Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Shopping Trip to Karaganda, Part 1

This past weekend (1st - 2nd May) we went back to Karaganda, this time to go shopping, though in the end I bought very little. My Kazakh friend "Rebeca" is from Karaganda and had mentioned that it was good shopping, and so we decided it would be worth a day trip. She planned on killing several birds with one stone-shopping, seeing her parents, seeing an old friend who lives in Temirtau, seeing her sister, and picking up some documents for some paperwork in Astana. A lot for a short trip!

We left at 12:30 and didn't arrive until 4:30. There were a lot of police on the road, and Rebeca is a very cautious driver (eg, slow!) I don't blame her, after the incidents with taxi drivers in Almaty, plus once in Astana she was pulled over because her car was dirty! This was right after the snow melted and left rivers of mud in the roads! Of course her car was dirty! You couldn't drive a car out of a driveway without it getting dirty!

So, needless to say, she is concerned about the police and does everything she can to avoid being stopped. She explained to us that the police have "quotas" of how much money they must collect in a day to turn in to their supervisors--unofficial money, bribes! And how paying a bribe is a lot less time consuming and less expensive than dealing with a ticket. So most people pay bribes. But Rebeca would rather be honest. So not getting pulled over, not getting in a situation where a bribe is needed, is the best option.

Sophia and Rebeca's daughter played very well in the car. We made one stop at the same blue hotel at which we'd stopped during our church pilgrimage.

I stared out the window at the steppe, clear now of snow, vast, mostly flat, although with bits of slope, not as flat as New Orleans. The grass grows tall and yellow. The sky is immense.

The steppe is beautiful, I thought, but its beauty grows old. We went on and on and on and on and all we could see was the same yellow grass, the same mostly flat land, the same random animals and every now and then some small, decrepit buildings.

The animals did break up the monotony, though. We saw sheep, cows, and horses, and some were grazing on the highway's shoulder even! Many animals had babies with them.

We picked up Rebeca's friend in Temirtau and then headed into Karaganda. She parked by a mall and took me shopping at a cheaper shopping center next to the modern mall. We looked at winter coats. Leather and fur coats on 50% off sale cost 50,000 Tenge at cheapest. ($340) I decided I wasn't ready for that kind of purchase yet.

We crossed the street and then ate at a Turkish restaurant. Then Rebeca led us to a hotel. We had earlier decided to make this a two day trip; that way, Rebeca could see her parents. Karaganda's downtown is wonderful--it is compact. Within a stone's throw of each other are: (1) the modern, expensive, American-style mall; (2) the cheaper, Artyom-like shopping center/mall; (3) the bazaar; (3) the circus; and (4) the hotel.

The hotel was perfect for our needs and I highly recommend it for anyone looking for an inexpensive yet decent hotel in Karaganda. It has rooms without showers (that's fine, my room in a more-expensive Paris hotel had no shower or toilet!), but it also has a 12-hour deal--you pay less if you only stay for 12 hours. In our case, they let us stay for 13 hours. Plus, they will keep your luggage for free after you check out. For 5000 Tenge ($34) I got a suite--a bedroom, a living room with a pull-out couch bed, a large bathroom with a bathtub, a small foyer, and even a refrigerator in the living room. Plus a balcony that we never used.

Rebeca left us so she could visit her parents, and we wandered down the main road. We bought some delicious soft-serve ice cream. As usual, vanilla was not an option, but this time the white kind was not the very-common "creamy" but rather something called "plombir" which has a vanilla taste to it. It was delicious and even Sophia liked it.

We found an enormous statue of Lenin and had our picture taken. Then we followed streams of people and thus stumbled upon Karaganda's park.

Thus began my litany: "What is wrong with Astana?" How can Karaganda have such an amazing park and Astana not? There was a fair inside a park! On Sunday we explored it further, it is large, clean, it has play areas, it's next to a lake (with a walking trail around it), it has a ferris wheel, many other rides, many cafes. And plenty of small pink statues of animals. Seriously, what is Astana's problem? Is there another large city that is as boring and as difficult to maneuver as Astana? (Getting from one place to another in Astana can take an hour, as the buses are slow; but Astana is so spread out that you can't really stay in one place and get much done.)

We ended the night by buying some groceries from the Ramstore grocery store, and then idling watching a little TV. Sophia wanted to watch a movie that looked like the action-movie version of "Scary Movie." So we flipped through the channels. And saw porn. Real porn, not soft porn, but full-on sex. So we flipped back to the action-movie. And told Sophia that it was bedtime. (It was.)

Thus ended Day 1 in Karaganda. A far less eventful day than Day 2.

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