countries

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Central & West Asia | Kazakhstan

Nur-Sultan (Astana) / The Surreal Deal

arbitrary travel moments you never could have imagined

   During my travels, I found the grand moments to be the least surprising. After all, they were part of why I set out. While the realities of these moments might have differed from my imagination, the experiences themselves were expected: I went to Botswana to see the Okavango Delta and then I did, even though it might have looked different from what I had pictured; I went to the Philippines to snorkel with Whale Sharks and then I did, even though I couldn’t have anticipated the feeling it evoked. These moments were undoubtedly fascinating, but their sober factual existence in my itinerary was predictable.

"During my travels, I found the grand moments to be the least surprising... These moments were undoubtedly fascinating, but their sober factual existence in my itinerary was predictable."

 

 

 

For me, the most unexpected moments were the little ones. The arbitrary ones I never could have foreseen. The partaking in mundane local moments of a given people and country. Like playing board games at a bar with two young Kazakh women at 3am on a random weeknight in a frozen city in the middle of the steppe.

 

Let’s backtrack a little.

I had arrived in wintry Kazakhstan just after New Year’s without any specific agenda. The Stan-countries were a part of the world I’d never been to before and that was a reason fair enough. Arguably, winter wasn’t the most inviting season to stop by, but, considering that it is a large part of people’s year and life, it peppered my stay with a certain authenticity, I told myself.

"Somehow, Astana seemed like the perfect stage for such surreal and arbitrary moments – a planned capital that had risen from the barren grasslands over merely two decades fueled by oil, its architecture looked somewhat peculiar and oddly arranged."

I had to get a new passport and so I set up camp in Astana (since March 2019 officially Nur-Sultan, named after Kazakhstan’s former president), the capital, for a couple of weeks. In order to get my papers in order, I needed some print outs, which meant trudging through the -30 °C winds to the nearest mall, where I  had a hard time explaining my service needs. I asked around for a print store, but even Google translate couldn’t overcome the language barrier between me and various clerks. After some time, I spotted a printer in a small T-shirt printing stall next to the escalators and tried to explain myself, yet again, without success. That’s when Aida came to my rescue. The young woman struck up a conversation in perfect English, helped me to get my print outs and invited me to join her and a friend later that night.

So there I was, having drinks and playing board games with Aida and Ainam till the early morning hours, while we fired curious questions about local customs at each other and exchanged personal stories. It turned out that Aida had just started her own business and that Ainam actually lived in Prague and was in Astana to visit her family over the holidays.

Of course, meeting people while traveling doesn’t come as a surprise and neither does the openness and friendliness of most locals, once you’ve been out there for a while. So why was this night so noteworthy to me?

"Taking the extra out of extraordinary, might sometimes leave you with more."

Years on the road can normalize these special encounters and moments, which lessens appreciation, but adds a certain beauty by assimilating eventfulness into an everyday travel life. Taking the extra out of extraordinary, might sometimes leave you with more. In a way, I’m sleeping the dreamy sleep of extraordinary travel routine. But every now and then, I wake to the almost absurd reality of a situation I never could have imagined and the vastly arbitrary nature of these instances bestows a surreal feel upon me. In these moments it just hits me: never ever would I have thought that one random night I’d be playing board games with two Kazakh women at a bar in Astana, but this is exactly what’s happening right now.

Somehow, Astana seemed like the perfect stage for such surreal and arbitrary moments – a planned capital that had risen from the barren grasslands over merely two decades fueled by oil, its architecture looked somewhat peculiar and oddly arranged. A bit as though a boy playing a board game by himself had rolled the dice once too often and scattered random structures all over the central section of the board – glassy and golden buildings, strange and overdone, not to say tacky.

 

The most prominent landmark sprouting from the snow was Baiterek Tower, boasting a golden sphere that overlooked the city and the presidential palace. Putting your hand in the golden handprint of now former president Nursultan Nazarbayev warranted good luck to the superstitious and was somewhat telling of the kind of president he was – corrupt and authoritarian according to independent observers. The wooden globe right next to the hand, on the other hand, seemed to tell a more cheerful and humble story about peacefully congregating world religions that formed a neighborhood of engraved metal plaques around the sphere.

"In a way, I’m sleeping the dreamy sleep of extraordinary travel routine. But every now and then, I wake to the almost absurd reality of a situation I never could have imagined and the vastly arbitrary nature of these instances bestows a surreal feel upon me."

Over the next couple of weeks, I spent some more time with Aida and Ainam. One time, I accompanied Aida on a tour through her apartment building, where she knocked on dozens of doors to ask for pots, blankets and other material donations to support the dog shelter where she volunteered. Afterwards we went to the shelter, a giant former warehouse without any heating or insulation, rendering the inside just as unforgivingly cold as the outside.

 

Aida pushed two wheel barrels full of dog food and snow (water) along hundreds of kennels to feed the pitiful animals, while I took pictures to help her find foster parents for these orphan dogs. Soon my frozen fingers were too numb to press the shutter button, so I switched to feeding; but being ill-equipped for this entire mission due to a lack of proper winter clothes, I had to bail on that task too before long. The rest of the afternoon I spent waiting in Aida’s car with the engine running.

Another time, the girls invited me along to Aida’s gym/pool/spa, where we tried different saunas, all of which much too hot for an inexperienced sauna-person like me. Afterwards we hit the pool, and Aida’s claims of having a waterproof phone led to the production of several amateur underwater videos, which I would regret later: during one of these dives water got stuck in my ear and little did I know then that it would stay right there until I’d see a doctor about it.

When my ear was still clogged and my hearing impaired a day or two later, I ventured to the next pharmacy, where I tried to explain my problem by differentiating between ear drops for pain and for unclogging. Unsure about what drops exactly I had ended up with, I poured some in my ear before going to sleep that night to wake up the next morning with an ear that was just as clogged, plus a cold. That day, Aida invited me over for a traditional horse meat lunch with her friends and grandma, during which I told the girls about my unfortunate ear situation.

Thankfully, my new friend took me to some sort of medical center the next day, where she acted as an interpreter between me and an ENT. Soon I found myself sitting in something resembling a dental chair, having the doctor and her assistant examine my ear before pumping a warm solution into it vigorously. Eventually, they managed to flush out the water and with it a ball of earwax, which the doctor presented to me proudly; and then to her assistant; and then to Aida. It was another one of these surreal moments, maybe the epitome of it.

 

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