Monday, March 7, 2016

A Trip to the Children's Hospital

Last night, Sophia broke her collarbone.

I'm grateful for the international SOS clinic, the expensive clinic we belong to, and an English-speaking doctor arrived via ambulance within 15 minutes. The longest 15 minutes of my life, since Sophia was in acute pain and unable to move.

After examining her, the doctor administered a shot (pain killer) and then put her on a stretcher. The whole process took a long time, putting her on correctly and securely, and she needed to be secure because the trip to the hospital was rocky...

First, they had to get her in the elevator, which is insanely tiny. They had to stand her up in the stretcher and 3 men rode the elevator down while I walked. The road outside was covered in ice, so moving her form the apartment building to the ambulance was tricky.

They took her to the children's hospital, which is a good 20 - 30 minutes away (off the Karaganda highway, near Metro). Luckily it was after midnight, and very little traffic. The roads in winter are not good, so once again, it was good she was strapped in tight.
Riding in the ambulance, I thought about the first responder's job (in any country) - how important their job is, perhaps one of the most important jobs in the world. They not only need to know first aid and medical knowledge, but they also have to be able to deal with various obstacles (tiny elevators), and they have to be strong (it took 3 men to maneuver Sophia in her stretcher).
We arrived at the hospital, and the SOS doctor talked to the administration there, and they brought her in. A doctor there looked her over, and they put her in a wheelchair (quite painful to move her!)
The SOS doctor pushed her to an x-ray room, but it was closed, so we had to go find another one. There was another mother with a small child waiting by this room.
It was so hard to position her arm so she could have an x-ray taken, and the nurse said (in Russian), "Don't cry," which made me so mad, because of course she should be able to cry, she was in a lot of pain!
After the x-rays were taken, we learned that it was a fractured collar bone, and not a dislocated shoulder like the doctor had thought. Now they knew that we should not at all move her shoulder, lest it get worse.
They asked me if I'd brought a scarf or something I could use as a sling for her arm, and seemed surprised that, no, I hadn't thought of that.
We went to another room to get a cast, and the SOS doctor told me that he had to answer another call. He gave me as much information as he could, answered my questions, and said we could take a taxi home once the cast was on.
I think the SOS clinic only has one doctor on call at night, and one small ambulance. They probably don't get too many emergencies at nighttime, but imagine if they did! I'm glad no one else had an emergency while we did!
A nurse put the cast on Sophia, and Sophia had to put her hands on her hips and keep her shoulders back for this, which was incredibly painful. I've never seen a cast put on before -- basically, it was bandages with some kind of plaster or hardening substance, dipped in water, and then wrapped around both shoulders and under both arms.
Then, we asked a nurse to call us a taxi. "Do you have the number?" she said. No, I don't usually travel with taxi numbers, I usually just hail them on the street. She wasn't going to help us, but luckily another nurse had a number and called us a taxi.
But... that taxi never showed up. I've noticed that official taxis are more unreliable than non-official taxis!
The nurse said we should walk to the street and hail a gypsy cab (just any driver who is willing to take you somewhere for a fee). But it was 4 in the morning and freezing cold outside, with icy sidewalks/roads, and we weren't near a main road!
So I had my friend stay inside with Sophia while I went to get a cab. It was probably just a 3 minute walk in good conditions, but in the dark, on the ice, it took me closer to 10. Not sure how long it would've taken Sophia! I quickly found a cab (first car that saw me stopped), and the driver was willing to first go to the hospital to get Sophia and then take us across town to home.
But... he couldn't find the entrance to the hospital! I'd exited via a pedestrian gate, not a driveway. We found one entrance, but there was a "Do Not Enter" sign, and he refused to enter. So we called my friend, who put a nurse on the phone, but her directions didn't help. We drove around and around for about 10 - 20 minutes, through the neighboring hospital, before I finally convinced the driver to go through the "Do Not Enter" entrance.
We were at Sophia's entrance very quickly then, and she got in the car, and we had an uneventful ride home. I paid him 4000 tenge (double his original fee) for all his work.
She was still in a lot of pain, and could barely move, due to her cast. Just lying down was difficult, and she couldn't even scratch her nose.
It's less than 24 hours later since she broke her collarbone, and she is so much better now. She's been taking ibuprofen, and now she can walk and use her left arm (which is difficult to move because it's in a cast. Her right arm hurts, because it was her right collarbone that she broke).
I'm grateful to the SOS clinic and their prompt, efficient, and English service.
I'm grateful to the children's hospital, they seemed efficient and clean, although a bit vacant and rather difficult to leave.
Now we have 4 weeks with a cast on....

