A Travellerspoint blog

On to Astana, Kazakhstan

Or Should I Say Nur-Sultan?

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May 3 to May 4 Istanbul to Astana, Kazakhstan

I love to watch the change in the make up of passengers as I get closer to my destinations. On my flight to Amsterdam there were many old folks like me who were Canadians or Dutch. It was a predominately white crowd. On my flight to Istanbul you could see the change with many Turkish folks, but it was still a mixed crowd since so many Turkish Airlines flights to Istanbul connect to other places. Now that I was waiting for my flight to Kazakhstan, I could see that I was a minority of maybe one. Almost everyone else had Mongolian features except for a handful who appeared to be Russian. Yes, I am going someplace new.

It was a small plane, rows of 3 and 3. I had a seat near the front of the cheap seats. The entertainment system worked well. After finishing First Man from the last flight (they got home, what a surprise!), I started a US Supreme Court theme. I first watched Marshall, about Thurgood Marshall and his work on civil rights cases. I started the RBG (Ruth Bader Ginsberg) movie, On the Basis of Sex, thinking that I might finish it on a future flight. This is not a political blog, but I had to reflect on the fact that the Democrats have nominated brilliant people like the two of them while the Republicans have given us justices like Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh.

I took a break now and again to track our progress.

We arrived at about 2:30 am local time. It was another new airport. We had been given a tiny little form to fill in. I could not read the tiny print, so left most of it blank. There was no line at immigration. The man did not say anything until he told me, “Welcome.” I found out later that I need to keep the little paper with not much on it (except an important stamp).

I collected my bag that had been sent away from me in Istanbul and walked into arrivals. I looked for a sign and saw a woman holding up a Kalpak sign. She recognized me and welcomed me to Kazakhstan. That was my introduction to Gaukhar, my first Kalpak guide. Her enthusiasm was apparent even at that late hour.

She told me that there was another tour member on the plane. It turned out that I was not the only old, white North American type on the plane. We soon met Michael, who wore a Tilley Hat and had a big white beard. Our tour group had learned about each other via our invitation letter from Turkmenistan which had everyone in the group listed, including our birth dates. From that I knew that Michael had the honor of being the oldest member, beating me by five months. I did not make a good impression on him when I pointed that out.

Gaukhar led us out to our van for the ride into town. It is always a shame to arrive in a new place at night, so we did not see much. We arrived at our hotel, a very nice Hilton, at about 4 am. After the registration formalities and some discussion about what time we would meet the next day, I stumbled up to my giant room, which could hold my last two rooms put together. There was a welcome post card and gift of a chocolate bar from Kalpak waiting for me, a nice little gesture from them.


I slept until 9 and made it to breakfast about 15 minutes before end of the buffet. There was not much food left at that time and even had to wait for the coffee to be refilled.

I joined Michael. I had made a couple of assumptions about my fellow tour members. The first was that they would be well travelled since novice travellers are not going to choose a tour to Central Asia. Michael is that, having travelled widely over the years, including a long backpacking trip with a lady who eventually became his wife. She often travels with him but chooses to stay home other times.

The other assumption was that any American travelling to Central Asia would not be a Trump supporter. A quick conversation confirmed that Michael shares my very low opinion of the current US president. That is putting it mildly.

The five countries of Central Asia, often referred to as the “5 Stans”, gained their independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The Soviet Union collapsed, and the countries became independent whether they wanted it or not, which apparently, many of the people did not. I will say more on that later.

At that time Astana was a small town. It had been founded by Siberian Cossacks in 1830 as a defensive outpost. Its name changed over the years from Akmoly to Akmolinsk to Tselinograd to Akmola. On December 10, 1997 it was named the capital of Kazakhstan and shortly thereafter the name was changed to Astana, which meant capital city in Kazakh. That bland name was likely intentional, waiting to be changed to its current name, Nur-Sultan, in honor of the just retired President Nursultan Nazarbayev. The change was done on March 20 of this year. According to Gaukhar the locals are not enthusiastic about the name change. She continued to refer to the place as Astana, so I will as well.

According to Wikipedia, Astana is the second coldest national capital in the world after Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. When it became the capital it bounced my capital, Ottawa, from number two down to number three. It can get really cold in the winter (-35) and miserably hot in the summer (+35). It was good thing that we were visiting in May. The weather was quite nice for us.

We early arrivals had an optional day tour with Gaukhar. Michael and I met her at noon in the lobby and headed to a museum which is about 40 km out of town.

We had our first look at Astana, which we could not see in the dark last night. The city is really spread out with wide avenues. There is infrastructure for an elevated transit system. Gaukhar said that work has been slow or seemed to be stopped altogether.

