On the train: It’s a frosty-paned holiday weekend, but I start reading another obscure academic article. A curve in the track throws me against Anne’s padded elbow, as I read an article about how orthodox priests direct almsgiving in post-Soviet Russia.
“S Prazdnikom, Vos’mova Marta!” a husky voice cries out at the far end of the rail carriage.
When I look up, an old Russian woman is by the carriage door. Slowly treading past the rows of holidaying passengers, she adjusts a gray woolen scarf wrapped tightly around her face.
“She wants money?” The German businessman dozing beside me stirs, raising his eyebrows. His heavy-curved Ukrainian companion just keeps reading her novel. “It’s a woman,” the guy adds, squinting, “and old.”
Our train carriage is spacious but full, families pressed three bodies to a seat with packages of onions and clothing beneath their feet. The car grows quiet as the woman moves slowly along it with a cane, showing missing teeth as she repeats her holiday greetings. How did she get on the train?
A small Kazakh boy in blue stumbles from his seat, taking twenty tenge ($0.12) from his father to give to the old pensioner. She crosses herself, murmuring a blessing. Anne digs coins out from among our crumbly jelly cookies and mandarins, handing them over, and then turns back to GULAG, a book outlining the earlier fate of this steppe.
The old woman passes. No one says much, the carriage stilled until she moves on to the next one.
We arrive from Astana, Kazakhstan, to the Shuchinsk railway station at noon, in a lively crowd. The boy in blue plays a handslap game with his friend; a girl buries her face in her father’s coat. The Ukrainian has her hands on her lover’s knee as we part ways in the station.
But our goal isn’t this railway city; it’s the resort town of Borovoye. A major weekending site for tourists coming out of Astana, Borovoye is a lakeside town in northern Kazakhstan. Touted as “the switzerland of the steppe,” the hotel-heavy city wraps itself around Lake Burabay, perhaps the one place in the region that all Astana residents have visited in their life. Friends regularly mention to me their weekend visits: a team-building exercise for work, a drinking getaway with classmates, family lakeside excursions in the summer.
Over coffee a few weeks ago, we found the ASTANA-TURIST lodge recommended in Anne’s Lonely Planet guide. When we call, they hold one room for the three of us at $15 each per night.
Everyone’s been telling us three foreign girls can’t possibly go alone, but we’ve been surrounded by small children the whole way here.
Molly and Anne eagerly take pictures of the train and the police guards at the station, while I nervously slink away as though I certainly haven’t been sharing apples and sweetrolls with them for the last four hours. Just outside the station doors, they greet a taxi driver warmly. He charges $15 for the 25-kilometer ride to the village of Borovoye.
On the way, he offers a car tour around Lake Burabay, which we revuse. Instead, we watch the dark orange pines and white birches in the les (forest) along the roadside. The driver chats with Anne in Russian, seeming to describe his life in Germany with his old wife. He stayed for 15 years but never learned German. “I just sat at home and drank beer and didn’t know anyone on the street,” he laughed…
When we arrive to the edge of town, he quickly leaves us in front of the tall wooden gates at Akmola-Turist. A plump guard steps down from the gatehouse, leading us past small unheated cabins and into the empty central guesthouse. He locks the doors of the cold side-rooms, allowing us the one bedroom with four flat beds and two wardrobes. A thin blonde takes 4000 tenge ($25) from each of us for a two-night stay, plus Anne’s passport. We ransack the kitchen – toilet paper! Cooking pans! And unpile all our food for a two day weekend:
Next, we set off for a hike around the lake, walking right along the main road, past the billboard honoring President Nazarbayev, the shuttered green Orthodox church, the yard of cold but exotic zoo animals.
We stop at the Nature Museum to examine the twigs and taxidermied hawks, browsing alongside families who came from other lakes in the district for the weekend. Teenagers take cell-phone pictures of each other in front of the reflective displays. There’s an outdoor zoo with Yaks and Reindeer, but also a very depressed and anxious ayu (bear) who slumps at the side of his cage, then plays fiercely with a metal door, rolling and flipping it under his feet.
