31 Dec 2009

Жаңа жыл

Here's to looking forward to a great year 2010, full of happy surprises, dreams come true, new friends, meeting with old ones, more travels, new opportunities, kept resolutions and becoming better people! I'll close with one more thought: Carpe Diem!
When the millennium changed a decade ago I was 12 years old and doing a load of laundry :D Ten years have seen a few things I guess. We moved back to Finland, bought a house and got a cat, Misti (the mother of all cats, nearly 40 so far). I graduated high school and made my way to Argentina. Spent time in Kenya, England and Kazakhstan too and entertained grannies at the nursing home in between. And I fear the next ten years will go even faster.
It’s hard to imagine the next years being better than the past ones, but that’s what I’ve thought every year, and each time I’m positively surprised. The pros always outweigh the cons. Level 4 idiom ‘All in all’ they’re always good.
Climbing in the Alatau mountains with Rebekah and students, April 2009

20 Oct 2009

What to take on a train

A multi-day slumber party like this needs to be prepared for. First of all, get your ticket in time so you can choose your spot. The beds/seats running parallel to the walkway offer the least bit of privacy or security.
During the day people come and sit on the lower bunks, so if that bothers you, get an upper bunk. Those of course don't have any sitting room though, so you'll be sitting on the lower bed with everyone else. But it's all a big happy family, so it doesn't really matter.

People come on the train wearing their jeans and high heels etc., and within 15 minutes everyone has changed into sweatpants or other comfortable clothes, and slippers.

Food is generally shared with your compartment mates. The most common things I saw were hard boiled eggs, tomatos, chunks of meat, leposhka (bread), and manty. I brought my own stash of noodles and nuts and crackers and never even touched them until the Tolstoi from Moscow, because people kept giving me so much food. I tried declining. It doesn't work.
Oh, and let's not forget the tea. It's all they drink. But the hot water heaters work well and there's always hot water to be had.

Now, the things I found useful (or really wished I had) on the trip were the following:

a mug for tea, and tea bags (and spoon, sugar etc depending on likes)
slippers or flip flops for walking around and socks for the night
comfortable travel clothes (worn day and night until you get off the train)
a toiletry bag with necessary stuff (a roll of WC paper, toothbrush, toothpaste, hairbrush, lotion)
a bit of money to buy food with at the stops, when vendors line up outside selling melons, manty, leposhka, juice, sunflower seeds, tobacco etc..
playing cards
a book
patience and goodwill

those are the things I found necessary for comfort. All else is extra. Well.. documents are good to have, but that goes without saying.

I really prefer train travel to flying. It takes longer, so you have time to meet new people. It's possible to walk around and even get outside every few hours at the longer stops. You have a bed and can lie down comfortably (tall people beware). My knees always start aching on flights from being in the same position for many hours. And you get to watch the scenery go by.
No movies, but I'm not that fond of movies anyways. No pretty, multilingual stewardesses to bring me food and drinks, but that also means I can eat when I want and what I want, get tea as many times as I wish without feeling guilty and there are no foodcarts in the aisles to watch out for.
No northern lights from an airplane window in the middle of the night, but the stars are mighty bright in the middle of the Kazakh steppe and during the day you can still see even if there are clouds.
The best bit is just meeting people, sharing food and space and stories with them.

Lev Tolstoi

The pictures don't do it justice. To understand where I'm coming from, you also need to ride a train for 6 days in platzkart and then move up to a second class kupee for the last leg.
Don't get me wrong, I really enjoyed my trip in platzkart. It was great. I think I actually preferred it for all the social life.
Maybe an apt comparison would be the switch from a matatu to a private cushioned and air-conditioned jeep.
It was the perfect way to end a long trip though. A note to travelers: upgrade, don't downgrade, for the last leg of your journey. Mmm.. and if this was second class, is there a first class?? I don't think I have enough creativity to imagine what it could be like. Someday when I'm rich and famous, I'll ride a train in first class and see what it's like.

The cars had a carpeted hall running down one side, with the kupee sliding doors opening opposite some windows. Rooms were either all female or all male unless you reserved the whole kupee. I traveled with a Finnish girl, who slept the whole way, and a Russian lady who lives in Finland. We talked with her quite a bit.
The bedding was soft and everything was cushioned, so sound was at a minimum. In fact, I could barely hear the clacking of the wheels.
My tea cup must have fallen out of the bag somewhere along the way, so my traveling companion went and asked for some. What she came back with was two glasses in engraved metal holders. Like fancy engraved, with pictures of St Petersburg and things on them. They were incredible!