It did not take long to leave the city. We were on the steppe (grasslands) of Central Asia.


Our visit was to the Alzhir Museum (Memorial Museum of Victims of Political Repressions and Totalitarianism). During the Stalin era this was the location for a labor camp for wives and children of men who had been interned elsewhere. The camp operated from 1938 until it was closed after Stalin’s death in 1953.

Even the arrests of the women were cruel. They attended meetings with authorities thinking that they would be given information on their husbands, or even get to see them, only to be sent away in railway cars and ultimately dumped into the middle of the steppe. The weather would have been brutal, bitterly cold in winter and oppressively hot in summer. The prisoners were forced to build their own barracks from mud bricks. The women had been artists, actors and professionals.

We did hear a heartwarming story. While the women were cutting reeds local Kazakh children threw stones at them. At first it seemed quite cruel until they discovered that the balls were made of hardened, dried curd. The local villagers risked their lives to help the prisoners.


There was a chart that showed the great events that caused massive deaths to the people of Kazakhstan. The Kazakhs had a series of wars with the Dzungar people in the 18th century but the largest loss of life was during the forced collectivisation and resulting famine of the 1930’s where the nomads had to move to fixed locations and become farmers.


This photo showed the confiscation of camels.

It was a sobering start to my tour. It was reminiscent of my trip one year ago to Namibia when I began with lessons on the horrendous treatment of the Africans by first the Germans and then the white South Africans. I had thought about that when Kalpak sent my trip details and mentioned the optional tour. But I do want to learn the history of Central Asia, and the gulag is part of that history.

We drove back to the hotel to pick up another member of our group, Lynley, a woman from New Zealand. Gaukhar asked if anyone was hungry. I was, since I had not had much to eat at the picked over buffet. So was Gaukhar. We went to Gaukhar’s favorite crepe restaurant. As per her warning, my order was huge. We were on our own for the meal. From tomorrow all our meals are covered by the tour.

We headed to the “Old Town”, an area that existed before Astana became the capital. We stopped at a museum (but did not go in) that was dedicated to the now retired President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

We had our first look at Russian architecture. We visited an historic supermarket in a beautiful old building. We were not permitted to take photographs, but the deli counters and bakery goods were amazing.


There was a lot of beautiful new architecture in the area as well. There was a small outdoor market and lots of locals walking and biking. We walked along the river and across an elegant pedestrian bridge. There were no other tourists, and it seemed like we were a bit of a novelty. A couple younger people tried their English with us. One young man impressed Michael when he told him that he was just “chilling with my friends”.


Gaukhar gave us a great recommendation for our supper. We had a short walk to a Georgian restaurant. The food was very good, a nice spicy stew. I paid with my credit card and did not have a clue about how much it cost. The modern buildings with their bright lights and fountains were quite something for a boy from Pouch Cove, Newfoundland.


It seemed like I had been away from home for weeks. I had already seen some amazing things. But my tour will not start until tomorrow.

Posted by Bob Brink 07:49 Archived in Kazakhstan Tagged central_asia astana kalpak_travel nur-sultan Comments (10)

Last Hours in Istanbul

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May 3

I slept right through prayer call again. To understand the significance of that, you have to know that there are several mosques in Sultanahmet and the calls are loud. I loved the sound, but preferred to be sleeping at 5 am. I was only woken up the first morning.

At breakfast I talked to Mehmed. I said that I might try to see something at Sultanahmet Square. He said that it would be quite busy there since it was Friday. There would be lots of locals attending prayers and tons of tourists. He suggested a mosaic museum in the bazaar just up the street.

I have not talked about the fabulous history of the area which dates back to the Byzantine Empire. As I mentioned in my previous post, I did not visit the Hagia Sophia, instead just admiring it from the outside. Hagia Sophia was first a church, then became a mosque, and is now a museum. The current structure was opened in 537.

The Great Palace Mosaics Museum is small but interesting. The mosaics date back to Justian I who ruled from 527 to 565. The mosaics in the museum are not religious but depict animals and humans in nature and mythological scenes.


As you walk around the city you encounter walls. They date from the 5th century and were part of the city’s defenses.


Mehmed had also mentioned a small mosque down the road. I started that way, but between the traffic, heat, and my feet, decided it was not worth the effort. There were tourists everywhere.


When I turned back, I came upon a young woman tourist trying to pull a big suitcase and carry on bag up the hill. Rolling the two together is hard in an airport. It is virtually impossible on brick streets. I asked if she needed help. She immediately gave me the big suitcase. I pulled it to the top of the hill for her. I was not sure if she had found her hotel, but she thanked me and took her bag.