Monday, May 18, 2015

Lake Shaitankol in Karkaraly National Park

The big event of our trip to Karkaraly National Park was our hike to Lake Shaitankol, a rather small mountain-top lake that is beautiful but also somewhat ordinary-looking.

It appealed to me because wikipedia says it's only accessible by foot; I wanted an adventure.  Also, it's fed by underground water and the depth is unknown.

We left our hotel at around 10:30 am, after asking around for how to find the trail.  Via the hotel Shakhter, we were told, and so we walked to the gated entrance to the hotel's grounds.
Lake Pasheno and the mountains (hills?) of Karkaraly National Park in front of us.

There the guards told us that we could not enter.  We pleaded, and they said 300 tenge per person.  Finally, one of my friends got someone on the phone who convinced them to let us through.  Yesterday, my friends and Sophia had walked around the lake, and through these grounds, without any issues.

Once on the hotel grounds, we found two other workers (gardeners, perhaps?) who showed us where the trail began and gave us hints.  The trail was marked with arrows throughout (rare in Kazakhstan, I think); however, there are a few side trails we should not take.  One would lead us to a peak; another would lead us into town.  But the arrows always mark the trail to the lake, and the trail is always going up.

The hotel owner had told us that the trail would be strenuous - I wondered what "strenuous" means in this country.  I haven't been on many hikes here.

At the beginning of the hike, we ran into a group of young Kazakh women who had hiked this hike before.  Good, we thought, we can follow them.  But they soon out-paced us.

We saw a squirrel and my friend fed it sunflower seeds, though it never dared eat from her hands.  Squirrels here are more timid and rarer than American squirrels, and they are reddish-brown with long ears.
Central Asian squirrel

The entire hike followed a little stream, and at times we had to cross it back and forth.

There was a point where we were scrambling up over rocks; about a third of the hike.  This was the strenuous part, although it wasn't too bad.  We all made it just fine and with energy left.

The scenery was amazing - tall pines and a few scattered birches, a babbling brook, and amazing rocks - the rocks here are large and interestingly shaped, contributing in their way to make the landscape unique.
Amazing rocks - and there was a way to climb them without going straight up as the arrow suggests

My friend A. wanted us to be back at the hotel by 2, so that she could eat and get into town by 4, to take the bus back to Astana.  She had a lot of work to do and wanted to get home as soon as possible.

But the hike was long, and we kept making stops - there was always something to take a picture of, plus we got hungry, tired, thirst, hot.  At one point, we stopped to make sandwiches and feed a rather large ant.

Finally, the steeper section ended and we thought - we must be close!  A couple coming down said, "20 minutes."  But nope, it was closer to 40.

But finally we made it - through a gap in giant rocks we saw the lake.  A lake that is rather small, surrounded on one side by pines and rocks, on another by a jutting rock cliff.  We made our way to the other side, where we could sit on a rock and splash in the water.  "Make a wish," said the Kazakh ladies with whom we'd finally caught up.
Lake Shaitankol - the rocky "cliffs" on the other side are what I climbed

I handed Sophia my camera and left her with A. while my friend O. and I raced the other side.  Climbing the rocky cliffs was a bit more challenging than I'd first thought, and there were times that O. yelled at me to be careful - as the only driver in the group, I was their way home.

On top of the small cliffs (10 m high according to wikipedia), I felt like queen of the world, not because of the small lake before me, but because of the mountains behind me.  For here, they truly looked like mountains, stretched out in their magnificent glory.
the mountains - this photo does not do them justice

It was past 1:00 by now, and someone had told the Kazakh ladies that the path to Karkaraly (the town) was only 40 minutes.  A. was in a rush, and so we decided to take this path, and then take a taxi from town to our hotel.  I pondered, only briefly, why wikipedia had said the round-trip hike (to the lake from Karkaraly and back) was a 5-hour hike.

And down we went, a magnificent journey that lasted much longer than 40 minutes.  The first part was mostly jutting rocks in strange shapes, and then we went down further and we were in a forest.  Next, there was a clearing, a beautiful, green clearing, and we ran and threw ourselves down on the lush grass.  Then A. leapt up and we kept on walking.  We were on a road of sorts, and an all-terrain vehicle could make it most of the way (but not all the way) to the lake.  We passed by camping spots, and I thought how pleasant it would be to camp here.

Parts of the hike reminded me of hiking in the Appalachian mountains in the Carolinas in the USA.  Parts of the hike reminded me of hiking in the Alps foothills in France - especially some of the large, green-grass-covered rocky hills. 