There was also a handicapped WC at the other end of the car and I heard there might be showers as well, though I didn't see them.

Our sliding door closed all the way and locked, and on the inside there was a mirror. Each person has their own individual little light by their bed in addition to the big one on the ceiling. At night it's completely dark. The curtain is of a thick material and blocks sound and light.
Come to think of it, it reminded me more of a ship than a train. Very similar to the ferries across to Sweden, except that the train didn't have private toilets in every room.

The conductor people wore uniforms.
The border crossing was rather different too. Compare 15 hours at Kaz-Rus to about 1 hour at Rus-Fin. At the actual border between exit and entry stops there are two little posts standing side by side. One red and green I think, and the other blue and white. I didn't see them, as I was busy slurping noodles, but the Russian lady told me about them.

Maybe the weirdest thing of it all was hearing Finnish again after 9 months. I almost didn't know what to do with it.

And that was it. What does one do with themselves after 9 months of living in a different world and then traveling thousands of kilometers and many days with many people, and then it stops. It had been stopping for a few days already, but the moment the door opened at Kouvola on October 1st, it's like you hit a brick wall. Poof. And it's all history. Did it really even happen?

Looking down from my bunk on the train to Aktau in platzkart.


After about 36 hours on the train from Aktöbe, we arrived in Moscow on a Wednesday morning. During the last few hours I looked out the window and admired the bright colors on the trees, especially the maples. I was arriving in autumn. It was raining too. First lightly, then it got harder and harder. Just as we got off the train it started hailing. What a warm welcome :)
Andrea, a volunteer ESL teacher there in Moscow, met me there and took me back to her place. Svetlana's boyfriend also met her at the train and he so kindly insisted on carrying my big bag all the way down to the metro. It was a big help!

After a nice shower and a warm turkish sugar drink Andrea took me around and showed me the sights.

I can now say I've been to red square. It is big. It's just like a big sloping field of gray cobblestone with a few much photographed buildings along the sides. Maybe I expected to be more awed by the place, I don't know.
We didn't go in any of the buildings except for ГУМ, the prestigious shopping center that takes up pretty much the whole long side of the square opposite the Kreml. That might have been my first culture shock. Comparing Baraholka to ГУМ. I miss Baraholka. And Altyn Orda even more.

For lunch we had some yummy stuffed baked potatos. Very good.
We also visited two churches. The white one below was the first one. What a pity they don't allow photography in there, because it was quite the thing to behold. It's got to be the largest Orthodox church I've ever been in. So pretty and calm inside. We stood for a while and watched two ladies polishing/sanding the railing near the altar.

After a little bit of exploring we came across a small red church and went inside. What a difference! It too was Orthodox, but they were like night and day. The red church was built of wood and everything inside was wood as well, and simple. The feeling inside really reminded me of our visit to Valamo a few years ago. It was beautiful.

Before heading back we stopped for a coffee and among other things compared the extent of chivalry in western and these eastern-ish cultures.

Andrea had to teach in the evening, so I went with her to their center and sat in the office for a few hours until she was finished. Our Almaty center isn't the only one that gets cold!
Then in the evening their director, also Yelena, drove me all the way to Leningradski station. Moscow is pretty at night.
It seems like a nice enough city with a good metro system and a lot of other advantages. But it's so big and so impersonal. Almaty was a lot more personal compared to this. Yay for villages :)

Such was my one day of Moscow.

Border crossing a la Kazakhstan and Russia

My munitions, grapes and rooibos tea :)

