Our Man in Kazakhstan

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“Windy enough for ya?”


Having seen Spring Festival (or Chinese New Year) in Beijing once before, I decided to do something different this time. Beijing pretty much grinds to a halt over the holiday and although the fireworks at Houhei lakes are indeed a sight to behold, I was ready for something different this year.

Two of my best friends live in the city of Astana. One is the head librarian at a private school, the other is a musician & filmmaker. This month, Kazakhstan has changed the visa requirements for Canadians, making it easy to visit visa-free, so I recently packed my bags and prepaired for a journey to the second coldest capital in the world.

I changed some money at the Bank of China, which was the usual Gilliamesque nightmare; I finally bought what seemed to be the only pair of reasonably winter-ish boots in Chaoyang district that were pretty much my size;* I packed a couple of weeks’ worth of clothes into my battered suitcase and then took the Airport Express line to PEK.

Shortly before the subway stopped running for the night I arrived at Terminal 3, the world’s second largest airport terminal and sixth largest building. It was a true beauty to behold: a majestic, cavernous,  well-oiled transport hub. Such a pity that my flight was leaving from Terminal 2. Still, a wild shuttle bus ride over shitty terrain would soon fix that.

The best thing to be said about  Terminal 2 is that it has TsingTao in its vending machines.** I sank a couple of cans’ worth while waiting (and waiting) for check in to open.

Almost all of the duty free shops were closed for the night but some cafés remained stubbornly  open. I had a glimpse of the future when I saw how much a sandwich will cost in 2037.

I fell asleep before takeoff and I slept through a fair chunk of the flight, arriving in the City of Peace looking and feeling like Tom Waits’ dehydrated ballbag.

I hadn’t seen my friend for over a year but within seconds of exiting the terminal and climbing into a taxi we were shooting the breeze (in something much stronger than an actual breeze) as if we had never left our joint hometown…

With the noticable difference that we were surrounded by snow and some of the most unique and ambitious architecture I’ve ever seen, with Kazakh radio blaring at us.


*i.e. only one size too big, not too shabby when padded out with an extra pair of socks.

** Beijing is remarkably chill when it comes to drinking in public spaces.

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