The Astana train station is settled deep in the Right Bank, within the older and more populous neighborhoods that decorate the northern and eastern fronts of the Ishim River. Traffic was heavy at 530 on a Friday evening, and the taxi crept past florescent, multi-colored Christmas lights that decorated trees and buildings as we rolled over the snow-packed roads, heading for the Turan bridge. The station itself was a madhouse. With no traffic lights to mark the turn off the main road into the station, five lines of cars, trucks and taxis honked and jerked forward towards the two lanes of ingress, automotive sheep funneled irritably into a pen. Inside, throngs of people surged to and fro, hustling to catch trains to Karaganda or Kokshetau for the weekend. The station attracts a broad swathe of the Kazakh population – sitting at a small café, even I was able to distinguish the sophisticated Astana denizens from visiting country folk. Slender, silken-haired women chatting on cellphones picked their way through the crowd in stiletto boots and designer jeans, passed by hasty older couples swathed in puffy jackets and headscarves. Rural visitors had far more to carry than the locals, lugging overfull plastic canvas bags of belongings between them as they lurched towards the quays. We met up with the rest of our party in the main hall before boarding the train, chatting and planning our voyage in a circle of backpacks, suitcases and high-arctic winter gear. A teenage girl sidled up a few feet away from us, dragging a friend with her. They whispered and giggled to each other softly as they stared at my Kenyan friend, who is one of the few black people in Astana, before whirling in an abrupt about-face and scurrying off, arms linked.
Dragging our suitcases through tamped down snow to the twenty-first car, we handed our passports and tickets to the pair of navy-jacketed attendants who duly examined them before allowing us to board. Sleeper cabins are small – the lower bunks are folded down into benches and the top bunks are stowed until it grows dark. If the berths are full you stash your luggage in the upper cubby spaces reserved for passenger belongings, and then sit with your knees a foot and away from a stranger’s legs. After an awkward “strasvitye” to the two middle-aged women sharing our compartment and the mandatory clumsy waltz of unpacking and luggage and hoisting bags into storage compartments, we struck out for the dining car. The train was slowly making its way out of the city, and the restaurant was close to the front cars. We walked for miles along narrow corridors, by turns bumping into other passengers or squeezing past them in an awkwardly intimate embrace as the train rocked back and forth.
We arrived at the dining car in the nick of time. The long bar was already populated by young men drinking beer and eating samsas – savoury Kazkah pastries filled with meat, onions or cheese – and the back dining cabin had no empty tables. The waitress immediately took in our plight and asked a lone passenger to share a four-top with another single diner, and so we sat down to a dinner of salad, bread, and lagman, a popular soup made with thick noodles, stewed meat and vegetables. The landscape rushing past outside was already immersed in darkness, with only the occasional street lamp or flash of snow blank punctuating our reflections in the window. The other passengers were curious about the large group of foreigners, their glances often darting in our direction. The only one who stared openly was an eight-year old boy at the table next to us, his gaze lingering with calm curiosity on each of our faces in turn. The waitress, attired like a flight attendant in a red brocade skirt and vest embossed with swirling designs, hustled between tables, barely concealing her exasperation as a drunk old man at a nearby table attempted to flirt with her by calling her over constantly with asinine requests. The train slowly ground to a halt in Karaganda, and the waitress loudly instructed anyone who needed a smoke to disembark now – the train wouldn’t be stopping again until two in the morning. Our Polish companion authoritatively decided we needed a hit of vodka, and divided the small carafe among four round glasses, instructing us to chase the shot with a forkful of salted herring, boiled potato and pickles. The hint of sweetness was lost in the quick, evaporative burst of alcohol that lit a trail of warmth from my throat to my belly.
We made our way slowly back to our cabins, shuffling awkwardly around the occasional train attendant stationed in a seat in the corner of the corridor. One of our cabin-mates had taken down the top bunks, and I clambered up to my berth on an unsteady metal ladder. The train rocked steadily back and forth as we hurtled southeast and the compartment quickly heated to furnace temperatures, fueled by intermittent bursts of warmth from the radiators and the body heat emitted by four adults kept cloistered in a confined space. I tossed and turned for a few hours before waking to the attendant rapping on our door, informing us that we were just outside of Almaty.