The train from Aktöbe to Moscow left late in the evening. Zhibek helped me get my stuff on the train and under my bed and then she left. My bunkmates introduced themselves. There was a Tatjana in her 50's, who knitted socks the whole next day, Sveta, a year younger than I, going to spend some time with her boyfriend in Moscow. And Irina, who spent most of the trip in her friends compartment.
As the train started, a conductor came around with a clipboard and wrote down our passport information down on paper. Two hours into the trip the train stopped and we were woken up. A uniformed guy came and picked up everyone's passports. Then after a while a few guys in camouflauge came with a sniffer dog. Then again someone. and again... They just look around and walk through. After about an hour they came back through calling out the names on the passports and giving them back to us. We left there at about midnight.
Before 3 am we were woken up again by a few uniformed people checking everyone's luggage. Some people's stuff they opened and pawed through. For me they just told me to lift my bed so they could see my bags and asked me what I had in them. I told them I had clothes, but they had already turned to the next person. I was happy I didn't have to open my duffelbag and then have to try to fit everything back in afterwards. But at 3 o'clock! пожалуйста!
Then I slept for a little while until about 4.30 when they came around and looked at our passports again.
At 9 I woke up and realized we were at the Uralsk station. Still in Kazakhstan! All that and I wasn't even in Russia yet.. What fun :)
Finally at 11 we got to the border and it took an hour for everyone to get their Kaz exit stamps. And more uniforms traipsing through looking at people and luggage.
Half hour of train ride and then a 2 hour wait while everyone gets their Russian entry stamp. Need I say, there were plenty of border guards marching through again... Then I was finally in Russia! What a process... But all in all it was pretty painless. No problems, no bribes, no guns. I was happy.
I napped on and off for the rest of the day. At one point I woke up when Tamara and Galina (my friends from the previous afternoon) came for a visit from the next car over. We chatted for a while. They were sweet :)
Tatjana knitted her socks and talked about a cat she had. But I had a hard time understanding her, so I slept again. We passed a train heading the opposite direction. The destination was written on the side. Tashkent. They still had a few days ahead of them. Would that I could have jumped trains!
Towards evening we came to the Volga river at Saratov. It's so big it looks like a lake. Reminded me a lot of the Río Plata, except the Volga was blue, not brown. It was really pretty, especially with the setting sun and blue water and green islands in the middle. After the brown expanses of Kazakhstan, this was like paradise :)
We were in Saratov for 45 min, so we went outside and stood and talked. There were a bunch of people going to some congress in Moscow. Irina, in my compartment, was one of them, so all her friends came to talk too. They asked me about myself and my family and what I was doing in Almaty. Wished me a good journey.

After an uneventful night we arrived in Moscow the next morning. My last leg of traveling platzkart (slumberparty) was over.


18 Oct 2009


Zhibek on the right, her mother and sister

The train from Aktau to Aqtöbe took 26h. I slept most of the way. Still didn't feel like eating after being sick. So I didn't. The Kazakh lady across from me was a German teacher and spoke some English, and the girl above her was friendly too. They were both on their way to Almaty and got off about 2 hours before I did.

It was during this part of the trip that I started being ready to be home. I even started counting hours until I'd see mom in Kouvola. 88h at first. The thought of another 3 days in the train really wasn't fun. In that sense taking a train is better than flying. With a flight everything changes so quickly and before you know it you can be on the other side of the world and your mind takes a while to adjust. In a train the adjustment happens along the way. You can watch the miles go by, the scenery change, the people change. In the case of a long train ride the desire to get off and be done with it eventually becomes stronger than the homesickness for the place you just left.

But God reminded me of Jeremiah 29:11 and said there is hope. So I told Him I'd wait for that hope.

When we got to Aqtöbe I lifted my luggage out from under the bed and waited for everyone else to exit. Then I was going to try and lug the bags out to the station. Two russian ladies were there with me though and asked if anyone was meeting me and whether they could help me. So together we carried my things, along with theirs, down to the secure storage room. We had 4 hours before the Moscow train left. Tamara and Galina (my new friends) were going to walk around the city for a while. I told them I'd stay in the station since I still felt really weak and exhausted. So I walked up the stairs and thanked God for sending me these ladies and then asked him what I was supposed to do for the next 3 hours? I figured I'd find a corner and sit and sleep.

But as I walked through the station a girl walked toward me and asked in English whether I was Lahja! How random.. Aizhan had gotten in contact with her and asked if she could take care of me for the short time I was in their city :) So Zhibek took me to their beautiful home. I got to shower and we drank tea and had a meal and talked. It was so nice. Then she drove me around and showed me the different sights, like their Mega Center (identical to ours, the 4th one in Kazakhstan), and a beautiful mosque.
Back at the train station we met up with my ladies and then Zhibek helped me get my stuff on the train and get settled.

