10.01.2009 - 06.06.2010 -30 °C
Frankly speaking I hadn’t been much informed about Kazakhstan until I went there. The only thing I knew was their Central Asian relation to Turkish people. However, I got to know many things about this country when I went there. Kazakhstan is by far the largest Central Asian former Soviet country and it shares borders with Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Since there’re no certain residential point and its vast steppe lead Kazakhs to gather at some parts of the country. 30% of the country’s 16.5 million-population is has Russian roots. Its official language is Kazakh; however, though I’ve been there many times, I haven’t seen many people speaking Kazakh. They broadly prefer Russian language.
I paid my first visit in January, 2009. After a 5-hour flight, we landed in Astana Airport and the captain said that outside temperature was 25 degrees. However, when I looked through the window, I saw snowflakes blowing in the air. Then I understood that he didn’t even bother himself to say ‘minus’. Winter temperature in Kazakhstan is mostly below zero. After registering at the customs, I took a taxi to the city center. Any private car in Kazakhstan can be used as a taxi and mine was a private Mercedes as well. You might stop a BMW or a 1985-Lada. If you don’t try to get on president’s car, you can take any car. Then starts the bargaining part. If you can get by in Russian, it won’t be a big deal for you. Otherwise, taxi drivers will try to charge you more than the usual price. After about 30 minutes we arrived at the city. There are no traffic lights on the highways but drivers definitely stop if there are people waiting by the pedestrian crossings. Most of the buildings in the city are brand new, in fact there has been a reconstruction going on in the city since it was made capital. After arriving at the city I went to the apartment that I had rented before.
It’s very common to rent houses for short periods of time in Astana. Since I am big fan of trying local foods, I generally had my lunches and dinners out. They offer various kinds of meals such as; sashlyk (basically meat on shish), beshparmak (five fingers) and boursaky. Russians influenced their cuisine as well. You can find a bowl of borsh or solyanka anywhere. When it comes to their drinks, vodka rocks there. You can find vodka ranging from $2 to $150 for a bottle. However, I loved their ‘non-alcoholic’ kvas and kumis. In fact, kvas might contain .05% alcohol since it’s the fermentation of bread and it’s widely known as ‘Soviet Cola’. I remember the first time I saw some women selling it in yellow tanks.
When you stop by a market, you realize that alcohol and cigarette prices are pretty low compared to the western world. You can get a pack of cigarettes for 75 cents or 50 qurush. Therefore, you see a lot of people smoking in the streets, at restaurants or even in some closed areas such as huge malls. Since I was a heavy smoker at that time, I didn’t miss the chance to buy a box of Marlboro for 11 dollars.
Train Journey to Petropavlovsk
During my second visit, I decided to make my way to rural Kazakhstan. First, I went to the central train station of Astana and with the help of my friend, who’s a Russian, we could get our tickets after waiting for almost 2 hours in the long line. The other day we took the old Soviet train to Petropavlovsk. It was a very old Soviet train which had cabins for 4 people. Even though it was pretty old and the crew was so grumpy, the cabins were relatively clean. We were given clean linen and pillows. However, I cannot say the same thing for the restrooms. It basically consists of a metal toilet seat which has lots of stains on it. And when you're done with what you're doing, make sure to pull the lever to drop your artwork on the tracks and try not to touch anywhere unless you want to be infected with hepatitis. Anyway, it took nearly 8 hours to get to Petropavlovsk. On the way it stopped frequently and at each stop some street sellers rushed into the train. After getting off the train, I hitched to my friend’s place. However, I forgot to take the present (a set of Turkish tea glasses) that I brought for her mom. When I realized that, I found an old Lada to get back to the train station but it was too late for the glasses. Upon its arrival some housekeeping ladies got on the train and ‘cleaned’ every single thing on the train. Of course, it was a tragic moment but I was surprised even more by my friend’s mom’s sentences ‘Don’t worry son! If you happen to forget your stuff anywhere here in Kazakhstan, consider it to have been 'taken' by someone else’.
I spent a week in Petropavlovsk. It’s an old Russian city now shared with Kazakh locals. It’s very close to Russian border city Omsk and is established on Ishim River. During my stay there, I was offered free beers and cognac from my friend’s father Vladimir. I tried Bely Med’ved (white bear) and Karagandinskoe (a local from Karaganda province). He also insisted on going fishing on the Ishim. However, after each attempt we came back home drunk and with no fish at all!
On my way back to Astana I was asked by some random guys where I was coming from. They were pretty happy to hear that I was from Turkey. They kept calling me ‘brother’ and offered their vodka. It’s the most widely offered stuff in nomadic Kazakhstan.
A Word of Warning
A traveler who wishes to visit Kazakhstan must be aware of certain facts about this country as well. Because of unjust income level, most merchants are very much into overcharging you. If they realize that you are not a local person, they will definitely double the price. For example, if you try to bargain with a taxi driver speaking broken Russian, it's inevitable that you'll be asked to pay a very high fare or you'll simply prefer buses, which are way cheaper than illegal taxis.
You must always be prepared to have some cash on you because your visa card will most probably be refused. There's no need to insist because most places accept only cash. Apart from this, you'd better know the exact rate for your currency. You can get different rates at different exchange offices and of course be prepared to pay extra commission.
Most importantly you must beware of Kazakh police. They will be waiting to cheat you from the very first moment you arrive till you leave. Your documents might be perfectly arranged but don't worry 'serious' Kazakh police will definitely find an imperfection with your papers. I was personally forced to bribe a policeman to pass through the customs.