just called it the Chup-A-Chup which is what people here call suckers or lollipops. We went up inside of it and got a great view of the city and then went down walked a whole bunch more, until we hopped in a taxi to go to the MEGA center (which is like a big, fancy mall, they have one here in Almaty too). There we replenished ourselves with some lunch. Veronica and I got a whole bucket of colonel’s fried chicken at the KFC and some amazing frappucinos from a coffee shop. Since we were both vegetarians, and both had given up on it when coming to Kazakhstan, we had determined that before I left we would indulge in some good old fashioned fried chicken. And we did it. We polished off a whole 16 piece bucket along with some French fries. It was amazing.
After lunch we headed across the street to the national aquarium. It was pretty cool. They have a very large shark tunnel, and for being the largest landlocked country in the world have a good collection of ocean fish. We also paid some extra money to go on a 5D ride which was like a cheesy motion ride that I used to ride in Las Vegas as a kid. I always loved them and even this cheesy one was worth it. It was Veronica’s first time in an Aquarium and in a motion ride. She is older than all of us (by a lot) and it seems she has done the least as far as the crazy fun stuff goes, so we have had a blast introducing her to all the crazy attractions of the 21st century. The three of us have a blast in whatever we do.
After the aquarium we got in touch with Altyn, a former teacher of our center who had just moved to Astana a few weeks earlier. She offered to pick us up and take us to the conference since we had no idea where it was. She had planned to pick us up in a few hours and in that time we had to get Veronica to the airport. We tried to find a bus because we heard that taxis were super expensive. We walked a ways, with no luck of finding a bus. We didn’t know where the airport was and on the bus map it didn’t look so far, but when we offered the cab driver 800 tenge he laughed and told us it was very far. So I ended up negotiating a taxi for 1200 tenge (less than $10) and we put Veronica in this taxi with a weird looking guy and said goodbye. Our cell phone is broken and since we leave next week we didn’t bother getting it fixed or buying a new one. Veronica decided to leave us with her cell phone and we were just going to hope that everything went well. As I watched Veronica drive away I thought, “What in the world were we thinking?!” Putting an American girl, who doesn’t speak the language, into a taxi with a creepy looking guy is a recipe for disaster. But, all we could do was pray at that moment and sure enough, everything turned out fine. She got to the airport on time and got back to Almaty safely to spend some time with her boyfriend. Steven and I now had some time to kill before Altyn picked us up. The first thing we did was look for water, it was an incredibly hot day and neither of us felt as though we could get enough to drink. We then meandered through a little more of the city, but moving slowly because by this time our feet were aching and our bodies had had enough walking. We went to the Central Mosque of Astana, took our shoes off and walked inside the beautiful building. When we got inside I really liked what I saw. There were a few tables and some chairs and then a huge wide, open space. There were people off by themselves chanting a prayer or two in the corners, while others grouped together and seemed to have casual Quran studies. In that moment, I thought it would be great to have a church like this. Just a big open area where people could take off their shoes, study their Bibles, and pray. For a moment I was pondering how my churches would react if we just took out all the pews. Maybe Central Asia is getting to me, but I am a big fan of sitting on the ground.
After the mosque we went to the nearby market to pick up some bread. The next day was to be Sabbath and we didn’t know when or where we’d get a chance to eat again. So I stuffed a couple loaves into my bag and soon Altyn arrived to give us a lift to the place we were staying. The conference was described to us as “simple” and simple it was. In Almaty you’d think the Adventists were like Catholics, because we have nice buildings and all the church members seem to be pretty well off. In Astana it was not the same. The building was old, the beds creaked, and the rooms were filled with a stifling heat. Nevertheless we slept well. After a day of nonstop walking through an unfamiliar city, absorbing countless rays of the blistering sun, we could have slept anywhere that had a flat surface. A choir group was in town singing at church so the “hotel” at the conference office was filled with women. When we finally decided to come out of our room they insisted on serving us some breakfast (which was soup and bread) and we were very grateful. After that we sat through church and didn’t understand more than 10 words of what was going on. But, the people there were amazing—genuine and nice, welcoming and happy to have you with them. After church we went to Altyn’s mother-in-law’s house for lunch (again soup and bread, but this time with pizza!). The house we went to was unbelievable. Mike’s (Altyn’s husband) mother is an artist. Like a real, legit artist. She runs some sort of school out of her house and has countless paintings. The walls were covered with her work, and not only the walls but the ceilings too. Also there were more pictures stacked in every corner. The piano was painted and every room filled with art work. It was a really nice house. After lunch we had to rush to the train station to catch our train back. Mike gave us a ride, brought us to our wagon, talked to the conductor, showed us to our seats and made sure everything was alright. Him and Altyn treated us very well and were such a blessing to have in our crazy, unplanned adventure.
Anyways, we made it on the train and in some ways I liked the cheap train better than the expensive train. The people seemed to be friendlier. There was this older Kazakh woman in our compartment. She understood a little English and we understood a little Russian and so we were able to make some good conversation. She was the sweetest woman, always offering us nuts and food, coffee and tea. We began to feel very safe in this train because we knew that she wouldn’t let anything happen to us. Eventually two police men came into our car and wanted to see our passports. We showed them, but they were in no hurry to leave. They tried to make conversation, talking way too much. I tried to relax and just talk with them, but I certainly do not trust the police here and was never able to let my guard down. Most of the conversation was light, but they wanted to see our pictures and started talking to us about money. I was nervous, but good old train mama (that’s what we started calling her because we couldn’t remember her Kazakh name) was there and I knew she would fight for us. They eventually left and we were finally able to get some sleep. The day was ridiculously hot, and all the bed came with was a sheet. I thought this would be fine until I woke up in the night with the freezing wind blowing through the window. I shut the window and went back to sleep. Sleeping on a train certainly isn’t an easy thing to do. I woke up frequently because of the noise and bounce that comes with traveling. But, all in all I think I like trains much better than airplanes. I spent hours just looking out the window, enjoying the scenery, and literally seeing the world.
I now feel like I’ve seen pretty much everything there is to see in Kazakhstan. I’ve seen much of the country by gazing out the windows of trains and buses. I’ve experienced village life, as well as city life. I have seen the mountains, as well as the Capital.
Coming back on the train was interesting. Although I knew I was just going back to Almaty, I felt as though I were saying my goodbyes to Kazakhstan. I felt as though I was going home. After all a week is going to fly by and pretty soon I will be in the arms of my mom and dad and eating my favorite American food. I was sitting in that train contemplating going home. I’m at a stage in my life where it’s difficult to pinpoint where home actually is. If someone asks where home is for me I will unthinkably say Phoenix, Arizona and I suppose that is because it’s where I spent most of my years growing up and because that is where my parents and brothers are. But really, I’ve only spent maybe two or three months out of the year there in the past two years. I feel like I have homes in Tennessee where I go to school, in Northern California where I spend my Christmases and parts of my summer, and now in Kazakhstan where I have lived and grown for the past six months. One thing is for sure, home has nothing to do with location, it has nothing to do with buildings and belongings. Home, for me, is all about people. My home is where my loved ones are waiting to welcome me with open arms back into their community.
Am I excited to go home? Absolutely! But, I do recognize that upon going “home” I will be leaving a “home” and I may never see many of these people again. Goodbyes suck, but thank God for reunions. I’m looking forward to a big one coming up here soon—a really big reunion where the goodbyes will be done away with. I think after that reunion I will finally be able to tell you the meaning and the significance of the word “home”.