In the next cage, two smaller bears nip at each other, teeth into furry necks; the dominant one lounges in a food-box, while the big one plays on a log, rolling back and forth. Together they shove with all their shoulder-force at the door to their evening quarters, and break it open.
We cut through the woods and onto the dirty ice of Lake Burabay, cutting across the soft layers of snow to a rock-hill on the far side of town. A sign warns of terrible guarddogs: Ostorozhno! Zlaya sobaka! Molly ignores the sign, taking tourist-pictures of the bright boats waiting in snowy shores for the summer holidays. I fall hard on an icy footbridge past the plyazh (beach) where children play on merry-go rounds; Molly puts away her camera to help me up.
When we walk back through the small grimy town, residents call out s prazdnikom!, congratulating us on Women’s Day. Anne has carefully asked her colleagues what to do, and tells us to say spasiba (thank you) to the men, and vam tozhe (you too) to the women.
And late in the dark, we bundle up for the near café, slurping tongue soup, cutting through chicken with a thick cheese blanket. The waitress puts on tea behind the bar, watching the TV, where a row of identical blonde beauties glow in their summer makeup on the annual Miss Russia competition. The place is quiet, and one young couple come in for a holiday meal just as we leave.
A Wintery Friday
After sweet porridge and tea, we pack a lunch of apples, dried apricots, walnuts and hard raising, fresh bread, Kazakhstan chocolate, and a litre of water, for our long hike across Lake Burabai.
“I’m not sure,” I sourly warn my friends, “I might decide to turn around and return home partway.” I feel pangs of regret at being separated from my iPad and computer.
And I start to suspect that I’m a really bad tourist, bored after five minutes of any activity that doesn’t involve academic journal articles. The museum, the beautiful woods, the little Russian-Kazakh-English nameplates on the bears’ cages. I’m not inspired nor transported; I start analyzing the tourists around me, taking pictures of them and composing articles in my head.
Here I am – walking in a magical ice-crystaled woods, and I’m literally bored, find nothing of interest around me, searching for something to engage my mind, taking pictures, craving stimulation. Is this our generation? High performing but bouncing, bored. Unhappy. “I think I need help,” I admitted to Anne and Molly last night over tea. You’re fine, they reassure. But even as we talk, I jump in and out of the conversation, self-preoccupied, typing notes on the iPad as I half-listen, drawing pictures and looking up Russian words, smiling as Molly and Anne discuss the likelihood of finding a good man who’s interested in foreign girls on the Kazakh steppe.
Today, though, we turn to the left, along a rushing road of busses and marshrutkas that circle the lake. A car whizzes past as we step into the nearby woods. Trees stand tall, dark clusters of nests high in their branches.
Down to the lakeside soft and white, we come across a man on the ice. Stepping over the waves of crumpled ice, Anne asks the old Kazakh if Molly can photograph him. He nods uncomfortably, tugging at the thin fishing line which he’s sunk through a hole five inches wide and running past a meter of ice to the cold water below.
We trudge through the snow over the lake, soft powder that widens to deep drifts. In paces, the ice is cross-cut by deep cracks, slowly being filled in by snow.
A scream comes from up ahead.
The taxist told us yesterday that bears are only found east in Ustkamen; here there are only wolves, wild boars, deer, and other game. What do you do if wolves come? I think. Surely they’ll be hungry. And probably they’ll run faster than us through ice and snow. Maybe if I slide behind a rock and look especially fierce as I eat my bread, they’ll go after bright-faced Molly instead?
When we come to a turn in the path, we see a rutched plastic coat in the snow, a boy giggling and fallen in heavy boots and hat and gloves; his sister picks him up again and they run off squealing.
As we walk, I decide this would be a perfect setting for a Great Siberian Novel. I’ll take that research trip in Mongolia, the tensions between teacher and students, the rollicking carelessness of Jamie, his worried friend Ryan, practical Jane with a GPS in her hands, then have them all led by pouty Sunlight. We’re captured and herded across the forest – to where? Anyhow, the setting’s nice – birch trees and woodpeckers who consider Molly’s long camera lens and fly away, fallen branches that make nice walking-sticks. Ledges of ice are racked and pushed up against the lake shore, blue with sandspeckles.