There really always is hope.

an extra experience

This is the stairwell of their apartment building. The first night I spent in a flat on the second floor, and the second night in Aizhan's family's flat on the third floor.
Saturday morning after the bride's wedding I woke up cold and with my whole body aching. Even my skin hurt to touch. And my stomach was bloated and hurt. During the next few hours I just got colder and colder to the point where my fingers felt like icicles and I was shivering.
Finally Aizhan gave me a blanket and I laid down. The day seemed to last forever. Everytime I woke up and looked at my watch only 5 or 10 minutes had passed since the previous time. At some point I think I had 5 blankets covering me :)
As the day progressed my headache got worse and it hurt to even move my eyes.
What a wonderful day that was :D
Jamila, the youngest sister, was also sick and throwing up. I won't go into details, but let's say that my bowels were rather effectively emptied by the whole process.

As a result of this bout of whatever it was, I missed the second half of the wedding, from the groom's side :/ Including driving around in a hummer, taking pictures at the sights of the city. It would have been really interesting.

Aizhan's mother took good care of me though and by evening I could even sit up for a while. By the next morning I was feeling quite a bit better, though weak. But well enough to continue traveling.
A big thank you to Aizhan's family for their hospitality and for taking such good care of me!

Ulzhan's wedding

On Friday Aigul and I rode with a friend 150 km to Aizhan's home town Zhanga Özen (it looks prettier in kazakh, but I don't have their keyboard on my computer)
We arrived in the middle of a wedding feast at a relatives home. The bride and groom were seated around the table with the brides relatives and friends. I walked in and was handed a glass and asked to toast. I was also introduced to all the relations. I don't think I kept any of them straight (sorry Aizhan..).
Then the ladies brought in the besh barmak (above) with noodles and meat.

and shubat (fermented camel's milk)

and khazy (stuffed horse intestine), yum!

This here is the bestman.

At the home the groom hides little gifts in his coat and the little girls got to come and look for them. The girls also hide the grooms shoes and he has to pay them money to get them back.

After the feast at home Aizhan and I headed to the hairdressers for her to get her hair done. This happened at about 6 o'clock (the same time that was printed in the invitations as the starting time for the wedding). We spent two hours at the hairdressers and then went back and changed into dresses and arrived at the wedding hall at about 8.30 :) Central Asian time, I guess. At the wedding party we sat among 300 guests with more food and listened to toast after toast after toast from all the relatives and people. I felt bad for the bride and groom who had to stand and smile through hours of this... In between toasts there was plenty of music and dancing. Music loud enough to reverberate off my chest.

At one point Aizhan dragged me up and had me give another toast. This one in front of all these guests! I think I was the only non-kazakh there. But I gave a toast, chatted with the MC (still in front of everybody), had a song sung in English for me and danced with a drunk guy before I could sit down again.

Here are the beautiful women of the Tulegen family. Ulzhan, the bride, is in the middle, in the traditional dress, Aizhan is on the far right.

This party lasted until about 1 am then the ladies packed up the food and we all returned to the relative's flat for the night. The bride is not supposed to sleep in her own home for this night.


After our three days in the train we reached Aktau, on the Caspian Sea, on a Wednesday morning. Aigul here took us in and fed us and let us use her shower :) We spent half the day walking around the city center shopping for a dress for Gulzhahan (Aizhan's oldest sister) to wear to the wedding. That evening Aizhan and I slept at Aigul's on sleeping mats.

The next morning Aizhan left for her hometown to help with wedding preparations and Aigul and I took a hike along the coastline under the white cliffs that gave the city its name.
Later in the afternoon we then went shopping for shoes for Aigul (without success), walked around the sights of Aktau, rode a swing-thing at a park and went grocery shopping at the bazaar. All in all we must have walked over 10 kilometers all over the place.

Aktau is in the dry Mangistau province. Most buildings are the same color as the ground, trees are scarce and it's hot.

All the trees have these protective walls around them, I guess to keep all the precious water near the roots.

The few days in Aktau really called on all my Russian skills, since Aigul didn't speak any English. But we got along. She told me all about the city and herself and other things and I understood. Then I'd reply in broken sentences and she'd understand and usually finished my sentences for me. It's just too bad that the whole 9 months couldn't have been Russian immersion like this. I think I learned more Russian in one week during the trip, than in a month or two of Almaty life.

the aktau of Aktau

and the Caspian Sea
It really was pretty

Алматы - Мангышлак (Almaty - Mangyshlak)

After an almost all-nighter (with Princess Bride, Napoleon Dynamite, Banana Splits, pasta with Heinz tomato sauce!, noodles, chocolate, the one month of russian love song :D and a bunch of packing) Ruslan picked us up and took us to the Almaty 2 train station where we met a whole bunch more people who had come to say good-bye.

