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Astana is a Trip

We woke up that next morning in our rather filthy apartment in Astana, Kazakhstan and wandered into the kitchen to begin boiling water for breakfast.

As I fiddled with the single electric hot plate style burner that had been placed on the no longer operational and rather rusty soviet stove, I found myself scratching all over my stomach and sides.

A strolled into the bathroom and picked up my shirt to see my body dotted with bites… bed bugs. Well, I guess they would come sooner or later. Tonight I would need to figure out some kind of new strategy, but for the meantime, it would serve me better to focus on making this coffee.

That I was able to do, and soon I was joined by Scott, who also seemed to be rather covered in bites. We both grumbled a bit and sat down to a crunch audibly on mouthfuls of cereal and some of that delicious 3.2% milkfat Kazakh milk.  I have the not-so-enviable habit of salting my cereal, so we had purchased as well, a large 10 cent bag of salt, which I was happily utilizing.

The entire apartment had a dank mildew smell to it, so the evening before, we had also purchased some lavender scented candles, which we figured would be helpful in mitigating the smell. They turned out to do very little, however, other than provide a bit of flickering cheer to this otherwise soulless place. What we really needed was some heavy duty Sri Lankian or South Indian incense, but we were a very long ways (north) from that part of the world.

With stomachs full of coffee and cereal, we then went at the long overdue task of washing our clothes, which were positively filthy. The Uzbek and Kazakh washing detergents are some of the best in the world, we’ve found. They have a way of getting your clothes really, deeply, unprecedentedly, clean. The reason for this, we’ve heard, is because the regulations here in the post Soviet world allow for the use of certain chemicals which in America, Europe, and even China are illegal due to their terrible impact on the environment. Whatever the reason, we found ourselves the proud recipients of a batch of really, truly, clean clothes, and this was something to be proud of.

We strung them up in a system of clotheslines that we erected in Scott’s room.

With that task done, we set to wheeling. We began by heading out to the edges of the old Soviet part of town. You see, dear reader, Astana was originally a small soviet city, mostly populated by ethnically Slavic peoples. But when the new republic of Kazakhstan was formed, the new government felt that it needed to create a new identity and a new capitol city for itself. So, fueled by millions of oil dollars, it began construction of a concept capital in Astana, flooding the city with ethnically Kazakh peoples, and building a new city center across the river form the old soviet center (which is where the train station and our apartment were).

The soviet part of town was pretty hard scrabble, with crumbling single story homes, no sidewalks, and large plots of dirt playing the role of yards.

We wheeled on through the rougher parts of the Soviet section of Astana and on towards the river. The general quality of the buildings and the expensiveness of the cars on the street increased steadily as we approached the river. We rode past a giant stadium, with these magnificent air intake valves,

and the giant housing development of “Highville Kazakhstan.”

But it was when we crossed the river on the main central bridge that we began to see some truly gigantic and startling buildings. The first of which was probably this monstrous Wayne Manner style gothic behemoth.

We rode on from there onto a street lined with ridiculous themed restaurants, all of which were separated from the highway by a row of small trees. As we looked closer, we could see that the row of small trees was also filled with the bodies of napping construction workers.

We took a right to head into the strange themed restaurant development, and wheeled it thoroughly, gawking at the startling, over-the-top presentation of Greek, Chinese, Turkish, Korean, and Traditional Russian architectural styles. About half of the restaurants were completed, and the other half were still under construction. All of those that were finished were staffed by magnificently costumed workers, who scowled at us distractingly as we rode past.

From there we headed into a giant mall, where we ate lunch. The mall was uncomfortable, eerily quite, mostly devoid of people, and full of unused shop fronts.

We ate at a shockingly branded Russian style restaurant, where we ordered a meat cutlet, a piece of chicken, some beat salad, three thick pancakes with sour cream, a pickled herring and mayonnaise salad and two manty. The food was not bad, but not amazing either, and the plates on which it was served were some of the flimsiest and most untrustworthy pieces of dinnerware ever to be unleashed upon an unsuspecting diner.

From there we rode on to the Khan Shatyr, a huge shopping center, built under a giant translucent ger-style tent structure that was carefully designed to capture the sun’s radiation to aid it in staying warm during the brutally cold Kazakh winters. The ger, as I am sure you already know, dear reader, is the preferred nomad-friendly collapsible home popular among the Kazakhs and other Central Asian nomadic cultures. It looks like this:

Which is only vaguely like the khan shatir, which looks like this.

The closer we got to the Khan Shatir, the more gigantic we realized it was. We began by circumnavigating the thing, riding our speed TRs all the way through the huge oval of parking lot that surrounds the structure. Then, though we had already been in a mall that day, we decided we needed to go in.

It was really something inside there, bathed in light, and full of white paint and potted trees.

Like the mall in which we’d eaten lunch, it was full of tons and tons of unused retail space, but unlike the mall in which we’d eaten lunch, it was also full to the brim with Kazakh families out to enjoy the afternoon.