It was a wonderful, refreshing 90 minute hike.  The Kazakh women were ahead of us, but we caught up with them.  They called us a taxi to take us to a restaurant and then back to the hotel to get our things.  It turns out that two of them wanted to get back to Astana, and so they agreed to meet A. at the auto-station, where they could hire a taxi.

And so we left the trail, went into the city, ate at a small Kazakh cafe, and went back to our hotel.

A pleasant hike, and Sophia is dying to return!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Lake Pasheno in Karkaraly National Park

Our hotel, жемчужина (or Pearl), is located a short ways south of the town of Karkaraly.  There seemed to be a few other hotels in that area, though I'm not sure if they're operating.  One guide book implied that fewer people are going to Karkaraly now than in the past, and I found very few hotels listed on the web site.

One other hotel was near ours and definitely open - Shakhter - which is a resort hotel with a gate and a guard.

We had to go along a dirt path in the woods to get to our hotel, and we made a wrong turn down a narrow and rocky dirt path that led to a dead end.  But we finally made it to our hotel, checked in, and ate lunch.  We were late for lunch, but they had saved some food for us anyways.

After 9 hours of driving, I was exhausted, so my friends took Sophia for a 2-hour walk around the lake.  They said there were plenty of mosquitoes as well as unusually shaped rocks and bent trees, which they had plenty of fun climbing.

Here are some photos from the hike; none taken by me, of course.

Lake Pasheno

Thursday, May 14, 2015

A 9-Hour Drive to Karkaraly

Our school had a 5-day weekend, I had a brand-new car, and so...  I decided to go to Karkaraly National Park (called Karkaralinsk in Russian), which is about 400 kilometers southeast of Astana.  I had been planning to go there last summer with a friend, but was unable to do so.

This time I went with two co-workers as well as Sophia.  We all wanted to have an adventure, go hiking, and return with enough time to relax/work/etc.  The town of Karaganda is about halfway between Astana and Karkaraly, and the original plan was to go there after school on Wednesday and spend the night before finishing the drive Thursday morning; however, one of my co-workers was unable to leave Wednesday, so we decided to leave Thursday morning.

We left at 7 am on Thursday.  The sky was crisp and clear, the sun shining bright, and there were very few cars out.  It was Homeland Defenders' Day, a national holiday dedicated to men and to soldiers' work defending the country.

It took about 40 minutes of driving just to get on the Karaganda highway and out of the city.  Then we had about 200 km in front of us. The Karaganda highway is well-known for not being a good road.  I've been on it before - long and narrow, on a steep slope, and set in the desolate, never-ending steppe.  Drivers get bored and reckless, they drive too fast and pass too quickly, causing accidents.  And there plenty of trucks and tractors driving super-slowly, frustrating anyone who is a cautious passer.

Now it is under construction, and there were a few places where the new road - a bona fide freeway - was complete, and it was so nice to drive on these few stretches.  Once this new road is finished, driving to Karaganda will be so easy!

But there were plenty of detours - on dirt roads - which more than made up for the nice stretches.

Although it was hot outside, there was still leftover snow, not yet melted from winter.

We stopped a little more than halfway to Karaganda, at an auto-station in Osakarovka, a village along the way.  An auto-station is like a bus station, but it's for more than just buses - mini-buses and taxis as well.  The station was nice, with 30-tenge bathrooms that were not outhouses, and a small store.   In most of rural Kazakhstan, the only bathrooms you can find are incredibly smelly outhouses, so an indoor one was nice.

As we neared Karaganda, the landscape changed - the fields around us were green, due to recent flooding, and there were small, glistening lakes, and gently rolling hills.  We turned off the highway before Karaganda, to bypass it by going through a village called Aktau.

Maybe this wasn't the best idea.  The entire detour took about 1 1/2 hours, and I don't know how long it would have taken had we just driven through Karaganda.  The road to Aktau was narrow and pot-hole filled; but once we reached Aktau, we weren't exactly sure where to go.  I turned right where I thought I should, but soon the road turned to a dirt one.  Well, this area was recently flooded, so maybe this is a result of the flooding?  After a turn onto a paved road and a few more minutes driving, we stopped and asked people, who directed us to turn around.  They said to turn right at the next main road and then pass the cemetery and then keep going straight - all the way to Karkaraly. 

But after the cemetery the road veered sharply right and turned into a dirty road again, and it felt like we were heading back to where we had started.  So we stopped and asked some fishermen - we were supposed to turn between the cemeteries (a Russian one and a Muslim one side by side, with a road between).