Going around saying goodbyes. Everybody kept giving me more and more gifts and things to take along. I had just spent the night weeding out everything that was unnecessary so I could get my bag closed, and now I had to find space for all the new stuff. But it was sweet and much appreciated :)
And so it began.

It was good to be traveling with Aizhan. She knew how things worked, she could translate into Kazakh for me and it's just more fun to travel with someone. She found this little heartbreaker named Aslan in the compartment next to ours, so he came over for many visits during our three days together, always happy and laughing. There was another baby as well who would waddle around with a huge grin on his face. Asset's friend called him Shrek's child :D I have to agree that there was some similarity there.

During the day it's hot and sticky in the train. During the night the windows leak cold wind. But in general it's not too bad. In summer it might be too hot and in winter it is probably too cold, but September was quite pleasant.

I found a new extreme sport: squatty potty on a shaky toilet seat in a moving train. Fun stuff.

Oh, and garbage disposal... I was shocked when Bazargul threw her trash out the window. Conscientiously I took my own rubbish to the bin near the hot water heater. That is, until I saw the conductor walk over to it one day and chuck the contents out the window as well. So much for keeping the environment clean...

But the hot water heater was a nice thing to have. People were constantly traipsing past us to get more tea water.

The only thing I missed having was a shower. Especially when it was hot and sweaty. But it was ok. Just made me appreciate my first shower in Aktau more :)

These are the people I traveled with. Serik (in the yellow) played алты (six) with us every evening. Bazargul (the lady) kept feeding us more food. At one stop on the second day we came to a place where there were just heaps and heaps of melons. Bazargul bought a few and we ate those for the rest of the trip. My stomach would be full to the point of feeling sick and still they would give me more. She says I look like a stick (holding her pinky in the air) and I need to eat more. Haha.
Asset (in the purple shirt, also known as muscle man) was traveling with his friends back to their post in Aktau.
For the most part we all just hung out and talked or ate or slept. It's like a huge slumber party that lasts for 3 days. Everyone walks around in pyjamas or other comfortable clothes. Then, before getting off at their stop they change back into jeans and high heels for the outside world.

The scenery was rather unvaried. Described in one word, it would be FLAT. The only thing that changed was the type of bushes or dried grass along the tracks. There was the occasional brown village, or herd of horses or camels, or a row of electrical poles. But that was it. I don't think I've ever seen so much flat in my life!

I can still hear in my mind the rhythmical clinking and clanking of the train on the endless tracks. It was so relaxing to fall asleep to at night :)

Travel map

All in all, about 6500km (about 4000 miles) of travel between Almaty and Ristiina, even though as the crow flies, the distance would be half of that. Six and a half days in the train, fortunately broken up by stops and wonderful people along the way. I started out from Almaty on September 20 and arrived home in Ristiina on October 1, many experiences the richer.

До свидания

The last supper with students at Il Patio in Mega with Ismail, Aizhan, Emily, Saule, Rebekah and Robert. This was one of 4 evenings in five days that I went out for pizza with friends :D
During my last week in Almaty I was super busy getting together with everyone I had met during the 9 months there, buying dates and nuts and blankets to take home and taking care of my visa stuff as well. That week we also had P Kulakov's meetings at Central Church and I attended a few evenings and tried to follow along. Though I didn't understand every word, I was able to grasp the general idea and was blessed by it. It was so nice to run into friends visiting from neighboring countries as well.
(photos are from Rebekah, unless stated otherwise)


Jobir and Fahradin from Uzbekistan

Talgat and Ainura from Bishkek

Yessian and Lena


Our dear girls, Sabina, Tamila and Elina


Uncle Murat (heja, heja!)

Yerken, true to form

Our little congregation

Our last SM supper (pizza, again). David in a women's homeless coat he found by our door

4 Sep 2009

The Torre of Burana

Thus ended our wonderful trip. I can't wait to go back. Lord willing.

The mountains of Kyrgyzstan are so beautiful!

The tower.

our playground