Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Astana is for Lovers

Romeo had his poetry and pointy sword.  That guy from Hi Fidelity had his ridiculously oversized radio.  The prince had Rapunzel's long hair to climb up.  Here in Astana, they do things a little differently.  I've been living in this apartment building for almost nine months (for the amazing story of how I ended up here, see A Room of One's Own, parts 1, 2, and 3), so this is a behavior I've been studying for a while.  At first I was quite baffled by all the commotion, but I believe I've figured it out.

In Astana, as they say, men are men, and women are women.  And there's nothing women like more than being wooed from their 8-story windows on a brisk, -20-degree evening.  From the parking lot.  I say from the parking lot, but really once the sun goes down any reasonably horizontal space becomes fair game as parking in this city.  But the parking is essential to this form of courtship.  Like the brightly colored birds in the Amazon forests who dance around and build elaborate summer homes for their prospective brides, the men here in Astana use their overly elaborate car alarms to attract the attention of their lady-loves.

After all, who has not experienced strong, nay overwhelming, feelings when wakened from a deep sleep by the strident beeps, whoops, sirens, and even computer-generated verbal warnings of a car alarm.  I have to say, I feel especially strongly about the ones that repeat, endlessly, until someone physically comes to the car to turn them off.  The amorous men of this district can't help but attract some attention with these ingenious little devices.  And I have to say, the women in this apartment complex are rather spoiled for choice.  Come evening-time the lot is full of cars, to the point that no more can even drive through, much less actually park.  On any given night you can hear the amorous warbling of not less than five lovers a-wooing and a-waiting.  I can only guess that this complex houses some of the most beautiful women in Astana.

Cars in Astana, like in most cities, are a bit of a status symbol.  And the price of gasoline is exorbitantly low, so cars can reach enormous proportions here.  The bigger the status, the bigger the symbol, so to speak.  And these valuable pieces of pretension are always kept running, warmed up, one would imagine, to provide an inviting egress for the newly-wooed.  Also, as I understand, an already-running car provides a much faster getaway for that playful pastime they refer to here as bride-napping.  Personally I prefer the local term—alyp qashu—so quaint, so un-indicative of its actual meaning in English.  But the women know what they're getting into, I suppose.  One would imagine it's quite easy to judge a man's worth by the size of the car he drives.

And now that the weather is getting warmer, I can only imagine the courting will increase in intensity.  The days are much longer, so the men have more time for driving around and deciding on their targets come nightfall.  Not to mention it's much easier to stand outside and wait for your call to have its desired effect when the temperature is above freezing.  And bride-nappings are much more likely to succeed when one doesn't have to contend with completely iced-over roads and giant piles of snow preventing escape from already impossible-to-escape parking lots.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Nomads Exist!

This morning I decided to undertake a long-overdue task that I'd been avoiding all winter, namely because it was cold outside.  No, cold is an understatement.  It was hellishly cold.  That task was walking across one of the many bridges that criss-cross Astana.  Any tourist worth her salt knows that one's travels are not complete if no bridges have been traversed.  This brings me to the second condition that prevented me from bridge-walking for so long—finding the river.  Really, it's a bit of a charity to call the sluggish ditch meandering through the city a river (I think the reason this city even has a river is so that we can refer to it's two halves by the prosaic "right bank" and "left bank").  As in, "Oh, you live on the right bank?  That's so hipster.  I bet you were living there before the Soviets built Tselinograd, weren't you?"

I'm not ever sure the river is actually visible from the top of Bayterek, which, by the by, is by far not the highest point in the city, but if anything is to be espied from a high place, then it seems only fitting that all height-induced discoveries in this city should be made from the giant symbolic bird's nest.  Nevertheless, we did eventually find the river, and I would say that, while not the most spectacular bridge in the city, this one did have some interesting features.  It was near to the president's palace—ahem, residence— also had a lovely view of the giant glass pyramid that, as far as I can gather, was placed by aliens that the president summoned with his psychic powers.  Oh,  you haven't heard of the president's psychic powers?  I think it's a level-up you earn when you reach 15 years of being in power without any significant uprisings.

