Monday, November 29, 2010

Train Ride to Almaty

Saturday 27 - Sunday 28 November 2010

A big OSCE Summit is happening in Astana for a few days this week (1 and 2 December, maybe a few other days too) and the city has basically been shut down. At first it was going to be just for a few days--Tues - Thurs--this week that the city would be closed, schools closed, roads closed--I was told I couldn't even leave my apartment! I wasn't looking forward to this!

Then the government announced a couple weeks ago that the shut-down would last the entire week, Monday - Friday--school closed as well. Well, I didn't go anywhere over Fall Break, so this seemed like an excellent time to get out of Astana!

In the end, I don't think the shut-down is going to be as bad as I'd feared, although I think I live in the "Red District" where there are more restrictions, the main roads are closed for most of the day, and even the mall will be closed for most of the day. But Monday and Friday might not be so bad, and the other side of town has a lot more freedom.

But I'm still glad I took this opportunity to go somewhere!

My friend R, her daughter, my daughter, my co-worker L, and I all got tickets to take the train to Almaty and back. My assistant helped us find an apartment in the center, and last-minute, L met another American who was going to Almaty and needed a place to stay.

So now there are 6 of us in a very nice 2-bedroom (3 rooms with double beds--one's a pull-out couch) apartment in the center of Almaty. Paying about $25 a day for this. Very nice!!

Train tickets are really cheap too--I can't remember how much I paid, but I think it was well under $100 for round-trip tickets for Sophia and me. Because everyone wanted out of Astana, the train was getting booked, so we weren't able to get one whole room for us.

The train ride was 19 hours--it cost twice as much for the 12 hour train, which didn't seem worth it. Waiting for the bus, I was so nervous we'd be late. Bus 12 arrived, which I had thought would take us to the train station, I asked, however--"Vokzal?" and the bus attendant said no. But then he said, "Ya pomagu," which means "I'll help you," and he easily lifted up my huge, heavy suitcase and ushered us on the bus. He wouldn't let us pay, but explained (in Russian) that we would get off at the next bus stop and take 21 to the train station. He helped us get our luggage off, too. He was very nice, as was the bus attendant for bus 21, who confirmed that, yes, this bus goes to the train station, and he helped us with our stuff.

I love how friendly and kind the Kazakh people can be!

So we made it in plenty of time, before our train even! On the train, we were a bit separated--Sophia and I had the top bunks in one room, L and my friend's daughter had the top bunks in the room next to us, but R had a room in the neighboring car! We were hoping someone would be kind enough to switch with R!!!

Her daughter was crying, and I thought this was because she was worried that she wouldn't sleep with her mother. I kept reassuring her--L would go and sleep in the other car, so R could be with her daughter. But it turned out that she was crying because she wanted to sleep with Sophia and was worried that she would have to sleep in the other car with her mother!

The people in L's room said they could not switch places, they had to sleep on the bottom bunks. The people in my room did not show up until the Karaganda stop, so we had several hours with one room to ourselves. We relaxed, had tea and ate. The girls drove us crazy, going up the bunks (and needing help) and then changing their minds and coming down (and needing help) but they were so happy.

R asked a guy in the room next to us if he would switch with her--she explained her situation that her daughter was over here. He very rudely said no, what's the point in switching, she'll be running around anyways?

But at Karaganda, when R asked the guy who had the bunk under me, if he would switch, he said yes without hesitating!

While they were off in the other car making the switch, the other passenger--the one with the ticket to sleep under Sophia--arrived. He had a TON of stuff, perhaps the hugest bag I have ever seen, and he was a large man. I didn't think he would really want to switch and have to sleep on a top bunk. He was settled in by the time R returned, so we didn't bother asking him to switch. It would have been nice to have a room for ourselves!

As awkward as it was to share a room with a strange man, he was perhaps the best cabin-partner you can have. At dinnertime, he took out some chicken to offer to Sophia and her friend. He was very pleasant, let them sit on his bed to eat, smiled at them and talked to Sophia's friend some. If he minded how active and giggly they were, he never let on!

At nighttime, I was starting to fall asleep to the bumps and jolts of the train--I was the top bunk, having given the bottom bunk to Sophia. The top bunks have very tiny rails to prevent you from falling off, so Sophia was sleeping on the bottom. But now I was watching my friend's daughter. She had moved in her sleep and was now so close to the edge.

R came in; she was sleeping now in the room next to us and was worried about her daughter. We considered the different options--how to make sure the girl didn't fall off during the night? We agreed that I would sleep in the other room, and R might try to squeeze into the same bed as her daughter, or just sleep across from her and keep an eye on her.

Then, the man woke up and offered to switch beds with R's daughter!!! This huge man, recently sound asleep, waking up and offering to sleep on the pathetic top bunk so R could feel safer about her daughter! How incredibly kind!

No one slept too well, though, the train rocked quite a bit--L pointed out that were were near where the two cars attached, which must be why it rocked so much. L was next to the bathroom, and drunk guys kept throwing up all night.

But we did sleep, and in the morning the man offered oranges, rolls, and chocolate to the girls to eat. Really, he was so kind after putting up with two giggly girls for so long!! (They woke up early and played for quite some time before the rest of us awoke.)

Finally, we made it to Almaty. We thanked the man as best we could and dragged our lugage off the train.

The men here who offered to help with my luggage weren't just being kind--they were trying to make money! R had to ask how much--500 Tenge per bag--so we had to forcefully say no. Not much longer, a guy pretty much grabbed my large suitcase from me and wouldn't let go. R again had to talk to him--he promised he wouldn't charge much, but no! we said.

We had to go up some steep steps, a woman speaking good English kindly offered a hand then. Going down some steps, a man offered to help--he offered politely, and did not grab, and when we wearily asked if he would charge he laughed and said no, of course not. He helped, we said thanks, and off he went.

Some people are kind, some people are drunk, some people just want money...

Although the train was dirty and it lurched a lot, it still was a good experience. Drinking tea, good conversation... and now we are in Almaty! Former capital of Kazakhstan, a large city situated in the shadows of the mountains!

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