Day had broken by the time we arrived at the hotel. Glancing out the window, I was transfixed by the jagged snow-covered peaks that rose up just outside of the city. We spent the day wandering through town, trekking north along broad pedestrian avenues to visit the Park of the 28 Guardsmen, home to Zenkov Cathedral. The church was a typical northern Orthodox affair, its exterior painted brightly as an Easter basket, its interior plastered in gold filigree, icons dripping with pearls. An elderly female penitent in a headscarf flagged down the priest, a rotund man with a massive grey beard, to kiss his hand. The vestibule was filled with worshippers and tourists lighting beeswax candles and examining the icons. As we left a stoic, hard-bitten old woman dragged a bucket of steaming water out into the freezing cold to begin washing the steps. We headed north towards the bazaar, past delighted children scattering birdseed for a ragged flock of pigeons, and the statue of World War II hero Baurzhan Momyshuly.
Its location in the deep south of the country – around eight degrees and 1200 kilometers south of Astana – means that Almaty is generally warmer and more temperate than the Kazakh capital. However, -13˚C is -13˚C no matter your geographic coordinates, and my feet began complaining mightily as we continued our progress northward. As soon as we reached the monstrously large warehouse that housed the bazaar I darted inside, urging my companions upwards towards the clothing section of the market. After weaving through racks of polyester dresses torn straight out of a 1980s evening wear catalogue, I eventually found a vendor whose countertop was decked with a multicolored mountain of socks. She spoke no English, but after I inquired after the price of some of her wares, asking “skulka?” while pointing to a pair of thick grey socks, she clearly understood my quest. She typed 600 into a large calculator on the countertop and began laying wool socks of every variety out in front of me, attempting to explain the various pros and cons of each pair. I quickly selected the style that seemed the thickest, then mimed cutting with scissors to indicate that I needed to remove the tags. She grinned, nodded, and quickly ripped them off, no doubt amused by the foreigner who couldn’t stomach brisker Central Asian climes.
Toes considerably warmer, we wound our way downstairs and back outside, strolling through a ramshackle jumble of stalls selling hardware and construction equipment before heading into the partially open-air food market. I was leading the way, peering curiously at the mix of massive slices of melon, heaps of apples, root vegetables coated in thick black earth, and the miniature baskets filled with colorful gems of dried fruit and nuts. Noticing my interest in their wares, vendors began clamoring for my attention as we traversed the market, yelling “dyevushka, dyevushka”, or “young lady, young lady”, while gesturing emphatically to beckon me over. We stopped at a corner to plan out our next steps before heading back out into the frigid air, and I tried to take a surreptitious photo of a local stall, unsure of whether the vendors would be offended or not. The fruit-seller perched on a nearby stool caught me in the act, giving me an exasperated yet playful wave out of the corner of my photo. We strolled back outside, past women hawking plastic bags of freshly fried sweet donuts, slowly heading for home.
Shim Bulak, the major ski mountain just outside Almaty, was closed for the weekend, so the next day we set off for Ak Bulak, an hour’s ride east along the foothills of the Zailinsky Alatau mountain range. The taxi driver, a somber man in a knit cap, chatted with my Polish friend, his slate gray eyes darting into the mirror to observe our reactions. The Kazakh word “bulak” was a popular component of local toponyms, and so I asked what it meant. The driver initially had trouble translating it, but with the help of his smartphone settled upon the Russian “radnik”, meaning spring or source of water. We arrived at Ak Bulak to find the slopes swarming with people – it was the weekend, Shim Bulak was closed, and the resort was celebrating something called ‘family day’ – so we stood in line for nearly an hour to secure lift passes. Waiting in the interminable line, our group noticed a custom-made snowboard, propped casually against a nearby ski rack, covered in extremely graphic photos of naked women. Even though some of us spotted the board on the gondolas later that afternoon, we weren’t able to catch a glimpse of its charming and sophisticated owner.
After a few easy runs, two of us decided to attempt the precipitously steep slope partially visible from the top of the gondola. We boarded the chair lift and rose higher and higher into the mountains. Turning back to look over my shoulder, I caught a glimpse of the flat grey landscape spreading out to the north, an insidiously beautiful lilac haze of smog blanketing the horizon. The slope beneath us was a dangerous incline covered in uneven, crusty powder, and the hill was peopled with casualties. Overwrought skiers lurched slowly down the mountain in an attempt to recover lost skis, their companions collapsed exhaustedly on the slope above them.