I went back to my room and grabbed my suitcase since it was time to check out. I sat on the terrace for awhile, drinking the last of my free lattes. I asked Mehmed for a lunch recommendation. He sent me around the corner to a restaurant with a roof top terrace. There was a view of the back of the Blue Mosque. I had a kebab.


When I returned to the hotel, I decided to just leave for the airport rather than hang around the terrace. I walked to the square where I found a bus waiting. People were handing over their bags to go in the luggage bin. The couple in front were asked to put their packs in the luggage bin as well. At first, they refused but then handed them over. I gave the men my suitcase but kept my pack on my back. I would not have agreed to have it go in the bin.

The trip to the airport did not take long, maybe 40 minutes. The airport bus is the best deal in Istanbul. I now got to see the brand new airport in the day time.


At the airport I tried to check in at the electronic kiosk. Just like in London it did not work. I joined a long line. A porter asked why I was there and pointed to the kiosk. I told him that the machine did not like me. When I got to the desk the man took my bag and put a baggage tag on it. I tried to tell him that I wanted to take it on the plane. He seemed to understand but then smiled and sent my suitcase down the conveyor. I was not devastated since I was prepared for having my bag checked. I was just a bit surprised since I had not understood a word that he had said. I vowed to get the weight down on the return to Istanbul when I would have to make a connection to my Amsterdam flight.

I had time for a latte and a not so great croissant before taking my long walk to the gate.

Reflecting on my brief time in Istanbul, if you take the two-day checklist approach, I was a major failure. I had failed to visit (go inside) most of the major tourist sites. My feet were a big part of that, the crowds more so.

But I was quite happy. I now had a feel for Istanbul and really want to visit one day for a longer period. I will have mixed emotions about where to stay. I really liked Mehmed and was quite happy with his place. I would recommend it to anyone. But I would also like to try an area that is not packed with tourists. If you visit, use the airport bus. And buy a museum pass (which I did not but would on my next trip).

This had been a warmup. Tonight, my real trip was beginning.

Posted by Bob Brink 07:46 Archived in Turkey Tagged istanbul sultanahmet Comments (2)

Istanbul Day 2

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May 2 - Istanbul Bosphorus Cruise

I was first again for breakfast. I told Mehmed that I wanted to do the afternoon cruise only. He had told me that all his guests gave good reviews of the cruise but that the morning tour was more mixed. I also did not want to do any walking.

I took it easy for a couple of hours before getting ready. It was cool. Mehmed sent me back to get my jersey (sweatshirt in American). He showed me some tourist magazines on Turkey while I waited for my ride. Mehmed is obviously quite proud of his country. It looks like a great place to travel. I might be back one day.

I was the first to be picked up. We then went to another hotel for more people. We were not that far from the embarkation point, but the traffic was amazing with the narrow streets combined with parked cars and meeting cars coming the other direction (or it seemed many directions). The driver was constantly backing up and making tight turns.

A hard rain fell for much of our drive. By the time we arrived at the dock, there was a stream running along the curb. The driver backed up next to the curb and opened the door. We would have to step into the water which was high enough to cover our shoes. One of our female passengers refused to get out. The driver closed the door and backed the vehicle closer to the curb where we could easily step over the water. It was a simple solution. I was surprised that the driver had expected us to get out the first time.

A buffet lunch was set out for passengers. Mehmed had told me to not expect much. He was right, because it was just barely beyond edible. I finished quickly and walked up to the deck where I spent most of the cruise.

We started with a spin around the Golden Horn before heading up the Bosphorus. All cruises hug the west bank (European side of Istanbul) on the way north and then stay next to the east bank (Asian side) on the way home. We passed the Dolmabahce Palace, once home to the Ottoman Empire (19th and 20th centuries) and the Rumeli Fortress (built in 1453) which controlled the Bosphorus Strait.


We had rain, clouds, and sun. Most passengers spent their time downstairs in the lounge. I only went down for a Turkish Tea (much more enjoyable than Turkish Coffee) and headed back upstairs.


The trip took us almost all the way to the Black Sea. We could see it in distance before we turned around. We made a quick stop at a small village. There was only enough time to order a coffee, not enough time to drink it although I tried to gulp it down.


The sun came out as we reached golden horn.


After I returned to the hotel, Mehmed asked what type of food I wanted to eat that night, kebab or fish. I chose fish. He said the restaurant (Sur Balik) was a bit too far to walk comfortably, so he would arrange for me to be picked up. The place sounded great (it was) and expensive (it was – for here). It was only about five minutes away by car, so I could have walked if I had to. It was right by the water, and with the non-smoking area upstairs, it was easy to watch the ships passing by.

