Yes, I did disappear for about two weeks there. My time was being spent wisely though! I threw myself into working on a postdoc application, which literally consumed my days with the exception of last weekend. I did get a short reprieve because I had my first out of Astana trip in Kazakhstan!
A group of us caught a flight late Friday night with SCAT airlines. Yes, you read that right, SCAT. Luckily it wasn’t too bad despite it having a less than awesome reputation in Kazakhstan. My husband and I were literally in the very last row of the plane and I was sandwiched between him and a very large manspreader. Note the abundant physical space allotted to me. So comfortable. Thank goodness it was only a two-hour flight.
We had drivers waiting for us at Almaty Airport who took us to our destination: Shymbulak. Despite being only about 15 miles/25 kilometers from Almaty, the drive took about an hour because it was mountainous and made the switchbacks in western parts of the U.S. look wide and generous; they had also had a small flash flood across parts of the road and a landslide higher up earlier in the day. This didn’t bother our driver though. He was one of the happiest men I’ve met in Kazakhstan, which is even more amazing considering it was 1:30 AM when we arrived into Almaty. He had a jolly laugh and a friendly disposition that lessened our fatigue and made the drive go by quickly.
Our entire drive was dark, so we really had no idea what the landscape looked like until morning. When we left Astana, the temperature was in the high 60s and low 70s. When we awoke in the mountains, it was snowing! And not a light snow, but a dense, rainy snow coming down in sheets. And fog! Oh my goodness was it foggy up there.
Even though it put a damper on potential hiking plans, it didn’t matter. There were trees. And nature. Things which we just don’t have in Astana. After making breakfast, I planted myself in a chair facing the window and just found myself staring outside for several hours. It’s almost the same reaction I had when I got houseplants for our apartment. The Steppe, where Astana is located, really has no plants or trees in or around the city other than those which were planted. Even those areas are few and far between or the vegetation is too young to have the same effect. The randomness of things growing on their own, unorganized, varying in size…it’s just not comparable to manmade parks and avenues.
Eventually the fog lifted and we had a better view of the area, but it still wasn’t nice enough to really go exploring. Instead, we spent a day grilling outside, eating, and drinking. There was also a sauna in our house. While quite small, seven of us managed to cram in there to enjoy the heat. There was also an unheated indoor pool. I dipped a foot in and thought, “Oh, heavens no!” It was icy. However, after sweating it out in the sauna, I was so warm I decided to go for it. It was like swimming in the Great Lakes in May. I jumped in and the cold water literally took my breath away. My feet were already taking me over to the ladder before I even came up for air! It was great! I did it one more time later that night with a few people, but was more prepared for it that time. Still, shockingly cold.
We woke to beautiful weather on Sunday. What a difference a day makes.
Our mountain house where we stayed was right next to Shymbulak, or Chimbulak, one of the best ski resorts in Eurasia. None of us were skiing, but passenger gondolas for getting to the top of the mountain are available on the same tracks as the chairlifts for 2500 tenge, about $6. We had to connect to another lift on the way up and with each stop, the temperature got warmer and warmer. When we reached the peak, I was down to a T-shirt. The snow everywhere was blinding and made the area cozy and beautiful. Some men wandered around shirtless. It was a weird juxtaposition. Snow and skin.
The fog further below obstructed some of our view of the valley below, but the peaks of other mountains were visible and lovely and we could see Almaty in the distance. The mountains here looked sharp, fresh, untouched. I spotted a glacier on the side of one mountain just peeking out under the snow.
We walked around a bit enjoying the sun and heat before claiming some territory on the deck of the only mountaintop café. The café wasn’t anything to write home about except for the fact that they sold Pabst Blue Ribbon tallboys! Haha! That was a surprise.
We had to make our way down the mountain to catch our taxi back to Almaty and board our plane to Astana. Once we were out of the sun and our snow blindness subsided, we realized we were all totally sunburned. I wear sunscreen daily on my face, but didn’t put any on my chest – my burn looked like a giant heart.
Luckily, we had the same driver who impressed us by remembering our names – really, just a fantastic guy! The other car was less lucky. Their car started smoking just after our taxi left, but eventually they got on the road about 30 minutes after us. We checked in for our flight without issue and even got bumped up to the first two rows! I sat with the women from our group and had an aisle seat – so much space! I really appreciated the extremes – crammed in the last row getting in and woman-spreading in the front row coming home.
My burn peeled yesterday, reminding me I should probably write about our trip while it was still fresh! I should be back to regular posting for the next few weeks, but I have A LOT of upcoming travel in the next few months that I’ll be excited to share with everyone!