The first thing we did inside was stop into the architecture museum, where we could pour over the plans for the new giant indoor city that the Kazakhs are planning to build.

With oil money showing no signs of stopping, the government of Kazakhstan is planning to build an entire Khan Shatir style indoor city, complete with Venice style canals and a 3/4s size golf course!

The blueprint was really impressive, and reminded me of some of the none federation spaceships in Star Trek: the Next Generation.

From there we continued on, up to the next level, from which things were no less impressive. This level too was full of unused retail space, and also a new joint venture between KFC and a local company, which they were calling “Rostik’s.”

Nice one KFC.

Soon we found ourselves in a totally overwhelming video arcade/them park section of the mall, which made me feel like I was on some kind of none too enjoyable hallucinogenic drug.

We looked up at the sky and could see the sun beaming through the strange translucent roof above us.This place was too weird for words.

We needed to get out.

And so we did, but if we were thinking that would make this strange trip end, we were most certainly wrong. We headed next across the street towards the center of the new urban development in Astana. We stopped part way there when we noticed the locals were lining up to have their pictures taken in front of this giant statue of Luke Skywalker and a naked lady.

We couldn’t resist joining in as well.

From there, we headed on, under the giant overarching office-building-gateway of a  government building and onto the main drag, the Sheik Zayed Road of Kazakhstan, if you will.

Then the buildings became truly bizarre. For one reason or another, this place put us into a strange dreamlike state, and we rode through it as through in a trance, only half believing the things that we saw.

Part way through, we realized the physical part of us was thirsty and we wandered into a completely empty grocery store, where we wandered down unreal isles filled with all thousands of bottle of the same brand of water. So we bought some with the Technicolor currency of this strange land, and headed back out.

We continued further into the madness, past giant blocky structures, and slender towers, towards the central monument, a golden orb, suspended in the points of a giant crown, which is the symbol of this bizarre city.

We continued on from there, towards the large parliamentary building at the other side of this futuristic drive.  The government building is framed on either side by two truly unsettling golden rook shaped buildings.

Barely able to believe our eyes, we wheeled on. The parliamentary building was giant, and very impressive, seeming always close by, but proving always to be larger and further away than first estimate.

As we approached the gigantic government building, our fellow pedestrians thinned out and eventually disappeared, and eventually they were replaced by a very heavily armed and dense military presence.

With all the solders eying us as we wheeled, we decided it might be prudent to make a right turn and head over to investigate a huge turquoise curled up behemoth that turned out to be an opera house.

From there, we wheeled on, past the huge blocky center for measurements and standards, and the most monstrous Chinese business hotel of the entire trip. I imagined it being like a Mecca for Chinese business hotel connoisseurs, with the finest disposable slippers, the most delicious complementary toothpaste, the fastest in-room Ethernet jack this side of Seoul, and plenty of branded towels. I am speaking, of course, about the Petro-China Hotel. A place, no doubt, built for all the PetroChina executives that came to do business in Astana and couldn’t, until the establishment of this place, find a decent Chinese business hotel.

From the Petro-China hotel, we wheeled on over a newly laid and still quite sticky tarred gravel road.

When we saw a giant white mosque, we decided to turn onto their sprawling grounds to give them a look. They were quite beautiful, mostly gardens, with manicured and sporting raised cobblestoned paths for wheelers and strollers to utilize.

It had been a wheel for the record books and we were, I must say, a little burned out from all the wild things we’d seen. Astana was proving to be like nowhere else on Earth.

And so we wheeled back, stammering to each other, and attempting to find some previously constructed schemas with which to process what we’d just experienced, back down the giant newly paved main street of Astana and eventually back through the forest carnival area that we’d explored the day before. As I mounted the bridge back across the river to the Soviet side of town, I felt a wave of relief washing over me. Finally we were going back to a hard scrabble raw place, where things made sense.

We got back to our squalid apartment, and spent a few minutes just drinking water and attempting to relax. What a wheel that had been!

That evening we wheeled around hungrily for quite some time trying to find a restaurant that was less than 20 dollars for a plate of food. We finally settled on a pizza place, which made us this kielbasa and hot dog supreme pizza, with a side of corn and tongue salad.  It was none too tasty, but got the job done.

Once we’d filled our stomachs with matter, we headed over to the Radisson hotel, where we were able to, after a little sweet talking with the ladies at the front desk, manifest for ourselves two free 24 hour passes on the lobby wifi (Great Success!).

When midnight rolled around, we hopped on the bikes to wheel back to our apartment. As we rode, I realized that for the first time on the trip, the air was cold. I could have used a sweater, or a leather jacket even. The smiles of Indonesia certainly felt very far away as I covered my body in Ultrathon brand high intensity bug repellant and climbed onto the bed bug ridden couch on which I’d be sleeping for the next couple of days.


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