There was an eclectic mix of diners, some tourists but also many locals including several children. I suspect that the smoking section was likely dominated by men.

My waiter was fantastic. Mehmed had told me to order ouzo. The waiter corrected me and said that in Turkey it is called raki. He served me melon and cheese with the raki. I quite enjoyed it and felt rather mellow the entire evening. I might check out the supply in Newfoundland.

The method of cooking seemed to be the important decision on my fish. I decided on the fried fish with tomatoes and onions over broiled since it was described as spicy.I did not even know the type of fish I was eating, but it was very good. If anyone recognizes the head, let me know. I had a couple of bites before I took my photo. I had some delicious calamari to start.

I was thinking how crazy using trip advisor was, since yesterday I relied upon it and had a mediocre meal but today had relied on the old-fashioned recommendation from my hotel and had superb food. Then my wonderful waiter came by and handed me a note, “Please recommend us on Trip Advisor”, with his name noted-Hamit.


I was given my ride back to the hotel. I saw Mehmed in the courtyard with a friend. I thanked him for the advice. I did a quick video call to my girls and spent some time going through my photos before going to sleep. Tomorrow I am off to Central Asia.

Posted by Bob Brink 19:29 Archived in Turkey Tagged istanbul sultanahmet Comments (4)

Istanbul Day 1

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May 1 - Istanbul

I woke up to the call to prayer at 5 am and could not get back to sleep. I was easily the first one down for breakfast which was served in a little courtyard. Mahmed has two young ladies working for him who brought me a typical Turkish breakfast with olives, cheese, tomatoes, yoghurt, cold cuts, dried fruit, pastries and choice of eggs. They gave me great service, even bringing me two additional lattes. I was also entertained by the resident cats.

Oh, my thumb felt great.


I went out at about 10. I walked through a bazaar just up the road, turned left and was at the Blue Mosque. There was a big line. There were hundreds of tourists everywhere. As I was looking around, I met my first carpet salesman. “I am not asking for money, just visit my store later.” He lead me to the door for worshippers to allow me to bypass the long line for tourists. I told him I should not be doing this. He just handed me the plastic bag for my shoes and pushed me into the mosque where I quickly became part of the crowd.

It was packed. There were renovations in progress, so most of the mosque was not accessible. I was not that impressed. I was happy that I had not waited to get in. I soon left and found my salesman/guide waiting.


Hagia Sophia

Blue Mosque

I walked towards Hagia Sophia with my salesman/guide still with me. I did not want to fight the crowds so kept walking with him and agreed to visit his store. When I got there another man gave me his sales spiel. I listened for a few minutes and left for the Grand Bazaar.

The Grand Bazaar was huge and very busy. I decided to sit down at a café. I bought a Turkish coffee and some sweets. This was first and probably my last time to drink Turkish coffee. I can only describe it as mud with sugar. I drank what I could and ate most of the sweets.


I decided to walk to the Galata bridge. When I walked out of the market, I found more market. I was not sure if it was still part of the bazaar, but the stores did not stop. They went on forever. So did the crowds, but these seemed to be more locals than tourists.


The ice cream vendors make their customers work.

I made it to the water.


I then decided to find the spice market. I walked towards the area where I believed that I would find it. I never did. Instead I was walking through more market. I was having fun but was totally lost. I had no idea what direction I was going. I decided to ask for directions. I stopped at a café, where one young woman spoke English well enough. She pointed me in the right direction to get back to Sultanahmet Square (and my hotel).

It was a long walk back. My feet were now hurting. I could feel blisters on both heels. I had walked for over 6 hours. Full disclosure, I bought new low-cut hiking shoes for this trip. They were the same model as the ones I bought for Madagascar. I have never had a big problem with blisters, so did not concern myself with how much walking I did in the shoes before leaving. Po asked me about it. I dismissed her concerns. I was punished for my sins. The punishment would continue for the next several days.

I finally made it back to the hotel, made a latte and sat on the patio. I talked to Po and then found a restaurant online. It had great trip advisor reviews and was just around the corner, so I did not have far to walk.

La Romantica

Everything at the restaurant was about trip advisor. “Please give us a great review”, was said again and again. The service was great. They gave me free tea and sweets, but the main course was not very good. It did not rate 5 stars.

I hobbled back to Sultanahmet Square after supper to take photos of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia at night. It was wonderful. There were crowds, but no big tour groups. Most people appeared to be locals. I was grabbed by another carpet salesman. He gave me some advice and once again I visited the salesroom. I was not too bothered by this. I could have emphatically blown him off, but instead found it a bit of fun to play along.