Finally, we were back on the correct road, and we stopped at a gas station to use the bathroom and eat.  Here was the intersection between the road leading from Karaganda and the highway to Karkaraly; there even was a sign, and we knew were were correct.  The people at the gas station said it was 200 km to Karkaraly; a 3-hour drive they said.

It was noon when we left the gas station; we'd been traveling for 5 hours now.  Luckily, I was not yet tired and still enjoying the drive and change of scenery.
The road goes on forever....

Not far from this intersection, we passed the town of Botakara.  Botakara was most recently hit by the flooding, and perhaps the large pond at the side of the road was a result of this flooding.  The pond was packed with men fishing - relaxing and enjoying their holiday.
Botakara fishermen

The center of Botakara is a large hill and as we rounded this hill, we entered a landscape with more hills. The winding road took us up, down, and around these rocky yet green hills, and it was quite a pleasant drive.  We must be getting closer to the mountains of Karkaraly! I thought.

I was wrong, for soon the hills ended and we were back in steppe.  The narrow road was interesting - filled with potholes and pothole fillings as always, but made of changing rock.  For a while it was zebra-striped - black and white stripes of pavement.  It didn't look like it was done on purpose, and I don't know if it once was all one color and the stripes were the result of wear and tear; or if the stripes were just how it was made, due to the rock available.
Striped road

Then the road started turning pink - maybe pink granite?  And a few more hills arrived, and small mountains loomed in the distance.
Pink road

Finally, we entered the town of Karkaraly.  The hotel owner had told us to turn left before the first 5-story building, and we had a debate as to what constitutes a 5-story building.  I was sure I saw one - but the first floor and top were just basement and ceiling, so they didn't count.  (Yet they looked like real floors to me!)

Welcome to Karkaraly!

The road was very potholed, and we bounced quite a bit, but at this point we were used to it.  Parts of the highway leading to here had seemed very much like a roller coaster.

We turned and went out of the town.  At some point, I can't remember when, if it was before the town or just after, the landscape change and there were trees (mostly fir) everywhere.  It was so wonderful to be in a forest!

Outside of the town, we reached a tiny guard station, where we paid 198 tenge per person to enter the national park.  He had a map of the park that included trails, and so we stopped and observed this map and took pictures.  Maps in Kazakhstan are hard to come by, especially detailed ones, and I've never found one with trails!  I have co-workers who go on frequent outdoor adventures, and they have never found maps with trails either.

Then we drove some more, turned onto a dirt road and once again onto a smaller dirt road, and we finally made it to our hotel - жемчужина (Zhemchuzhina, or Pearl in English).  It was two stories with an outdoor, curving staircase, and looked rather old and decrepit on the outside. But the inside was clean and updated and the hostess was kind.

It was 4 pm now, and I had been driving (with a few breaks) for 9 hours.  After a quick lunch, I went straight to bed, while Sophia and my friends took a walk around the lake.

Luckily, I love to drive, and luckily, the scenery was amazing and made the 9 hours worth it.  I was quite glad to finally be there!

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Getting Stuck in Borovoe

The morning of Thursday, 26 March, I received a text from 112, telling me that the Kokshetau-Astana road was closed due to winds.  I get these texts all the time, and I enjoy learning which roads are closed due to winds; I also get informed when local schools are closed due to cold weather.  But they never impact me (except when they wake me up at 2 in the morning!)

So I ignored it.  Then, as my friend and I got ready to head home from Borovoe, I suddenly realized - that's the road we take to get home.  Well, the text was from this morning - could the road still be closed?  I called a friend in Astana, who didn't know how to find out other than just try it.

So we checked out of our hotel and drove to the freeway.

There was quite a traffic jam along the entrance to the freeway, including lots of trucks.  Some people had stepped out of their cars to smoke cigarettes or to talk to other drivers.  I rolled my window down and tried to talk to a person who was passing by.  He said that the road was closed until tomorrow, and we'd best return to the city and find a hotel.

We saw, way ahead, that people were turning around, and so we waited.

And we waited.

Finally, we noticed some cars getting into the far left lane and moving, so we followed them.  Near the place where cars were turning, the lane slowed to a stop, so we moved into another lane.  And then we waited.

And we waited.

Finally, it clicked - the waiting cars were waiting until tomorrow!  They were going to sleep in their cars and wait till the road opened.  The far left lane was for people turning around.

Luckily, we had enough room to maneuver back into the far left lane.  We managed to turn around and get back into town.

Now what?  We were both low on money, and as much as we had enjoyed our stay in Borovoe, we were ready to return!  I took a different route, through downtown Shchushinsk and to the south of Lake Schuchye, to Park Hotel Kokshetau, where I had stayed with my mom a few years ago.