When I share these thoughts with Anne, she reminds me quite sensibly that we’re walking on a paved path among these romantic pinecones, and how much of an adventure can it be if the path is paved? She goes on to explain the cattle cars and gulags and mass shootings in the woods here, that were part and parcel of Russian settlement and Soviet domination.
Soon our path widens, white signs marking the meters up to a resort. Molly drops her walking stick as she tries to “blend in” and slip past the guarded gate, then soon regrets it.
Cutting through the woods along the gated resort property, we turn into a clearing and find the Jumbaktas landmark spread before us on the lake, a jumble of stones some 20 meters tall.
At the top, Kazakh girls have climbed up the slippery gritty sides to take selfies. As we tread the scuffed blue ice down to the stones, we see a girl with curly brown hair waving; Greta from the city runs up to tell us she’s here for her birthday, having hired a private taxi from the city (2000 tenge per person, 2.5 hours each way). Anne runs to hug her, and we climb the icy rock together to have our pictures taken. (What happens if I fall and split my head open on the blue lake ice. Does that count as adventure? Is all the adventure only ever in my head?) We trudge the remaining perimeter of the lake together, pulling each other forward in fatigue, to the town of Borovoye, where we find a small café and eat French fries and tea.
We wake several times in the night as Anne tremblingly goes out to retch in the nearby toilet. I think she’s sick, Molly murmurs in the early hours. When we slip into the kitchen for tea, Anne still sleeps, pale, face thinned, with her dark curls of hair covering her thin white knucles at the edges.
Molly and I whisper over coffee and bread, dried packets of thin chicken soup. After a while, I curl back in bed, dreaming of lush wild landscapes and forced Soviet marches, intense conversations. Should I give myself over to this – this silly unreality? – Instead, I sternly read notes from Anthropological Quarterly: Notar 2008 on café owners as “cosmopolitans” who deliberately produce international experience for “adventure travellers” in Yunnan, China; Coleman 2009 on cities as a place that gives us not just solitude nor a social life, but “social solitude,” as when men sit alone together at a restaurant in New Delhi, seeking to be together but not touch each others’ lives. I relax down into these solitary texts, the academic life: search, download, study, analyze, annotate – dispute and write again.
After a while, I notice Molly packing our food. The taxi driver takes us back to Shuchinsk. Molly and I wander the small town to buy bananas and crisps and cola and water. Anne lays weakly on the platform, flipping the pages about the Gulags. After the vokzal fills with people on every available seat—after we walk to the platform to wait in the sun, beneath the tram-lines, for the arriving train—after we press into the wagons all at once, a giant crowd searching out seats—after we wedge ourselves in three different groups, Anne quickly nods off to sleep, wrapped in her scarves and coats.
I find myself spending the next four hours by a Kurd from Kokshetau, his Polish wife and their screaming son in thin tights and a rumpled blue shirt. He seems to be teething; he anxiously refuses a bottle of juice and kolbasa on bread; he mother pushes the bottle back into his face and rocks him back and forth. Plump in a blue sequined dress, she cries “uh-uh-uh” at him as he mimics it back to her, settling down. After a pace, he falls asleep with wet lashes, his hand twisted around his mother’s side and against the hard train seats. She quietly lays him on a coat and goes to buy samsa from the seller who crosses our wagon several times on the four-hour trip, announcing ‘samsa, napitki, chipsi, sniikers!’ [“fried bread, drinks, potato chips, Snickers!”]
Again an old lady begs , and the sun shines in the window at us. When a man leave the train, Anne invites me to sit with her. She bobs her head drowsily; I tell her to sleep on my shoulder, but then she’s falling off it, and twists her head awake again every few kilometers.
After a long wait on the tracks outside of town, we reach the Astana train station at 7pm. As Anne and I pull our bags together, we see Molly at the back of the train car, being warmly farewelled by an old Kazakh apai in sparkling red shawl, nodding goodbye to the men who, as she tells us in the taxi home, had gathered around her, heads leaned in eagerly, to hear of the sheep of New Zealand, the beaches and mountains of the southern hemisphere – and all in Kazakh. “I provided entertainment for the whole back of the car,” she says wryly. At the station, we press out through the tunnels of hallways and stairs; at night, we reach home at last.