Ak-Bulak is nestled in a low valley, the foothills that neighbor the runs obscuring the rugged silhouette of the surrounding mountains. The top of the chairlift finally afforded us enough altitude for an unfettered view; eyes watering in the frigid, crystalline air, we gaped as the massive peaks of the Alatau range slashed the sky before us. The run down was fraught with difficulty, requiring three or four rest stops to relieve our shaking legs, but the view had been worth it. Passing the gondolas, I headed for the base of the mountain, skiing past a tall man who crisscrossed the run in leisurely, graceful arcs, a small child clad in a puffy pink snow-suit perched upon his soldiers. I veered right, taking a less popular run that ended at the foot of a mechanized rubber sidewalk, which slowly carried skiers and equipment back up to the bustling center of the resort. After removing my skis and boarding the moving walkway, I turned back to examine the cluster of people who had halted at the base of the lift. I realized with a start that the men I had assumed were crouching to adjust their bindings were in fact kneeling in prayer, rocking slowly back and forth, their heads directed towards Mecca.
At the day’s end, we tottered up to the shashlik hut, draped in cumbersome ski gear, clunky boots banging into our legs, poles akimbo. The hut was a scrap metal lean-to, topped with two conical tin chimneys that huffed smoke steadily into the frigid mountain air. The owners were closing for the night, but promised us the last four shashliks, a grilled meat shish-kabob that is one of the most popular foods in this part of the world. After a fifteen-minute wait on the outdoor wooden benches, tapping our toes and plunging our hands deep into our pockets to stay warm, the waitress hustled out with our meal. She presented us with a pile of plastic plates and forks, and four servings of fatty meat on foot-long skewers, the metal sticks spiraling up in curlicues at the top and tapering into a narrow, flat knife blade along the bottom. I tore off slightly stale chunks of bread to grab pieces of the chewy roasted meat, chomping through the fat and gristle made unbelievably delicious by hunger and cold. We chased the shaslik with strong black tea served in thin plastic cups, a few cubes of sugar dropped in for sweetness. The thin plastic was too hot to grip, but my hands were so cold that I shucked off my gloves in order to get my skin the slightest bit closer to the painful heat, techno music blaring in the distance.
The cold stayed with me for the rest of the evening, prompting me to finally attempt an impromptu banyo at the hotel. I interspersed excruciating bouts in the sweltering sauna, with brief stints on the bench by the pool outside, dripping with sweat. The banyo room was a wooden affair with three tiers of benches and a pile of large rocks stacked atop a heater in the corner. Dousing the rocks with a ladleful of water, steam evaporating in a loud hissing cloud, my Polish companion explained that the “manliest” banyo-goers sat on the highest benches to prove they could handle the heat. Bowing to my feminine nature, I elected a spot on the lowest bench that was closest to the door, forgoing the traditional whacks with birch branches in favor of swigs of blonde Belgian beer outside the sauna.
Our final day in Almaty was spent catching up on work, hunkered down in some of the city’s hippest coffee shops. We took a brief break in the early afternoon to visit Kok-Tobe, the mountain top overlook that provides some of the most spectacular views of Almaty. The sky was hazy, city swathed in white mist. Squinting my eyes and shading my gaze with my hand, it was just possible to pick out the purple ridgelines of distant peaks rising above the fog. At the tiny hilltop zoo a succession of animals huddled together for heat, the sole exception a fearless white rabbit who was viscerally curious about his visitors. He propped himself up and shoved his face as far as he could push it through the green wire fence, sniffing furiously. I scratched his nose before wandering through the rest of the zoo, taking in the curious mixture of animal inhabitants. Domestic chickens ruffled their feathers irritably in one enclosure, while a golden pheasant raced about next door. The run filled with burly, thick-wooled sheep neighbored the pen for fallow deer; a stag with impressive antlers wandered curiously up to the fence to greet his visitors, a grandmother crowing delightedly and photographing his investigation of her granddaughter.
After a metro ride and last-minute dash through the city to peer at the robin-egg blue façade of the St. Nikolas Cathedral in the quickening darkness, we made our way back to the train station to begin our 13-hour journey northward. A beer or two later, we retired in exhaustion to our cabin. I punched down the pillow and propped up my head so that I could watch the dusky winter landscape rush by out of the window. Other trains occasionally hurtled past in a roar of metallic clanking, momentarily blocking out the ambient light and plunging the cabin into darkness. Gazing out at the muted miles of snow and the intermittent knots of street lamps that marked local stations, I slowly dropped off to sleep. Seven hours later, I woke to the station attendant knocking on the door, letting us know that we were finally back to Astana.