I went looking for tulips when I was in Amsterdam, but found these in Istanbul. My friendly carpet salesmen told me that tulips were taken from Turkey to Holland.



When I returned to the hotel Mehmed scolded me for my choice of restaurant. I told him that he should have been at the desk when I left. He said he would get me a good restaurant the next night. I asked him about a Bosporus cruise. Since I was unable to walk far, he suggested a tour which would give me door to door service. He said there were two options, an all-day tour or just the afternoon cruise. No decision was required until morning. Mehmed offered me some tea and some other advice. He said that I should not buy a carpet in Turkey, that they are all made in China. He suggested that I would find better carpets on my tour.

Posted by Bob Brink 16:55 Archived in Turkey Tagged istanbul sultanahmet Comments (2)

Amsterdam to Istanbul

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April 30 - Amsterdam to Istanbul Flight

This was the only flight on my trip where I had asked for a window seat so that I could be ready to take a photograph of Istanbul from the air. I arrived to find a lady in that seat who did not speak English. She acted as if she knew that she was in the wrong seat but also seemed to want to stay there, so I let her.

We later communicated a little by using the map on the entertainment system. She was from Istanbul. I pointed to Canada and allowed myself to still be living in Toronto since identifying Newfoundland proved too difficult.

The entertainment system worked a lot better on this flight. I watched most of First Man about Neil Armstrong landing on the moon. The plane was landing just as they were landing the lunar module. I guess that was appropriate, but that meant that I had to turn off my system before they finished and then took off again. Now I must wait to see how it turns out. Did they get off the moon? Maybe I can finish it on my next flight.

When we landed several passengers jumped up and started walking to the front of the plane. The flight attendants quickly chased them back to their seats.

We arrived at the brand-new Istanbul airport, which had been open for only a few weeks. I had worried that the opening would happening when I was travelling through and was relieved when the actual move for Turkish Airlines took place at the beginning of April. At night it seemed very quiet. It is also very big. It was a long way from the gate to immigration. There are some automated walkways, but you are still forced to do a lot of walking to get to immigration.

I had acquired my visa online. I only waited a couple of minutes before I handed over my passport and the visa printout. The nice lady looked it over and stamped my visa. She handed it back and I am sure, winked at me, which is not something that happens often (to me), and certainly not at immigration.

I had studied all my steps necessary to get to my hotel. I needed to get some Turkish Lira, buy myself an Istanbul Kart (good for the tram and buses), and find the new airport bus to go to Sultanahmet. There was a kiosk selling the Karts right beside the buses. I gave the man 50 lira to cover the kart itself, a round trip and have a little left over for possible rides on trams. The airport bus was 18 lira one way, about 3 dollars US. A taxi would cost at least $40 US.

We left a few minutes later. The buses are quite comfortable. The first part of the ride is down the new airport highway. Things only slowed down when we got close to Sultanahmet. We drove right past my hotel. Between that and my Google Earth study, I was quite sure about finding my hotel.

The bus stopped at Sultanahmet Square. I headed off, my suitcase rattling on the brick road. I got to the general area but realized that I had missed a turn. But I was not concerned. I was enjoying the search. I was walking the narrow streets of Istanbul with the call to prayer echoing around me. There were lots of people on the street. And I had my little suitcase, so it was not hard to walk around.

I turned the corner and saw a taxi stand/travel agency. I asked for directions and was directed up the hill. I saw the Sultanahmet Hotel and walked in. I was greeted at the door but was soon escorted (with the man carrying my bag for me) across the street to my actual hotel, the Sultan Mehmed Hotel.

I then learned that the hotel is named after the owner, Mehmed. He was there to give me a warm welcome and handed me a map and explained a bit about the area before sending me up to my room. I quickly realized that I had made a great choice for my hotel. Mehmed acts as though you are a friend visiting Istanbul, not just a customer.

I phoned Po. We switched to video so I could see Bella. I decided to go back downstairs to ask for some ice for my sore thumb. I had strained it a few weeks ago, at which time I treated it with ice and thought it was better. But sometime during my flights I had strained it again. Mehmed had no ice, but he sent one of his young lady helpers down the road to get some. I had a latte from their machine while I waited, not a great idea at that hour, but it tasted good. It was the first of many I would have over the next few days, all the others at more appropriate times. My ice arrived, and I returned to my room to apply it.

The outside photo was taken the next day. My room was reasonably spacious and comfortable.

Posted by Bob Brink 11:12 Archived in Turkey Comments (4)

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