I now have reason to be happy that I waited so long to check this box on my Kazakhstan Tourist Travel Card (one more box and I get a free bottle of Kumis!), though, after what we saw on our walk.  I now have irrefutable proof that nomads exist.  Once thought only the stuff of legend, they yet walk (or rather, ride) among us.

At least he was riding against traffic.

It's difficult to say what, exactly, brought him out of the steppe and into the vast metropolis, but he obviously had something important to get to.  I, for one, wouldn't leave the pedestrian area and get anywhere near the driving lanes for any amount of kumis, shashlik, or manti.  But I suppose I take an outsider's view of things.

This brings me to an interesting point of Kazakh culture, though.  At one point while crossing the bridge, we encountered some military personnel, and I thought that perhaps they would stop this solitary nomad, tell him that horses didn't belong out on suspension bridges, especially anywhere near automobiles—how drivers in this city avoid fiery deaths everyday still eludes me—but they simply watched him pass.  Then I remembered that a horse can go nearly anywhere in Kazakhstan.  Why, once I even heard of a man on a horse walking right up to the presidential pal.. , erm, residence, and setting up camp in the presidential dining room.  I think the horse actually slept on the table.

In another account, a Kazakh man decided he wanted to go to the premier of The Dark Knight Rises, and didn't want to leave his horse out in the parking lot (I think it was asthmatic, and at that time of night the idling taxis raise quite a cloud of exhaust), so he took his horse into the theater with him.  There was a bit of a debacle when the horse's tail got caught in the escalator (they're still working out the lawsuit on that one), but no one seemed to mind when the horse—almost systematically—went around and sneezed into everyone's popcorn.  I suppose, given the choice, it's still better than having the teenager working behind the counter sneeze into it.

Yes, nomads exist, and they walk among us.

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Cranes are Flying

One of my favorite activities when traveling to foreign lands, I've found, is walking around, looking up.  There's so much to see that one often misses when only worried about what's directly in front of you.  So ran my thoughts the other day when I hopped a bus that fortuitously took me the bazaar to buy my produce for the week.  Luckily, this bus happened to run in that direction, and kept running so until it subsequently arrived, which is not underheard of, but also not entirely, so to speak, heard of.

I had an interesting conversation with the lady who sells me apples.  She explained to me that the official bird of Kazakhstan is the Ьеркут (Berkut). I'm not really sure how we got on the subject of birds.  Actually, no, I am.  I absolutely know why we started talking about birds, and that there is a certain breed of local, existing in every culture, who upon finding out that someone is a foreigner feels it is necessary to tell something about their culture.  This telling does not rely upon any rational scheme for deciding what is worth telling, does not, generally, spring from any previous experience with the foreigner in question, and almost always consists of random facts.

The official bird, then, of Kazakhstan is the Ьеркут.  Ьеркут is not a word in English, but extrapolating from my recent experience this spring in looking up, I've come to the fairly certain conclusion that it translates roughly to crane.  Cranes, these days, are flying everywhere.  I suppose it's a sign of spring.  Spring is in the air, cranes are in the air.  I've never seen such cranes as they have here in Astana.  They soar above streets and above buildings, stark against the blue sky.  Sometimes they appear in groups, sometimes singly.  The great cranes of Kazakhstan, I think they must be symbols of rebirth, or growth, or something even more poetic, heralds of the trip that pilgrims will soon embark upon in just a few short years to this unique city.

Now, I've never been much of a birdwatching aficionado, but I did manage to snap some shots of the cranes in the almost year that I've been here.  You might be surprised to know that they even fly in the winter, though there are a good deal less of them.  Here are some pictures of the spring flocks.

This flock has been living here since before I arrived in Astana.
Sometimes the numbers change, but it's always been there.

One of my favorites.  I really like the juxtaposition of urban space and natural fauna.

Don't be fooled by the snow, it really is spring.

I believe this building's going to be an opera house.  These cranes know where it's at.

Oddly, they never seem bothered by the large amount of construction going on.

I think this is a family unit.  Anyway, they're quite close-knit.

A little obscured by the tree, but they're there, off at the city limits.