Driving to China (ish) - Day 16

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May 16th 2015
Published: May 20th 2015
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Day 16 - Kostanay to Astana

Kazakhstan is big, around 12 times the size of the UK, or equivalent to the whole of western Europe. A country of huge contrasts, it's vast steppe landscapes have seen the passing of the nomadic Scythian people, the warring hoards of Genghis Khan, unparalleled cereal production, annexation by the Russian empire, horrific gulags and latterly the birth of a truly stunning new capital city. Nuclear weapons have been tested on these plains, whilst the Baikonur Cosmodrome is the worlds first and largest space launch site. The Sputnik satellite was launched from there, as are the current soyuz rockets that service the ISS. The snow-capped mountains in the south are intrinsically linked to the northern silk road route, and cradle the old capital Almaty in their green rolling foothills.

Day 16 saw us travelling to that new capital city, Astana. Sadly, it was raining. All day. Really hard. When driving we were just concentrating on dodging any puddles, since the potholes had all filled up and couldn't be seen. There was one section where the road was perfectly flat and smooth, so the rainwater sat on the surface like a flawless mirror. It took away your depth perception, and driving felt surreal........it felt like Mario Kart.

From the passenger's seat there was very little to see. Flat. Just flat. From horizon to horizon, nothing breaks the line. Whether imagined or not, we all believed we could see the very curvature of the earth. In the 1950's Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev ordered the plowing of 250,000 square km of land to grow grain for Russian consumption. Its hard to believe, but this was an area larger than the UK, plowed in just a few years. There are no fences, just one big field. We've been driving through it for two days; those numbers are true.

We got to Astana just before nightfall and quickly found our accommodation. We planned to stay for 2 nights, so I'll say much more about the city in the next post, but on that Saturday night we were only concerned with getting out onto the town.

Our hosts at the Hostel Americana - located next to the US embassy - were Saken and his family. They were friendly and welcoming, and it was wonderful to be able to talk to local people about the country and the city. Saken even gave us a lift to a bar-restaurant.

What followed was a very strange night. We ate at the Guns n Roses pub to start, enjoying the rock-themed decor and fantastic house band doing covers of all the rock greats. By midnight we were ready to find a club, so headed outside to find a taxi. In Kazakhstan, EVERY car is a taxi. Stick your arm out on the side of the road and within 20 seconds a car will have stopped for you. We had read that Insomnia was cheap and cheerful, so directed the driver to that address.

We couldn't see any entrance, though, and found out in a nearby cafe that it only opened at 2am anyway. So we jumped in another 'taxi' to take us to the Radisson hotel; John had read that there was a good club next to it. I mentioned that it had rained all day, and it still was. Astana's drains weren't coping in what seemed to have been a once in a decade deluge, and the roads were partially flooded above the pavements in many places. Our driver, a young guy, had clearly never experienced the like of it, because as we approached the hotel he steered under a bridge with a 50m long, 40cm deep lake below. Surprise surprise, the car coughed a few times and stopped dead, mid-lake. Dave F and John were ready to leave him, but I had more sympathy and with a few grumbles they joined me in taking off shoes n socks, rolling up trousers and shoving the car back onto dryish land. We left him bailing out his footwells, and yes, I paid him anyway :-)

We couldn't find any club there either, though. Back into another 'taxi'. We headed to a place on the map where a hotel porter reckoned there was a "mega club". Turned out that Mega was a shopping centre, and the 'club' by it was a retro karaoke bar with 10 people in it. We stayed for a beer, and having been handed the microphone I showed them how Nothing Else Matters should really be covered. No one was impressed. For Green Day's Time of Your Life however, everyone was up and dancing. I may have to give up my day job.

Back in a taxi. It was 2am, and Insomnia MUST be open by now. But we still couldn't find any entrance, and began to question our sources.

Back in another taxi. The driver undertood us a little better, and promised to take us to Zaza's, "the best club in Astana". Finally we had hit a happening venue. Scores of Astana's boldest and most beautiful were flowing in. We were 'face-controlled' at the door, and somehow passed. Maybe they smelled a tourist dollar or maybe we're just prettier than we realised. Inside it was loud electronic, chic young people and expensive prices. In clubs around here you never sit down at a table, which all have to be bought. The price is usually $400 and up, but is reduced as you buy drinks. Think minimum spend.

There was a good vibe though, and we stayed till closure at 5am. Full daylight outside. Back in a 'taxi' and home. Memorable night.


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