Astana is situated on the Great Steppe, an immense flat area of grassland which covers large parts of Russia and Central Asia. Looking out the window of one of the many golden skyscrapers, north, south, east and west, beyond the edge of the city it is possible to see to the horizon, which really gives you an idea of the size of this country.
Having moved up from the mountainous south-eastern city of Almaty, I wasn’t looking forward to the lack scenery, but asking around most people were quick to tell me about a place called Borovoye, a spa resort in what is described as the Kazakhstani Switzerland, a mountainous region two hours or so from Astana.
When a friend came to stay I thought it would be nice to take advantage of the continuing good weather and spend the weekend there.
We were pleased to find out that it was possible to book train tickets online and even happier to discover the cost. Over the summer I travelled back and forth to London from Plymouth and if I didn’t book in advance the return ticket was nearly £80. The journey time to Borovoye from Astana is only two-and-a-half hours so slightly less than the four hours from Plymouth to London, but the price of the ticket we ended up purchasing was not even worth comparing to the UK fare– £3 pounds for a single first class ticket.
We left work on time for once on the Friday afternoon, packed our swimsuits and headed up to the station. As it was Friday there were masses of people at the station heading off to the country for the weekend. Many of our colleagues were going and groups of school children were waiting with their tightly packed rucksacks. It seemed this was a popular place to visit. We had to pick up our tickets so went off to find the ticket hall.
We were once more surprised to see how advanced the Kazakh ticketing system was as there were self-service machines available. Of course, only one was working so we waited in the queue. An employee of the railway noticed us and pushed the other customers out of the way, asking for our reservations. After apologies to the bemused looking Kazakhs, we gave her our reservations and in a mixture of Russian and English she collected our tickets for use. There are not that many opportunities to practise your English here actually, but we did feel bad for taking advantage of this.
We boarded the train in the first class apartment. The seats were comfortable and although, the ever-present TV screens hung from the ceiling, it was very quiet. The journey was a dusty one across the flat landscape, the sand blowing up from the steppe often filling the carriage. The downside to the whole experience was the soviet train designers obsession with holes in the floor instead of european style toilets. Rather off putting when travelling at great speeds with sand blowing up through it!
We arrived just before 11pm and entered the old Soviet station to be greeted by local ‘taxi’ drivers wanting to take us to our hotel. We had decided that this was going to be a rather extravagant weekend and had booked one of the most expensive hotels in the area. I told the taxi driver where we going and he beckoned us towards his car saying “5000 Tenge ” (£25). Unluckily for him I had asked the lady in the shop just before how much it should cost and she had said 600 (£2). We managed to get the man down to 1000 and headed off in his old, rusty Mercedes.
It was with much anticipation that we emerged from the forest road to see our hotel. The plastic animals at the roundabout didn’t detract from how impressive the facade of the hotel was. The inside was quite typical of a country hotel and the suite was perfect. We enjoyed the rest of the evening sipping glasses of merlot and singing karaoke in the hotel bar. The next day we were shown to the terrace for breakfast and realised the beautiful location we were staying in.
The hotel was on the lake side, surrounded by conifer-covered hills. Looking down the cycle track, past the tennis courts we could see the hotel’s beach and the sparkling, clear blue lake surrounded by the closest one could get to mountains on the steppe.
As the temperatures started pushing the mid-30′s we decided to grab our swim suits and spend the day on the beach, despite the fact that it was already autumn in a place where I had been told to just take fur coat and boots.
The only suggestion that it wasn’t summer was the freezing cold water of the lake, but it certainly was refreshing after the hours of sunbathing without suntan creme (which had not even crossed our minds).
The next day we were supposed to get the train back but there was only one train, which took four hours and cost £5. We had been told that a taxi would take two hours so we went over to the row of cracked-wind screened mercedes and checked the price – £8 pounds seemed a bargain and catching a taxi back to the city seemed a fitting way to end our weekend.