It is a very nice quality hotel, and this time a breakfast buffet was included in our bill, which was very delicious.  (When I went with my mom, breakfast was not included and there was no buffet).  In the morning, we wandered to the frozen lake after breakfast before returning home.

For the entire route, at least one lane was clear; but usually the other lanes were not only covered but rather dangerous looking.  To our right were mounds of snow; to our left, the fields were clear.  The wind had indeed been fierce the day before!

And now I know to pay attention to those texts!
The dock at the lake at Park Hotel Kokshetau - so much snow!

My car after the drive home

Monday, May 11, 2015

Borovoe in Winter part 2

In late March 2015, winter was still firmly present in northern Kazakhstan, and I went back to Borovoe.  This time I went with an American friend who was visiting, and I left Sophia in Astana with her best friend.  Yes, I took an adult vacation, sans children, quite a rarity for me!

We drove the "back way" into Borovoe - that is, a route I had never before taken.  We went by Lake Schuchye, which I had done before, and then veered north, going around the west side of Lake Borovoe and then veering around it and heading into town, coming in from the north.  Usually, we drive straight to Borovoe, bypassing Lake Shuchye, and travel along the east side of Lake Borovoe and come into town from the south.

The view on this drive was beautiful - we were in a snowy pine forest, driving along gentle hills, and then suddenly - Lake Borovoe was to our right, rocky cliffs to our left.  The sun setting on this lake was absolutely gorgeous.

Then we went to our hotel, Altyn Kun, which I had chosen because it was in the town of Borovoe, not expensive, and the photos made it look clean.  It was a new hotel, and just off the main road (perhaps what made it cheaper) and indeed the rooms were clean.  We were the only customers there - it was Wednesday after the Kazakh holiday Nauriz.  We later learned that the entire city was practically empty - stores, restaurants, and the bazaar were closed.

They called in their cook just for us, we ate, and then we went to sleep.

The next day we decided to explore some more.  Using a map, we decided to go north of Borovoe, see what was there.  The town of Borovoe is nestled in tall hills, to the north of these hills are some more lakes and some gentle hills.  We drove around here for several hours, enjoying the view, and then entered the National Park from the west, driving through more scenic forest.

After returning to the town and finally finding a cafe that was open, we checked out of hotel and decided to drive home...
Lake Borovoe - I took this photo in February when I drove by the lake as a detour on the way home from our hotel on Lake Schuchye

The forest and the hills

North of Borovoe

Borovoe in the Winter

This winter I took Sophia and her best friend A. to Borovoe two times.  Both times we went to Almaz, a resort hotel (called a "sanitorium" in Russian).  In Kazakhstan, a sanitorium is a hotel with health options, such as a spa, and sometimes other forms of health treatment.

Almaz had been recommended by a friend.  It's located on Lake Schuchye, near the town of Shchushinsk, within Borovoe National Park and about 10 to 20 kilometers from the resort town of Borovoe.  There are quite a few hotels located on this lake.

We had two small, connecting rooms, at a cost of 23000 tenge per 24 hours (about $123), and the price included 3 meals a day.  However, the meals were only at set times, and we went just once, for a lunch of soup and meatballs which were so unappetizing that none of us ate.  The girls went one more time for breakfast - pasta in milk - and that was it.  We ate our own food from then on.

Having a car meant I could drive into a supermarket in town and buy us food.  Our room had a refrigerator and a kettle, so I could easily feed us.  The hotel had a very small store, from which we bought soda and cookies.

The room was a nice size, however, it was old and dirty.  The second time we went, my mattress was too big for my bed, and since I'm tall (5 foot 7) and like to stretch while sleeping, it was so uncomfortable that I moved to the couch.

I wouldn't recommend this hotel to a foreigner or someone who's picky about cleanliness or to anyone who's slightly picky about food and can't bring their own.  However, it was quite suitable for the girls.  Just outside our room was a small shack with skis, sleds, and a snowmobile for rent.  (We didn't rent the snowmobile, however).  There also was a large ice slide that they loved.  There was a gently sloping trail to the beautiful lake, and enough space to do some skiing around there.  Perhaps not enough for an avid cross-country skier, I don't know.  We were beginners, and it was enough for us.

The hotel is also situated in the woods, and the girls went hiking through these one day.  The glory of the hotel was that everything was on site, and everything was relatively safe.  I felt comfortable letting the girls go exploring and skiing on their own.  I accompanied them some, but also I let them go alone while I rested and relaxed.

Our room

The hotel Almaz

The beautiful lake